Time to panic? Planning and the climate emergency

Climate Change is now recognised as one of the most – if not the most – significant challenges to be facing the global population. In this country, the planning system has been identified as having a major role in tackling this emergency and assisting in our national contribution to address issues affecting the wider planet. With COP26 now having drawn to a close, it is time to reflect on where we are and whether more can or needs to be done to meet the challenge of Net Zero Carbon by 2050.
 
 
The UK planning system is well-placed to connect the Government’s headline targets with action. Development Management can make a major contribution to both mitigating and adapting to climate change by: (1) taking a longer-term view of the development of an area; (2) co-ordinating land use decisions for a wider than local area; and (3) ensuring new development contributes in an integrated way to climate change mitigation. Planning policy can therefore play a pivotal role in addressing both aspects of the climate emergency; first the impact of climate change on our day to day lives (resilience); and second in seeking to reverse the damage that has already occurred by reducing carbon emissions, directing a pathway to Net Zero Carbon[1] (‘NZC’) whilst working to protect and enhance those environmental aspects best placed to assist in this objective (e.g. biodiversity). 
 
Yet in many ways, planning’s role in addressing the emergency represents a dichotomy – how can careful and collaborative (and therefore - dare we say - ‘time consuming’) planning truly work to address issues and impacts which are affecting us now? In a traditional plan-led system, a structure of clear policy and guidance is critical to decision makers and development promoters to ensure that objectives are clear and progress can be measured. Without this, the choices that are made have the potential to be uneven, confused and, in the policy vacuum, instead focus on those matters for which guidance does exist.
 
The issue is of particular focus at the current time given the deafening clamour for the planning system to address a wide range of other issues. The National Planning Policy Framework (‘NPPF’)(July 2021) states that planning also has a vital role in delivering a sufficient supply of homes; of building a strong, competitive economy; ensuring the vitality of town centres; promoting healthy and safe communities; promoting sustainable transport; and supporting high quality communications. Despite the obvious effects of a changing climate on day to day lives, it is difficult to suggest that any one of these other issues should be subservient to the climate challenge. 
 
For a number of years, our ability to address and balance all of these objectives has been firmly embedded under the banner of ‘sustainable development’ or in meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This effectively means that NZC is just one of the many matters to be carefully considered and balanced and where other economic or social matters are more significant in a decision about addressing current needs then this is the overriding material consideration. 
 
This principle in favour of sustainable development remains at the heart of the UK planning system; albeit the July 2021 update of the NPPF included an explicit update to reference a commitment to pursuing the UN’s 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development up to 2030. No. 13 of those Goals aims to ‘take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts by regulating emissions and promoting developments in renewable energy’. The question now is how planning can and is responding to this mission.
 
  

Local Response to the Global Challenge

 

 
Figure: Target dates for reaching NZC Emissions
 
The majority of England’s Local Authorities have since declared an emergency[2]; and of those which have made a declaration, 94% have also set out an explicit target year to achieve NZC. 14 Local Authorities have not formally declared a Climate Emergency[3] but have set a NZC target of between 2030 and 2050. Of those setting a target year, 57.5% have declared an intent to target NZC by at least 2030; considerably more ambitious than the 2050 target year set by the UK Government. Six authorities (which all declared a climate emergency in the summer of 2019) have gone further with an aim to achieve NZC by 2025.
 
Declaring a climate emergency and setting a net zero target is only the first step and local authorities have very different approaches to implementation of these reduction targets. Some authorities are focusing on how the Council itself can achieve carbon neutrality in its day to day operations; whilst others have begun to roll the declaration out into their wider services – including planning. 
 
Table one : Local Plan Policy for LPAs with NZC Target of 2030 or Earlier
 
The local planning response to an ambition of meeting NZC by 2030 is undoubtedly affected by the current status of the adopted Plan in an area and the associated timetable or resources to undertake an urgent review. Lichfields' research has shown that 59.5% of authorities with a declared NZC target of 2030 or earlier have an adopted Plan of less than 5 years old. Of those authorities only 2.7% have a specific planning policy target to achieve NZC but a far higher incidence (68%) with an adopted Policy focused more generally on addressing Climate Change or achieving low carbon objectives[4]. 6.7% of those authorities with a 2030 NZC Target Policy have no current adopted or emerging Policy seeking to meet the challenge. 
 
Some of those authorities with an adopted Plan less than five years old have responded to the Climate Emergency by moving immediately to an urgent review of their Plan. For example, Eden District Council, Lancaster City Council, City of Lincoln Council, North Kesteven District Council and West Lindsey District Council have all issued for consultation revised draft Plans during 2021 with a stated objective of seeking to address the climate challenge.
 
