If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table

Like most people who work in politics, I have spent the last few days, weeks and months trying to figure out if Theresa May has any kind of long-term strategy for how to handle Brexit and, if she does, what that might be.

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Graeme Downie, Director. @graemedownie

Also like a lot of people who work in politics, I tend to find myself reaching for some kind of comparison for political drama or documentary to explain what I think.  That is often West Wing or Yes Minister.

In this case, however, it is the new version of House of Cards with Kevin Spacey.  In that show there is a recurring line which Frank Underwood uses to explain why he takes what at first glance seems like illogical or risky actions – “If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table.”

That is the closest I have come so far to trying to explain what Theresa May might be up to.  Here is Prime Minister, previously regarded by many as a steady, safe pair of hands – winning the Conservative Party leadership by virtue of being the only candidate not to make a stupid mistake.

And yet, her approach to the upcoming Brexit negotiations and her dealings over a possible second Scottish independence referendum have seemed more the actions of a spoilt teenager, taking intractable black or white positions.  This has often seemed unreasonable and surely doomed to fail, afterall where is the famous British strength of negotiation and compromise, something Brussels diplomats will genuinely miss when the country exits the EU?

On Brexit, the Prime Minister is smart enough to know that in a traditional negotiation she has a very weak hand indeed.  One country versus 27 who are angry, have self-preservation at the core and, crucially, control many of the timescales.  No one would realistically expect to walk in to that kind of fight and not come out more bloodied that the opponents.  However, her actions, right from her decision to delay the triggering of Article 50, despite initial howls from the EU top brass, through to the way she has managed the furore about EU nationals is not what might be thought of as the traditional “British” way of handling diplomacy.

In her dealings with Nicola Sturgeon as well, the Mrs. May has been extreme – starting off with a “No” when questioned about whether Brexit was a sufficient material change to justify a second independence referendum and sticking to that hard line this week with a brisk “now is not the time” response to the First Minister’s demands for new constitutional vote.  This didn’t seem like simply a negotiating position, this was seemed pretty definitive and with a hint of dismissiveness.

Hardly the Marquess of Queensberry rules here from the PM either then– no negotiation, no discussion, no pleasantries.  Just no, in fact.

The response of many in Scotland this week has been to dismiss this approach as a Prime Minister who doesn’t understand Scotland or just flat out doesn’t care as she is beholden to the right wing of her own party.

This may well be the case but perhaps Theresa May just doesn’t like the way the traditional table of British negotiation is set and knows the meal will end badly unless she upends the table and at least tries to improve the setting from disasterous to at least just bad.

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Choose (political) life….

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It was hard to know where to start writing about politics in Scotland this week.  All sorts of “creative” ideas came to mind – for example I was going to try and write it like the famous “Choose Life” Trainspotting monologue to mark the premier this week of the sequel, T2: Trainspotting.  I even started a version to the tune of REM’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” which seemed appropriate but my poetry and writing skills just aren’t up to it, although you read my terrible effort here anyway.

It is impossible to talk about the week in politics anywhere without at least mentioning the first week of Donald Trump’s Presidency.  Afterall, “The Donald” is well known to the Scottish body politic – as well as his mother originally being from Scotland (sorry about that), the billionaire courted controversy when he built a new golf resort on the Menie estate in Aberdeenshire.  After that, he conducted a high profile campaign to block an offshore wind farm he complained would put off visitors to the course.  The whole episode gives some in Scotland a small head start on our knowledge of the bullying, hyperbole and downright aggressive manner in which the most powerful politician in the world operates.

In most normal weeks, the tied vote in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday a Labour motion condemning the Scottish Government’s Budget plans would have led the headlines, particularly as it introduces the slim possibility of an early Scottish election..  Although the Presiding Officer, following convention, gave her casting vote to the government, there is clearly and genuine disquiet at Holyrood over the SNP’s spending plans the opposition claim will lead to drastic cuts to local services.  The Scottish Government, for their part, point to increased spending on health and education, before moving to one of their favourite tactics – if in doubt, just say “Wastemonster”, “Right Wing UK Government” and “Tories” over and over again, if possible in the same sentence.

