NPF4 and the nature emergency

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The draft 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 changes to national planning policies in respect of impacts on nature and biodiversity. Other blogs on topics related to NPF4 can be found in the SPICe NPF4 hub

Introduction – NPF4 and the twin nature and climate crises

Scotland is in a climate and nature emergency, often described as ‘twin’ crises due to the extent they are interlinked. Expectations on NPF4 and how it will respond to the twin crises have been high. Evidence of biodiversity decline and its implications led the previous Scottish Government to commit in 2020 to a ‘step change’ in efforts to address it. Globally there have been calls for ‘transformative change’ through the IPBES report, and the importance of nature recovery was recognised in the Glasgow Climate Pact at COP26.

Setting the stage for an expected ramping up of focus on nature recovery, the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 introduced statutory outcomes for NPF4 which include “securing positive effects for biodiversity”. The 2020 NPF4 position statement went on to identify priority policy changes, including:

  • “Promoting nature-based solutions to climate change, including woodland creation and peatland protection and restoration.”
  • “Integrating development with natural infrastructure, including blue-green networks, to deliver multiple benefits including carbon sequestration, community resilience and health improvement.”

Addressing the delivery gap

Development can provide positive and negative impacts for Scotland’s habitats and species – and biodiversity can be affected by all types of planned development across housing, transport, energy and extraction of resources such as fossil fuels, peat and minerals.

There is general recognition that whilst previous planning policies have set out positive intentions in relation to biodiversity, these have not delivered consistently on the ground, and overall development has been a net contributor to biodiversity decline. Stakeholders have criticised planning policies on biodiversity as too aspirational. For example, a working group on NPF4 on ‘Securing Positive Effects for Biodiversity’ (chaired by Scottish Government and bringing together agencies, planning authorities, industry and NGOs) recorded in discussions in 2021 that:

“supportive planning policy on biodiversity (and green infrastructure more generally) is not translating into delivery on the ground. Green infrastructure can be seen as optional or as an element that can be negotiated out”

The group considered that while there are good examples, the planning approach still focuses on limiting loss, and NPF4 provides an opportunity to set “a new standard”.

What does NPF4 include on nature and biodiversity?

There is more focus on nature recovery in draft NPF4 compared to previous strategies. The nature crisis is recognised front and centre:

“Our approach to planning and development will also play a critical role in supporting nature restoration and recovery. Global declines in biodiversity are mirrored here in Scotland with urbanisation recognised as a key pressure. We will need to invest in nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change whilst also addressing biodiversity loss, so we can safeguard the natural systems on which our economy, health and wellbeing depend.”  

Policy 3 on the ‘nature crisis’ sets out that development plans should “facilitate biodiversity enhancement, nature recovery and nature restoration”, development proposals should “contribute to the enhancement of biodiversity”, and that potential adverse impacts of development proposals on biodiversity, nature networks and the natural environment should be minimised, including taking into account the need to reverse biodiversity loss. National or major development proposals, or developments where an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or Appropriate Assessment (under Habitats Regulations) 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”.

Other significant areas in relation to nature include:

  • Policy 32 sets out that spatial strategies in Local Development Plans should be designed to better connect nature rich areas through establishing nature networks.
  • National developments: Although every national development is likely to have biodiversity implications, notable inclusions are the Central Scotland Green Network (carried forward from NPF3) – a nature network for the central belt, and sustainable blue and green drainage solutions in Edinburgh and Glasgow – which highlight that a nature-based approach to surface water management has the potential to deliver health, wellbeing, economic, climate adaptation and mitigation benefits.
  • Policy 33 provides that development on peatland, carbon rich soils and priority peatland habitat should not be supported unless under specific circumstances, including that the development is essential infrastructure and no other site is suitable; or where it is for the generation of renewable energy and will maximise the function of the peatland in operations and decommissioning. Proposals for new commercial peat extraction, including extensions, should not be supported unless they meet certain criteria including that they support an industry of national importance and there is a restoration plan.

Has NPF4 set a ‘new standard’ for biodiversity?

The Scottish Parliament invited written views on draft NPF4. Whilst there is generally strong support for the recognition given to the nature crisis, a common theme of responses is one of concern that policies continue to lack firm delivery mechanisms.

