Rural Planning Policy to 2050: research findings

Findings from research commissioned to inform preparation of the next version of Scotland’s National Planning Framework, NPF4.

1 Executive Summary

1.1 Purpose and Objectives of the Research

The research was commissioned by the Scottish Government in order to inform preparation of the next version of Scotland’s National Planning Framework, NPF4.

The NPF is the Scottish Government’s spatial plan for Scotland. It sets out Scottish Ministers’ policies and proposals for the development and use of land. NPF4 will consider what Scotland will be in the future, looking ahead to 2050, and how planning policy can best support delivery of this vision. The NPF will have statutory status in decision-making on planning applications, and it must be taken into account in Local Development Plans.

The research explored, from a land use planning perspective, the current challenges and the future opportunities for land use diversification in rural Scotland. It considered how planning policy can support strong and vibrant rural communities and economies in the coming years.

The detailed objectives were:

1. To draw together, from the existing literature base, the different typologies and classifications used to describe Scotland’s rural areas and to consider what is ‘rural’;

2. To describe at a national level the key challenges of relevance to planning in rural Scotland, within the different typologies identified, drawing on existing data sources;

3. To establish what each of the differing types of rural areas are likely to need from the planning system over the lifetime of NPF4 to support positive economic futures;

4. To identify key areas of opportunity for spatial planning and policy to support the diversification of land use in rural areas to 2050;

5. To establish whether there are some types of rural development that enable others to happen, for example by enabling a diverse range of businesses and services that build resilience and promote entrepreneurial activity.

1.2 Methodology

We conducted an extensive literature review and undertook a programme of stakeholder engagement, including an online survey, phone interviews and workshops.

The literature review was in three parts. The first part was a review of the information available on the classification of rural areas, to assess how rural Scotland is currently characterised and the extent to which there is supporting data to inform NPF4. In the second part of the review, we identified key challenges and anticipated opportunities of relevance to planning in rural Scotland. This involved considering the anticipated needs of rural businesses and communities and how these needs are likely to translate into development on the ground. In the third part of the review, we looked at the wider literature, to set the research findings for Scotland in a wider UK and international context.

The online survey generated a total of 267 unique responses. 205 of these were from individuals and 62 from organisations in the public, private, charitable and community sectors.

We carried out 27 semi-structured interviews with representatives of rural community and business interests, landowning and environmental NGOs, relevant professions and public bodies, all of whom had a strategic insight into the research questions.

In order to test and refine the emerging findings of the research, we ran two ‘regional’ focus group workshops (in Oban and Moffat) and one ‘national’ one (in Edinburgh). These workshops provided critical feedback on the emerging research findings. The participants in the Oban and Moffat workshops were mostly representatives of local or regional community and business organisations. Representatives of several planning authorities also attended. The participants in the Edinburgh workshop were representatives of national community, business and environmental associations, the planning profession and public bodies.

1.3 Conclusions & Recommendations

Objective 1

In order to support place-based approaches to policy, rural typologies should take account of the particular needs and challenges of different areas, as well as their assets and opportunities and their functional links to other areas.

There is a substantial body of data available for this purpose in Scotland. The Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification considers the two key factors of population and access. It is relevant here because the development of a rural area is influenced by its population size and profile and by its relative distance from urban centres.

Recommendation 1: The 8-fold Scottish Government Urban Rural Classification provides a relevant and appropriate basis for characterising rural Scotland for the purposes of NPF4, and should be used as a starting point for that process. It may be necessary to modify and adapt the basic rural categories provided by the Classification to ensure their full relevance to planning.

The research has shown that a more nuanced approach should be taken to the classification of so-called Remote and Very Remote rural areas, to take account of the distinct challenges faced by islands and Sparsely Populated Areas.

Recommendation 2: Island and Sparsely Populated Areas should be represented as distinct types of rural area in the picture of rural Scotland used in the preparation of NPF4. This will serve to differentiate those types of area from other Remote rural areas, on the basis of their differing needs, challenges and opportunities, thus supporting the development of place-based policies.

