The Kingdom of Norway is situated in Northern Europe and is one of the northernmost countries in the world. Its mainland territory has a total area of about 324,00 km2 and comprises the western and northernmost part of the Scandinavian Peninsula. Norway shares land borders with three countries: a long eastern border with Sweden (1,600 km), and shorter borders with Finland and Russia in the northeast. To the west Norway is bordered by the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea, to the south by the Skagerrak strait and to the north by the Barents Sea. The numerous fjords all along the extensive coastline are a major tourist attraction. The country stretches 1750 km from north to south. In addition to the mainland, the archipelago of Svalbard (61,000 km2) and the island of Jan Mayen (114 km2), both in the Arctic Ocean, are part of Norwegian territory.

More than 8% of Norway’s land area consists of bare rock, gravel, blockfields, permanent snow and glaciers. The highest mountains are located in the Jotunheimen mountain range, with Galdhøpiggen (2469 m) being the highest. The climate is mostly maritime and affected by the Gulf Stream. The winters along the coasts are mild and the summers relatively cool. In the inland areas the winters can be cold and the summers relatively warm. Norway’s west-facing coastline and its mountainous land surface lead to relatively high rainfall, and in the inland areas there can be much snow in the winters.

Norway is one of the least densely populated countries in Europe, with 17 inhabitants per km2 (see attached map 2). Built-up land (including roads) amounts to just under 2%. 5% of the country consists of marsh and bogland, and another 6% of inland waters. More than 37% of the country is covered by forests, and another 37% is open land.


Norway is a highly-developed county, currently ranking 1st in the UN Human Development Index. The majority of the 5.4 million inhabitants are ethnic Norwegian. Important ethnic minorities are the Sámi and the Kven, indigenous people who mainly live in the northern parts of the country. The country’s population has grown constantly over the last decades, with immigration being the main source of growth. At the start of 2021, there were around one million immigrants and Norwegian-born offspring of immigrant parents in Norway, representing almost a fifth of the total population. The largest source country for immigrants is Poland, followed by Lithuania, Sweden, Syria and Somalia.

A major part of the population lives in the coastal areas. As with many other countries, Norway’s population is increasingly centralised. While only 50% lived in urban areas in the years after World War II, this number has increased to 82% today. Population growth has been highest in the largest cities. As much as 44% of the population live in the capital of Oslo and the regions around the Oslo fjord. The largest cities in Norway after Oslo with its 700,000 inhabitants are Bergen (287,000), Trondheim (210,000) and Stavanger (145,000). Despite the high degree of urbanisation, Norway is still characterised by a scattered settlement structure with a considerable number of people living in small- and medium-sized cities and villages in even the most peripheral parts of the country.

Norwegian is the main official language, and it has two forms: Bokmål and Nynorsk. Both standards were developed after the long-lasting union between Denmark and Norway ended in 1814, and were intended to replace Danish as the common written language. Bokmål developed as a mixture of Danish and Norwegian dialects while Nynorsk has its origin in the works of the Norwegian language researcher Ivar Aasen, who studied commonly spoken Norwegian dialects in the middle of the 19th century. The aim of this was to create a ‘new Norwegian’ based on a long tradition of spoken dialects and thus to express Norway’s new independence from Denmark, not only politically, but also linguistically. Today, bokmål is the preferred written standard for the majority of the population, while nynorsk is the preferred form in several regions, especially in the western part of Norway. All pupils have to learn both forms at school. In addition, the Sámi and Kven languages are co-official languages in those parts of Norway where these minority groups live.

Political, legal and governance

Norway is a unitary constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. The King is the head of state, while the prime minister is the head of government. The King formally retains executive power, but in practice the monarch only has representative and ceremonial duties today. Power is divided into three branches: the parliament (Storting), which is the legislative, budgetary and supervisory power; the government, which is the executive power, initiating policies and putting forward matters to parliament; and the judiciary, which consists of district courts, the appellate courts and the Supreme Court.

Norway is not a member of the European Union. After two referendums in 1972 and 1992, where a narrow majority voted against membership, different opinion polls still do not indicate a majority for joining the EU. One important reason for that is that people do not see significant advantages in doing so, living in a wealthy country with a strong economy and almost no unemployment. Nonetheless, Norway is closely linked to the EU by being a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), and, together with Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Iceland, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Thus, Norway enjoys all the advantages of access to the European single market. Norway is also a member of the Schengen Area and has been a member of NATO since its founding in 1949.

