Planning & Environment

The Scottish Government consultation paper “Development Plan Examinations” poses fundamental questions about the type of planning system we want. Make sure you submit a response by 22 June.

The consultation paper opens with a reminder that the Scottish Government are committed to a plan-led system. That gives the development plan a key role. The procedures for preparing the development plan are therefore important, to ensure quality of content, and credibility/ confidence in the plan. Fail to deliver those objectives, and it’s back to planning by appeal, and legal challenges.

As an initial consultation, inevitably it pursues an “open-minded approach”, although it does seem to be predicated on concerns expressed by planning authorities.

For me, the starting point is joining-up two key statements in separate parts of the consultation paper:

  • “Most plans have travelled through the examination system relatively quickly and at a relatively modestly cost”
  • “Most of the additional costs, delay and criticism have arisen because reporters have identified that certain plans do not conform with the structure plan or Government policy, particularly with regard to housing land”

In other words, the evidence shows not only that the examination process is working, but it has proved its value by preventing planning authorities from adopting plans which do not conform with the structure plan or Government policy. That indicates Option 4 – remove the independent examination from the process – would be detrimental.

For similar reasons, Option 2 – greater discretion to depart from the reporter’s recommendations – is unsatisfactory. If the main problem stems from planning authorities preparing plans which do not conform with the structure plan or Government policy, that does not give any justification for making the reporter’s recommendations less binding. Also, the Newcraighall site saga shows that even if planning authorities are given discretion to ignore the reporter, it is difficult to give legally defensible reasons for exercising that discretion.

Option 3 – restrict the scope of the examination – raises a significant tension. Those who have lodged representations to the draft plan value the opportunity for independent examination – the lack of independent examination of supplementary planning guidance is attracting a lot of criticism. Any restriction on the scope of the examination will therefore be controversial.

Is it proportionate to allow every unwithdrawn representation to be examined by the reporter? But any attempt to filter out representations will leave some objectors feeling disappointed and disenfranchised. What criteria would be used? The paper gives the example of compliance with national and strategic policy. But in a plan-led system, is it appropriate to limit independent examination to those matters? And would the filtering process end up taking as much time as it would save?

Option 1 – improving current practice – the main difficulty identified in the paper is where the reporter finds that the proposed plan does not identify sufficient housing land and makes a binding recommendation allocating additional housing sites (for example, North Lanarkshire). The paper notes concerns that this undermines the role of elected members. It suggests a new procedure – the reporter would recommend adoption of the plan but highlight the need for the authority to provide additional housing land allocations. This is worth exploring further.

Neil Collar

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