Increasing the population of rural areas of Scotland is a new statutory requirement of the national planning framework (NPF).

One of the six overarching principles of the Draft NPF is “balanced development” across all of Scotland, enabling more people to live in rural and island areas.


According to Annex A this is achieved by:

  • requiring LDPs to enable development in areas of pressure and decline;
  • including policies supporting resettlement / encouraging development to contribute to the viability, sustainability and diversity of rural economies and communities.

Spatial Strategies

The principle spatial strategies most relevant to boosting rural communities and economies are:

  • "Making sustainable use of our coasts and islands to sustain communities and pioneer investment in the blue economy".

This is perhaps the most exciting spatial strategy for rural communities, seeing the North and West Coast as an area for entrepreneurship and advancement in the blue economy (e.g. fishing, tidal energy, offshore wind etc.)

  • "Growing low-carbon rural communities, capitalising on digital innovation and making the most of exceptional natural and cultural heritage"

This strategy applies to the Northern revitalisation action area – broadly Highland, with parts of Argyll and Bute, Moray and much of the national parks.

The key here is the idea of growing communities and encouraging migration to rural areas. It is hoped that the growth of remote working through the pandemic will also support the need for rural development and growth of remote communities.

National Developments

Some of the national developments listed in the Draft NPF4 are truly national in nature (e.g. Strategic Renewable Electricity Generation and Transmission Infrastructure and the Digital Fibre Network) and therefore will include rural areas. Others are more specific to rural matters (e.g. the Islands Hub for Net Zero).

Potentially one of the most useful national developments that would support the growth of rural communities (and the prosperity of rural businesses) is the digital fibre network.

As already mentioned, the "new normal" of working remotely for some, if not all, of the time will likely encourage people to move out of urban areas when previously their employment was not compatible with rural living. The rate of urban-to-rural migration is perhaps currently curtailed by the (fear of) poor Wi-Fi and the Draft NPF4 recognises the need to make rural areas compatible with working from home and/or operating remote businesses. Additionally it is not just the commercial driver for wanting to spread speedy broadband throughout the land though; the transition to an increasingly online television experience (e.g. Netflix, Amazon Prime and the like) means that bad wi-fi could also add to the apprehension of some wanting to escape to the country but don't feel they can at present.


Policy 31 (Rural places) of the Draft NPF4 is clearly the one to look at when assessing how the NPF may deliver rural growth (both in terms of population and economy).

Without going through the policy line by line, the key features are:

  • LDPs should set out proposals to support the sustainability and prosperity of rural communities and economies.

    What will this look like? Will it seek to discourage developments that could be snapped up as second homes? Or allow certain types of (appropriate) commercial development? The other elements of policy 31 certainly indicate residential developments in rural areas should only be smaller-scale and sympathetic to existing communities and environment.

    • Development proposals supporting resettlement should be supported where the proposal is consistent with climate change mitigation targets.

    From a purely residential perspective, its interesting to see how developers will need to demonstrate "consistency" with mitigation targets. It is likely that new homes will have to be low (or zero?) carbon. This policy should certainly discourage carbon intensive developments as although they may generate local jobs as it is hard to see how they would be compatible with this policy. Current dependence on car use is a key issue for rural development.

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

    This policy seeks to encourages diversification of crofts, farms and existing businesses and local production industries as well as enabling the remote working culture mentioned above. This is perhaps not new, as local authorities have been doing this anyway in their LDPs, realising the need to encourage local business development, but it is useful for it to be given a national standing.

    Policy 31 is interlinked with a lot of other policies, including decarbonised connectivity and the reduction in long-distance car travel, digital infrastructure, 20 minute neighbourhoods and green energy.


    NPF4 is still some way from being adopted and so it will be a while before we see whether the proposed attempts to increase the sustainability and prosperity of rural communities are successful.  What will rural communities look like by that stage? With the pandemic enabling people to work from home and causing people to re-evaluate whether they want to live an urban life, it will be interesting to see whether some degree of re-population of Scotland's rural communities takes place through existing LDPs.

    The draft NPF has broadly similar messages about rural development as the current Scottish Planning Policy (SPP). The "heavy lifting" is being left to local authorities and the next round of LDPs.