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Planning in Scotland

24 October 2012

The tenth in a series of interviews, Creating Better Places, with leading planners delivering results in the current climate.

Jim Mackinnon, just retired Chief Planner Scottish Government

 Jim MacKinnon

Jim won't mind me saying that he is a bit of an icon in Scotland. He has worked for Scottish central government since 1979 and has a reputation for being a tough negotiator but a real champion for professional planning north of the border. Not everybody has supported some of his positions but he commands huge respect from young and old for his integrity and balance of approach. Although I am one quarter Scottish, I am perceived as a foreigner from the south and it was with some caution that I went to interview him just before he retired to acclamation and a richly deserved CBE.

Jim, you have a rich and varied career; what have been your primary motivations from the beginning?

"Firstly, Forres Mechanics Football Club (I was born in Forres a small town east of Inverness; we won the Highland League this year and are due to play Glasgow Rangers in the Scottish Cup) and a lifelong allegiance to Heart of Midlothian (my watch is still reading 5 past Hibs); more seriously a first in Geography at Edinburgh University where a module on Decision Making in Resources management led to a fascination with the way things and decisions are made. This was followed by an inspirational first job as a graduate planner under the marvellous Al Abbot at the Burgh of Motherwell and Wishaw where I also secured MRTPI in 1978 by studying part time at Strathclyde University and gaining a distinction including on my thesis on North Sea Oil; really enjoyable to do something really interesting.

"I joined the Scottish Office in 1979 working on cases, policy, advice, and links with the Irish Government and with Brussels on spatial development. I progressed in the civil service over 20 years doing everything including an audit of local authority performance.

"In 1999, I was appointed Deputy Director of Planning Administration and in 2000 Chief Planner responsible for all aspects of planning and building standards.  Previously Planning Administration had been part of the Transport Group.

"In 2008 the Architectural Division was added and an appetite for 'place' emerged. As the new Directorate of the Built Environment we were the sponsor of Architecture and Design Scotland (CABE's Scottish equivalent) and producing design advice for local authorities, notably 'Designing Streets', and promoting the use of 'charettes'. We merged with Local Government and currently I report to the Director for Local Government and Communities (lawyers, housing, HR, local government finance), as Director for the Built Environment and Chief Planner. In the first 2 Coalition Governments, planning was high profile, initially regarding efficiency and engagement, then in producing the Scotland National Spatial Planning Framework. We moved from Structure Plans for all of Scotland to Strategic Development Plans for the 4 largest city regions, to reflect the special geography of Scotland and to address where land, property and infrastructure issues crossed council boundaries. I think that planning documents spend too much energy on words and not enough on place and we are trying to get that message across at all levels. I am enthusiastic about the direction of travel."

Have there been any significant changes in the working environment in Scotland in particular about changing behaviour?

"I think planning has insufficiently focused on 'place' and the public home owning democracy sees its role as objectors. I understand why people resist a waste disposal scheme near them. However we created a new initiative – not sustainable planning in a kilt - and we brought over a planner from the USA, Andres Duamay, who introduced the concept of 'charettes' to capture community interest in planning matters which was strongly supported by Ministers in the new Scottish Government who came back enthusiastic about the process.

"I have been particularly fortunate in working with Mr. Swinney as Cabinet Secretary  who wanted an increased focus on planning's role in making things happen. Most politicians don't like the stark yes/no of many planning decisions but he embraced the reform process enthusiastically. I have also been working with the recently appointed Planning Minister, Derek Mackay who is delivering the Manifesto commitment to use planning to bring about community aspirations for change through Local Plans – what do you, the community want to see in the future development of your place? Working with a majority government is much more straightforward; fortunately a clear and consistent direction has been set for planning reform and a very welcome commitment to planning's role in place shaping and place making. It's much more difficult in local authorities and operating in coalitions can feel like wading through treacle!"

How do you manage the interface with other planning professionals Jim?

"We regularly meet the Heads of Planning of the 34 planning authorities and we now meet the political Convenors to show what planning can do and almost always the Cabinet Secretary and/or the Minister attends – it's about getting planning on the political agenda and showing planning solutions facilitated by community engagement. I also meet and champion the Scottish Young Planners and am very impressed with their commitment, camaraderie and energy – the leaders of tomorrow. I welcome the appointment of Craig McLaren as RTPI Scotland Director, who despite unfortunate football allegiances is a man of commitment and integrity with a successful track record in regeneration, an essential part of Scottish planning practice – he's seriously good news. I've been very lucky in being able to operate with enthusiastic and able politicians."

