Fourth National Planning Framework: position statement

This Position Statement sets out the Scottish Government's current thinking on the issues that will need to be addressed when preparing Scotland's fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4).

A Plan for Better, Greener Places

We will support development that reflects the character and identity of our distinctive places and neighbourhoods, safeguards and restores our natural assets, and tackles geographic disadvantages including areas needing regeneration and promoting the re-use of vacant and derelict land and buildings.

We will build on the review of the Town Centres Action Plan, the Land Use Strategy and the Place Principle to ensure that our approach to development focuses more on place.

We will include stronger and updated policies on design and place-making.

Our policies on city and town centres and on the re-use of historic buildings will be broadened to better reflect a wider range of potential uses in anticipation of continuing change.

We will future-proof our natural and historic assets and coasts and work to restore the health and resilience of Scotland’s ecosystems, so that our natural capital can further support our economy and our wellbeing.

We will significantly enhance our policies on vacant and derelict land to encourage innovation and redevelopment and promote a brownfield-first approach to development.

Our policies on rural development will positively encourage development that helps to repopulate and sustain rural areas and stimulate rural economic growth and sustainability.

You told us…

  • Good design should be required rather than optional. We should consider issues including density, building heights, diverse user needs and built form fully, whilst also allowing flexibility in response to the distinctive character of our places.
  • Many of our existing policies on the natural environment are fit for purpose. Building on this, we need to go further in securing positive effects for biodiversity from development, helping to address the global challenge of biodiversity loss in line with the new statutory outcome for NPF4.
  • There is support for a national nature/ecological network, and some people suggested that we review our policies on ancient woodlands, Ramsar Sites, and wild land. Other priorities raised include national parks and regional parks, soils, and woodland creation and protection.
  • The pace of change for town centres is accelerating, and we need planning to work with others to secure a strong future for them, including by moving beyond a focus on retail, to promote a wider range of uses. The engagement feedback also highlighted the different roles of town centres across the country, from rural towns to city regions.
  • Our strategy should set out a new agenda for rural development, with flexible policies which reflect the diversity of Scotland. Active intervention is needed to tackle depopulation and the particular challenges for our most remote areas, along with careful consideration being given to further development in pressured and more accessible areas. By linking development with infrastructure investment, we will be able to unlock development across rural Scotland and ensure its long term economic and social sustainability.
  • We can strengthen our approach to vacant and derelict land, given the development challenges and potential benefits for climate change and quality of life. Ideas include use of this land for renewable energy, green infrastructure/naturalisation, community growing or city farms, employment and investment and housing. There is support for stronger prioritisation of brownfield development over the release of greenfield land. Development viability and the use of delivery mechanisms to unlock brownfield land and redevelop buildings at risk are also key considerations.
  • The spatial strategy and policies will need to consider the long term impacts of climate change on our coasts, and provide a framework for protecting coastal communities and assets. Key issues include flood risk management and coastal protection and the interface between planning on land and at sea is important.

Our new spatial strategy will:

Focus on place-based outcomes

The Place Principle[29] means that all action and investment should be place-based to secure multiple benefits. Our spatial strategy will focus on the qualities and character of our places. We want to ensure that all parts of Scotland play to their strengths to support our wider objectives of community resilience, inclusive growth and environmental sustainability. Our strategy will support existing successful places and reflect on those that have not served us well, by considering how Scotland’s cities, towns, rural areas, coasts and islands work together to form a uniquely rich and diverse country where everyone benefits from our wealth of natural assets. We will also focus on opportunities for regeneration to ensure our most disadvantaged and fragile communities are prioritised for development and investment.

Climate change action needs to work with our places so that we can effectively focus on climate vulnerable communities and tailor action for a just transition that improves our neighbourhoods. We need to build the resilience of our infrastructure and lifeline links through adapting to the challenges around our changing climate, as well as our unique natural, coastal and historic environment assets. Protecting, restoring and enhancing our natural and cultural heritage should form the foundations of a place-based approach to our future development.

Regional spatial strategies are considering ways in which our land and natural assets can form the basis of a green recovery. The two national parks are exploring their contribution to the quality of life of people living across Scotland, and identifying priorities including affordable housing as key to unlocking their potential. Urban futures will also contribute to this. Emerging priorities from the Glasgow conurbation focus on unlocking the potential of land along the Clyde, across local authority boundaries, to attract investment, strengthen communities and improve the quality of our places. Addressing vacant and derelict land is a common theme across the emerging regional spatial strategies.