NatureScot said in its response that “delivery is the key issue and one that there is currently uncertainty on”, and that given the twin crises, “policies need to be very clearly directive”. Scottish Environment LINK, responding on behalf of several NGOs, welcomed language on the twin crises but said the approach “lacks a truly transformative agenda” and “there is little in the draft that actively supports the inclusion of nature and climate goals in new developments”.

Regarding how this ‘delivery gap’ could be addressed, stakeholders offered a number of suggestions including:  

  • Biodiversity improvement from national developments should be a requirement, not an aspiration, and development plans should also be required to contribute meaningfully to biodiversity enhancement, not just “facilitate” it.
  • A National Nature Network should be a national development, with Local Development Plans mapping priority areas. Stakeholders emphasised climate mitigation and adaptation opportunities through enhancing habitats such as grasslands and wetlands.
  • Local authorities should be supported to recruit more biodiversity officers to secure delivery of nature policies.
  • What constitutes ‘nature positive development’ should be defined, as well as how a development’s contributions will be assessed in a consistent way.
  • Local Development Plans should be linked more tangibly to blue and green infrastructure delivery – with potential and existing green e.g. hedgerows, parks, forests and blue e.g. rivers, canals, wetlands infrastructure sites identified and safeguarded.  

Does NPF4 adequately protect peatlands?

Peatland restoration has steadily moved up the agenda in Scotland in terms of its importance in meeting climate targets, and increased targets and funding. However, a recent Climate Change Committee report suggested further increasing restoration targets

Planning policy deals both with the issue of consenting peat extraction, and how peatlands are protected or enhanced in the course of any development. These policies are often tested most in the context of siting onshore wind farms, where tensions can arise due to the overlapping peatland and wind resource.

NPF4 policies on peat (detailed earlier in the blog) have received a lukewarm response from stakeholders. NatureScot state that the policy could “provide a clearer steer on balancing competing land uses with peatland restoration” and that “caveats on restricting development on peatland are extensive and therefore restrict the protection afforded by the policy”. LINK states that the draft policy “leaves a concerning amount of leeway”.  

In relation to windfarms on peatlands, RSPB Scotland suggest that further guidance is needed on how to assess effects on GHG emissions, including on what is an acceptable carbon payback period – the time it takes for a wind farm to start generating emission reductions, after taking into account emissions from construction including disruption to peat.

Regarding commercial peat extraction, environmental groups have, for several years, called for an end to commercial peat extraction and a sales ban on horticultural peat (the latter of which the Scottish Government has committed to consult on). Complexities exist in this space in that peat extraction permissions can be lengthy, allowing extraction for many years, local authorities have powers to review old permissions, and capacity is required to enforce implementation of restoration plans. The IUCN Peatland Programme has described this area as poorly regulated. There is little information available at a national level about how many sites and what total volume of extraction is consented under existing permissions.

The Scottish Government’s position statement on NPF4 stated that policies “will help support both the phasing out of the use of horticultural peat and our investment in the restoration of peatlands.” WWF Scotland state that draft NPF4 fails to deliver this as no timeline has been set for phase out. WWF Scotland also suggest ‘industry of national importance’ needs to be defined in terms of who is exempted from the presumption against new extraction, to avoid this becoming a loophole.

Further areas of draft NPF4 potentially significant for nature recovery

Other areas where NPF4 can impact on nature include:

  • Policies on renewable energy – Whilst renewables can support nature through reducing climate change, the siting of renewables can raise tensions with biodiversity goals where they impact on sensitive species or habitats. NatureScot states that it is essential that NPF4 ensures that renewable energy “help us tackle the climate emergency whilst not exacerbating the nature crisis” and that both aims can be achieved with a balanced approach. Scottish Renewables provide examples of where renewables have demonstrated how energy generation and biodiversity can be combined e.g. delivering peatland restoration – but that redrafting of NPF4 is needed to unlock this potential. The industry group supports the intention that major and national developments should shift from a ‘do no harm’ approach to a ‘make things better’ approach but states that if this is to be successful, work is needed on how this will be evaluated. 
  • Policies on housing and use of vacant and derelict land – Responses raise the potential for reusing existing buildings e.g. for housing to reduce development pressure on biodiversity. The Scottish Land Commission highlight recommendations of its vacant and derelict land Taskforce which included proposals for a compensation instrument enabling unavoidable biodiversity loss associated with greenfield development to be offset by improvement to derelict sites, and that audits should be undertaken to determine the biodiversity potential of vacant and derelict land.

Alexa Morrison, Senior Researcher, SPICe Research