2007 - 2020

Can we Restore Civic Consciousness and Public Enterprise?

Grödians-Social-Housing-Development-Richard-Gibson-Architects-5-537x357The period for submitting written evidence to the Scottish Government’s review of the planning system ends this week.

The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government for 2015-16 announced a Review of the Scottish Planning System to identify “the scope for further reform with a focus on delivering a quicker, more accessible and efficient planning process, in particular increasing delivery of high quality housing developments.”

In mid-September, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice and Communities, Alex Neil, announced that review would be undertaken by a three person panel chaired by Crawford Beveridge, the other members being Petra Biberbach of Planning Aid Scotland (PAS) and John Hamilton of the Scottish Property Federation. The omission of any qualified planner from the panel ruffled the feathers of the profession in Scotland.

The remit of the review is broader than initially announced, focusing on 6 key issues:

  • development planning;
  • housing delivery;
  • planning for infrastructure;
  • further improvements to development management;
  • leadership, resourcing and skills; and
  • community engagement.

However, the suspicion remains that the primary purpose of the review is to ease the regulatory burden on volume house builders.

Leadership and Resources

Not listed first in the panel’s remit, but of crucial importance, is the question of leadership and resources. If we are to get the best from our planning system, the Scottish Government needs to set out a vision for future development which is inspiring and empowering rather than simply sticking with the narrow and increasingly tired narrative on speedy and efficient delivery.

The challenges we face around delivering development are frequently attributed to deficiencies in the planning system, but to rely solely on that explanation is to take far too narrow a view. Technical fixes alone will not provide a solution. We need a broader revival of civic consciousness and public enterprise and that means culture change.

We have lost the civic vision which informed and inspired burgh development in previous generations and new development in our towns and cities is too often seen in narrow commercial terms. Since the financial crisis in 2008, public policy has, understandably, been strongly focused on the delivery of development as a means of promoting economic recovery. We should now be looking to move beyond that to a broader perspective on development and urban renewal, one which embraces not only its economic and commercial benefits, but also its importance in social and cultural terms. Consensus can only be built if there is a vision people can buy into. Scottish Ministers should be giving a lead by promoting a revival of civic consciousness.

There is widespread concern that cuts in public expenditure are reducing the capacity of local authorities to lead, innovate and initiate projects in the public realm and depriving planning authorities of the expertise they need to assess development proposals with implications for the historic or natural environment. The planning service as asked to deliver on a wide range of public interest agendas. It needs to be adequately resourced if we are to achieve our aspirations for new development in terms of scale, quality, social well-being and climate change targets. An increase in planning fees could certainly make a contribution towards that.

Community Empowerment

There is abundant evidence of community spirit and a desire to be active in making our towns and cities more socially and environmentally rewarding places. We see that in the demand for allotments, the proliferation of community festivals, markets and orchards, phenomena such as urban gardening, and the growing interest in community ownership of a wide range of public assets. Some elected representatives see civic activism as a threat to their authority and officialdom finds it difficult to engage with it in a positive way. Sometimes local authority responses to attempts to develop the potential of community assets can be very negative. But I suspect that resource constraints and community expectations will drive things in a more enlightened and positive direction. Planning authorities and their officials need to get better at working in partnership with communities to realise the economic, social and cultural potential of local assets. Confidence will grow with experience.

It is high time we repudiated the outdated corporate model of community planning imposed by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 2003 and replaced it with one which is genuinely focused on communities and reflects the community empowerment agenda. The efforts to improve links and communication between spatial and community planning are to be welcomed, but if we see the challenge solely in these terms we are in danger of simply making planners more complicit in a top-down and technocratic approach to community development which falls short of contemporary needs.

Housing Delivery

The questions about housing delivery posed by the review reflect the perspective of volume housebuilders and appear to assume the continuation of a private-sector led model which has been failing to deliver since the crash of 2008. That model cannot meet the social aspirations which animated public debate during and after the independence referendum. The public sector should play a more active and assertive role in the delivery of strategically important development and place-making, as it does widely on the Continent. It should be prepared to intervene in the land market to assemble the sites required and then provide the necessary supporting infrastructure, funding the process from the uplift in land values.

