By Clare Symonds of Planning Democracy

YESTERDAY we had a huge disappointment, following the failure of MSPs on the Local Government and Communities Committee committee to support equal rights of appeal on planning decisions. Once again, the public voice has not been listened to and communities have been denied a right to challenge decisions.

The lack of an equal right to appeal is seen by communities as one of the most unjust aspects of the current planning system, but when the Scottish Government introduced the Planning Bill late last year there was no attempt to redress the obvious injustice where a developer can appeal a planning decision if they are refused permission but a community has no right to appeal against approval of a planning application – even if it runs contrary to democratically agreed local authority plans and policies.

READ MORE: Outcry after MSPs reject bid to give the public right to appeal planning decisions

The government has stressed it wants more collaboration and less conflict in planning. A laudable aim, but surely an unequal planning system is in itself a source of discord, which in turn leads to a lack of trust.

The government wants to achieve a collaborative approach through “frontloading” public engagement, which means getting people to invest their time and energy into shaping development plans that inform planning decisions later on.

It would rather people concentrate on this than getting involved in ‘the business end’ where planning applications are decided upon. The problem is that these development plans are not set in stone. There is nothing to stop a developer coming forward with an application that runs contrary to that development plan being granted permission. This provides little incentive for people to spend hours contributing to a development plan when it can be ignored with impunity.

There is a fear that appeals would prevent development and that communities who are calling for appeals are anti-development.

But our evidence and case studies show the opposite. Many communities want to see good-quality development that addresses local needs, offers environmental protection and doesn’t put pressure on already creaking infrastructure and services.

Antony Vitrano of Kilmacolm Residents Association, one group of many across Scotland calling for fairer planning, says: “As a community, we have kept stressing that we are not opposed to housebuilding in our area. We just want to see it built on suitable, sustainable locations.

“Currently, we are facing three major housing developments, all outwith our democratically agreed local development plan. The developers have tried every means at their disposal to get these developments built on our precious greenbelt, and yet the brownfield sites we have available, with planning approval already granted, still lie undeveloped. Giving us a right of appeal would enable us to make sure housing in our area goes in the right places.

“Without equality of appeals, developers will continue to ride roughshod over us. Those who voted against equal rights of appeal appear to be happy with that.”

If the government is serious about its stated national commitments to a fairer society and community empowerment, then it needs to improve on what the Planning Bill offers. The best that is proposed is for communities to be allowed to draw up their own local place plans. This places a huge amount of responsibility on communities, with no guarantees. Developers will still be able to gain planning permission even if it runs completely contrary to local place plans and there is nothing communities will be able to do without a right of appeal.

Although yesterday’s vote hasn’t resolved current imbalances, the Conservatives' abstention means they haven’t ruled out the possibility of appeal rights for communities. We hope that in the last stages of the bill equality will prevail.