A charity has raised serious questions about Scotland’s planning system after Conservative councillors in Stirling backed a development against the advice of planning officials. The decision left taxpayers out of pocket when locals took the council to court.
Tory members, which made up the majority of councillors at an August 2020 planning panel meeting, all voted to approve a bid for a roadside service and petrol station at Firs of Kinbuck, near Dunblane.
They did so against advice from planning officials to reject the proposals. Officials warned the project would breach nine policies in the council’s local development plan, including commitments to protect the environment and support local town centres.
Local residents later successfully challenged the decision in the Court of Session and were awarded legal costs, which were covered by taxpayer cash.
The costs involved have not yet been revealed. But Planning Democracy, a Scottish charity which campaigns for an inclusive planning system, warned that court challenges can cost communities tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The campaign group said the situation “raises serious questions” about Scotland’s planning process and called for “an affordable and accessible means of challenging planning decisions”.
But Councillor Neil Benny, leader of the Scottish Conservatives on Stirling Council – who proposed the service station be permitted – said he voted for the development based on the local “economic development opportunity”.
Planning bid ‘benefits’
Benny added that he supported open debate and transparency in local planning, and agreed planning reform was required to make “access to justice” available to all.
The proposal included a petrol filling station, truck stop, restaurants, and a drive through restaurant. An earlier application, which included a hotel, was withdrawn.
Surveyors said at the time that the project would bring around £3.3m to the local economy, and provide local jobs and services.
But in July 2020, council planning officials urged the planning panel to reject the proposal after a report found it to be contrary to policies outlined in the 2018 local development plan.
The site did not make use of vacant or under-used land and buildings, would impact the greenbelt, and not support town centres or tourism. It would also encourage car use, and fail to reduce greenhouse gases, protect woodland or the wider natural environment, officials found.
They concluded there was no need for a roadside service station in the area. These issues had previously seen the development rejected from both the 2014 and 2018 local development plans. Kinbuck Community Group and Dunblane Community Council opposed the development on similar grounds.
But the bid had wide-ranging support from Conservative councillors. Local Tory councillor, Alastair Majury posted about the development six times between 2019 and 2020 via his councillor Facebook page. In October 2019, he urged followers to “consider sending in emails of support for this proposal”.
Majury shared a link to a survey which listed the promised benefits of the development. It asked recipients whether factors like increased local employment were “a good thing”.
In an August 2020 planning meeting, three SNP councillors backed the official’s advice to reject the application, meeting minutes show. But a motion to approve the service station was proposed by Councillor Neil Benny.
The development would be in a good location, bring economic and tourism benefits, have “no net adverse sustainability impacts” and provide electric vehicle charging points, he stressed.
His motion was passed four to three, with all four Tory councillors voting in favour.
Councillor Majury, who was not involved in the vote, said in a November 2020 Facebook post that the backing of the development represented “the majority view of both Dunblane and Kinbuck residents”.
“Should people try to finance a judicial review in order [to] restart the decision making process?,” he asked his followers. “Or should people back the majority will of the communities, and democratically reached decisions and let Firs of Kinbuck proceed?”
Majury did not respond to The Ferret’s requests to comment.
After the vote, local residents brought forward – and won – a judicial review in the Court of Session to reverse the decision, citing 99 local objections to the development.
Ailsa Gray, who led the February 2021 case, argued that Tory councillors failed to give appropriate reasons for backing the development, follow statutory procedure, and had misinterpreted the council’s local development plan policy.
Scottish planning law requires approval for a major development contrary to the local development plan to be decided by a full council meeting, with the public invited to a pre-hearing, she claimed.
While Transport Scotland had no objections to proposals, the A9 Safety Group identified the section at Firs of Kinbuck as being dangerous due to many side roads and entrances to farms and fields, she added.
The council did not fight the case and after taking legal advice, did not challenge the court’s decision. The application went back to the planning panel to reconsider, and all councillors – including Tory members – followed official advice to reject the plans.
The council confirmed the application had been rejected.
Councillor Benny told The Ferret: “I voted for the development on the basis of the economic development opportunity it represented for the area. I don’t think that was an illegitimate reason, but the decision was overturned as insufficient in law – which I entirely accept.
“There is a real debate to be had in planning about the balance between jobs and protection of land around settlements and these issues should always be fully debated in an open and transparent way.
‘There will always be differences of opinion about developments of any kind and I can completely understand why people in Dunblane want to protect their area.”
Planning Democracy argued that communities “have to raise ridiculous sums of money and jump through all sorts of hoops” to challenge a decision.
“For every one of the few decisions that are successfully challenged in court, there are numerous others which could and possibly should be challenged,” said Clare Symonds, the group’s founder and chair.
“The extortionate amount of money required is a massive barrier to access to justice.”
Councillor Benny echoed Symonds’ call for planning reform, claiming justice “should never be restricted to those who can afford it”.
Symonds’ group recently supported a Glasgow community to stop plans for luxury housing on the greenbelt in Carmunnock, the city’s last remaining conservation village. The situation has parallels with the Firs of Kinbuck development.
A planning panel session with just three councillors present – two SNP and one Labour – gave the green light to the plans, which were in breach of the SNP-run city council’s own rules and against the wishes of the local community council, The Herald reported.
Glasgow City Council said they would not fight a court appeal by local residents, who raised £7,000 for the case.
Symonds concluded: “Scotland needs an affordable and accessible means of holding decision makers to account. Ultimately this will lead to better planning decisions and development in the public interest.”
Image thanks to G Laird/CreativeCommons