by Donna Gardiner
A simplified planning zone (SPZ) is a designated area where the need to apply for planning permission for certain types of development is removed so long as the development complies with a range of pre-specified conditions.
Although the SPZ concept has been around since the 1970s, the idea has never really taken off, and there are very few SPZs in the UK.
However, in the last 12 months there have been some signs of renewed interest in the concept. As part of the current review of the planning system, the Scottish Government has shown considerable enthusiasm for the potential of SPZs to address the housing crisis and support economic development.
In their most recent position statement, they state:
“Zoning has potential to unlock significant areas for housing development, including by supporting alternative delivery models such as custom and self-build. This could also support wider objectives including business development and town centre renewal”
Indeed, the Scottish Government recently committed £120,000 to help four local authorities develop pilot SPZs for housing development in Aberdeenshire, Argyll & Bute, Dumfries and Galloway, and North Ayrshire.
There are also plans underway for the creation of two new SPZs in Scotland. In Aberdeenshire, councillors have agreed that planning officers should begin the statutory process for the creation of an SPZ for industrial and commercial activity in the south of Peterhead. The SPZ aims to strengthen the town’s position as a key strategic investment location, and complement work to regenerate the town centre.
At the other end of the country, in the Scottish Borders, a consultation has recently closed on the creation of an SPZ in Tweedbank – the new Central Borders Business Park. The scheme aims to capitalise on the opportunities brought about by the Borders Railway, and is likely to receive additional funding as part of the recently agreed Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.
While there is enthusiasm for the Tweedbank SPZ, East Berwickshire councillor Jim Fullerton notes: “The question of the viability of this project has to be recorded. Enthusiasm is one thing, but evidence of it being viable is the key.”
So what is the evidence on the viability of SPZ’s? In theory, SPZs can offer a number of benefits for both the developer and the planning authority, including:
- removal of the ‘planning hurdle’ and associated fees
- faster decision making and accelerated development
- greater certainty for developers and stakeholders
- simplified planning control
- reduces the need for repetitive planning applications
- saves time and costs both for organisations and the local planning authority
- offers more flexibility than a masterplan
- attracts investment
- can help to promote the reuse of existing space
However, while there are equivalent mechanisms in other countries, there are currently only two other operational SPZs in Scotland – Hillington Industrial Estate and Renfrew High Street. They are widely considered a success, with Scottish Planner concluding that:
“Both projects are a good example of how planning professionals, working with commercial stakeholders, can cooperate successfully in finding new ways to encourage sustainable economic growth.”
Case study: Glasgow City Council and Hillington
The award-winning SPZ allows the landowner to increase space at the site by around 85,000 square metres, as long as proposals conform to the conditions set out in the SPZ scheme.
The SPZ is valid for 10 years. So far, it has triggered around 20,000 square metres of development and attracted around £20 million pounds of investment. Not only has it helped to promote the reuse of existing space, such as the obsolete Rolls Royce plant, it claims to have given the area a commercial advantage in attracting inward investment.
Jamie Cumming, the director of Hillington Park, said: “Our SPZ status means that new developments like the ‘motorbike village’ with Ducati Glasgow, Triumph Glasgow and West Coast Harley-Davidson as well as Lookers plc’s new Volvo and Jaguar showrooms and our own Evolution Court manufacturing and logistics development can be accelerated with an anticipated build time of just 10 months.”
Case study: Renfrew Town Centre
Building on the success of the SPZ at Hillington, in 2015 Renfrewshire council created the Renfrew Town Centre SPZ – Scotland’s first SPZ focusing on town centres. Renfrew is a “small, but vibrant” town centre. The SPZ aims to support existing businesses, encourage new businesses, and increase the number of people living within the town centre by supporting the re-use of vacant property on upper floors.
The scheme has been hailed as an excellent example of the Town Centre First principle.
According to Scottish Planner: “The scheme has been well received and offers simplicity to businesses who can invest in the town centre knowing that they can change the use of premises and upgrade the shop front without having to apply for planning permission”.
However, SPZs are not without their challenges. These include the initial costs of establishing the SPZ, which can vary significantly depending on the size and complexity of the scheme. There is also the need to ensure that the SPZ is ‘future-proofed’ – so that it is still relevant throughout the duration of its life (usually 10 years). It is also important that those establishing an SPZ address the perception held by many that the relaxed planning rules associated with SPZs will result in poor design or compromise environmental impact.
In addition to the pilot SPZs, the Scottish Government has commissioned Ryden (in association with Brodies) to undertake research to assess the potential for a more flexible and more widely applicable land use zoning mechanism than SPZs provide at present. The research will inform the Government’s final proposals.
The research team at Idox will be following the revival of SPZs in Scotland with interest.