The Scottish Government's "Programme for Government 2021-2022 published in early September committed, among other things, to designate at least one new national park in Scotland. Although the key question for many will be "where" will this new national park be; it'll also be interesting (for some) to see what planning powers the new national park authority ("NPA") will be given, as the position differs between the two existing Scottish national parks.

Formation of a National Park

National parks are designated by a designation order from the Scottish Ministers made under the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000 ("NPA2000"). So far only 2 national parks have been set up in Scotland: the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park (established 2002) and the Cairngorms National Park (established 2003, extended 2010). There have been calls for more for a number of years.

Statutory aims

NPAs have additional duties and responsibilities which set them apart from other authorities in Scotland. NPAs are required to carry out their functions to collectively achieve the statutory aims set out in the NPA2000:

  • to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area;
  • to promote sustainable use of the natural resources of the area;
  • to promote understanding and enjoyment (including enjoyment in the form of recreation) of the special qualities of the area by the public, and
  • to promote sustainable economic and social development of the area’s communities.

The first of these aims is to be given greater weight than the others should they be conflicted (the Sandford principle).

Planning in National Parks

Therefore in determining planning applications, preparing development plans, or exercising any other planning powers the NPA must carry out these functions with these aims in mind. The adoption of the Cairngorms National Park Local Plan 2010 was, in fact, challenged (unsuccessfully) by a campaign group on grounds that the statutory aims had not been properly applied/observed.

The requirement to meet collectively achieve the above aims doesn't necessarily prevent non-tourism development from taking place in national parks. One example of a major industrial development in national parks is the Cononish Gold Mine near Tyndrum which was granted permission in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park in 2011. It was not found to be a major departure from the local development plan, and although the operation of the mine would be contrary to the first and third statutory aim listed above, the longer-term restoration and improvement of the site was considered to have a favourable contribution to the statutory aims overall. This demonstrates the additional considerations the NPA has to deal with when acting as planning authority within the context of the NPA2000.

The two existing national parks in Scotland show how planning powers can vary.

NPA as planning authority - Loch Lomond and the Trossachs

In Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park,the NPA determines planning applications, prepares the local development plan and is responsible for enforcement action within the national park. The relevant local authorities are not responsible for planning within the national park boundary even if a proposed development is within its area.

NPA as development planner only - Cairngorms

In the Cairngorms National Park, planning applications within the National Park are submitted to and determined by the 5 local authorities, but must be decided in accordance with the development plan prepared by the NPA.

However, the NPA has entered into an agreement with the 5 local authorities that make up the National Park area enabling the NPA to "call in" planning applications for its determination.