• Climate Emergency Climate Emergency

19 December 2019

Planning for the Climate Emergency: The planning issue which the new government must prioritise

The new government must update the NPPF, PPG and require all councils to adopt action plans to tackle the Climate Emergency. Planning policy needs to change immediately to address the crisis.

“We will lead the global fight against climate change”, a promise from the Conservative manifesto, which was reflected in all political parties’ manifestos. We must now hold the politicians to account to ensure this promise is now acted upon. Some 14 months ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report advising global emissions must be halved by 2030 to have a chance of keeping global heating within safe limits.

This triggered a movement across the UK which has dramatically raised the profile of climate change on the political agenda. In November 2018, Bristol City Council declared a climate emergency, committing the city to being carbon neutral by 2030. Just over a year later, two thirds of councils have now declared a climate emergency, as well as the European parliament.

The message is clear. Positive change must be enacted quickly. With legislation and policy at its disposal, the planning system can drive such change, to ensure that new development proposals tackle carbon emissions and are ‘Future Ready’. The built environment must be a focus, with energy use in buildings accounting for 56% of the UK’s total emissions, and we must accept the natural environment will also change with the decarbonisation of agriculture and massive amounts of tree planting.

In May 2018, The Town and Country Planning Association and the Royal Town Planning Institute published ‘Planning for Climate Change: A Guide for Local Authorities’ providing technical advice and a call to put climate change at the heart of the planning process. 19 months have passed, and this has not happened. With the political uncertainty resolved, this must be the overriding focus of the new government.

The NPPF seeks “a proactive approach to mitigating and adapting to climate change” but fails to place the necessary importance upon the issue. The Green Belt has long been the highest policy hurdle in planning. Even the benefits of on-shore wind farms, Passivhaus residential development and other carbon neutral innovative projects are considered less valuable than protecting the Green Belt. But should this be the case? In the face of an emergency which threatens our futures, we should question the importance of the Green Belt. Releasing the poorest quality safeguarded land to deliver the best practical responses to tackling this crisis would surely be a fair trade.

Whilst legislative changes would be instrumental, the starting point for the new government should be to swiftly change the NPPF and Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) to make it explicit that this type of development should be supported. Combatting the climate emergency should be elevated above the Green Belt, heritage assets and meeting housing need. Taking positive steps to tackling the climate emergency should be recognised as ‘very special circumstances’ in the Green Belt and afforded significant weight in the planning balance. This national policy shift should be reflected at the local level, and instant updates to Local Plans should be required, alongside a requirement for every LPA to prepare an action plan within six months to set out how it will respond to the climate emergency.

For decades now, the planning buzzword has been sustainability, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Climate change stands as the biggest threat to being able to achieve this aim. We must make definitive change to the planning system now, before it is too late.

John Brooks and Matthew Stocks, WSP | Indigo