NPF4 – Scotland’s rural vision

NPF4 – Scotland’s rural vision

On 10 November 2021, the Scottish Government published the long-awaited consultation draft of its Fourth National Planning Framework (“NPF4”). The ministerial forward makes it clear that the overall approach is to assist in achieving “net zero sustainable development by 2045”. This is therefore one of the most significant publications in national planning policy terms as it sets out the Scottish Government’s vision for the next quarter century of development in Scotland.

The NPF4, when ultimately approved by the Scottish Parliament, will form part of the Development Plan, exerting a significant influence on what is built (or not built) and where. It is therefore important for all stakeholders in property development and land use to be aware of its terms and to consider responding to the consultation that is now underway.

The NPF4 is a substantial document, clocking in at 131 pages and spanning multiple industries. We focus on selected elements of NPF4 that are relevant to rural Scotland, as well as providing a brief overview.

NPF4 is split into four Parts:

  • Part 1: the overarching strategy including priorities spatial principles and action areas.
  • Part 2: the proposed “national developments”.
  • Part 3: polices for the development and use of land and are intended to be applied in the preparation of local development plans; local place plans; masterplans and briefs and for deciding a large range of applications.
  • Part 4: how the Scottish Government will deliver this strategy.

Spatial Strategy and Action Areas

NPF4 begins by outlining a national spatial strategy, which contains four central themes:

  1. Sustainable Places
    “Our future net zero, nature-positive places will be more resilient to the impacts of climate change and support the recovery and restoration of our natural environment.”
  2. Liveable Places
    “Our future places, homes and neighbourhoods will be better, healthier and more vibrant places to live.”
  3. Productive Places
    “Our future places will attract new investment, build business confidence, stimulate entrepreneurship and facilitate future ways of working – improving economic, social and environmental wellbeing.”
  4. Distinctive Places
    “Our future places will be distinctive, safe and pleasant, easy to move around, welcoming, nature-positive and resource efficient.”

Six overarching principles have been identified to aid delivery of the national spatial strategy, including “compact growth” to limit urban expansion where brownfield, vacant and derelict land can be used more effectively; “local living” to create networks of 20 minute neighbourhoods; “balanced development” across all of Scotland, enabling more people to live in rural and island areas; “conserving and recycling” assets to make productive use of existing buildings, places and assets minimising waste; “urban and rural synergy” bringing together the contributions of cities, towns, villages and countryside areas to achieve shared objectives, in particular to improve green infrastructure; and “just transition” to ensure that the transition away from fossil fuels is fair, creating a better future for all.

Action Areas

NPF4 splits the country into five “action areas”. Broadly these are:

  1. North and West Coastal Innovation
    “Making sustainable use of our coasts and islands to sustain communities and pioneer investment in the blue economy”
  2. Northern Revitalisation
    “Growing low-carbon rural communities, capitalising on digital innovation and making the most of exceptional natural and cultural heritage”
  3. North East Transition
    “Actively planning a just transition from oil and gas to a net zero future”
  4. Central Urban Transformation
    “Transforming and pioneering a new era of low carbon urban living”
  5. Southern Sustainability
    “Creating connected, liveable places which benefit from further investment and innovation”

It is apparent that the Scottish Government is seeking to avoid a one size fits all approach to recognise that the Islands are distinct from the Central Belt, which in turn is distinct from the Borders, and so on. Within this, it also seems clear that the distinction between the rural Scotland and Scotland’s urban areas is recognised. In particular, the North and West Coastal Innovation, Northern Revitalisation, and Southern Sustainability action areas tend to have a greater proportion of rural land, and this appears to be acknowledged.

National Developments

Eighteen national developments are identified (see Part 2 of NPF4, at page 44). Some of these are national in the sense that they are regional developments of national strategic importance (for example, Dundee Waterfront). Some, however, are truly national in scope and will include rural Scotland (for example, a digital fibre network).

Being a national development identified in NPF4 means that the need for these developments is established. This does not, however, equate to a grant of planning permission. Planning applications, including environmental impact assessment where applicable, must still be made and assessed in the usual manner.

The impact for rural Scotland

The Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997, the key piece of legislation for planning in Scotland, is currently undergoing significant amendment. In accordance with the 1997 Act (as amended), the National Planning Framework must contain a statement about how the Scottish Ministers consider that development will contribute to “increasing the population of rural areas of Scotland.” That is a statement that touches on many elements of planning. The Scottish Ministers’ statement in respect of this outcome is (Annex A of NPF4):

Scottish Ministers consider that development of land supported by the policies and proposals in [NPF4] will contribute to this outcome by requiring LDP’s to set out an appropriate approach to development in areas of pressure and decline and include proposals for future population growth, informed by an understanding of population change over time.

In addition, rural policies support resettling and encourage development that will help to sustain and grow fragile communities providing employment and providing new housing. Development proposals that contribute to the viability, sustainability and diversity of rural economies are supported.

Specifically, Policy 31: Rural Places supports development proposals in rural areas and also makes reference to the importance of digital connectivity. This is reinforced by Policy 23: Digital Infrastructure which will support the delivery of digital infrastructure to support investment and population growth in rural areas.

