‘We are simply not building enough’

The current housing situation is unsustainable, but how do we solve the problem?

By Ewan MacLeod

The Planning (Scotland) Bill is due to be debated in the Scottish Parliament in the next couple of months. It has taken a long time to get here. In 2015, then Planning Minister Alex Neil announced a review of the planning system, which he said would “aim to increase delivery of high quality housing developments by delivering a quicker, more accessible and efficient process, and it will reinforce our commitment to a fair and open planning system that works for everyone, especially local communities”. 

The draft Bill didn’t inspire confidence that Mr Neil’s aims would be achieved, and last year was roundly savaged by the Local Government and Communities Committee. The Committee approved literally hundreds of amendments (many of which are inconsistent), and the Bill now imposes more than 60 new duties on under-resourced planning departments. In its current amended form, it would seriously undermine the operation of the planning system in Scotland.

Personally, I didn’t think that planning law in Scotland needed any significant change. What did need to change were attitudes within the planning system and, in particular, attitudes towards house building.  The tortuous passage of the Bill to date has not helped with that at all.

We are simply not building enough housing in Scotland. For anyone who has tried to buy a property in Scotland in the last five years, that is obvious. House prices increased more than 4% last year as demand continues to outstrip supply. A recent “mid-market” rent development of 138flats in Edinburgh attracted more than 3,000 applications of interest. The current situation is clearly unsustainable, but how do we solve the problem?

First, government and the public at large need to understand how many homes the country actually needs. The current system ignores young adults who can’t afford their own home and are still living with their parents in their childhood bedrooms. The most recent information from the Office of National Statistics shows that, across the UK, more than a quarter of 20 – 34 year olds are still living at home with their parents. These ‘home trapped’ individuals don’t feature in Councils’ planning housing targets and national guidance currently allows this to happen. Again, this is unsustainable. If our young (and not so young) adults can’t find a suitable home of their own in Scotland many will leave the country, taking their drive and potential with them. Those that remain are likely to resent a planning system that implies they don’t matter.

Secondly, Councils must produce aspirational Development Plans in partnership with the development industry and, of course, local communities. The situation in south east Scotland is a good case in point. Homes for Scotland, the national industry body for home builders, was forced to object to the Strategic Development Plan for the area. It succeeded in persuading a Scottish Government Reporter that the planning authority needed to add at least 30,000 affordable homes to the target that it had previously set. The Plan is currently sitting with the Minister, along with a letter from Homes for Scotland that explains why, legally, even that number is too low. Change can be difficult but, if properly and collaboratively planned from the outset, new housing development can deliver significant social and economic benefits.

The Planning (Scotland) Bill, as it stands, introduces layers of complexity to the planning process and is very unlikely to deliver on its original objectives. The final stage of the legislative process at Holyrood does give MSPs a chance to amend the Bill to simplify it back into a form that is more workable.  However, in my opinion, the whole process will have been a complete waste of time unless attitudes change and Scotland makes a concerted effort to deliver the homes required to meet current and future needs.

Ewan MacLeod is Partner in Shepherd and Wedderburn’s planning team and a Law Society of Scotland-accredited specialist in planning law.