National planning review unlikely to improve local situation, Aberdeenshire councillors tell Government

Scottish Government proposals to overhaul the planning system in Scotland are unlikely to have any positive effect in meeting the demands and aspirations of communities and the development industry, say councillors.

Aberdeenshire Council’s Infrastructure Services Committee (ISC) has written to the country’s Chief Planner in response to a range of changes being proposed at a national level.

Councillors and planning officials believe the current approach to strategic and local planning in the area works well and the proposed changes take decision making further from local communities.

There is particular concern over a lack of detail around proposals to replace the role of the Strategic Development Plan (SDP), which currently provides a long term strategy for future growth.

It also guides the production of Aberdeenshire’s Local Development Plan, which provides a blueprint for the development of the area, ensuring a consistent approach to planning applications.

The Government’s current intention is to replace Strategic Development Plans with Regional Partnerships and officers and councillors are concerned about the lack of detail so far.

Its Places, People and Planning consultation asked Scottish councils for their opinions on plans to bring forward a Planning Bill in the near future, which is part of a wider programme of work aimed at strengthening “planning’s contribution to inclusive growth and empowering our communities”.

Now ISC chairman, Peter Argyle, has written to the Scottish Government on behalf of the committee to set out the council’s thoughts on a Position Statement which outlines the changes the Government is considering.

The Position Statement was published following an independent review of the planning system, published in May 2016, and a subsequent consultation on 20 proposals for improvement.

Aberdeenshire Council has already responded to the initial consultation, and has now given its opinion on proposals for changes which have emerged as a result.

There is particular concern around timing as the north-east needs, at the very least, a transitional arrangement to ensure up-to-date development plans are in place throughout any period of change. 

Cllr Argyle said: “This council’s most immediate concern is the lack of detail around measures to replace the role of the Strategic Development Plan and the means of engaging over regional spatial strategy and, in particular, housing requirement. 

“The Council welcomes change where benefits can be evidenced but, in the context of the north-east of Scotland the current arrangements have worked very well and there is not as yet sufficient evidence or detail around a replacement system to demonstrate that it will improve on the current system.

“One size does not fit all and there is a lack of evidence that the proposals will improve the process or performance of the system in delivering infrastructure and further housing.”

ISC vice chair, John Cox, added: “The current barriers to development, particularly housing, are the physical cost of development and the demand within the local markets, not the planning system or its processes.

“The changes being proposed would also remove political control from the local area, taking it to the centre, and would also potentially give developers the opportunity to renege on agreements made for contributions to improve infrastructure impacted upon by their developments, known as Developer Obligations.

“The committee wanted to reinforce the resource implications of the proposals for all councils and the need to improve trust in planning processes, which the current proposals do not assist.

“There is nothing that gives me confidence the process will be easier, quicker or more efficient, basically failing most of the objectives. Plain and simple, this would be a further erosion of the local democratic process and accountability, driven by lack of funding.”

Councillors have also expressed their concern about the fast pace of the consultation and the emerging legislation, fearing it may lead to errors.

The Government’s Position Statement states no final decisions have been made on the content of any future legislation at this stage.