Scotland Economy and regeneration , Housing and planning , Welfare and equalities

National Planning Framework 4: addressing inequalities and signposting routes for recovery



Five key questions were presented and have generated responses from numerous organisations including PAS, Scottish Environment Link, Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).

  1. What development will we need to address climate change?
  2. How can planning best support our quality of life, health and wellbeing in the future?
  3. What does planning need to do to enable development and investment in our economy so that it benefits everyone?
  4. What policies are needed to improve, protect and strengthen the special character of our places?
  5. What infrastructure do we need to build to realise our long-term aspirations?

While NPF4 considered issues and actions relating to sustainable development, decarbonisation and inclusive economic growth, there was feedback from multiple groups suggesting that specific reference to tackling inequality should be embedded from the outset. In addition, some people suggested strategies adopted to aid the economic recovery in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic set themselves in an antagonistic position, presenting planning regulations as barriers to recovery rather than promoting cross-sectoral and public/private collaboration.


The wider implications of Covid-19 will have lasting consequences for health, the environment and the economy. The societal paradigm shift triggered by the pandemic is unprecedented. While there is great uncertainty surrounding the long-term impacts on a broader scale, the ambitions of Scotland remain key, as Scotland seeks deliver the vision of a low carbon society, a thriving natural environment and flourishing communities.

2019 Scottish Planning Act sets a new trajectory for planning in Scotland. Planning has a defined purpose to manage both the development and use of land in the long-term public interest. “Long-term public interest” can be understood as contributing to sustainable development and, to aid in achieving national outcomes which integrate the three pillars of sustainability: economic, social and environmental ambitions. Scottish Government’s National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4) offers an opportunity to plan for a more resilient and sustainable future.

Inequality in Scotland

Scotland has high levels of inequality in terms of health, income and environment, including places people live, work and play. The wider planning system plays a fundamental role in addressing these inequalities.

Poverty statistics in Scotland examine the relationship between the lowest income households and average income households. A household is considered in poverty if the household income is less than 60% of the average income for that household type.

The statistics are a useful metric in highlighting the scale of the problem, however, these statistics do not fully represent the true impact on the lives of those whose options are limited as a result of living on a low income.

Key statistics:

  • A quarter of children in Scotland are living in poverty (24%)
  • A fifth of working age people in Scotland are living in poverty (19%)
  • 15% of pensioners in Scotland are living in poverty
  • 60% of working age adults and 65% of children in poverty in Scotland live in households where someone is in employment

It is well documented that certain groups of people are at a higher risk of poverty than others. The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on jobs and financial security, with those already in poverty impacted the worst. Areas across Scotland with higher numbers of workers in low-paid jobs in sectors including hospitality, manufacturing and the entertainment sector are facing very real threats of increased poverty. Recent research by Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that the economic impacts of Coronavirus will have serious consequences for the most vulnerable in society unless bold steps are taken to address this.

The role of planning in tackling inequality

The places where people live and work are created by our planning system and impact on equality, health and wellbeing, economic growth and the natural environment. The planning system on both a local and national scale plays a key role in addressing wider societal issues of inequality through shaping these places and helping to create a more sustainable future for everyone.

What is NPF4?

The National Planning Framework (NPF) is a long-term strategic plan for Scotland that establishes where development and infrastructure are needed to support and promote sustainable and inclusive growth.

NPF4 is set to replace the current framework NPF3, published in 2014, and is scheduled to be laid before parliament in 2021. NPF4 will incorporate Scottish Planning Policy (SPP) to integrate spatial and thematic planning policies. This integration is to strengthen the role of these policies in informing day to day decision making.

A ‘Call for Ideas’ on NPF4 was launched on 9 January 2020 and closed on 30 April 2020.

Key objectives of NPF4

Scottish Government emphasised the importance of creating sustainable, resilient places which was reflected in many responses to the ‘call for ideas’ earlier this year.