Lichfields has reviewed the 17 Pre-Submission[5] Draft Local Plans issued in England during 2021 (the year of COP26) which will replace current adopted Plans dating from between 2008 and 2017. All but three of these authorities have set a target year for NZC of between 2025 or 2050. A review of the overall vision set for the 17 Draft Plans highlights that 6 include a reference to targeting NZC/carbon neutrality over the lifetime of their Plan; 4 further visions include reference to instead target the arguably less challenging low carbon. Every Draft Plan reviewed includes reference within its overall vision intended to demonstrate its commitment to tackling Climate Change and/or addressing its impacts on communities (e.g. improving the resilience of communities to address issues such as flooding or coastal change). 
 
The Vision commitments have translated into the draft policy framework in the majority of the Local Plans reviewed. Over 70% of the draft Plans includes specific policies focused on addressing Climate Change/the Climate Emergency and of encouraging Zero/Low Carbon energy infrastructure. Over 80% of the draft Plans include a clear commitment to:-
 
  • the enhancement of biodiversity;
     
  • the provision of electric vehicle charging points;
     
  • ensuring an appropriate response to the challenges of an increased risk of flooding; and
     
  • a commitment to climate change resilient design.
 
The challenge in drafting policy of this nature is embedding flexibility that accommodates the likely emergence of new technology to address climate change; and future and ongoing changes in international/national law and policy. Policy wording which encourages applicants to demonstrate that they have ‘addressed climate change’ as part of development proposals allows this level of flexibility. However it does not provide absolute clarity on how individual schemes can ensure that they have met requirements; and may not therefore go as far as is needed to effect real change towards the NZC agenda.
 
All but two of the draft Plans examined have sought to address the challenge by identifying defined standards or targets for applicants to meet either as part of draft policies or within the supporting text of draft policies. Here, the more established targets such as those created by the Building Research Establishment (BREEAM[6] / Home Quality Mark[7] (‘HQM’)) are identified most frequently with standards being set to achieve at least BREEAM Very Good or Excellent (for non-residential development) and HQM three or four stars (for residential development) for schemes of varying scales. 
 
With the draft Plans studied having being published ahead of the much anticipated Royal Assent of the Environment Bill in late 2021 – with its included obligation for developments to achieve ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’[8] (‘BNG’) – Lichfields note two thirds of the draft Plans studied include policies mandating that developments achieve at least 10% Net Gain. This tracks with Lichfields' experience in recent months with a requirement to achieve BNG as part of developments becoming an increasingly typical request being made to applicants across England.
 
A number of the draft Plans also place reliance on compliance with Building Regulations; noting in particular that this would relate to any future changes to those standards. At least two of the draft Plans have referenced the Government’s emerging ‘Future Building Standard’/’Future Homes Standard[9] which would bring forward future changes to Building Regulations over the next few years to improve energy efficiency for buildings.
 
Several of the draft Plans have also sought to bring forward draft policy or have referenced the emergence of other measures which can assist in addressing climate change. Examples include draft policies referencing a need for applicants to identify how they are addressing embodied carbon[10] in bringing forward development; and also policies establishing a mechanism to achieve carbon off-setting[11] for those developments unable to meet other standards. A few of the draft Plans have also identified ‘Passivhaus[12] as another standard which developers may wish to meet as part of developments in their areas.
 
Figure two: % of Draft 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
 
Lichfields research has shown a notable shift towards the incorporation of the NZC agenda into emerging local planning policy in relation to the small sample examined. The draft Plans have sought to tread a careful path between establishing a clear policy framework whilst also allowing flexibility to reflect changing (and potentially rapidly changing) circumstances over the coming years (including any new law or policy emerging post COP26). However:-
 
  • Time Lag to Adoption: whilst the policies in these draft Plans will be an important material consideration in decision making over the coming months, none is anticipated to be formally adopted until late 2022/early 2023. And Lichfields research covers only those draft Plans at Regulation 19 stage during 2021 – there is still a significant proportion of the country yet to tackle the NZC agenda through their respective Plans. Without adopted policy in place in many local authority areas, how can developers seek clarity on how best to address the global climate challenge within each planning application - and indeed what priority will NZC be given when developers are faced with an equally pressing need to address other economic, social or environmental priorities in bringing forward development proposals?;
     
