The Proposed Local Development Plan (LDP2) was approved by Scottish Borders Council at its meeting on 25 September 2020. It was the subject of publicity and available for representations to be submitted during November and December 2020 and January 2021. The deadline for representations passed on the 25 January 2021. The proposals for Peebles and Peeblesshire will no doubt figure in the list of representations as will certain proposals in Galashiels. The proposed housing site at Netherbarns opposite Abbotsford House, the proposed new Galashiels Academy Campus on Scott Park and the proposals for the Hollybush area have certainly caught the attention of members of the Galashiels community. An issue on which the Local Development Plan (LDP2) offers little guidance, is the question of a Scottish Borders National Park. The campaign for a national park in the Borders seems to be growing but the designation of a national park is ultimately a matter for Scottish Ministers following an assessment and recommendation by Scottish Natural Heritage [rebranded as NatureScot on 24 August 2020].
The proposed local development plan (LDP2) is a major planning document and, as stated by Councillor Simon Mountford, the council’s Executive Member for Enhancing the Built Environment and Natural Heritage and Chairman of the Planning and Building Standards Committee, “The Plan will affect all Borderers on a daily basis, setting out where they can live, work, shop and socialise. It identifies the housing and economic needs of all the towns and settlements in the Scottish Borders as well as the policies that will guide and govern future development.” However, whilst we await the report on the nature of any representations received, and how the council is to proceed with LDP2, a great deal of attention is being given to other policy documents.
At its meeting on 17 June, the full council considered three important reports: (i) Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal Regional Growth Framework Update; (ii) Draft South of Scotland Regional Economic Strategy; and (iii) Climate Change Route Map for the Scottish Borders. How LDP2 relates to these documents is not immediately clear. None of them would appear to come within the remit of the Planning and Building Standards Committee. The Planning and Building Standards Committee seems now to be solely a regulatory committee with little responsibility for positive action; little more than a development control committee [and since the vast majority of decisions on planning applications and building warrants are delegated to officers, has little to do, as illustrated by the limited numbers of planning applications dealt with at recent committee meetings]. At its meeting on 31 May 2021, the committee did consider a report on Supplementary Planning Guidance for the expansion of Tweedbank but offered little comment; the approval of this planning guidance [like the approval of the local development plan] is a matter for the full council.
How things have changed over the past 25 years, since the establishment of Scottish Borders Council. Prior to 1996, the Borders Regional Council’s Planning and Development Committee had wide-ranging responsibilities, not only the full range of planning responsibilities [local planning policy, development control and design guidance], but also industrial promotion and marketing, including business loans, industrial estate development, countryside management and the ranger service, town centre initiatives, building conservation and the archaeological service. The committee was supported by a Planning and Development Department comprising in excess of 50 staff. The Director of Planning and Development was a Chief Official, along with the Directors of Finance, Administration, Education, Social Work, Roads and Transportation, Water & Drainage. Now, the Head of the Service, the Chief Planning and Housing Officer, is a third tier position within the ‘Leading Stakeholder & External Relationships’ Directorate [formerly the ‘Corporate Improvement & Economy’ Directorate].
It is not easy to make comparisons with today’s SBC structure but it is clear that the Planning and Building Standards Committee and the ‘Planning’ Department have far less responsibilities. A recent survey on Resourcing the Planning Service published by RTPI Scotland, the professional body that represents Planners in Scotland, shows that the planning service is one of the most severely affected of all local government services with a reduction in budgets of 42% since 2009. Nearly a third of planning staff have been cut since 2009.
In the view of RTPI Scotland, which I share, planning has a vital role to play in moving towards a sustainable, resilient and inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic through accelerating progress to a zero carbon economy, increasing resilience to risk from climate change, and through creating fair, healthy and prosperous communities. The planning system is there to facilitate economic growth and innovation by bringing together people, activities and resources. However, increasingly, planners are being side-lined and limited resources and a lack of ambition for planning to deliver quality outcomes is creating a vicious cycle of low-quality development and reduced confidence in the planning system and local authorities. A view recently expressed by the outgoing Chair of the Planning and Building Standards Committee, Tom Miers!
Only 9% of staff in planning authorities are under 30 and it is estimated that over the next 10-15 years an additional 680-730 planners will need to be found. Furthermore, the new Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 has introduced over 90 new and unfunded duties on the planning system. Investment in the planning system is therefore urgently required as well as a re-appraisal of the role of ‘Planners’ in local authorities. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Planners led the way in rejuvenating Scotland and the UK. They should be given the resources and the opportunities to do it again.