Planning democracy

A dose of democracy in the planning system is long overdue, says Alison Johnstone

Back in August 2015 the City of Edinburgh’s planning committee unanimously voted to reject a planning application to demolish a Victorian building at Canonmills Bridge, which currently houses local cafe “Earthy”.  The developer then wanted to use the cleared site for a much more imposing block of flats.

The decision to kick out the demolition was hugely welcomed by local residents and campaigners, who had collected over 5,000 signatures in opposition.

In January the Scottish Government overturned that decision.  There is no appeal, no further recourse.

This subversion of democracy – where the decision of locally elected councillors is overturned by a Scottish Government official – happens a lot in the city. On average, there is a developer appeal every 4 working days in Edinburgh, with over 40% being successful.

Close to where I live, the residents of Allan Park are waiting anxiously to see if the Scottish Government will overturn the decision to block the demolition of a perfectly sound bungalow to build a new road – a proposal which attracted 1,700 objections and was rejected unanimously by the Planning Committee.

Along Slateford Road, locals in the historic “Flower Colonies” put forward an enticing vision of 21st century homes for a demolished factory site and twice secured the backing of Planning Committee to reject a rival bid by developers for monolithic blocks.  Again, overturned by the Scottish Government, second time around.

And going back more than a decade I cut my campaigning teeth on development at Meggetland Playing fields – you guessed it, rejected by the council and overturned by the Scottish Government, despite a vigorous campaign by residents.

You get the picture? But it is much more pervasive than these examples show.  In the planning system it is only the developer who has the right of appeal to the Scottish Government.  Community groups and local residents only have access to judicial review, a process so costly as to be out of bounds.

So this leads to a widespread culture of caution.  Even if there are good grounds for throwing out a development, planning officers will very often cite the possibility of appeal as being a reason to approve, especially when it is possible for the developer also to seek to be awarded costs from the council.

So we already have a very skewed process where developers, with deep pockets and armies of consultants, are pitted against community groups with little more than their own wits and commitment to what is best for their area.

That is why I am alarmed at new procedures discussed by City of Edinburgh Council last week, which seek to reduce the role of community councils and ward councillors in making representation on planning applications.

In reality, the shift needs to be in the opposite direction.  As a Green MSP I have supported equal rights of appeal in the planning system: where community groups get the same rights as developers. It is a system which works well in other European countries. Nothing would transform the relationship between communities and developers more than this.  Developers would be forced to negotiate with local groups as equals rather than as irritants.

So, if I am re-elected as part of a larger group of Green MSPs in May, I would be in a much stronger position to press for this more radical policy: one which would make for a better Scotland; a better Edinburgh.

Such a core public service as planning needs bolder action if it is to be more democratic.

Alison Johnstone is Green MSP for Lothian and candidate in Edinburgh Central in May’s Scottish election.  This blog first appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News on 29 February 2016.