Striking a balance between living in the city, and the life of the city
The Planning (Agent of Change) Bill was a private member’s bill introduced in Westminster in 2018 by former government minister John Spellar to ‘require specified planning controls in relation to developments likely to be affected by existing noise sources’.
Now commonly referred to as the Agent of Change principle, the planning control places a requirement on those carrying out new development to be responsible for managing and mitigating the impact of that change to protect neighbouring uses.
In England, in response to John Spellar’s bill, the Agent of Change principle was incorporated into the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2018. The NPPF provides that where the operation of an existing business or community facility could have a significant adverse effect on new development in its vicinity, it is the applicant’s responsibility to provide suitable mitigation. Agent of Change policies are also a common feature of policy at local level. For example, the London Plan requires London Boroughs to ensure that Development Plans and planning decisions reflect the Agent of Change principle.
In Scotland, the then Minister for Local Government and Housing, Kevin Stewart MSP, said: "I am attracted by the prospect of embedding the Agent of Change principle into our planning system so that we can protect the established and emerging talent in our music industry.”
The Minister’s statement prompted a letter from the Chief Planner reaffirming that the Scottish Government recognised the cultural and economic contribution of Scotland’s music industry and its importance to the vibrancy of town centres and night-time economy, but noted Agent of Change’s relationship to established policy and practice.
There is a requirement to assess the impact of development on the character and amenity of a local area. Potential noise and its mitigation have also long been a key consideration in the determination of planning applications - supported by Noise Impact Assessments and regulated by planning conditions. The real estate industry is familiar with these requirements and has adapted to bring developments forward in compliance, while remaining viable.
Despite the aim of the Agent of Change principle being well intended, there is a growing tension over its practical application in Scotland.
Scottish Ministers have used powers to ‘call-in’ applications for residential schemes in urban locations, which have been considered and scrutinised by a planning authority - in knowledge of the site context and technical reports – before granting permission for development, satisfied that planning conditions could regulate and mitigate noise issues.
By ‘calling in’, Scottish Ministers are reassessing planning applications to “give further consideration of the Agent of Change Principle and implications for live music venues and the recovery of the night-time economy,” on the basis that Agent of Change is a “nationally significant issue”.
The challenge now arising is that city centre living is seen as a critical component to successful regeneration. Indeed, the UK government has reaffirmed its commitment to brownfield delivery, densification and focussing growth on cities where it believes ‘demand is highest and growth is being constrained’. This is in direct conflict to the impact the Agent of Change principle is now having – blocking development in city centres, which have always been residential hubs, as well as home to the night-time economy, including music venues.
There are also environmental factors to consider. City centre developments have the potential to reduce private transport use and transform disused brownfield sites – often delivering onsite biodiversity enhancements and introducing new green spaces, for example.
Though the ambition to increase urban regeneration is clear – on current evidence, it is likely to be compromised in its delivery.
It does not need to be this way, however. City centre development and cultivating a lively night-time economy must not be seen as mutually exclusive, but rather inextricably linked.
That is why it is critical to strike the right balance when navigating the conflict between people living in the city and the life of the city. Otherwise, there is a major risk of stymying cultural progression and the successful regeneration of the UK’s urban centres.
Geraint Hughes is a principal associate and part of Shoosmiths’ Scottish planning team, Bob Pritchard is planning specialist at Shoosmiths.
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