Time to start breaking down planning barriers

BY Andrew Mickel, director of Mactaggart & Mickel Group
Andrew Mickel

PLANNING may not be the most exciting subject in the world, and most people don’t think about it often unless they are objecting to an application on their doorstep. However, the Scottish planning system has a massive effect on all our lives, not least by determining if, when, where or how much-needed new housing can be built. Whether major new developments are rejected or approved also influences Scotland’s economic growth. Did you know, for example, that every home built supports around four jobs?

In 2007, the current First Minister set out an ambitious target of building 35,000 new homes every year. Sadly we have retreated from this high water mark, despite the fact that with over 150,000 applicants for housing on local authority waiting lists and a growing population, there has never been a stronger case for significantly increasing housing supply in Scotland.

Ask any housebuilder if they could be granted one wish, and I’d bet that most of them would say they would like the planning system to be speeded up. While this is obviously in the best interests of housebuilders, economists would undoubtedly agree that a planning backlog negatively impacts our economy. Efforts to accelerate it, however, have not been particularly successful so far. If anything, it seems to be taking developments longer and longer to get through the approvals process.

A new planning Bill for Scotland, which is part of a wider process of reform, was introduced at the end of last year and is currently making its way through Parliament, with submissions closing last week (week ending Feb 2). This Bill will introduce a series of changes to the current planning system, such as the establishment of an infrastructure levy, and revisions to simplified planning zones and compulsory purchase orders.

The Scottish Government is strong on rhetoric, shouting loudly about tackling the housing crisis, but putting this into practice is another matter. I want to see evidence of long term vision, but to me the planning Bill contains a worrying lack of detail and seems modest in terms of ambition. Perhaps this illustrates that the Scottish Government feels the system does not need fundamental change? Unlike the UK government, who have made their ambitions clear by promoting a housing minister to the cabinet and setting targets upon which they can be judged, the Scottish Government seems unwilling to set such a bar.

I believe we need to explore ways to improve capacity in local authority planning departments, which are under-resourced, with the aim of a quicker service and better quality developments. More ring-fenced resources for planning departments, for example. The new Bill offers little to reduce the complexity of application procedures or provide confidence in faster decision making. However, I am pleased to see compulsory training – and possibly even an exam – for councillors making planning decisions included in the Bill.

A real cultural change needs to be driven forward by the chief executives of every local authority in Scotland so that, instead of simply being reactive, planners are actively encouraging and supporting much-needed investment into their local areas.

I’d also like to see the First Minister publicly challenge members of her Government who acknowledge the housing crisis at a governmental level, yet at a constituency level, lend their support to anti-development pressure groups.

In an ideal world, communities and local authorities would be able to plan their own growth, but they must be able to do this strategically. I do feel we need to involve communities at an earlier stage in the decisions that affect them, through more meaningful consultation, and this is something Mactaggart & Mickel strives to achieve. We also try hard to create sensitively designed new communities that complement their existing surroundings. If all housebuilders put a bit more thought into design and into early consultation with local people, perhaps we could reduce the level of objections, which would help streamline the planning process.

Our Airthrey Green development near Stirling, in conjunction with Graham’s Dairy, includes 600-home development and a national dairy centre. We are currently awaiting a decision from the Scottish Government on their application to proceed – and have reinforced the importance of this project in supporting Scotland’s renewed economic vision. As well as hundreds of homes, this will bring a primary school, neighbourhood centre, improved road infrastructure, a public park, 400 new jobs and a 50-person apprenticeship scheme to the area.

Another crucial benefit would be a £20m+ expansion of Graham’s dairy business in the form of a new dairy processing, research and development facility, helping to further support Scottish dairy farmers – and giving the country’s homegrown dairy industry a competitive advantage. This would be the largest single investment in the dairy sector in over 30 years.

Housebuilding is one of our most vital industries, which impacts on such a wide range of policy areas, from job creation and fuel poverty to quite simply putting a roof over everyone’s head. Isn’t it time we took down some of the barriers to making that happen?