On the Thursday before Christmas, Scottish ministers issued a decision letter approving the construction of a film studio and power station at Damhead in the greenbelt to the south of Edinburgh. In a brilliant circular argument, the development was deemed to be of national importance by ministers, thus justifying its incorporation into the local development plan which was then used by ministers to justify their decision.
For this development to go ahead, a smallholder whose family has enjoyed a secure tenancy for a century will have to be evicted. The landowner has no interests in the film industry and neither it appears does the applicant. This application has been about little more than land speculation.
Along with other applications determined by ministers such as the luxury housing and tennis academy outside Dunblane, which was given approval despite the opposition of the local council and of the public inquiry, local democracy is increasingly being subverted by the political interests of ministers.
Planning is meant to reflect the needs and interests of communities and provide a process for democratic decision making about how land is allocated to different uses. Yet, over the past ten years and more, planning has been increasingly framed by ministers as a service to business and investors to stimulate economic growth and as a means by which to support the vested interests of the speculative volume housebuilding industry.
A new Planning Bill is designed to strengthen local development planning, improve public engagement and provide better support for infrastructure provision. Government claims there has been a breakdown in trust in the system and I agree. The Bill seeks to facilitate greater participation and up front engagement in preparing plans and that is welcome. But it does little to rebuild trust in a process which, for too many communities remains complex, confrontational and open to abuse.
Applicants can appeal planning decisions to Scottish ministers whereas those who have to live with the consequences have no such right. How can trust be built in such a process if applicants, having seen their plans rejected, are able to go straight in the back door to seek the support of ministers in overturning democratic decisions?
There is nothing in the Bill to reform rights of appeal but there is increasing support for doing so. By abolishing much of the existing right of appeal (particularly in relation to applications that breach the local development plan) and introducing a limited right for communities to challenge those same breaches, everyone involved could invest time and effort at the beginning of the process confident that it will not be corrupted and perverted at the end.
The other key weakness of the Bill is its unquestioning embrace of a model of housebuilding that the rest of Europe has rejected. It might seem normal but the dominance of the speculative volume housebuilding industry has distorted and corrupted the planning system for decades. Nowhere else in Europe are new houses built this way. Indeed, in 1947, when the planning system was first introduced, it was designed to allow public authorities to lead the development process by acquiring land at a price reflecting its existing use.
Very quickly, however, developers saw how planning consents inflate the value of land a hundred-fold or more and lobbied to end the public right and allow landowners to capture the uplift in land values that flowed from the granting of planning permission. In 1959, they succeeded and since then, development has been driven in the main by private speculators rather than the public interest.
Given the scale of the housing crisis and the need for a wide variety of new homes for different types of households in different areas, it makes sense that local government should play the lead role in development, masterplanning and infrastructure provision as it does throughout most of the rest of Europe. By acquiring the land at its existing use value, serviced plots can then be sold at a fraction of current prices to co-operatives, individuals, housing associations and developers to create the kind of integrated, high quality places that we know are possible. So-called self-procurement of housing but those who will actually occupy it drives up standards of design and quality.
The Scottish Parliament is given the opportunity to reform the planning system once a decade. Without substantial changes, this Bill will do very little to return planning to the central role it should have in delivering places designed with people at its heart. Instead, it will perpetuate a corrupted system designed to promote the vested interests of private developers.