There is a large body of data available for characterising rural areas according to their relative socio-economic performance, wellbeing, deprivation or fragility. This data can provide a more nuanced, complex and place-specific understanding of the needs and challenges, opportunities and assets of different areas.

Recommendation 3: the preparation of Local Development Plans and other sub-national plans and policies should take account of existing data on socio-economic performance and wellbeing, to support the development of place-based policies. The selection of indicators should be determined at local or regional level, allowing for variation in local circumstances, but it would usefully be supported by national guidance relevant to planning contexts.

Objective 2

Our research has identified 6 key challenges facing rural areas:

1. Demographic trends: The main demographic issue identified by the research is the persistent depopulation of already Sparsely Populated Areas. The challenge is both one of falling population numbers and of changes to the population profile. There are also some concerns over rising and ageing populations in Accessible rural areas, leading to development pressures and pressures on services.

2. Structural changes to the rural economy: There are challenges arising from deep structural changes in the rural economy, particularly those associated with the decline of agriculture, fishing and forestry, the closure of several major employers and the rise of a service economy. In terms of the service sector, there are particular concerns around the impacts on rural communities and places associated with a growth in tourism. The economies of rural areas also have a number of positive characteristics, and should be seen as distinct from the economies of cities and towns.

3. The ‘live-ability’ of rural areas: This is a matter of the standard and quality of life in rural areas and of the viability of rural communities. Key concerns relate to access to public and other services, the strength of community support networks and social bonds, and the cost of living. The growing and ageing population of Accessible areas is considered to be putting pressure on existing services. The centralisation of services presents particular challenges for Remote rural areas, Sparsely Populated Areas and the islands.

4. Climate Change and conservation: Climate change was identified as a general concern, with a range of potential consequences for rural economies, communities and environments. The research has also identified rural areas – and perhaps especially the more remote areas – as having great potential as a resource in addressing climate change. The conservation of nature, landscape and cultural heritage was also identified as a challenge, particularly in Remote, island and Sparsely Populated areas.

5. The administrative, policy and fiscal environment: The challenges identified in this category include those arising from the UK’s exit from the European Union. They also include challenges related to the planning system. There is concern over the perceived ‘urban’ mindset of planning and of a need for greater understanding in policy of the diverse needs and character of rural areas. Some stakeholders expressed concern at a tendency to seek to protect rural areas from development rather than to support development. There was also concern that more could be done to improve links between planning and the attainment of wider societal goals such as land reform, improving local governance, promoting inclusive growth and environmental enhancement, and responding to climate change.

6. The supply of land for development: The research has identified the limited availability of land as a structural barrier to the development that is needed to address the other major challenges outlined above. This is a question of Scotland’s patterns of land ownership and land tenure, and of the effects of planning, which can affect land values as a result of its role in managing the use and development of land.

Objective 3

Nine broad areas of development were identified as being of particular importance in terms of addressing the challenges outlined above:

1. Housing & Settlement: Recognising that housing plays a fundamental role in the rural economy and in the sustainability of rural communities:

Recommendation 4: Planning should rely more on fine-grained approaches in rural areas which can identify untapped housing demand, and place less reliance in these areas on traditional measures of need and demand.

Recommendation 5: Planning should also recognise and develop housing policies suited to rural areas, where housing is perceived as a transformational form of development in relation to the wider rural economy and societal needs.

In order to address the needs of rural communities and economies, there is a need to allow settlements to develop in line with more locally-based diagnoses of where growth is appropriate. Accordingly:

Recommendation 6: NPF4 should offer explicit encouragement to using place-sensitive approaches to settlement, which determine the development of existing and new settlements in response to the particular challenges, needs and opportunities of different areas.

2. Transport infrastructure is vital to the economic and social sustainability of rural communities, and transport developments can have a transformational effect on rural areas, particularly the more remote areas.

Recommendation 7: NPF4 should promote the sustainability of living and working in rural areas, recognising the possibilities afforded by new technology and the social and environmental benefits of having people on the land. As part of this, consideration should be given to a national programme of rural transport enhancements which collectively amount to a ‘national development’.

3. Digital & Telecommunications connectivity are also fundamental to releasing economic and social potential across rural areas, reducing carbon footprint and increasing safety.

