On 10 November 2021, the Scottish Government published the long-awaited consultation draft of its Fourth National Planning Framework (“NPF4”). The ministerial foreword 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 soon will close (31 March 2022).
The NPF4 is a substantial document, clocking in at 131 pages and spanning multiple industries. In this article, we focus on selected elements of NPF4 that are relevant to retail in Scotland. If you’d like more detail on the plan, we recently shared an overview here.
NPF4 has a section dedicated to city, town, commercial and local centres. This sits under the “Distinctive Places” theme. This is perhaps an interesting choice given that the policies could possibly have sat within the “Productive Places” theme as more of a driver of economic growth. Having said that, ultimately it is considered that the overarching theme under which the policy sits will be less significant than the wording and applicability of the policy itself.
NPF4 acknowledges that the pandemic has had a significant impact on city, town and local centres and that “the planning system should help them adapt and be vibrant, healthier, creative, enterprising, accessible and resilient places for people to live, learn, work, enjoy and visit and should identify opportunities to enhance town centres.” NPF4 contains a number of policies that are of relevance to the retail sector in Scotland to help to achieve this. In particular:
Turning first to policy 24, this encourages local development plans to support “sustainable futures for city, town and local centres” and to “identify a network of centres”. Development proposals that improve the vitality and viability of city, town and local centres should be supported. A core plank of NPF4 is the 20 minute neighbourhood, which is the idea that people should be able to walk or cycle locally for all their basic needs within 20 minutes of where they live. This should encourage more sustainable living, and should also encourage diversity of uses within neighbourhoods in order to meet these basic needs.
Policy 25 is a dedicated retail policy. It seeks to give policy support specifically to retail developments that will generate significant footfall in town centres, and to remove policy support for retail developments that would generate significant footfall outside of town centres. This is to protect the vitality and viability of the town centre in question. Scale and impact on the character and amenity of the area is to be taken into consideration as well.
The vitality and viability of town centres are not just about retail uses. But the clustering of certain non-retail uses is not to be supported. That is to say, where proposals would create too great a concentration of hot food takeaways, betting shops, and high interest money lending premises, these are presumptively refused. Given that NPF4 is seeking to ensure that town centres have a role to play in the health and wellbeing of the people that use them, especially in disadvantaged areas, this perhaps represents a more interventionist change to town planning.
This more interventionist role can further be seen in policy 25(d) where planning authorities and developers are encouraged to be flexible in applying the sequential approach to neighbourhood shopping and how this dovetails with the “20 minute neighbourhood”. The distinct impression is that in the event of a retail proposal alleviating a lack of convenience goods/healthier provision, especially in disadvantaged or more remote areas, a certain latitude is encouraged to enable the proposal to be supported.
Policy 26 generally embodies the well-known town centre first principle. Fundamentally, this policy indicates that development proposals for other uses which will generate significant footfall (e.g. commercial leisure and offices, amongst other things) should only be considered acceptable in out of town centre locations where a town centre first assessment demonstrates that:
The relationship of proposed developments with the network of centres identified in a local development plan should form part of the town centre first assessment.
Policies 25 and 26 refer only to significant footfall. This does not appear to be defined anywhere and will therefore possibly be taken on a case by case basis depending on location and the nature of the proposals. It does seem to introduce some kind of threshold, however, suggesting that more modest development outside of town centres should not be subject to these policy provisions.
Overall, despite reference to climate change and the 20 minute neighbourhood, there is little about these policies that appears particularly new. Reading what Scottish Planning Policy (2014) has to say about town centres, much of the language used in NPF4 is familiar. The town centre first principle has been in place for many years, and NPF4 does not appear to be materially different to what we see in Scottish Planning Policy (albeit acknowledging the efforts to tackle climate change and the 20 minute neighbourhood principle). Further, a number of local development plans already contain policies that are dedicated to protection of town centres. But the prominence of securing these policies as part of the Development Plan at a national level is without doubt significant.
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.