Delivering on our planning visions in Scotland, Dorothy McDonald

IT is widely recognised that the impacts of austerity and related budgetary and service cuts have led to a significant reduction in staff and resources within planning services.

Two years ago, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) found (here) that planning services had suffered most severely of all local government services in Scotland, due to budget cuts, with over a quarter of planning department staff cut since 2009.

The bulk of resources go to supporting measurable outputs in development management performance.

In many local authorities, the ‘Development Planning Team’ has been reduced to two or three people, even fewer in some cases, whilst the regulatory responsibilities and bureaucratic burdens around development planning processes have continued to increase, particularly as a result of the new Planning (Scotland) Act 2019.

Many planners involved in development planning have therefore become experts in managing complex and bureaucratic development planning processes rather than leading the delivery of planning visions and better places.

Despite these constraints, planning teams are expected to deliver on some of the key expectations of the Planning Review and Act, such as co-ordinating development and infrastructure, delivering more homes, improving the experience and influence of communities, leading positive change, along with strong leadership and management of skills, resources, and performance.

Could we do things better?

How do we get to a place where planning services can fulfil the pivotally important leadership and co-ordination roles expected of them?

More resources are part of the solution, but planners and planning services also need a more holistic set of tools to enable action.

One of the most important tools is leadership. In many authorities the status of planning services has been diluted to a functional service where planners are neither resourced nor empowered to act beyond a basic regulatory role.

As per the Planning Act, the appointment of a chief planning officer with a seat at the ‘top table’ within corporate local authority activities may go some way to redressing this.

There are already good examples in some authorities leading to the corporate alignment of budgets and investment, including city growth deals, aligning with ‘development planning’ and ‘action programming’.

Some highly-effective planning and regeneration activities take place in other services, typically housing, regeneration and economic development.

The further contention here is that planning should provide an effective co-ordinating role, joining up such good practice under the corporate golden thread of the visionary place ambition usually expressed within the ‘development plan’ and ‘community plan’.

On the tools of delivery, these can be both limited and sparsely-utilised within planning.

When considering the core activities of many planning authorities, as reported in their annual ‘planning performance frameworks’ and ‘action programmes’, there is often little evidence of direct interventionist implementation activities.

‘Action programmes’ can be reduced to a list of policies and land use proposals with little in the way of the mechanisms or resources for delivery.

These, the mechanism and resources, simply don’t exist. Instead, they include relatively toothless statements of how influence will be brought through development management processes and partnership working.

So, if we are serious about a delivery role for planning – and we should be if we are to achieve the aims set out in both the report by the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on economic recovery from COVID-19 and the National Planning Framework (4) position statement (here) – then we must provide the tools and resources.

These include land assembly, development briefs, master plans, and the process whereby land is consented and planning gain is negotiated. 

What is not often recognised is how limited the tools, and the skills and experience in wielding them, are.

There are good examples of practice here in Scotland, as highlighted in the paper published by the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, ‘Delivering more homes and better places’ (here), and we know of more effective delivery-orientated planning systems in near Europe; including, for example, regional planning in Germany, which could have been drawn upon further within the Planning Review.

Funding, of course, is another useful driver of actio. And planners are historically adept at accessing and manipulating a myriad of available sources, such as EU, Vacant and Derelict Land, Regeneration and Town Centre funding.

But funding can often be difficult to obtain and the funding sources fragmented. 

We could do things better by providing a more straightforward Local Development Plan (LDP) action or delivery programme fund, bringing multiple funding sources together in one place for delivering the LDP – with the further advantage of bringing together the people and skills within a team around a holistic mission to deliver the plan.

Many other potential models were discussed during the Planning Review, including potential new bodies to address land assembly, infrastructure, and regional development agencies.

Consideration of such models is gaining some momentum within city region governance bodies, and Homes England provides the UK government’s housing ‘accelerator’ body which seeks to bring the influence, expertise and resources to drive positive market change by assembling and releasing land.

Finally, there are cultural and behavioural issues to be addressed across all sectors.

The importance of partnership working and effective joint working relationships is not often explicitly recognised but remains an important aspects of successful delivery.

Key ingredients include trust, mutual respect, personal relationships and a longevity of interest. We see within local authority practices, housing forums that exhibit these characteristics, bridging between the local authority and RSLs, and this model could usefully be extended to partnership working with private sector housing delivery bodies.

So, when we ask why the high ambitions of our policies and plans struggle in delivery, it boils down to simple stuff.

If planners are involved only in preparing plans, we will not achieve the outcomes we are seeking. But if we have the leadership, the corporate ownership and the funding, resources and tools, we have a significantly better chance of delivering our place visions.

Dorothy McDonald is assistant manager at ClydePlan, the operating name for the Glasgow and Clyde Valley Strategic Development Planning Authority.

This article first appeared on the website of the Glasgow-based UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence – here, published January 20 2021, for which kind thanks.

Pictured: Waverley Court, admin HQ of The City of Edinburgh Council. Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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