However, that more humdrum drama was overshadowed by the decisions of the UK Supreme Court on what consultation is required to invoke the spectre that is Article 50 of The Lisbon Treaty.  In Scotland, however, it was not the requirement for the UK Government to consult Westminster before triggering the Article which caused the biggest reaction.  Instead, it was the unanimous decision by the court that the UK Government was not required to formally consult the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, removing a potentially massive roadblock to the Prime Minister’s plans.

Although the hysterics and invective from the SNP, with shouts of “Traitor”, “Imperial Power” and “Control” ringing around both TV studios and social media platforms alike, were predictable, the decision could have serious implications for the seemingly never-ending debate over Scottish independence.

We have not seen the rise in support for Scottish independence since the Brexit vote that some expected but the issue remains very much the main dividing line in Scottish politics, with the SNP seeking to keep “all options open” for the future.  Nonetheless, it has been noticeable in recent months that Nicola Sturgeon’s rhetoric around #IndyRef2 (the hashtag is mandatory) has softened.  Although this week she reiterated that it was “all but inevitable”, the First Minister has repeatedly backed away from calls for a vote in the near future, even ruling it out during 2017.

Unlike her bombastic predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon is a more cautious political animal, knowing that a second independence defeat so soon after the one in 2014, would surely take the idea off the table for a real “generation” rather than just a few years.  But she faces the very difficult task of balancing that harsh reality with the fervent enthusiasm of her supporters who want more decisive action with a certain Mr. A Salmond appearing to be amongst those pushing for an earlier vote, no doubt causing an additional headache for the First Minister.

Whilst the political world remains unstable and uncertain, normal politics and activity continues and this week we were fortunate enough to arrange a visit for an MSP to visit one of our clients trout farms’ near Brechin and help celebrate a group of Primary School pupils winning an online maths competition.

So not creative but at least I avoided any Burns puns!

This post first appear at PubAffairs.

 

Council elections – expect major increases for Tories and Labour collapse

 

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Managing Director, Alex_M_Orr

Last year witnessed something of a political whirlwind, with elections to the Scottish Parliament, the EU referendum, and the small matter of the election of Donald J. Trump as US President. This year will see Scotland go to the polls yet again. However, this time we will be focused on more mundane, bread and butter issues at the council elections.

Councils play a major role across a huge range of local services such as schools, social work and rubbish collection. Those issues that impact on our day-to-day lives. And elections to Scotland’s 32 councils will take place on 4th May, with all of the 1,223 seats up for grabs.

At the last council elections in 2012 Labour and the SNP weren’t that far apart, with the SNP securing 425 to Labour’s 394 councillors, on 32% and 31% of the vote respectively.

However, Labour still holds the whip hand in Scotland’s town halls, and in central and southern Scotland Labour is part of the administration in all but five councils (Argyll and Bute, Scottish Borders, East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire and Midlothian).

In the northern half of Scotland the picture is much more mixed. The SNP enjoys a powerbase in Tayside with overall majorities in Dundee and Angus. Traditionally independents play a significant role in parts of the Highlands and islands and some rural areas.

As readers will be aware, the landscape has changed dramatically since 2012, with Scottish politics becoming polarised around the issues of independence and the Union. This has most recently been escalated with the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament’s call for a second independence referendum, rejected by Prime Minister May.

With the surge in SNP membership after the independence referendum of 2014, and the party taking 56 out of 59 Westminster seats – many in Labour strongholds – optimism will be high in SNP ranks.

Top targets for the SNP this time include some of Labour’s fortresses such as Glasgow and North Lanarkshire, where Labour has overall majorities.

The party will also be looking to regain control of councils including Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire where Labour has been in charge since 2012.

While the Scottish Conservatives secured 115 councillors on 13% of the vote in 2012, with the party now being the second party at Holyrood, expect it to chalk up significant increases. This will be particularly in rural councils such as Perth and Kinross, taking seats from the SNP.

Despite these being elections to councils, the Tories will also make the constitution a focus of their campaign, painting themselves as the only credible ‘defenders of the Union’. ‘Vote Tory to send a signal to Nicola Sturgeon’, highlighting opposition to a second independence referendum.

