“A high quality planning system is essential to create quality places with the homes, infrastructure and investment that people need. We are improving Scotland’s planning system, to strengthen the contribution planning can make to inclusive growth, to delivering housing and infrastructure and to empowering communities to influence future development of their areas.”—Scottish Government Planning and Architecture
The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 was passed by the Scottish Parliament in June of that year. The idea is that this will determine the future structure of a modernised planning system. The detail of how the new Act’s provisions will work in practice is to be contained later within secondary legislation. The end result is to be a comprehensive document called National Planning Framework Four (NPF4), which will replace the current NPF3, in force since June 2014, when the Minister was the now-disgraced Derek Mackay. His introduction then already included pious boilerplate about “sustainable economic growth” or “reduced spatial inequalities” or “promoted low-carbon growth and wellbeing”.
Behind the warm words is a developer’s charter. The prime motivator appears to be seen to address social inequalities, while providing more and better housing. Nothing wrong with that, but good planning requires much more. The net effect is that each council winds up with a simplistic tally of homes it must provide through a local plan.
It is, in fact, a de minimus framework, leaving councils drawing rings around fields and letting developers decant any shape or style of house they wish into them. These are usually detached 3-to-5 bedroom family homes squeezed together to generate maximum profit. Outside the provision of schools, safeguarding space for infrastructure—bypasses, surgeries, community hubs, etc., is ignored. Questions regarding human-scale integration of shops, leisure, nature or social diversity, let alone the aesthetics are not asked, let alone answered. The whole is administered by planners who cite rule books about acceptable materials and window distances in a mostly reactive way. The developer decides street layout, choosing house design A over B in homogeneous ghettoes of 50 to 500 houses grafted like growths onto town peripheries.
In England, a highly centralised system of planning over seventy years spread wartime rebuilding by a mix of Keynesian state and modernist architects favouring Corbusian towers and motorways. The role of finance in shaping urban landscapes is most obvious behold Docklands redevelopment, the corporate island of Canary Wharf, and steel and glass monoliths named for their shapes—“Gherkin,” “Shard”— jutting from London’s neoclassical skyline.
The modernist experiment was also imprinted on concrete public housing estates such as those found in London’s boroughs, still occupied by the poor. More recently, English planning has turned towards participation and reclaiming the street network for cyclists and pedestrians, following a European trend to address livability and climate change. As a retrofit, this has been only partly successful.
Scotland has followed this centrist model, initially creating (without intending to) centres of deprivation in Easterhouse, Wester Hailes, Mastrick, Raploch, etc. Right to Buy saw abandonment by councils of building social housing and provision by RSLs at much slower rates. The bulk of new builds have been detached family homes, as described above. Only Edinburgh has made good use of brownfield sites with low-rise flats integrated with existing communities and facilities.
Both countries have suffered from a planning regime that is bureaucratic, unimaginative and reactive. It is divorced from what people regard as town, let alone community, planning. The urban segmentation results in excessive vehicle flows. Both fragment society, increase “defensive” living, and petty crime. As commute distances soar, local social mixing in High Streets declines, children don’t dare run free any more and our affluence comes at increasing cost. Ask any bufti to relate all we have lost.
But it need not be this way. And at a time when Covid has scrambled social patterns and climate change is forcing us to re-think how we live, might this not be the time to radically re-think how we plan our towns, if not our civilisation?
The Scottish Government, rather than churning out another developer open season in NPF4 has a chance to show how to evade the urban sprawl and inner-city disintegration becoming the norm in England. Our cities are not so large; our towns less smothered in suburbs. It will take vision, resolution, team work and devolution. The benefits will be immense, with the Scottish Government augmenting the credibility it needs to be plausible steering an independent Scotland the people believe will be the better place to bring up their children. This will demand:
- Vision. Quite apart from waking up sleepy council planning departments , the law needs to be changed to remove the presumption of permission to build unless “material planning considerations “ can be demonstrated to stop it. Overarching Regional Plans will set out how a city region is expected to develop and will include business, retail, and (especially) integrated transport plan, all to be secured and partly provided before residential elements are finalised.
- Resolution A completely restructured planning law that sets out mechanisms whereby real town planning is to be achieved. Statutory consultees will be tasked to comply with requirements, rather than have a veto. Government departments will be expected to supply support, finance and guidance to ensure the plans are viable. Local councils will employ more creative teams, led by a qualified town planner with vision to perform town planning on each settlement under their care, including settlement statements on their future role.
- Team Work This will be required and expected from all those contributors listed above. Y these should be added seminars of consultation with community representatives, with the goal of each town plan becoming as close to consensual as possible. Only when that point has been reached would developers be included in the process, each bidding to fulfil a part of the town plan, with an incentive to address the vision contained therein.
- Devolution It should be clear from the foregoing that the Scottish Government will no longer hold centralised authority over planning, other than in formulating and adapting laws, as required. Bu the same token, planning departments will have a duty to engage with and persuade partners and residents of the desirability of the plan, far more than the present holding of public meetings, then ignoring whatever was said.
The principle to be adhered to is that each area is different, has a sense of itself, and, has a good idea what it would like and gets behind working for the future if they believe it theirs. Kirkwall, Kirkcaldy and Kirkcudbright are all different places—and should feel different—even if they have much in common and things they might learn fro one another. Like taking your cue from local accents, you should know where you are just by looking around. People are tired of everywhere looking like Watford.
So, what should they look like. That depends where it is. Edinburgh has a mixed record in getting this right. The Radisson Collection Hotel on the Royal Mile is barely an improvement on the Midlothian County Council it replaced on the Royal Mile, but the Scandic Crown further down makes a superb effort to blend in. The state of Princes Street is pitiful, but the new apartment blocks on Macdonald Road let you know you’re in Edinburgh and provide compact modern city living.
It is not necessary for Glasgow to build a pastiche of its red sandstone tenement heyday. But building another Gherkin or Shard there would be as inappropriate as in the centre of Paris—or a clutch of detached family homes to fill Pollokshields Park.
Planning must make our great cities more liveable, and therefore more attractive. As well as compact living, making for handy facilities, they need green space and pleasant walkability. That means fewer vehicles, which is not achieved (as Edinburgh is trying) but just making life hell for drivers. It means that glacial buses need help from a re-opened South Suburban rail line and some trams on the many abandoned tracks around the city.
If Glasgow were the hub of a city region plan that included all adjacent councils; if Edinburgh were a planning hub for the Borders and West Fife, as well as the Lothians and such areas were granted the context described above, this mishmash of obscure and unaccountable bodies like SEStrans would become simpler and, more importantly, transparent to those it is supposed to serve. Scottish Water, NHS and ScotRail should not be allowed to hide in there ivory towers either.
Is this radical? You bet. But it’s how the Dutch made their towns and cities pedestrian friendly and more liveable than ours. It’s how the city twinned with Edinburgh, Munich, is so highly praised, because they took the Deutschhe Bundesbahn (railways), city trams, local buses and banged their heads together to make a seamless, efficient public transport system that everyone uses. Whether you want to shop or go sailing or take off from the airport. it’s so easy, they leave their cars at home.
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