I am the convenor and founder of a charity called Planning Democracy which campaigns for a fairer more inclusive planning system in Scotland. I live in a tin cottage (which is a listed building!) in rural Lanarkshire. Until 3 years ago I had only ever lived in a city. Moving to the country felt like a huge decision at the time, but it was one I have never regretted. Scotland’s rural areas contain some of the world’s finest landscapes, a very precious and irreplaceable national asset that should be passed on to future generations to enjoy and benefit from. But that legacy is under constant threat from development. From golf courses in Aberdeen to coal fired power stations in Ayrshire; wind farms in Shetland to unconventional gas in Dumfries and Falkirk; opencast mines in Midlothian to fish farms in Orkney to housing developments in the Cairngorms National Park – Scotland is full of large-scale, complex and controversial plans. As I travel around the countryside I see how much and how rapidly our landscape is changing, and I know from my work with Planning Democracy that many people are deeply disturbed by the speed of changes which they often know very little about until too late and are unable to influence.
Through my various interests and career in community development, youth work and health care, I am acutely aware of the importance of being listened to. Over the last few years Planning Democracy have tried to draw attention to the often very high personal costs that members of the public pay when trying to participate in planning decisions,. Recently I spent an hour on the phone to a chap who said “I feel emotionally traumatised, you can never win with this system” in such a distressed manner that it brought a lump to my throat. This sounded like someone with a severe health problem, or who had suffered a major loss, but actually it was someone who had tried and failed to understand the planning system and was suffering from depression as a result of his attempts at civic engagement. This kind of call is not uncommon at Planning Democracy.
These personal costs of planning, often borne in time, energy and stress as much as money, have not been recognised by the statutory planning system. This remains a serious issue. When the Scottish Government has talked of planning reform over the last few years they have often been preoccupied about a different set of costs: those that the planning system is said to impose on developers and the economy; they talk about delay and risk caused by unpredictable decisions that deter investment and restrict much needed development. We are not convinced there is necessarily much evidence to support these arguments, but it remains politically powerful.
In October 2015 an independent panel was set up by the Scottish Government to deliver a ‘game-changing’ review of land-use planning in Scotland. The panel’s report has 48 wide-ranging recommendations that, if fully implemented, could lead to a substantial changes. Unfortunately for the public, the report continues to ignore and underestimate fundamental inequalities and competing interests in the planning system and we feel that an upcoming White Paper is unlikely to address our key concerns.
The review falls back on ‘frontloading’ as the solution to problems of public engagement, despite a complete lack of hard evidence that it is working. Frontloading means getting people involved in planning at an early stage of the process, so for example encouraging people to actively take part in the drawing up of strategic plans that form a framework for future planning decisions. We do need to get people interested in shaping their local areas, particularly using creative and deliberative processes where thorny issues can be thrashed out. This is an ideal scenario where people actively contribute to the development plan process. However, better earlier engagement has been consistently promised since the Skeffington Report on Public Participation in Planning was published in 1969, but has never actually been realised. Meanwhile the highly discretionary decision-making process in Scotland means that even when people do actively engage in the production of plans they can still find themselves fighting applications for unwanted development further down the line.
Planning Democracy are concerned that in arguing for frontloading, the review rejects the case for equalising appeal rights at the end of the planning process. This perpetuates a huge and fundamental inequality at the heart of the planning system. Developers can appeal when an application is rejected, but there is no mechanism to challenge the more than 94% of planning applications that are approved, even where decisions are made that are contrary to an agreed development plan.
This is what one of our supporters who is opposing plans for unconventional gas said “It is incredible that in a democratic society no member of the public, even those most badly affected can appeal against the grant of a planning permission, no matter how strong the grounds for appeal may be”
We agree. Planning Democracy are calling for an Equal Right of Appeal (ERA) to be granted to communities to allow them to appeal planning decisions.
But the review claims to have been persuaded by ‘evidence’ that any such move would lead to delays in decision-making. No such evidence was cited, however. And the concern is that this amounts to little more than the anxieties and special pleading of the development industry.
Rather than seeing ERA as a threat we are asking politicians to recognise the benefits it would bring. For example, we believe it would not just make the system fairer but also help to improve decision-making by correcting weak decisions. We also believe it could lead to better engagement earlier in the process. If appeals are limited to cases where applications go against an agreed plan it would provide a strong incentive for everyone to get involved in plan-making, rather than waiting until a planning application is actually made. We also think that it will provide a much needed dose of public confidence in planning that the previous planning reforms have failed to deliver.
Unfortunately, the Government have responded to the review’s recommendations and in a somewhat astonishing move have denied Planning Democracy and communities the right to have any further discussion on the topic. They have drawn up a 10 point plan and one of their ‘action’ points is a somewhat contradictory promise of inaction which states they do not intend to introduce an Equal Right of Appeal.
We think the dismissal of ERA at such an early stage of the planning review denies communities a real voice and pre-empts any work that a new working group on barriers to greater involvement might come up with. What if such a group were to find that entrenched inequalities are a chief barrier to fair and inclusive engagement and strongly recommend ERA as part of a rebalancing effort? Or if new ideas to introduce community-led plans go ahead but those involved then find that local planning authorities are allowing developments that run contrary to those plans? In such cases the introduction of limited community appeals would seem both just and sensible as a means of enabling people to defend plans they have committed time and energy to develop.
We continue to challenge the Government’s dismissal of Equal Rights of Appeal and the perpetuation of an injustice that has long needed to be rectified. Our work towards a more equal and fair planning system will continue as the Government progress towards new planning legislation.
For more information about the other aspects of the planning review you can read our response to the review. You can also keep up to date with us through our website blog posts and our facebook page. We look forward to talking more about these issues and those planning issues that affect rural communities at the rural parliament in October.