Labour is anticipated to be the loser over the piece. Lord Robert Hayward said that the results in Scotland risked being “cataclysmic” for Labour, facing near electoral wipe-out.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats will be hoping to recover from their poor 2012 performance, and the Scottish Greens will look to build on their handful of councillors.

It should be noted however that that there is no guarantee that the party with the largest number of councillors in an authority will form the administration, although this is normally the case. At these elections it will be interesting to see if those parties supporting keeping Scotland in the UK come together to keep the SNP out of power in town halls.

The election will also be interesting in terms of seeing whether, given a re-engagement with politics, individuals will be turning out and voting on the issue of bin collections, schooling and potholes, or will follow the new tribal instincts of nationalism versus unionism.

The fact that councils are able to raise council tax by 3% following years of a freeze may have an impact on the electorate, or it may be used, as is often the case, to deliver a mid-term verdict on the Scottish Government and its call for a second independence referendum.

Those who are strong advocates of local democracy will be hoping that the focus will be on local services and how these are paid for, rather than what is happening at Westminster or Holyrood.

My prediction is that tribal instincts will largely dominate, so expect councillor gains for the SNP, significant gains for the Tories, a Labour collapse, an increase in Green numbers and a modest recovery for the Liberal Democrats.

 

Holyrood back at school

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Director, Graeme Downie @GraemeDownie

As a youngster I would get very frustrated every summer when around this time we would have “Back to School” adverts in newspapers and on TV, all of them blissfully unaware that us Scottish kids had already been back for about three weeks.  I like to believe that this generational frustration is why Holyrood has come back from its summer-break at the same time as Westminster this year. And much like the first day back at school, the party leaders have been telling everyone what they did for their holidays.

Head Girl, Nicola, went on an exciting InterRail holiday around Europe and met all sorts of interesting people.  She was doing her best to make sure she could easily come back every year and telling them all that Scotland was the bestest country in the world and they should all be nice to her.  She certainly had a very good time speaking to all these people but then she came home and a lot of people told her that maybe a staycation would have been better.  After all, a lot of people in the village are waiting a long time to see a doctor and seem to be blaming Nicola!  But Nicola is going to have a conversation to the whole village about trying to move them further away from that village next door and closer to her new European chums.

The new “IT” girl, Ruth is becoming more and more popular although not nearly enough to worry the Head Girl. However, Ruth and her friends have been nominated for a lot of prizes this year at the school awards ceremony.  Her summer holiday was perhaps a little quieter than others but she did finally get her wish and was finally allowed to get a puppy.  On a more serious note, Ruth has very much decided that seeing family in Scotland was more important than trips abroad.  She still had her big sister, Theresa, in London to disagree with about Europe though so couldn’t get away from the place entirely.  In fact, Ruth decided to agree with Nicola about making it cheaper for people to fly away to other places on holiday so maybe they agree on some things after all.

Then there was Kezia, who did not have a nice time over the summer at all.  It all started so well, she went on a busman’s holiday to America with some friends and go to see some very famous bands.  One of them has been around a long time but now finally might make it to the very top of the charts as long as no-one decides to “Send in the Clown”.  Whilst she was away though, her family was having the most terrible falling out.  Kezia has decided that her uncle, Owen, should be leading the family but a lot of others in the wider family, including those who only recently realised they were related at all, think Uncle Jeremy should stay at the head of the table even though not many people outside of the village like him.  This is all expected to be sorted quite soon but Kezia might face some problems from her own part of the family tree in the future.  She has got herself some new friends though who will improve how the rest of the village think about her.

Another old boy who is doing a lot better now is Patrick.  After being in the school for quite a long time, he suddenly finds himself not only with a lot of new friends of his own friends but knows that the Head Girl might need his help soon as well for this big project she is working on.  He and his friends are very concerned with how the land around the village is used and thinks he can get a lot of help from everyone else in the school to improve a lot of these things.

Perhaps the quietest summer was had by little Willie.  No-one in the school or village dislike Willie at all.  They all agree he is such a friendly boy as well as being very good at talking about the most important things.  The problem is that no matter how well he does, he can’t seem to be as popular as the three big girls.  Like Kezia, he has some problems with his family in London.  He might have thought that with Kezia’s family being so unpopular, he might have got some more support but that doesn’t seem to have happened.  Not yet anyway.