Underpinning the current review is the familiar neoliberal narrative of creative and dynamic private enterprise held back by the bureaucracy and inefficiency of the public sector. The economist Mariana Mazzucato has very effectively debunked that narrative in her book ‘The Entrepreneurial State’, and the Scottish Government has been enlightened enough to appoint her to its Council of Economic Advisers. Let us hope the current review will lead to a reinvigorated planning system empowered to play an important role in building the constructive partnership between public and private sectors which is essential to a successful social democracy.

The review panel is expected to submit its report to Scottish Ministers in March.

Comments (6)

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  1. Paul says:

    The issues over housing supply have very little to do with the planning system IMO. I suspect that the downturn in building has more to do with the demand side of the equation, in that demand for the house builders products has declined because the product is now unaffordable or too risky over the long term for many first time buyers and those on average incomes. Added to this is the concentration of land ownership in the hands of the few which the planning system protects. Much more fundamental change is needed, including the introduction of Land Value Taxation as a start coupled with increased community empowerment and crucially- resourcing with finance, skills and access to assets, particularly land.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      The downturn in development activity resulted from the drying up of previous sources of finance. We no longer have Scottish banks.

  2. John B Dick says:

    I agree with Paul.

    A rushed adoption of a predictable response from any vested interest – even if I thought it was a good idea – is not what is required. What is needed is a Systems Thinking approach extending into such things as LVT and land ownership for a wider reaching evaluation of all the problems and opportunities, not just a sticking plaster solution for one aspect.

    Partial solutions are not good enough unless part of a staged plan.

    Is it not the case that the gretest benefit of the Union has been the neglect of 20% of the UK landmass, which is rural Scotland leaving the opportunity for development to this generation which we can hope might undertake development more responsibly, sustainably and in an integrated way?

  3. Lynn says:

    As a newcomer to the planning system, I am surprised at the lack of public consultation required for major infrastructure projects. I have been advised (more than once) that as a huge local project appeared in the National Planning Framework, the community will have an uphill battle to stop it – even though the planning application hadn’t even been submitted at that point!

    What public consultation is required before projects are accepted into the NPF (genuine question)? I ask as no locals I know were involved – and I have asked a lot of people.

    Also, for a multimillion pound project, why are the required methods of public engagement so dated/limited – newspaper adverts, occasional mention on local commercial radio, but no use of social media or even a local leaflet drop. Developers also dragging their heels on arranging a public meeting so that the risks. benefits and impacts could at least be fully debated.

    The Environmental Impact Assessment ALONE for this development consists of FOUR VOLUMES and WEIGHS 25kg! Yet locals are expected to read this and make cogent comments/objections within 42 days (consultation also coincides with the run up to Christmas – very poor public engagement practice indeed).

    Something with this process is badly broken – however I live in hope that better minds than mine can come up with solutions so that local communities feel truly involved with major planning decisions that will permanently affect their lives rather than consultation being viewed as a “tick box” exercise.

  4. john young says:

    Get the cost of renting/buying down to really affordable amounts thereby alleviating the burden on most and freeing up some real money,how can it be done I don,t have a clue but we are exploring moving to Mars next ffs it can,t be beyond our ken.

  5. Penny says:

    Landownership in Scotland is highly concentrated (held by few) and in units that are very large. Ownership is opaque. As a result, the supply of land in the ‘right place’ that is available for purchase at any given time is quite small. Builders find most of their profit in the appreciation of the value of the land on which they build. Roughly 70% of the purchase price is attributed to the ‘cost of the land’ (that is the valuation placed on the land at the time of building..not what the builder paid). Since warehousing land (just buying and holding land) is costless, land within and at the margin of cities and town is owned until its value rises sufficiently to warrant building and so forth. This implies that, on average, a house selling for £150,000 cost no more that £45,000 to build including profit on materials costs and wages. The rest is ‘return’ on land ownership.

    The reason the quality of new build housing is so poor is the lack of inspection; standards for energy efficiency are high and builders are supposed to build to those specifications. But if they a in a hurry..well sometimes they forget to put in the insulation, etc. Other standards are very low, including basic amenities such as size of rooms, height of ceilings, storage space and so forth.

    Finance has little to do with this. Politics has a great deal to do with it. In Scotland the best way to remove the constraints on quality housing is action to institute reforms in ownership and control of land including make ownership transparent, formulating public use doctrines which creates incentives for land sales to coops, councils and other types of public bodies and a corps of house inspectors who make sure what is built is built to high specifications.

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