Aquaculture and the Fourth National Planning Framework

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The Fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) was published on 10 November 2021. The National Planning Framework is a strategic document setting out how the Scottish Government’s “approach to planning and development will help to achieve a net zero, sustainable Scotland by 2045”. Background information on the National Planning Framework can be found in an earlier blog. This blog considers national planning policies for aquaculture. Other blogs on topics related to NPF4 can be found in the SPICe hub.

This blog looks at the policies for aquaculture in the Fourth National Planning Framework. It explores planning policies for aquaculture in the context of recent scrutiny, looks at biodiversity planning policies for aquaculture, and highlights other work underway in relation to the sector.

Scotland’s aquaculture sector

Aquaculture – the practice of farming aquatic animals or plants – is a major industry in Scotland. Both finfish and shellfish (mussels and oysters) are farmed in Scotland, with salmon farming being most common by a wide margin. Seaweed is also farmed, but to a limited extent.

Scotland is one of the top three producers of farmed Atlantic salmon globally (after Norway and Chile, though it is worth noting that both countries produce considerably more than Scotland), and farmed salmon is both Scotland’s and the UK’s largest food export by value.

 The figure below shows the growth of the salmon farming sector from 1999 to 2020.

Graph showing the growth of salmon farming since 1999. With some variation, the industry has grown from 126,686 tonnes in 1999 to 203,881 in 2019.
Figure 1: Salmon farming in tonnes since 1999

Recent scrutiny of the sector

The regulation of salmon farming in the context of this growth has become a concern, particularly in relation to environmental, animal welfare, and community impacts. In Session 5, there was extensive scrutiny of the salmon farming industry in the Scottish Parliament. The Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee held an inquiry into the environmental impacts of salmon farming, commissioning the Scottish Association of Marine Science (SAMS) to review the evidence around this topic. The ECCLR Committee reported their findings to the Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) Committee, who held a wider inquiry on Salmon Farming in Scotland in 2018 and a shorter follow-up inquiry in late 2020. The Committees agreed that “the status quo is not an option”.

Aquaculture, planning, and the NPF4

The role of the planning system in aquaculture was considered as one part of the REC Committee enquiry.

In its final report following the two Committee inquiries, the REC Committee highlighted evidence received in relation to the planning system, noting that witnesses had raised a need for “a more strategic approach to the siting of salmon farms”.

In December 2020, the then Cabinet Secretary told Session 5’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee that, in relation to aquaculture:

“the fourth national planning framework will reflect the Scottish Government’s aim of supporting sustainable growth and it will help to guide new developments to locations that will best suit industry needs, with due regard to the marine environment”.

Setting up a new finfish or shellfish farm or expanding an existing one requires planning permission through the local authority planning system, in addition to a number of licenses and consents obtained from different public authorities (e.g. a seabed lease from Crown Estate Scotland, a marine license to install equipment from Marine Scotland, and a Controlled Activities Regulation License from SEPA)  

High-level policies on aquaculture are set out as part of national planning policies, previously in Scottish Planning Policy (published in 2014), and now as part of the draft fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4; SPP has been combined with the National Planning Framework in NPF4).

Additionally, though planning permission for fish farming takes place through the local authority planning system, further detailed policy is set out in the National Marine Plan – this is the framework for managing activities in Scotland’s marine area. Regional Marine Plans are intended to do the same but for Scottish marine regions.

In the draft NPF4, the content of aquaculture planning policies does not differ hugely from those set out previously in Scottish Planning Policy, though there are a few changes.

The draft NPF4 no longer emphasises that local development plans need to “make positive provision for aquaculture developments” as set out in Scottish Planning Policy. However, the NPF4 continues to be clear on the Scottish Government’s support for aquaculture, stating that “the planning and licensing system should support the prosperity of the finfish, shellfish and seaweed sectors” including by guiding developments to the most appropriate sites.

While Scottish Planning Policy emphasised the need to guide developments “to coastal locations that best suit industry needs with due regard to the marine environment”, NPF4 sets out that:

“Local development plans should guide new aquaculture development to locations that reflect industry needs and take account of environmental impact, including cumulative impacts that arise from other existing and planned aquaculture developments in the area, and wider marine planning.” (emphasis in original)

Furthermore, NPF4 is perhaps less ambiguous on the role of the National Marine Plan and Regional Marine Plans.

In Scottish Planning Policy, the National Marine Plan was listed as a “key document”, whereas the NPF4 explicitly sets out that:

“Development proposals for aquaculture should be supported where they comply with the local development plan, the National Marine Plan and, where relevant, the appropriate Regional Marine Plan.” (emphasis in original)

However, marine planning is an emerging area relative to terrestrial local authority planning systems which have been in place in some form for decades. Planning Partnerships responsible for developing Regional Marine Plans have so far been established in Shetland, Orkney and the Clyde out of the eleven marine areas. No statutory Regional Marine Plans have yet been approved by Scottish Ministers.

The National Marine Plan was last updated in 2015, prior to significant scrutiny into aquaculture from Parliamentary committees. The 2018 three-year review of the National Marine Plan did not result in revision due to uncertainties around EU exit, and noted that:

“Aquaculture policies and objectives were raised in a number of responses. In particular the reflection of industry production targets within an objective was suggested to be in conflict with the approach taken for other sectors, and consequently arguably at odds with the environmental policies and sustainability principles of the Plan. While application of the Plan’s policies apply to decision making to ensure sustainability, future iterations of the Plan will afford an opportunity to consider this issue further.”

The NMP was subject to a further review in 2021, and a decision is yet to be made by Ministers on whether the NMP will be amended, replaced or remain unchanged.

Aquaculture and biodiversity planning policies

A curious aspect of the NPF4 in relation to aquaculture is the exemption of farmed fish or shellfish from planning policies associated with enhancing biodiversity. Policy 3 on the Nature Crisis states, among other things, that:

“Development proposals for national, major and of EIA development or development for which an Appropriate Assessment is required should only be supported where it can be demonstrated that the proposal will conserve and enhance biodiversity, including nature networks within and adjacent to the site, so that they are in a demonstrably better state than without intervention, including through future management. Applications for farmed fish or shellfish development are excluded from this requirement.” (first emphasis in original, second emphasis added)

Similarly, in relation to local development, the NPF4 notes:

“Proposals for local development should only be supported if they include appropriate measures to enhance biodiversity, in proportion to the nature and scale of development. Applications for individual householder development, farmed fish or shellfish development…are excluded from this requirement.” (first emphasis in original, second emphasis added).

There is no explanation included in NPF4 for why farmed fish and shellfish development are to be excluded from the requirement to enhance biodiversity.

Other regulatory changes for the aquaculture sector

As noted above, the planning system is only one part of the regulatory framework for aquaculture. Scrutiny of aquaculture regulations has fed into regulatory reform including several changes and programmes of work beyond the planning regime:

Further changes are also anticipated as a result of an ongoing external review of regulatory processes for salmon farming.

Anna Brand, Senior Researcher