National Planning Improvement Champion: Collaboration is key to improving planning

National Planning Improvement Champion: Collaboration is key to improving planning

Craig McLaren and Susan Rintoul set out the findings of the National Planning Improvement Champion’s call for ideas and outline how it is shaping the way we measure the success of planning.

Today sees the publication of a document summarising the findings of our ‘call for ideas’ where we asked people to think about what a high-performing planning system looks like. This has informed a new planning performance assessment and improvement framework and provides a snapshot of the challenges and opportunities facing planners in Scotland.

So, what has it told us?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no overall agreement on what successful planning looks like. Private sector respondents tend to prioritise speedy decisions on planning applications, or at least more certainty in the timescales for decision-making. Public, third and community sector organisations are more inclined to identify good placemaking, quality design and the need to tackle the climate emergency as the important ambitions of planning. Many view success as delivering the outcomes promoted by the 4th National Planning Framework.

The reduced resources available to planning authorities is key issue for almost everyone, with access to the people and skills required seen as an important driver of performance. There are strong calls across sectors to ensure that there are enough planners in planning authorities, to support upskilling, and for income generated through planning fees to be reinvested in supporting planning. The need for a strong pipeline of people entering the profession and the retention of existing planners is another strong message.

There is only some limited support for financially penalising planning authorities who do not demonstrate what is deemed as acceptable performance. However, developers and applicants point to the need to ensure that the increased planning application fees result in tangible improvements to the quality of service provided. Indeed, many applicants and community representatives highlight the need for better customer care and communicationand for planning authorities to engage more proactively and collaboratively. Planning authorities highlight that the quality of submissions can impact on their ability to process applications quickly, whilst applicants and community bodies say that there is a need for more consistency across planning authorities. There is a call for more standardised approaches and for an exploration of how shared services could help join things up.

Uncertainties that can occur from the involvement of planning committees in planning decisions is cited as an issue by some respondents, particularly applicants and community bodies. There is a strong message from users of the planning services that elected members need to be fully up to speed on their roles, responsibilities and powers and that ongoing training is crucial to this.

Many raised the issue of a ‘them and us’ culture in planning and that there is a need to change this and to work collaboratively across sectors. Improving the image of planning is seen as important to this so that it is more respected and trusted and seen as having integrity in being positive, constructive and problem solving. Many feel that there is a need to support and protect planners and to build morale in planning authorities.

So, what next?

The evidence gathered from the ‘call for ideas’ has been used to inform the development of a pilot National Planning Improvement Framework that will support planning authorities to assess their performance and identify areas for improvement. Based on a ‘collaboration for action’ concept, the framework aims to better use planning authorities’ self-assessment to inform and deliver an improvement action plan. The existing approach where Scottish Government marks planning authority performance will be replaced by a collaborative peer review process involving the National Planning Improvement Champion, other planning authorities and, for the first time, stakeholders.

The new framework also aims to better measure how planning authorities improve through incorporating indicators that better assess impacts, outcomes achieved, and the quality of the service provided, and, by recognising that planning authorities depend on others to deliver a good quality service. It is based upon what we have identified as the attributes of a high performing planning authority, such as having the tools to do the job, effective engagement, having the people and resources needed, developing a positive culture, and, having ambitions to deliver quality placemaking.

It is planned to pilot the new framework in three cohorts over the 2024/5 financial year, incorporating learning after each. This will very much be explorative testing of the framework and should hopefully lead to a finalised approach being launched in 2025/6.

Craig McLaren and Susan Rintoul are the National Planning Improvement Champion and Project Officer, based in the Improvement Service.

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