Audit Scotland Points to the Continuing Agenda for Modernising Planning


A review of the progress made so far with modernising the Scottish planning system was published by Audit Scotland on 15 September 2011. It considers the impact of recent changes, drawing on evidence from organisations involved in planning, and making use of the statistics given in the 2009/10 returns from Planning Authorities.

The most interesting aspect of the report relates to council performance in dealing with planning applications. The total number of planning applications in Scotland has fallen by 29% in the last 6 years and since 2007/8 this is clearly linked to the economic downturn. Highland and Aberdeenshire have been the busiest authorities in terms of the number of applications. However, when the figures are analysed in terms of applications per thousand of population, Orkney, Eilean Siar, Highland and Shetland have been the busiest authorities, with two cities, Dundee and Glasgow, in the bottom five.

This may suggest a more active economy in the rural parts of Scotland, and a further diagram noting the proportion of householder applications also appears to support this view. The report also notes that in 2009/10, 98% of the applications dealt with were for local developments, almost one half of which were householder developments. Other key statistics are:

a 7% reduction in the number of planning staff in Councils between July 2008 and July 2010;
the gap between fees received and costs of the planning service rose from £6.7 million to £20.8 million; and
the contribution which fees made to the apparent costs of running development management ranged from 26% in Clackmannanshire to 119% in Perth and Kinross.

Although this is being viewed by some as a black hole, another explanation for this variation (at least in part) is a lack of consistency in how Councils gather their information. For example, some Councils may include costs relating to policy staff in their development management costs, whilst others do not.

With regard to appeals and local reviews:

there were 101 local review cases in 2009/10 (but Local Review Bodies only started operating in August 2009); and
there was a 26% reduction in planning appeals between 2008/9 and 2009/10 (attributed to both the introduction of local reviews and the fall in the number of applications).

The report is in four parts: the first two parts provide a useful summary of the changes made to the planning system in Scotland, and the progress made by the Scottish Government, key agencies and planning authorities. A useful table notes progress with preparing Strategic and Local Development Plans. Not surprisingly this has been slower than expected: out of 38 plans, 18 remain on track, but 19 have slipped in their timescales (and preparation of a single Fife Local Development Plan is still to start). The report recommends that Councils should manage the process more effectively against identified milestones.

For perhaps the first time there is an acknowledgement that measuring Councils’ performance only in terms of the time taken to process applications may not be helpful. One of the recommendations is to “consider replacing the four-month timescale for deciding major applications and work with planning authorities to agree a new way of assessing performance for these applications as part of a new performance measurement framework for development management.” The report also encourages more benchmarking between Councils.

Audit Scotland also recommends that the Scottish Government should evaluate whether the planning system is contributing to sustainable economic growth; set out a clear timetable for extending permitted development rights; and clarify what activities planning fees cover and agree an appropriate fee structure that covers the cost of processing applications.

The report gives interesting insights into the progress so far with modernising planning and further changes that may be on their way. It continues to declare that the role of the planning system is “central to achieving the Scottish Government’s goal of sustainable economic growth.” For the moment, that is, at least until the recommended evaluation has been carried out.

The report and other Audit Scotland reports can be accessed here.