River Basin Planning meets Spatial Planning

Published on 18 August 2011 in Climate, water and energy

Coastal town


The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), seen by many as a ‘Sustainability Directive’, strongly emphasises the need for closer ties between river basin management and land use planning. At the same time, European guidance on spatial planning promotes the idea of incorporating wider social and environmental objectives within planning decisions. Therefore, these two drivers should promote greater integration between spatial planning systems and the river basin planning system associated with the WFD.

In many EU countries, building linkages between these two systems involves bridging separate policies and institutions. There is limited understanding of how this integration might be accomplished, or what it means in practical terms for key stakeholders (particularly planners). In Scotland, this process of integration is further complicated by the recent round of reforms to the spatial planning system. There is uncertainty around how this newly modernised planning system will interact with the new river basin management plans (RBMPs). This research project explored this emerging relationship from the perspective of those who have to make it work – particularly SEPA staff and local authority planners.

Key Points

The relationship between spatial planning and river basin planning operates mainly through interactions between SEPA and local authorities. Those involved in these interactions seemed keen to ensure that the planning system can support and help deliver the objectives of the RBMPs. Their interactions occur through several formalised forums, or arenas – such as the national advisory group, the area advisory groups, the preparation of development plans, and development management consultations. These are the main forums in which participants can work out their understandings of the relationship, and through which integration between the two regimes may be put into practice.

The data showed some mismatched understandings of these arenas, and how effectively they can establish ‘straight links’ between the two regimes. In general, SEPA often painted a fairly optimistic picture about their effectiveness, but others (particularly local authorities) highlighted numerous challenges. For instance, some local authority planners were uncertain about their role in RBMP advisory groups, and what those interactions are meant to achieve.  

There were also seemingly mismatched understandings of how relevant information ought to be communicated. Many stressed the importance of discussion and dialogue between those involved. However, there was also considerable emphasis on a technical instrument – i.e. presenting water body information in a colour-coded, map-based format. The purpose of such maps would be to highlight areas where there was higher ‘capacity’ in the water environment to accommodate new development. This was seen as a way of making that information more user-friendly for local authority planners. However, there is a risk that this simplified approach might mask a lot of complex information, and potentially a lot of uncertainty, behind these determinations of environmental capacity. Producing these maps may also divert attention away from the need for discussion between those involved.

Furthermore, many were keen for the RBMP to be closely linked with the higher levels of planning (i.e. national, regional). However, these emerging links appeared restricted and vague. This may be occurring partly because the new generation of development plans are meant to be shorter and more accessible documents – meaning there is less room to address the RBMP’s implications (along with all the other issues that development plans must address). As a result, considerable focus seems to be shifting towards a lower level of planning – the development management arena. For instance, the proposed Highland-wide Local Development Plan contains a policy stating that the Council will take account of the RBMP when considering development proposals. Additional, there was some desire to turn the RBMP into a useful tool for development management decisions.

However, there is a risk that this trend may be drawing attention away from much-needed interactions at higher planning levels, particularly the national level. These higher-level interactions are needed to address the wider issues at the heart of this relationship. For instance, the need to protect and improve the water environment may present an environmental limit or constraint on development, which could create tension with wider ambitions for enabling development and economic growth. Resolving this tension would require tradeoffs between environmental and economic goals. It is important that such tradeoffs are discussed and debated at higher levels, and not in a piecemeal manner within development management decisions.

Research Undertaken

This project explored how different stakeholders understand the process of ‘integration’ between river basin planning and spatial planning – i.e. how important the relationship is, how it works, and what the outcomes will be. The findings are based on analyses of around 30 key policy documents (such as the RBMP for Scotland, as well as national planning policy and guidance), along with 27 in-depth interviews. These interviews were primarily with spatial planning staff from local authorities, and with staff from relevant public agencies (including SEPA and Scottish Water). The research focused on two case study areas – Glasgow and Clyde Valley, and the Highlands.

Policy Implications

This research was conducted in the early days of this process of integration, and the picture continues to evolve. It is hoped that these results can inform this process as it moves forward.

This research has clearly highlighted that ‘securing integration’ between these two regimes is far from a simple, straightforward process – it requires active steps to be taken. Relying on ambiguous assertions that development management decisions will ‘take account of’ the RBMP may do little to address the wider issues at stake. The tension between ‘limiting’ and ‘enabling’ development has implications for many national initiatives – such as the National Planning Framework, the recent Land Use Strategy, and the government’s central purpose of ‘increasing sustainable economic growth’ – and should be addressed in a national forum, where there can be meaningful discussion and debate. These findings therefore add support to the idea of establishing a national working group to focus on this emerging relationship between river basin planning and spatial planning – an idea that was proposed in a 2006 SNIFFER report, and mentioned in the draft version of the RBMP for Scotland, but has yet to come to fruition.

There is also a note of caution here concerning the reliance on technical tools to facilitate communication. As previously mentioned, integration between the two regimes is an active process, and it cannot be achieved solely through simplified technical means.  Likewise, the colour-coded maps discussed above must be actively interpreted, so that the complexity and uncertainty behind them can be made clear. If these maps are seen as a way of negating the need for discussion, in favour of quick and simple communication, that complexity and uncertainty could be masked. Therefore, it is important that these tools should help further, and not replace, opportunities for discussion around the information they seek to convey.


Dr. Kirsty Blackstock (The James Hutton Institute) kirsty.blackstock@hutton.ac.uk

Heather Smith (The James Hutton Institute)

Gill Wall (University of Aberdeen)


Climate, water and energy

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