General information

Name of country Norway (officially: the Kingdom of Norway)
Capital, population of the capital (2020) Oslo, 699,827 (Eurostat)
Surface area 624,500 km² (World Bank)
Total population (2020) 5,379,475 (World Bank)
Population growth rate (2010-2020) 10.03% (World Bank)
Population density (2020) 14.8 inhabitants/km² (World Bank)
Degree of urbanisation (2015) 23.82% densely populated areas (European Commission)
Human development index (2021) 0.961 (Human Development Reports)
GDP (2019) EUR 334,789 million (World Bank)
GDP per capita (2019) EUR 62,602 (World Bank)
GDP growth (2014-2019) 7.43% (World Bank)
Unemployment rate (2019) 3.69% (World Bank)
Land use (2018) 0.92% built-up land
5.32% agricultural land
35.38% forests and shrubland
47.41% nature
10.97% inland waters
(European Environment Agency)
Sectoral structure (2017) 64.0% services and administration
33.7% industry and construction
2.3% agriculture and forestry
(Central Intelligence Agency)

To ensure comparability between all Country Profiles, the tables were prepared by the ARL.

Administrative structure and system of governance

The national level

Norway is a unitary nation state. The King is formally the head of state. However, his duties are mainly representative and ceremonial. Although the Constitution states that ‘the executive power is vested in the King’, both the legislative and executive powers lie de facto with the country’s elected bodies.[1]

The parliament (Storting) is the legislative, budgetary and supervisory power. It makes and passes Norwegian laws, determines state revenues and allocates spending through the fiscal budget. It also ensures that the government and public administration implements parliament’s decisions. The parliament consists of 169 members that are elected from 19 electoral districts. Elections are held every four years. Everyone who reaches the age of 18 in the election year and who has Norwegian citizenship has the right to vote.[2] The Sámi minority has its own parliament, the Sametinget, located in Karasjok in northern Norway and consisting of 39 members. The Sámi parliament ensures that the interests, rights and culture of the Sámi minority are respected in Norwegian politics. The Sámi parliament is a democratic tool for the Sámi’s self-determination and for developing the necessary services for the Sámi population. Elections for the Sámi parliament are held on the same day as the general election.[3] 

The government (Regjeringen) is the executive power. It is responsible for initiating policies and putting forward matters to the parliament. The government is formed by the party or the parties which have a majority of the seats in parliament or which constitute a minority capable of governing. The prime minister is the head of the government. The government currently comprises 15 ministries. The number of ministries, their names and areas of responsibility typically change slightly with each term of government, depending on the government’s priorities.[4] In addition to the ministries, Norway has about 70 national directorates that have special administrative, supervisory or informational tasks in their respective area. Examples are the Norwegian Maritime Authority or the Directorate of Fisheries. Usually every Friday, the King, the prime minister and the ministers hold meetings at the Royal Palace in Oslo. These meetings, where matters of importance and major decisions are made, are called the King in Council or State Council. The King in Council, chaired by the King, is formally the highest administrative body in Norway. It is the prime minister’s office or the ministries that prepare and promote matters to be decided by the King in Council. Decisions that are taken in the King in Council are considered to be a royal decree.

The Supreme Court (Høyesterett), located in Oslo, is the highest judicial body in Norway. Its main function is to contribute to clarifying and developing the law. Rulings from lower courts can be appealed to the Supreme Court. However, an Appeals Selection Court can decide which appeals will and will not be heard by the Supreme Court. Judgments of the Supreme Court are final and cannot be appealed.[5]

The regional and local level

Compared to other countries, Norway’s municipalities and counties are large when it comes to area, but small in terms of population. After the municipal and regional reform in 2020, Norway is today divided into 10 counties (fylke) and 356 municipalities (kommune) with their own popularly elected leadership. The capital city of Oslo functions both as a municipality and as a county. The recent reform is already about to be changed: as several counties and municipalities were merged against their will by the national parliament, there has been some quiet dissatisfaction among local and regional politicians and parts of the population. Thus, the current government, which came to power in 2021, announced that it will allow these counties and municipalities to separate again. As of summer 2022, three of the ten counties have decided to do so. The next months and years will show how many municipalities will opt to do the same. 

