Fourth National Planning Framework: Planning Minister's speech - 11 January 2023

Speech given by the Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth Tom Arthur at the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh on Wednesday 11 January 2023.

Presiding Officer,

I am delighted to open this afternoon’s debate on Scotland’s Fourth National Planning Framework.

We are in a somewhat novel situation, with Parliament having created a statutory role for itself in approving the final version of the framework without then specifying what that role should involve.

Thankfully, we managed to work it out for ourselves. 

I was pleased to lay before Parliament the revised draft of the Fourth National Planning Framework - NPF4 as we all know it - last year on 8 November. There was then more parliamentary scrutiny led by the Local Government, Housing and Planning committee, at which I and other stakeholders gave evidence.

The committee has now published its report and this debate represents the final part of the process, when I hope that Parliament comes together, later this afternoon, to unanimously approve NPF4.

During this process, people told us that while they broadly supported draft NPF4, there was scope to significantly improve the policies, the practicality and importantly, the clarity of intent of the document.

I gave my commitment that the Government would take its time, consider carefully the views expressed by the Parliament and by everyone who responded to the consultation – that I would make sure we get it right, and return with a revised NPF4.

So that is what we have done.

And I am pleased that the committee recognises this and welcomes the revised draft and the improvements we have made.

We listened, we reconsidered, and we acted on what people told us. In that, I warmly welcome the committee’s conclusion that “it is clear that the Scottish Government has listened to the comments of the Committee and stakeholders”.

Yes, we did – and the revised NPF4 is so much the better for it.

I also welcome the committee’s intention to monitor delivery and I very much look forward to continuing to engage with the committee on that in the months and years ahead.

The delivery programme we published alongside our revised NPF4 in November is a ‘first edition’. It is very much intended as a live document, constantly being actioned, reviewed and updated.

It will play a crucial role in bringing together all of the actions to support NPF4’s delivery. It sets out an approach to governance, to new legislation and guidance, to facilitation of investment in development, and to the vital monitoring of progress which will inform future actions and subsequent iterations of the programme. 

I have already committed to undertaking a first review of the NPF4 Delivery Programme after six months, then annually thereafter, to ensure we get off to a strong start, and maintain the momentum throughout the lifetime of NPF4.

I also note the concerns heard by the committee about getting the balance right between what appear to be potential conflicts in certain policy areas.

That balance will be key – but in essence, isn’t that what planning has always been about, seeking to get the right decision about how we manage and develop places to meet a range of policy needs?  These tensions are inherent in the very concept of planning.

Yet if we are to deliver on this government’s ambitions to make Scotland fairer, greener and more prosperous, it is right that we prioritise key, national policy objectives through the Framework’s Policies.

It was always our intention to put climate and nature front and centre of our planning system. We understand what that means for future development across Scotland. NPF4 does not shy away from the hard decisions we have to make about our future.

But it also enables different opportunities to be realised that will transform our economy and society – such as through development of renewable energy technologies.

So NPF4 will support the sustainable growth of the renewable sector while continuing to protect our most valued natural assets and cultural heritage.

I welcome comments from Scottish Renewables, recognising the revised draft NPF4 as “probably…one of the most supportive planning regimes for renewables in the whole of Europe”.

But it does not mean ‘any development in any place’.

Wind energy is not being supported in National Parks and National Scenic Areas. Drawing on consultation responses, we have included a more explicit policy position on wild land, subject to an impact assessment and appropriate mitigation, management measures and monitoring. That also recognises that wild land areas are partly included within National Scenic Areas and the National Parks, while wider NPF4 policies also include protections for peatland, nature conservation sites and protected historic assets.

Another key objective of NPF4 is to help people “live well locally” in the future, by embedding principles of local living and 20 Minute Neighbourhoods into how we design and create places and communities. I note some stakeholders’ concerns that this approach might result in entrenchment of inequalities in neighbourhoods.

But isn’t that what the current system, as well as much wider social and economic change over time, has inadvertently resulted in, in many urban areas in particular?

Our fresh approach to spatial planning will allow us to create  places with improved access to the facilities and amenities required by people in their daily lives, that support thriving, sustainable, healthy communities and protect and enhance our environment.

