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Planning for climate change: Is London STILL leading the way?
Last year Lichfields published a series of blogs examining various climate change issues. The first in this series explored London’s response to date on the climate change crisis and reviewed the recent findings of the CCC’s 2020 report to parliament. Almost one year on, climate change continues to be at the forefront of both public and government consciousness. This blog provides an update on London’s progress in achieving its Net Zero Target, in the context of a newly adopted London Plan and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, the need to tackle the climate crisis was a policy priority both in London and across the UK[1]. However, the economic and social context for climate action has changed in importance in the past year and it is recognised that pursuit of low-carbon can support economic recovery. From this, policy proposals and funding packages are now being framed as a means to create jobs, promote a “green recovery” from Covid-19 and help the UK meet its revised 5-yearly carbon budgets and achieve its net-zero emissions target. Over the past few months a number of key events have taken place including the Leaders Summit on Climate (22nd and 23rd April) and the 2021 G7 Summit (11th – 13th June) paving the way for vital UN climate talks at the COP26 summit, hosted by the UK in November 2021. Hosting these talks is a major responsibility and gives the UK more influence on the climate commitments of other countries. The power of our example is crucial and the Prime Minister has announced radical new climate change commitments that will set the UK on course to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035 and will require more electric cars, low-carbon heating and renewable electricity. The need to make progress was given emphasis by the recent publication of the IPCC Report[2]. The government is under pressure to back up this ambitious new target with investment and robust policies and to put the foundations in place for reaching Net Zero. It is doing so in the face of some domestic political challenge over the costs this might incur on poorer households and for managing public spending[3], and criticisms over the geo-political management of the issue in the run up to COP26[4]. Latest policy response In the last year, several key policy documents have emerged at the National level, including the Planning for the Future White Paper (August 2020) and the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution (November 2020). The latter sets out the Prime Minister’s ambitious plan for a ‘green industrial revolution’ and covers clean energy, transport, nature and innovative technologies, with the headline-grabbing announcement of a ban on new petrol and diesel cars from 2030. Whilst many welcomed the plan’s ambition and the Government’s recognition that tangible action is required to meet society’s Net Zero aspirations, the RTPI stressed that “only by investing in local authority planning teams would a localised framework be established to ensure investment is properly integrated into the built and natural environment”. This was recognised to some extent in the White Paper, which cited planning as having a central role in addressing climate change. However, its proposals did not require local plans to pursue carbon emission reductions in line with the Net Zero target under the Climate Change Act, nor did it address how national and local climate targets will inform the new local plans and planning decisions under the new system. In an effort to attempt to strengthen climate change considerations in local plans, the revised NPPF (2021) includes a change to the wording of the “presumption in favour of sustainable development” for plan making, and now requires plans to “mitigate climate change and adapt to its effects” (para. 11a). Whilst this might beef up the NPPF’s climate change policies, key conclusions from our previous blog were that the Net Zero Target is only achievable if it is embedded and integrated across all levels of policy and investment. There is still some way to go in ensuring that national policy is supporting and enabling local authorities to align their local development plans with national objectives. Recent policy proposals have demonstrated a centralisation of planning policy consideration on topics that affect the climate, which disempowers the ability to consider those issues at the local level. What’s going on in London? The pandemic has impacted London significantly, with the widespread (if temporary) emptying of offices prompting new commuting behaviours and changes to lifestyle. Headlines last year showed a dramatic fall in carbon emissions during lockdown – demonstrating that it is possible to reduce emissions in a short period of time. However, these reductions are largely linked with the slowing of the economy. In response to the pandemic, The GLA has produced a London Recovery Programme[5] which intends to ‘tackle the climate and ecological emergencies and improve air quality by doubling the size of London’s green economy by 2030 - accelerating job creation for all.’ Sadiq Khan has also spoken about the possibility of a Green New Deal for the city that will ‘increase access to green spaces, support active travel and zero emission fleets to eradicate air pollution, help adapt to climate change and deliver better health.’ These strategies are supported by the London Plan which was published on 2 March 2021.[6] Key headlines from the plan, relating to climate change, include the redefinition of zero carbon, requiring new buildings to meet at least 35% reduction of carbon on site with at least 10% (housing) and 15% (non-housing) from energy efficiency (paras. 9.2.5-9.2.7). This demonstrates how reducing energy requirements could be achieved through good design. The plan also introduces the regulation of embodied carbon levels in proposed buildings, requiring all major developments to be Net Zero Carbon by 2030. Its welcome policies mean all new developments must “calculate whole lifecycle carbon emissions through a nationally recognised assessment and demonstrate actions taken to reduce them” (Policy SI 2, Part F). In the context of the now adopted London Plan, the response of Boroughs (in terms of climate emergency declarations and the target dates for reaching net zero emissions) has varied (as shown below). London headline figures 29/33 (88%) London Boroughs have declared a climate emergency. 