I just spent a few days on placement with the Scottish Government’s Directorate for the Built Environment, just before David Cameron made a visit to a Scottish porridge factory (whose tartan tablecloths and napkins he embraced amid some skepticism – see picture). Planning in Scotland is entirely devolved to the SNP-led government, which in 2007 became the biggest party in the Scottish government for the first time, becoming a majority government in 2011.
I had always considered the Scottish Nationalist Party left wing, in keeping with Scotland’s traditional leftist sentiments and because so much of the nationalist sentiment I grew up with was formed in opposition to Maggie Thatcher, who in popular mythology at least neglected and abused Scotland because she knew no-one ever votes Tory there. However, perhaps the SNP is not so different from nationalist parties elsewhere (who tend to be right wing) after all….
One thing struck me during two days at the heart of Scottish planning. I’ve spent the past few years studying changes to the planning system in England, or the government’s localism agenda. But guess what? The SNP got there first. Scottish planners told of how the previous Labour administration wanted their hands in every pie, but the SNP is keen for planning decisions to be made at as local a level as possible, even before austerity culled staff numbers.
Before the SNP, there were 19 categories under which local authorities had to refer decisions to a higher authority. This meant that a single building on the green belt was flagged to the government’s attention, or around 300 cases a year. Only one in a hundred was called in by ministers, meaning they rather than the local authority made the decision, showing a lot of time was wasted in duplicated effort. The SNP only wants to know about developments of strategic national importance, bringing the case load for national government down to 31 per year. (There are three categories for referral: 1) local authority interest and significantly contrary to development plans; 2) objection by a significant government agency such as Scottish National Heritage or Historic Scotland or 3) open cast coal development within 500 metres of a settlement.) Most decisions are left to local authorities, and even when the decisions are called in, ministers rarely go against the competent authority (one case).
Interesting therefore that this localism agenda has been so enthusiastically adopted by the conservative-liberal government for England. Interesting too, that the SNP appears to stay true-er to its principles than Eric Pickles, who is keen on devolving decision making to the lowest possible level, except when he isn’t (and especially when its a development he doesn’t like in his own constituency).
Now that Cameron appears to be positively engaging with the debate in Scotland – talking about how the British government policy could be better geared towards helping the Scottish economy be stronger rather than imposing a top-down view of how Scotland should behave (and winging about contested statistics on how much Scotland costs) – it will be interesting to see how he squares up to Alex Salmond, with whom he might have more in common than anyone thinks……