The passing of the Planning etc (Scotland) Act is only the start of the process of reform, and much will depend on regulations, policies - and the resources provided

The turn of the year is traditionally time to look back and reflect. As winter gales howled, there was little fanfare confirming the passing of the Planning etc (Scotland) Bill by the Scottish Parliament on 16 November, yet there were TV reports on climate change, proposed windfarms, and experimental tidal generators. Among reports that planning applications for house extensions, loft conversions and conservatories might soon be a thing of the past, there was little coverage of the new Scottish legislation which might enable just that, far less any analysis as to whether it actually will.  

Most of the main changes (see panel) will no doubt improve the current system once implemented. However the Act is just the start. The ultimate aim is, in the words of Communities Minister Malcolm Chisholm, to bring in “a much more efficient planning system to support the economy and help it grow in a sustainable way”, and “an era where communities will be involved from the start in shaping their futures”. That will be far from easy, and implementation of the new Act will simply be the first of many hurdles to overcome.

More to come

The full effect of the new Act will not be felt for some time yet, as timescales for implementation have not yet been announced. Draft regulations and orders will be issued this coming year and are expected to be finalised in 2008. Contentious subjects such as the new appeals structures, fee scales and local decision making need to be looked at in detail. The issue of whether planning permission will be needed for domestic alterations will also need secondary legislation.  

Many current national planning policies will need to be reviewed, and revised or replaced. The second National Planning Framework (NPF) is to be published by the Scottish Executive in 2008. This will outline how development and use of land in Scotland could and should occur, and a strategy for sustainable development to 2028. While the NPF will largely cover nationally important developments, it is also to encompass locally delivered services and facilities in key policy areas. Can anyone therefore prepare to implement the new planning system until the NPF has been published anyway? It seems unlikely that the Act will be in force before 2008 or 2009.

To be successful, the new planning system will also rely on accurate development plans, updated every five years with input from all corners of the community, private or commercial. Confidence in the new system will be paramount, particularly when there currently seem to be no real penalties for planning authorities who miss the five-year deadlines.

Resources – will there be enough?

We now have a new Act, but how will everyone ensure it works? Internal reorganisation of each individual planning department will certainly be required. Planning authorities will need time to adjust, and for retraining, recruitment and familiarisation with the new procedures.

More importantly, will they have the budgets to support all this? The estimated increased cost of the new system is approximately £261,000 per authority and £9 million across Scotland. Will extra funds be made available, or are they to come from efficiency savings elsewhere? (The mooted removal of “householder applications” from the system was never presented as being for the benefit of householders, but to free up many planning officers to deal with commercial applications.)

Authorities will certainly need a more efficient income-generating process. It is estimated that planning application fees create an income of £22 million, but at a cost of £98.3 million (see the Executive’s “Resources for Planning” research paper). The City of Edinburgh Council estimated the annual cost of their simply carrying out neighbour notification at around £435,000. The implication is that planning application fees are bound to rise steeply soon, though perhaps most of us will not have to pay them – in respect of our own houses at least.

Planning authorities struggle with the present system, yet the new system is likely to demand increased efficiency, rigid adherence to deadlines and better contact with the “community”, where it has a direct or indirect interest in a proposed development. Most would agree that authorities do not have a good track record of meeting deadlines, particularly in determining commercial applications and updating development plans. An estimated 70% of development plans are out of date, and 40% of current adopted plans are more than 10 years old. Development control statistics often reflect the planning authority’s failure to meet its annual targets. However, what are the incentives to meet those targets and what are the penalties for not meeting them, particularly when a lack of finance and staff is the cause?

While planning authorities face resource issues, the “community” is also to be further encouraged to engage early with the planning process. This has particular resource implications. What help will be available so that the system allows an adequate balance to ensure new development meets the concerns of the community on whom they will impact – particularly where a small, diverse (and poor) community faces a well resourced developer?

