DO SCOTLAND'S PLANNING STATISTICS TELL US WHAT WE NEED TO KNOW?
This week, a Scottish Government statistics publication told us the average time it took to decide a planning application for a major housing application in the first half of 2018/19 was 37 weeks. Nine weeks quicker than the same period of 2017/18. Does this mean that things are on the up for Scotland’s home builders and aspiring households?
The answer, unfortunately, is no.
The planning system is a make-or-break gateway through which housing developments must pass. Only it’s more of a tunnel than a gate. Getting through it takes a huge amount of time, as well as money.
Increasing the delivery of new homes is high up the agendas of all parties, and the primary purpose of Homes for Scotland. Whatever the legislative or policy terminology is, our basic shared, human aim must surely be to do what is in our gift to ensure Scotland’s stock of quality homes rises in line with the number of households.
Homes for Scotland has reviewed its own priorities and published a new 5-year strategy showing where our work will be focused to help make sure more homes are delivered. In one of our most important new workstreams, for example, we are working with the Scottish Government and our own Ambassador for Small Scale Home Builders to encourage and increase activity in the small business tier of the home building industry.
We assume others want to do all that they can do too. This includes planning authorities. So why are the quarterly statistics so focused on decision times rather than on how the planning system can be, and is being, used to increase housing delivery?
Useful information could include an assessment on whether the paper houses represented by the site allocations in Scotland’s local development plans become real homes, for real households, by the time the plan expires. Or an assessment of the scrutiny given to the sites that haven’t delivered, to inform decisions on what proactive intervention could speed their delivery.
I can’t remember the planning statistics ever having shown the average time taken to make a decision on major housing applications as being any less that double what it should be.
In other words, the time spent considering the applications with most potential to ease the housing crisis (34.6 weeks on average in Q1 of 2018/19, 39 weeks in Q2) bears no resemblance to the target time of 16 weeks set out in legislation.
This might be why the statistics don’t really reference that target anymore, focusing instead on how similar or different the most recently evidenced underperformance is to the underperformance of a year ago.
This is not a meaningful improvement in, or measure of, performance.
Knowing the latest stats on this doesn’t do anyone any good, not least the planning authorities, those aspiring to buy a home and those in the business of building homes.
What we really need to know is whether the planning system is supporting the identification and delivery of new housing sites, and new homes (on the ground, not just on paper).
The feeling of our members is that the support isn’t there in all planning authorities. Nor is it being ushered in or enabled by the Planning Bill. There is a pervading sense of the real issues being papered over.
I’ve been invited to represent Homes for Scotland and our members at the next High Level Group of Planning Performance. It’s really good that a that representative of the applicant community has been asked to talk to the group. At a time when everyone is talking-up the importance of collaboration, we are hopeful this will be the start of more open discussions on how the outcomes of the planning system should be judged, and how planners and planning can do their bit in the shared quest to deliver more homes for Scotland.
Director of Planning
Homes for Scotland
Published 1 February 2019