  • Further Clarity on Targets required: the wording of many of the draft policies examined places significant onus on applicants to measure their contribution to ‘addressing climate change’ without providing clarity on targets or measurements. Again, how will developers balance the contribution that they are making to address the NZC challenge on sites when faced with a need to address a multitude of other issues? How much contribution will be seen to be ‘enough’ to meet policy objectives and will this approach meet the desirable Net Zero targets set by these authorities in declaring their individual climate emergencies? Lichfields' note that many of the draft Plans reviewed include carbon emission monitoring targets during the lifetime of each Plan and it will be interesting to review how the policies are effecting change and helping to reduce emissions; and
     
  • Limits to what planning can do: draft policies are only able to address the NZC agenda where planning is relevant (i.e. where planning permission may be required). Permitted development and other activities such as retrofitting new technologies to the existing building stock will require other mechanisms (e.g. Building Regulations) to come into play to achieve what is envisaged.
 
In short, there are some good emerging examples of how planning can seek to address the ambitious targets being set by local authorities. However there is some way to go until this is fully embedded into planning policy and decision making across the country. There is also a considerable reliance on developers to identify how they will balance priorities as part of individual developments; and how high on the priority list developers will place the achievement of NZC as schemes are brought forward. What is clear is that there is a still a mountain to climb in aligning careful planning with the need to achieve targets ‘urgently’ in the face of a global catastrophe.
 
 

Setting the Parameters for Planning’s Response to the NZC Agenda?

In the weeks leading up to Cop26 much was said across many fields to guide the negotiations and discussions taking place during the Conference itself. Two publications in particular have caught Lichfields' attention in seeking to further clarify planning’s role in addressing the challenges ahead:-
 
The Climate Crisis: A Guide for Local Authorities on Planning for Climate Change (TCPA/RTPI, October 2021)
The main bodies representing the planning profession in the UK have issued a third update to a guide aiming to assist local authorities in planning for the growing impacts of climate change. The update presents a greater urgency in tone to previous versions with an overall message that tackling climate change needs to be at the heart of the vision for the future of communities and that planning has a vital role in securing that vision. The document also notes that “many of the actions necessary to tackle the climate crisis are also key in creating healthy, ecologically rich, prosperous and beautiful places for us and for future generations”.
 
Figure three: Planning for the Climate Crisis – Six Basic Steps (TCPA/RTPI, October 2021)

 
Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener (UK Government, October 2021) 
The Government’s long awaited Net Zero Strategy aims to tackle climate change whilst also effecting economic growth across the UK. The role of planning in meeting the Government’s objectives has included the following objectives:-
 
  • Updates to planning policy and exploring ways of streamlining the process “ensure the planning system can support the deployment of low carbon energy infrastructure while also representing the interests of the environment and of the communities which host this infrastructure”;
     
  • Embedding transport decarbonisation principles into planning policy (e.g. encouraging electric car use through an increase of charging points, reducing the need to travel);
     
  • Ensuring design codes for development include measures to respond to the impacts of climate change, are energy efficient, embed circular economy principles and reduce carbon emissions;
     
  • Balancing the implementation of measures designed to reduce emissions with a need to achieve other environmental objectives (e.g. biodiversity). The strategy provides an example of ensuring that proposals for tree planting, if done well, can also benefit flood management, improve soil health and biodiversity whilst also assisting in carbon absorption;
      
  • Reforming the planning system to support efforts to combat climate change; for example a further update to the NPPF to “make sure it contributes to climate change mitigation and adaptation as fully as possible”; and
     
  • Careful planning of land-uses to ensure positive decisions are made that assist in delivering NZC and manages trade-offs between different objectives e.g. between flood protection and recreation.
 
We also recognise the importance of the planning system to common challenges like combating climate change and supporting sustainable growth.

Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener (UK Government, October 2021)

There is a commonality between both publications in general themes which are familiar to anyone involved in the planning system – ensuring an appropriate evidence base; the primacy of the adopted development plan; the importance of good design; and the need to ‘streamline’ the planning process. Given the outcomes of Lichfields’ review of emerging Plans, it is clear that these priorities are aligned with how planning needs to respond to the NZC agenda. However the challenge now is one of speed and embedding the priorities across planning as rapidly as possible.
 
 

Looking forward

The necessary multi-faceted response to the challenges of climate change and achieving NZC by 2050 requires immediate action by everyone at an international, national and local scale. The urgency of the challenge – as expressed by many parties at Cop26 – is becoming clear as the impact of environmental damage on our day to day lives escalates through increasingly extreme weather events.
 