Sustainable development remains a central component of national planning policy. Many of the responses geared towards resilient places took an environmental perspective, offering insight into environmental protection and climate change mitigation strategies. However, there were further suggestions that sustainable development strategies should operate on a whole systems approach – identifying the complex components of a system and addressing the relationships and links between them – considering the environmental, economic and social impact of all planning decisions.

A whole systems approach, embedded within planning policy, offers the unique opportunity to foster collaborative community action and regional partnerships across planning authorities to aid in the realisation of a more inclusive and sustainable Scotland.

Scottish Cities, Towns and NPF4

Seven cities in Scotland: Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth and Stirling forming the Scottish Cities Alliance, contribute to over two thirds of Scotland’s economic activity. These cities are home to some of the country’s major assets, both cultural and economic and share a large pool of skilled workers. There are significant regional disparities and inequalities across these places ranging from scale to resilience and industrial structure.

Key challenges: in Aberdeen, there is a pressing need to diversify in terms of industry, whilst simultaneously retaining its position as a hub for oil and gas; in Glasgow and Dundee, there is scope to further regenerate and reinvigorate existing economic and cultural assets, building on recent success with the V&A museum.

LGIU have also extensively covered towns policy and you can read more here.

For Scotland to achieve a sustainable and fairer economy, there is a need to ensure that NPF4 supports cities and towns to tackle deep-rooted regional inequalities.

The links between planning and inequality

A report commissioned by Scottish Government to advise on the approach to economic recovery in light of the Covid-19 pandemic: Towards a Robust, Resilient Wellbeing Economy for Scotland, offered a series of key recommendations and Scottish Government responded. The independent report does not link economic development, strategic spatial planning and the strengthening of local government, with planning presented as a barrier to recovery due to regulatory constraints, rather than part of the solution. The report recognises the need to consider regional disparities and promotes regionally targeted economic development goals, however, the role of planning authorities in this is understated.

Collaboration and the integration of policy frameworks are central in realising short-term goals and are fundamental in achieving longer term positive outcomes for Scotland. Fragmented policy landscapes have lasting consequences and future actions taken must address this issue.

Embedding actions to reduce inequality in NPF4

Key areas specifically addressing inequality have been highlighted in the response from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Fundamentally, while the Equality and Human Rights Commission welcomed the aim of ‘improving equality and eliminating discrimination’ as a key outcome of NPF4, their response addressed key areas in need of further development to achieve equality in each of the other established outcomes.

Moreover, their report suggests that both Scottish Government and local planning authorities might adopt an evidence-based approach through equality impact assessments and the Fairer Scotland duty, to aid in strategic thinking, planning and priority setting.  Targeted, evidence-based equality outcomes with specific reference to protected characteristic groups which relate to planning should be developed by planning authorities. This feeds into an intersectional approach where thematic, cross-cutting themes of age, disability, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, gender and socio-economic disadvantage should be considered across equality and poverty-related policy at all levels nationally, regionally and locally.

Additionally, the report suggests that monitoring and evaluation, and compliance actions should ensure that clear standards are upheld, placing the desired equality outcomes as central within this process.

NPF4 intends to address high-level outcomes:

  • ‘Meeting the housing needs of people living in Scotland including, in particular, the housing needs for older people and disabled people’
  • ‘Improving the health and well-being of people living in Scotland’
  • ‘Improving equality and eliminating discrimination’
  • ‘Meeting any targets relating to the reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases’

The Equality and Human Rights Commission suggest that the National Planning Framework should place tackling inequality and supporting marginalised groups as a primary consideration to ensure that inequalities and issues related to discrimination are not overlooked during later development stages. They assert that embedding such concerns from the outset reduces this risk.

Moreover, consultation processes should be fully accessible to allow for meaningful engagement from groups of people who share protected characteristics. This could take the form of easy to read documents, BSL translations and consultations with disabled persons’ organisations where needed in line with Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED).

The general response encourages Scottish Government and local authorities to plan with a more tailored focus towards tackling inequality and supporting marginalised groups on a local scale, tied in with existing local equality policies and initiatives.

