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Planning to save the planet

By Kat Jones, 30th April 2024

‘System change not climate change’ is a slogan waved on many a placard. When I first moved from conservation to manage Scotland’s civil society climate coalition, Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, and lead their work to support global civil society at COP26, I admit that I was still wondering what ‘system change’ really meant.

It became clearer as I spent time with activists from all over the world at COP26 in Glasgow – they had plenty of visions of the future and ideas on what needed to change. Indeed small scale systems change was alive and being demonstrated; we even attempted a bit of it ourselves with the radical hospitality of the COP26 Homestay Network, accommodating over 2,000 campaigners in the homes of Glaswegians. However, as I found out when I was within the huge halls of COP itself, the calls for system change from us activists was making almost no impact to actually change the systems that are driving us to an unlivable planet.

One of the many placards that calls for systems change, not climate change at climate protests.

But what if there was a system that was open to change?

A system that has the power to say what our communities and infrastructure will be like in the future? That lays out where cycle routes go, what roads are built (or not built), what housing and community facilities are needed, where green corridors and nature reserves could be, where energy is going to be generated and transmitted, and more?

In short, if there was a system laying out what the future looks like – and whether that future is one compatible with dealing with the climate crisis – wouldn’t it be worth putting everything we can into it? By investing in such a system, and its future iterations, we could make the transformational changes we need.

Scotland’s new planning system, National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4), is such a system. It is a long-term plan looking to 2045 that guides development, sets out national planning policies, designates national developments and highlights regional spatial priorities. In a huge departure from previous planning frameworks, NPF4 is centred around the climate and nature crises, and a just transition, and I hope, will also allow more of a role for communities in decision making.

The Scottish Government evidently sees this new planning system as having a key role to play in dealing with the climate and nature crises. However, having campaigned for good policies and intentions, we can’t sit back and assume that NPF4 will address everything. Each one of Scotland’s 32 local authorities needs to produce a Local Development Plan (a spatial plan indicating where transport, housing, industry, greenspace, and more will be created). These are 10-year plans covering the period in which we need to make most of our emissions reductions and build resilience for climate impacts.

Designated Green Belt threatened by a proposal for 1,000 houses and a huge industrial complex by Calderbank, Airdrie. Monkland Canal, which is a scheduled ancient monument, is in the foreground. Credit: APRS.

Yet there are huge vested interests working to keep the status quo across Scotland. For instance, volume housebuilders make eye-watering profits[1] from building executive homes, using loopholes in the previous planning system, and are keen for this not to change. Homes are currently built on greenfield sites far from schools, work and public transport access, locking in car use and wasteful heating for decades to come – while also campaigning against heat-pumps[2]. These developers have access to hundreds of paid staff, planning consultants and planning lawyers. They are currently fighting Scottish Government in the courts[3] to seek a return to the pre-NPF4 policy position which we know is unsustainable[4].

In contrast, the odds are stacked against communities having a say. Ordinary people have to engage with this in their spare time, often sacrificing a huge amount of time to be involved. There is also the sheer challenge of getting one’s head around the complexities of the planning system – something I am all too familiar with!

All over Scotland concerned people have had to become reluctant, self-taught and unpaid experts on the planning system[5]. Action to Protect Rural Scotland (APRS) and Planning Democracy assist communities faced with unsustainable development proposals to stand up to the might of the developers – a David and Goliath fight if ever there was one.

Local campaigners Ann Glen and Kathleen Weetman of Calderbank, Airdrie examine Maggie’s Bridge over the Monkland Canal. Credit: APRS.

In Calderbank near Airdrie, local people have spent decades working to improve the access, and protect the heritage and biodiversity of their local area. It is all designated as Green Belt in the local plan, which means that it should be protected from development. However, there is now an application for 1,000 houses and a huge industrial complex to be built all across the area that the local community have worked so hard to restore, to put in paths and to increase access. They have set up the Woodhall, Faskine and Palacecraig Conservation Group to work to preserve the area, which is very valued by the local community.

As illustrated by the above, APRS deals case-by-case with poor decision making and supports groups fighting to save greenspaces that are already protected in their local plans – fights that should not even be necessary. Given the very small resources available, our efforts are spread extremely thinly.

We need to stop working piecemeal and fighting each bad decision if we really want to face the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss. We need to help communities to engage with the local development plan process and start leveraging the new NPF4 to put forward an alternative, low-carbon and community-centred approach.

So, what can funders do? We need resourcing for communities to engage upfront with the planning decisions that affect their community through capacity building, expert advice, analysis and bespoke assistance for them to do so. It needs input and scrutiny, Local Authority by Local Authority, on how Local Development Plans are delivering for climate, nature and communities[6].

Planning is not exciting, but this uncelebrated framework of policies, laws and procedures has the potential to be transformative for climate action. And we can start today. Local authorities are currently preparing their plans, let’s not allow this opportunity to pass us by.

You can learn more on local development plans and the planning system here.

About the author

Kat Jones is the Director of Action to Protect Rural Scotland (APRS), a small charity campaigning to protect, enhance and promote Scotland’s countryside and rural landscapes for everyone’s benefit, and supporting grassroots activists and campaigners to do the same.  She joined APRS from Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, Scotland’s civil society climate coalition, where she led their response to COP26. Previously, she worked in Scottish conservation for two decades, including roles at Scottish Natural Heritage, now NatureScot, and RSPB Scotland. She led on all aspects of working with people including communications, membership, visitor experience and community engagement. She has a PhD in the behaviour of the much-maligned lesser black-backed gull, and is currently walking around the Green Belts of Greater Glasgow in her spare time. You can contact Kat on:


[1] A recent report from Sheffield Hallam University demonstrated huge dividends going to shareholders. For instance, in 2022, the biggest housebuilders were making nearly £48,000 profit before tax on each new home they built and profits are up to 40% for mass housebuilders.

[2] On 23 Nov 2023, Fergus Ewing spoke in Parliament on behalf of the mass housebuilders (Homes for Scotland, Cala Homes, Taylor Woodrow and Persimmon) to lobby against Government Targets on heat pumps.

[3] This case is in an ongoing judicial review process, so we do not know what the challenge constitutes yet. However the cisted (delayed) appeals (around 16 housing developments) refer to the court challenge in their updated letters – see this reference in a letter regarding a development at Ferniehill.  

[4] Here is a journal article by the Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity with an overview of housing developments in England that keep within climate targets – we know what sustainable housing policy can look like.  

[5] We were fortunate that the Herald Magazine did a feature on our work supporting campaigners which is starting to raise awareness of the challenges, more examples here.

[6] We’ve created a central spreadsheet with up to date information on every local authority’s Local Development Plan and we’re lobbying government and local authorities to make this information easier to find and more accessible.

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