In this country, the planning system has an important role as part of this challenge in embedding NZC principles into the development industry. Much has already been identified and (to a certain extent) achieved in establishing a broad framework within which planning can effect change as we move towards 2050; and the ambitions being expressed are often bold. Research by Lichfields has identified a significant number of local authorities across the country seeking to achieve NZC results more rapidly than that identified at a national level with ambitions of achieving NZC in 2025, 2030 or 2040. 
 
Yet the translation of these aspirations into adopted development plan policy is inevitably taking longer to achieve. It would be easy to suggest that this is yet another example of ‘too much talk and not enough action’ cited by climate protesters; but we would argue that this fails to recognise that careful planning takes time and adapting this to immediacy of the problems affecting all of us today appears to have no easy solution. 
 
It is also unfair to suggest that the planning system is not taking action. Lichfields’ review of emerging plans for a sample of authorities across the country has shown some good examples of draft policies that have the potential to create a step change in embedding NZC principles into new development; particularly where these policies provide clear targets to be achieved. 
 
So whilst it is not time to panic, it is clear that planning needs to stand up and be counted in the climate change arena.
  
This must start with a radical change to the NPPF so that dealing with climate change becomes the central purpose of planning; rather than just being something that will be supported or should be taken into account. With the Government (in England) taking stock of ‘what next’ for planning reform, there is the ideal opportunity to put some of the fanfare of COP26 into a genuine plan of action for the future of land use planning. It has always been the case that development plans are ‘playing catch up’; but an adopted NPPF focused on the NZC agenda would form a very important material consideration and its impact could be felt quickly.
 
There also needs to be a real focus in the rapid deployment of low and zero carbon energy with a planning system set up to respond. Given the contribution of energy infrastructure to the carbon budget, it is clear that the vast majority of the heavy lifting of moving the UK to a NZC future will be done through the de-carbonisation of the grid. Planning’s role in facilitating the delivery of such infrastructure could prove to be its most significant contribution. 
 
Thirdly, it is important that the need to invest in a NZC future is partnered by a properly resourced planning system that is fully supported by Government to achieve its full potential.
 
The need to address climate change is a matter that those who develop and invest in property are now really starting to get to grips with. This is reflected in the embracing of science-based targets and the relegation of off-setting to something only to be used as a last resort. The rising costs of energy, the changing views of customers and the increased importance of the corporate social responsibility agenda is forcing the pace of change. The current focus of most businesses is to accelerate the move to NZC in their own operations, but as this gathers pace peer pressure will force change down the supply chain. Lichfields' own strategy to achieve NZC by 2030, underpinned by science-based targets, is now well advanced as we want to ‘walk-the-climate change-talk’.
 
The Government’s Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener is a positive statement of intent as far as planning is concerned. However the Government needs to translate this intent into the NPPF quickly and, if this is bold in its intent, then Lichfields consider that the property industry will be ready to respond. It has to be – our futures all depend on it.
 
 
Footnotes:

[1] Net Zero Carbon – the UK’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would be equal to or less than the emissions the UK removed from the environment. The Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019 amended the Climate Change Act 2008 by introducing a target for at least a 100% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (compared to 1990 levels) in the UK by 2050.[2] Based on Lichfields research of available online records[3] Climate Emergency – whilst there is no set definition, this typically relates to a declaration focusing on the need for 'urgent action' to reduce or halt climate change in order to prevent further environmental damage[4] Defined by Lichfields as policies specifically focused on climate change, addressing the Net Zero agenda or the reduction of carbon emissions[5] Pre-Submission Local Plan – A draft development plan issued for consultation prior to its issue to the Secretary of State for the purposes of Examination; issued under Regulation 19 of The Town and Country Planning (Local Planning)(England) Regulations 2012[6] BREEAM – an assessment method set up by Building Research Establishment designed to certify the sustainability performance of individual buildings, communities and infrastructure projects and a rating between ‘Pass’ and ‘Outstanding’[7] Home Quality Mark – an assessment method set up by Building Research Establishment designed to set a national standard for new homes based on a 5-star rating system and a set of indicators focusing on design, construction quality and running costs[8] Biodiversity Net Gain – an approach to development that leaves biodiversity in a better state than before development took place[9] Future Homes Standard/Future Building Standard – proposed changes to Parts L and F (covering fuel, power and ventilation) of the Building Regulations that were subject to consultation by the Government in 2019 and 2021[10] Embodied Carbon – the carbon dioxide emitted in the production of materials (used in the development industry/construction of buildings)[11] Carbon off-setting – a scheme to make equivalent reductions in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to compensate for carbon dioxide emissions from an activity[12] Passivhaus – an assessment method designed to seek to secure high-quality construction with an objective to bring forward net zero ready buildings