Scotland Housing and planning

Championing improvement in Scotland’s planning system


Dundee, Scotland-27 December 2018: Victoria &Albert Museum Dundee exhibition opening Ocean Liners, Scottish Design museum exterior and ship at dusk

Craig McLaren is the National Planning Improvement Champion, based in the Improvement Service.

Public service reform is an ever-increasingly important aspect of work across the sector, no more so than in spatial planning.

A key driver for this has been the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019. Its provisions, some of which are only now being introduced, make it mandatory for planning authorities to prepare an annual report on their performance, which is to be published and submitted to Ministers. The Act also established the function of the National Planning Improvement Champion (NPIC) whose role is to develop a new performance and improvement framework, to monitor the performance of planning authorities and to provide advice to them (and other persons considered appropriate) on the steps that might be taken to improve.

The NPIC has no sanctions or powers to impose penalties on planning authorities that are deemed to be ‘underperforming’. It will not deal with complaints about specific development proposals, planning applications, organisations or individuals as they are best dealt with through existing processes already in place within planning authorities, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman or the Royal Town Planning Institute. Rather, it is taking a ‘collaboration into change’ approach, working in partnership with planning stakeholders to embed constructive support to help planning authorities improve.

The three key functions of the NPIC are:

  1. Developing and implementing the new national planning improvement framework to allow planning authorities to assess their performance and use this to identify and action areas for improvement.
  2. Undertaking analysis and engagement to identify key strategic challenges for planning services across Scotland and brokering discussion to address these and identify possible solutions.
  3. Supporting people and organisations to get better at identifying, sharing and applying good practice.

A first step in this was for the NPIC to establish the ambitions for planning and what success looks like. Given this, an open call for ideas was issued that asked:

  • What are the outcomes we need the planning system to deliver to have an impact?
  • What makes a high-performing planning authority?
  • How can we measure this?

This was supplemented by a series of one-to-one discussions with key stakeholders whilst workshops were organised to enable a ‘deep dive’ on the questions outlined in the call for ideas. In total, 129 organisations or individuals engaged in the discussion, comprising a wide mix of interests in the planning system. A full summary of findings is published here, but there are some high-level messages.

For example, there was no overall agreement on what successful planning looks like. Private sector respondents tended to prioritise speedy decisions on planning applications, or at least more certainty in the timescales for decision-making. Public, third and community sector organisations were more inclined to identify good placemaking, quality design and the need to tackle the climate emergency as the important ambitions of planning.

However, there was agreement that reduced resources available to planning authorities and statutory consultees was a key issue. There were strong calls to ensure that there are enough planners in place to support upskilling and for income generated through planning fees to be reinvested in supporting planning. There was only some limited support for financially penalising planning authorities who did not demonstrate acceptable performance. However, developers and applicants pointed to the need to ensure that increased planning application fees resulted in tangible improvements.

Many applicants pointed to a need for a better user experience and customer care, with a need for planning authorities to engage more proactively and collaboratively. Good pre-application discussion was seen as vital.

The transition towards using the new National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4) was seen by many as an immediate issue that was impacting confidence in decision-making. Respondents highlighted the importance of effective leadership that promotes a ‘can do’ and solutions-focused culture, providing confidence, certainty and consistency across planning authorities. Elected members who were fully up to speed on their roles, responsibilities and powers were seen as important, as was the need for proportionate approaches regarding information required to support planning applications, legal agreements and conditions. Planning authorities also highlighted the need for good-quality submissions to help speed up planning application assessment.

This work has been supported and guided by the High-level Group on Planning Performance, co-chaired by the Minister for Local Government Empowerment and Planning and the Chair of COSLA’s Economy and Environment. It also comprises Heads of Planning Scotland, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland, the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Key Agencies Group. An applicant sub-group comprising ‘customers’ of the planning service feeds into it.

The evidence gathered through the call for ideas and wider engagement has been used to inform the development of a pilot National Planning Improvement Framework (NPIF) that will monitor planning authorities’ performance and support improvement. Based on the ‘collaboration for change’ concept, the key principles of NPIF are to:

  • Use planning authorities’ self-assessment to better inform an improvement action plan.
  • Incorporate indicators that better assess impacts, outcomes achieved, and the quality of the service provided.
  • Recognise that planning authorities depend on other people and organisations to deliver their service.
  • Be proportionate and not add to the demand on planning authorities’ resources.

The focus of the assessment will be around what has been defined as the attributes of a high-performing planning authority:

  • People – Does the planning authority have sufficient resources and skills and a valued and supported workforce, now and in the future?
  • Culture – Has the planning authority embedded continuous improvement? Does it have sound governance? Does it have effective leadership?
  • Tools – Does the planning authority have a robust policy and evidence base? Does it make the most of data and digital technology? Does it have effective decision-making processes?
  • Engage – Does the planning authority have good customer care and effective engagement and collaboration with stakeholders and communities?
  • Place – Does the planning authority support quality placemaking and does it facilitate the delivery of development?

In undertaking the assessment, planning authorities will be asked to identify areas for improvement and the actions required to tackle these, as well as any examples of good practice that can be shared with others. The draft assessment and improvement plan will then undergo peer review. This will involve the planning authority, a peer planning authority, NPIC, other organisations that the planning authority relies upon, such as statutory consultees and key agencies, and, for the first time, customers. The final improvement plan and assessment will be shared with the planning minister and the Chief Executive responsible for each planning authority. The improvement plan will then be implemented and monitored.

It is planned to test and pilot this new approach over three cohorts in 2024/5, learning from each to move towards a more finalised approach in 2025/2026.


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