According to the Local Government Act, each municipality and county authority is a separate legal entity and can make decisions on its own initiative. The municipalities and the county authorities exercise their self-government within national frameworks. Limitations to this self-government must be authorised by law, and should not exceed what is necessary to safeguard national objectives. As an important principle, public duties should preferably be allocated to the administrative level closest to the inhabitants.[6]

The municipal council (kommunestyret) – in cities also called the city council (bystyret) – and the county council (fylkestinget) are the highest municipal and county bodies. Elections for their members are held every four years. Unlike in general elections for the national parliament, foreign nationals have the right to vote in municipal and county council elections if they have been registered in the Norwegian population register as a resident of Norway for at least the three years prior to the election. Citizens of other Nordic countries have the right to vote if they register as a resident of Norway by 30 June in the election year.

After being elected, the members of the county and municipal council form coalitions and elect a (county) mayor (fylkesordfører / ordfører) and a deputy (county) mayor. They establish several standing committees and agree on their members. In addition, they shall also elect a council for senior citizens, a council for persons with disabilities and a youth council or another representative body for young people. Municipalities and county authorities may perform joint tasks through intermunicipal cooperation.

Every county and municipality has its own administration which is politically steered by the county / municipal council. The head of the county administration is the county chief executive (fylkeskommunedirektør). The main responsibilities of the counties are:

  • Upper secondary schools
  • County roads and public transport
  • Public dental services
  • Regional planning and regional development
  • Business development
  • Culture (museums, libraries, sports)
  • Cultural heritage
  • Wildlife, inland fish and watercourse management

The head of the municipal administration is the chief municipal executive (kommunedirektør). The main responsibilities of the municipalities are:

  • Kindergartens, primary and lower secondary schools
  • Health, welfare and care, social services
  • Local planning, housing, agricultural issues, environmental issues
  • Local roads, harbours
  • Water supply, sewerage, waste collection
  • Culture and leisure (museums, libraries, sports)
  • Business development

It should be mentioned that the regional level in Norway and its responsibilities have regularly been the subject of political discussions. Several right-wing parties want to change the administrative system from a three-tier to a two-tier system by abolishing the county level and instead establishing bigger municipalities, and transferring several functions from the national to the municipal level. Hitherto there has not been a political majority for this approach, but on the other hand there is no political majority for delegating more power and responsibilities to the regional level either.

While each county is governed by a publicly elected county council, there is a parallel government structure at the regional tier, as each of the 10 counties also has a County Governor (Statsforvalteren). The County Governor is the state’s representative in the counties and is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the decisions, objectives and guidelines set out by parliament and the government. County Governor is both the name of the authority as a whole and the person leading it. The County Governor is the sectoral government authority for a range of important policy areas, and as such represents several ministries, as well as the directorates and central supervisory authorities on behalf of which it performs various administrative tasks. The County Governor also supervises municipal activities and serves as the administrative appeals body regarding municipal decisions for individual citizens, businesses and organisations.[7]

Judiciary at the sub-national level

In Norway, the district court (tingrett) is the court of first instance. The 23 district courts hear both civil and criminal cases. District court judgments can be appealed to the second-level courts of justice, namely the appellate courts (lagmannsrett), of which there are six in the country.

[1] For more information about the Norwegian King, see the English website of the Royal House of Norway: https://www.royalcourt.no/seksjon.html?tid=27679&sek=27258

[2] For more information about the Norwegian parliament, see the English website: https://www.stortinget.no/en/In-English

[3] More information about the Sámi Parliament of Norway can be found here: https://sametinget.no/_f/p1/i76216562-1cc9-4bc4-8aab-dda60387c0b4/sametinget-generell-brosjyre_eng_web-1.pdf

[4] For more information about the Norwegian Government, see the English website: https://www.regjeringen.no/en/id4/?crumbs=dqslnoazxfu&page=7816

[5] For more information about the Supreme Court of Norway, see the English website:  https://www.domstol.no/en/supremecourt/

[6] The Norwegian Local Government Act is available in English here: https://lovdata.no/dokument/NLE/lov/2018-06-22-83

[7] For more information about the County Governor, see the English website:  https://www.statsforvalteren.no/en/portal/About-us/

Spatial planning system

Historical development of the planning system in brief

Norway’s formal planning/building acts extend back nearly two centuries. The first Building Act in Norway was enacted in 1827 and applied only for Christiania (the former name of Oslo). The first Building Act that applied to the whole country was adopted in 1965. The background to the Act was a general need to modernise technical and social infrastructure (e.g. transport, water and wastewater, health and schools) and to avoid the random, scattered localisation of functions. The Act introduced the obligation for all municipalities to prepare comprehensive municipal plans. While planning in the first two decades after the Second World War was characterised by top-down, expert-based policy by the central government and its sectoral authorities, including comprehensive regulations, this formally changed with the Act in 1965, which emphasised that planning decisions are to be made by local politicians (Aarsæther 2018). The Act also implied a paradigm shift in planning, as space was no longer regarded as something that existed in abundance, but as a resource that had to be managed.