Achieve higher quality design

We will promote the planning and development of healthier, inclusive, sustainable and well-designed places across Scotland. Good quality development will stand the test of time and provide much wider benefits for people’s health, wellbeing, the economy and environment. The public realm, including the design, layout and accessibility of our streets and spaces, has an essential role in creating better places. We will build on the six qualities of successful places to maintain a cross-cutting policy on design and place-making. We will ensure that more specific sectoral or place-based policies incorporate design considerations that reflect the diverse needs and aspirations of people.

Many existing plans and strategies reflect the importance of design and place-making including Creating Places and the Place Standard.

Re-imagine city and town centres

We will look at how our policies can help our city and town centres to respond to current and future challenges so that they can adapt and be vibrant, creative, enterprising and accessible places to live, work and visit.

Scotland’s city and town centres were already facing significant challenges prior to the global pandemic. Our living and working patterns in recent months have raised further fundamental questions about their future and wider objectives including climate change and how community empowerment will influence how our town centres will evolve in the future. A new emphasis on localism raises opportunities for town centres that will require a planning policy response, building on our existing approach, to diversify and balance the use of land and buildings, provide services and activities for people of all ages, and stimulate new investment especially in the maintenance and re-use of existing buildings and infrastructure as part of a circular economy.

We will reflect on the Town Centre Action Plan, continue to embed the Town Centre First Principle in decision making and respond to the outcome of the ongoing review of the plan to ensure our policies help to create more vibrant, healthier inclusive and greener town centres. Greater consideration will be given to the provision of more good quality homes in town centres, with access to shops and facilities, which can bring life back into town centres and create good places to live including by making sustainable and efficient use of the existing building stock.

City and town centres have the potential to contribute a great deal to our response to climate change, and to meeting the future needs of our diverse population. By making better and more creative use of our settlement centres, we can significantly reduce the need to travel unsustainably whilst maintaining and enhancing the character and identity of our towns and cities to create vibrant places that meet our future needs. Although the approaches will vary to reflect local circumstances, we will highlight shared opportunities to reinvent town centres and strengthen our networks of settlements.

Re-use vacant and derelict land and empty buildings

There is a clear case for acting now to prioritise the use of vacant and derelict land and properties. This has the potential to deliver significant benefits including sustainable, inclusive growth and reduced emissions as an integral part of our future sustainable and circular economy.

Scotland has too much vacant and derelict land – this is rightly regarded as unacceptable and an issue of national concern that needs to be urgently addressed. The consequences come at too high a price, directly impacting on health and blighting economic, social and environmental recovery. Vacant and derelict land introduces a level of redundancy that our society can ill afford. Whether it is large scale long-term dereliction, or small scale short-term vacancy, we need to set out a stronger policy framework that will give confidence to communities and public and private sectors that vacant and derelict land represents an opportunity to stimulate a positive future whilst building on the legacy of the past.

Our national planning policies can complement wider work on vacant and derelict land. The Vacant and Derelict Land Taskforce has identified longstanding vacant and derelict sites which the planning system could play a role in bringing back into use and this is a key priority highlighted by the Scottish Land Commission which proposes this as a national priority for NPF to address, and the Vacant and Derelict Land Fund seeks to provide funding solutions to the issues.

We must change the perception of vacant and derelict land from being a liability to becoming an asset. We could do much to inspire innovation and imagination in considering how we can achieve this. The strategy can set out spatial priorities and opportunities that help to guide future investment.

The relationship between town centres and suburbs and the role of the green belt will also benefit from a long term spatial perspective that reflects our net-zero and environmental ambitions. We will develop a vision for the future use of vacant and derelict land so that regional strategies and local development plans can work collectively to unlock the potential of land within our existing settlements to provide multiple benefits. Supporting this, stronger policies to limit greenfield development and recognise the potential for green belts to form a part of multifunctional green networks could help to achieve positive effects for biodiversity whilst also helping to realise the health and climate benefits of growth within existing urban areas.

Actively promote working and living in rural Scotland and the islands

The issues arising from COVID-19 and future impacts of Brexit mean that the time is right for a fundamental rethink on how we can support a positive future for rural Scotland. Development planning in Scotland is now required by the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 to contribute to increasing the population of rural Scotland, particularly in depopulated areas. Last year we commissioned research[30] to explore how future planning policy can support strong and vibrant rural communities and economies in the coming years, and identified scope for significant policy changes in NPF4. Our National Islands Plan[31] identifies how we can improve outcomes for our island communities and our approach will be informed by an island communities impact assessment.

