This Note has been updated to Bring it up to date with the new National Planning Framework 4
APRS Advice Note: The Scottish Planning System
Planning affects everyone, and everyone has a right to have their say about matters that affect their lives. Planning is about making hard choices, balancing the need for appropriate development with the desire to protect both the landscapes that we cherish and the environmental quality that is vital for life and wellbeing. Knowing about the planning system can help us all to make informed choices about the future of rural Scotland.
The Planning System
The main way to influence development in Scotland is through the town and country planning system, which is mostly administered by local Councils acting as the ‘local planning authority’. The legal basis of the system is set out in Acts of Parliament passed in 1997, 2006 and 2019.
The Purpose of Planning
The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 states that the purpose of planning is “to manage the development and use of land in the long-term public interest”. Anything which contributes to sustainable development or achieves Scotland’s national outcomes is considered to be in the long-term public interest. There are four main parts to the planning system: the National Planning Framework; Development Planning; Development Management; and Enforcement.
National Planning Framework
The National Planning Framework (NPF4) is the long-term spatial strategy for Scotland to 2045. This means that it sets out the main developments which the Scottish Government wants to see, and broadly where they should take place across Scotland. The spatial strategy reflects a range of the Scottish Government’s policies including the Infrastructure Investment Plan.
The current NPF4 was adopted on 13 February 2023. Unlike earlier NPFs it forms part of the Development Plan together with the Local Development Plan (LDP) that covers a particular area. NPF4 contains Scotland’s National Planning Policy which sets out the Scottish Government’s top-level planning policies. This replaced the previous Scottish Planning Policy from 2014. NPF4 contains 33 policies with detailed wording on which types of development and use of land should and should not be supported in order to guide development planning decisions. The National Policy section also sets out what should be dealt with in Local Development Plans under each policy heading (eg under “Soils” and “Brownfield, vacant and derelict land and empty buildings”).
NPF4 also sets out targets for new housing in each planning authority area. These are given in Annex E of NPF4 and are referred to as the MATHLR – the Minimum All-Tenure Housing Land Requirement. The MATHLR is the minimum amount of land, given in ‘housing units’ that is to be provided by each planning authority for a 10 year period.
Further information about the process of developing NPF4 and other changes to the planning system since the 2019 Act can be found on the Transforming Planning website.
The ‘Development Plan’ for any area now comprises the combination of the NPF4 and Local Development Plan (LDP) for that area. Prior to NPF4 it consisted of any current Strategic Development Plan (SDP) and LDP for that area.
Local Development Plans
Each Local Development Plan (LDP) covers a specific area, generally the area covered by a single Council. They set out detailed policies and proposals in text and maps to guide development, showing where development is encouraged (eg land allocated for housing or industry), or protected to some degree for recreation, conservation or as designated Green Belt. Councils must consult widely on their content; all citizens have the right to see draft (‘proposed’) LDPs and to comment on them to the Council which prepared them. The Scottish Government has repeatedly emphasised its determination for Scotland to demonstrate a ‘plan-led system’. This means that if a piece of land is allocated for development in the LDP, there is a presumption in favour of its development; but if it is not allocated, there is a presumption against development and this is the most powerful argument against it. The most productive time to get involved in the planning system is therefore generally during LDP preparation.
The preparation of a new LDP takes around 5 years and following changes introduced in 2023 new LDPs will have a 10-year timeframe. All local authorities are required to have new LDPs in place 5 years after NPF4 was adopted (ie by early 2028). The Scottish Government issued new Local Development Planning Guidance in May 2023 to help deliver “new-style, place-based, people-centred and delivery-focussed plans”. People should have several opportunities to submit ideas during early engagement for a new LDP and then to comment on the Proposed LDP. Information on how to do this should be available on your local authority’s website – usually mentioned under “Development Planning”.
The planning authority must take the NPF4 and any registered local place plans (LPPs) for their area into account when preparing a new LDP. This means for example that if the NPF4 indicates a certain number of new house sites are required in a Council area (via the MATHLR), then the LDP is obliged to find sites where they can be built.
After considering all the views which have been submitted and making changes, a Council adopts the LDP as the basis for planning decision-making in its area. If the adopted LDP is relatively old and a new one is being brought forward, a Council can sometimes take the emerging LDP into account alongside the adopted one when making a decision on a planning application. LDPs are published on Council websites and are increasingly published in digital formats. If you find it easier to study them on paper, you can normally get a paper copy from your Council or local library. There is usually a charge for this, but Community Councils are entitled to a free copy. Links to current LDPs and NPF4 are given on the APRS website under Planning Resources.
Regional Spatial Strategies
The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019, established a duty for a planning authority, or authorities acting jointly, to prepare and adopt a regional spatial strategy (RSS). RSSs are long-term strategies for development of an area which must specify the area to which they relate (which may often cross Council boundaries), and identify:
- the need for strategic development
- the outcomes to which strategic development will contribute
- priorities for the delivery of strategic development
- proposed locations, shown in the form of a map or diagram
RSSs are not part of the statutory development plan but planning authorities must have regard to them when preparing, revising or amending their LDP. Similarly, the Scottish Ministers must take them into account in preparing or revising the NPF. The RSSs will in part replace Strategic Development Plans (SDPs) but unlike SDPs are non-statutory and will be produced for the whole of Scotland rather than just the four city regions that SDPs covered. Planning Authorities were asked to prepare indicative RSSs prior to NPF4. Work on preparing RSSs will be expected to begin once statutory guidance is in place which is expected to be published by the Scottish Government in later 2023/early 2024.
