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Planning matters

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This blog takes a closer look at the potential implications of emerging policies for embodied carbon in planning. It follows on from Lichfields recent insight on the role of the planning system in targeting net zero. This showed that 35% of emerging plans issued in 2021 have policies which now reference a need for applicants to identify how they are addressing embodied carbon in bringing forward development. A further 24% have reference in supporting text to a more general ‘climate change’ policy. Figure 1: % of Draft (Reg 19) Plans published between January and October 2021 identifying named ‘standards’ to address Climate Change in draft policies or in the supporting text of draft policies In November the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) held its third evidence session exploring the sustainability of the built environment and embodied carbon[1]. The Committee heard from industry experts over two panels. The first discussed the sustainability of different building materials on offer, including concrete and steel to timber. The second panel explored how the planning system and building regulations can facilitate a sustainable built environment. Previous evidence sessions have focused on embodied carbon and the retrofitting and reuse of buildings. In October[2], the EAC heard disappointment from panellists that the Government had not gone further with its heat and building strategy[3]; the Government’s Response to the Committee on Climate Change Annual Report[4] and the Government’s Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener[5] in terms of regulating and calculating embodied carbon. The increased emphasis of thinking about whole life carbon as part of development was recently the subject of a Parliamentary briefing note[6]. It details that many stakeholders, including the Climate Change Committee, now consider it imperative that an increased focus is given to the whole life carbon emissions of buildings, including embodied carbon emissions in order to address aspirations for Net Zero. The importance of the emissions from buildings was recognised at COP26, with a day dedicated to ‘Cities, Regions and Built Environment’.     National Planning Policy: Towards Net Zero? In terms of the Planning White Paper and outline of Planning Bill the EAC committee heard criticisms that Government appeared to be failing to adequately reflect the role planning has in delivering Net Zero. There were also calls for the NPPF to make Net Zero a fundamental common thread throughout it and to recognise the wider role planning has alongside changes to building standards. If we are to meet the UK’s target of Net Zero emissions by 2050 it is evident that there is a need to look at the environmental impact of buildings in Britain and focus specifically on strategies to reduce whole-life emissions of buildings. However, there are currently no statutory requirements to measure or to reduce the embodied carbon emissions of buildings in the UK. So what role can and should the planning system play in this? How is embodied carbon measured? How should the planning system make decisions weighing up issues the issues of embodied carbon against other development plan priorities? And how might the role of materials be used in development change? Policies for Whole Life Carbon Assessments A whole life approach to carbon emissions reduction includes tackling embodied carbon emissions alongside operational carbon. This approach has implications for:   building design and materials selection; designing with less material to improve resource efficiency and reduce waste; and selecting materials with a lower carbon impact. With the life cycle approach each material should be chosen only when it has the best performance compared to other materials and has the lowest whole life carbon impact. Materials with a higher embodied carbon could be considered only if a reduction of the operational carbon over a building’s lifetime can be achieved. Circular economy based strategies, such as reusing materials and designing buildings to be adaptable or able to be deconstructed, can also contribute towards whole life carbon emissions reductions. The key difference between a linear v’s circular economy approach, is the shift away from waste (completely) with the drive towards repurposing and reuse. For developments, this means ‘new build’ needs to look not only as construction techniques, materials and flexibility of use over lifetime, it also anticipates enhanced management of asset to maintain materials for longer. For the development industry, it also means prioritising retrofit or refurbishment of existing buildings over new builds. Considerations of a life cycle assessment is shown on Figures 2 and principles of a circular economy in Figure 3. Figure 2: Considerations for measuring whole life cycle impacts Source: LETI Embodied Carbon Primer illustrating considerations for measuring whole life cycle impacts Figure 3: Circular v’s Linear Source: LETI Embodied Carbon Primer showing the principles of a circular economy Lessons from the London Plan Previous Lichfields blogs have explored London’s response to date on the