We are currently exploring significant changes to our policies on rural and island development, to support prosperous and sustainable communities and businesses whilst protecting our unique natural assets. Our rural areas and islands are one of our greatest assets and our strategy will reflect our ambition to build low carbon rural communities where the quality of life is exceptional. We will identify opportunities to build the long term sustainability of our more fragile areas by highlighting infrastructure requirements and facilitating development that strengthens their future. While it is right that rural and island areas are developed in a different way to our urban centres, people still need to be able to access goods, services, healthcare, education, work and recreation in a fair, affordable and low carbon way for health and wellbeing. Access to low carbon heat options and water supplies are of critical importance for households that are not connected to wider networks. Local authorities have been working together to explore what low carbon rural living will look like in the future and this will inform a new national spatial strategy with supporting policies.

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.

Rural repopulation is a key theme for emerging regional spatial strategies including for the South of Scotland, Argyll and Bute, Western Isles, Orkney and Highland, where authorities are exploring how the areas’ high quality of life and environment, growth of local economic development together with a growth in remote working can unlock new futures for rural communities and businesses. Emerging strategies are also exploring how the challenge of an ageing population can be addressed through long term planning.

Protect and restore Scotland’s natural environment

Our spatial strategy will strengthen our approach to protecting and restoring the health and quality of Scotland’s natural environment. We will ensure that our approach to planning supports Scotland’s role in responding to the twin global crises of biodiversity loss and climate change, including by strengthening policies designed to protect and restore Scotland’s biodiversity and natural assets and to improve their long term resilience to the impacts of our changing climate.

Our national planning policies include measures to protect Scotland’s unique natural environment, reflecting the hierarchy of natural heritage designations, from international networks to locally important landscapes and nature conservation sites. Building on this, we will strengthen policies to protect and restore biodiversity and natural assets. For example, the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 requires NPF4 to set out how development will contribute to securing positive effects for biodiversity and we are keen to build on existing good practice in Scotland and elsewhere. It also requires planning authorities to prepare Forestry and Woodland Strategies for their areas as a way of guiding future woodland creation and supporting the sustainable management of existing woodlands to increase the social, environmental and economic benefits they can deliver. We will look to align NPF4 with the vision and outcomes of Scotland’s new Environment Strategy and the principles set out in the Land Use Strategy as well as considering the issues for the natural environment arising from the Climate Change Plan and Adaptation Strategy.

Our approach will recognise the fundamental role that a healthy and resilient natural environment plays in supporting Scotland’s economy and the health and wellbeing of our communities. It will help to ensure that our natural assets are managed in a sustainable, regenerative way so they can continue to provide the benefits Scotland’s people and businesses rely on.

Protect and enhance our historic buildings and places

‘Our Place in Time – the Historic Environment Strategy for Scotland’[32] sets out a vision for how we will care for, understand and promote access to our historic environment. It recognises the important contribution that historic sites and buildings make to communities across Scotland; promoting a sense of belonging and identity, encouraging civic participation and supporting local economies. Our policies for the historic environment will aim to respond to the outcomes and objectives of the Strategy.

Like our natural environment, our historic buildings and townscapes are key assets that contribute to our sense of belonging, economy and quality of life. Planning should provide the framework in which change in the historic environment can be managed sensitively to preserve the special characteristics of our buildings and places, while also ensuring that we capitalise on the opportunities they offer. In doing so, we will acknowledge that the historic environment is itself an asset that can help us to deliver our wider policy ambitions for example, for mitigating climate change, improving health and providing housing.

Since NPF3 was adopted, Historic Environment Scotland (HES) has been established as our lead public body for the historic environment. In 2019, HES published Historic Environment Policy for Scotland (HEPS). We will consider our policies for the historic environment in relation to HEPS to ensure a consistent framework for decision making.

Adapt our coastline to the impacts of climate change

We will consider how the future development of our coastal areas and communities can be achieved in a way that helps them adapt to long term challenges. Terrestrial and marine planning come together in our coastal areas, and NPF4 will align with Scotland’s National Marine Plan as well as sectoral plans for offshore wind and aquaculture, emerging regional marine plans, plans for our ports and harbours and the Blue Economy Action Plan. The Scottish Crown Estate Act 2019 will also provide opportunities for coastal communities to benefit from their own assets, opening up new opportunities for strengthening their future.

We will consider whether proposed national developments can help us to deliver on this vision. The full list of proposals we have received is available to view at and includes, for example: area‑based environmental transformation projects; green and nature networks; town centres; regeneration projects; rural developments; and redevelopment of vacant and derelict land.

