NPF4: a critical framework for Scotland's healthy, green recovery from Covid-19

Our policy officer Ian McCall reflects on NPF4 and the opportunity to address societal and environmental priorities as we emerge from the pandemic.

A walker in Glasgow during lockdown

The National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4) is a long-term plan for development and investment in Scotland. It will consider what Scotland should look like in 2050, set out national planning policies and guide future development.

On the 28th February we took part in a Scotplan 2050 roadshow in Stirling. It was an interesting event with a wide range of participants and great discussion of what the planning framework might look like. Then in March, due to Covid-19 this extensive programme of consultation roadshow events were unfortunately cancelled. Subsequently the consultation period was extended until the end of April. 

This new deadline gave us more time to gather our thoughts and enabled us to consider what implications the Covid-19 crisis might have for NPF4.  Although it is clearly early days are there are lessons we have learnt?

There have been big changes since the NPF3 was published in 2014, some in very recent months, weeks and even days, that are significant for the development of the NFP4. 

It is clearly too early to assess the full implications of the current Covid-19 crisis, but it shows how our behaviour can change radically overnight and our perception of what is important can shift rapidly. Whether this will result in long term, lasting change remains to be seen, but there is an opportunity to create a “new normal” that addresses societal and environmental priorities as we emerge from a crisis unlike anything this generation has experienced.

We have seen people adapting to new circumstances. Working from home has become the norm for many. Commuting and business travel have reduced hugely. Also, many have noticed how quiet, pleasant and safe their neighbourhoods have been with reduced traffic and reduced air pollution. The challenge is: how we can capture the positives of this as we move on and address the undoubtedly major social and economic impacts we now face?

Some initial thoughts include:

  • The need to reallocate space and infrastructure to support the National Transport Strategy travel hierarchy – particularly for walking, cycling and wheeling.
  • The importance of sustainable travel
  • The possibilities from reducing the need to travel.
  • Planning and place have a significant impact on the health of the nation.
  • The importance of technology – including broadband. 
  • This may be an opportunity to embed behaviour change – building a new normal – but this will rely on developing the right projects as we come out of crisis.
  • The Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR2) and the Infrastructure Investment Plan will be key to achieving the change we need.

The recovery of public transport and how this interacts with planning post crisis will be a major challenge – particularly for bus services – and will be important in addressing inequality.

The overarching longer term priority within the NPF4 must continue to be to address the climate change emergency. To do this the framework will need to align to several key policies – including transport, infrastructure and health. 

Since the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report, the mood on climate change has moved significantly. The report points to transport emissions as a major cause of climate change, and the trends are headed in the wrong direction. Transport is now Scotland’s biggest sectoral challenge in relation to climate. There is an urgent need to change how we travel, and planning has a vital role in addressing this. 

NPF4 has a significant role in improving our health and wellbeing. As well as shaping our future travel needs it will also be important in ensuring that planning policies and decisions support the creation of better places to live and work. The new agency, Public Health Scotland, will be key in ensuring this happens. 

Resources will be important in achieving this – there will need to be sufficient funding for Public Health Scotland. This can potentially be achieved through reallocating health resources from primary care (fixing people once they are broken) to preventative health care (keeping people well). There is a strong argument that a greater focus on preventative spending - meeting Government outcomes on public health, climate change and inequality - will deliver greater value in the long term.

A key responsibility of Public Health Scotland will be to deliver the public health reform agenda and the Public Health Priorities. This body needs to find ways of influencing and being part of the delivery across policy areas. Serious consideration should be given to Public Health Scotland being a ‘health and wellbeing’ statutory consultee in land use planning.

Traditional economic measures are failing us – they drive climate change, environmental degradation and social inequalities. We need to find measures of health and wellbeing, social justice and reduced inequality that can guide our approach to planning. The National Performance Framework is a start at this approach. This also incorporates the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The NPF4 should be fundamentally informed by, and designed to deliver, these outcomes. Investment decisions need to reflect this – a shift to smaller scale, more local, sustainable projects can potentially spread the benefits more widely across communities and support economic recovery. This will also promote the development of skills, community capacity and climate resilience.

During the past few weeks, we have seen a massive increase in people walking and cycling in their local areas. The awareness and value of their local greenspaces and path networks will also have increased. To improve the walking environment and to support more people to walk and cycle more often there will also be a need for resources for developing routes and path networks, the Central Scotland Green Network and active travel. 

There should be an increase in revenue funding to support local authorities in maintaining pavements / footways and paths to a high standard. Any increased capital budget must be followed with a proportionate increase in the maintenance budget. This can be achieved through reallocating transport resources to reflect the transport hierarchy – giving greater priority to sustainable travel choices.

The Scottish Government cannot deliver change alone. 

There is an important role in supporting and empowering local communities to make change in their own neighbourhoods. This will need transition skills training, community development and capacity building for transport planners and construction staff to support the delivery of NPF4. Local authorities and Transport Scotland do not currently have the capacity to deliver the massively expanded network of walking and cycling routes, paths and related infrastructure that is required. 

We will support this through the delivery of our work - including Smarter Choices Smarter Places, Walking for Health and Community Paths - and through working with our partners. 


Read This Next