No-one can have failed to notice the number of consultation papers which have been issued over recent months from Victoria Quay. The consultations relate to draft regulations which contain the detail of how the planning system will operate in years to come and put flesh on the bones of the 2006 Planning Act. Some of the current proposed changes to the development planning system are potentially very significant.
Supplementary planning guidance will in some cases become part of the Development Plan and will therefore have a greatly enhanced status. The procedure for approving SPG is however very different to that which applies to the "regular" development plan. SPG will be published for consultation and representations invited. The planning authority need then only submit a copy of its SPG together with the various representations and an explanation of what they did with those to the Scottish Ministers. There is no opportunity for public scrutiny by an independent Reporter. If nothing happens within 28 days of submission the SPG is approved and crucially becomes part of the development plan.
At a time when greater emphasis is being put on the use of supplementary planning guidance to "de-clutter" development plans, planning authorities are likely to take full advantage of the opportunity for less public and transparent scrutiny of their proposals by using SPG more and more readily. At a time when we are trying to encourage openness and transparency in the system it is a retrograde step to have all decisions on important parts of development plan policy taken behind closed doors.
The presumption in favour of proposals which accord with the development plan has made it inevitable that the development industry focuses its attentions on the Local Plan itself and uses the inquiry system to ensure the local plan proposals are justified. The inquiry process is however seen by Scottish Government to be one of the principal reasons for the delay in bringing forward up to date development plans. As a result in recent years local plan reporters have endeavoured to cut down on the length of time spent at inquiry. The current proposals on development plan examinations however would change the process far more radically than we have seen in the past.
In the future it is proposed that those who wish to make representations might only have one shot at putting forward their entire case. That will come at the earliest possible stage when the representations are first lodged. Of course additional relevant information may well come to light after that date but the proposed system only allows the local plan reporter to request more information. Those who had made representations in the first place "have no right, and should not expect, to submit any further material " according to the consultation paper. This is clearly concerning and unless changes are made there is real potential for relevant information to be omitted from the reporter's consideration.
It is very clear from the tone of the consultation paper that reporters are to be discouraged from asking for further information or conducting hearings or inquiries. Worse still, a reporter will not have to report on each representation but may, if they choose to, simply deal with "issues". Where a number of objections to a proposal raise complicated but different issues it is possible that a reporter may not fully understand or address each representation. The new system would make it difficult to identify such a problem because the reporter would not be required to say what they thought about each individual representation. Scottish Government themselves recognise this is a potential concern saying that it "may make it more difficult for individual members of the public to access the [reporter's] findings on their particular representation but has been proposed in order to expedite the examination process". At a time when we are trying to encourage engagement in the process, a step which makes it more difficult for people to understand how their representation is taken into account, is a negative one.
The time period for responding to the consultation on development plan regulations has now closed although the examinations consultation remains open until 4 April. Shepherd and Wedderburn will be responding to all of the consultation papers which have been issued but would encourage anyone with an interest in the development plan process to carefully consider the consultative papers and make their voices heard now to ensure that we end up with a system which is more efficient but no less transparent than that which currently exists.