However, the 1965 Act was a mere Building Act. Norway’s first Planning Act was enacted by parliament in 1980. Its main purpose was to secure a sector-neutral and cross-sectoral planning system as the foundation for all land-use management. The Planning Act was intended to facilitate better coordination of the increasing number of sectoral laws and the different planning authorities. The political right-wing, however, did not like this Act, and less than a year later, when the new government was inaugurated, the Act was abolished.

It took four years until the new Planning and Building Act of 1985 was adopted. In the 1980s, New Public Management methods were integrated in many parts of public administration. Most of the planning and development initiatives in that period were bottom-up initiatives, promoted by private landowners, business stakeholders and land developers. The Act of 1985 took this development into account and formally permitted private stakeholders to propose zoning plans that municipalities are obliged to consider. This delegation was originally intended as an additional democratic right for civil society actors, but soon became an instrument for private actors, who today submit between 75% and 80% of all zoning plans in Norway each year. In bigger cities and other areas with growth pressure, this percentage is even higher (Hanssen 2011 and plannings statistics from Statistics Norway). The 1985 Act also introduced requirements for participation in planning, and integrated aesthetics in building and children’s environments as important purposes.

The planning system today

Like in most other western countries, planning and land use is subject to public and democratic control, i.e. it is conducted by democratic bodies at national, regional and municipal level. The most important legal basis for planning in Norway is the Planning and Building Act of 2008. The new Act introduced sustainable development as its main purpose, as declared in the very first sentence: ‘The Act shall promote sustainable development in the best interests of individuals, society and future generations’ (The Planning and Building Act 2008[1]). Compared to its predecessors, the current Act emphasises explicitly the principle of design for universal accessibility in planning and in individual building projects, as well as the rights of children and youth. A basic principle is that development shall not occur through day-to-day political decisions, but through plans. The current Act is often described as a ‘process law’, i.e. a law that emphasises concrete rules for how planning processes have to be conducted in order to secure openness and make it possible for all to take part in decisions that concern their surroundings (Hanssen and Aarsæther 2018a and 2018b).

Although the Planning and Building Act is the overall law for land-use management, there are still other sectoral laws that come into use here, for instance the Biodiversity Act, the Act on the Acquisition and Extraction of Mineral Resources, and the Energy Act. Important energy infrastructure projects, for instance, can still be realised without zoning plans under the Planning and Building Act. This means that several ministries and their directorates can be important planning actors.[2]

Planning at national level

With the change of government in 2013, the responsibility for spatial planning was transferred from the Ministry of the Environment to the Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation, subsequently renamed the ‘Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development’ (hereinafter abbreviated ‘MLGRD’). The MLGRD is the supreme planning authority at the national level. Its main task in that regard is to develop and communicate national goals and guidelines for planning in the counties and municipalities. Another important task is to take a position on conflict cases and ensure the correct application of the Planning and Building Act. The MLGRD is responsible for the following four planning instruments at national level[3]:

