Planning review can help in homes crisis

Recommendations are a mixed bag but quick implementation is essential to help build more houses, writes June Gilles
The Scottish Government must move quickly over housing. Picture: Lisa FergusonThe Scottish Government must move quickly over housing. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
The Scottish Government must move quickly over housing. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

With so much attention on the EU referendum for the last few months, many domestic matters have been sidelined – but core issues, including Scotland’s housing crisis, are still with us.

In February, I argued on these pages that improving the planning system is widely recognised as vital in addressing the undersupply of new homes in Scotland. At that time the Scottish Government’s independent Planning Review Panel was conducting a ‘game changing’ review. After three months of sifting through 400 written responses and a large number of online comments, the panel has now issued a lengthy and comprehensive follow-up report, Empowering Planning to Deliver Great Places, making 48 recommendations in all.

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These include replacing strategic development plans with an enhanced national planning framework to simplify the development plan system.

The panel also recommended that the preparation process for local development plans, which councils produce to identify local needs and allocate sites, should move to a 10-year cycle, rather than the current five years.

Sites allocated in local development plans should be afforded ‘planning permission in principle,’ according to the panel’s report. It suggests they could be exempted from pre-application consultation requirements and could benefit from fast-tracked appeals. Conversely, where unallocated sites are proposed for development, a fuller consultation or mediation exercise could be required.

Other proposals include substantially increasing planning fees on major applications; providing greater definition and consultation over national or regional infrastructure levies; establishing a development delivery infrastructure fund; and retaining section 75 planning obligations but minimising their use and streamlining the processes around them.

The report was issued with minimal publicity and, given its length and complexity, very little detailed comment has emerged. The Scottish Property Federation has welcomed both the tone and substance of the report. The Head of Planning at Homes for Scotland, the Scottish housebuilders’ trade body, has initially praised it as ‘a job well done’. Homes for Scotland will make more detailed comments once members have fully considered the report..

While I also consider many of the recommendations to be positive, some areas will cause concern to housebuilders. There is a strong focus on improving community engagement. While it is not inevitable that this will result in delays to new housing developments – the UK Government has claimed that plans for housebuilding are more than 10 per cent higher in the first areas in England with a neighbourhood plan as opposed to those without – these are notoriously unpopular with existing communities. Further, the enhanced status of sites allocated in local development plans may result in more opposition during consideration of draft plans and more challenges of adopted plans.

Developers might well support recommended significant increases in planning fees, if they were reserved for spending on improved planning services. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the case.

The reference to capturing ‘land value uplift’ to help pay for infrastructure is also a concern. Any form of tax or levy payable on the grant of planning permission could well result in fewer planning applications coming forward, discouraging development.

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The Scottish Government must now consider not only which recommendations to adopt but how to bring them forward. As I highlighted earlier this year, many of the reforms will need new legislation and that process is slow, generally taking three years or longer to get a new law on to the statute book and bring it into effect. In the meantime, John McNairney, the Scottish Government’s Chief Planner, remains committed to improving the operation of the existing planning system and it is hoped that some of the panel’s recommendations may be able to be adopted much more quickly.

It will be essential if we are to address Scotland’s current housing crisis.

• June Gilles is a partner at Davidson Chalmers LLP