Development Management is where most people have their first experience of the planning process – when a neighbour notification drops through their letterbox or they read about a proposed development online or in a newspaper. Development management is the system by which any development must receive planning permission from the local Council (the planning authority). The Council is required to notify neighbours about proposed developments and to publish planning applications on its website who will then have a short period of time (usually 21 days) in which to comment on, support or object to the proposal. To see details of planning applications in your area go to your Council’s website and search for “view planning applications”.
On receiving a planning application, planning officials consult all relevant interests and prepare a recommendation, which can be for approval with or without conditions or for refusal. Depending upon the scale of the application, the decision is then made either by senior officials under delegated powers, or by the relevant local Planning Committee, made up of elected local Councillors. Anyone wishing to influence this process should therefore contact the planning department of their local Council to find out the names of the local planning officers and of the Councillors on the Planning Committee. Please note that planning departments are sometimes called something different such as ‘Development Services’ or ‘Environmental Services’ and that planning committees also go by various names such as ‘Infrastructure Committee’ or ‘Development Management Committee’.
It is important to ensure that your views on a planning application which concerns you are made known, primarily by commenting on it via the online portal (or in writing) you can also contact those who will make the final decision. Councillors are elected to represent the views of their constituents, and you should leave your local Councillors in no doubt as to what those views are if you wish to be successful. There are normally three or four Councillors for each Ward – search for ‘Councillors’ on your local Council’s website to find them. Community Councils (CCs) also have a statutory role in planning and are there to represent the views of the community which elects them. (However, do note that CCs are consulted on applications but not involved in deciding applications). It is important to communicate with them to find out how they can support you or how you can support them. You can find your local CC on the Community Councils website.
Getting involved in planning is not just about objecting to proposals. Planners actively encourage public participation, but it is important to make representation at the right time in the process, so that views are taken into consideration. This means being aware of deadlines for representations and working within the set timescales. This will result in working with planners to help to get what you need and want for your community.
The Importance of the Development Plan
The single most important point to understand about the planning system is that:
Whatever your views about a particular planning application, what matters more than anything else therefore is to assess what is proposed against the detailed wording of the policies in the relevant LDP and NPF4. Planners should always refer to these policies as the principal basis for making their decision or recommendation on a planning application. However, the Scottish planning system is ‘discretionary’, meaning that Councils can sometimes make decisions contrary to the development plan if sufficient ‘material considerations’ support doing so.
These can include issues relevant to the development and use of land such as design, landscape impact, noise, pollution or traffic. Other issues, such as loss of a private view, potential effect on property prices or the identity of the applicant, however important these may be to you, do not count as material considerations. Planning Aid for Scotland publishes a useful information sheet about what are and are not material considerations.
Councils also have planning enforcement powers. This means that they can take action against development which either does not have planning permission at all, or which does have permission but is not being built in line with what was approved or with any conditions which were attached. If they decide to do so, Councils can force developers to apply for retrospective permission, can stop unauthorised development or can fine or prosecute those responsible. In the last resort, they can even demolish an illegal development and recover the cost of doing so from the developer.
Local Place Plans
The 2019 Act introduced a new right for communities to produce Local Place Plans (LPPs), with the possibility that these plans, or parts of them, could be taken account of by the next iteration of the LDP. The aim is to significantly enhance engagement in development planning, effectively empowering communities to play a proactive role in defining the future of their places by setting out their proposals for the use and development of land. The SG has published regulations and guidance on how communities can prepare and examples of pilot LPPs have been published. Information on how to go about producing an LPP should be available from your local authority. The SG has produced some information and guidance on LPPs as have Planning Aid Scotland. However, producing a LPP takes a significant input of time and resources and communities can still seek to influence a new LDP even if they don’t produce an LPP.
Planning in National Parks
The development planning process in the two existing National Parks (NPs) is similar to that elsewhere; both the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) and the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority (LLTNPA) produce LDPs, in partnership with local Councils. However, the development management system differs between the two NPs. In the Cairngorms NP planning applications are initially dealt with by the relevant local Council. However, the CNPA has the right to ‘call in’ for its own determination any applications that it considers may impact on the Park’s purposes. On the other hand, LLTNPA determines all applications within the NP.
National and Major Developments
NPF4 identifies 18 ‘National Developments’, which are large and important projects with national significance in helping to deliver the spatial strategy. The principle of such a development is established by its inclusion in the NPF, so any public inquiry into a National Development cannot challenge it in principle but can only consider the detail of what is proposed. However, National Developments still need to gain planning permission and all relevant consents. Decisions on these projects are made by Scottish Ministers, although they are still required to carry out extensive public consultation for each development.