  1. National expectations regarding regional and municipal planning (nasjonale forventninger til regional og kommunal planlegging): Every fourth year, the MLGRD prepares a document outlining the government’s expectations for regional and municipal planning. The document is adopted as a royal decree and forms the basis for the work on regional and municipal planning strategies. The current national expectations document focuses especially on creating an ecologically and socially sustainable society (Kommunal- og moderniseringsdepartementet 2019).
  2. Central government planning guidelines (statlige planretningslinjer): These guidelines clarify goals and principles on special topics of national importance and how various interests and considerations are to be safeguarded and balanced in planning at municipal and regional level. The guidelines can be both thematically and geographically delimited. Currently there are guidelines in force regarding planning in shore zones; climate adaption; energy; coordinated housing, land use and transport; securing children’s and youth’s interests in planning; and protected watercourses.
  3. Central government planning provisions (statlige planbestemmelser): The provisions may stipulate that within specified geographical areas, or throughout the whole country, specified building or construction projects cannot be implemented without the consent of the MLGRD. They are legally binding for planning at all levels and take precedence over older land-use plans in order to prevent such plans from being used as a basis for carrying out unwanted development. An example was a planning provision in force between 1998 and 2018 that forbade the establishment of shopping centres outside urban centres. Currently, no central government planning provisions are in effect.
  4. Central government land-use plan (statlig arealplan): Such plans are used when the government considers them necessary for the implementation of important state or regional development or conservation projects. They can be drafted either as a municipal sub-plan or as a zoning plan. This kind of plan is an exceptional scheme and is used when it is not expected that the ordinary course of planning will produce an outcome that the central government can accept. With a central government land-use plan, the MLGRD takes over the municipal council’s authority to adopt the plan. Central government land-use plans are drafted in close collaboration with the municipalities they concern and with the affected sectoral authorities, according to the same planning processes that apply to municipal land-use plans. Typical areas of application for this kind of plan are important national infrastructure projects such as national roads and railways, or energy infrastructure projects.[4]



Planning at regional level

The county is the regional planning authority, and is provided with the following planning instruments:

  1. Regional planning strategy (regional planstrategi): The regional planning strategy is the only planning document that all counties are obliged to draft. It must be drawn up and adopted within the first year of each electoral term. It must be based on the national expectations regarding regional and municipal planning, as well as other national goals and frameworks, and it shall contribute to following up on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The regional planning strategy shall include an assessment of the most important challenges and development issues in the region. Based on that, the county council shall adopt long-term goals for development in the county and decide which issues are to be worked on further through regional plans.
  2. Regional (master) plan (regional plan): The counties can decide freely the type and number of regional plans they prepare. Regional plans are a flexible planning instrument. They can be either of a more general, comprehensive and strategic nature and address various issues, or they can apply more specifically to land use; they can either apply to the whole county or parts of it. Regional plans shall have a long-term perspective, preferably at least twelve years. All regional plans shall have a programme of action that shows how the plan is to be followed up. Regional plans are not legally binding. They shall, as the Planning and Building Act puts it, ‘form the basis for the activities of regional bodies and for the planning and activities of the municipalities and central government in the region’.[5]
  3. Regional planning provisions (regional planbestemmelse): These provisions are the most powerful planning instrument at the regional level. They have the same legal status as central government planning provisions and can therefore be described as ‘regional laws’. The purpose of the provisions is to provide guidelines for land use. A regional planning provision is legally binding on the municipalities and shall ensure that the municipalities do not adopt changes in land use that are contrary to a regional plan. Regional planning provisions can be adopted as part of a regional plan or put forward in a separate planning process. They apply for up to ten years and can be extended by up to five years at a time.


Planning at municipal level

The municipality is the local planning authority. As in other Nordic countries, Norwegian local government has a high degree of autonomy in spatial planning (Hanssen 2011). The planning system at this level consists of the following planning instruments:

  1. Municipal planning strategy (kommunal planstrategi): Like its counterpart at the regional level, the municipal planning strategy must be drafted and adopted by all municipalities within the first year of each electoral term. As part of the planning strategy, the municipal council decides whether there is a need to start work on new plans, or whether the current plans should be revised or revoked during the electoral term. The municipal council should also take a position on how the UN Sustainable Development Goals are to be followed up in municipal plans.
  2. Municipal master plan with social element and land-use element: The municipal master plan (kommuneplan) is the municipality’s general plan and consists of the social element (samfunnsdel) and the land-use element (arealdel). Normally, these two elements are drafted and adopted separately – with the social element drafted first – but they can also be drafted together.[6]

The social element is a strategic plan. In it, the municipal council adopts goals and strategies for how the municipality shall develop in the coming years. The social element shall provide the basis for overall priorities in the land-use element, for example through a separate land-use strategy. It shall be accompanied by an implementation element that shows how it is to be followed up. The implementation element has a four-year horizon, and shall be revised annually together with the municipality’s finance plan and budget.

