For development management colleagues in Local Planning Authorities NPF4 could be a real headache. The letter from the Chief Planner and Planning Minister
on Transitional Arrangements suggests it is all a question of incompatibility: but what constitutes incompatibility isn’t clearly defined.
It is not necessarily a simple task to decide whether or not a policy written in the LDP aligned to NPF3, Scottish Planning Policy and Strategic Development Plans (where applicable) will be compatible with the NPF4 which has a very different emphasis.
The NPF is no longer set out as the “spatial expression of the Government Economic Strategy”. Rather the “global climate emergency and the nature crisis have formed the foundations for the spatial strategy as a whole”.
No longer is there “a presumption in favour of development that contributes to sustainable development”, the release valve that allows proposals not anticipated by the adopted LDP to be considered on their merits.
No longer do Local Development Plans have to “provide for a minimum of 5 years effective land supply at all times.” Rather LDPs are expected to identify a Local Housing Land Requirement which is expected to exceed the 10-year minimum set out in Annex E of NPF4.
Green belts are to be restricted to areas where there is “significant danger of unsustainable growth in car-based commuting or suburbanisation of the countryside”. This a change from their previous stated purpose.
City of Edinburgh Council and Stirling Council have taken very different approaches to the conundrum that is incompatibility. Edinburgh Council have published a policy framework and Stirling have prepared guidance on considering the issue. Edinburgh’s approach puts a line through existing policies that it has decided are incompatible with NPF4. Stirling Council on the other hand have prepared guiding principles so that incompatibility can be considered on a case-by-case basis.
It is disappointing that the Transitional Arrangements do not provide a single coherent approach that could be applied by all local planning authorities. Legal opinions from KCs are already emerging
and it is looking more and more likely that the courts will have to decide once decisions have been appealed and outcomes regarding what constitutes incompatibility and in what circumstances have been challenged.
We have been giving this notion of incompatibility some thought. It is clear that consideration must be given to each policy in its entirety as well as to context and policy intent. Just because policies are different does not mean they are necessarily incompatible. The Transitional Guidance suggests that “provisions that are contradictory or in conflict would be likely to be considered incompatible” but the use of “likely” makes it clear that Scottish Government do not consider that this will always be the case.
Planning judgement is going to be critical if we are to navigate a way through the next 5 years until new LDPs are in place that meet the requirements of NPF4. Perhaps the area where there will be the greatest thought needed is in consideration of housing proposals and proposals in the green belt but equally proposals for the expansion or reconfiguration of existing retail parks will be hard as demonstrated by the recent Reporters decision on land adjacent to Inshes Retail Park at Inverness. In this case it was decided that the proposals were contrary to NPF4 Policy 28 because the land was not within the commercial centre boundary even though they were in an area allocated for such uses in the LDP. This seems unreasonable and we await to see if this case of incompatibility is challenged.
In terms of housing, Policy 16 is causing much head scratching. There are some who very much want this policy to apply now and believe that it should take precedence over all policies in existing LDPs which might be considered incompatible with it, particularly where these contain a release policy. There are different examples of release polices. They are all, however, essentially the safety valve that allows housing to come forward in unallocated areas because there is a shortfall in delivery and the Local Authority’s identified supply is not meeting its housing needs. NPF4 does not contain such a safety valve. Many of us in the industry are however of the view that adopted LDPs must deliver what they set out to deliver and this applies to housing as much as anything else. If a plan sets out it will deliver X number of new homes which it has evidenced are needed it is completely unreasonable to stop the plan from doing such. This view has recently been supported by the courts
although this judgement does pre-date NPF4 by a month.
So where does this take us in terms of incompatibility?
The main thrust of NPF4 in terms of development land is that in order to be supported sites must have been identified in the LDP and allocated for the purpose proposed. This applies to all sorts of development types – business, industry, retail, drive throughs, housing, etc.
But, this is not how current LDPs have been conceived. Current LDPs did not need to allocate all potential development sites because policies were in place to enable sites to come forward and be judged on their individual merits. In terms of housing some LDPs were adopted with a known shortfall of sites when compared with the identified need. Also, not all the effective sites in current housing land audits actually have allocations, about 40% of Edinburgh’s capacity is from unallocated sites for example. So, there is a danger that NPF4 could stifle the development of perfectly good sites that meet the tests of existing LDPs and indeed the majority of the provisions of NPF4, simply because they are not currently allocated. In some circumstances that will mean that much needed homes in a local area cannot be delivered. This is not a sensible approach, and a broader view of policy intent is required if we are to avoid some LDPs failing to deliver the housing and economic growth they have identified as needed because of NPF4.
It is the view of many of us that Policy 16 Housing in NPF4 cannot apply until a new LDP is in place because it requires a totally different approach to be taken in terms of the identification of land for housing, the allocation of sites and delivery. Essential steps associated with the preparation of a new style LDP must have taken place before the policy can be applied. In the meantime, therefore, it is our view that existing housing policies cannot be dismissed for being incompatible. To do so would result in a policy vacuum.
The intent of Policy 16 is clearly stated - “to encourage, promote and facilitate the delivery of more high quality, affordable and sustainable homes, in the right locations”. The policy intent is not to put the brakes on housing development until new LDPs are in place that implement the new requirements and so this policy intent needs to be delivered in the context of the existing LDPs.
We would suggest that if local planning authorities agree that proposals are for “high quality, affordable and sustainable homes, in the right locations” then these are compatible with the policy intent of Policy 16 and therefore should be supported.
This logic needs to extend to all policies in terms of consideration of incompatibility. The first questions should be ‘does the NPF4 policy require a new approach?’, ‘do all sites required need to be allocated and have they been?’, etc.
Finally, let’s have a look at Policy 8, green belts. The policy intent does not differ much from the guidance previously provided by Scottish Planning Policy but where there is a significant change of focus is on the purpose of green belts. Policy 8 clearly states (emphasis added) that “green belts will not be necessary for most settlements” and goes on to restrict their designation to “settlements where there is a significant danger of unsustainable growth in car-based commuting or suburbanisation of the countryside.” Current green belts do not only perform this function and previous guidance was much looser in terms of circumstances whereby a Local Development Plan may wish to designate green belts.
It is our view that this means that all designated green belts must be reviewed in the making of new LDPs to ensure they meet this higher test of purpose. On this basis Policy 8 cannot be brought into effect until new LDPs are in place as current green belts are designated on the basis of “ directing development to the most appropriate locations and supporting regeneration; • protecting and enhancing the character, landscape setting and identity of the settlement; and • protecting and providing access to open space”. These are clearly different purposes which means that green belts as currently designated may not be necessary in terms of restricting development to the type described in NPF4 Policy 8. This should mean that local planning authorities that have policies that allow development in the green belt that go beyond the uses in Policy 8 are not incompatible. The purpose of the green belt as set recognises that such developments can happen, and this should continue to be the case until such time as the green belt is reassessed and a new LDP is put in place that aligns with Policy 8.
There is much to grapple with, and I do not envy my developer clients or my Development Management counterparts, I am sure many are having sleepless nights. The task at hand is a difficult one but planning judgement remains the key to making good planning decisions. It looks like NPF4 and its role in the development plan is going to keep us all busy.
 Land North of B792, Mossend – Opinion of James Findlay
 Hens Nest Road, East Whitburn judgement 2023csih3.pdf (scotcourts.gov.uk)