We're all mad here: Damian Bates' observations on the planning system

We're all mad here: Damian Bates' observations on the planning system

by aurora planning

“But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.  "Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: “We’re all mad here….”                                                                                                                                                                [Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland]

We’re delighted to introduce our first guest blogger – Damian Bates, former Editor-in-Chief at Aberdeen Journals.  Following many years of reporting on planning in Aberdeen, Damian offers his observations on the Scottish planning system.  When he sent us a draft of this to review, his covering email was entitled “mad and crazy”; we weren't quite sure if that was a reference to his writing or to the system he is writing about.  But he certainly provides food for thought!  For which, read on below… 

All views are of course the author’s own : ) 

We’re all mad here

Turbines: a stain on our nation and scourge of the countryside, or the saviour of the planet and beautiful, modernist sculptures?

Football stadiums: cathedrals of entertainment for the community, or magnets for trouble and congestion in our quiet streets?

Housing developments: desperately needed to satisfy growing, evolving economies, or cheap boxes that scar the landscape and just make money for greedy developers?

The problem with planning is that we all have an opinion about it. There are very rarely any major planning applications - or even minor ones for that matter - that don’t raise the hackles of serial objectors, the furious, or even those who have never had any engagement with the authorities before.

And, let’s be honest, the system is creaking under the strain.

The volume of applications, the subsequent volume of complaints and the extreme reactions to those very applications, cause not only undue but also an unfair and stressful workload on the public servants whose role it is to try to make sense of the whole mess. And that’s before you add in the inevitable controversy that comes with the intervention of councillors; people who are supposed to add a level of comfort, democratic scrutiny and be the voice of the people, but who, often, become the focus for a significant amount of the opprobrium that surrounds any particular planning application.

As the creaks get louder, it seems appropriate to suggest that the system needs significant examination and reform. But where to go?

The Planning (Scotland) Act 2006 has already sought to modernise and streamline the operation, but it seems to get more controversial by the day. Local development plans are scrutinised intensely and often get caught up in unnecessary and painful delay that creates more confusion than it resolves.

And, is having non-planning experts - ie politicians - in the mix a great idea for democracy or an excuse for people simply to see failure and criticism where it really shouldn’t exist?

I’ve always been a firm believer in the need for experts to be drafted into our political and democratic processes and institutions, with a longer timeframe for them to make real progress and a significant difference.

By slimming down the number of politicians and offering those remaining more sensible remuneration, you’re likely to attract great business people, entrepreneurs and experts in their fields prepared to put their careers on hold for the greater good, rather than relying on people at the end of their careers or who may have more time on their hands than they or we need. The net result is likely to be better quality candidates that cost the public purse no more, or maybe even less.

And if you give them the surety that they may have a post for ten years, as opposed to four say, then they can concentrate on making the big decisions with the best interests of everyone at heart rather than looking at an impending election with all the stresses and threats that brings.

Of course, you would need caveats in place to ensure people didn’t go power mad, but we need to be realistic and accept that to get the best you will need to pay them to do it, and while unpalatable to a screeching minority who see anyone making money off the public purse as parasites, local authorities and their planning teams need to be able to complete with the private sector.

Likewise, all areas of local authorities should be scrutinised to see if they’re giving good value for money in terms of numbers of personnel and the salaries they attract - if the planning experts can walk away from their public role to pursue a more lucrative one in the private sector, then does the public gain? Of course not.

Is there even a case for a national planning team, with regional outreach offices run by top experts in their field, based on a national planning framework, that would bring consistency and fairness to the system across Scotland? It would be controversial, to be sure, but it might stop some of the more spurious appeals from occurring and leave us all clear that the rules apply to everyone wherever you live in Scotland.

Perhaps the nation’s top planning chief, whoever she is, would have to be re-elected every ten years or so too, to bring the system right to the heart of democracy.

Of course, this is all pure fantasy because the system is so complicated, so controversial and so difficult to fix that only a mad wo/man, would ever try to intervene.

So the cries of unfair practice, abuse and pressure will continue unabated. 

Thanks for reading!



We may need to ask Damian for further thoughts following the implementation of the current Planning Bill! Meantime, to find out about how aurora planning can assist you in any aspect of the planning process, please visit www.auroraplanning.co.uk or email info@auroraplanning.co.uk. And, to receive future blogs and updates by email, please click here

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