The land-use element consists of a plan description and a planning map with provisions for the use, conservation and design of land and the physical surroundings for the entire municipality’s land and sea area. The land-use element is important for ensuring the long-term, sustainable development and management of the land, nature and cultural environments in the municipality. The planning map shall show the current and planned land use with land-use objectives and zones requiring special consideration. The land-use objectives indicate what an area can be used for, with legally binding effect. This means that no new projects can be initiated which conflict with the plan. The land-use element shall show how important considerations are to be followed up in the zoning plan, the processing of applications for building permission and through subsequent management of the land areas.

  1. Municipal sub-plan (kommunedelplan): Sub-plans can be drafted for specific topics or areas of activity. They are drafted using the same process as the social element of the municipal master plan and shall include a separate implementation element.

Zoning plan, in the form of an area zoning or detailed zoning plan: Zoning plans specify the use, conservation and design of the land and physical surroundings. They consist of a detailed land-use plan map with associated planning provisions and a plan description. The level of detail of the plan depends on the purpose and whether there is a need for further detailed planning for individual areas. As stated above, while it is the municipal council that adopts the zoning plan, planning proposals can be put forward by other public actors, or by private actors. The municipality is free to make alternative proposals or alterations to the plan, or to choose not to put forward the planning proposal. Major building and construction projects cannot be permitted before a zoning plan has been drawn up. An adopted zoning plan is binding for the future land use in the area. Projects or activities which are at odds with the plan are not permitted.

There are two types of zoning plans: the area zoning plan (områderegulering) and the detailed zoning plan (detaljregulering). The choice of plan type depends on the level of detail desired and the purpose of the plan. Zoning plans describe the same land-use objectives as in the land-use element of the municipal master plan, but with far more options for combinations and sub-objectives. While an area zoning plan shows the use of the land in a larger area, a detailed zoning plan is well suited when plans are to be made for limited projects. Zoning plans may describe zones requiring special consideration. Examples of such zones may be danger zones for landslides and floods or areas restricted by other laws, e.g. conservation areas pursuant to the Natural Diversity Act or the Cultural Heritage Act. A zoning plan shall function as a basis for deciding applications for building permission. The plans can contain design requirements, conditions for use or the protection of nature or buildings, or requirements for a special order for the implementation of projects.

  1. Intermunicipal plan (interkommunal plan): Two or more municipalities can cooperate when it is useful to coordinate planning across municipal borders by drafting intermunicipal plans. Such plans are drafted and adopted by several municipalities jointly, as an alternative to a regional plan. All planning issues of significance to several municipalities can be relevant topics in an intermunicipal plan. Both municipal master plans and zoning plans can be drafted as an intermunicipal plan. The planning process and methods are the same as for the preparation of a municipal master plan or zoning plan. The plan must be adopted by each municipal council involved.

Participation and process requirements for regional and municipal plans

All strategies, plans and programmes described here for the regional and the municipal level must be prepared in close collaboration with residents, businesses, organisations, institutions, and affected public bodies. The municipalities have a special responsibility to include groups that require special facilitation, e.g. children or persons with disabilities. All plan proposals must be circulated for comment and presented for public scrutiny. They shall be announced in at least one newspaper that is commonly read in the locality, and they must also be made available electronically. All comments and input have to be considered before a plan can be adopted.

In order to secure participation at an early stage, the first step when starting to prepare a regional plan or a municipal plan is to prepare a planning programme (planprogram). The planning programme has to describe the purpose of the planning task, how the planning process is to be carried out and the arrangements for public participation. Like the following plan, it must be circulated for comment and presented for public scrutiny. 

For all regional (master) plans and municipal plans that include guidelines or limits for future development, an impact assessment (konsekvensutredning) must be prepared. This is a separate assessment and description of the effects of the plan on the environment and society. For municipal master plans, an impact assessment is always required when the plan facilitates the development of new areas or significantly changes the use of land in existing built-up areas. Typical issues to be assessed are biodiversity, cultural heritage, soil conservation and health. Central government and regional authorities may object to a plan on the basis of a poor quality or deficient impact assessment.