The planning gain supplement

While there are questions about how the new system itself is to be resourced, there are also very significant questions as to how the infrastructure required to support new, sustainable developments will be paid for. Readers will be familiar with the old controversies about planning gain (which is either “how to make the private sector pay for the things the public sector used to”, or “how to make developers pay for the things that wouldn’t be needed but for their developments”, depending on your point of view).

The latest proposals, north and south of the border, are for a “planning gain supplement” (PGS) to be introduced, perhaps by 2009, to help pay for local and strategic infrastructure for future economic and residential growth. Journal readers may recall comment on the original PGS proposals, by others more qualified than ourselves: Aitken and Duncan, Journal, January 2006, 22; updated, Journal Online, submissions, 17 August 2006.

Suffice to say, current PGS proposals (as at the Pre-Budget Report) are still in their infancy, and PGS may not happen unless, “after further consultation, it continues to be deemed workable and effective” by the government. There is now at least an intention for all PGS revenues to be returned to the devolved administrations, and 70% to be returned to the local authority area, in which they were generated. PGS would be payable on “residential and non-residential development”, except home improvements. Developer contributions to infrastructure provision would still be collected through (in Scotland) s 75 agreements, but would be scaled back to take into account the contributions made through payment of the PGS.

Where the line might be drawn between PGS liability and the scope of such scaled-back contributions is unclear. In any case will the PGS in its final form, whatever that may be, prove sufficient for local authorities to provide the infrastructure needed to sustain development, and will developers see their PGS payments utilised efficiently in the area where they were generated? There are concerns about gaps in funding, the timing of payments and the valuation of land value uplifts.  

You take the high road…

Only a few weeks after Scotland passed its Planning Act, in Westminster proposals were published for a fundamental review of the planning system in England and Wales (Review of Land Use Planning, final report, principal author Kate Barker who also produced the PGS proposals). Many of the proposed changes mirror those now to be introduced in Scotland; some go further. Media attention again focused on proposals to abolish the need for planning permission for most house extensions etc (and let Building Regulations cater for these). Is this simply coincidence, or are all eyes now on how well Scotland implements its new system before the rest of the UK follows suit? Furthermore, the likely timescales for implementation of our new system and for introduction of the PGS are remarkably similar.  

What’s in it for me?

We can now buy rooftop domestic wind turbines and solar panel kits cheaply in B&Q, but (currently) need planning permission to install them. At the same time we can fly all over Europe for a fraction of that cost. Which has greater environmental impact? Can the new system succeed in moving us to a place where sustainable development is encouraged but we all have proper democratic involvement in development proposals?

Current public knowledge of and engagement with the planning system is low. Market research recently conducted for Anderson Strathern suggests 90% of the population is unaware of Scottish planning reform. Only 10% have ever commented on/objected to a planning application, yet over 50% of those objections were to housing developments, not to the large transport projects and wind farms which receive most media attention.

Perhaps these statistics simply tell us something we already knew (and a lot about the need for reform in the first place). But what they seem to suggest is that people do usually care about their local neighbourhoods – but few of us feel that engaging with the system to state our views on new developments is worth the effort. Whether it will be worth the effort in a few years’ time (while also reducing delays and uncertainty for Scotland’s business community and delivering sustainable development) is the big question.

From a national perspective, Scottish planning reform seems radical but has something in it for everyone. The real results will only be seen at local level when end users can judge whether the reforms meet ministers’ aims. Whether planning authorities can cope with and find resources to implement the new system, particularly if the planning gain supplement is introduced at the same time, is a major challenge. Hopefully Scotland will find a way that our friends in the south will wish to follow.

Robin Priestley and Jason Mackay, Planning and Environment, Anderson Strathern


  • A National Planning Framework for the delivery of national policies and programmes
  • A new planning hierarchy of development types, with different procedures for processing applications and appeals
  • Working from a single development plan (except for the four city regions), updated every five years
  • Reduction in the time limit for appeals from six months (from the date of an actual or deemed refusal) to three
  • Community engagement
  • Pre-application consultations for certain types of development
  • Local authorities to take over responsibility for neighbour notification of applications
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