This week's announcement on Planning Reform by Finance Secretary John Swinney may just have signalled the first real indications in a shift in Scottish Government Planning Policy; a shift which is likely to be welcomed in both the development and public sectors.

"Planning system delays damaging economy". A common headline even now. The question at the time of the reforms contained within the Planning etc (Scotland) Act 2006 was - will the proposed changes consign such complaints to the past?

It appeared only months ago that the answer was an unequivocal no. I don't mean to sound overly critical. No one underestimated the challenge of reform. It was always going to be a hugely difficult balancing act, with the tension inherent in achieving streamlined, more responsive planning procedures while increasing engagement with the public.

In the first few months of the year, numerous consultative draft regulations on matters including development plan preparation and examination; development management (processing planning applications); the planning hierarchy and appeals were issued.

While they demonstrated that improved public participation had been secured, the cost, ironically, looked to be a slower, more cumbersome and less transparent process. In short, it looked to be creating a planning system which would actually deter the very investment that reform sought to encourage.

The responses to the draft regulations have now been received and been given initial consideration by the Scottish Government. Much has been written about the shortcomings of the draft regulations and I don't propose to repeat those in any detail here.

However, two of the common themes have run through the planning modernisation consultations. The first has been the issue surrounding the sufficiency of resources within local authorities.

The second is concerns about the ability of the key agencies and consultees to respond to consultations once the new system is in place.

Perhaps significantly, the regulations which were due to be laid before the Scottish Parliament in Autumn 2008 have been delayed. In itself this may seem no more than the normal slippage one finds in a legislative timetable, but the indications are that this is not the case.

The recent announcement by John Swinney suggests that the delay is in fact reflective of a genuine desire to properly engage with stakeholders in order to improve upon what was contained within the draft regulations.

The Scottish Government has acknowledged that legislation alone cannot deliver the improvements which the planning system needs. Therefore, over the last few months, the Scottish Government and its agencies have been working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the development industry to look at how they can significantly increase co-operation and speed up the pace of reform.

The Planning Summit held reflects the outcome of this work and sets out what each party will do and how they will work together to make further improvements to planning.

The document which emerged is said to set out "our shared determination to speed up reform of the planning system." The wording used is previously unheard of and suggests a very collaborative approach going forward.

It further states that "Those of us in the public sector will work together in a different way and work more effectively with the development sector. We will each take responsibility for making sure that all organisations and staff are aligned to that common aim. Further, we will give the direction and support necessary to deliver it in practice."

Whether this turns out to be no more than rhetoric remains to be seen but on first impression, the Government is certainly taking steps to create the conditions for a concerted and determined joint effort to deliver some fairly fundamental changes.

The key measures which have emerged from the summit are:

Up to date and short map based development plans to provide investors and communities alike with greater certainty.

Every five years, planning authorities are to produce development plans as the key strategic document that focuses on land use and infrastructure, provides a sound basis for future development. The clear and concise map based nature of the plans should assist in ensuring their quick production.

Issues of detail are to be addressed through supplementary planning guidance or the development management process.

Agencies are to support planning authorities in the new approach to development plans by providing map-based advice on potential constraints. Once the development plan is agreed by the planning authority, agencies will support its implementation. Again, evidence of the joint effort being sought.

Clear and consistent planning advice

Firstly, there is to be a "rationalisation" of the Scottish Planning Policy series into three parts:

  • aspirations and core principles;
  • expectations for the key elements of the planning system; and
  • a clear statement of Scottish Government planning policy relating to development and natural and built heritage.

The first two parts were published on 28 October 2008 and the third part will be published early in 2009.

The Scottish Government is to scale back the amount of planning guidance and advice and, instead, focus future advice on key principles, allowing local solutions to be developed. This process has already started and appears to represent a significant change.

Guidance and advice has proliferated in the last 15 years, recently emerging at a rate which made absorbing it a challenge in itself.

The reasons for the volume of material were an obvious attempt to foster good practice and ensure consistency of approach. However more subtly, it represented a policy of greater centralisation, a "top down" approach. One problem with the content of Scotland-wide advice was that there was something in it for everyone. Its application became a case of trading off competing generalities.