Potential policy changes

We are currently considering the following priority policy changes to support a spatial strategy for better, greener places:

  • Embedding the Place Principle throughout NPF4.
  • Promoting the value of good design in creating great places. We will continue to reflect the 6 principles of successful places and consider the extent to which they can be developed further to reflect wider priorities, such as climate change, biodiversity and public health, including the health benefits from clean air and access to nature and quality green space. We will also consider scope to provide a framework for bringing forward Masterplan Consent Areas within this context.
  • Embedding the use of the Place Standard Tool to reflect the importance of public involvement in a collaborative approach to place-making and the links between place, environment, health and wellbeing.
  • Refreshing ‘Designing Streets’ to bring it up to date, clarify specific issues such as inclusive and sustainable design, and strengthen its applications, particularly in the context of 20 minute neighbourhoods.
  • Broadening the mix of uses in town centres in the future. As part of this, we will look at how our policies can help to deliver the Town Centre First Principle and associated work on regeneration as a key contributor to achieving a new emphasis on localism and sustainability. We will promote new opportunities to increase town centre living, for example by stimulating the re-use of empty properties and gap sites and actively promoting homes for people of all ages, with greater recognition of the contribution these can make to housing requirements whilst following the agent of change principle. We will also look at how our policies can respond to current and future expected changes to the retail sector and harness the energy of the cultural heritage, historic environment and arts economy, including the evening/night time economy, to support town centre regeneration.
  • Reconsidering the evidence, monitoring and appraisal required to inform spatial strategies in development plans, such as town centre health audits and strategies, transport and emissions modelling of land use options.
  • Aligning the strategy with the Land Use Strategy and identifying opportunities to align emerging Regional Spatial Strategies with future Regional Land Use Partnership Frameworks.
  • Prioritising the use of vacant and derelict land ahead of greenfield land through a ‘brownfield first’ approach. As part of this, we will consider the various definitions of vacant and derelict land, buildings at risk and their respective implications for planning policies.
  • Strongly incentivising the imaginative and sustainable re-use of vacant and derelict land and buildings by highlighting the wide range of potential temporary and permanent uses it could support and providing a positive policy framework for achieving long term positive outcomes.
  • Promoting a plan-led approach to re-use and remediation of sites, linking with wider delivery tools such as design briefs and local place plans. We will consider the evidence required to inform spatial strategies as part
    of this.
  • Actively encouraging sustainable, innovative and low carbon development and re-use of existing buildings or vacant and derelict land.
  • Tackling the challenges of viability arising for some types of development on vacant sites, by considering how plans can be supported by a wide range of delivery mechanisms. We will look at, for example, how we can promote proactive land assembly to enable the re-use of land and disused buildings.
  • Updating our green belt policy to provide greater clarity on acceptable uses whilst also recognising its role as part of multifunctional natural infrastructure.
  • Proactively rebuilding the resilience of rural communities and economies by enabling well designed, sustainable development. This will include policies to strongly support rural investment and diversification and enable the development of essential infrastructure for rural areas including affordable housing. As part of this we will take into account the specific circumstances of island communities.
  • Strengthening the links between development proposals and wider sustainable land use objectives, contributing to the outcomes of Scotland’s Environment Strategy. This includes reframing policy to reflect the fundamental role of our natural environment and biodiversity in providing essential natural services and benefits for our economy, health and wellbeing, and climate resilience. We will explore opportunities to ensure that our approach to using and managing natural assets is sustainable and regenerative, restoring and enhancing our stocks of natural capital.
  • Strengthening the consideration given to the likely effects of development on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions where peat and other carbon rich soils are present.
  • Securing positive effects for biodiversity from new developments. We are developing ambitious new proposals which deliver positive outcomes for biodiversity from development without the need for overly complex metrics, and will consider how they can support wider approaches to natural infrastructure.
  • Strengthening policy on woodland protection and creation in association with development, aligned with new provisions on forestry and woodland strategies.
  • Clarifying our policies on locally important built and natural assets where required.
  • Given the new requirements in the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 to support the repopulation of rural Scotland, we will consider whether our policies on wild land need to change, while ensuring effective safeguards for our natural environment and landscapes.
  • Maintaining, strengthening and clarifying our policies for the historic environment to ensure planning policies align with the vision set out in our Historic Environment Strategy and the operational policy framework in HES’s Historic Environment Policy for Scotland.
  • Enabling the continuing use, or re-use where appropriate of historic buildings given their importance in making sustainable use of embedded carbon as part of a circular economy.
  • Considering whether Heritage Impact Assessments should be mandatory for all listed building and conservation area applications.
  • Supporting development and infrastructure needed to realise the potential of the blue economy and coastal communities, including opportunities to enhance natural infrastructure. We will also factor in long term coastal vulnerability and resilience in order to future-proof development decisions.
  • As part of delivery against the missions set for it, the Scottish National Investment Bank can support improving places and regeneration in order to reduce inequality, and improve opportunities and outcomes for people and communities through its investment activity.



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