There is a lot of work for everyone at school to do in the next few months.  They  have more exams to prepare for in May as well….

Where stands Scotland? The political implications of Brexit

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By Alex Bruce @alexandersbruce

A month out from the UK’s momentous decision to leave the European Union, Orbit Communications Director Alex Bruce considers the implications for Scottish politics, for Scotland’s future relationship with the rest of the UK and with the European Union – and the likelihood and potential outcome of a second referendum on Scottish independence.

As was widely predicted prior to the 23rd June, the vote to leave the European Union has provoked a short term shock to the UK economy, particularly in terms of currency exchange rates, share values and the UK’s international credit rating. Leave campaigners continue to argue that the longer term economic gains of leaving the EU will outweigh this short term instability, but there are also worrying signs of the potential for significant job losses in the longer term, particularly in financial services.

At a political level, the Leave vote provoked an immediate leadership crisis within both of the main UK political parties. Even prior to the vote, it was always inconceivable that David Cameron would survive as Prime Minister if the UK voted to leave. Following an aborted leadership contest that saw all of the other contenders either eliminated or drop out, Theresa May has emerged as the new Prime Minister. Upon arrival at Number 10, she has made immediate efforts to shore up a potentially deeply divided Conservative party by appointing leading Brexit campaigners to those ministerial portfolios at the front line of Brexit negotiations. The challenge from here will be to reconcile the very high (some might say unrealistic) expectations of Leave voters and campaigners with what is likely to be a brutal negotiation with the EU27 in which EU leaders appear to hold most of the cards.

Meanwhile, a new leadership contest within Labour is already underway. However, it currently seems unlikely that challenger Owen Smith will be able to win the support of a majority of Labour party members, most of whom fiercely maintain their loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. If Corbyn clings on to the leadership, what will happen to a Labour party led by someone who has the confidence of only a small minority of the Labour parliamentary party remains to be seen. But its credibility as an effective opposition at Westminster has all but disappeared.

With a majority vote for Remain in Scotland, there has been an immediate increase in support for Scottish independence – albeit not the 60% support the SNP leadership had set as a benchmark to determine if a second independence referendum was winnable and therefore worth calling. Nicola Sturgeon remains sensibly cautious on the matter – treading a fine line between keeping the party faithful onside while at the same time not wishing to paint herself into a corner of having to call a referendum prematurely and then face the career-ending prospect of losing.

As opinion polling has consistently shown, it is also important to remember that it was predominantly the economic uncertainty of independence which swung the outcome in favour of ‘No’ in 2014 (and not the Vow as many on the Yes side have sought to claim). Confronting the Scottish electorate with a second independence vote before the future terms of the UK’s relationship with the EU are known might be seen by many as having jumped off the Brexit cliff only to be asked to take an event bigger leap of faith by leaving the UK.

Nicola Sturgeon has secured a mandate from the Scottish Parliament to seek negotiations with the EU institutions and other EU Member States to explore how Scotland could preserve its relationship with the EU as the UK prepares to leave.

But the issue now for Scotland is it lies stuck between a rock and a hard place. Although the First Minister may have received a warm welcome in Brussels, the devil of any future arrangement lies in the detail. Ultimately, just as the remaining EU Member States cannot be seen to give the UK an easy ride following its decision to leave, giving Scotland a preferential deal on EU membership which fudges the economic criteria would set a hugely dangerous precedent – as would transferring the UK’s preferential terms of EU membership to Scotland as a ‘successor Member State’.

The latter arrangement sets equally dangerous precedents within the UK. Scotland was not the only constituent part of the UK to vote Remain. A deal to secure preferential terms of continuing EU membership for Scotland will prompt an immediate clamour for similar treatment from Northern Ireland and London – something the UK Government is likely to be equally unwilling to entertain.

Despite all of the political manoeuvring currently underway to explore scenarios whereby Scotland could remain both a member of the EU and of the UK, the reality is that Scotland’s best prospect of a continuing positive relationship with the EU is either through a well negotiated Brexit deal for the UK as a whole that preserves access to the single market – or else by becoming an independent country and subsequently applying for EU membership.