The aim is to create more balanced, diverse communities and neighbourhoods.

Yet, I acknowledge the need for clarity on how the ‘local living and 20 Minute Neighbourhoods’ approach can be applied in rural settings. Scotland’s geography and population sparsity demands that the application of the template will differ according to the unique circumstances, opportunities and aspirations of individual places.

To support this important principle for new development, we will publish and invite views on new guidance on local living and 20 Minute Neighbourhoods.  

Presiding Officer, it will take extensive collaboration and commitment across sectors to deliver NPF4.

Local authorities are key partners. The strength of NPF4 is in connecting planning with wider work, through the Place Principle – which involves everyone.

To aid this work, a new Planning, Infrastructure and Place Advisory Group is being established to oversee delivery and  support implementation of NPF4.

The committee rightly highlights concerns about capacity and skills and we are already acting to address these issues.

Last April, I increased planning fees to provide additional resource for planning services across Scotland – a further increase was implemented last month to support assessment of applications under the Electricity Act.

I have been working closely with the High Level Group on Planning Performance, to explore how planning fees can move towards full cost recovery, to more accurately cover the cost of handling applications.

But funding is only one part of the solution. I agree with the committee that “all endeavours must be made to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of planners in place to deliver on the ambitions of NPF4.”

Work is already underway with the High Level Group to enhance people resources and skills. The Future Planners project, which sets out a number of practical actions, is a good example of this. 

And I am liaising with relevant government Ministers to ensure that planning features in the recently announced skills review, and as part of our green skills activity.

I also note that the committee opines that “it is not satisfactory to simply assume that planning policy is now set for ten years and can be left as it is”.

I can assure Parliament that no such assumption has been made by me or this government.

This year we will bring forward regulations that set out how we can make changes to NPF4 in the future.

NPF4 is not an aspirational document – it is a plan.  A plan for action, to be proactively pursued and delivered. If approved today, and once adopted, NPF4 will form part of the statutory development plan and have a substantial influence on all planning decisions.

Presiding Officer, should Parliament give its approval to NPF4, the Government will move quickly to adopt it next month. I will first lay regulations in the Parliament to commence the provisions of the 2019 Planning Act, so that NPF4 will become part of the statutory development plan immediately on its adoption.

Prior to adoption, I can confirm we will also issue transitional guidance which will help to smooth the shift from the old system to the new over the early weeks and months.

I will also lay regulations in the coming weeks – and publish related guidance – which will pave the way for the new style local development plans which will sit alongside NPF4.

It is important to remember that NPF4 is one part of a wider statutory development plan. In all cases, NPF4 will be taken together with local development plans to form the basis of decisions, and decision-makers also take into account material considerations.

With these intrinsic links between planning policy at both the national and local levels, the detailed reforms to local development planning alongside NPF4 will set the arrangements for producing stronger, place-focused plans and reinforce the plan-led system.

Presiding Officer, there is no doubt that there is a lot still to do, to turn NPF4 from good intentions into reality.

And while much of planning is procedural and practical by its very nature, by focussing solely on its component parts, we risk losing sight of its purpose.

Planning is far from prosaic. It helps to form the very foundation of policy making. From it, all else flows.

It is undoubtedly about place, but it is also about people.

Planning defines and enables development in every aspect of our lives – it informs the where, what and how of living, working and travelling. It plays a crucial role in attracting investment and in facilitating the type of development we will need to build a wellbeing economy.

And by necessity, it deems what we should not do, where we should not do it and how to prevent undesirable development.

This last aspect is crucially important to a country like Scotland, where we are blessed with a natural environment and landscape that is rich and abundant.

We have assets worth protecting and nurturing, which will help us to effectively tackle the twin crises of nature and climate, while also creating new economic and social opportunities for future generations.

Presiding Officer, the Fourth National Planning Framework  seeks to further our ambition for Scotland to be fairer, greener and more prosperous - changing how people in Scotland will live in the future by planning how to do that today. 

And I am proud to move the motion in my name that takes us further on that path.

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