The most sweeping reform of Scotland’s planning laws for three generations will see people given more say, and sooner, about new developments in their neighbourhoods. But the downside is they will be denied all rights to object to the biggest national projects and, on other major applications, will be denied the final appeal permitted to developers.
The environmental lobby lost every vote yesterday, the day after a failed attempt to ensure at least the Scottish Executive’s National Planning Framework would be subject to an inquiry process.
MSPs heavily voted through the Planning Bill, rejecting all opposition amendments, although it sometimes took Tory votes to make the executive position secure.
Communities Minister Malcolm Chisholm said: “It heralds the start of a new era where communities will be involved from the start in shaping their futures. It will bring in a much more efficient planning system to support the economy and help it grow in a sustainable way.
“These reforms will encourage engagement and openness; not confrontation or imposition. We still have a long way to go to bring about the much broader cultural change in planning we are all seeking.”
However, Duncan McLaren, of Friends of the Earth, said: “The decision to reject new rights for third parties is bad news for communities and bad news for the environment.
“It remains fundamentally unfair that developers will be able to seek the review of unsuccessful planning applications while communities threatened by bad developments will be barred from appealing contentious approvals.”
The reforms mean if an individual wants to make minor changes to a home, they may not even have to ask for planning permission. If a supermarket or housing development is planned, local residents should be consulted better and earlier.
But if they object to a major development, such as a shopping centre or industrial estate, then even if the local authority has a vested interest in the development, individuals may not have a right of appeal.
If the executive agrees it is a strategic national priority to build a dual-carriageway, an airport runway, power station, or major waste-disposal facility, there may be very little say once ministers push it through with their majority in parliament.
That is precisely what happened yesterday as Labour and the Liberal Democrats used their Holyrood majority to secure the reforms. A final appeal for objectors, to match that accorded to developers, was at the heart of yesterday’s debate.
A full “third-party right of appeal” was pushed by Greens and Socialists and was thumped by a majority of two to one. An appeal for limited circumstances where a proposal breached a local plan, failed environmental tests, or involved a conflict of interests by the local authority, was advocated by the SNP, but it was also defeated.
Jim Mather, the SNP’s enterprise spokesman, arrived just in time to miss that tranche of votes, attracting jeering in the chamber and accusations for the rest of the day, including remarks by Jack McConnell at First Minister’s questions, that this proved the SNP’s anti-business credentials.
There was also a compromise suggested by Labour back benchers Jackie Baillie, Pauline McNeill and Sarah Boyack which would have brought in a “community right of notification” ““ a much lower threshold than full third-party right of appeal. This conciliatory measure was rejected 74-45.
Ms Baillie spoke of her disappointment afterwards that the Tories had voted with ministers against her compromise which she had described as “not third-party right of appeal by the back-door” but a genuine measure to avoid communities losing the opportunity for their voice to be heard.
She gave the example of a proposed supermarket development at Helensburgh in her own constituency. It was on land partly owned by the council and on a major amenity site, but it required 700 letters to persuade central government to call it in and it was then refused after an inquiry.
“Under the old laws, the developers faced years of indecision and that cannot be right but, under the new laws, only those 700 letters from articulate local people would have forced ministers to call it in,” she said.
“Our proposal today on community right of notification would have ensured all communities could have controversial proposals referred to ministers.”
Other attempts were made to soften the impact of the bill, with LibDem back bencher Donald Gorrie stressing the need for some appeal in cases where local authorities had a vested interest in projects they had approved.
Dennis Canavan suggested the additional safeguards and appeal measures be passed but left in abeyance to be invoked in future by ministers only if their hoped for improvement in initial planning consultation did not work.
Johann Lamont, the Deputy Communities Minister, who saw through yesterday’s votes before moving to the justice department, told MSPs there was an ongoing argument about the imbalance between applicants and the communities affected.
“What we’re doing in this legislation is that we’ve brought together a strong package shaped by the committee which reflects the balance that everyone is seeking. Our proposals focus on securing meaningful community engagement at the front end of the process in development planning.”
Two separate bids to have the bill include powers to resolve high-hedge disputes were rejected. Conservative communities spokesman Dave Petrie tabled an amendment which would have seen the legislation include provision for local agreements between neighbours.
Mr Petrie said he feared the matter would drag on indefinitely and claimed the problem fitted in with the bill but his amendment was defeated 94-17, with eight abstentions.
Ms Lamont explained that Labour’s Scott Barrie, a long-term campaigner on the issue, was consulting for a separate parliamentary bill to tackle the problem. She said the amendments were similar to laws in England and that it was a nuisance and not a planning issue.
By Robbie Dinwoodie
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