In the current context, the economic case for Scottish independence is arguably on even shakier ground than it was in 2014. Latest figures show Scotland’s public expenditure outstripping its annual revenue by the order of almost £15 billion and the oil price remains stubbornly low. In pure financial terms, Scotland’s trade relationship with the rest of the UK is worth four times more than its exports to the European Union. The issue of currency also remains to be resolved although there are now moves afoot within the SNP to explore the possible creation of a new Scottish pound.

The outcome of a second Indyref will largely come down to whether the Scottish electorate’s economic instincts are now trumped by a sense that Scotland no longer has much in common politically with the rest of the UK – and a willingness to go through a potentially painful economic ‘adjustment’ to be able to strike out on its own path with the longer term aim of rejoining the European Union as an independent country. Given the current fractious nature of UK politics, it would be foolish to rule that out either.

It’s been take out the trash week (and month) in Edinburgh

This blog first appeared on PubAffairs

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Graeme Downie @GraemeDownie

Immediately after elections, winning parties, even one returning for another term, are meant to be riding on a wave, issuing positive announcement after positive announcement showing how they are turning their manifesto pledges in to actions.

For the SNP that was certainly the case in 2007, the last time they formed a minority government, when they went so far as to take a leaf out of US President FDR’s book and make a big show of progress after their first 100 days in office.  This time, however, things seem different.  Rather than positive announcements, the SNP seems to have been fire-fighting and playing defence.

Just this week we’ve had (you might want to take a breath): Minister defending delays of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments to Scottish Farmers; education statistics showing a reduction in those from the poorest backgrounds going to university as well as a decline in standards of literacy and numeracy standards; an acknowledgement of the need to “refresh” guidance on the controversial “Named Person” legislation aimed at protecting vulnerable children; a review of NHS targets and, just yesterday, confirmation that the new Forth Road crossing will not be open in December as initially thought.

This is in addition to last week’s controversial debate when the Scottish Government lost a vote on an opposition motion to ban fracking after SNP MSPs abstained despite many candidates being elected on a platform supporting a ban only a few weeks before.

So, have the SNP suddenly imploded, are we seeing the quickest post-election collapse of a government in history?  Well, of course not.  This is a government and party that remains hugely popular and united, has just been returned as by far the biggest party at Holyrood and is on course to enjoy yet another election victory in the council elections in May 2017.  So what is going on?

Well, a lot of the information published this week is on issues extensively debated during the election.  There have been accusations announcements were delayed before the election for political reasons, accusations which now appear to have some credence.  However, no governing party in its right mind would put out bad news immediately before an election if it didn’t have to so you could argue the SNP were quite sensible to sit on their comfortable lead for the 6 months before polling day.

Instead I suspect the reason this information is no coming out in what seems like a near constant steam is an  elongated version of “Take out the Trash Day”, well known to us West Wing geeks.  By getting all of the bad news out the way now, immediately after the election when, frankly, voters aren’t watching, it is unlikely they will remember it the next time polling day comes around in less than 12 months.

However, that strategy works if the government takes the summer to start to fix some of these problems, otherwise the bad news drags on and on and could become more embedded in the minds of voters.  So, I would expect announcements over the summer break and immediately after about remedial action being taken.  Equally, I suspect a few extra Bills are being hurriedly added to the first Legislative Statement which will take place shortly after recess.

If that doesn’t happen then maybe, just maybe, someone can write an article about stalled agendas, appearing cracks and incompetence growing but I wouldn’t get those metaphors dusted off just yet.

Review of the Scottish planning system

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Alex Orr @Alex_m_Orr

In September 2015, an independent panel was appointed by Scottish Ministers to review the Scottish planning system. The panel were tasked with bringing together ideas to achieve a quicker, more accessible and efficient planning process.

The report of the panel, “Empowering Planning to Deliver Great Places”, and a statement from the panel were published on 31 May 2016. The Scottish Government is now considering the recommendations put forward by the panel and will publish its response in due course.

The review focused on six key themes – development planning; housing delivery; planning for infrastructure; development management; leadership, resourcing and skills; and community engagement.