What lessons can you offer future planners Jim?

"Planning up here is not The Cotswolds, its Motherwell, it's Forres, it's Ardnamurchan, and it's the Uists! Planning doesn't and shouldn't operate as a 'hub and spoke' but it must retain a seat at the top table if it is to make a difference – address the spatial consequences of decisions, address delivery effectively. If the planner is of the 'can do' mentality, then at least you will have your day in court even if the politicians say no. Planners with the right attitude will rise to the top rather than the permafrost planner."

How will this work?

"Firstly through practising leadership. Middle management must not just operate as regulators. The spatial planning process provides the opportunity to deliver vision and a framework for strategic intervention.

"Secondly by acting as broker. In my position as Chief Planner, I have been drawn into negotiations where an impasse has been reached, particularly if a Government Department or Agency is involved. Sometimes a phone call to the Head of Planning can be enough to unlock the problem. The solution might be 'no', but if it is, let's say that quickly and move on rather than raise expectations that more time consuming and expensive studies and appraisals are the answer . Planning is becoming redefined and this will develop over time. The Young Planners with their 'can do' attitude have a key role to play in redefining what planners and planning can contribute. The RTPI also has a role to play but there is a real challenge in capturing the energy and expertise of some great practitioners – in both the public and private sectors who just don't have the time to get involved.

"Next recognising breadth. This Scottish Government is seeking planner exchanges between itself, local authorities and the private sector to mutual benefit. Suddenly agendas become shared. We go out to the planners. Homes for Scotland are always up for dialogue. We have developed excellent links with the Scottish Property Federation which offers a single forum for the development industry to contribute to national policy development. There is a Scottish Planning Consultants Forum but it needs strengthening if it is to have an effective interface with Government. Local authorities need to make a public sector planning career much more attractive if they are to attract young planners. But senior public and private sector managers (and politicians) need to give young planners the space to grow and develop; part of this process involves tolerating mistakes but learning from them. From a management point of view planners should be much more Visible. I made a point of "walking the floor" regularly in my department, to enhance employee engagement and, if I am honest, gloating about football results. Perhaps this is a technique the RTPI might employ over and above Presidential and CEO visits? We need to attract more people into RTPI governance and we need to promote the Business of Planning as providing effective political support."

What about the future of planning in Scotland?

"Legislative stability is in place with political consensus and the commitment to planning is secure following some bruising encounters. The profession needs to move from being perceived as dealing with decking, dormers and fly posting – where the recent BBC series was not helpful - to one responsible for promoting sustainable economic growth. The overall standard of planning practice needs to move from variable to excellent overall and this is particularly important in local authorities who have to make their planning positions more attractive. You have to do the everyday stuff well as a platform for moving to more influential and powerful responsibilities. Our planners here can translate corporate blether into 'what this means to you' through working with local people."

And the future of the planning professional, Jim?

"We need to create more rounded planners, more interchange between the different planning bodies – 6 months each in the Scottish Government, development, consultancy, local authority and agencies should become the norm perhaps a requirement of APC? There needs to be a closer link between academic tuition and practice. We are attracting more young planners from a diverse background and this makes me optimistic. Planning is important at the macro level but its biggest impact is at the local level and we need to make it work there.

"Planners need to be confident in saying no as well as finding ways to say yes. Of course there are differences of between the Chief Planner and Ministers and between Heads of Planning in local authorities and their political masters. But working successfully in a political environment is a pre requisite skill for any professional planner. Planners need to become better at articulating our contribution to sustainable economic growth and delivering on that. Never forget the words of Scotland's first Chief Planner, Sir Robert Grieve, who exhorted planners to exchange the unexceptional sentiment for the terror of action."

And in conclusion Jim?

"I'd like to pay credit to my colleagues over many years. I have been so lucky in working with so many committed and able people. It has been a real pleasure."

There are real lessons for planning throughout the UK here. The RTPI should find a way of capturing Jim perhaps to lead on "Leadership" for the profession. It was a privilege to talk to such a great man!

Interview conducted by Martin Willey, October 2012.