Readers to these pages will be familiar with the case I recently highlighted of the proposed film studio on Jim Telfer’s farm near Straiton. Despite violations against the local plan and strong local opposition, there are fears that Mr Telfer and his family could be forced off the land they have farmed for more than a century.
At the root of this issue is the fact that we have an ineffective planning system. That’s why the current Planning Bill going through the Scottish Parliament matters to us all, but it needs to be much bolder and ambitious if it is to be as effective as the Scottish Government envisage.
A few months back, Ministers presented this Bill as a means to support the economy with a goal to increase community engagement and delivery of plans. However, a similar agenda was proposed in the previous Planning Bill over a decade ago. It hasn’t delivered.
Planning should support the economy, but it should also be about land allocation with an outlook to protect the environment, secure the right to housing and improve health outcomes.
That is why there is widespread support for a clear purpose of planning to be included in the Bill. This should be an opportunity to transform the system from a position where conflict often prevails to one where ambitious high-quality plans are developed with full community engagement.
That won’t be easy since a great deal of trust has already been lost in a system that far too many people believe is bureaucratic and complex and in which powerful monied interests hold sway. All too often local decisions have been overturned and rejected by Ministers despite strong opposition by local people, as has been the case with the Telfers’ farm.
Such a loss of trust in planning means that no one could be persuaded to engage in plan-making if all their hard work can be so easily overturned. We therefore need to drive powers away from Ministers to be maintained by councils who genuinely engage with communities.
My greatest concern is that the Bill in its current form is a manifesto for business as usual, for the dominance of the failed speculative volume housebuilding model, for private interests over public, for conflict rather than collaboration and for centralisation rather than community empowerment.
That must change and I look forward to working with cross-party colleagues to deliver a better planning system for all.
Andy Wightman is a Green MSP for Lothian.