A focus on socio-economic disadvantage at the development stage of NPF4 should aid in proposals that mitigate any potential negative impacts on protected characteristic groups or those with lived experience of poverty. They suggest that an intersectional approach is adopted, considering the interconnected nature of protected characteristics, socio-economic disadvantage and the unique experience of multiple or interconnected forms of discrimination or disadvantage some people face within the planning system.

Does NPF4 support inclusive economic growth and wellbeing?

Past issues relating to regional, cross-boundary infrastructure capacity alongside the need to address the concerns of growth and the transition towards net zero must be addressed in NPF4.

For instance, in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, growth aspirations were not fully integrated into infrastructure capacity in NPF3, which may have acted as a barrier to developments linking the wider region with Aberdeen city.

NPF4 should recognise the economic strengths of all areas and national relevance, thereby encouraging better connectivity across the length of the coast and improving access across the wider region.

The Aberdeen City Region Deal aims to drive growth and economic productivity through the Bio-therapeutics hub for Innovation (BioHub) project. The project aims to provide a long-term anchor for high-value economic activity and employment.

However, projects within the Aberdeen City Region Deal cannot alone address deeper inequalities in the region, which suggests that additional support and collaborative action is required to accommodate sustainable growth whilst simultaneously addressing the pronounced, deep-seated inequalities in the area.

The South East of Scotland acts as the engine that drives the Scottish economy in part through tourism. This presents key challenges in the region such as economic overheating and lack of affordable housing. The benefits of the tourism industry are not distributed equally. There are significant, persistent pockets of deprivation across the region despite its strong economic performance. This issue highlights the need for an inclusive distribution of the benefits associated with increased growth to ensure it reaches all the communities in need. The pandemic has adversely affected tourism and recovery will need to take account of the needs of towns and villages across Scotland on the road to recovery.

NPF4 has a key role to play in the areas of housing, affordable public transport and the provision of physical and social infrastructure in addition to environmental aims. This is where the intersection of local plans and the wider planning system comes into play.

The new National Planning Framework plays a crucial role in ensuring that growth is identified in strategic areas and that constraints in infrastructure or overheating in different parts of the market are effectively addressed.

The NPF also holds a key role in protecting green space and natural capital. A holistic intersectional approach is required, and regional partners to work together alongside national government to promote and generate sustainable inclusive growth.


The call for ideas gives insight into the questions posed by Scottish Government and emphasis was placed on environmental and structural changes. In terms of the key questions posed by Scottish Government, feedback highlights the need for planning authorities and regional partnerships to collaborate on spatial strategies to positively contribute to the development of the National Planning Framework.

Key messages for local government:

  • NPF4 should help to support local government to make strategic decisions that allow them and the communities they represent to be resilient in the face of wider structural economic change.
  • It should recognise that there is a need for context specific action, acknowledging both local and regional differences and encouraging support for policy experimentation.
  • Cities, towns and regions should be supported in shaping national decision making in areas such as developing local skills, housing, transportation and the environment.
  • Crucially, NPF4 should recognise that the value of place is key to linking aspirations of growth, tackling inequalities and poverty and the overarching aim of achieving a low carbon economy.

NPF4 will play a vital role in shaping the future of Scotland. With the current climate of economic uncertainty and multiple challenges emerging due to coronavirus, there is a need for coordinated responses at all levels to adequately respond to these changes in the short term to ensure that longer-term aspirations are met. Long-standing issues of inequality, while addressed in NPF4, will be developed further by councils as they consider the differing needs and sometimes competing interests of local areas. As such, the role of planning authorities and regional development strategies should be emphasised within NPF4 to reflect the significant potential contributions they can offer in achieving the long-term goals of Scotland.

Related briefings:

Understanding community resilience in our towns – Hopeful Towns

Homes fit for our future: getting on with climate-friendly housing

Office of the Planning Regulator: reviews of local authorities’ planning systems and procedures