Key recommendations include:

Strong and flexible development plans:

  • Strategic Development Plans should be replaced by an enhanced National Planning Framework, which should be more fully integrated with wider government policies and strategies.
  • Main Issues Report should be removed and replaced with a single, full draft plan, providing there is a renewed commitment to early engagement.
  • Local development plans should set out a 20 year vision and focus on place rather than policy. Preparation process reduced to a two year period.
  • Development plan examinations should be replaced with a frontloaded ‘gatecheck’ of the plan.
  • Scope for flexibility and updating local development plans within the 10 year period.
  • A statutory duty for the development plan to be aligned with community planning should be introduced.

The delivery of more high quality homes:

  • The National Planning Framework should define regional housing targets as the basis for setting housing land requirements in local development plans.
  • Urgent need to establish a clearer definition of effective housing land so that local development plans can move on from this to take a positive and flexible approach to addressing the housing land requirement for their area.
  • SPZ concept should be rebranded and evolved into a more flexible and widely applicable zoning mechanism which identifies and prepares areas to make them ‘investment ready’.
  • Mechanisms for planning authorities to take action to assemble land and provide infrastructure upfront should be established as soon as possible.
  • A programme of innovative housing delivery should be progressed in a way which is fully aligned with local development plans.

An infrastructure first approach to planning and development:

  • A national infrastructure agency or working group with statutory powers should be established, involving all infrastructure providers as well as planning representatives. This will be tasked with providing a clearer, cross cutting overview of planning and infrastructure provision.
  • Options for a national or regional infrastructure levy should be defined and consulted upon.
  • A development delivery infrastructure fund should be established, partly resourced by a mechanism to capture land value uplift.
  • Corporate structure requiring all key infrastructure providers to co-operate in delivering the local development plan should be introduced.
  • A review of transport governance should be undertaken to address the gap between this key aspect of infrastructure and development planning.
  • Future school building programmes should address the need for new schools in housing growth areas.
  • Local authorities and their partners need to become much bolder in their approach to infrastructure investment, with an “infrastructure first” approach.
  • Section 75 planning obligations should be retained but their use should be minimised and the process streamlined.
  • New approaches to low carbon infrastructure planning and delivery should be taken forward through a programme of innovation.

Efficient and transparent development management:

  • Timescales for decision making remain critical in creating certainty and should remain part of the performance monitoring framework.
  • Certainty provided by the development plan in development management should strengthened – to incentivise this allocated sites should be afforded planning permission in principle, could be exempted from pre-application consultation requirements and could benefit from fast-tracked appeals. Conversely, where non allocated sites are being proposed for development a charrette or similar fuller consultation or mediation exercise could be required.
  • Quality and effectiveness of pre-application discussions with planning authorities and consultation by developers should be significantly improved.
  • National guidance on minimum requirements for validation is required.
  • Scottish Government should work with local authority enforcement officers to identify and/or remove any barriers to the use of enforcement powers.
  • Planning authorities should work together to identify the scope for significantly extending permitted development rights.
  • Fuller study of the scope for combined consents, particularly planning, roads and drainage consents, should be carried out.
  • A stronger mechanism for a collective community perspective to be built into the matters explicitly addressed by reporters in appeals, could go some way towards bridging the gap between local and central decision making.

Stronger leadership, smarter resourcing and sharing of skills:

  • Planning services should aspire to become leaders and innovators within the context of public service reform.
  • Planning fees on major applications should be increased substantially, so the service moves forward at full cost recovery.
  • Scope for further discretionary charging, for example for pre-application processes, should be considered further.
  • Alternative mechanisms to support improvements should be found and the threat of the penalty clause removed.
  • Skills development is required in a number of priority areas.
  • Local authorities should pursue the establishment of shared services.
  • A planning graduate intern programme should be considered.

Collaboration rather than conflict – inclusion and empowerment:

  • There should be a continuing commitment to early engagement in planning, but practice needs to improve significantly.
  • Communities should be empowered to bring forward their own local place plans, and those should form part of the development plan.
  • Community councils should be given a statutory right to be consulted on the development plan.
  • Third party rights of appeal should not be introduced.
  • A working group should be established to identify the barriers to greater involvement in planning, taking account of measures contained in the Community Empowerment Act and the Land reform Act.
  • A new statutory tight for young people to be consulted on the development plan should be introduced.