Independent planning review recommends ‘fresh thinking’ on housing

housing estate stockThe independent panel set up to carry out a “game-changing review” of Scotland’s planning system has made five recommendations to improve the delivery of more high quality homes.

Publishing its report yesterday, the three person panel considered housing as one of six key issues which needed investigated in order to achieve a quicker, more accessible and efficient planning process.

The report, ‘Empowering Planning to Deliver Great Places’, proposed “new ways of working to replace conflict with collaboration” and called for “fresh thinking on housing, with planning pioneering ideas that increase flexibility and stimulate investment”.

Set up in September 2015, the panel was chaired by Crawford Beveridge alongside Petra Biberbach of Planning Aid Scotland (PAS) and John Hamilton of the Scottish Property Federation.

Coming soon after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon named the delivery of 50,000 affordable homes over the next five year in a programme for government, the panel said “new and innovative delivery mechanisms” are required to ensure that planning does all it can to deliver on this national priority.

The panel’s recommendations for housing include:

  1. The National Planning Framework should define regional housing targets as the basis for setting housing land requirements in local development plans.

Given the national significance of housing delivery, a stronger steer on requirements would allow for fuller Parliamentary debate on this important subject. The first steps towards this can make use of data available from HNDAs undertaken across the country. In time, this could be informed by real-time modelling, and we would expect it to replace the need for the fuller HNDA within the planning system. Projections of need and demand must be more closely linked with deliverability. Locally, housing land audits should evolve to become a transparent and ‘live’ register of housing sites which is kept up to date and linked with GIS systems. Local authority housing strategies should also have greater prominence and stronger linkage to the production of local development plans.

  1. There is an urgent need to establish a clearer definition of effective housing land so that local development plans can move on from this to take a positive and flexible approach to addressing the housing land requirement for their area.

Much of the problem with defining whether or not land is suitable for housing development arises from ongoing confusion about what is needed to unlock development and specifically the definition of ‘effectiveness’. Understanding development viability is essential to allocating effective land, requiring an open book approach by developers which is properly scrutinised. This will require planning authorities to have fuller access to expertise in development economics. Independent adjudication on effective housing land, much earlier in the plan preparation process, could significantly reduce conflict.

  1. The SPZ concept should be rebranded and evolved into a more flexible and widely applicable zoning mechanism which identifies and prepares areas to make them ‘investment ready’.

We were inspired by the flexibility provided by Simplified Planning Zones and propose that their principles could inform an adaptable approach to zoning areas of land for development including housing. These areas would be identified to incentivise development by creating greater certainty as well as flexibility and should be rolled out across Scotland. This approach could help to kick start high quality housing development at a large scale in the immediate future, but their impact would be much greater if pump priming of funding was made available to help establish them. We recommend that the new approach would relax current restrictions on SPZs in Scotland to allow for greater flexibility in their timescales, reduce procedure and enable them to come forward for schemes which fall under the EIA Regulations.

  1. Mechanisms for planning authorities to take action to assemble land and provide infrastructure upfront should be established as soon as possible.

Land reform has a pivotal role to play in unlocking land for development. Planning must become more central to this debate and mechanisms for land value tax, majority land assembly, compulsory purchase orders and compulsory sale orders have particular potential to support the aspirations for planning set out here.

  1. A programme of innovative housing delivery should be progressed in a way which is fully aligned with local development plans.

Planning needs to become more responsive to the diverse housing needs of Scotland’s current and future population. This could drive a step-change in affordable housing provision and drive forward alternative models including self-build, private rented sector, off-site construction and energy efficient homes. Work with disabled people’s organisations and building standards to innovate and embed accessible housing, and a proactive approach to expanding homes for the elderly are key priorities. It is, however, important to ensure that support for new sectors does not inadvertently provide opportunities to build mainstream homes which do not meet established needs. Where special measures are introduced to promote the private rented sector, an assurance of the retention of use in perpetuity would therefore, in our view, be essential.

The five other key issues discussed in the report are strong and flexible development plans; an infrastructure first approach to planning and development; efficient and transparent development management; stronger leadership, smarter resourcing and sharing of skills; and collaboration rather than conflict – inclusion and empowerment.

The panel members said: “We are extremely grateful to all those who took part in the review process, through the call for written evidence, the oral evidence sessions and the online discussion forum. The evidence was vast and spanned a large number of subjects. Whilst views differed on the priorities and the solutions, we were impressed by the collective will from all stakeholder groups to improve Scotland’s planning system.

“From the outset, it was clear to us that the main structure of our planning system is not broken. However, it was also clear that for the potential of planning to be realised, a strong commitment to change existing practices and culture, and to re-focus the profession’s improvement agenda will be required. The Scottish Ministers set out 6 themes for us to address and as the review progressed it was obvious that those were the right areas for priority action. Our report builds on these themes and proposes a package of measures for change. Some of the recommendations represent large scale and in our view, game changing, proposals. Others are smaller scale improvements to ensure existing processes are as effective as possible. Some would require legislative change, others could be done quickly and easily with collective buy in and co-operation and embed a culture of inclusion.

“We appreciate that some stakeholders may have reservations about some of our recommendations, but based on the evidence before us, we are confident that these changes would significantly improve the operation and reputation of Scotland’s planning system.

“We look forward to seeing the Scottish Minister’s response to our recommendations in due course, and call on all those with an interest in planning to work together to deliver real and positive change in the coming years.”

The Scottish Government said it will now consider the recommendations put forward by the panel.

Planning minister Kevin Stewart said: “We are committed to ensuring we have a planning system that works for everyone.

“This independent report will help form the basis to kick-start a new, focussed and revitalised planning system. We will consider its recommendations in further detail and will respond in due course.

“I’d like to thank the panel for their work in this review and publication, and the efforts made to ensure everyone who has an interest in planning could contribute their ideas.”

Industry body Homes for Scotland has positively welcomed the report with head of planning, Tammy Adams, saying: “Having an efficient and effective planning system is key to being able to deliver much needed housing.  The findings have therefore been keenly awaited and whilst we need time to fully digest what the report says, we are encouraged by the panel’s recognition of a requirement for change in existing practices and culture if the potential of our planning system is to be realised.

“We also agree on the need to ensure planning does all it can to deliver more homes of a high quality, recognising this as a national priority which requires a proactive approach.

“We look forward to playing a full part in discussions on how these recommendations can be implemented.”