Scottish Planning Act puts climate centre stage

As a new Scottish planning framework emerges, permitted developments that cut red tape to accelerate greenhouse gas emissions mitigation have been thrust to the top of the agenda.    



A major shake-up in Scottish planning policy is underway, with changes in permitted development set to favour climate-friendly developments as the country gears up to meet its ambitious 2045 deadline for achieving Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions.


The planning reforms, under the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019, are to be implemented in stages, with the bulk to be in force by early 2021 "except where there are specific reasons for a later timescale", according to the Scottish Government.


The reforms, which give priority to climate emergency mitigation, form part of wider planning reforms that arose following an independent review of the planning system published in May 2016. They will inform the developing fourth National Planning Framework (NP4), which is Scotland’s long-term spatial strategy up to 2050.


This agenda was driven by the need for more good quality homes, improving communities’ experience of the system and influence on it, more effective development planning leading positive change, more proactive management of development, and "strong leadership coupled with management of skills, resources and performance".

The post-bill work programme points out that the 2019-20 Programme for Government "highlights the key role planning has to play in addressing climate change and helping to radically accelerate reduction of emissions, and in ensuring we can sustain and support communities, including support for dynamic rural economies, in resisting the most detrimental impacts of Brexit".

A crucial aspect of the reforms is a review of permitted development rights granted by the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Scotland) Order 1992 (as amended), it says. Options for 16 types of development have been subjected to sustainability appraisal, to be published shortly, along with a detailed programme for delivery and changes to the order.


Among key elements to be prioritised are changes in relation to hill tracks (private ways), measures supporting digital connectivity and supporting delivery of affordable homes.

But the stand-out elements among these priorities are "changes which help to address climate change (such as, for example, micro-renewable technologies)". These permitted development rights will effectively put climate change centre stage in planning decisions.

Section 2 of the Act, which amends both content and procedures in preparing the National Planning Framework, is to come into force on 8 November, along with the Purpose of Planning in section 1 applying to preparation of the Framework and local development plans.


It says a draft of NPF4 is anticipated for public consultation in the third quarter of 2020, allowing for "extensive engagement earlier in the year". The draft "will be laid in Parliament for a period of up to 120 days to allow representations to be made, which will take until early 2021 to conclude" under new procedures. Following elections, Scottish Parliamentary approval of the revised draft should then be possible in the final quarter of 2021, it says.


A key feature of the Act will see it "remove the requirement for strategic development plans in the four largest city regions, and introduce a requirement for all authorities, working together as they see fit, to prepare regional spatial strategies setting out strategic development priorities". Both the NPF and local development plans must have regard to RSSs.


Planning authorities will be obliged to notify all Councillors, MSPs and MPs of applications for major developments, and full Council will need to make decisions on applications where there has been a pre-determination hearing.


On preparation of Local Development Plans, the Act makes substantial changes aimed at enhancing effectiveness, increasing community involvement and focus on delivery. It requires evidence reports, and an early "gatecheck" to ensure that evidence is sufficient, new requirements of stakeholder participation. Another major change is the moving of LDPs from a five-year to a 10-year cycle.

As to management of development, there will be further guidance on duration of planning permission, definition of "similar application" and "significant change" in relation to repeat applications. Authorities will be able to decline determining applications for up to five years, up from two at present.


The methodology by which health impacts are assessed in EIAs will also need to change to align better with the definition of national and major developments. It also says a health assessment of all national developments will need to form part of NPF4 preparation.


Other important changes are that ministers must consult local residents and community bodies ahead of designating a National Scenic Area, that decision notices must state whether the authority judges the development to be in accordance with the development plan.

Planning authorities "must notify all Councillors, MSPs and MPs of applications for major developments", but requirements for full Council to make decisions on applications where there has been a pre-determination hearing are to be removed.


The move to prioritise climate change considerations in planning will be widely welcomed, but this will need to be handled with care. Climate change concerns often align with wider environmental concerns, but there are dangers of perverse outcomes such as loss of biodiversity, another less high-profile factor in planning, if they are conflated.

Planning has a key role to play in addressing climate change and radically reducing our emissions. Removing red tape from some of the highest priority projects can be a big step towards our goal of a net-zero carbon future

Commenting on the plans, Planning Minister Kevin Stewart said: "Planning has a key role to play in addressing climate change and radically reducing our emissions. Removing red tape from some of the highest priority projects can be a big step towards our goal of a net-zero carbon future."

He added that "these proposals mark a new way forward for planning in Scotland. Our health, wellbeing and prosperity can be affected by where we live so it is important we get it right… Empowering communities to have a positive say in shaping their future is central to our vision, where people and local authorities across Scotland work closely together for all our benefit".

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