Roger Kelly on 25 June 2009


Immediate Past Convener, The Royal Town Planning Institute in Scotland

Conference 25 June 2009:  Planning for National and Major Developments

organised by Dundas & Wilson and the City of Edinburgh Council

at Lothian Chambers, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh


In this short contribution I’ll try to set out some of the context of planning reform in Scotland, and in particular to look at the idea of proportionate attention -the idea of dealing with different scales of development in different ways.


It was 50 years ago, when I was 13 or 14, that I decided here in Scotland to become a town planner. For a while after I qualified, the original multifaceted administrative setup was in place across Britain: urban districts rural districts counties, large burghs, small burghs, and county boroughs. Frozen in time, but the emphasis was a modernising one –the white heat of modern technology, politicians called it. Colin Buchanan studied Traffic in Towns, development plans were prepared and approved with lots of rigmarole and no speed, Kennedy was assassinated, plans were out of date, a new Civic Amenities Act was introduced and Midlothian and Peeblesshire (who shared a planning team) declared the first conservation area in Scotland, at Carlops, which was interesting because Thomas Adams, who had set up the Planning Institutes on both sides of the Atlantic had once been a parish councillor there.


Planning in those days –in theory anyway- presented the same face to all comers.  All development plans followed the same procedures. Highly expensive sledgehammers were being used to crack nuts.  Wouldn’t it be sensible (the government of the day was advised) to have different scales of plan. Then the big strategic plan could deal with the big strategic issues and the little local plan could cope with all those much less significant yet time-consuming details.  Wait, that sounds too good for just planning: why not make two grades of local authority as well? Then each could deal with issues appropriately at its own level.


Since then our planning system has moved forward in a series of modernisations. Each one seemed right for the spirit of the times. Each one failed to fulfil its promise and was later to be swept onwards in more calls for change.  There was plenty of good work by developers, district councils, regional councils and new Town Development Corporations. But to some extent the problem was always one of culture –lack of the right attitudes, the right resources, the right political will, the right constructive spirit- rather than the letter of the law and the regulations, in spite progressive regulatory tweaking over the years.


To look at the context of the reforms we’re going through today, let’s step back 10 years to January 1999, to the Consultation on Land Use Planning under a Scottish Parliament.  Devolution was on its way. A consultancy team led by Richard Slipper, Ann Faulds and Sarah Boyack had just submitted a major report on Development Planning the year before.  The new Scottish Office Planning Audit Unit had published its first report on development control in local authorities. The Planning Minister Calum Macdonald introduced a consultation on possible change with the words “The essential role of the planning system is to regulate and control the development and use of land in the public interest.” It was a very downbeat perspective.  He referred to “criticism not so much about the fundamentals of the system, but about the way the system is being operated.” He talked about slowness and negativity getting in the way of business competitiveness. He mentioned criticism from others that planning didn’t seem to be putting the environment at the heart of its policies to safeguard communities from harmful developments. And the document set out Secretary of State Dewar’s determination to combat social exclusion and promote Scotland’s prosperity. The questions raised in the consultation introduced suggestions for a single combined document of Planning Policy Guidance and more of an area dimension for national policy.


“Land Use Planning under a Scottish Parliament” on the Scope of Planning

32. The Government take the view that the focus of statutory development plans and development control is and must remain the use and development of land. However, in the interests of promoting sustainable development, planning must take into account economic, social and environmental priorities, as well as provide an effective and enduring framework for decisions on the location of new developments and priorities for land use change, redevelopment and regeneration. Planning may need to be given more emphasis within the priorities for both national and local government if the co-ordination that is needed to take such factors properly into account is to be effectively undertaken.


The results of the consultation were published towards the end of 1999 by the new Scottish Executive, and introduced by Sarah Boyack as the new Planning Minister.  The main conclusion, that with some tweaking, the system was mainly fit for purpose was later castigated in some quarters as a missed opportunity for reform (for example by Philip Allmendinger writing in in 2002).


By then –as the Parliament and Executive began to stretch their sinews, reform in the air again and a Review of Stategic Planning in Scotland had begun consultation in June 2001.   Now was the time when the National Planning Framework started to take positive shape – it was a concept which many found attractive and indeed necessary and 80% of respondents favoured it.  The case for more supplementary planning guidance –over and above statutory development plans was made –and accepted. Consultation on public involvement in Planning also began in 2001.  New communications began to revolutionise access to planning information and the e-planning agenda began to take shape.  From the welter of comments made on all these consultations and initiatives, Priority and proportionality emerge as characteristics the planning system is thought to lack.


And from this point on a kind of separation begins to develop, culminating in the hierarchy diagram of national major local and minor developments introduced in the 2005 White Paper, Modernising the Planning System.

Hierarchy for Planning diagram
Roger Kelly contribution on planning reform

Government’s understandable concern is to see national priorities dealt with quickly, and major developments prioritised. And there are many good things in encouraging public bodies to prioritise their resources and responses and take a much more strategic and proportionate view of their relationship to planning.


What is less evident perhaps is a concern for the wellness of the system as a whole, since the day to day operation of planning is properly seen as a local responsibility.  The trouble is that bad local planning decisions cannot always be answered through the ballot box because administrative units here in Scotland are often too large for that to be an effective sanction.  The trouble is there are precious few effective sanctions for dealing with bad or non-existent planning.  The days of an admonition to a local authority from the Chief Reporter may be passed, but it was an effective feedback from the appeal process.   We have to instead to make the most of positive feedback loops from public, business and service users to local and central government, and make sure they are able and willing to listen and to act to put right wrongs.


Reforms often start in one context, and end when the world is very different. They often begin with the aim of simplification, and end with more complexity.  They often aim for more speed, but end up with causing a temporary standstill.   Reforms often start by assuming that big things are more important than small ones, and yet the devil is in the detail.  Attention to detail is often the means to a greater good.  The point I am making is not that reform is bad or dangerous, just that like all surgery it needs intensive post-operative care.  Once the carnival of modernisation has passed, there is tidying up to be done.  It remains as true today as it was in 1999 that - to be effective - planning may need to be given proper emphasis, proper attention, in the priorities for both national and local government.



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