Draft National Planning Framework 4: The National Spatial Strategy

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The draft Fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) sets out the Scottish Government’s proposed long-term plan for the development of Scotland to 2045.  A key element of NPF4 is the national spatial strategy and associated regional action areas.  These are briefly summarised below.

National Spatial Strategy

The national spatial strategy focuses on creating places that are:

  1. Sustainable: Every planning decision should contribute to Scotland becoming a more sustainable place, particularly encouraging the development of low and zero emission buildings, reducing the need to make short trips by private car, expanding renewable energy provision, and acting to improve biodiversity.
  2. Liveable: Places will be designed to facilitate walking and cycling, active recreation, play, and the enjoyment of the natural and built environment.
  3. Productive: Development will play to the economic strengths of each part of Scotland, the aim being to create a “wellbeing economy” that fosters fair work and green jobs.
  4. Distinctive: A place-based approach will be taken to development plans and decisions, with a focus on town/city centre development, reusing vacant and derelict land, enhancing natural and built environments and protecting heritage assets.

The national spatial strategy is underpinned by six spatial principles. These are:

  1. Compact growth: Urban expansion will be directed to vacant and derelict land, with a focus on increasing the density of settlements, which will support travel by foot, bike and public transport.
  2. Local living: Policy will focus on creating 20-minute neighbourhoods, where people can access everyday services within a short walk or cycle of their home. The development of local low-carbon heat and energy networks.
  3. Balanced development: Development should be spread across Scotland, aiming to create opportunities in areas of decline, support population growth in rural areas and reduce development pressure in areas of high demand.
  4. Conserving and recycling assets: Policy will focus on making productive use of existing buildings, places, infrastructure and services and locating major new developments in areas already well served by existing infrastructure, particularly at locations near public/active travel hubs.
  5. Urban and rural synergy: Best practice from urban, rural and island development will be shared between authorities, and green infrastructure extended into urban areas to connect people with nature and assist in biodiversity recovery.
  6. A just transition: The strategy focuses on ensuring that people have the opportunity to help shape the development of their local areas, throughout the transition to net-zero living.

Action Areas

NPF4 recognises the different challenges and opportunities facing Scotland’s regions.  The national spatial strategy will be taken forward across five geographic “action areas”, which establish development priorities for each area.  These are:

Key policies, plans and programmes set out in each of these action areas are summarised below.  It is worth noting that there is no obvious prioritisation amongst the policies and projects described in each of the action areas.

North and west

  • Create carbon-neutral coastal and island communities: There will be a tailored approach to the creation of 20-minute neighbourhoods, plus the development of service hubs easily accessible by public transport.  Housing development will focus on community needs and reversing rural depopulation.
  • Support the blue and wellbeing economies: There will be a focus on developing and balancing the sometime competing needs of different economic sectors, including offshore renewables, port diversification, food and drink production, tourism and the development of space ports.
  • Protect and enhance blue and green infrastructure: Natural and cultural assets should be protected and enhanced, including peatland restoration and woodland creation, while maintaining and enhancing access for walkers and cyclists.
  • Strengthen resilience and decarbonise connectivity: Zero carbon air and ferry services will be developed, along with new fixed links (bridges or tunnels) to some islands.  Electric vehicle charging infrastructure and high-speed broadband networks need to be installed to support future business and community development.


  • Strengthen networks of resilient communities: There will be a focus on developing existing settlements as service and community hubs, linked by public transport and transformed into 20-minute neighbourhoods. Inverness will act as a regional centre.  Policy will support the refurbishment of rural properties and maintaining the viability of crofts, with the aim of halting and reversing rural depopulation.
  • Stimulate green prosperity: Remote working will be stimulated through the development of broadband networks. Low carbon tourism infrastructure will be developed, focusing on outdoor pursuits such as climbing and mountain biking.  Renewable energy development will be encouraged where appropriate. Assistance for diversification will be provided to ports and facilities currently focused on the oil and gas sector.
  • Nurture nature-based solutions: Policy will focus on forestry, agriculture and land-use based approaches to carbon sequestration, improving biodiversity and strengthening resilience to the impacts of climate change.
  • Strengthen resilience and decarbonise connectivity: Policy will aim to develop broadband connections in remote areas.  It will also focus on improving connectivity through targeting development in existing settlements and improving the current road, rail, air and ferry infrastructure – with the goal of reducing travel by unsustainable modes.

North east

  • Transition to net zero: Policy will focus on supporting the transition from oil and gas to green technologies, supported through the Energy Transition Fund and action including the development of Aberdeen Harbour south as a green energy hub.
  • Improve local liveability: Development will be focused on corridors extending from Aberdeen to Peterhead, Huntly, and Laurencekirk, supported by new infrastructure and public services.  The aim being to increase settlement density and reduce the need to travel by private car.
  • Regenerate coastal communities: There will be a focus on regeneration of Banff, Macduff, Fraserburgh and Peterhead.
  • Decarbonise connectivity: Transport within Aberdeen and between the North-East, the central belt and other communities will be decarbonised through projects such as Aberdeen Rapid Transport and mainline rail improvements.


  • Pioneer low-carbon, resilient urban living: Policy will focus on creating a network of 20-minute neighbourhoods, town and city centre regeneration, mixed-use development and improving health outcomes in west-central Scotland.
  • Reinvent and future-proof city centres: Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth and Stirling city centres will be the focus for high quality housing, business, educational and cultural developments – building on the existing strengths of each place.
  • Accelerate urban greening: Creating more high-quality green spaces within towns and cities will be achieved through projects including the Central Scotland Green Network and Glasgow City Region Green Network.
  • Rediscover urban coasts and waterfronts: There will be a focus on regeneration, and the transition to net-zero at coastal locations across east and west central Scotland.
  • Reuse land and buildings: Development within towns and cities will be focused on brownfield sites that are easily accessible by public transport, walking and cycling. 
  • Invest in net zero housing solutions: New homes will be built to net-zero standards, existing homes will need to be retro-fitted to drastically reduce their emissions. 
  • Grow a wellbeing economy: Development will maximise economic, social and environmental wellbeing.  A number of major economic development initiatives, such as the Clyde Mission or the Ayrshire Growth Deal and Community Wealth Building programme are supported.
  • Reimagine development on the urban fringe: Development within green spaces around our towns and cities should support a diversity of uses including farming, recreation and tourism.
  • Improve urban accessibility: Policy will support a shift from travel by private car to walking, cycling and public transport within our towns and cities. Intercity rail connections, including high speed rail, will be developed and freight shifted to rail and shipping where possible.


  • Create a low carbon network of towns: Development will be focused on existing towns across the region, with investment in regeneration, flood prevention and the development of 20-minute neighbourhoods.
  • Support sustainable development: Economic development will focus on creating high quality green jobs. 
  • Innovate to sustain and enhance natural capital: This will involve the development and enhancement of forestry and peatland, with a view to enhancing biodiversity and mitigating/adapting to climate change.  There is also scope to further develop on and offshore wind projects.
  • Strengthen resilience and decarbonise connectivity: Policy will focus on encouraging modal shift from car to public transport, walking and cycling.  The broadband network will be enhanced in remote areas to encourage rural living and home working.

The role of the Scottish Parliament in scrutinising and approving draft NPF4 is discussed in another SPICe Spotlight post. It is worth noting that the national and regional spatial strategies described above have no formal status in the Scottish planning system at present.  NPF3 remains in force until NPF4 is approved by a resolution of the Scottish Parliament and adopted by Scottish Ministers.

Alan Rehfisch, Senior Researcher (Planning and Transport)