Coronavirus: Scottish planners told to consult online to keep system moving

Allowing online pre-application consultation events and suspending the need to post site notices are among a series of fresh measures being introduced by the Scottish Government in a bid to keep the planning system functioning during the coronavirus outbreak.

Scottish Parliament. Image: Kim Traynor / Wikimedia Commons
Scottish Parliament. Image: Kim Traynor / Wikimedia Commons

The measures are outlined in a letter issued by Scotland’s chief planner, which also warns that the timetable for proposed national planning policy changes has slipped as a consequence of the pandemic.


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Describing the measures as “temporary steps”, chief planner John McNairney stressed the government’s “ongoing commitment” to long-term changes to the planning system and expressed hopes that the current situation could produce “valuable lessons”. 

Regulations will be issued to suspend a requirement for pre-application consultation on major and national developments to include at least one public event, McNairney said, adding that applicants will be expected to provide an “alternative, online version” and that guidance will be issued outlining the government’s expectations.

The chief planner said discussions are taking place with local authority body Heads of Planning Scotland to understand how requirements for neighbourhood notifications of planning applications will be affected by the closure of council offices.

Similarly, a requirement for site notices to be posted is also under review. “We are exploring the position relating to the requirement for site notices relating to certain applications, and will bring forward regulations to suspend that requirement if needed,” McNairney said. 

The letter goes on to say that legal requirements for public bodies to present hard copies of planning documents for inspection in libraries and other offices cannot be met at the current time. To address this, it says the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act, which received royal assent on Monday (6 April) "includes provisions which will allow bodies not to comply with these requirements, but instead to publish documents and information online where possible during the emergency period".  

It also points out that, following the passage of the act, local authorities "already have the power to hold meetings virtually", and the new rules allow councils to "exclude the public from their meetings on health grounds" for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. 

In addition, planning authorities "already have extensive powers to delegate decisions under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973", McNairney adds.  

The letter warns that planned policy changes will be pushed back, stating: “It has become increasingly clear that it will not be possible to maintain progress and deliver all aspects to the timetables previously planned.”

A fourth iteration of the National Planning Framework (NPF4), the country's spatial plan, had been scheduled to go out for consultation in September this year. Announcing that “slippage in the programme is now inevitable”, McNairney said consultation is now likely to take place next year. 

Proposed changes to planning application fees have also been put on hold. McNairney said: “We are also pausing this for now and will pick up again when the timing is more appropriate.”

Alastair Wood, head of planning at property firm Savills in Scotland, said: “We are encouraged by the quick response by the chief planner. Planning, by its very nature, looks forward and it is important that the planning system in Scotland keeps going so it can play an important part in moving the economy forward once the world returns to normal, however long that takes.”

The chief planner’s letter follows emergency legislation introduced by the Scottish Government earlier this month that will extend planning permissions due to expire in the next six months and allow public bodies to publish documents online rather than making them available for physical inspection.

Organisations including the Royal Town Planning Institute have called on the UK government to introduce similar measures in England allowing expiry dates on planning permissions to be extended.

The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government did not immediately respond to Planning when asked if measures outlined by Scotland’s chief planner could also be adopted in England.


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