Consequently, key themes emerging for the rural economy appear to be (1) population decline in rural areas; and (2) the viability, sustainability and diversity of the rural economies.

Rural places are given their own dedicated policy proposal, Policy 31, at page 105 of NPF4. It should not be overlooked, however, that the NPF4 contains a breadth of policies that are relevant to rural areas further to Policy 31. As stated at the outset, the NPF4 is a very substantial document.

On the face of it, Policy 31 seeks to be a one stop shop for planning in rural Scotland. As a general rule, and consistent with the Scottish Government’s stated desire to make rural Scotland a viable, sustainable and diverse economy, very broad support is given for development in rural areas. Support is only given, however, provided that proposals meet certain criteria.

Policy 31 begins with a general direction to local planning authorities that policies in Local Development Plans should be included to support the sustainability and prosperity of rural communities, with appropriate approaches to development in areas of pressure and decline (Policy 31(a)). A proactive start.

Housing and repopulation

Development proposals in accessible or pressured rural areas should only be supported where they are consistent with the Local Development Plan’s spatial strategy, and do not lead to unsustainable growth in commuting by car or suburbanisation of the countryside (Policy 31(f)). Given that “sustainable places” is a key theme of the NPF4, this is perhaps not surprising.

New homes in rural areas outwith existing rural settlements should be supported (other than in existing accessible areas or areas of pressure identified in Local Development Plans) (Policy 31(e)). Support is only given for small scale development, however, such as being necessary to support the sustainable management of a rural business, meaning there is an essential need to live there.

Development proposals that support the resettlement of previously inhabited areas are supported where consistent with climate change mitigation targets (Policy 31(b)).

With the exception of the support being given for the resettlement of previously inhabited areas, it is submitted that the policy position of the NPF4 in respect of rural housing does not appear to be a radical departure from the norm.

The rural economy

Support for development in rural areas is given where it meets certain criteria. The list of criteria is long. Some of the more prominent criteria are where the proposal will address issues of need for the rural location, and is suitably scaled, sited and designed. Reusing buildings or vacant, derelict or brownfield sites also garners a thumbs up. (Policy 31(c))

In my view, proposed Policy 31(d) is a particularly important sub-policy for rural Scotland and so I repeat it here in full:

Development proposals that contribute to the viability, sustainability and diversity of the local economy should be supported, including:

  • diversification of farms, crofts or other land use businesses, where use of good quality land for development is minimised and businesses [sic] viability is not adversely affected;
  • diversification of existing business;
  • production and processing facilities for local produce and materials, for example sawmills, or local food production;
  • essential community services;
  • critical infrastructure required to support transport or digital connectivity;
  • small scale developments that support new ways of working such as remote working, homeworking and community hubs;
  • improvement or restoration of the natural environment.

Much of what is contained in proposed Policy 31(d) appears to mirror what a number of local planning authorities are doing already in their local development plans, although there is perhaps a broader approach being proposed. “Diversification of an existing business”, for example, could mean a number of different things to a number of different people. But placing that, and the other matters listed, in national policy that will form part of the Development Plan gives significant status to these proposals.

Very remote rural areas

Proposed Policy 31(g) concerns particularly remote rural areas, perhaps where communities located there may be considered fragile. Development proposals in these areas are, generally speaking, to be supported. Small scale housing is promoted. Sustainable development providing employment must be encouraged. And specifically in respect of fragile communities, any type of development appears to be encouraged (although the examples given are housing and digital infrastructure).


Prime agricultural land is dealt with under Policy 31(h). Prime agricultural land should be protected unless something absolutely essential is being proposed.  For example, an essential worker for a rural business to be able to live onsite, or essential infrastructure where no other suitable site is available.

Digital infrastructure

Proposed policy 23 deals with digital infrastructure, which is also named as one of the 18 national developments in NPF4. As a general rule, Local Development Plans should support the delivery of digital infrastructure, particularly in areas with gaps in connectivity and barriers to digital access. This is perhaps aimed at rural areas where connectivity may not be as reliable as Scotland’s major conurbations.


There are, of course, other areas of this substantial document that are relevant to rural Scotland. Renewable energy is likely to be one of those given that windfarms are very often sited in more remote, rural locations.

Strategic renewable electricity generation and transmission infrastructure are identified as national development. More specifically, this national development supports “renewable electricity generation, repowering, and expansion of the electricity grid.”

Electricity generation projects exceeding 50MW in capacity (i.e. section 36 consents) and electricity storage from renewables of this scale will be considered national development under the Hierarchy of Developments Regulations. Although this does not remove the requirement for significant and detailed assessment of projects (in particular environmental impact assessment), a presumption of need is made. The needs case may be a rebuttable one, however. Despite the general principle of support for renewables in Policy 19 of NPF4, support is contingent on the impacts identified (including cumulative effects) being acceptable.

What’s next?

Consultation in respect of NPF4 is now underway. The closing date for responses is 31 March 2022. This consultation is being run in parallel with the Parliamentary scrutiny that NPF4 is subject to. Anderson Strathern’s top ranked Planning Law specialists would be delighted to assist you with any representations that you may wish to make. Please contact us to discuss how we can help.

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