It is no exaggeration to say that planning policy has the power to dictate the type of Scotland that we will inhabit years from now. But it is an area of government that often lives in the political shadow of the big portfolio areas of health, education and justice.
The planning system provides the basis for where, how and what we build in Scotland. From the availability of new and affordable housing, or a fit for purpose transport infrastructure, to the location and scale of renewable projects – all must be balanced against the needs and wants of local communities.
Planning policy goes far beyond the narrow stereotype of seeking permission to build a conservatory! A modern and robust planning policy must be rooted in environmental considerations as a driver for sustainable development.
Just last month the Scottish Government laid the long awaited draft National Planning Framework (NPF 4) before Parliament. With all the comings and goings in politics of late you can be forgiven for missing what could potentially be a ‘game changer’ for how planning policy is delivered here in Scotland.
NFP4, for the first time, creates a clear link between renewable energy projects and their critical role in transitioning Scotland away from its historic reliance on fossil fuels to a new, greener future. However, words alone will not deliver a greener future.
Local planning authorities need certainty that the framework does indeed give them powers to reshape Scotland’s places in the manner intended. That certainty also needs to extend to developers (and their investors) who need to believe their projects will make it through the planning system in a timely manner.
Confidence and belief are all well and good but without appropriate resource, planning change won’t happen. Unfortunately, in many areas, planning departments are coming apart at the seams due to years of budget cuts and under-resourcing. This drives up determination times while older and hugely experienced planners retiring from their posts are sometimes not replaced, with the loss of valuable expertise. Anyone who has taken a project through planning will have seen this first-hand. Further evidence was published by Skills Development Scotland last year which estimates that Scotland needs up to 700 new planners over the next 10-15 years.
As the NPF4 continues its journey through Parliament, it will be interesting to see what comes out the other side.
Whatever it is, it is set to have a profound impact on Scotland’s future.