Debating Scotland’s future planning needs

At the beginning of this week, the Parliament held a debate on two documents setting out the framework for all planning developments in Scotland.

The National Planning Framework is a long-term strategy setting out how plans for development and investment will contribute to the Scottish Government’s objectives.  It is a statutory document that must be reviewed every five years.

The Scottish Planning Policy sets out the Government’s policies on how it expects developments to take place.

The implications of these documents are wide-ranging and, as a result, the drafts were subject to scrutiny from four of the Parliament’s committees – Local GovernmentInfrastructureRural Affairs and the Economy.

Each of the committees have produced reports with a range of recommendations for the Scottish Government to consider and it was these reports that the debate focused on. You can read my opening speech here or watch it at 38:45 in the above video.  My closing speech can be read here or watched at 2:13:05 in the video.

In my role as Scottish Labour’s Local Government and Planning spokesperson, I used my opening speech to highlight three overarching themes that emerged from the committee reports.

The first of these related to the process and timing of how these plans have been developed.  All four committees expressed concern that the 60 days set out in statute for Parliamentary scrutiny of the NPF made it difficult for external organisations to make their views known.

The timescale also meant that MSPs and, crucially, the Scottish Government Minister responsible for the proposals, did not have long to consider the detailed reports of the committees.  Sensible suggestions were made in relation to extending the time for scrutiny and ensuring that all loose ends are tied up before this scrutiny period begins.

The second area I covered relates to the NPFs inclusion of nationally significant developments.  These developments are, by virtue of their complexity, not short term issues and their inclusion in the NPF provides a long term framework to deliver them.

Issues highlighted by the committees looked at the need to improve transparency in the process of selecting which projects are included and which are not.  They also highlighted the need to ensure that subsequent NPFs pick up on their predecessors to identify progress towards previously identified projects.

A key concern highlighted by organisations that contacted me ahead of the debate was that some issues which were identified at earlier stages of consultation were completely absent from the draft NPF document – without any explanation.  On a more general theme, concern was also highlighted about a lack of linkage from the NPF to other strategic documents such as the Report on Proposals and Policies to tackle climate change.  The planning system can make a significant contribution to achieving a whole host of Scottish Government aims and it is disappointing that the NPF does not make more explicit reference to other Government strategies.

The final area I considered in my speech was the evidence suggesting that there are areas of the NPF which require more work to strengthen the document.  For example, on the issue of development on Scotland’s wild landscapes, there is confusion on both sides of the argument from the renewables sector and from those who believe such development can be damaging about what the NPF3 will mean in practice.

My view is that what we currently have is a bit of a dog’s breakfast.   Not only is there great uncertainty about the guidance on wind developments there’s a complete lack of clarity on the issue of community renewables projects.  Having followed the issue from the first days of the Parliament both sides need clear guidance on mitigation and landscaping issues so that developers are clear about what’s expected of them and that communities are not dragged through what seem like an endless planning process without clear resolution.

On the specific issue of the proximity of wind farm developments to communities, research is still ongoing and the evidence was therefore not available for scrutiny.  Such work must surely be completed before effective scrutiny can take place.

Similarly, on fracking and unconventional gas, despite previous debates there is still a sense that there is not a coherent approach from Government to reassure communities.   Applications are ongoing now and its vital that the final SPP sets the right policy framework to assist local authorities and communities.

What is clear from the overall picture that emerged from the committee reports is that significant work is still required to ensure that the NPF and SPP deliver the potential opportunities they present for Scotland.  Given the long-view of these documents, it is vital that the process is robust so that the right way forward is found.

I made the point to the Minister that the timeframe for our debate was unacceptably short as I could not see how committee members who had presented important recommendations to the Parliament on both the process and content could properly consider the range of points made by the other committees.   Given the challenge of creating a low-carbon economy and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions we need joined up thinking both by parliamentarians and by the Scottish Government.