The spatial planning systems in the Nordic region

The Nordic planning systems are, from an international perspective, often grouped together in one category. There are, however, differences between the national planning systems that should be recognized. To facilitate understanding of the context in which urban development issues are handled, Nordregio has compiled a comparative review of Nordic planning systems. This describes the various statutory planning systems and can be used as a benchmarking tool by anyone wanting a quick overview of the differences and similarities among the basic laws and regulations that steer planning in the Nordic countries. The focus is on key instruments and institutions.










Since the election in 2015, there has been a political debate on reform of the planning system. One immediate consequence has been that responsibility for the Danish Planning Act has moved from the Ministry of Environment to the Ministry of Business and Growth. Furthermore, in November 2015, the new Danish Government presented a more extensive strategy for how they intend to reform the Planning Act, including the key messagethat it has to be modernized. In the strategy, the Government states that the current legislation is too bureaucratic and too restrictive on municipal planning, which hinders local planning initiatives and growth.

Another message from the Government was that they aim to reduce the national influence on local planning, with the aim of giving more freedom to municipal planning decisions. If the reform is implemented, it will be the largest revision in the planning system since the significant legal and administrative changes implemented through the Planning Act of 2007, which, for example, removed spatial planning from the regional level. At the national level, the Ministry of Business and Growth is responsible for the Danish Planning Act, together with its executive state authority, the Danish Business Authority. National planning reports, overviews of national interests regarding municipal plans, and national planning directives, including specific directives for the capital region of Copenhagen, are important instruments for guiding planning at the national level.

The national planning reports outline national visions regarding functional physical development. Additionally, an overview of state interests is published every fourth year by the Danish Ministry for Business and Growth. The most recent was presented in November 2015, titled ‘Overview of state interest in municipal planning 2017’. The national planning directive presents long-term goals for Denmark’s geographical structure with recommendations on how to realize these. At the local level, there are two main planning instruments: the local development plan (lokalplan) and the municipal plan (kommuneplan). There are three different types of detailed plans (framework detailed plan, conservation detailed plan and project detailed plan) that can be used for different types of projects. Since 2000, the municipal plan has been complemented by an obligatory municipal strategy (kommuneplanstrategi), which should be revised during the first part of every mandate period and should include a political strategy, which is prioritized in the municipal plan.


In Finland, there are no major initiatives for reforming the spatial planning system, but there are discussions about amendments within the planning system. For example, the Ministry of Environment has started to prepare an update of the national land-use guidelines (valtakunnalliset alueidenkäyttötavoitteet (VAT)/riksomfattande mål för områdesanvändning). The Finnish Government’s intention is to be able to make a decision on the updated guidelines in the spring of 2017, with the aim of renewing the guidelines so that they correspond to current national challenges regarding land use and are more specific and concrete (Ministry of Environment 2016).

At the national level, the Ministry of Environment is responsible for the Finnish Land Use and Building Act. National planning guidance is mainly found in the national land-use guidelines, which are designed to ensure that national issues of importance are considered in regional and municipal land-use planning. In accordance with the Land Use and Building Act, the guidelines must be taken into account, and their implementation must be promoted in regional planning, municipal land-use planning and the activities of the state authorities. Local planning is supervised by the Centres for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment, which are central government authorities present in each of the regions. At the regional and local levels, there are three key planning instruments: regional land-use plans (maakuntakaava/landskapsplan), local master plans (yleiskaava/generalplan) and local detailed plans (asemakaava/stadsplan) (Ministry of Environment, 2016). The regional land-use plan is legally binding and guides national and regional land-use goals at the local level. At the regional level, the regional councils (made up of all the municipalities in each region) are responsible for developing regional land-use plans; these guide local-level plans and policies. According to an amendment in the Land Use and Building Act, since January 2016, regional  land-use plans do not need to be approved by theMinistry of the Environment.

The local master plan is primarily a land-use plan allocating areas for different land-use purposes such as housing, traffic, services and recreation. The local master plan should comply with the principal land-use guidelines outlined in the regional land-use plan. Local detailed plans, which conform to the local master plan, regulate what can be built and the functions of buildings. It is also possible for two or more municipalities to draft a joint master plan, but it must be approved by a joint municipal organ.


In Iceland, there has been no major reform of the planning system since the current Planning and Building Act came into force in 1998. It introduced two main changes. Firstly, all land in the country became subject to planning legislation, including all municipalities. Previously, only a small part of the rural environment was covered by approved land-use plans. Secondly, responsibility for planning issues was formally moved from central authorities to local authorities.

At national level, the National Planning Agency under the Ministry of the Environment is responsible for the administration, monitoring and implementation of the Planning and Building Act. The Agency is also responsible for assisting and advising local authorities in preparing and reviewing spatial plans, including the approval of municipal plans drafted by local authorities. In addition, the Agency is responsible for the main national planning instrument, the national planning strategy, which presents national guidelines for land use at the local level. At the regional and local levels, there are three main planning instruments: regional plans, municipal plans and local plans. The regional plan is voluntary and has no corresponding administrative level. Two or more local authorities have the option to join forces voluntarily to create a common regional plan across municipal boundaries to co-ordinate policies regarding land use, transportation and service systems, environmental matters and the development of settlements in the region over a period of at least 12 years.

