Public Petitions Committee 12 May 2015 Attendance
*John Pentland (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab)
*David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)
*Jackson Carlaw (West Scotland) (Con)
*Kenny MacAskill (Edinburgh Eastern) (SNP)
*Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)
*Hanzala Malik (Glasgow) (Lab)
*John Wilson (Central Scotland) (Ind)
The following also participated:
Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)
Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Gil Paterson (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)
David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)
Clerk to the committee
The David Livingstone Room (CR6)
Decision on Taking Business in Private The Convener (John Pentland): Good morning and welcome to the 10th meeting in 2015 of the Public Petitions Committee. I remind everyone to switch off their mobile phones and other electronic devices as they interfere with the sound system.
I have received no apologies for today’s meeting.
The first item of business is a decision on whether to take agenda item 4, on external research, in private. Does the committee agree to take that item in private?
Members indicated agreement.
New Petitions Local Authority Planning Appeals (PE1560) The Convener: The next item of business is consideration of three new petitions. The committee will hear from two of the petitioners. The first new petition is PE1560 from John Buston, on local authority planning appeals procedure. Members have a note from the clerk, a briefing from the Scottish Parliament information centre and a copy of the petition. I welcome the petitioner, John Buston, to the meeting. I understand that you want to say a few words before we move to questions.
John Buston: I have one or two points that I want to make. Yesterday, I sent some diagrams to the committee—I believe that members have copies. I have set out the basics of the case on the three diagrams. The first flow diagram shows my recommendation. The council complaint procedure should be concluded and the inaccurate report of handling should be corrected right at the start of the process by the planning authority, before it is sent to the ward councillors. Something only becomes a decision by virtue of the fact that the ward councillors do not call it in—in effect, they take a decision before the appeal moves on.
There are two paths that a complaint can take. On my recommended path, a correct report of handling goes right through the whole system. If members look at the second flow diagram, which represents the current process, they will see that there are two procedures: the review procedure and the complaint procedure. The complaint procedure stops at the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, because the SPSO cedes examination of the facts to the local review body.
The committee can see, on the second diagram, that the report of handling is corrected by the review procedure, which takes place after the decision has been made. When the report of handling, if it is called in, goes before the full council, it is possibly inaccurate—although I would expect the minister to correct it at the next stage.
The third diagram shows what actually happened in the planning application that I identified. It was inaccurate all the way through the process, because the local review body did not review the issue. I picked out one issue to make things simple—there were about 16 or 17—and to use as an example for the whole case that I am making.
I have summarised the situation on the last sheet:
“The LRB are only involved in the planning process by Ward Councillor determination and this involvement may not occur if an accurate ROH were available as a basis for decision. It is therefore inappropriate for them to be involved prior to the ROH being corrected.”
The other thing that I found a bit strange is that the LRB is professionally advised by the planning authority; there are doubts about whether the advice that is received on technical planning issues is sufficiently independent.
On the train coming down here this morning I noticed that members have a briefing paper that looks to be misleading as well, because it misses out the stage at which ward councillors are involved. It is not inaccurate, but it does not show the full picture. I would not expect SPICe to correct things, just as I would not expect the planning authority to correct a report that it has generated. That is the case that I am making.
I had a complaint, which I identified in the report, that was not examined. There must be something wrong with the system if a legitimate complaint is not examined. I am unsure whether it was a procedural or operational failure. I cannot get the answer to that; I cannot get the full picture from the local authority or the SPSO. I have set out the basic facts. If further facts could be obtained, I could comment more on whether the failure was procedural or operational.
The Convener: Thank you for your presentation, Mr Buston. We will move to questions.
Kenny MacAskill (Edinburgh Eastern) (SNP): Do you think that this is something that could be dealt with by guidance, as opposed to its requiring a change to primary or subordinate legislation? Could planning guidance from the Government negate the issue?
John Buston: Yes, it could. The situation would never have arisen if an answer had been provided straight away by the planning authority; I would not be sitting here, having followed the issue through for the last two or three years. To some extent, the way in which the thing was handled was poor. It would be fine if extra guidance were given to ensure that such matters were handled better.
John Wilson (Central Scotland) (Ind): I want to clarify the issue of additional guidance versus legislation. Additional guidance means just that—it is guidance that the planning authority can take note of and apply in the manner that it sees fit.
Part of the issue that you have raised with regard to the SPSO is that the local councillor element is not included. In the local authority that I served in when I was a councillor, the local councillor engagement in cases relating to delegated planning decisions involved the councillor getting a weekly list of planning applications that had been submitted. Further information would be provided only if the councillor requested it. If that information was not requested, or if no request was made for the application to go to a full planning meeting, the application would be addressed by the delegated officer.
