I will focus on areas of NPF3 that the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee scrutinised.
In his evidence to the committee, the Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Paul Wheelhouse, said:
“We see Scotland as having a living landscape—one that can be considered in the round for all of the potential that it provides, through sound management that is in sympathy with nature.”—[Official Report, Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, 19 February 2014; c 3278.]
No reasonable person would disagree with that view. Scotland’s land has been put to work and utilised for many hundreds of years, and the landscape in which we take pride has in many instances been shaped by man. We should surely support the continuation of the shaping of the landscape in an environmentally responsible manner, in pursuit of sustainable economic growth.
In focusing on the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee’s work on NPF3, I begin with the siting of wind farms around towns and villages. In the context of energy policy, particularly wind energy, the Minister for Local Government and Planning, Derek Mackay, made it clear that a great deal of effort and attention had gone into the revised SPP and NPF3 to provide greater clarity and more guidance.
That is welcome, but I think that the minister will accept that more is needed, because even those of us who support onshore wind development recognise that the current system is not without its flaws. For example, people whom I represent are unhappy about the 20m neighbour notification distance, and there is confusion about what is and is not a settlement in the context of separation distance. There is sometimes a sense that it is unfair that a developer whose application has been rejected by the local authority can appeal to a Government reporter, when no such right of appeal exists for local people when their council grants planning consent—although I note that the minister pointed out that roughly two thirds of appeals are rejected.
Mr Mackay made it clear to the committee that the Government will not consider a third-party right of appeal, which was suggested by someone who provided written evidence. I think that we all recognise that the introduction of such a right might be fraught with difficulty, not least in relation to the definition of a legitimate third party, given that all too often wind farm proposals attract the attention of self-appointed anti-wind-energy groups who have no genuine locus in the development at issue.
I was pleased to hear that the minister recognises that there are issues to be addressed and that work is going on to ensure that there is better engagement at the start of the process, at the pre-application consultation stage and in the production of development plans in areas of search. I agree with him that, rather than have the public become objectors and appellants at the end of the process, we should encourage them to engage better at the outset and that we should be front-loading the planning system in engagement terms.
I welcome the rolling out of the good practice guidance that is being worked up between SNH and developers. It focuses on what developers can and should do to make others aware of developments in their areas.
I also look forward to hearing the outcome of consideration of whether it might be better to have clear definitions of what constitutes a wind farm and a settlement, along with action to ensure that local development plans are more up to date than just over a third of them currently are. That would provide further welcome clarity.
In evidence to the committee, SEPA said that it felt that the framework could go further by requiring that a carbon assessment be conducted for all developments, and Scottish Environment LINK suggested that a requirement might be placed on local authorities, when they are considering an application for a major development, to take into account the carbon impact of the development and how it will help Scotland to realise its carbon reduction targets.
The minister pointed out that there is already a requirement for detailed assessments to be undertaken in relation to major developments and that, currently, local development plans are required to outline how they will support low-carbon living. However, if we are to complete the journey towards genuine low-carbon living, we surely need to be explicit. Therefore, as the committee’s report makes clear, we believe that carbon assessment should be required for all developments.
We need to send a clear message to developers and those who are charged with policing them that every step that we take from here on in must be taken with thought for the impact that we have on our environment. If we are serious about bringing about the behavioural and cultural change across society that is needed to achieve the targets that are laid out in the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 and in RPP2, we must take the opportunity that NPF3 and the SPP represent to send that message.
On flooding, the committee is suggesting that NPF3 might be strengthened to make it clear that housing or other forms of development should, at all times, avoid flood-risk areas. That perhaps seems an obvious point, and Scotland is by no means as exposed in this regard as other countries, but I wonder whether we should be looking not only at areas that we know are currently at risk of flooding.
Given the direction of travel with regard to increased flooding incidents and their occurrence in areas that traditionally did not suffer to the extent that they have lately, we need to be one step ahead of the game in anticipating where, courtesy of climate change, the existing problem might have spread in 10, 20 or 30 years. Even if we, as a country and as a society, succeed in seriously reducing our emissions, we are still liable to experience continuing climate change consequences in the short to medium term, and we must be prepared for that.
With the flood risk maps and the detailed hazard maps, we have the basis for that preparedness. The Minister for Environment and Climate Change told the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee that the draft planning policy has been revised to reflect flood risk and that flood risk is noted as a national issue in NPF3. Mr Mackay reassured us that flood risk, water attenuation and waste would be considered in any planning decisions on drainage and infrastructure.
We need to be crystal clear with the planning authorities that they need to consider not only what we know or think we know but what we might reasonably anticipate. If developments are to be sanctioned on land that might, given the trajectory that we are on, reasonably be expected to become susceptible to some degree of flooding, we must demand drainage provision that caters to that possibility and the prospect of the problem potentially worsening.
It is in the nature of a process such as this one that we challenge the rationale for what is or is not in the document or what was in the original draft and is not there now, and hold the Government to account. That is how it should be. However, across the stakeholders from whom we took evidence, there was near unanimity on the view that the draft NPF3 is an improvement on NPF2 and that the tone and the language is positive and ambitious.
I hope that my speech has served as a taster of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee’s report. It has been interesting to hear about the reports that have been produced by other committees. I look forward to the minister’s response, today and in the future, to the various points that have been raised.