Peter Hutchinson, SNH’s Head of Planning and Development, reflects on changes in SNH’s approach and actions to support good development.
When I started my career in planning in the 1980s, advice on the natural environment was characterised by ‘objections’ and ‘recommendations for refusal’. Nothing could be further from the truth today. For example, in response to nearly 700 Development Management consultations in 2015/16, SNH objected to only five proposals.
Our advice on the impact of development proposals still champions enhancement and protection of our natural resources, but two things now characterise our approach. Firstly, our advice actively considers options to reduce the likelihood or scale of impact, such as siting or design or other form of mitigation; and secondly, our advice reflects that it is decision-makers who balance the detailed costs and benefits of development over the long term.
Providing advice on proposals is only part of SNH’s approach to supporting good development. Increasingly, our focus is on providing guidance, building capacity and influencing national and local strategies and plans. This supports consideration of the natural heritage right at the start of the development process. Our aim is to provide certainty for investment as soon as possible. In most cases, this is highlighting that the environment and development can go hand-in-hand, but in the few cases where there are concerns, we are flagging these up early. This allows development interests to take forward proposals knowing the opportunities, challenges and risks which lie ahead.
This approach is trying to put ‘planning’ at the heart of the planning system, what we have coined as ‘planning for development’ in our service statement. It mirrors the direction of the current Planning Review and the aspiration for a ‘plan-led’ approach to development.
Our recent approach to planning for development seems to be working for our customers. Our most recent independent customer survey continues to show high levels of satisfaction. For example, 90% of respondents agreed that our advice was enabling, and 89% agreed that SNH makes a positive contribution, to the planning process. Satisfaction levels have also been increasing over the past three years, with greater understanding of our role and awareness of our services. This high level of customer satisfaction does not discount further improvement; for example, there are still some concerns about the consistency of our advice and how we present some of our guidance, but we do appear to be going in the right direction.
This direction also reflects the aspirations of the Scottish Regulators’ Strategic Code of Practice and the general requirement of our balancing duty – to be alert to the interests of others. The emphasis is not on development at any cost, but development which enables inclusive and sustainable economic growth. This recognises that Scotland’s environment is one of our unique selling points – it gives a competitive edge to business.
If you want to know more about how we’re planning for and supporting good development, please see our Board Information Paper, 16 February 2017