For a small country, Scotland is regionally diverse, and it has a strong tradition of planning at the regional level dating back to the 1940s. Under Tom Johnston, Scotland’s wartime administration initiated the preparation of three major regional plans covering the most populous parts of the country to guide post-war reconstruction. The regional planning tradition established at that time has persisted through successive reforms of local government under Governments of different political complexions, with a particularly strong strand of continuity in Glasgow and the Clyde Valley. From the 1970s, and for a period of more than 30 years, the statutory vehicle for strategic planning at the regional level was the structure plan. Since 2006 it has been the strategic development plan.

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The Scottish Government’s consultation on the future of the planning system, Places, People and Planning proposes that strategic development plans should be removed from the system, with regional planning priorities henceforward set out in the National Planning Framework (NPF). The current review of the planning system was initiated in 2015 by the then Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice and Communities, Alex Neil. The initial questions posed by the review reflected the familiar neoliberal narrative of creative and dynamic private enterprise held back by the bureaucracy and inefficiency of the public sector and suspicion remains that it was initially driven by a desire to ease the regulatory burden on volume housebuilders. The abolition of regional development plans is something a number of major housebuilders have been calling for, though without any very clear rationale. Disappointingly, the Scottish Government seems ready to oblige.

The reason the Scottish Government gives for proposing the removal of strategic development plans is that the effort put into the procedures for preparing them leaves little time to work actively on delivering them. If that is the concern, then a more obvious solution would be to adopt the approach proposed for local development plans and review them every 10 instead of 5 years. The main reason that strategic development plans have tended to lose momentum in recent years is that the regional strategies which had been worked out on their first or second iteration remained substantially valid, but the planners who created them have found themselves locked into a statutory process of review when their time would have been better spent on delivery.

The Government’s consultation paper recognises the importance of co-ordinating development and infrastructure at the regional level and proposes that planners should continue to work together at the regional scale to help shape spatial priorities and develop strategies and delivery programmes. However, it is unsatisfactorily vague about how strategic priorities are to be determined at regional level and how spatial strategies for the regions are to be prepared and agreed. The consultation paper refers to strategic planners “helping to shape” regional spatial priorities (para. 1.11) and local authorities “helping to develop” regional strategies (para.1.13). The use of the word “helping” seems to hint that regional priorities and the content of regional strategies might ultimately be decided elsewhere, particularly as they are to be articulated in the National Planning Framework. Is the Government hinting that regional priorities and strategies are ultimately to be determined by Ministers at national level, with the role of regional planners being no more than delivering on the strategies set out in the NPF?

It needs to be acknowledged that the one-size-fits-all approach of the city region model of strategic planning ushered in by the 2006 Act failed to reflect Scotland’s geographical diversity. Not all of Scotland’s diverse regions are focused on cities. The consultation paper’s proposals for partnerships which reflect regional geographies could offer opportunities for Ayrshire, the Highlands and Islands and the South of Scotland in particular. The opportunity to rationalise boundaries for spatial, transport and land use planning should certainly be taken. However, if this is not to be another exercise in centralisation, the Government needs to think more carefully about how policy-making capacity and agency are to be retained and strengthened at the regional level.

The National Planning Framework has been a valuable innovation, setting out a long-term vision and identifying developments of national importance. However, we should be wary of the assumption that we will make it more effective by loading more and more onto it. There is a danger that charging it with responsibility for setting not just national but also regional priorities could have rather the opposite effect, making the NPF unwieldy and top-heavy, and at risk of collapsing under its own weight. The fate of the regional tier of government in England should be instructive. Its association with what was seen as a remote and bureaucratic approach to strategic housing land allocation played an important part in its demise. A top-heavy and over-bearing NPF would quickly fall out of favour.

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Scotland has an important regional dimension which needs to be reflected properly in our planning system and strategic housing land allocation is one of the key functions which needs to be discharged at regional level. Central government lacks the knowledge and capacity to undertake that task successfully and the political tensions which would be created by pursuing that course could seriously undermine delivery. Disowning the implications strategic decisions on housing taken centrally would prove an attractive way for politicians to gain local popularity.

Instead of centralising strategic capacity at national level, we should be celebrating Scotland’s regional diversity and ensuring that our regions have the agency to play to their strengths. That the Scottish Government recognises the sense of that is at least implied by the policy initiatives it is pursuing in relation to the island authorities and a new enterprise and skills agency for the South of Scotland. It needs to apply the same thinking to the reform of the planning system. In the more populous parts of the country, we need to nurture the role of our cities as the economic and cultural capitals of their respective regions. We need to make closer links between strategic planning and cities policy, with strategic development plans accorded a key role in the delivery of city deals. We should be very wary of turning our backs on a tradition of regional agency in strategic planning which has served Scotland well for over seventy years.

The Scottish Government’s consultation on the future of the planning system runs until 4th April 2017.