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Planning Bill

UNISON Scotland's evidence to the Communities Committee on the Planning (Scotland) Bill

March 2006


UNISON is Scotland's largest trade union representing over 150,000 members working primarily in the public sector. We are the largest trade union in local government and represent local authority planning staff. Other members have a direct interest in the system such as infrastructure providers in water and energy as well as a wider citizenship interest in promoting economic development and protecting the environment

UNISON Scotland broadly welcomes the proposals in the Planning Bill. Our detailed approach to planning reform is set out in our submission to the original consultation. This can be viewed on our website (http://www.unison-scotland.org.uk/response/plandev.html).

Planning Framework

UNSON Scotland broadly supports the proposed hierarchy of planning.

Further clarification is needed on how applications will be classified under this system to avoid the centralisation of planning and a loss of local participation. Even strategic national developments have local implications. There is also a need for a clearer criterion for calling in major developments. It is not the role of the Scottish Executive to ‘supervise' decisions taken by democratically elected councils except when the authority has a significant vested interest. We are concerned over the centralisation of planning as highlighted in the financial memorandum to the Bill.

The National Planning Framework has to be about more than land use. It must incorporate wider public policy issues and reflect the need for long term development - beyond the normal political time scales.

We welcome parliamentary consideration of the National Planning Framework. However, we are concerned over the absence of detail on how parliamentary scrutiny will be undertaken on the National Planning Framework. It is essential that proposals be robustly tested given the implications for local communities. There should be clear statutory procedures for the involvement of local planning authorities.

Development Plans

UNISON Scotland welcomes the primacy given to development plans in the Bill. We also support the statutory requirement to update development plans to a fixed timescale. However, this and many other aspects of the Bill will be meaningless unless planning departments are properly resourced.

We support Strategic Development Planning Authorities as a good example of local authorities working as public service networks. Whilst we recognise the need for powers of direction, these should only be used in extremis. It would be entirely inappropriate for ministers to name individual officers as such appointments are a matter for their employer, the local authority.

Simpler plans and model policies are also welcome although these should still enable plans to reflect local needs and aspirations and not impose a ‘one size fits all' approach across Scotland. They must be flexible and more clearly link in with community planning and other local policies. It has to be recognised that simpler plans may create more scope for conflict and involve planners in significant workload.

The arrangements for the examination of a local development plan grant powers to an appointed person (Civil Servant) over the decisions of a democratically elected local authority are a matter of concern. Examination powers should be restricted to a check on the consultation process, other procedural matters and those aspects of the plan in which the local authority has a financial interest.

Development Management

UNISON Scotland welcomes the strengthening of development management arrangements in the Bill.

UNISON Scotland supports the Bill's aims of widening public involvement at an earlier stage in the process without the introduction of Third Party Right of Appeal (TPRA).

Equality of access will only be achieved if scrutiny is properly resourced. This includes the role of community councils. It has to be recognised that development plans, particularly simplified versions, will always be viewed as more abstract than specific developments.

We welcome the provisions for schemes of delegation and new appeal arrangements including local review of local developments. Schemes of delegation are already widely used with just under 80% of planning applications determined in this way. Whilst promoting best practice is desirable we would not support a standard scheme that might not suit individual local authorities. Local government officers and members are experienced in managing any potential conflict. In addition we would urge a more radical step to limit the right of appeal to un-elected Reporters of decisions taken by elected local authorities.

We agree that more householder developments could be covered by permitted developments and excluded from the requirement for planning permission. However, it has to be recognised that many of these issues are the cause of neighbour disputes and inappropriate deregulation could cause problems for other agencies.

We also support the strengthening of enforcement powers including temporary stop notices and fixed penalty notices that we understand are likely to be added to the Bill. All too often the powers and penalties are insufficient to deter developers and appeal mechanisms are used to delay enforcement action.

Business Improvement Districts

UNISON is concerned that the proposals for Business Improvement Districts will potentially divide communities and create greater social exclusion, rather than promoting communities and social inclusion. Businesses will only be interested in developing a BID in an area which is attractive, successful and worthwhile investing in. In the more run down, deprived areas the private sector will see no interest in investing and working with what little community structure exists.

The arrangements are fundamentally undemocratic with voting being based on aggregate rateable value and a right of appeal to Scottish Ministers on what is essentially a local matter. UNISON believes that we should move away from this piece meal approach to community development, and focus on the existing democratic, transparent and representative structures we have to build and develop our communities.

UNISON Scotland believes that the best way to involve the business community in improving communities and in working with local authorities is to return the powers to set local business rates to local authorities. Local businesses should have a stake in local communities and services, and the most transparent and democratic means to do this is to enable local authorities to set business rates. We believe this is a positive way to revitalise local government finance, enable local authorities to have greater control over the finances they are able to raise, and to give local businesses a stake in the communities in which they are based.

Supporting Planning Authorities

Whilst UNISON welcomes the allocation of resources to the Planning Development Budget this does not address the need to adequately fund the core functions of planning departments that are already under funded before the Bill's provisions are considered.

The key to modernising the planning system is a properly resourced and well-trained planning service that has political support at national and local level. Staffing numbers have remained largely unchanged for a decade despite a 20+% increase in the number of planning applications and many departments are reporting staffing shortages. There has been a shift away from working on plans to cope with this increase in planning applications and in response to performance targets. Local authorities are not the only employer of planners and many have been attracted to the private sector by better pay and conditions together with other factors including a concern over the confrontational way of working in the current planning system. Better workforce planning and liaison with universities has been a productive approach in other local authority professions (e.g. social work) and we would support a similar approach covering all staff working in the planning function.

Local authority planning functions regularly review their organisation including skill mix. This will continue but it will not release savings at the level required to fund the provisions of the Bill. There may well be a case for examining the level and structure of fees to reflect the true costs involved.

The Bill will place significant new demands on planning authorities. Neighbour notification, tree preservation orders, hearings, pre-application consultation, assessment and broader public involvement all have significant resource implications. The Bill is strong on demands placed on planning authorities but noticeably weak on supporting change with real resources. The assumptions in the financial memorandum to the Bill appear to be overly optimistic both in terms of claimed savings and in the cost of additional duties. There will also be additional costs on other public bodies particular those who will have a duty to cooperate under the Bill.

Whilst we welcome audit and assessment as a way of spreading and developing good practice the Bill's provisions imply something more. An inordinate amount of time is currently spent by local government officers in preparing and responding to the burgeoning inspection arrangements across local government. Authorities already have Best Value arrangements in place together with audit and other processes.

Whilst it is the responsibility of the Scottish Executive to oversee the effective functioning of the planning system it is not their role to interfere with the decisions of democratically elected local authorities. Powers of intervention must genuinely be powers of last resort.

Planners welcomed the recognition in the White Paper that their role is primarily visionary and enabling. Unfortunately the pressure on under resourced departments means that many are forced to concentrate on their regulatory role. We were disappointed that the White Paper concentrated its comments on culture change almost exclusively on planners and local authorities. If culture change is to succeed applicants, particularly those in the commercial sector also need to respond to the need for culture change.

For further information please contact:

Matt Smith, Scottish Secretary
UNISON Scotland
14, West Campbell Street,
Glasgow G2 6RX
Tel 0141-332 0006 Fax 0141 342 2835
e-mail matt.smith@unison.co.uk

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