This update on the Planning (Scotland) Bill considers proposals to allow planning authorities to proactively encourage development through the prior grant of planning permission and other consents in designated Simplified Development Zones (SDZs). Of course the SDZ proposals are subject to amendment as the Bill passes through the Scottish Parliament.

Background and Objectives

The power to designate a Simplified Planning Zone (SPZ) exists in the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997. This permits a planning authority to adopt a SPZ scheme in respect of a defined area and has the effect of granting planning permission for the type(s) of development specified in the SPZ scheme and subject to such conditions, limitations or exceptions as are specified in the SPZ scheme. The effect that the land is “zoned” in advance for development within the scope of the SPZ scheme, removing the need for a planning application. This prior grant of planning permission facilitates “development ready” land to encourage appropriate investment. However, few SPZs have been adopted to date. Planning authorities have a duty to consider and review where it would be desirable to create SPZs but, as the Policy Memorandum accompanying the Bill tactfully states, there is a lack of clarity in how this has been carried out.

The Bill seeks to encourage, or potentially compel, planning authorities to make greater use of this zoning approach. The new provisions build on the SPZ mechanism through the introduction of a more flexible SDZ mechanism encompassing an extended range of statutory consents. The objective is to unlock appropriate land for uses such as housing, business or town centre renewal. Environmental and other assessment is front-loaded and the SDZ scheme can lead on matters such as required design and infrastructure provision rather than having to react to individual planning applications.

Proposed Changes from SPZ to SDZ schemes

The core purpose and effect of a SDZ scheme will be similar to that of a SPZ. A SDZ scheme will apply to a designated area and permit specified classes or types of development subject to such conditions, limitations or exceptions as are specified in the SDZ scheme. A SDZ scheme could therefore grant consent for housing development subject to conditions on matters such as infrastructure, design and density. However, there are significant differences:

  • The 1997 Act currently prohibits designation of SPZs in a fixed list of areas, including conservation areas and national scenic areas. This inhibits either additions to the list or relaxations where a SDZ might benefit an area despite it being within one of the currently excluded areas. For example, the Policy Memorandum notes that a SDZ scheme might encourage town centre investment and regeneration despite the centre being within a conservation area. The character of the conservation area could still be protected through the specific terms and restrictions of the relevant SDZ scheme. Therefore the Bill provides that any excluded land is to be specified in regulations, permitting changes to be made through a more simple process than amendment of primary legislation.
  • The Bill expands the range of statutory consents that can be authorised under a SDZ scheme. In addition to planning permission, SDZ schemes will have the potential to authorise Road Construction Consent, Listed Building Consent, Conservation Area Consent and Advertisement Consent (again subject to conditions, limitations and exceptions specified in the relevant SDZ scheme). This wider range of consents is reflected in the re-branding as a Simplified Development Zone. Again the purpose is to increase developer certainty while allowing planning authorities to proactively prescribe the conditions under which development will be authorised.
  • Given the limited adoption of SPZs, the Bill introduces what is described as a more determined approach to progressing SDZ schemes. Planning authorities will be required to periodically report on how they have considered making SDZ schemes. Scottish Ministers will have the power to require a planning authority to make or alter a SPZ scheme. Third parties will be able to request that a SPZ scheme is made or altered. If the request is refused, or no decision is made within 3 months, the third party may refer the matter to the Scottish Ministers (in effect a right of appeal). The detail of these rights and duties will be provided through regulations.
Other matters
  • The Bill contains provision on the procedure for making or altering a SDZ scheme, with much further detail to be provided through secondary legislation. This will prescribe information, publicity and consultation requirements before a SDZ scheme is adopted or altered.
  • If the Bill is enacted, existing SPZs would remain in place, but new SPZ schemes would not be permitted to commence.
  • Planning authorities expressed concern that making SDZs could be costly while also resulting in a loss of income as planning applications, with their associated fees, would no longer be required. The Policy Memorandum signals that a forthcoming review of planning fees will seek to introduce powers to permit discretionary charging to allow planning authorities to recoup the cost of SDZ scheme preparation where considered appropriate.

Developers may well welcome the grant of planning permission and other consents, and the increased investment certainty, should SDZs be used to their full potential. As always the devil may be in the detail, both of the SDZ procedures and the individual SDZ schemes. Equally, a SDZ scheme may permit the planning authority to proactively enable development and help deliver its Local Development Plan. A SDZ scheme is not a blanket grant of consent. However, the Scottish Ministers would have powers to call in proposed SPZ schemes and to require the making of a SDZ scheme where the planning authority has refused a third party request. One thing is clear. The Scottish Government considers SDZs to be an important and effective mechanism and (perhaps for reasons of resource or public opposition) a planning authority would not be able simply to decline to consider using the mechanism.