Prioritising climate change in the planning system

Climate change will need to be a high priority in the planning system if emissions targets are to be met and resilience ensured

Author: Amanda Beresford

05 May 2020

The UK government last year committed  to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. At a local level, many councils have set even tougher targets. Bristol and Leeds City Councils both have targets for net-zero carbon by 2030, where any emissions would be balanced by absorbing equivalent amounts from the atmosphere.

Nottingham City Council meanwhile has a carbon-neutral target for 2028, so that while some carbon could still be generated it would be offset elsewhere and overall net emissions would be zero; and Manchester City Council plans to be a zero-carbon city  emitting no carbon at all by 2038.

"The viability of some developments will mean hard choices have to be made"

It is unlikely that these targets can be achieved without significant changes to the planning system. Policies will need to focus on ensuring developments are as energy-efficient as possible, encouraging the installation of the infrastructure needed for a low-carbon economy and directing the location of new development to maximise walking cycling and public transport.

A more resilient future

As well as carbon reduction targets, many councils are also planning to increase resilience to climate change in their jurisdictions, dealing with measures such as flood defences. They have a legal duty under section 19(1A) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 to ensure that climate change mitigation and adaptation are core objectives, integrated across all local planning policy, and they  will probably seek to apply this more robustly than in the past. Consequently, it is also likely that they will not readily, if at all, plan or grant planning permission for anything that does not demonstrably contribute to a net-zero carbon emissions future and resilience to climate change.

The provisions of the government's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) are material considerations that a local planning authority must consider when determining planning applications. These provisions are also referred to by inspectors and the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government in determining planning appeals.

Future revisions to the NPPF are likely to include more stringent requirements on combating emissions, and the framework's current policies on climate change are likely to be more rigorously applied. But at present, the NPPF already aims to ensure:

  • a proactive approach to mitigating and adapting to climate change
  • consideration of the long-term implications of not dealing with the issues including the increase in flood risk, coastal change, water supply, biodiversity and landscapes, and the risk of overheating from rising temperatures
  • development plans that help to increase the use and supply of low-carbon and renewable energy and heat
  • appropriate measures to support the future resilience of communities and infrastructure to climate change impacts, such as providing space for physical protection measures or supporting the possible future relocation of vulnerable development and infrastructure
  • new developments avoid increased exposure to the impacts of climate change and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by being appropriately located, oriented and designed; they must also take account of land form, layout, building orientation, mass and landscaping to minimise energy consumption
  • compliance with policies to preserve and enhance the natural environment.

Recent amendments to the NPPF have included a requirement for biodiversity net gain meaning that, when building new housing or commercial development, any wildlife habitats that are affected must be enhanced and left in a measurably better state than they were beforehand. This requirement is about to become law  in the current Environment Bill.

Local development plans drawn up by councils influence land use and development in an area, including housing, commercial buildings and energy infrastructure, all of which will have an influence on a council's carbon reduction target and climate change resilience plans. Such development plans need to comply with the NPPF and are referred to when determining planning applications.

Section 70(2) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and section 38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 provide that, to the extent that development plan policies are material to an application for planning permission, the decision must be taken in accordance with the plan unless there are material considerations that indicate otherwise.

This statutory provision also applies to planning appeals. Many local development plans have already been adopted by councils in advance of setting their carbon reduction targets. Plans may therefore have to be revised, or at least redirected in the way they are applied, to increase the weight given  to policies that deal with climate change.

Planning ahead

Other requirements are also likely to be referred to in the planning decision-making process. For example, the independent Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government, has recommended that no new homes be connected to the gas grid from 2025, so future decisions on applications for planning permission, including for residential development  will have to take this into account.

Councils are therefore likely to strenghten requirements to deal with climate change when drawing plans and determining planning applications. This will include:

  • placing greater emphasis on co-locating uses, and planning developments near public transport links to reduce car travel
  • encouraging use of renewable energy, such as solar and wind
  • setting more ambitious targets on energy efficiency in buildings
  • embedding and prioritising climate change in local plan-making and determining planning applications
  • requiring travel plans with increased sustainable transport obligations, prioritising walking, cycling and public transport over car use, and electric vehicles over diesel and petrol.

These factors are also increasingly likely to be prioritised by inspectors when determining planning appeals in the future.

There will undoubtedly be challenges. The issue of which standards local planning authorities can apply to new buildings in the context of achieving climate change targets continues to be debated.

The viability of some developments may mean hard choices have to be made, for instance where a residential scheme cannot support both the cost of providing a significant percentage of affordable housing as well as installing energy efficient measures into those homes. In some cases, it may also be appropriate to reconsider green belt boundaries, for example, where a new settlement would  be the best opportunity to create a low-carbon climate-resilient community.

There will also be opportunities in the green economy. If the planning system  is to bring forward more energy-efficient construction methods and buildings, the market will need to respond with better products and methods; and if planning is to step up the installation and use of renewable low-carbon energy the market will need to step up innovation.

Dealing with climate change will need to be a high priority for the planning system if emissions targets and climate change resilience are to be achieved, and all landowners, developers and designers of building products and transport energy infrastructure as well as innovators will have to play their part.

Amanda Beresford is partner and head  of planning at Shulmans LLP

Related competencies include: Environmental management  Legal/regulatory compliance Planning  and development management 

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