PUBLIC trust in the planning process around major infrastructure developments is at an all-time low.

And it's not just about wind farms; a snapshot of letters pages and online media on any given day reveals angst and suspicion stemming from the sacrifice of areas of wild land, natural heritage, historic landscapes and greenbelt to commercial priorities.

It is understood that difficult decisions need to be made for the good of the nation and the planet. Yet, at a time when community empowerment is supposed to be in the ascendant, it is ironic to see the honest concerns expressed by local communities, and those united by the desire to conserve our most important natural and cultural assets, swept aside in an unequal battle with powerful commercial interests. As has recently been observed, even the Scottish Government itself has been shown to disregard its expert advisors.

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This situation cannot continue and it is in everyone's interests to find a way forward.

If we are to rebuild public confidence in the planning process and in the objectivity of Scottish Ministers responsible for making such decisions, then we must find a way to demonstrate absolute transparency, impartiality and fairness. Doing so would help those affected by planning outcomes to accept unpalatable choices.

We propose that fresh impetus be given to revisiting the current planning system with a view to improving existing procedures, potentially through the creation of a body or process that is truly independent of government. The goal would be to ensure clear, neutral adjudication over controversial planning applications where there could be significant impact on important landscapes, natural heritage interests or local communities.

We accept that there are many questions to answer over how any new arrangements would be established, who would oversee them and so forth; but it is a discussion we must have soon if we are to find a way out of the morass of confusion and recrimination that characterises the present system.

Change would obviate the need for ill-funded individuals, communities and charities to take on lavishly-subsidised developers in the courts where they can rely upon the best advocacy money can buy. It would also create a level playing field on which the needs of nature and communities can be weighed alongside other priorities.

We invite the Scottish Government to join with us in an open discussion based on our suggestions.

John Mayhew, Director, the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland; Stuart Brooks, Chief Executive, the John Muir Trust; Brian Linington, President, Mountaineering Council of Scotland; Peter Willimott, President, the Munro Society; Sir Kenneth Calman, Chairman, the National Trust for Scotland; David Thomson, Convener, Ramblers Scotland; Stuart Housden OBE, Chief Executive, RSPB Scotland; George Menzies, Chairman, Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society; John Milne, Co-ordinator, Scottish Wild Land Group,

c/o Hermiston Quay,

5 Cultins Road,

Edinburgh.

THE Scottish Government's recent Planning Performance Framework (PPF) report highlights some modest improvements, albeit from a low base, but the overall reduction in decision times for the period 2013-14 does little to detract from a number of key performance areas which continue to fall well below what is required if we are to see a system which encourages and promotes development. These include the speed of development plan preparation, decision-making timescales on major planning applications as well as the clarity of advice to developers within development plans in terms of policy and developer requirements.

It is notable that whilst the PPF details the results of a comprehensive list of performance markers, it fails to identify the performance of individual councils. If Scotland's planning system is to facilitate the provision of enough homes in the right locations to meet the country's diverse housing needs, something surely fundamental to the First Minister's objective of improving opportunity for all, perhaps it is time to adopt a more transparent approach to highlighting those authorities which fail to meet the standards and timescales required?

Blair Melville,

Head of Planning Strategy,

Homes for Scotland,

5 New Mart Place, Edinburgh.