The Draft NPF4 is called "Scotland 2045" in accordance with its fundamental aim, to enable Scotland to achieve Net Zero by that year. The theme of climate change, climate emergency, decarbonisation, biodiversity gain, sustainable development, nature-based solutions and other "green stuff" is common throughout the draft NPF4: its objectives, its spatial strategies, the list of national developments and planning policies are rife with these references.
Such a "green" focus to the National Planning Framework should be commended, but what does it actually mean? What are the implications for the Scottish Planning System? Below we pick 3 points to highlight and consider from the Draft NPF4 where perhaps further clarity is required: the climate emergency, nature crisis and nature based solutions.
Policy 2: Climate Emergency
The new requirement of planning authorities to give "significant weight" to the climate emergency when considering development proposals was highlighted by the Minister, Tom Arthur, as a key feature of the Draft NPF4. The prominence of the climate emergency in planning policy (as the NPF4 will become part of the statutory development framework) and this obligation on planning authorities is certainly to be applauded – recognising the role of the planning system in combating climate change. However, it's not clear as to how this will work in practice.
Whilst for some developments it may be more obvious to give the climate emergency appropriate consideration (for example proposals for wind farms or eco lodges), there will be many where it will not be clear as to what giving the climate emergency "significant weight" will mean. The Draft NPF4 does clarify that carbon intensive development proposals will need to demonstrate that the level of emissions is the "minimum that can be achieved for the development to be viable" and that the proposed development "is in the long-term public interest." But, what it does not make clear, is what impact this will have on householder developments, office blocks and the wide variety of other development types. Will it be necessary to demonstrate carbon-neutrality, for instance?
With the uncertainty over what "significant weight" will look like, it may not be unreasonable to expect that it will provide an additional hook for objections and/or challenges of applications and decisions to be brought.
Policy 3: Nature Crisis
The Draft NPF4 has a number of references to tackling the biodiversity crisis and proposes a policy that principally requires (a) development plans to "facilitate biodiversity enhancement, nature recovery and nature restoration" and (b) development proposals to "contribute to the enhancement of biodiversity". Individual householder developments and fish/shellfish farms are excluded.
You can see the intention behind this policy, but despite some clarifications on nuances between national, major and local developments, it's perhaps not prescriptive enough. For example, how would it apply to an office or apartment block development in Central Glasgow? Will it lead to all urban development proposals having to include trees out front and/or feature green roofs and vertical greenery in their schemes? Will housing developments need tree-lined avenues?
"Nature-based solutions" is one of the buzzwords in the Draft NPF4 - used 20 times in various contexts: the spatial strategies (e.g. Northern Revitalisation), the national developments (e.g. Central Scotland Green Network), and a number of planning policies (including both those mentioned above).
In places the Draft NPF4 provides examples of a nature-based solution (e.g. " Nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation and mitigation may include woodland expansion and peatland restoration as a priority"), however it is not clear as to what a "nature-based" solution is more generally, where examples are not provided.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines it as "actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits". The EU Commission defines it as " Solutions that are inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build resilience".
Although it is not clear specifically what definition local authorities are to adopt in their application of NPF4, it seems that a key feature is the concept of using (or working with) natural systems to provide "simultaneous" benefits for the environment/biodiversity and human well-being/economy as part of development.
Iit would assist stakeholders in the planning system if the NPF4, or supporting guidance, set out its definition of "nature-based solutions".
It is great to see the ambition of the Draft NPF4 having such a green focus, emphasising the role the planning system can play in tackling environmental issues. However, the above examples show where the Draft NPF4 perhaps could do with more clarity. This may come out in the consultation and will be addressed in the final form of NPF4, or it could be dealt with by additional guidance/circulars in the future.
The admirable intention of the Draft NPF4 should certainly be celebrated and it demonstrates an exciting future for planners, developers, architects, solicitors and other stakeholders in Scotland's transformation to a net zero and "green" nation.