The new Planning (Scotland) Act: real reform or just a remodel?

The new Planning (Scotland) Act: real reform or just a remodel?

16 Sep 2019

It’s been a long, protracted and complex process, but at last the new Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 is ready to be implemented.  It’s not a shiny new planning system – more a facelifted version of the previous model – but in the months and years to come, we’ll start to see details on how this new planning law is to be enacted.

Will this new Act help improve the lives of Scotland’s communities? Will it support delivery of new homes, economic diversity and protect our environment at the same time?  Will it improve people’s experience of the planning system? Will it provide efficient and consistent decision making and ensure economic diversity and regeneration where it’s needed?

At this stage, the answer is that we simply don’t know. Much of the detail on how the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 will be implemented is yet to be worked through. However, that detail is important and will determine the success or otherwise of this new planning system.

Here at Halliday Fraser Munro, we have spent many hours reviewing the key provisions of the Act. What we can say with some degree of confidence is that it will have implications for all users of the planning system – and will create a new set of challenges.

We’ve identified what we feel are some key points for change that anyone who uses or engages with the planning system should be aware of as the implementation of the Planning (Scotland) Act starts to take place.

1.      The Act introduces a defined purpose for Scotland’s planning system

Our planning system now needs to “…manage the development and use of land in the long term public interest” (hasn’t it always?) but also suggests that anything which contributes to sustainable development or achieves national outcomes (under the Community Empowerment Act) should be considered in the long term public interest.  This definition is pretty general but does focus the purpose of planning on managing the development and use of land.  Over the years, the planning system has been seen as a potential solution for multiple issues often not related to managing the development or use of land – for example, the use of planning policy to require buildings to meet certain technical sustainability standards when this would be better achieved through the Building Standards route. To be effective, though, the planning system needs to focus on its core function – the use of land - and this new stated purpose helps.   

The second part - “in the long-term public interest” - is less definitive. How is the long-term public interest defined?  Who decides?  Clearly that’s a complex question. Where does the balance lie between economic, social, health and environmental interest?  The definition however needs to be bottomed out quickly, or we could be bogged down in many more years of debate. 

2.      The Act abolishes Strategic Development Plans

Instead, the Act places a greater focus on the National Planning Framework (NPF) and Regional Spatial Strategies to shape strategic issues.  Again, the detail of how Regional Spatial Strategies are to be prepared, by whom and in what form will be important.  It’s quite likely these will be very similar to the previous Strategic Development Plans. The NPF as a more detailed policy document could also potentially be contentious. For some it will be a welcome steer at a national level and for others it could represent a centralisation of decision making and less local control.

3.      The Act introduces new timeframe provisions

The timeframe for reviewing Local Development Plans (LDPs) increases from five years to 10 years, with these plans including more detailed policies. The doubling up of the window for reviewing LDPs is already concerning some commentators. The worry is that this will limit the flexibility of the planning system to react to changing economic or social circumstances.  More detail in the policies these plans contain could make them easier to interpret, but also more cumbersome as land-use planning documents. They will be lengthier and probably contain more policies than in the past where previous changes were targeting a simplified system. 

4.      The Act will create a target-based National Planning Framework (NPF)

The NPF will become a more complex policy document, setting housing targets and new outcomes related to the challenges of good health, well-being, equality and the environment.  Having a central strategic document for Scotland could help standardise these issues across geographic areas but there’s little doubt that differing parts of Scotland will need to continue to adapt to differing challenges.  How the NPF deals with differing ambitions across rural and urban areas will also no doubt be complex.   

5.      The Act aims to allow communities greater say

The new Act introduces Local Place Plans (LPPs) which are to be prepared by community bodies.  LPPs have to be in line with the LDP strategy.  This could assist in shaping places that are more closely aligned to the uses that local communities want, but it cannot remove land allocations if that land is already allocated or approved for development.    

In addition, Scottish Ministers now have to report every two years on how the planning system is operating in relation to the community as a whole. They need to report on how the housing needs of older people and disabled people are met and incorporating the views of younger people is also encouraged. This will prove interesting as the challenges of younger and older generations and access to the housing market are discussed more openly.

Halliday Fraser Munro’s planners and architects have been working with the existing system for many years and we have found that, despite its flaws, there is usually a solution to procedural difficulties. 

We fully expect that to be the case for the new planning system but suggest that the Scottish Government and their officers consult the development industry and their advisors as they work through detailed elements of this 2019 Act. It’s essential that we try to iron out any difficulties before they arise. 

The main challenge is not process; it is making sure that we have a system which plans properly for a growing population, an ageing population, a more diverse population and makes sure that the scale of development required to support Scotland’s communities can be delivered in a more efficient, forward-looking and sustainable manner.     

By Steve Crawford, Regional Director of Planning