PLANNING may sound a bit dry and boring but it’s at the heart of our society and everything we do. It influences where we live, where we work and where we spend our time. The legacy of bad decisions can hang around for decades like a bad smell. So, when there are choices to be made, it’s important that we get them right.

For far too long our towns and cities have been designed around cars rather than people, with busy roads and concrete being prioritised over green spaces, public transport and community wellbeing. We need to turn this on its head if we are to build the fairer, greener future that we so badly need.

In some respects the issue is even more pertinent for those of us who live in rural communities. The Highlands and Islands region that I represent covers one third of Scotland’s total land mass. Our communities are widely dispersed and there are serious infrastructure problems, meaning that the people who live here often have to travel long distances to reach essential services.

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To this end, the Scottish Government has just published National Planning Framework, number 4 (NPF4), and now the Government and Parliament are running concurrent consultations. This framework lays out what we need to develop and where to ensure Scotland reduces emissions sufficiently to ensure a liveable future.

Despite its cumbersome title, it is one of the most important and consequential documents that will be published in Holyrood during this parliamentary session. It’s one that I hope is read and shared as widely as possible. In an ideal world it would be discussed by every secondary school pupil in Scotland and would become the next “book” being read, digested and discussed at book clubs across the country.

There has been plenty to disagree with in previous strategies, which have shown a clear support for new fossil fuel power stations and other polluting industries. They have overlooked their environmental impact and listed major road projects as national priorities.

This time round the Framework has an important and welcome shift in priorities. One of the key focuses of NPF4 is on how we “transform the way we use our land and buildings so that every decision we make contributes to making Scotland a more sustainable place”.

The answers won’t be the same everywhere, and nor should they be. The climate crisis is global, but a lot of the solutions can be local.

That is why we need to take a localised and holistic approach to planning and development: one that recognises our diversity and engages with the communities it will impact. If these decisions are left in the hands of a small number of people then that will only favour the status quo.

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It’s not a conversation that can be left to politicians alone. It’s too important for that. It will need collaboration if it is to succeed. It will need councils, communities and campaign groups to recognise the ambition and potential and to help in shaping it.

If our towns, cities and rural communities are to work for the people who live there then there needs to be real engagement from the grassroots, not just from Holyrood committees. Public consent and support has to be at the heart of the changes that are made.

There is also a big role for business. Some, like the big transport companies and housing developers, may have to change large parts of their business models and practices if they are to move beyond greenwashing and put natural regeneration, restoration and community care at the heart of their models.

Over the course of the pandemic a lot of our communities changed. The Spaces for People programme was brought in by local authorities and Sustrans. This set-up temporary infrastructure and offered funding and support to make it safer for people to walk, cycle or wheel for essential trips and exercise during lockdown.

Many of the changes were welcomed, with a lot of them having subsequently been made permanent. But in other areas they were more controversial. Part of the problem is that, for obvious reasons, a lot of the changes were made very quickly so consultation was limited and some of the decisions suffered as a result.

Spaces for People was done in response to a very particular set of circumstances. However, it did underline a broader point. If our planning had prioritised

accessibility and wellbeing in the first place then these kinds of changes would have been enacted and finessed years ago rather than having to be brought in and imposed over a short period of time.

In the Green movement we often talk about the importance of 20-minute neighbourhoods, where vital services, shops and other assets are within easy reach. This will mean different things in urban and rural settings, but the point of it is to improve community spirit and limit the need for car journeys. It can mean increasing service provision and networking in our rural communities and bringing nature back into cities in our urban ones.

There is also a very human impact. So many people have suffered unnecessarily due to long-lasting decisions that they had little power to influence.

Whether it is people with mobility issues living in inaccessible urban spaces or vulnerable people who have been cut-off from the rest of their communities due to poor and remote public transport. Far too many people have been failed by planners and developers that did not take their needs into consideration.

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But, if we are to change this then it needs you. If you want to have a say in establishing safe routes for cycling and wheeling, the regeneration of your community, better and green connectivity and requirements for nature restoration then please make sure to send your feedback to the ongoing Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament consultations.

Our communities are for all of us, and we all need to have a voice.

To have your say in the Scottish Government consultation visit the Transforming Planning section of the Scottish Government website.

To participate in the Scottish Parliament’s consultation, which is an entirely different process, visit