NPF4: Mainstreaming Climate Change?

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Published during COP26, the Draft Fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) provides a statutory strategy and framework for land use out to Scotland’s net zero target year of 2045, with a recognition that significant progress must be made by the 75% emissions reduction target date at the end of this decade. It states:

The purpose of planning is to manage the development and use of land in the long-term public interest. The decisions we make today will have implications for future generations. Scotland in 2045 will be different. We must embrace and deliver radical change so we can tackle and adapt to climate change, restore biodiversity loss, improve health and wellbeing, build a wellbeing economy and create great places.

In comparison to previous iterations of the NPF (explored in SPICe Blog Scotland 2045: Draft fourth National Planning Framework – The role of the Scottish Parliament), tackling the climate and nature emergencies through strategic planning appear to be central to this framework. This blog considers NPF4 and sets out some of the key principles, developments and policies that relate to climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Be the change …

Whilst planning decisions affect everyday life in the way that we travel, shop, access schools and healthcare, they also play a longer-term role in setting Scotland’s strategic direction and changing our environmental culture. Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions have more than halved in the last 30 years but will have to more than half again in the next decade to come close to achieving net zero by 2045. Decarbonising the electricity production sector has been the easy part; other sectors[1], including transport, heat, and industry are far harder to tackle, and will require substantial changes across all aspects of commercial, public and private life.

Therefore, decisions taken on land use and significant infrastructure development, as well as the guiding principles of day to day planning policy, will dictate and embed many of the structural changes that are needed to support behavioural patterns that must also be transformed to reduce carbon emissions.

The Parliament’s Session 5 Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee called for “systemic change” in its work on a Green Recovery from Covid-19:

Our overarching aim should be to build a more resilient, just and healthy society and environment – this will provide the secure footing we need for a more sustainable economy. The recovery should take a systems-wide, integrated approach that transcends sectoral boundaries and builds in social indicators on community cohesion, wellbeing and equality.

A Plan of Parts

There are four key parts to NPF4:

  • The National Spatial Strategy sets out overarching principles and a vision for sustainable, liveable, productive and distinctive places.
  • 18 National Developments support the delivery of the Spatial Strategy.
  • 35 National Planning Policies will replace those currently found in the current Scottish Planning Policy.
  • Minimum All-tenure Housing Land Requirements setout the least number of units that local, city-region and national park authorities must plan to accommodate in future development plans.

Whilst planning for and providing land that allows the development of low carbon housing and associated infrastructure is important, this will be guided by broader planning policy, which is crucial to mainstreaming climate change and is the focus of this blog.

A Plan of Principles

The National Spatial Strategy puts sustainable places which reduce emissions and restore biodiversity as its first principle, referencing the need for places that support healthier lives and a greener, fairer and more inclusive wellbeing economy. The Spatial Strategy is underpinned by six principles – compact growth, local living, balanced development, conserving and recycling assets, urban and rural synergy and a just transition. The following principles are key:

Compact growth seeks to limit urban expansion and use land more efficiently meaning that land resource for carbon storage, flood risk management, green infrastructure and biodiversity is available. Increasing the density of settlements is also expected to reduce the need to travel.

Local living means creating networks of 20-minute neighbourhoods to reduce the need to travel unsustainably, promoting and supporting active travel, decentralising energy networks and building circular economies.

Conserving and recycling assets seeks to respect the “distinctive character and identity” of “each place”. There is a focus on making “productive use of existing buildings, places, infrastructure and services, locking in embedded carbon and minimising waste, and supporting Scotland’s transition to a circular economy”.

Just Transition seeks to ensure that “as we reduce our emissions and respond to a changing climate, that journey is fair and creates a better future for everyone”.

Commitments are also made to tackle rural depopulation, and to improve green infrastructure.

The Spatial Strategy also recognises different regional challenges and opportunities, where all spatial principles still apply; guided by the following priorities:

A Plan for Action – what does theory look like in practice?

So far so good – these generic principles appear to align with national and international thinking on tackling the twin climate and nature emergencies in a just and fair way, and much of the language mirrors that heard at COP26. However, it is what happens on the ground, what is built (or not built) and where, that will drive down greenhouse gas emissions and support behaviour change.

Eighteen National Developments are proposed. This means that “the principle of the development does not need to be agreed in later consenting processes”, however all relevant statutory consents are still required.

The continued expansion of the Central Scotland Green Network is expected to “play a key role in tackling the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss including by building and strengthening nature networks”.

The National Walking Cycling and Wheeling Network hopes to support “the shift from vehicles […] for everyday journeys contributing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport”. The development of urban mass/rapid transit systems expect to “support transformational reduction in private car use” and to “reduce transport emissions at scale”.

Industrial Green Transition Zones at St Fergus, Peterhead, and Grangemouth support the Scottish Cluster a Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage projects network, as well as decarbonisation of the petrochemicals industry.

A Lifecycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions Assessment of these proposed developments has also been carried out. They are all expected to have overall net positive or negligible impacts on achieving national greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, with the exception of the Clyde Mission which “will likely have a net positive impact”.

A Granular Plan for the Climate

Currently, Scottish Planning Policy sets out principal and subject policies. If approved by Parliament, these will be replaced by the 35 National Planning Policies contained in NPF4 which “are to be applied in the preparation of local development plans”.

Key policies relate to giving “significant weight” to the Climate Emergency when considering development proposals, as well as facilitating biodiversity enhancement, nature recovery and nature restoration, and supporting the principle of 20-minute neighbourhoods.

A number of other policies are relevant, including taking Local Heat and Energy Efficiency Strategies into account, and ensuring that full potential for electricity and heat from renewables is achieved.

Planning applications that seek to explore, develop and produce fossil fuels will not be supported other than in exceptional circumstances. Unconventional oil and gas (i.e. fracking) will not be supported.

Development proposals for retail development which will generate significant footfall in town centre sites should be supported, however there is a presumption against edge-of-town or out-of-town commercial centres.

There is a presumption against development on peatland and carbon rich soils, as well as support for the expansion and enhancement of woodland and consideration given to how to adapt coastlines to the impacts of climate change. The SPICe Blog on NPF4 and the nature emergency explores this in more detail.

Scrutinising and Supporting Climate Governance – a test for Parliament?

Having declared a climate emergency, set a world-leading net zero target, published an Update to the Climate Change Plan, and hosted COP26, all of Scotland must now get to work transitioning to net zero emissions by 2045.

In its work on a Green Recovery from Covid-19, the Session 5 Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee recognised that “effective delivery is underpinned by effective governance”, and the Scottish Parliament has a significant role to play in ensuring robust climate governance by scrutinising key plans and policies.

Effective scrutiny of NPF4 therefore provides the first big test of Parliament’s role in Scotland’s climate governance for Session 6.

Cross committee scrutiny begins in the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee on 1 February – check out the Draft NPF4 – Hub for SPICe Material for further information and analysis.

Alasdair Reid, Senior Researcher

Climate Change, Energy, and Land Reform

[1] The Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan covers the Electricity, Buildings, Transport, Industry, Waste and Circular Economy, Land Use and Forestry, and Agricultural Sectors