Land, space and place: NPF4 and land use

Reading Time: 7 minutes

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 the relationship between NPF4 and what is often considered to be ‘rural’ land use. Other blogs on topics related to NPF4 can be found in the SPICe NPF4 hub

Scotland’s finite land

The planning system is fundamentally about how finite space is used to best effect, and how competing priorities are balanced.

The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 (‘the 2019 Act’) amended the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997 (‘the 1997 Act’) to set out ‘the purpose of planning’ in legislation. Section 3ZA sets out that

“The purpose of planning is to manage the development and use of land in the long term public interest”

That space available for development is Scotland’s land, where housing, infrastructure, villages, towns and cities, food production, forestry, habitat for biodiversity, carbon sequestration and ecosystem services all need to co-exist.

The planning system largely does not provide the policy direction or govern the activities of Scotland’s dominant land uses, such as agricultural activities, woodland creation and management, estate management and conservation. Where infrastructure is required, this sometimes needs planning permission, though agricultural buildings under a certain size and some other infrastructure for rural sectors are often classed as ‘permitted development’, where planning permission is not required in the normal way.

In policy terms, spatial planning for ‘development’ includes, for example, buildings, businesses, and town centres. Policy related to ‘land use’, on the other hand, is generally understood to mean mainly ‘rural’ activities, such as agriculture, forestry, estate management, and management of habitats and ecosystems. These are usually considered to be separate policy areas, even though they both address the strategic use of a fundamentally finite asset: Scotland’s land.

Joining up planning and land use

This situation has resulted in calls for greater clarity on how planning and land use policies connect. The analysis of responses to the Scottish Government’s call for ideas on the Fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) in 2020 stated:

“It was noted that the character of Scotland’s rural landscapes is only partly influenced by built developments and significant change can be caused by land uses such as agriculture and forestry that are not controlled by the statutory planning system. Therefore, it was argued NPF4 should sit explicitly within the overall framework provided by the Land Use Strategy, and that a clear explanation of the relationships between the Land Use Strategy, NPF4 and their respective regional implementation mechanisms must be provided.

The analysis also noted calls for:

  • “NPF4 to seek to coordinate closely with the Land Use Strategy and forthcoming Regional Land Use Frameworks.
  • “Landscape-scale restoration as a model for development plans that could help to co-ordinate policies across planning, land use and land reform agendas through Regional Land Use Frameworks.”

Consequently, in the Scottish Government’s November 2020 Position Statement on the NPF4, it was stated that:

“NPF4 will need to align with a wide range of policies relating to rural development including our National Islands Plan, Forestry Strategy, the Rural Economy Action Plan and the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement. There are particular opportunities to link planning more closely to the Land Use Strategy and Regional Land Use Partnerships, to achieve an approach to future development at national, regional and local scales, that more fully supports, and is supported by, wider land use management”

NPF4, regional strategies and local plans

NPF4 sets out an overarching spatial strategy for Scotland, “to be used to guide the preparation of regional spatial strategies, local development plans and local place plans”.

Regional spatial strategies were introduced by the 2019 Act. These provisions, which are yet to fully come into force, will require a planning authority or group of authorities to produce long-term spatial strategies to identify – 

  • the need for strategic development
  • the outcomes to which strategic development will contribute
  • priorities for the delivery of strategic development
  • proposed locations, shown in the form of a map or diagram.

The purpose of these is to inform the development of the National Planning Framework. To this end, a set of indicative Regional Spatial Strategies was published at the end of 2020.

In addition to these, at the local level, local development plans, local place plans, and Forestry and Woodland Strategies are all spatial plans for all or part of the land within the planning authority’s area (the planning authorities are the 32 local authorities and the two national parks), and each have various requirements set out in planning legislation.

The draft NPF4 itself makes explicit demands on land. The National Developments, which include things like a national walking, cycling and wheeling network, the Central Scotland Green Network, industrial green transition zones, and high-speed rail, either require land in a specific place, or require land to be used across Scotland for a specific purpose. Moreover, local development plans must identify a housing target for the area covered, in the form of a housing land requirement. This should at least meet the Minimum all tenure land requirement (MATLR) set out in draft NPF4. The number for each authority is set out in Annex B to NPF4 (see p. 118).  

Scotland’s Land Use Strategy and the National Planning Framework

On the other hand, overarching policies and commitments outwith the planning system also govern the strategic use of land.

Amongst a number of other things set out in the 1997 Act (as amended by the 2019 Act), Scottish Ministers are required to ‘have regard to’ Scotland’s Land Use Strategy when preparing the National Planning Framework.

The Land Use Strategy (LUS), required under the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, must set out:

  1. the Scottish Ministers’ objectives in relation to sustainable land use;
  2. their proposals and policies for meeting those objectives; and
  3. the timescales over which those proposals and policies are expected to take effect.

Scotland’s Third Land Use Strategy 2021-2026 (LUS3), published in March 2021, does not set out new policies for land use. Rather, in recognition of the number of new strategies under development – including NPF4 – it set out a series of indicative Scottish ‘landscapes’ and the policies and activities already in train which are intended to deliver outcomes in relation to them.

