Atmos MD Jean Curran considers the recently published review of Scotland’s planning system and potential opportunities to take a fresh approach to the multiple benefits and functions we derive from our natural environment.

With the recommendations of an independent ‘root and branch’ review of Scotland’s planning system now published, it’s an opportune moment to reflect on the underlying purpose of our planning system – namely, in the Scottish Government’s own words, to balance “different interests to make sure land is used and developed in a way that creates high quality, sustainable places”.

The final report from the planning review offers a number of ideas on how, 10 years on from  the Planning Etc. (Scotland) Act 2006, further improvements to Scotland’s planning system might be achieved.  In particular, the report places the aim of delivering Scotland’s Economic Strategy at the heart of its recommendations for reform. At the same time, it focuses on the need to secure investment in infrastructure and people, to strengthen our international appeal and to be innovative and inclusive in our approach to development and growth.

This innovation could include new ways of thinking about the natural environment in planning terms. Traditionally, our approach has been to polarise preservation and protection of the environment on the one hand and development and progress on the other – to place certainty for investors in opposition to community trust.
Something that is too often overlooked in discussions about planning reform is the added value we extract from the natural environment as part of the development process.  With better understanding, it should be possible to make better use of the multiple benefits the natural environment has to offer and the many functions it can fulfil. These can take the form of resources such as water, forestry, crops or energy. They could be services such as natural decomposition of waste, drainage or natural flood alleviation. Or they could be more intangible things such as Improving health and wellbeing through the provision of space for leisure and recreation.

This is more than just a philosophy – it can be a way of understanding and quantifying or assigning a value to these benefits. An example: Proposals for a water treatment plant adjacent to a water source will require costly investment to extract agricultural chemicals as a result of run-off from farmland located upstream. If those costs could be identified and farmers were paid to use different techniques that would eliminate this run-off, the cost of building that water treatment plant could be substantially reduced. 
Hence, instead of taking the benefits associated with the natural environment for granted, there is a growing movement to quantify their value as so-called ‘natural capital’ with the objective of achieving development that is truly sustainable. If we fail to quantify its true value, the risk is that we focus on the wrong priorities when it comes to making planning decisions.

Designed in the right way, development can deliver a range of what are collectively termed as ‘ecosystem services’. As part of the current planning review, the next step ought to be that developers who integrate sustainable thinking into their proposals receive due credit for doing so when it comes to determining their planning application. Such an approach should help to mitigate the adversarial nature of planning decisions that is currently too often the norm.

Similarly, the process of defining natural capital offers an opportunity to improve engagement between investors and developers and communities.  The review advocates a more transparent and modernised ‘front-loaded’ engagement approach – engagement and consultation that is both wider and deeper as well as being more meaningful and relevant.  All too often, the early stages of engagement on a development plan are too intangible, too theoretical with too little attention given to what it practically means for the ordinary person.

In particular, the planning review recommends much greater use of new technologies such as geographical information systems (GIS) and 3D visualisations to help bring the planning process to life and improve engagement with the public at large. These technologies offer an important means also of helping local communities to visualise natural capital and the associated practical benefits to them.

Scotland’s planning review offers up a unique opportunity to recalibrate our planning system in such a way that developments that are badly designed from a sustainability perspective are properly scrutinised – but equally that those developments that work in harmony with the natural environment to extract wider value and benefits can be allowed to proceed in as streamlined a way as possible.

We should seize that opportunity with both hands.