climate change crisis and reviewed findings of the Climate Change Committee’s 2020 report to parliament. More recently, following the adoption of the London Plan in 2021, we reported on its policies requiring all new developments to now ‘calculate whole lifecycle carbon emissions through a nationally recognised assessment and demonstrate actions taken to reduce them’ (Policy SI 2, Part F). The London Plan has done on whole life carbon, it is one of the most important things that has happened in this country on this topic. It is a complete exemplar of what we need to be doing around the country.Will Arnold, Head of Climate Action, Institution of Structural Engineers, giving evidence at EAC Committee November 2021 The London Plan approach was described by panelists as a an ‘exemplar’ of what we need to be doing around the rest of the country. By requiring teams to assess whole life carbon at concept / early stages in the project, it allows key decisions on carbon embodiment to be incorporated in the DNA of the development. The GLA approach also requires whole life carbon to be looked at pre-app stage, at planning stage and post construction. The information is reviewed and it is compared with the benchmarks[7]. There is an opportunity for carbon offsetting in exceptional circumstances.  Materials to consider The November EAC Committee also heard evidence on how the Government can encourage sustainability of buildings that are being designed and constructed now and in particular the materials that are being used. With regards to materials the consensus from the panel is was there is: “no evil or sainted material”. That is there is no single solution that suits all low embodied carbon buildings. What the evidence session demonstrated was the myriad of considerations that designers need to take account of when selecting materials. For example: strength and durability; safety and insurance considerations (i.e. with timber); availability of materials within UK; and potential to dismantle and reuse (particularly steel vs concrete structures). The panellists were asked if there are enough tools available to understand the carbon impact of materials that are being commissioned, used or deployed? It was acknowledged that the tools and the data is already there. What is needed is more transparent data, for example a with a centralised national database of measurements. Ideally the database should stretch across the lifecycle of a product or a material so that they provide the whole picture when specifying materials. The Government also setting a maximum embodied carbon per square metre, per building type, was considered as a response by Government that would be incredibly helpful.    Lichfields Commentary: Implication for planning Understanding a development’s whole life carbon impact, including embodied carbon, is increasing in importance. Will the Government follow the lead of the London Plan and require all major developments to include whole life cycle carbon assessments? Will the Government take bolder steps with revisions to the NPPF be revised to better address climate change and net zero? Could we see a national targets set on embodied carbon? Or will it be left to local plans? Planning has a front and central role to play in this. Importantly, at the same time planning also has an economic, social and environmental position that needs to be carefully navigated. For developers, the financial case for sustainable buildings is now better established. The NLA reported research undertaken just before the pandemic showed that demand for sustainable office spaces was increasing and sustainable buildings in central London have a rental premium between six and eleven per cent[8]. So certainly there is more of an inclination in the industry to embrace sustainability. At the same time socially, it is understood that there is a correlation with net zero aspirations and creating spaces which support well-being and health (e.g. in terms of air quality, ventilation, the use of natural materials, and access to nature). Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance agendas are also now being taken increasingly seriously among developers, landlords and occupiers, as these three factors become mainstream in measuring the sustainability and social impact of investments[9]. Decision makers (planning officers and members) want to encourage the most sustainable buildings and make decisions in an informed way, which helps them address climate challenge and work towards net zero targets. There is a need for upskilling to support understanding of developments’ climate change impacts. At the same time this should recognise that decisions prioritising embodied carbon in emerging designs have knock on implications for developments. For example, a challenge of existing buildings is that they already have significant levels of embedded carbon. For planners, there may need to be a careful balance struck when retrofitting between retaining and reusing parts of the building, e.g. the steel or concrete structure, whilst not compromising future function like optimal floor layouts and generous ceiling heights. In some cases this may also mean other development plan policies need to also be ‘balanced’ if compliance with car parking, servicing or