Black’s Blog: Fail to plan… plan to fail?

Black’s Blog: Fail to plan… plan to fail?

Jimmy Black reflects on recent criticism of Scotland’s planning system and outlines an interesting legal case which involves NPF4 and West Lothian’s Local Development Plan.

Scottish Housing News’ sister publication has been publishing some robust content about Scotland’s planning system and its allegedly baleful effect on new housebuilding. In it, housebuilders and architects have shared their frustrations at increasing planning application delays and the negative impact they are having on construction employment.

Sacking all the planners and leaving decisions to the market about what to demolish, and build, might be an interesting experiment. Perhaps we could start by clearing some of those dingy old pends in Edinburgh’s High Street. You get a great view of those from the Outlook Tower which Patrick Geddes set up in 1892.

Geddes, a founding father of town planning, had this interesting theory that “stable, healthy homes” provide the necessary conditions for mental and moral development, producing beautiful and healthy children who are able “to fully participate in life”. I imagine he would be greatly concerned to find out that town planners are, allegedly, preventing or delaying the construction of new homes.

The suggestion is that local authority planning departments are slow and often inconsistent to the point that applications can take years to be decided. (The somewhat whimsical limits for decisions are two months for local, and four months for major applications.)

I’m no expert, but I was depute convener of planning at Dundee City Council for about seven years. Because of that, my instinct is to jump to the defence of the planners, but Ian Aikman from Heads of Planning Scotland (HOPS) has already done so, in these pages. Developers don’t always supply all the information required to get an application passed. There is a national shortage of planners and many of the most experienced ones are retiring… we’ll apparently need 700 new planners over the next few years to keep up with demand.

What’s more, the Scottish Government has recently published National Planning Framework 4 which is full of aspirational guidance, and maybe a bit short on the practical stuff.

It’s the nitty gritty that’s behind a continuing legal argument over the release of “unallocated land” in the vicinity of Scotland’s Broken Hill. Miller Homes, West Lothian Council and the Scottish Government have been instructing their learned friends to establish whether West Lothian must allow a 250-home development near the Five Sisters bings. These are the strangely attractive spoil heaps from Scotland’s pioneering shale mining industry. The application attracted hundreds of objections on grounds of increased traffic, loss of amenity and much else.

You can hear a very concise explanation of the case by Cameron Greig, a senior associate in Morton Fraser’s Litigation Department, in the latest episode of the Scottish Housing News Podcast. Here’s my attempt at doing the same.

Councils create development plans, earmarking land for housebuilding. That’s all fine and well, but local developers may not own any of that land and may not be able to acquire it. On the podcast, Janice Russell, managing director of McTaggart Construction, also points out that building on some of the allocated land may not be practical.

Local Development Plans therefore include some limited flexibility to allow building on unallocated land. The current dispute centres on whether the provisions in existing Local Development Plans still apply, or whether NPF4 takes precedence. Currently, the legal position is that the most recent document is the one that counts.

The practical effect of that may be to reduce the supply of land for house building, which is exactly to opposite of what everyone wants to do.

Janice Russell’s company was named Business of the Year in the Scottish Women’s Awards 2023. McTaggart builds new homes for a range of social landlords and she is frustrated by the planning delays which are holding her back. She has 2,000 houses in the pipeline and applications are taking 12 to 14 months to get through. It’s up to, and sometimes beyond two years for major applications.

She acknowledges that planning performance is not consistent across the country and some authorities communicate well with developers and get their applications decided efficiently. She says delays are sometimes caused by consultees, not planning officers.

I asked her if she was prepared to go to local councillors in their governance role and ask them to do something about the planning delays in their areas. Janice says she is ready to speak to anyone, and she has powerful arguments to deploy.

“It’s incumbent on council officials to understand the implications of the delays. New housing supports 80,000 jobs and every new home built supports 3.5 jobs. A delay in that process will impact on the economy in the local area.

“There were 39,600 homeless applications in 22/23… we’re actually dealing with a humanitarian crisis in Scotland.”

I don’t know whether Miller Homes should be allowed to build 250 homes near the Five Sisters, and I have no idea what the courts will ultimately decide on the release of “unallocated land”. But thousands of households are stuck in temporary accommodation.

Fail to plan, plan to fail… it’s time politicians, planners and developers got together to sort this out.

The Scottish Housing News Podcast is co-hosted by Kieran Findlay and Jimmy Black. All episodes are available here as well as on the following platforms:

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