24/29 (82% of those that have declared) have set targets to become carbon neutral earlier than the UK/London Plan target. Only 2 boroughs have allowed themselves until 2050 to reach carbon neutral. The boroughs that haven’t declared a climate emergency are all outer London boroughs. Whilst most London Boroughs have now made significant commitments to net-zero carbon, it is not yet clear how the reduction targets are to be implemented. We are beginning to see London Boroughs advancing beyond these first steps of recognising the climate crisis by developing strategies to reduce emissions and create on the ground change. LB Greenwich has consulted on its Greenwich Carbon Neutral Plan (2020) which includes the principle of reducing emissions from new buildings, by committing to “strengthen the Local Plan by 2021 to deliver zero carbon development – through adopting a tiered carbon off-set price via SPD; increasing planning officer capacity to negotiate higher sustainable standards in new development; and evaluating options for a Local Plan review”. Similarly, LB Merton’s Climate Strategy and Action Plan (2020) links to the existing Strategic Objectives and Core Strategy planning policies of the Local Plan which features climate and carbon policy requirements, but also identifies the need to draft Local Plan policies in line with the London Plan: including net-zero carbon development for new buildings and reducing embodied carbon. Whilst London Boroughs do appear to be progressing their Climate Strategies/policies, there is still a long way to go and it will need a continuing commitment and development of expertise at city and borough level. The presence of the Mayor of London as a regional planning authority as part of a compact-city approach to strategic planning means that London, unlike anywhere else in the UK, has its own regional plan and the opportunity to develop robust planning policies, setting strong standards to inform and guide the policy approaches of the 33 London Boroughs. But is it the case that London is leading the way, or are local authorities elsewhere in the UK making significant progress without the backing of an additional tier of governance? Our forthcoming research on the UK-wide response of local authorities to climate change will explore place-based responses to the Climate Emergency across the UK. [1] As evidenced by the introduction of the Committee on Climate Change (‘CCC’) (2008), the UK’s commitment to the UN Paris Agreement and the legislation of a Net Zero emissions target of 2050[2] The report and its background appendices is available here:[3] The Office for Budget Responsibility estimated the total cost to the UK of reaching net zero by 2050 could reach £1.4trillion. The National Infrastructure Commission says the poorest tenth of households will pay an extra £80 a year in bills by 2050, the richest tenth an extra £400. HM Treasury is reviewing the costs of the overall programme.[4][5][6] credit: @Aquobex via Twitter  


The Future of EIA in a Zonal Planning System
The August 2020 Planning White Paper[1] raises a number of criticisms of the current planning system in England, including its complexity and planning decisions being discretionary rather than rules-based. Complexity is deemed to introduce uncertainty and delay, whilst discretionary decision making on a case-by-case basis does not allow a clear consistent approach that defines what can and cannot be done. The Government’s proposals set out in the White Paper and included in the recent Queen’s Speech[2] seek to peel back the layers of legislation and case law and ‘re-discover’ the Victorian mission and purpose of planning to improve homes and streets. A ‘zonal’ approach is proposed, which defines Growth Areas suitable for substantial development, Renewal Areas suitable for some development and Protected Areas where development is restricted. Alongside this zonal approach the Government, in the White Paper and the Queen’s Speech, is also committed to protecting the natural environment through the introduction of an Environment Bill. This will put the environment at the centre of policy making and will introduce a framework for legally-binding environmental targets. Biodiversity Net Gain will become mandatory and Air Quality, Water/Flood Risk and Waste are also at the forefront of the Bill, with targets being set through a new independent Office for Environmental Protection. EIA can (and should continue to) play a central role in achieving these environmental aims. However, as discussed below, the Government may have other ideas… In the new zonal planning system Local Plans would set clear rules such as land use, height and density parameters alongside map-based designations. Where a scheme aligns with the defined parameters it would automatically be granted outline planning permission. If it does not align then a specific planning application would be required. The rationale for a zonal approach is that it would provide more certainty over the type, scale and design of development permitted on different land categories and would ‘significantly’ decrease the time it takes for developments to go through the planning system. The White Paper refers to similar established systems in Japan, the Netherlands and Germany; however, many countries across the World have a zonal-based planning system including New Zealand, France, Switzerland, the USA and South Korea. As discussed in this Lichfields Blog[3] there are differences between the approaches, for example Denmark has a ‘top-down’ planning system with a strictly enforced land zoning system, whilst in the USA policies are set at the city, township or county level with varying degrees of flexibility. Whilst these zonal systems may provide certainty within set development parameters EIA is still required as part of the decision making process. Taking Denmark and the USA as examples: In Denmark projects that are likely to have significant effects on the environment must not be started before an EIA has been made. If EIA is required (following a screening process) an EIA must be made in accordance