The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government, published earlier this month, sets out a number of actions to stimulate a green recovery that are relevant to the planning system, including support for housing and waste.
Both types of development are often controversial but are essential to a successful and sustainable economy. A quarter of Scotland’s emissions result from heating existing properties and, as the Programme for Government recognises, new, greener homes can make a significant contribution towards the Scottish Government’s net zero ambitions. In terms of waste, Scotland still exports for treatment 14 per cent of the waste it produces because we do not have sufficient infrastructure to process it ourselves. This is not just a missed economic opportunity but also profoundly unsustainable. What, then, does the Programme for Government propose and how does that sit with the current planning system?
At the beginning of the last Parliament, the Scottish Government set a target to deliver 50,000 affordable homes by April 2021. According to the Programme for Government, around 46,000 of those homes have now received planning permission but only 35,000 have been built. The Scottish Government has stated its commitment to delivering the remaining 15,000 homes as soon as it is safe to do so, and to setting out a “20 year vision of energy efficient zero carbon housing with access to outdoor space, transport links, digital connectivity and community services”. However, 11,000 consented homes have yet to be built. In many cases, it may simply be an issue of programming (a large development can take many years to build out its full complement of homes) although in others it may have to do with issues such as viability.
Whatever the reasons, this shortfall of new housing will be a significant concern for those families in need of an affordable, and greener, place to live. Each house is not just a number; it is a home. The figures above illustrate an important point: to deliver the right number of houses (whether market or affordable) in the right timescale, the planning system needs to facilitate granting permission for more than the bare minimum of houses and to do so on sites that can be delivered on time. If it does not, targets will be missed and the benefits will not be delivered.
The potential benefits of new home building go well beyond the direct benefits to the individuals who need the housing. The Scottish Government has committed £300 million of interim funding in 2021/22 for affordable homes. The Programme for Government states: “Our current investment in housing will, on average, leverage economic output in the region of £1.4 billion per year and support around 10,000 to 12,000 jobs per year in the construction and related industries in Scotland. As set out in our action to boost the energy and heat efficiency of buildings, it also produces significant social and environmental benefits. With 25 per cent of Scotland’s emissions coming from heating buildings, making homes greener will make a significant contribution towards net zero. It helps tackle fuel poverty head on by reducing energy bills and it produces significant improvements in health and wellbeing.”
Despite the clear benefits to the economy, the environment and to people in need of homes, there is concern among housebuilders that the Scottish Government is consulting separately on significant changes to national planning policy that could, in fact, restrict the development of the houses that would deliver these benefits.
Scottish Planning Policy currently contains a “release valve”, a presumption in favour of sustainable development, that supports additional housing development if planned developments do not deliver the supply of houses required. The Scottish Government is proposing to shut off that release valve. The reasons for the changes are said to relate to the government’s support for the development plan-led system and to deal with the practical implications of the COVID-19 crisis. However, critics point to the absence of detailed evidence or analysis to adequately explain government thinking or the implications of the changes.
There are concerns in the sector that this would be a significant backward step that would make it less likely that much-needed homes will be built on time and that the sustainability and economic benefits the government has identified will be achieved. The changes could also hinder the Scottish Government’s ambitions to deliver more affordable housing and restrict the contribution that new homes could make towards achieving its 2045 net zero emissions target.
Turning to waste, in 2012 the Scottish Government legislated to ban all “black bag” waste from going to landfill from 2021. Although that requirement has been set out in law for almost 10 years, Scotland does not yet have enough infrastructure in place to process the waste we produce.
A recent study commissioned by the Scottish Government predicted a “capacity gap” in waste infrastructure of 1.2 million tonnes in January 2021, when the landfill ban was originally due to take effect. Ministers have pushed back the ban to 2025 and it is interesting to see the Programme for Government announce £70 million to improve refuse collection infrastructure and to “develop a new route map to reduce waste and to meet waste and recycling targets”. It is unclear what this will mean in practice, though some have questioned whether there are actions Ministers could have taken before now to ensure waste infrastructure was delivered quickly.
For example, the Scottish Government’s Planning Appeals website lists two energy from waste appeals that have not yet been determined. The first, in Glasgow, was lodged in 2016, and the second, in North Lanarkshire, was lodged in 2018. At the time of writing, both are still awaiting a decision from the Minister.
Of course, developments of this kind can be controversial. Local residents often do not like change, even if that change will deliver benefits for Scotland as a whole through the creation of essential green infrastructure or new sustainable communities. To deliver the Scottish Government’s green ambitions, Ministers must demonstrate clear leadership to help the development industry create the jobs that drive sustainable economic growth. There is no doubt that new “20 year visions” for housing or “route maps” for waste can play a significant role in that process in due course, but positive decisions and support for appropriate development to help the green recovery are needed right now.
Ewan MacLeod is a Partner in Shepherd and Wedderburn’s planning team and a member of the firm’s Clean Energy Group. For more information, contact Ewan on 0131 473 5111 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find out more about our Clean Energy Group and the contribution we and our clients are making to a green recovery here.