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Inside Holyrood: Highland Greens MSP says currently the planning system inspires anything from 'dread to boredom' and too often works against people and not for them

By Scott Maclennan

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Highlands and Islands Green MSP Ariane Burgess.
Highlands and Islands Green MSP Ariane Burgess.

MSP Ariane Burgess argues here for a system that 'works for, not against them but long-term aims must factor in the feelings of local communities

For many people the mere mention of the phrase “the planning system” can inspire anything from boredom to dread. The, largely justified, public perception of planning is that it is overly complex, often unfair, and few people have a positive story to tell about their interactions with it.

That’s a problem because it affects so many aspects of the way we live or lives and has an enormous role to play in shaping our communities. Done properly, planning can help create healthy communities and give people a meaningful say in development. But too often it isn’t done properly.

Planning regulations not only cover small issues related to individual houses or streets, but have a massive impact on how we interact with our natural environment, where major infrastructure projects are sited and have even been a key tool in the fight against fracking.

In the coming months the Scottish Government will open up the fourth National Planning Framework (or NPF 4 for short) to consultation. This is a long term plan, running to 2050, for Scotland that’s intended to set out where development and infrastructure is needed. It is also intended to help meet Scotland’s housing needs, increase the population of rural areas and improve health and wellbeing throughout the country. The scope of the document is extremely broad and ambitious.

However, none of those aims can realistically be achieved without input from the communities that will be affected by NPF4. A long standing frustration with the planning system is that it feels like something that is done to communities rather than with them. Inevitably that leads to adversarial situations, conflict and feelings of frustration.

That’s why if it is going to achieve any of its laudable aims it must be developed in collaboration with communities. Planning in general must be more responsive to the needs of communities rather than simply those with the means to pay for lawyers and consultants.

I recently met with Claire Symonds from Planning Democracy Scotland, a community-led organisation campaigning to strengthen the voice and influence of the public in planning, deepening democratic control and promoting environmental justice. The work they do is important, but the fact that such an organisation needs to exist at all reflects the fundamental imbalance in favour of those with deep pockets which is inherent in the planning system.

As an MSP for the Highlands and Islands I’m acutely aware that depopulation in the region has been a long-standing and serious challenge for the region. The planning system can be a tool to tackle that. If we work with communities to understand their needs and the challenges they face then incorporate that into the plans, rather than imposing development from above, then we can build a system that works for people, not against them.

Related Story – MSP says creating new apprenticeships is vital to reversing population decline in the Highlands

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