A SENIOR councillor has issued a stark warning about the potential for housing ‘chaos’ in the Borders, as the local authority may no longer be able to refuse planning applications.

Councillor Tom Miers, who represents Melrose and Leaderdale, has written to the Scottish Government’s housing minister, MSP Kevin Stewart, saying that his refusal to back regional development plans means that local authorities could have very little legal basis for refusing planning applications.

Mr Stewart has rejected the latest South East Scotland development plan, known as SESplan2, which is the regional plan for transport and housing drawn up by councils including Edinburgh and the Borders.

It forms the legal basis for ‘local development plans’ that set out in detail where housing and other development can be built locally and the rules around their design, layout, and impact on the environment.

At a private meeting of Scottish Borders Council’s planning and building standards committee on Monday June 3, councillors were briefed by the local authority’s chief planning officer Ian Aikman, who advised committee members that by rejecting SESplan2, the Scottish Government could undermine the legal basis of local plans.

This could allow builders to gain planning approval by default, wherever they want to build, and would mean the council would lose the ability to decide on controversial planning applications such as the March Street Mills proposals in Peebles or the proposed housing estate at the Croft on the foot of the Eildon Hills.

Now, councillor Miers, who acts as Scottish Borders Council’s member for planning and environment, has written to Mr Stewart warning of “the unwelcome possibility of uncontrolled development” in the Borders.

He writes: “Your decision to reject SESplan2 has caused considerable uncertainty in the Borders.

“Whatever the merits of the transport element of the plan, rejecting it in its entirety calls into question not just the future of transport links in the region but the legal status of our current and emerging local development plan and the guidelines it offers on housing allocations, locations and so on.

“There is now the unwelcome possibility of uncontrolled and unplanned development by the rejection of SESplan2.

“It may be that you have good reasons for rejecting SESplan2 and rejecting your reporter’s advice that we deal with any outstanding transport issues through a supplementary guidance.

“But can I urge you urgently to clarify the Scottish Government’s intentions with regard to underpinning the legal status of local development plans and the processes that go into preparing them so that we in the Borders can be confident that our existing arrangements are valid and that the work we are doing to develop the next local development plan is also valid and can go ahead without being undermined in the future.”

The 400-page SESplan2 report is a joint effort from planning authorities in Edinburgh, the Lothians, the Scottish Borders and Fife which has taken four years to develop.

But ministers have said they were not satisfied with the transport plan filed as part of the far-reaching proposals.

A response to the report suggested insufficient account had been taken of the links between land and transport.

Commenting, councillor Miers said: “There is a risk here of uncontrolled development across the Borders.

“We need urgent clarification from the Scottish Government to explain what their intentions are and how this affects the legal status of local plans.

“So far, two weeks after this rejection, we have heard nothing concrete and the whole system is threatened by chaos.

“I have written to the minister to ask him to clear up this mess urgently.”

In response to councillor Miers’ letter and comments, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “It is not in anyone’s interest to accept a plan which does not properly tackle future development and infrastructure requirements.

“The strategic development plan is one part of the statutory development plan. Development proposals will still have to be in accordance with local development plans, unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

“It is the responsibility of local authorities to make sure they have allocated enough housing land in their local development plans.

“In the meantime the Scottish Government will continue to drive forward changes to the current planning system, as part of the planning bill, to address the obvious deficiencies of existing arrangements for strategic planning in Scotland.”

Local planning expert Tim Ferguson, of Galashiels-based Ferguson Planning, has also given his thoughts on the debacle around SESplan2: “I can empathise with the frustrations felt over the further delay in adopting SESPlan2, in particular why it took so long to come to such a decision after an already lengthy examination process.

“While the reasons relate to an inadequate appraisal on transport and ensuring infrastructure keeps pace with future planned development it does nonetheless bring into clear focus the need for better and more informed evidence upon which future allocations are then made. Be that related to housing or for any type of development.

“While it does create some unwelcomed uncertainty for both those in the public and private sector I do not think that then equates to the floodgates being opened for development all over the countryside, and nor do I think kicking the issue into the long grass by a raft of supplementary guidance post adoption is the way forward.

“Planning should be proactive and evidence led, it must ensure that all infrastructure and development capacity matters are understood fully upfront and where it falls short it should be dealt with there and then.

“Development in the Borders is still going to be primarily guided by the local development plan and if there is any challenges to that it will be based on the individual merits of the case and the evidence presented.

“The planning system is in a bit of a tangle at the moment and which we are also seeing in the raft of amendments to the new planning bill going through parliament, which is again more uncertainty we could all do without.

“We can only hope that this set back can be addressed in a short period of time so the next Borders local development plan can come forward with more certainty.

“Evidence on ensuring development deliverability is becoming more and more important and this latest decision brings that into sharp focus.”