The key planning instrument in Icelandic spatial planning is the municipal plan, which requires the approval of the municipal council and the Ministry for the Environment. The municipal plan should define policies regarding land use, transportation and service systems, environmental matters and the development of settlements in the municipality. The municipal plan is supported by local plans, which are development plans for specific areas within a municipality that should be based on the municipal plan and should contain further details about its implementation. The regional plan, the municipal plan and the local plan are all legally binding documents.


Norway revised its Planning and Building Act in 2008. One of the main goals was to improve the co-ordination of national, regional and municipal functions. The revision also emphasized the strategic aspects of municipal planning and the synchronization and co-ordination of planning activities between the national, regional and municipal levels. Since the law came into force in 2009, various amendments have been discussed, such as how to make the planning process more time and resource efficient by co-ordinating objections from state authorities. However, the largest change in recent years was in 2013, when the responsibility for planning issues was transferred from the Ministry of Environment (now the Ministry of Climate and Environment) to the newly established Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation.

At the national level, there are four different national planning instruments: national expectations with regard to regional and municipal planning (nasjonale forventninger til regional og kommunal planlegging), central government planning guidelines (statlige planretningslinjer), central government planning provisions (statlige planbestemmelser) and a Government detailed plan (statlig arealplan). The national expectations are presented every fourth year and include the Government’s guidelines on the appropriate focus for counties and municipalities in their local planning, in respect to national policies of importance. Central government planning guidelines also aim to guide regional and local plans and to put forward issues of particular national importance. For example, in 2015, the Government prepared specific guidelines to promote a co-ordination of housing, land use and transport. The central government planning provisions can be used to clarify national expectations for planning and to highlight national policies in key areas of planning. The Government may also draft a national detailed plan, if this becomes necessary, in order to implement a project that is of national interest. The central government land-use plan can be established either as a detailed zone plan or as part of a municipal plan.

At the regional and local levels, there are five main planning instruments: the regional planning strategy (regional planstrategi), the regional plan (regional plan), the municipal planning strategy (kommunal planstrategi), the municipal plan (kommuneplan) and the detailed plan (reguleringsplan). The regional authorities (fylkeskommuner) are responsible for developing regional plans, which are guided by regional planning strategies but should also be in line with national expectations and guidelines from the ministries. The regional plan is not legally binding for municipalities but provides guidance for municipal planning. The regional planning strategy and the municipal planning strategy have to be revised every fourth year, synchronized with the election period of the regional and local government. The planning strategy sets priorities for planning activities over the next four years.

The municipal plan includes both a social element (samfunnsdel) and a land-use element (arealdel). The social element includes strategic priorities for development of the society as a whole, public services and a spatial development policy. The land-use element has maps and provisions that are legally binding for detailed plans and building permits. There are two forms of detailed plans: area zoning plans and detailed zoning plans. The area zoning plans are mainly used for larger areas and more extensive urban construction projects, while detailed zoning plans are applicable to smaller areas and limited construction projects.


The most recent reform of the Swedish Planning and Building Act came into force in 2011, with the aim of creating a more efficient planning system and highlighting the importance of strategic planning. Since then, there has been continuous political discussion on the function and role of the spatial planning system, including a number of amendments to the Act. There have also been several investigations seeking ways to simplify the municipal planning process and to make it more efficient. In August 2013, the Government directed a committee to investigate further the need for regional spatial planning as well as for increased co-ordination between various types of planning at the regional level. The committee’s final report, which was presented in June 2015, is now being prepared in the government offices.

There is growing awareness of the need for cross-sectoral approaches and for linking planning for regional economic development to physical and spatial planning at the regional level. In Sweden’s national strategy for sustainable regional growth and attractiveness 2015–2020, there is also an explicit focus on spatial planning, emphasizing the need to co-ordinate better local comprehensive planning and regional growth efforts. The strategy states that by 2020, actors responsible for regional development in each county should have integrated a spatial perspective in their regional growth efforts. The strategy also emphasizes that this should be done through conscious planning and dialogue regarding both intra- and interregional development.

At the national level, the Ministry for Business and Growth is responsible for the Swedish Building and Planning Act, together with the National Board of Housing, Building and Planning (Boverket). There are no national planning instruments guiding regional and local planning, and no regional land-use plans, except in the county of Stockholm. Local planning is steered by the Planning and Building Act and the Environmental Code, which regulate areas of national importance that are protected because of their high environmental value. This legislation is enforced by the county administrative boards (länsstyrelsen), which are tasked with monitoring the enforcement of national policies at the local and regional levels, thus ensuring that municipal comprehensive plans (översiktsplan) are in line with national regulations. Even though there are no real regional spatial plans in the counties (except Stockholm), the Government requires that there should be a regional development strategy for each county.

The responsibility for spatial planning lies with the municipalities, and there are two key planning instruments at the local level: the municipal comprehensive plan (översiktsplan) and the detailed development plan (detaljplan). The comprehensive plan is not a legally binding plan but should include guidance on future land-use development and should describe long-term strategic developments within the municipality. The comprehensive plan should be co-ordinated with national and regional goals and should take into account national interests, such as national environmental quality goals. In addition, the comprehensive plan guides the legally binding detailed plans that regulate the use of land and water areas (Boverket, 2013).

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