There is a need to address the issue that you have raised about local ward members being involved in a decision, and how that might fit into any additional guidance that was given to the local authorities. How do you see that working out?
John Buston: I would say that the ward councillors have to be involved if they are going to make a meaningful decision about whether to call in a case. They have to consider the facts of the case. I would not expect them to look just at a list before making a decision about whether to call in the report of handling. If that was all that they did, they would not have any idea what the background to the decision was.
John Wilson: As I said, my experience was that the local authority provided basic information to the elected members, and that is still the case—another member in this committee will be aware of the practice in that local authority. You get the planning applicant’s name, the name of the officer dealing with the application, the reference number and a line that says, for example, “Extension to a dwelling house” or tells you that a garage is being added to the grounds. I would say that the majority of those descriptors are simply looked at. Unless one of them rings alarm bells, local elected members do not ask for more information.
Do you think that it is correct that we have delegated authority to officers to deal with planning applications and that they therefore do not have to go through the full planning process?
John Buston: I would have assumed that, because ward councillors have to make decisions about whether to call in a report of handling, they would want to have a look at the report. The bare bones do not tell you anything beyond the fact that there is, for example, a planning application for a three-bedroom house in a certain spot and that there have been no objections. I think that they have to go a little bit deeper in their capacity as ward councillors.
John Wilson: Just to correct you, I say that ward councillors can only request that the application be heard by the committee; they cannot make decisions on the merits of applications. As we all know from the history of planning applications in Aberdeenshire, localised planning hearings are held there to determine the planning applications, if they go through that process.
I am trying to work out a way in which we could deal with this petition so that we can satisfy you and also bring about changes that might impact on other planning authorities in Scotland.
John Buston: It is a big decision. I would prefer my case to be heard by the minister, who could take an independent view. Planning advice notes are produced by the minister, but I think that in my case they were disregarded by the local planning authority. I would have got a better hearing if my case had gone through the full council, which might have accepted it, and then moved up to the minister, because it would have been assessed professionally by people who issue the overall Scottish guidelines.
The Convener: Your petition calls for the Scottish Government either to eliminate or amend the notice of review period of three months. If we were to eliminate it, might there be concern about the impact of that on other areas, neighbouring properties or new developments?
John Buston: That would depend on the timing. My experience was that it took three months to get the council to see the case. In fact, the council response came after the application date for a local review meeting and the SPSO response came six months later. I think that the time that was taken was partly because it was a fairly unusual case. If there was a limit of a year or of six months with caveats, that would be fine.
The Convener: The planning system currently operates independent of local authority complaints procedures. Would you like to see them being linked?
John Buston: No—I think that there is a case for separation. I am asking for the integrity of the report to be examined by the council complaints procedure. If that were the case, it would go through the local authority, move on to the SPSO, which would give a decision and that would be fed in right at the start. The SPSO would say what it thinks is wrong or misleading and the local authority would then, I hope, amend the report of handling. The application would go back to the start and the planning process would continue with an accurate report of handling. I am not saying that the planning method should change; I am saying that it should start from an accurate base because the system is weak if inaccurate ROHs are getting right through the system.
The Convener: I take it from your answers that rather than see the process eliminated, you would like to see it amended. You mentioned an extension to between six and 12 months. Is there any area where you think that that might be a wee bit too long and where a four-week extension might be more helpful?
John Buston: I think that the period could be longer. There could be a caveat that there should have been an application bid through the council complaints procedure, which should allow the council complaints procedure to finish. I understand your concerns about making the extension too long, because there would then be a backlog of business on the hands of the council.
The Convener: As there are no further questions, what action would the committee like to take on the petition?
Kenny MacAskill: We should write to the Government because I think that there is an issue. I find it very complex and technical and we are all keen to avoid a change that would then create more delays. It is about how the processes all work together. That is why I asked whether the issue could be dealt with without legislative change, which would be problematic. We should write to the Government to ask whether it thinks that there is an issue, because there seems to be something amiss and, if so, ask what plans it might care to draw up.
The Convener: We could also perhaps write to Heads of Planning Scotland to get a better feel for the situation.
John Wilson: I agree with those two recommendations. I suggest that we also write to Planning Aid Scotland and Planning Democracy, because those two organisations have an interest in the planning process, just to get an alternative perspective from those who are out there working and advising in planning.
The Convener: Does the committee agree with all those recommendations?
Members indicated agreement.
The Convener: I thank Mr Buston for attending. I suspend the meeting to allow the next petitioner to take a seat.
10:24 Meeting suspended. 10:26 On resuming—