Improving on delivery has been a key aim of Scottish Ministers in proposing the Planning (Scotland) Bill. Empowering planning to deliver great places highlighted that development plans appear to have insufficient influence on actual housing delivery, citing that while 40,000 units were approved in 2014/15 only 17,419 were delivered in the same period. This stark reality clearly focused the attention of ministers and has led to a planning Bill which places greater emphasis on planners and planning delivering the development that communities need. But will the Bill deliver on delivery?
Short of a dandy highwayman to make the planning system stand and deliver, the Bill does include a raft of provisions that could have an influence on the deliverability of housing in particular. These include, 10-year cycle for the Local Development Plan (LDP), removal of supplementary planning guidance, Simplified Development Zones (SDZs), and the infrastructure levy.
The 10-year cycle for the LDP is intended to shift the focus of planners from plan writing to plan delivery, but such a long cycle may not be suitably flexible to meet the changing needs of the housing market and the provisions for amendments will no doubt mean that planners will be back writing plans before that ten years is up. Perhaps a 7-year cycle with an option for long sites would bring the right balance of stability and flexibility to suit landowners, developers, communities and planners?
As many members will know, supplementary guidance has often been inconsistent and changeable, something which has not inspired confidence in the system. By consolidating guidance in the National Planning Framework (NPF) greater clarity and consistency could encourage more people to get involved in the process.
The rebranding of Simplified Planning Zones into Simplified Development Zones does not resolve the fact that, like their predecessors, uncertainty of market trends (and therefore viability) at the time of development could mean that the rush to implement SDZs is not as potent as is hoped.
The infrastructure levy has the potential to be counterintuitive to the aim of increased delivery. This has been demonstrated by experiences south of the border where the process has become convoluted and is regularly reviewed. For example, local authorities in England have not been proactive in carrying out complicated viability assessments in relation to the infrastructure levied on agricultural buildings. This has led to large charges being imposed on buildings which do not necessarily affect infrastructure demand, often resulting in the development becoming unviable.
From a rural standpoint, there are some key areas that have not been addressed by the Bill which really ought to if we are to realise the potential for rural housing delivery in Scotland. The first, and probably most fundamental of those, is the need for infrastructure providers to commit to development at an early stage. There is a provision in the Bill which places duties on key agencies to participate in the preparation of the development plan, but this could be strengthened by requiring those relevant agencies to also sign off on the delivery programme, thereby committing to its content or enabling problems to be identified at the beginning of the process.
Secondly, ring-fencing planning fees is perhaps equally critical to the effective delivery of homes, regardless of whether they are rural or urban. While the increasing of fees has been high on the agenda, there appears a distinct lack of urgency around making sure that all recovered fees and expenses are returned to the planning system to help with said delivery.
If we are to seize the opportunity and produce a planning system that truly delivers on its plans, getting the fundamentals right like infrastructure and ring-fencing fees for resources are key – particularly in a rural context. It is our hope that this Bill will be the one that stands up and delivers for rural Scotland, but there is more work to be done. Watch this space.