amenity policies cannot be achieved. The EAC discussions also asked if there was a greater role for permitted development rights to make better use of existing building stock, with 600,000 vacant buildings in the UK. The feedback from panel was apprehensive due to concerns with inconsistency of quality of spaces created ( case of single aspect buildings or with lack of natural light). How do you encourage buildings back into use and still create quality spaces? Ultimately is it better to have a well performing whole carbon assessment but which compromises on other policy requirements? How should these be balanced with other planning considerations? If you retain and reuse a building or structure there are constraints, which require compromise… … or should the balance now be tipped in favour of addressing climate change? [1][2] Embodied carbon and retrofitting policy under the microscope by MPs - Committees - UK Parliament[3]Heat and Buildings Strategy [4]Government Response to the Climate Change Committee [5]Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener [6] UK Parliament Post, Reducing the Whole Life Carbon Impacts of the Building, November 2021 [7] Rhian Williams from the GLA London Plan team speaking at the EAC also confirmed the intention of the Mayor to publish the final version of the Whole Life-Cycle Carbon Assessments guidance in the New Year. [8] JLL, The Impact of Sustainability on Value (2020), p. 5. Cited in NLA, WRK/LDN: Office Revolution? (2021) [9] NLA, WRK/LDN: Office Revolution? (2021)  


Class E: Getting to grips with new UCO flexibilities
Following changes that came into force on 1 September, this blog reflects on our experience working with Class E six weeks on. As reported in our blog at the time of the Government’s announcements, these changes represent the most fundamental change in town centre planning for over 30 years. Combining Use Class A1, A2, A3, B1 and parts of D2 into a new Class E. Creating a new F.1 and F.2 encompassing education and community type uses and making more uses Sui Generis (including pubs) introduces both new flexibilities and restrictions. So far, the new flexibilities seem to have been broadly welcomed, but there are already some unforeseen consequences emerging to be mindful of. The need for an overhaul Those working in town centre development had recognised for a long time that the Use Class Order (1987, as amended) was outdated, inflexible and needed to change. The planning system simply could not keep pace with changing trends and operators. Operators have struggled to fit neatly into use classes. The Use Classes Order did not account for blurred boundaries with a range and mix of uses within units. Coffee and bakery shops, had the potential to be A1, A3 or A5, depending on factors like the amount of seating, the proportion of takeaway sales and whether food is cooked or reheated on the premises. This lead operators to apply for a combination of A1, A3 and/or A5 use.   Image credit: @1ookmumnohands The rigid approach to categorisation also failed to keep up with the diverse mix of uses emerging within single units. For example, cycle shops blending workshop, bar, café and events space; or yoga classes and cookery classes taking place within a retail store. Whilst the high street was trying to respond to shifting consumer demands, the creaking system was deterring experiential and enrichening uses aimed at drawing customers in to centres and creating vibrancy throughout the day and into the evening. A more fluid and simplified approach to the categorisation of town centre uses was clearly needed. Unprecedented deregulation Previous consultation by Government in 2018 discussed merging A1-A3 uses to support the high street. However, few foresaw that these changes would be introduced so quickly, and especially not taking an even bolder encompassing of B1 and parts of D2. The Government seems to have been spurred on by coronavirus which has brought matters to a head earlier than anticipated.               This is particularly important at the present time as town centres seek to recover from the economic impact of Coronavirus. Modern high streets and town centres have changed so that they now seek to provide a wider range of facilities and services, including new emerging uses, that will attract people and make these areas viable now and in the future. Explanatory Memorandum to The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020 No. 757 1         There was already the option to change between some town centre uses on a temporary basis, introduced in May 2019, subject to conditions and limitations and in some cases prior approval, but the changes introduced really did go well beyond what we have seen before. The radical nature of the changes possibly accounts for why so many are watching with interest for the outcome of the court challenge by Rights : Community : Action (RCA). The grounds of challenge included failure to properly consult before making the rules. Could the changes be quashed this month?  