Interdependencies and mutual influences between planning levels

Like in most other countries, the Norwegian planning system contains some typical hierarchic elements: all planning at regional and local level must be based on the ‘National expectations regarding regional and municipal planning’ issued by the government. Plans and strategies at the local level must take into account their equivalents at the superordinate level. Zoning plans shall follow up and clarify the overall allocation of land in the land-use element of the municipal master plan. Central government and regional authorities, the Sami Parliament and neighbouring municipalities may object to a plan if they consider the plan to negatively affect their interests. The right to object to a municipal plan functions as a ‘safety valve’ to ensure that municipalities do not adopt a plan that conflicts with, for example, substantial national or regional goals. A municipal plan cannot be adopted before the affected parties have agreed on a solution. If objections cannot be resolved by dialogue between the different parties, the municipality shall submit the case to the County Governor to mediate. If this does not succeed either, the County Governor forwards the case with their recommendation to the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development (MLGRD) for a final decision. The MLGRD may then make any necessary changes to the plans. If a zoning plan is contrary to national interests, to regional plans or the land-use element of the municipal master plan, the MLGRD may revoke or alter a zoning plan even if no objection has been lodged.

Influence of EU legislation and policies

As Norway is not a member of the European Union, the influence of EU legislation and policies on spatial planning in Norway is limited. However, there are exceptions: As a result of the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive, Norway was divided into 15 river basin districts. All of these districts had to prepare river basin management plans that contribute to protecting surface and ground water from deterioration, and to improving and restoring the environmental status where conditions are sub-standard. In Norway these plans were prepared as regional plans, with the counties as the responsible authorities. A similar example is the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (the Bern Convention) which resulted in several counties preparing coordinated regional plans in order to secure habitats for reindeer.

Strengths and weaknesses of the Norwegian Planning and Building Act[7]

The Norwegian planning system, after the current Act came into force in 2008, can be described as a mixture of both traditional hierarchical, market-oriented and network-oriented steering mechanisms. The system is consistent, democratic and predictable, but also complicated, i.e. difficult to understand for politicians and citizens. It is a flexible system that offers several suitable instruments for steering urban and regional development. The various planning instruments can be adjusted to the special challenges and planning needs in regions and municipalities of different sizes. Public participation in planning processes seems to have increased since requirements for this have been strengthened in the current Act. Many municipalities, especially the larger ones, have experimented with new, innovative forms of participation to engage groups that are often difficult to engage.

Compared to other countries the binding coherence both between the different tiers of government and the level of plans is generally rather weak, mainly because there is no clear hierarchy of regulatory powers between the county municipalities and the local municipalities as planning authorities. The regional level is rather weak as a planning authority. Apart from regional planning provisions, the county authorities have no strong legally binding planning instruments. Regional planning provisions are used very rarely, because the municipalities’ planning authority is very strong in Norway. Many county politicians are reluctant to use planning instruments that are binding for the municipalities in their region, because they do not want to be seen as slamming the brakes on local development. Moreover, the county level does not have any sanctioning instruments when it comes to planning. When municipalities consider that parts of a regional plan are at odds with how they want to plan for their municipality, they can simply ignore those parts. Of course, the counties or the County Governor can stop conflicting municipal plans through objections. However, not all county politicians are fond of doing this, and neither the former nor the current government encourage their County Governors to interfere with planning at municipal level (Hanssen 2018). 

Land-use planning at the municipal level is to a large extent driven by planning initiatives by private developers and landowners. This right to initiate development projects implies that the municipality has no definite control over where, when or how a project should be planned. Many municipalities in Norway are small and lack sufficient planning capacity. The smallest municipalities often have only one employee that is responsible for planning, and that same person often has other responsibilities, too.

The planning system in Norway does not sufficiently face up to conflicts between the different objectives and dimensions of sustainable development. This applies especially to the conflict between promoting economic growth on the one hand and protecting the natural environment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the other hand. While national goals often emphasise the environmental side of sustainable development, local politicians primarily emphasise the economic and social dimension of sustainable development in their decisions. Thus, the Norwegian planning system has weaknesses when it comes to addressing big challenges like climate change, decreasing biodiversity or social exclusion in a more holistic way.

Main spatial challenges, issues on the spatial planning agenda and key policy debates[8]

The main challenges, important key policy debates and issues on the spatial planning agenda can all be related to the question of how sustainable development can be realised at all levels. How can the UN Sustainable Development Goals be implemented in planning at the regional and local level, so that they force concrete action? How can they be ‘translated’ so that they are regarded as relevant not only for the big cities, but also for even the smallest communities?