Recommendation 8: Development of the digital fibre network was designated a national development in NPF3. NPF4 should continue to support its ongoing national roll-out and enhanced telecommunications infrastructure. This can help to achieve the ‘death of distance’ made possible by such developments in remote connectivity.

4. Renewable Energy generation, transmission, storage and consumption is a challenge and an opportunity for all rural areas. Particular issues relate to the development of local energy economies, infrastructure for electric vehicles and the ‘repowering’ of existing wind farms as existing lifespan consents expire.

Recommendation 9: NPF4 should provide a clear steer on planning policy in regard to new waves of renewable energy development, in particular in relation to areas that are identified as having significance in terms of their landscape, biodiversity and/or carbon sequestration values (e.g. National Scenic Areas, ‘Wild land Areas’, peatlands).

5. Tourism & Recreation is providing significant economic opportunities for rural areas whilst also putting strain on existing facilities and infrastructure.

Recommendation 10: In preparing NPF4, consideration should be given to how best to provide guidance to local authorities on supporting and managing the development of tourism facilities and infrastructure, and on balancing the need for tourist accommodation with the need to ensure there is adequate and appropriate housing for rural populations.

6. Economic & Business Development: General changes to the rural economy, often associated with the decline in relative importance of the land based industries and the rise of the service sector, are creating challenges and opportunities across all rural areas. Small and micro businesses are more significant in a rural context than larger scale industries.

Recommendation 11: Supporting small businesses to survive and grow is essential for rural areas. Particular recognition should be given to the retention and attraction of value-adding processes in rural areas.

7. Climate Change & Conservation: Climate change and the conservation and enhancement of the natural and historic environment are key challenges for all rural areas, and also present opportunities for economic and business development and for sustaining rural communities.

Recommendation 12: NPF4 should promote an approach to planning which links the three goals of conserving of the natural and historic environment, responding to the climate emergency and sustaining more resilient rural communities.

8. Land-based Industries: Although there has been a general shift in the rural economy away from traditional land-based industries, such industries continue to play an important role, especially in more Remote and Sparsely Populated areas.

Recommendation 13: Land based industries retain an important role in managing Scotland’s environment and in providing a range of benefits for wider society. They also have potential as part of the future diversification of the rural economy. Planning and other policy areas impacting on land-based industries should support their viability wherever possible.

9. Services & Community Facilities: The research identified the ‘live-ability’ of rural areas as a key challenge. This is particularly the case in Remote and Sparsely Populated areas. Opportunities for mixed use developments have the potential to be transformative if planning will provide the flexibility required.

Recommendation 14: Planning should provide a more supportive framework for mixed use developments in rural areas.

Objectives 4 & 5

Diversification is a process and the major opportunities for planning and policy-making may be in helping to create the underlying conditions that allow diversification to happen. To enable this, more flexibility in rural planning may now be appropriate. There is a need to acknowledge the shifting patterns in traditional land-based industry activity and encourage the often small scale of local innovation that is found in rural areas.

Place-based approaches to rural policy begin with the people they affect and are founded in dialogue around the future of rural communities, based on their economic, social and environmental assets and their potential. Such approaches may be quite different from those traditionally favoured by ‘protective’ rural planning policies.

The recently passed Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 provides for an extension of the Local Development Plan review process from 5 to 10 years, and for the production of Local Place Plans. Both of these measures will potentially help to implement place-based planning, but the capacity of both Local Authorities and communities will be critical to their success in helping to promote diversification in rural Scotland.

Recommendation 15: Planning Officers should be enabled to provide support to communities to produce Local Place Plans, as a means of further implementing place-based approaches to planning. Planning officers should also be enabled to support communities to undertake diversification projects as these emerge from such place-based processes. Local Place Plans could evolve into Masterplan Consent Areas to assist in this process. Accepting that resources will differ across Local Authorities, the LPP process could be standardised potentially through the Place Standard Tool.

Recommendation 16: Rural planning should be more permissive where there is a need for diversification, as part of a proactive process that is plan-led and that identifies key types and examples of development that will support diversification and meet the needs of rural communities and businesses.



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