with the scoping opinion and a public hearing and hearing of competent authority (most often the Municipal Council) decides whether the development consent can be granted. In the USA the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to prepare a publicly available detailed statement with every proposal for legislation or major Federal action that significantly affects the human environment. The NEPA process must be completed before an agency makes a final decision to allow an informed decision to be made. A number of states have also implemented more restrictive regulations that introduce a requirement for all public and private planning applications to be screened against more detailed thresholds (where available). So, what would a zonal approach to development management mean for EIA in the UK? Firstly, it should be noted that the proposals apply to England only, with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland excluded from the majority of planning provisions set out in the Queen’s Speech. It is therefore ‘situation normal’ for these countries, unless they decide to follow England’s lead. The current framework of SEA, SA and EIA is criticised as leading to duplication of effort and overly-long reports inhibiting transparency and adding unnecessary delays. As we are no longer part of the EU it is within the UK’s gift to deviate from the current European-based legislation and accordingly the White Paper proposes to design a quicker, simpler framework for assessing environmental impacts and enhancement opportunities. Ultimately it is not yet known how EIA will be applied in a zonal development management process in England as no guidance (draft or otherwise) has been published, however environmental assessment in some form will still be required for projects that could give rise to significant environmental effects. Indeed, noting the repeated references in the White Paper and the Queen’s Speech to environmental protection and the introduction of legally binding environmental targets, EIA can and should continue to play a central role in achieving this end for those projects that qualify.   It may be the case that the impacts of the zoning parameters are tested at the Plan Making stage rather than at the application stage, given that permission in principle would be granted to development that accords with the Local Plan. However, the White Paper proposes to abolish the Sustainability Appraisal system and instead replace it with a consolidated test of ‘sustainable development’. This would include consideration of environmental impact though it is questionable whether sufficient information would be available at the plan-making stage to allow a robust assessment of likely impacts. The White Paper does state the importance of strengthening protections to species, habitats and ecosystems of national importance and new national targets will be established for air, water and waste. This emphasis is reflective of the forthcoming Environment Bill however no reference is made to wider environmental aspects including human health, soil, climate, landscape, heritage and archaeology amongst others. Ecology/biodiversity, air and water are of course important, but any future environmental assessment would need to comprise a full assessment of environmental impacts on all relevant sensitive receptors in order to have any robustness. It is noted that the proposed development management changes will apply to all forms of development, however a main driver for the changes is to deliver more housing. It may therefore be that in order to promote house building the zonal development parameters relate only to a narrow range of uses (i.e. housing) in specified locations, with any development deviating from this requiring a specific planning permission. This would essentially create a planning system of two halves, with a zonal permission in principle approach to housing development sitting alongside a ‘standard’ development management system for all other uses where planning applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis. This would, however, undermine the ethos of a zonal planning system and would add rather than reduce complexity. Alternatively, whilst permission in principle would be granted for certain developments within established parameters, the approval of technical details would still be required and therefore it could be possible for EIA to be undertaken, if required, at that ‘technical details’ stage. Indeed, this is the approach taken in the existing Permission in Principle planning application route that was introduced in England in 2018, albeit it does not apply to larger developments (that are inherently more likely to require EIA). We would also suggest that applying EIA at what is effectively the reserved matters stage is too late in the process, as it is usually the principle of development including the scale and nature of land uses in certain locations that gives rise to significant environmental effects, rather than detailed design. It is therefore a ‘watch this space’ situation as to how EIA will be embedded into the new planning system in England. As mentioned above, experience in countries with an existing zonal planning system requires EIA to be undertaken before any consent for development is granted and it is expected that a similar approach will be integrated into the development management process in England. This time of uncertainty and change does provide opportunities to improve environmental assessment. Presenters and delegates at the recent Scotland EIA Conference[4] discussed how EIAs are being ‘scoped up’ in order to minimise risk of challenge. A new approach to environmental assessment would provide an opportunity to revitalise the EIA scoping process to focus on proportionality and to maximise the value of the assessment process to all. It must, however, be undertaken at the right time in the development process to ensure that the environmental agenda is not diluted or undermined. [1] Planning For the Future, White Paper, Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government August 2020.[2] The Queen’s Speech 2021, Prime Minister’s Office, 11 May 2021.[3] ‘Should zoning be introduced in England?’ Lichfields Planning Matters, 14 May 2018.[4] Scotland’s EIA Conference 2021, 10-13 May 2021.