Housing charities call for rural focus in planning reform

Experts on rural housing welcome change yet urge more focus on rural provision  

RURAL Housing Scotland (RHS) has welcomed the publication of the Scottish Government’s plans for reform of the planning system. 

New housing and planning minister Kevin Stewart MSP outlined the proposals on Monday, planning to reduce the time it takes to get new homes from their design stage to being ready for people to move in.

The changes are claimed to have a sizeable impact on both urban and rural communities.

It was Alex Neil MSP, who initiated the independent panel in 2015 to review changes to planning law and stages when he was cabinet secretary for social justice, communities and pensioners’ rights between 2014 and 2016.  

“Reform needs to recognise these challenges if rural communities are to benefit as well as our cities.” Alistair Cameron

The independent review was to focus on six key issues: development planning, housing delivery, planning for infrastructure, further improvements to development management, leadership, resourcing, skills and community engagement.

Debbie Mackay, a board member of RHS and director of planning with property experts Savills, said: “This shows real commitment to meaningful reform of our planning system and is hugely welcome. 

“The immediate actions and challenging timescales they commit themselves to, should give real pace to the reforms which are badly needed. 

“Speed and urgency are welcome, however they must also be balanced with inclusion of changes which will create a step change in provision of housing for rural and island communities where the lack of housing can create a spiral of decline in some of our most fragile areas.”

“This shows real commitment to meaningful reform of our planning system and is hugely welcome.” Debbie Mackay

Related to the wider issue of planning is the specific consequence of fuel poverty, which is a disproportionally large  problem in rural areas.

According to the 'Housing in Rural Scotland' report by the Scottish rural college (SRUC), this is especially due to limited fuel choices and the preponderance of hard to heat and hard to insulate traditional buildings, often in the private sector.

This problem further reduces the affordability of rural housing.  In remote rural Scotland, 18 per cent of households are in fuel poverty compared to 12 per cent in accessible rural areas and seven per cent  in  the  rest  of  Scotland.

Research  by  SRUC found  that  in  rural  local  authorities,  the  number  of  households  is  expected to  grow  by  180,000  by  2033  (21.3 per cent  of  2008  housing  stock)  due  to  growing  population  levels, and  particularly  an  increase  in the  number  of  single occupant  households.

“However they must also be balanced with inclusion of changes which will create a step change in provision of housing for rural and island communities.” Debbie Mackay

RHS convener Alastair Cameron added: “There’s much in this to welcome: the objectives for speedier decision-making and ensuring effective community engagement are right, and we’re pleased to see a commitment to involving rural interests in liaison activities, and to ‘island-proofing’ the effects of planning policy and practice. 

“As ever, it’s in the detail where things might prove trickier. In our experience, and as the Scottish Government knows, rural housing development can be especially challenged by environmental, infrastructural and cost constraints. 

“Reform needs to recognise these challenges if rural communities are to benefit as well as our cities.”

Following a further stage of consultation, the Scottish Government expects to put the reform plans forward in a new Planning Bill in 2017.

Picture courtesy of  Sean Ó Domhnaill

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