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New Year’s Revolutions: talking about resourcing and improving performance in Scotland

Dr Caroline Brown is the Director for Scotland, Ireland and English Regions.

If you asked for my predictions for planning in Scotland in 2024, I’d tell you to watch carefully, as a quiet revolution might just be underway. There are two very interesting conversations happening about planning in Scotland and how we make things work better for everyone -  communities, developers and planners alike.

The first conversation was started by the National Planning Improvement Champion (NPIC) – one Craig McLaren, who took up the role in August 2023. The NPIC role was created in the 2019 Planning Act as part of the ongoing process of Scottish planning reform, and Craig has a demanding work plan ahead focussed on the performance of local planning authorities, sharing best practice and measuring progress.

Following on from a ‘call for ideas’ in the Autumn of last year, Craig has now published his report summarising the responses around defining high-performing planning authorities. The report draws on several workshops, many meetings and conversations, plus written submissions, including one from RTPI Scotland

Craig has also shared his draft improvement framework with Scottish planning authorities, setting out details about how the new system for measuring performance and securing improvement will work. It’s not my place to share the details of that draft framework, but the conversations happening around it have been instructive and insightful. Discussions including the importance of numbers and statistics versus context and narrative; the utility of RAG ratings; the place of peer review, and the underlying assumptions about trends, e.g. is a reduction in staff numbers necessarily a bad thing?

The big takeaway in all of this is the need for a system which focusses on improving planning performance through constructive discussion, mutual support and learning, and sharing of best practice. Everything is draft at the moment, with Craig inviting a first cohort of authorities to trial the process and the new reporting structure from April-June. Glitches and refinements are expected, with two further cohorts of authorities lined up to trial the new process over the course of the next 12 months. If you would like to hear more about that, then the South-East Scotland Chapter is hosting a lunchtime webinar with the National Planning Improvement Champion on 25 March.  

The second conversation about improving planning is being led by the Scottish Government and the Chief Planner, Fiona Simpson. This conversation is focussing on the challenges of resourcing in the planning system - with a workshop on the topic held at Victoria Quay in November 2023. The workshop brought together a wide range of stakeholders in and around planning to discuss what sorts of ideas might help planning authorities do things better and do better things. That was also a fascinating conversation to contribute to – and I have been struck by the engaged and positive attitudes of everyone I have met in the course of these events and workshops. There is an appetite for learning and improving, and changing things for the better. A consultation paper on resourcing from the Scottish Government has also just been published.

Cutting across both these conversations, I am noticing a switch away from discussing barriers and a focus instead on solutions. There are already examples of innovative practice happening within the current system – so let’s share and learn from those, rather than establish a shopping list of problems to be fixed through further revision and reform. It seems to me like a positive start to the New Year for Scottish planning – here’s hoping these resolutions last long enough to become revolutions.


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