Now that global climate change has finally been accepted as a major challenge in the consciousness of the vast majority of decision makers, the next major challenge becomes clear: the loss of nature and the rapid decline of biodiversity, mainly caused by construction projects and change in land use. Sustainable land use has not been an issue in Norwegian planning until very recently, as politicians at all levels and the population at large have for a long time lived under the perception that there is plenty of land and nature available. Now they witness increasing demand for land for accommodation, business development, and energy infrastructure. One big challenge in this connection, which is very particular to Norway, is the constant construction of a large number of second homes both in the coastal zone and the mountain areas, a development reflecting the growing wealth of the country’s inhabitants. At the start of 2021, a total of almost 474,000 cabins, summer houses and other dwellings were used as holiday homes in Norway, and many more are planned. Discussion of that issue has long been a political taboo, but this seems to have changed, as the environmental and climate footprint of second homes has now become a subject of public debate. In order to address these issues, planning authorities at all levels are now discussing new land management instruments like eco-accounts and area banks.


[1] An English version of the Act, for information use only, is available here: https://www.regjeringen.no/en/dokumenter/planning-building-act/id570450/

[2] The actors are named and briefly described in the table ‘Important stakeholders in spatial planning’.

[3] The MLGRD provides an English description of all the planning instruments at national, regional and local level which is the basis for this and the following sections about planning instruments: https://www.regjeringen.no/en/topics/plan-bygg-og-eiendom/plan_bygningsloven/planning/introduction-to-the-planning-system-and-the-processes/id2835784/

[4] An example of a central government land-use plan can be found in the attached fact sheet.

[5] An example of a regional plan can be found in the attached fact sheet.

[6] An example of a municipal master plan can be found in the attached fact sheet.

[7] This section is mainly based on the major evaluation of the Norwegian Planning and Building Act published in Hanssen and Aarsæther 2018a and 2018b, but also other sources such as Hanssen 2011 and Røsnes 2005.  

[8] This section is mainly based on the author’s own practical experience having worked at both the regional and the national planning level and having cooperated with the municipal level.

Planning system of Norway
Administrative structure of Norway
System of powers of Norway

An introduction to the Norwegian planning system and its processes (in English) is available on the government’s website:


An English version of the Norwegian Planning and Building Act is available on the government’s website: https://www.regjeringen.no/en/dokumenter/planning-building-act/id570450/

English version of the ‘National expectations regarding regional and municipal planning’ (current version for the period 2019–2023) is available on the government’s website: https://www.regjeringen.no/contentassets/cc2c53c65af24b8ea560c0156d885703/nasjonale-forventninger-2019-engelsk.pdf

Important stakeholders

Institution/stakeholder/authority Special interest/competences/administrative area
Avinor Wholly state-owned limited company under the Norwegian Ministry of Transport and Communications. Responsible for operating and developing the 43 state-owned airports in Norway.
Bane NOR State-owned company under the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Responsible for:
  • operating, maintaining, planning, and building the national ailroad infrastructure
  • managing railway traffic
  • administrating and developing railway property
The counties
The County Governor The state’s representative in the counties; responsible for:
  • monitoring the implementation of decisions, objectives and guidelines set out by the parliament and the government
  • supervising municipal activity
  • serving as the administrative appeals body for municipal decisions
The Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development Responsible for
  • housing policy
  • the Planning and Building Act
  • local government finances and local administration
  • ICT policy and public sector reform
  • rural and regional policy
  • the conduct of elections
  • government employment policy
  • Sámi and minority affairs
  • national mapping and geodata policy
The municipalities

List of municipalities of Norway
  • Kindergartens, primary and lower secondary schools
  • Health, welfare and care, social services
  • Local planning, housing, agricultural issues, environmental issues
  • Local roads, harbours
  • Water supply, sewerage, waste collection
  • Culture and leisure (museums, libraries, sports)
  • Business development
The Norwegian Coastal Administration National agency for coastal management under the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries. Responsible for:
  • ensuring safe, efficient traffic in fairways and into ports
  • national preparedness against acute pollution
The Norwegian Public Roads Administration Subordinate to the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Responsible for
  • planning, building, operating and maintaining national and European roads in Norway
  • supervising and inspecting road users and vehicles throughout the country
The Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate A directorate under the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy. Responsible for
  • managing Norway’s water and energy resources
  • reducing the risk of damage associated with landslides and flooding
Nye Veier State owned public company that plans, builds, operates and maintains major roads in Norway.

Fact sheets


  • Attachment 1: Topographic map of Norway with county borders

  • Attachment 2: Population density in Norway and its largest city areas

  • Attachment 3: The archipelago of Svalbard

  • Attachment 4: The arctic island of Jan Mayen

List of references