Tom Arthur has been appointed the Scottish Government Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth. 

He will be having lots of briefings, but what are realities about the planning system that he should know about? 

It is complicated 

There are lots of rules, procedures and policies. That is a source of frustration, confusion, and uncertainty for everyone involved in the planning system. 

Balancing differing interests 

Planning is about balancing differing interests. The difficulties about doing that were summed up in a statement in the previous Scottish Planning Policy document: 

“It is essential to recognise that planning issues, by their very nature, will often bring differing interests into opposition and disagreement and the resolution of those issues will inevitably disappoint some parties. The planning system cannot satisfy all interests all of the time. It should, however, enable speedy decision making in ways which are transparent and demonstrably fair.” 

At the sharp end 

Planning is where it all happens. Its (relative) accessibility means it is a focus for everyone's agendas. It is used to deliver wider Government policies. Practical difficulties and tensions are often exposed. Sometimes it feels like too much is being asked/ expected of the planning system. 

The plan 

The Minister will hear a lot about "the plan", aka "the development plan". Unfortunately, it's not that simple: there are a multiplicity of plans. 

Plan-led system

Another frequently used phrase is "the plan-led system". It is valuable to have a plan to guide decision-making. However, our planning system does not require decisions to be made in accordance with the plan (in contrast to the zoning systems operated in other countries). 

The weight, or more often the lack of weight, given to development plans when deciding planning applications can be controversial. The principle of developing allocated sites is frequently still debated at the planning application stage, which raises the question of the point of having a plan. 

Planning judgment 

Planning decisions are inherently discretionary, involving exercise of judgment. Depending on your viewpoint, that is valuable flexibility or frustrating unpredictability. 

Who has the power?

Members of the public often complain that the planning system favours developers, who can marshall teams of experts. Developers say they are at the mercy of the planning officers and councillors making the decisions. The officers and councillors can feel that they do not have the power to make the decisions they really want to make, and point to decisions being overturned on appeal by Scottish Government reporters. 


The draft National Planning Framework 4 is to be published in the Autumn. It will focus on policy objectives, but all of the themes mentioned above will underpin the preparation of the draft and the responses to it. 


Neil Collar