Aedán Smith, Head of Planning and Development at RSPB Scotland, has this blog about the decision making process for major developments in Scotland.

A more equitable decision making process for major developments is about much more than just windfarms

A joint letter signed by a number of heritage and environmental bodies, including RSPB Scotland, was published in the Sunday Times at the weekend,  which ran an accompanying article and in The Herald on Monday. 

There were also additional articles and some further correspondence in the letters pages this week. Some of that correspondence narrowly interpreted the letter as a criticism of windfarms or as criticism of the town planning process. From an RSPB Scotland perspective, this is rather an over simplification. This is occasionally about windfarms but often it is about coal mines, housing, harbours, roads, golf courses or marine developments – in fact it can be about any decision to make major changes to our natural environment, on land or sea.

Well sited and designed windfarms can deliver major benefits for the environment, particularly by reducing greenhouse gas emissions but RSPB Scotland adopts its position on all development types based on the conservation implications of the proposal not on the type of development.

We think there needs to be a fresh look into how these major decisions that affect Scotland’s environment can be reviewed, and on occasion, challenged.  Of course the Government must have a central role in planning and in other nationally important decision making but, with the best will in the world, mistakes can happen. Providing an opportunity to challenge decision making is therefore a key part of an equitable and fair society. We are not convinced that our current system does this as well as it could. 

Scotland’s planning system is better than most at involving others in the process of decision making but it is clearly weighted in favour of encouraging development to happen, sometimes to the serious detriment of our environment. An equitable right to challenge decisions is therefore especially important. Developers who are turned down have that right, those who feel the national interest is not best served by the development do not.

Other regulatory systems are often much less effective at engaging others than is the planning system and often the only route of challenge is through the courts. This is both extremely expensive and limits any challenge to legal technicalities, rather than the merits of the case. This is far from ideal and the expense of the legal process, despite some recent improvements, weights the system hugely in favour of those with the deepest pockets, most obviously major PLC’s or those with backing from development agencies.

A review of the system of legal challenge should therefore be undertaken in parallel with a review of planning appeal rights, with the objective of ensuring that we have a system that is open and transparent but, when required, also provides a fair and equitable opportunity to challenge decisions. Only then can we build a fairer, more equal and more sustainable Scotland.