At the moment, for only the second time since devolution, there is a Planning Bill before the Scottish Parliament.
Of course, you could be forgiven for not being too excited about this. Even if you were aware, you might struggle to follow the debate.
Planning is a world of often painful jargon which can seem more than a bit dry (think middle-aged professionals in suits discussing the finer difference between ‘have regard to’ and ‘take account of’).
But for many communities across Scotland, concerned about the quality, quantity or type of development, this is a crucial debate and inequalities in the planning system have become one of the issues most hotly debated by MSPs. Take, for example, the community in South Lanarkshire, which for nine years has opposed a proposed quarry on the banks of the Clyde at Lamington.
It’s a stone’s throw from nearby opencast coal mining and sand and gravel quarries, but one particular proposal for a sand and gravel extraction site has been a thorn in the side of many for too long and is hugely unpopular.
The list of objections raised by the community is long: it would destroy an irreplaceable area of rare, highest quality agricultural land; industrialise a popular scenic tourist area; increase flood risk and generate significant traffic.
The developers first lodged an application in 2009 that was refused by the local authority. In 2011 they came back with another application, which was again refused. They appealed to the Scottish Government, but the appeal was dismissed.
Not satisfied, the company then took to the courts, but the judges supported the government and local authority decisions. It was everyone’s hope and expectation that this would finally be the end of the matter but, incredibly, despite these repeated rejections, the developer submitted another new, almost identical application, due to be decided this month.
Such is the weighting of the system in favour of developers, they can, like the Terminator, simply say “I’ll be back” and submit a practically identical new application. Not only that, if permission is refused a developer can simply instigate a review of a decision or have a second go at getting consent at no extra cost.
This is in stark contrast to embattled communities, who have no such rights to instigate a review no matter how flawed a decision might be. At each stage the community is required to patiently and painstakingly set out their concerns and respond in the hope they’ll be taken into account but they know that, every time, the system is stacked against them.
For a community, and even for a local authority, planning can often become a costly war of attrition in which the dice are heavily loaded in favour of the developer. So far, fighting the quarry has cost this community £123,000, not to mention years of angst, effort and uncertainty.
Well-resourced developers can play the long game and doggedly pursue schemes with little concern for impacts on local people and how they want to see their local area develop.
Something needs to be done to prevent developers from simply resubmitting applications on the same site. However, the deeper injustice is that, in contrast to developers, communities have no rights to instigate a review of a decision.
Even if a local authority approves a development that completely undermines the ‘development plan’ for their area, a plan which takes years to prepare and involves extensive consultation and consideration, communities just have to live with the consequences while the developer reaps the rewards.
This is why Planning Democracy is pleased to see issues of equality and fairness finally become part of the debate about planning at Holyrood. In particular, an equal right of appeal, which we have been campaigning for, is now being seriously considered.
Particular credit is due to the Local Government and Communities Committee for giving the arguments a fair hearing, despite the best efforts of the government and industry to keep it off the agenda.
The Planning Bill provides a rare opportunity to address this deep injustice. We hope MSPs looking at the planning legislation will be able to cut through the dry jargon, see the importance of the issues before them, and help give Scotland a planning system which better reflects the sort of fairer country we surely all want Scotland to become.
Clare Symonds, Chair of Planning Democracy and Deputy Convenor of LINK’s Planning Group.