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Ordinary people can help shape future development and improve rural communities

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Holyrood Notebook by Ariane Burgess

The planning framework aims to keep people in rural communities and help with the housing shortage.
The planning framework aims to keep people in rural communities and help with the housing shortage.

Planning. It may not seem like the most exciting topic, but I’m sure you will all have your own stories where planning decisions have impacted your life in a very real way.

As convener of the Local Government, Housing and Planning committee, I am now able to see “behind the curtain” and, even with the knowledge and support of my team and some fantastic organisations like Planning Democracy, I still find it complex.

Local authority planning departments are doing some good work but are often under resourced. Over time these departments have become seriously underfunded which means that newly trained planners are lured into jobs in the private sector, leaving a succession problem in local authority planning departments.

Adequate staffing could empower them to become a hub where teams of planners would be working in partnership with communities to envision Local Place Plans and 20-minute neighbourhoods, as well as drawing up feasibility studies detailing how to implement their vision.

Land in Caithness and the rest of the Highlands and Islands will be involved in the green industrial strategy but also nature restoration. For many of the much-needed projects that will be initiated over the next decade and on, planning departments could be helping communities and developers to work together to get it right.

That means planning for the long term rather than hastily throwing up 300 houses on farm or peat land which then end up with the need for mitigation projects because the consequences of such developments weren’t thought through.

In the coming months, the Scottish Government will begin consultation on the fourth National Planning Framework (or NPF4 for short). This is a long-term plan for Scotland, running to 2050, that’s intended to set out in which areas development and infrastructure are 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, including embedding nature networks across Scotland. The scope is broad and ambitious but delivering investment for our rural communities is something I will be advocating for.

Grand strategies and large infrastructure projects simply cannot be achieved without listening to the voices of the communities that will be affected by NPF4. During my work with constituents, I can empathise with their frustration in a planning system where at times decisions feel like something that are imposed on communities rather developed in partnership with them. Inevitably that leads to conflict, resentment and frustration which often means inappropriate development or no development at all, or people moving away.

That’s why, if NPF4 is going to achieve any of its aims, there must be a conversation with our communities. Planning should emphasise local needs rather than delivering an easy win to those who are able to fork out huge sums for specialist lawyers and consultants. All this strife could be avoided if we made a concerted effort to democratise planning and make it easier for ordinary people to engage with the system and represent their objections in a meaningful way.

Accessibility is vital to ensure support for community-led developments which have the potential to reverse the depopulation we have seen around Caithness over the past few decades.

You don’t have to be a planning expert to have an opinion about how you’d like to see where you live shaped. True justice lies in a system which maximises the wellbeing of local people, over profit for a few faceless corporations.

  • Arian Burgess is a Green MSP for the Highlands and Islands.

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