SCOTLAND’s planning services could have become a barrier to economic recovery when they stalled during the first coronavirus lockdown, a conference has heard.

However, the Scottish Government’s chief planner told the Scottish Policy Conference on the National Planning Framework (NPF) that planners had risen to the challenge, through measures to keep the processes going to allow development to progress as soon as restrictions are eased.

John McNairney said the Planning Act – which is still being implemented – had also provided some of the tools required to make the system more inclusive and influential.

“Last March we faced a risk that our planning services could stall and we had no idea how long that might have lasted,” he said.

“Scotland’s planning system could well have become a barrier to our economic recovery, but planning and planners rose to the challenge that we had at that time.

“Some swift cross-sector collaboration and urgent action allowed us to make a suite of temporary changes to the planning legislation, including emergency legislation that removed barriers across planning processes, so that we could still find ways to communicate to engage to make decisions, and so that development could progress on the ground, as soon as restrictions were eased.

“Another way that planning responded really effectively was by relaxing some controls … so that businesses could diversify and keep people in jobs, for example by extending hours of operation on construction sites or for retail deliveries and allowing outdoor hospitality. They’re still in place, they’re quite clearly still needed just now, and we’ll only remove them when the time is right for that.”

McNairney said all of us should be moving towards recognising that our town centres had to be more mixed and open to helping facilitate people coming back to live in them after decades of being left deserted, largely through out-of-town developments.

He said town centres still offered many benefits, adding: “We can look to improve the quality of our town centres, and in the short term we can try and help to make it easier for people to access services in town centres. I think that we need to be more open to a stronger blend of uses in town centres, and we need to be really hawkish about further eroding the vital vitality and viability of town centres by moving out.”