15 January 2013

S4M-05358 Planning Reform

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05358, in the name of Derek Mackay, on planning reform, next steps.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I welcome the addition to the funding that is available to increase young people’s involvement in the planning system, to which Jamie Hepburn made some substantial reference. I have seen youngsters from the age of eight take part in planning for real exercises in my constituency. Such exercises are a limited way in which a much wider range of people than is normally the case can participate meaningfully in strategic planning.

I also welcome the planned work on charrettes. As a minister, I participated in a charrette in Aberdeen a few years ago. Charrettes are an example of an excellent approach, which I understand that Willie Coffey will speak about later. They open the door to the involvement of a wider range of people in local development. Whatever we are doing in relation to the continual evolution of the planning system at a strategic and a specific level, if we can find new ways of getting people meaningfully involved at the right time, that will be good.

That draws the contrast between the difficulty of engaging the general public in strategic planning and the energy that is brought to decisions that are local in their scope. Mark Griffin raised that issue and illustrated the difficulty. He perhaps failed to take on board the role that we elected members can play in examining strategic plans of whatever nature and identifying and taking forward issues that are of relevance to the people whom we represent.

To rely on advertisements in papers or elsewhere will not be sufficient. When there is local discontent that is focused on a local proposal, the essence of that discontent often hangs on the strategic framework within which the proposal has been brought forward, which is often little consulted on and little understood. A key part of what we should do is deconstruct the barriers to engagement and strategic planning, because that will lead to improved local decision making.

The minister referred to the planning professionals who are at the heart of the system; the enthusiasm of young planners, in particular, is to be commended. Many of the planning proposals that cause greatest difficulty do so because of the approach of the applicant rather than because of the response of the planners. In an intervention, Sarah Boyack indicated that she seemed to think that all the delays are down to the planning system and Government departments, but the reality—developers acknowledge this—is that inadequate applications are often the source of what is seen to be an inadequate planning response. Therefore, I hope that the planning system will continue to engage with developers to assist them to make their contribution to the planning system substantially better—in other words, to help them to raise their game.

I look forward greatly to NPF 3. I am much encouraged by the substantial environmental focus, especially the linkage with addressing climate change, which is a critical subject. As a minister, I brought forward NPF 2, which prioritised the central Scotland green network. Yesterday, I was delighted to hear reference to that network during a visit to Cumbernauld on a regeneration exercise as part of the Local Government and Regeneration Committee’s work.

In talking about fracking, the Labour amendment focuses on an issue that many local communities will get involved in, but it merely illustrates perfectly—I welcome its doing so—the limitations of this Parliament’s powers and the difficulties that that creates. I am always willing to hear of a recruit to the argument for greater powers for this place in relation to fracking.

I welcome the concerns that have been expressed about enforcement mechanisms. Few of us will not have been approached by constituents about perceived imperfections in the enforcement process. I welcome the idea that we can do more on that.

The publication of numbers on the performance of different local authorities can be particularly interesting. The Government publishes such figures. Looking at the performance of the local authority that forms the majority of my constituency, I see that on local developments—the number is big enough for the percentage to be meaningful—the average time that is taken for a decision is 50 per cent higher than the Scottish average. In Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen City, the level of planning applications has continued at the level that existed before the economic crunch. Given that there has been a reduction in the number of planning applications across Scotland, it is disappointing that there has not been an improvement in the performance of the planning system, which is what we would expect when the resource is there but the number of applications reduces. I hope that councils are not taking the opportunity to deprioritise planning, because it remains a vital spring for sustainable economic growth. It matters—often in a very small degree—to householders who want to make changes that do not fall within permitted development rights, as well as to big local and international developers.

I was delighted to hear from the minister about the substantial progress that is being made, and I am delighted that the challenge that remains is being engaged with.

I have a family connection to planning. My great-uncle, Alexander Stevenson, chaired the first Scottish meeting of the Royal Town Planning Institute in the late 1920s, and I am delighted to continue to have some involvement in the issue.

The minister referred to pace and pragmatism, which should be the watchwords for the issue. I look forward to supporting the Government’s motion at decision time.


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