UK: Government Guidance - Significant Changes As A Further Part Of "Culture Change"

Last Updated: 1 June 2009
Article by Murray Shaw

Introduction

The Scottish Government have signalled a clear intention to try and change the approach to planning in Scotland as well as the legislative framework.

At the Planning Summit held last year they revealed new guidance entitled "Scottish Planning Policy". This replaced SPP1 which provided guidance to the operation of the planning system (see Planning Reform – Some Practical Changes).

At the Planning Summit they indicated an intention to come out with further guidance essentially replacing all existing SPPs and NPGs with one consolidated document. The draft of this appeared at the beginning of April and there is now a consultation period until 24 June.

The Scottish Planning Policy Document

The document is simply entitled "Scottish Planning Policy" and it is, in effect, a continuation from the document which appeared last year, both in philosophy and physically (the paragraph numbers follow on in a sequential order).

There has been considerable consolidation because some 17 lengthy documents (most of the existing SPPs and NPPGs) are consolidated into one document of some 37 pages (or 155 paragraphs or so). This is a remarkable achievement. Only time will tell whether it is in fact an effective change though there was criticism from many to the effect that in reality it is possible to find some semblance of justification for most proposals given the number of lengthy documents which existed.

The draft confirms that two existing documents are not being replaced, namely NPPG 12 on Ski-ing Developments and SPP20 concerning the role of Architecture & Design Scotland. This latter document is simply being abandoned because it was not really a policy document.

The draft makes clear that the document SPP comprising two parts (i.e. the first part which appeared in October of last year and the final version of the current draft) should be read as a whole and not independently.

The draft also identifies where there are significant changes. In truth they are few and far between and in reality this is substantially a consolidation document.

The first section of this draft deals with community engagement – that in itself is interesting as it seems to be intended to reinforce the importance of Scottish Government wishes to place upon this process. However the relevant paragraph simply confirms, briefly, the benefits that the Government sees as emerging from community engagement. It gives no further guidance on how community engagement should be carried out and it appears likely that such guidance will need to be given shortly.

There then follows a section on sustainable development followed by what are entitled "Subject Policies" dealing with a diversity of subjects including economic development, town centres and retailing, housing, green belts, renewable energy and a range of other subjects which were previously covered off in the "stand alone" SPPs.

The draft contains no glossary (or definitions) section which seems slightly surprising. It will be interesting to see whether this remains the same when the final version emerges.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the deliberate intention to reduce the amount of guidance available, the draft does take a different approach in comparison to the guidance it replaces. For example, in relation to town centres which were previously the subject of guidance in SPP8, the sequential approach is maintained with a hierarchy of town centre, edge of town centre and other commercial centres identified in the Development Plan all being preferable to out of centre locations. There is, however, no explanation (which is different from the existing guidance) as to how these might be defined. It will be interesting to see whether that causes more scope for argument or debate going forward.

While primarily we are dealing with consolidation here, there are changes of emphasis which can be noticed. For example, in SPP8 (the existing guidance) paragraph 15 states "planning authorities and developers should adopt a sequential approach to selecting sites for all retail and commercial uses". There has been debate about what was meant by "commercial uses". The new guidance states (see paragraph 47) that the sequential approach "should be used when selecting locations for all retail and commercial leisure uses". That is more precise.

It seems likely, going forward, that comparison between the current guidance and the new (once formally adopted) is unlikely to be productive in general terms. However, to the extent there are such changes of emphasis then Development Plans will need to pick up on this.

This document will continue to be underpinned by a range of Planning Advice Notes (PANs) and it appears likely that the Government will continue to release those, albeit the general intention is to scale back the amount of planning advice issued by the Government. It seems inevitable that given the consolidation which will occur if the final version is similar to the draft, Planning Advice Notes will need to give more proactive practical guidance.

What is not entirely clear is how frequently the SPP will be updated. Clearly it is important that guidance is kept up to date. Will the Scottish Government issue a revised version of the SPP where an appropriate change is required in relation to one subject policy, or will they hold back all changes to make them on say a once a year basis?

Conclusion

In reality it is likely that the significance of this document will only become clear when you are applying it in relation to a specific development proposal. Certainly on first reading it is a user friendly document and has the feeling of something that is much more precise and easier to apply than the documents we had previously. In the context of a planning inquiry there will be a significant reduction in the amount of copying required – a welcome step in itself!

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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