Planning for a nature-rich Scotland

07 Feb 2022

Scotland’s fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) risks a ‘business-as-usual’ approach to the nature crisis rather than delivering the transformative change that has been promised.

Scotland hosts a variety of habitats and rare wildlife such as capercaillie and expanses of internationally important blanket bog in the Flow Country, to the nature we see every day around our towns, cities, gardens, allotments and community woodlands. It’s this amazing array of nature including the benefits it provides to society that we need to protect and restore. Through reforms to our planning system that are currently underway we can make great strides forward in supporting nature.  The planning system affects nearly every aspect of our lives in some way, making decisions to put the infrastructure and amenities we need as a society in the right places, in the right way means that it can play a key role to combat the effects of climate change, halt biodiversity loss and restore nature.

Scotland’s fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) is the Scottish Government’s long-term plan to guide where development and infrastructure in Scotland takes place. Unlike previous frameworks, NPF4 now includes national planning policies and is part of the statutory development plan. This means its policies apply to all areas of Scotland and it will sit alongside policies in local development plans to assess whether a planning application is approved or refused. It will play a critical role to guide all planning decisions in Scotland for the next decade and beyond.

Given its key role in determining planning applications, NPF4 must play its part to ensure a net-zero, nature-rich future. When nature-rich habitats and greenspaces are in a healthy state, they have multiple benefits for people and climate. However, Scotland’s nature is declining, and we cannot afford another decade of inaction.

In response to the global nature and climate crises, the Scottish Government has set out ambitious targets to protect 30% of land by 2030 and achieve net-zero by 2045. However, NPF4 does not yet go far enough to respond to the nature and climate emergency and meet these targets, nor will the current draft deliver the promised transformative change needed for Scotland’s planning system.

Whilst NPF4 recognises the dual nature and climate crises, the language and the rhetoric in NPF4 is neither radical nor transformative policy or measures that would address specifically the nature element. For example:


  • There is notable difference between the language used in Policy 2 on the climate emergency, which will be given significant weight when considering all development proposals, whereas wording in Policy 3 on the nature crisis merely states development plans and proposals should ‘facilitate’ and ‘contribute to biodiversity enhancement’.
  • There are references made throughout the draft to nature networks, however, how these will be delivered in practice is unclear. We are disappointed our suggestion for a Scottish Nature Network has not been included as a National Development, this is a missed opportunity.
  • Whilst setting out a need to secure positive effects for biodiversity, the draft NPF4 offers no concrete solutions nor clarity for decision makers on how to secure this in practice. 


Despite our concerns, there is still time to make changes to strengthen NPF4 and avoid ‘business-as-usual’ and further destruction and loss of the natural environment; these changes include:


  • The language in NPF4 needs to be clearer and more precise to ensure developments actively protect and restore nature.
  • NPF4 offers a key opportunity for the planning system to coordinate and facilitate the delivery of a Scottish Nature Network in the long term. Embedding a Nature Network in NPF4 as a National Development will set the framework to provide multiple benefits for nature, climate and people, and ensure national ambitions are delivered locally to protect 30% of land for nature by 2030.
  • NPF4 should include policy that mandates the need for developments to secure positive effects for biodiversity to address the nature and climate crises with the urgency desperately needed. Biodiversity enhancement should not be a ‘nice to have’ in developments, but rather an essential requirement.


The planning system doesn’t hold all the answers to solving the biodiversity crisis, but it has the potential to play a significant role to deliver meaningful change to protect and enhance Scotland’s nature. NPF4 is a crucial opportunity to ensure Scotland’s planning system delivers transformative, meaningful action for people, climate and nature. NPF4 is a crucial opportunity to ensure Scotland’s planning system delivers transformative, meaningful action for people, climate and nature.

This guest blog was written by Niamh Coyne, from RSPB Scotland and a member of LINK’s Planning Group. 

Photo credit: Sandra Graham

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