A change for the better? Local authorities and developers alike are still getting to grips with the new flexibilities. Here are some of the examples we’ve experienced to date: Is my business in Class E? Article 7 of the 2020 Order, in terms of transitional arrangements, confirms that if premises were in use Class A1, A2, A3 or B1 of the time of the previous Order on 31 August 2020, the building or land is to be treated, after the 1 September 2020, as being used for the purpose specified in Class E as on 31st August 2020. Updated Article 3 1(a) of the Use Class Order (as amended) importantly now states with regards to Class E (and F.1 and F.2) that the use of that building or that other land, or if specified, the use of part of that building or the other land ("part use"), for any other purpose of the same class is not to be taken to involve development of the land. The changes however do not override planning conditions and legal agreements – so these still need to be checked and taken into account in terms of restrictions on use. This may mean premises do not benefit from Class E and its flexibilities. In addition, for recently completed builds, if the unit has not yet been brought into use as permitted it would again not benefit from the flexibilities. Presumably the Government’s intention was to focus on bringing life back to older units in high streets - however this seems a notable flaw. There also remains a degree of debate about whether a use falls within Class E. For example, is a gastropub (arguably A3/A4) to be considered within Class E? The new Order specifies that “drinking establishments with expended food provision” are Sui Generis. A gastropub could arguably be considered as A3 if it is more dining oriented rather than drinking. But where does one draw the line? This distinction may be important for owners seeking to secure flexibility within Class E but others may require certainty for valuation or rating purposes. Certificates of lawful use may be increasingly be used to provide clarity and assurance in this regard.     How does one assess proposals for Class E? Assessing an application for Class E, which would previously have been a single more tightly defined use is now potentially mixed use. Assessing the impacts of some development (economic and transport) will be more problematic. Local authorities are likely to consider the worst-case parameters or consider imposing restrictive conditions. Whilst Class E provides flexibility, applicants need to be mindful of the potential implications of this approach and may choose to self-impose limitations at the application stage in order to avoid extensive mitigation. Should the planning application apply for Class E or a sub-category or activity? In order to avoid assessing a range of impact scenarios, applicants may choose to apply for sub-categories or activities within Class E, in the same way applications refer to food stores or bulky goods retail warehouses within the old Class A1. This could be done without directly referring to the sub-category, albeit it would be referred to in a condition controlling the operation of the Use Classes Order. This approach could minimise the amount of supporting evidence and assist the planning authority’s consideration of the planning application. How will the UCO changes affect the evidence base and plan making more generally? Traditionally evidence bases studies such as employment land and town centre/retail studies have focused on floorspace capacity projections adopting the old use classes. The creation of Class E and other changes has blurred the lines and there are significant overlaps. This is likely to lead to confusion and planning authorities will need to revisit their evidence base. Nevertheless, the need for sub-categories of use within Class E will be required. A global floorspace projection for Class E is unlikely to be appropriate or provide sufficient detail for plan making purposes. We are already seeing local authorities at early stages of plan making consider how they might control Class E flexibilities in their Primary Shopping Areas. For those already at advanced stages of plan making, changes to reflect the updated use class have had to be taken on board. For example, Brent in its Proposed Modifications to its Local Plan now refers to uses i.e. comparison retail, restaurant, takeaway rather than use classes. How can planning conditions be used to control development? To address the issues outlined above, we envisage planning authorities and applicants will make greater use of planning conditions to control the type of development that is implemented. This approach is not new, for many years Class A1 retail has been restrict via conditions in relation to the type of goods that can be sold. In the same way conditions restricting potentially harmful activities within Class E are likely to be applied.    How has PINS responded? In Richmondshire (appeal ref:  APP/ V2723/W/20/3247987) a change of use for a florist to a café considered in conflict with the development plan (due to loss of retail) the Inspector afforded “considerable weight” to the Use Classes Order and deemed to be “a significant fallback position”. Although it is still early days, this decision may be indicative of the direction of travel. Lichfields will be continuing to monitor the changes carefully and will provide further commentary as more experience is gained. If you would like to discuss any aspects of the recent changes of the Use Classes Order, please do get in contact.