Thu 11 Nov 2021

COP26 and Planning Policy

After what feels like a lengthy lead in time, COP26 is finally upon us - it really is fantastic that this significant global summit is being hosted in Glasgow.  We all hope that transformative action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will be reached during the conference, but it is interesting to note what is being done in Scotland to ensure a long-lasting and tangible commitment to the same goals. 

Both Glasgow City Council and the City of Edinburgh Council have shown leadership by committing to become net zero carbon cities by 2030 and have developed their own plans to do so. 

When considering how the green economy will be stimulated in our cities and regions going forward, I think it is fair to say that there has been a real focus on sharpening local development plan polices around climate change in Scotland.  However, the game changer will be the forthcoming National Planning Framework (NPF4). The first draft has just been published for consultation by the Scottish Government on 10 November which runs to the end of March 2022. From an initial review, it is an impressive document from a green credentials point of view. The importance of this document is that it will become part of the development plan and be the starting point for the decision-making process for development is Scotland going forward. Clearly, NPF4 will have a significant impact on how our cities and regions are developed and regenerated.

While this focus on greener, more carbon-neutral development isn’t anything new, additional scrutiny and regulation means developers will need to make more extensive considerations on the environmental impacts of planning applications, given the Scotland’s wider statutory Net Zero targets.

So, what can we expect from the environmentally focused NPF4? And how might this change their approach to environmentally sensitive development applications?

The first main change to note will be NPF's enhanced status. To give NPF4 greater weight as it demands a fresh approach to addressing ambitious climate change targets, it will become part of the statutory development plan. The importance of being part of the statutory development plan is that, going forward, NPF4 along with the planning authority's Local Development Plan will be the starting point for the decision-making process. 

Planning decisions should be made in accordance with the statutory development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise. For example, if, for some reason, a decision maker feels as though a particular NPF4 policy or policies should not apply to a proposed development, they will need to outline the material considerations which justify their decision to depart from them.

The document’s greater emphasis on the environment will also provide a framework of policies designed to improve Scotland’s ‘quality of place’. The Scottish Government’s ‘20 minute neighbourhood’ vision set out in their NPF4 Position Statement is a good example of this. The vision encourages developments to significantly reduce the need to travel, outlining that homes should be planned together with everyday local infrastructure, such as schools, local shops and healthcare.

Akin to the same thinking, we can expect a strengthening of support for development in town centres along with restrictions on out-of-town retail and leisure development, to help Scotland move away from car-dependent developments and towards those that enable active travel and public transport accessibility.

NPF4 will also focus on making the most of the old, before planning anything new. For example, with the new framework, there will be a stronger preference for reusing existing buildings before new development proceeds. NPF4 will also aim to shift future development away from greenfield land by actively enabling the redevelopment of vacant and derelict land.

From the Scottish Government to local government, NPF4 will act as a golden thread of planning policy running through to the Local Development Plans, and in turn, planning applications at all levels.  And as a Scottish Government document, it will allow the government greater levels of control when it comes to influencing the framework in which local decisions will need to be determined.

While it is understandable that the Scottish Government is keen to increase its efforts in tackling significant issues such as climate change and housing delivery, the perceived centralisation of planning policy will be of concern to some. For example, local authorities will undoubtedly feel that they are best placed to determine what is best, and achievable, in their areas for sustainable housing delivery.

As the NPF4 asks us all to think about tomorrow, and how developments will enable zero carbon living to work in practice, many large-scale developers will find that they are ahead of the curve, already planning with the outlined policies in mind. But there will be a period of adjustment for others, and undoubtedly some questions for both the Scottish Government and Planning Authorities, as we set about building a better, greener future for Scotland.

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