The Government's recent announcement on advice and guidance appears, with other measures, to signal a far less interventionist approach to planning. The Government will now focus on matters of genuine national interest.

Secondly, existing biannual meetings between the Scottish Government and Heads of Planning will be replaced with annual meetings with Heads of Planning and Planning Convenors in local and national park authorities.

The Scottish Government is also to do more to effectively communicate good practice. Planning authorities, agencies and the private sector will be expected to actively participate, sharing experience, advice and good practice. The stated aim is to resolve issues of procedure and process locally.

An effective and efficient planning processes

One of the main aims of planning reform is to make the planning system, in particular the development management system, faster and more responsive.

One measure to assist in this process is the formal launch of the electronic planning system in spring 2009. Some planning authorities are already introducing this system at the local level.

Another measure aimed at decentralising power to local authorities is more limited notifications of applications The Scottish Government will issue a revised Notification Direction and Circular in early 2009 to reduce the number of cases that require to be notified to Scottish Ministers. This is intended to signal a more proportionate involvement in planning cases by the Scottish Government.

It is not clear what changes are being complemented. It could simply be a raising of thresholds which currently exist or it may, for example, be an abolition of the need to notify decisions on EIA development. What is likely to remain as a counterbalance is the need to notify those applications in which planning authorities have an interest.

Provisional view on applications

Consideration is being given by the end of 2008 to whether there is scope to introduce a non-statutory method of giving a provisional view on whether a major development is likely to receive planning permission. The aim is to give developers a degree of confidence before they commit to potentially lengthy and expensive technical appraisals in support of a planning application. There is likely to be considerable support for such a move amongst the development industry, particularly in the current climate. However, to be of value, any mechanism would have to provide the necessary degree of confidence to inform a decision on whether to proceed or not. At present the opportunity exists for pre application discussions, which are in fact positively encouraged.

The proposal for such a new measure seems to be an acknowledgement that the current process is not working. Anecdotal evidence suggests that planning authorities are reluctant to provide any meaningful indication of the likelihood of success of an application.

Developing skills and improving performance

Planning authorities are to ensure that the planning service is given sufficient priority and resource, including identifying whether measures are required to recruit and retain staff. In addition, authorities will consider the scope for new ways of delivering planning services.

These are aims with which no one would take issue. Not only have the responses to the consultations on the draft planning regulations highlighted the need for additional resources but anecdotal evidence suggests a wider problem. Morale in Scottish planning authorities is close to rock bottom and there is a real difficulty in attracting and retaining staff.

The new Planning Act imposes additional responsibilities on planning authorities including responsibility for carrying out neighbour notification, entering into processing agreements and updating local development plans every 5 years. These all have significant resource implications.

However, without at least some additional resources actually ring-fenced for planning departments to install and improve systems and attract and retain staff, the proposed reforms are unlikely to succeed, certainly as envisaged. It will be interesting to see to what extent the Government is prepared to provide additional funding and to ensure that it finds its way to the planning service.

The Government has at least acknowledged the resource and staffing issues, something which it appeared reluctant to do previously.

Other efficiencies

As part of its response to driving up efficiency (and thereby freeing up resources) planning authorities are to establish local forums to consider the quality of their planning service. Key milestones are being introduced to drive these improvements. By the end of March 2009, authorities will have to identify areas for service improvement and how best they can be tackled. This process will be repeated on an annual basis.

Similarly, agencies will, by the end of November 2008, have produced a plan for service improvement with clear milestones. Agencies will also identify those areas where the development sector is consistently failing to provide essential information and engage with the sector to resolve this.

The private sector is also to work with the Scottish Government, planning authorities and agencies to prepare a series of model agreements covering residential, commercial, business and retail development and mineral working, and also a template for local schemes of developer contributions.

The indications are that the Scottish government might now be seeking to tackle at least some of the factors which have long hampered the delivery and operation of an effective and efficient planning system.

The Government's decision to scale back advice and guidance, more limited notifications and forcing all stakeholders to work together, suggests that it sees itself having a very different role from its predecessors. It will set key planning principles but then it seems adopt a role of management and coordination with significantly less intervention.

Click to view the Scottish Government paper, Delivering Planning Reform.