Applicants for National and ‘major developments’ have to carry out ‘pre-application consultations’ (PACs) to demonstrate that the community has been effectively consulted on the new proposals before they are submitted. These PACs are scrutinised for effectiveness by the local Council, which then decides if the application should be accepted. This is intended to give communities better opportunities to have their say on large proposed developments. The arrangements for PACs were revised in 2022 (see Planning Circular 3/2022).
A certain amount of development is permitted without the need for planning permission, for example building a minor extension or erecting a small shed. Most agricultural and forestry buildings are entirely exempt from planning permission. If you are unsure about this matter, your local planning officer will be able to give you advice.
Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas
Many rural areas contain Listed Buildings or areas of historic or architectural importance designated as Conservation Areas by the planning authority. Development which would be considered ‘permitted’ in other areas may need planning permission in a Conservation Area. Some changes to a Listed Building may need Listed Building Consent even if they do not require planning permission. You can find more information on listed buildings and conservation areas here.
Any development proposal should be weighed carefully to consider its impact on the local community. There can be positive as well as negative aspects to development: for example, dwindling school rolls can be bolstered by new houses bringing young families. The need for affordable housing is often a real concern in rural communities. Planning policies on affordable housing can often be found in LDPs as well as in NPF4. Opportunities for affordable housing, shops or other amenities can sometimes be included in a new development proposal. Developments that bring jobs to rural communities can boost the local economy. LDPs can provide opportunities to identify locations that would benefit from investment which could bring jobs and support the local economy. Following the introduction of NPF4, development proposals should contribute to the enhancement of biodiversity (NPF4 Policy 3) and in decision making about all development proposals significant weight should be given to the global climate and nature crises in decision-making about all development.
Planning Obligations/Developer Contributions
Planning obligations are commonly referred to as section 75 agreements. The term ‘developer contributions’ is sometimes used to refer to planning obligations and other mechanisms for seeking funding towards the cost of infrastructure and/or affordable housing. The local Council is sometimes able to negotiate with developers to make a contribution to the community in return for planning permission. This can be an opportunity to tell the planners what the community needs and wants if the development is to go ahead. For more information on planning obligations is available on the Scottish Government Transforming Planning website.
In a small number of cases where proposed developments are likely to have a significant effect upon the environment, the developer is required by the planning authority to carry out an environmental impact assessment (EIA). Planning authorities have a screening process to decide which proposals require them. EIA is meant to be a balanced and independent review of the likely environmental impacts of the proposed development, including on landscape, biodiversity, cultural heritage and amenity. But bear in mind that they are carried out by the developer, who clearly has an interest in the development going ahead. The results of this process are set out in a report called an Environmental Statement (ES) which must be submitted along with the actual planning application. The ES is often a complex and lengthy document, so the developer is required to prepare a Non-Technical Summary, which is often the most useful starting point for anyone wishing to comment on the proposal. The ES can often be found on the developer’s website or the Council’s planning portal via the LA website; it can sometimes also be viewed at Council offices or local libraries. Members of the public can use the EIA report to assist them to make representations to the planning authority on the application. For further information see the Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland Guide on EIA.
Trees can be protected under the planning system. Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) can be placed on trees in Conservation Areas or with important wildlife or historic value. Trees protected by TPOs may not be cut down, trimmed, lopped or wilfully damaged without permission of the local Council. There are penalties for cutting down a tree covered by a TPO. If you are concerned about the welfare of trees in your area, it is advisable to contact your local planning department to ask about getting a TPO placed on them. It is important to be vigilant if you want to protect the trees in your area from development. It is best to secure a TPO at an early stage, rather than to try to stop developers from cutting down trees once the bulldozers have arrived on site. In addition, NPF4 introduced stronger policies to protect existing woodland from adverse impacts from development.
A developer (applicant) has the right of appeal if their planning application is refused. Appeals are considered either by a Local Review Body (made up of Councillors) or by the Scottish Government. In the latter case this is often carried out by an experienced and senior planner called a Reporter, from the Department for Planning and Environmental Appeals (DPEA). The DPEA publish guidance on taking part in an Appeal on its website and Planning Democracy have also produced a Community Guide to Planning Appeals. Very occasionally an appeal decision has potentially significant wider implications and is “called-in” by Scottish Ministers for consideration by them.
In the Scottish planning system there is currently no right of appeal for third parties (including communities) against a planning decision to approve an application. This is something that APRS and others would like to be changed. The only way for communities to challenge a planning decision at the moment is via Judicial Review in the Courts.
Mediation is a form of dispute resolution which can be used if there has been a breakdown in discussions between parties over a planning application. Mediation is conducted by an independent, impartial facilitator who can help to negotiate a lasting agreement between all parties. The Scottish Government publishes a Guide to the Use of Mediation in the Planning System in Scotland.
You might also find it helpful to look at the following documents:
It is often very helpful to have your views supported by relevant, respected conservation and heritage experts, so it is worth contacting them for advice. Your views may help them to form an opinion, and hearing their perspective will help you decide how to make your own representations more effective. Below is a list of organisations you might like to contact:-
responsible for built and cultural heritage
responsible for natural heritage including landscape, recreation and wildlife
responsible for regulation and pollution control
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