Planning Ahead For Paths, Parks, People, and Nature

14 Mar 2022

By Helen Todd, Campaign and Policy Officer for Ramblers Scotland


Imagine there’s a disused railway line running through fields near where you live. It lies parallel to a busy road and connects two villages. It’s used by locals walking their dogs, but it would also make a great off-road route for walkers, cyclists, and horse-riders. Or even people pushing buggies or in wheelchairs. There’s potential for it to extend even further to the nearby town. Then someone gets planning permission to build a new house partway along the line. The far end of the plot includes the railway line. Soon they’ve fenced the whole area as part of their garden, severing the link. Now you’ve lost the dream of a safe path for your kids to cycle to school. Or for a longer distance route that visitors and residents alike will enjoy. If only someone in the planning department at the local council had thought ahead! They could have inserted a planning condition to force new owners to keep a strip of land for public access.

This is one example of how the planning system can protect and secure access rights for public benefits. But it’s not only an issue in rural areas. Planners can demand the creation of routes within new greenfield or brownfield developments. They can ensure rough ground or woodland remain accessible, for the benefit of nature and people. By setting conditions or securing agreements with developers, they can ensure those with deepest pockets pay for the work.

Scotland’s National Planning Framework Four (NPF4) is currently out for consultation. This document will incorporate every element of Scottish Planning Policy (SPP). It will also set out proposals for national developments such as electricity transmission lines. The current SPP says that you must consider Scottish access rights, under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, when planning or developing land. This makes access rights a material consideration in planning. Yet this specific reference doesn’t appear in NPF4. Without this explicit mention, will public access lack protection in future?

Despite this reservation, there is much to welcome in NPF4. It has plans to help people get outdoors and be more active. Well maintained and accessible natural places support our everyday health and wellbeing. They contribute to good placemaking. It’s particularly important that access to green places is spread around all communities. There are some very positive policies in NPF4. Those include making sure that local authorities support active travel and improve parks and natural areas.

NPF4 aims to create “20-minute neighbourhoods”, where you can reach everything you need on foot, bike or wheelchair. This is a good ambition, especially in urban areas. It has the potential to cut car journeys – currently over half of all trips are under five miles. Having pleasant, safe green networks to walk the dog or get to shops, school or work will improve quality of life. It will also reduce congestion and pollution. There’s also a commitment to a national walking, wheeling and cycling network of long-distance paths. This builds upon existing work in NPF3. While there is a need for more pace and ambition for the network, this is good news.

It’ll be difficult to deliver on these policies unless we ensure access rights are protected and planned for. Without clear references to access rights, NPF4 could result in the loss of greenspace and public access. For example, it could prompt expensive tussles to regain routes after householders have already planted daffodils over them!

Scotland’s planning system aims to manage development in the long-term public interest. Being able to get outdoors into nature and get around your local community is fundamental. That’s why LINK wants policy 12 – on ‘blue and green infrastructure, play and sport’ – to be placed within the wider context of statutory access rights.


By Helen Todd, Campaign and Policy Officer for Ramblers Scotland

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