For those who are involved in the development side of the planning process, setting the words "Scottish Natural Heritage" and "facilitate" would surely be seen as an oxymoron. After all, who has not seen a consultation response from SNH, which is in fact described as a conditioned objection?
It appears that this may be a thing of the past. At the recent Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference in May 2009, Andrew Thin, the chair of SNH made it clear that the position of the organisation and its role was changing.
Andrew Thin was appointed the Chair late in 2006. This was in the midst of planning reform. The 2006 Act was very much in sight and there was a clear political agenda to modernise and speed up the planning process.
Where was SNH going wrong?
As Andrew Thin acknowledged, at the time of his appointment there was a real sense that SNH had, since its creation, moved away from democratic accountability, and more fundamentally, it may have strayed beyond its statutory remit with respect to planning matters.
The statutory remit of SNH
SNH's role is to advise central and local government on any matter which affects the natural heritage of Scotland. SNH may also if so requested by Scottish Ministers advise them or any planning authority in relation to any matter arising under the 1997 Planning Act which affects the natural heritage of Scotland.
Moreover, SNH is also under a duty in exercising its functions to take account of certain matters, mainly of a socio-economic nature. These include the need for the development, the interests of local communities and the interests of owners and occupiers of land.
Andrew Thin considered that SNH's responses to planning applications exceeded its statutory duties. In particular, SNH frequently objected to planning applications straying beyond advice and expressing an opinion about what the appropriate determination should be in each case.
Following some extensive consultation, SNH came to the view that it should, as an organisation, be offering advice, not objecting. That is not to say that the organisation cannot object, in circumstances where national or international designations are affected. However, this would not be an expression of opinion about the correct determination but simply a mechanism to protect the Minister's ability to intervene should that be appropriate.
Sustainable Economic Growth
At the heart of the planning system is the Government's drive to increase sustainable economic growth. The SNP Government made it clear in late 2007 that they wanted all public bodies in Scotland to align their plans and priorities to support the core purpose of increasing sustainable economic growth.
This represented a considerable challenge for many statutory consultees who felt their core purpose was somewhat different.
In early 2008 the Chair of SEPA undertook a similar exercise in relation to its role with regard to planning.
Discussions were held between SNH and SEPA with the Scottish Property Federation, Scottish Renewables, Homes for Scotland and many local authorities. The clear conclusion from the consultation was that others required to be involved and to adapt if the core purpose was to be achieved. In short, all statutory consultees to the planning system needed to be involved and focussed on the Government's core purpose. Fundamentally the focus had to change from one of preventing irresponsible development to facilitating responsible development. This is a subtle but highly important distinction.
As an example, the focus of preventing what SNH considered to be irresponsible development undoubtedly had a negative effect on both the speed and proportionality of responses to responsible development. The outcome was a highly precautionary approach to risk, which had a debilitating effect on development.
Following a meeting between all statutory consultees, the Chief Planner and John Swinney, a programme of work was agreed to seek an approach consistent with achieving the Government's core purpose.
The shift in emphasis by statutory consultees
SNH has shifted the emphasis of its resourced deployment strongly into effective engagement at the development plan stage and in addition to effective pre-application engagement and advice.
There is a more risk based approach to assessing planning applications and the organisation has now ceased objecting to any application other than those where Scottish Ministers may need to be consulted.
SEPA has focused on the 90% of its objections that arise not from fundamental problems with applications but from inadequate information accompanying them. Most relate to flood risk issues. SEPA is in the process of implementing a widespread public information programme to try and drive this figure down, thereby speeding up a large number of planning applications.
Transport Scotland has focused on guidance and on the need to reduce the delays at application stage by improving the quality of applications. They are to publish new guidance later this year.
Scottish Water has focused on more effective co-ordination with other statutory consultees to the planning system, and now jointly gather and share information with Transport Scotland and SEPA in order to better inform growth models.
Historic Scotland has shifted its focus onto more effective pre-application advice and a more risk based approach which leaves decision making firmly at the local authority level. There is currently a pilot scheme with three local authorities removing the duty to notify Historic Scotland on applications on B listed properties.
Modest steps perhaps but welcome nonetheless.
Culture of change
If planning reform is to succeed it is widely accepted that there should be a culture change.
In the case of SNH, advising on applications versus suggesting an appropriate determination should begin to make a significant difference to the perception of the organisation and the status of its consultation responses. Overall, a refocusing on the collective purpose of sustainable economic growth can and should go some way to driving the culture change which planning reform relies on so heavily.