Into the glen of red tape

There are concerns that Scottish planning policy could put the brake on development and economic growth


As the referendum debate hots up in Scotland the SNP government has been criticised by CBI Scotland for not going far enough to promote sustainable economic development. Planning law and procedure is a devolved matter and the measures set out in the Scottish Planning Policy (SPP) are under review.

One of the overarching policies in the consultative draft SPP, which is the equivalent of England’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), is that in the determination of planning applications and appeals, significant weight should be attached to the “economic benefit of proposed development as a material consideration, particularly the creation of new jobs, recognising and responding to economic and financial conditions”.

The problem is that there is no definition of “sustainable economic development” and, as a matter of law, it is left to the judgement of the decision-maker (the council at first instance or a reporter on appeal) how much weight should be given to any individual consideration.

While economic benefit would be expected to be given significant weight, as things stand it would also be open to the local planning committee to attach even more significance to considerations such as the protection of the environment.

CBI Scotland has criticised the draft SPP for not going far enough to stimulate economic activity. In its consultation response it draws a comparison between the “clear strength of commitment to supporting economic growth as a priority” in the NPPF, where there is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, with the approach  in Scotland whereby economic growth is “too often just seen as a desirable consequence”.

The NPPF states that there will be a presumption in favour of sustainable development where “the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out-of-date”. The English guidance states that that presumption will only be set aside in circumstances where “any adverse impacts would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits” of the development going ahead.

So far as CBI Scotland are concerned, this is the key difference between the NPPF and the SPP and it has called on the Scottish Government to address, through the SPP review, “the risks for investment decisions in Scotland that can arise from an imbalanced policy framework at a cross-border level in the UK” by promoting the same standard of presumption in favour of sustainable development that applies in England.

The English presumption which is described in the NPPF as “the golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking” has itself been criticised by local communities for bringing about “planning by appeal” rather than in accordance with the development plan.

Given the conflicting interests, it is perhaps no coincidence that the SNP government has just announced that the period available to it to consider consultation responses will be extended by six months, until June 2014.