On 11 January, the Scottish Parliament approved the terms of the revised draft National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4). Tom Arthur, the Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth advised MSPs that formal adoption by the Scottish Ministers will follow next month.

So what does NPF4 mean for rural development?

In this article we explain the status of NPF4 in the decision-making process, the national strategy and review some of the policies of particular relevance to rural developments.

The plan-led system

Once adopted, NPF4 will become part of the development plan against which all planning applications will require to be assessed. The local development plan for the area will form the other part and will allocate sites for development in furtherance of the spatial strategy for the relevant area.

The basic principle of 'the plan-led system' is that planning decisions will be made in accordance with the provisions of the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

Spatial strategy

The national spatial strategy set out in NPF4 seeks to support the planning and delivery of sustainable, liveable and productive places, but recognises that how this is progressed will differ across Scotland.

The global climate emergency and the nature crisis have formed the foundations for the spatial strategy as a whole, but the document advises that the strategy and policies support development that helps to retain and increase the population of rural areas of Scotland. Further, it states that "the spatial strategy reflects a wide range of proposals for development in rural areas, supported by national developments that recognise the potential and need to expand key sectors including renewable energy, sustainable transport and green infrastructure."

National policies

National Policy 17 promotes the development of rural homes, to ensure the needs of communities are met in a sustainable way. The policy sets out the circumstances in which new homes in rural areas will be supported. These include:

  • land allocated for housing within the LDP;
  • reuse of brownfield land, redundant or unused buildings;
  • use of a historic environment asset or enabling development to secure the future of historic environment assets;
  • supporting the sustainable management of a viable rural business or croft, and there is an essential need for a worker (including those taking majority control of a farm business) to live permanently at or near their place of work;
  • a single home for the retirement succession of a viable farm holding;
  • subdivision of an existing residential dwelling; and
  • reinstatement of a former dwelling house or a one-for-one replacement of an existing permanent house.

Development proposals for new homes in remote rural areas will also be supported where the proposal supports and sustains existing fragile communities and identified local housing outcomes. Proposals for new homes that support the resettlement of previously inhabited areas will also be supported in certain circumstances.

Policy 17 is not unlike countryside policies found currently in local development plans.

Notwithstanding the terms of Policy 17, Fergus Ewing MSP suggested in the Parliamentary debate on NPF4 that there will still too many restrictions and that farms could provide more homes to help address the housing crisis.

Policy 29 supports rural economic development which contributes to the viability, sustainability and diversity of rural communities and local rural economy, including:

  • farms, crofts, woodland crofts or other land use businesses;
  • diversification of existing businesses;
  • production and processing facilities for local produce and materials, eg sawmills or local food production;
  • essential community services;
  • essential infrastructure;
  • reuse of brownfield land or a redundant or unused building;
  • use of a historic environment asset or is appropriate enabling development to secure the future of historic environment assets;
  • small scale developments that support new ways of working such as remote working, homeworking and community hubs; and
  • improvement or restoration of the natural environment.

In remote rural areas, development which supports local employment and supports and sustains existing communities, for example through provision of digital infrastructure, will be supported. Economic development which supports the resettlement of previously inhabited areas will also be supported in certain circumstances.

Other policies are not specifically directed at rural communities, but include circumstances in which development will be supported. For example, Policy 28 on retail development supports development of shops ancillary to other uses such as farm shops, craft shops and shops linked to petrol/service/charging stations in islands and rural areas where it will, among other things, serve local needs and support local living and local jobs.

Some policies focus on supporting sustainable development in key sectors for rural areas. For example, Policy 11 supports opportunities for renewable energy development; Policy 30 encourages tourism, while ensuring community, environmental and business considerations are fully taken into account; and Policy 32 encourages sustainable aquaculture.

Policy 24 supports the delivery of digital infrastructure to support investment and population growth in rural areas

Underpinning these policies is, however, a recognition that environmental quality is a key asset for rural areas, and Policies 3, 4, 5 and 6 ensure that natural assets are protected and enhanced.

Under Policy 5, there is a presumption against development on prime agricultural land and development on peatland, carbon-rich soils and priority peatland habitat will only be supported for in certain specified circumstances.


On the face of it, NPF4 provides a framework for encouraging rural development which meets the needs of rural communities. The document requires to be read as a whole, however, and it does introduce a number of additional considerations and assessments for all developments which are likely to add to the costs of rural development.

With a focus on reuse of previously developed land and land identified for development in local development plans, the opportunities for small ad-hoc development may actually be reduced. And with NPF4 and local development plans having 10-year lifespans, it will be important for rural landowners and developers to engage with the development plan process at the earliest opportunity to ensure that their development proposals are included.

For further advice on NPF4 and/or assistance with the promotion of land through the development plan, please contact our Planning team.


Olivia Brown

Trainee Solicitor