However, these planning decisions – and the policies that shape them – are crucial in determining the extent to which Scotland’s wildlife and natural habitats are protected and restored. Our planning system has a huge influence on how much space we can make for nature in our towns, cities and rural areas. Its impact can be as small scale as requiring new building developments to include areas of greenspace through to more innovative approaches like installing green roofs which provide vital pockets of nature in built up areas. It can be large scale changes too such as designating new national parks or strengthening protection of greenbelts.
This spring, politicians will be debating and voting upon a new ten-year strategy for Scotland’s planning system: the fourth National Planning Framework. Scotland’s people have until the end of March to submit their views on this framework which will set in train the direction of Scottish planning for the next decade.
As this is the same decade in which scientists tell us we must make major changes to reduce our contribution to climate change and reverse the global biodiversity declines, this new planning framework must put in place transformational policies that will guide Scotland’s planners and developers to make low-carbon and nature-positive choices.
There are many ways this transformation could be brought about, and Scottish Environment LINK, the network for Scotland’s leading environmental organisations, has set out some key changes the government must include in the new planning framework to ensure our wildlife and habitats are protected. A top priority is to establish a Scottish Nature Network which would link up vital habitats, making it easier for wildlife to move from place to place as well as linking up with green spaces in our neighbourhoods. This must be taken forward at a national level in Scotland, just as the UK government has promised to do in England, rather than locally as current proposals suggest.
It’s also important that the framework strengthens key measures that protect our natural spaces, from greenbelts encircling towns to Wild Land Areas in some of the most remote parts of the country. Enabling new developments that can benefit nature, such as the creation of new National Parks, would show that the Scottish government is truly taking the nature crisis as seriously as the climate emergency.
At present, the draft proposals from the Scottish government do not go far enough. Though the document contains many statements signalling that, for example, “we must rebalance our planning system so that climate change and nature recovery are the primary guiding principles for all our plans and decisions,” too many of the policies it sets out for nature and climate are optional, things that “should” be done.
If we want to avoid ploughing ahead with a ‘business-as-usual’ approach to planning, simply put, the ‘shoulds’ need to become ‘musts’.
Clare Symonds is convenor of Scottish Environment LINK’s planning group.