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The New Scottish National Planning Framework: Some initial thoughts

Craig McLaren is Director of Scotland, Ireland and English Regions in the RTPI.


On 8 November – World Town Planning Day – Scotland’s Planning Minister Tom Arthur laid a revised draft National Planning Framework (NPF) before the Scottish Parliament. In doing this he said, “Our statutory and moral obligation to tackle climate change means change is necessary and urgent. This final version of the Framework makes clear that we won’t compromise on climate change. It also clarifies what is to be delivered, and how. And it is now clear through the weighting to be applied to different policies, that the climate and nature crises are the priority. There is now a clear expectation of the role that planning must play in delivering the expansion of renewable energy needed to realise the just transition from reliance on fossil fuels.”  Strong and encouraging words, but what does the framework say, and can it help deliver these ambitions? We have still to undertake a deep dive of the document but here are some initial, high-level thoughts.

Ambition - The tone and ambition of the document show that there is undoubtedly a sincere commitment to tackle climate change and to use the planning system to help achieve Scotland’s net zero target by 2045 and to tackle the biodiversity crisis. It is good to see that planning is put front and centre by the Minister, which gives hope that the NPF becomes a more embedded part of the government’s corporate decision-making process. The fact that place-based approaches are now seen as a key part of the government’s approach – through for example the Place Principle – should support this.

Robustness - One of our concerns on the previous version was that despite the welcome and important ambitions, the policies contained in the document didn’t quite provide real certainty to give planning authorities the confidence to make strong decisions to reshape our places to ensure that they contribute to net zero. We felt that there was a need for more robust policy with fewer ‘shoulds and coulds’. At first glance the new version of the document appears to bring in a tightening of wording, greater clarity on the intent and intended impact of each policy, and, a wider appreciation and articulation of the interaction between policies. Though, of course, the devil will be in the detail!

Delivery - RTPI Scotland has been advocating for the new NPF to be accompanied by a delivery plan that sets out how public sector resources will be used to implement the vision. We pointed to the Irish NPF which has a 10 year capital investment programme sitting alongside it as a model worth pursuing. A delivery programme has been published alongside the NPF however it appears to be fairly high level and lacking in detail on what resources will be made available for what. It is proposed to establish a new Planning, Infrastructure and Place Advisory Group to identify barriers to delivery and strengthen the alignment of NPF4 with plans and investment in places and infrastructure.

Resources – The NPF is not a resourcing document per se, but it’s successful implementation will depend upon a resourced planning service. That is why there is a need to tackle the challenges of significant budgetary cuts experienced by planning departments in recent years alongside chronic understaffing. It also needs more people to enter the planning profession with estimates that in Scotland alone we will need up to 700 new planners over the next 10 to 15 years. Scottish Government has acknowledged this in supporting the Future Planners workstream being led by Heads of Planning Scotland and RTPI Scotland but we need to ensure that this delivers the people we need.

The draft NPF will now be subject to a vote in Parliament before Christmas and RTPI Scotland is set to engage with MSPs, Ministers, government officials and stakeholders to highlight our thoughts on it to them. We will be giving oral evidence to the lead committee on 22 November.

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