Mediation, 'Agent of Change' and no equal right of appeal: 5 conclusions from the passage of the #PlanningBill

After a week of often emotive debate, the Planning Bill has now passed – what are the major consequences?

THE most amended bill in the history of the Scottish Parliament has now been passed, by 78 to 26.

The Planning Bill, argued SNP MSP and local government committee convener James Dornan during the final moments of today’s debate in Holyrood, considered 394 amendments over seven sessions at stage 2, and emerged as a “rather different beast” from how it first appeared. Nevertheless, he concluded that the reforms contained within the legislation would create an effective planning system that would both strengthen and simplify planning in Scotland.

Many opposition politicians took a different view. Green MSP Andy Wightman argued that powerful and well-financed private interests had corrupted the public interest. Labour MSP Alex Rowley described the bill as a “missed opportunity”, while Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton condemned it simply as “bad legislation.”

Nevertheless, after a week of debate both within the parliament and amongst the many sectors and organisations that will be affected by its influence henceforth, the final form of the Planning Bill has been successful. What succeeded, what failed, and what are the main conclusions we can draw?  

Mediation

Scottish Conservative MSP Graham Simpson successfully lodged an amendment introducing ‘mediation’ to the Scottish planning system. The idea behind this is that developers could discuss with members of the public any concerns local communities have about potential developments.

Simpson has argued that this amendment could present a solution to “the vexed question of people being cut out of the planning system”, saying: “We have a system where applicants of larger developments hold meaningless, poorly advertised and poorly attended so-called community meetings ahead of putting in applications. I thought, there must be a better way – something that’s part of the process and not a fight at the very end of it.

“I want to see changes that put people – real people, not stakeholders, not the vested interests – but real people at the heart of the planning system. I believe that mediation – and we have to work out the details of that through consultation – will achieve just that.”

However, the campaign group Planning Democracy, which has lobbied hard in favour of greater community empowerment in the planning process, argued in response to Simpson’s amendment: “We acknowledge a place for mediation in planning in certain appropriate circumstances, however mediation has been put forward as the latest sweetener for communities to coat the bitter pill that is a planning bill that has nothing to offer in terms of citizen empowerment.

“Had this amendment been put forward as part of a wider suite of amendments that acknowledged community rights in planning we would be supportive. However, it is being put forward as part of a system of planning that affords communities no rights and no status, therefore in the circumstances we remain sceptical that it will be used appropriately.”

 ‘Agent of Change’

Another success – superficially minor, but potentially with far-reaching consequences – is the successful passage of a Labour amendment enshrining the ‘agent of change’ principle into Scottish planning law, which requires developers moving into areas containing music venues to pay for any soundproofing required.

This redresses issues over the current system, where the cost of mitigating noise deemed excessive falls on the premises from which it originated – even if the premises had been in business before new housing or business developments were constructed.

The impact of this will be particularly felt in cities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow, where music venues are especially numerous.

Mark Davyd, founder and CEO of Music Venue Trust, commented: “We are delighted that members of the Scottish Parliament have chosen to specifically mention live music venues in the Planning Scotland Bill.

“This significantly rebalances the planning process between developers and venues and provides clear guidance to local authorities and planning officers that live music venues must be protected in our towns and cities.”

Short-term lets

Arguably the most controversial result of the feverish debate surrounding the Planning Bill has been the Scottish Parliament’s vote to amend Green MSP Andy Wightman’s proposals to regulate the short-term lets sector.

The spectacle of the SNP joining with the Tories to back Conservative MSP Rachael Hamilton’s amendment to introduce regulation only in specified ‘control areas’, as opposed to nationwide, has already been condemned as a “wrecking” operation by those opposed to it.

Housing minister Kevin Stewart’s appeal that concerns over the effect of a sector dominated by AirBNB must be balanced against the “economic benefits of the tourism industry” has not lessened the frustration of those who backed Wightman’s plans, particularly after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged to address the influence of short-term lets at the SNP’s Spring conference earlier this year.

Right of appeal

Another keenly felt disappointment amongst the Greens was the defeat of an amendment that would have ensured an equal or third party right of appeal, which its backers argue would have given communities a say equal to that of developers, and levelled an unequal field of influence in Scottish planning.

This proposal was met with vociferous opposition by Scottish Land & Estates, which warned that such a reform would negatively impact rural communities by creating barriers to the employment and economic opportunities such developments might bring.

The SNP have blocked Green attempts to introduce an equal right of appeal before, most recently in November 2018. Speaking at the time, Andy Wightman responded: “Planning is meant to reflect the needs and interests of communities and provide a process for democratic decision making about how land is allocated to different uses.”

Wightman said that the "system has been besmirched by a lack of parity”. For the moment at least, that lack of parity looks set to continue.

What now?

While the Planning Bill has passed, the issues which elicited the most passion in Holyrood’s chamber – and in many cases led to some bitter defeats – will in all likelihood not retreat from the political discourse. In particular, the effect of short-term lets upon Scotland’s urban environments and housing crisis will not go away until they are addressed. If the Planning Bill will not address that, then advocates of reform such as Andy Wightman will almost certainly pursue solutions through different and perhaps more radical legislative means.

If those salves offered to communities demanding greater citizen empowerment are not sufficient, and an imbalance of power and influence continues between developers and ordinary residents without vested interests on their side, then those amendments contained within the Planning Bill presented as solutions may turn out to be stop-gap at best.

We have seen a week of debate – now, Scottish politics should prepare itself for months and potentially years more to come.

Picture courtesy of Hamish Irvine

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