LUS makes a number of references to NPF, particularly in the section on ‘Settlements’. In this section, NPF and more local planning tools are discussed as mechanisms to deliver sustainable land use in the context of Scotland’s settlements. However, the relationship between the two documents is not made explicit. In Annex A at the end of LUS3, both NPF and LUS are presented on the same level – both are national strategies, but there is no hierarchy between them.

Turning to NPF4, the Land Use Strategy is never explicitly mentioned in the draft.

It is therefore difficult to assess to what extent Scottish Ministers have ‘had regard to’ it. A lack of clarity around the relationship between the documents was a point frequently made by stakeholders in response to the Parliament’s call for views on NPF4.

NPF4 strays into the space of what might commonly be understood to be ‘rural land management’ – it addresses flood management, coastal realignment, forestry, protection of biodiversity and natural landscapes and peatlands. On forestry, planning legislation requires planning authorities to produce ‘Forestry and Woodland Strategies’ which set out the authority’s policies and proposals for protecting, enhancing and expanding woodlands.

Policies in NPF4 relate to, for example, how development proposals interact with woodlands, rather than decisions related to commercial afforestation, and likewise how planning decisions interact with peatlands, rather than a strategic view of peatland restoration – these strategic uses of Scotland’s land are governed elsewhere. Managing this interaction could be seen as ‘having regard to’ these other land uses.

However, though NPF4 does reflect land use like agriculture and forestry in its content, it is not clear how the Land Use Strategy and the National Planning Framework relate to one another: whether the vision set out in the Land Use Strategy should be a factor in national or local planning policies and planning decisions, or whether the National Planning Framework is a mechanism for delivery of a wider vision in the Land Use Strategy, which includes both the things we think of as ‘developments’ and what we consider to be more ‘rural’ land uses.

At the regional level – Regional Land Use Partnerships and Regional Spatial Strategies

At a regional level, a long-standing proposal from the LUS has been to create Regional Land Use Partnerships, who would be tasked with developing land use frameworks. The purpose of the partnerships, as set out in LUS3 is to:

“help national and local government, communities, land owners and stakeholders work together to find ways to optimise sustainable land use in a fair and inclusive way – meeting local and national objectives and helping achieve Scotland’s climate change targets through land use change and good land management that supports a sustainable future.”

The Scottish Land Commission was tasked with developing more concrete proposals for taking the partnerships forward. In their recommendations to the Scottish Government, the Commission noted that to avoid another “layer of bureaucracy” in what stakeholders note is “an already busy policy and strategy environment”:

“There is…significant potential in the coming year to align land use planning and delivery with wider regional economic and spatial planning, particularly connecting to National Planning Framework 4, Regional Spatial Strategies, Regional Economic Partnerships and natural capital investment initiatives all in line with the principles of the Scottish Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement.”

The Commission went on to recommend that the “National Planning Framework 4 should set out a clear statement of the relationship between Regional Land Use Frameworks and Regional Spatial Strategies”

Moreover, in its submission to the Call for Ideas ahead of the NPF4, the Commission stated that the NPF4 could “connect regional land use planning into existing regional spatial planning by requiring new regional spatial strategies to take account of the land-use plans that will be produced by the new Regional Land Use Partnerships”.

Some mention of the link between Regional Spatial Strategies and Regional Land Use Frameworks is made in LUS3, which states that the two will cover the same areas, and that:

“Frameworks will take a natural capital/ecosystem approach to identify at a landscape level potential land use changes with positive climate and environmental impacts. They will set out regional land use and environmental objectives and link these to wider regional goals (such as, for example, those in Regional Spatial Strategies).”

However, though the draft NPF4 does make two mentions of Regional Land Use Partnerships, it only notes that development plan policies and regional spatial strategies will “build on” the Partnerships, among other regional strategic activities (see p.113).

Amongst similar views from respondents to the Parliament’s call for views, the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland highlighted in its submission to the Parliament that:

“It is extraordinary that the draft NPF4 lacks any reference to the national Land Use Strategy (LUS)…the character of Scotland’s rural landscapes is only partly influenced by those built developments subject to the statutory town and planning system and therefore subject to NPF4; significant change can result from land uses not controlled by that system but subject to the LUS, particularly agricultural and forestry developments. There are two passing references to Regional Land Use Partnerships, but NPF4 needs to include a much clearer explanation of the precise relationships between the LUS, NPF4 and their emerging respective regional implementation mechanisms, ie Regional Land Use Frameworks and Regional Spatial Strategies.”

What next?

There appears to be ongoing confusion around how the planning system – whose role it is “to manage the development and use of land in the long-term public interest” – relates to efforts to take a more strategic view of ‘rural’ land uses.

The Parliamentary and public consultations on NPF4 afford an opportunity to make the relationships between key documents and strategies clearer.

Anna Brand, Senior Researcher