The planning system needs to adapt to climate crisis - new report

The UK has yet to develop a consistent approach to climate adaptation and mitigation through the planning system, according to a new report.

The ’Planning for Climate Resilience’, compiled by Savills, shows significant variation in requirements for carbon reduction and climate mitigation policy, with some local authorities yet to address it in local plans in any meaningful way

According to the report, even if local authorities meet the commitments made in their climate emergency declarations, it will be 2024 before climate resilient policies in local plans reach over 50% coverage in England.

What is a climate emergency?

By declaring a climate emergency, a governing body acknowledges that it needs to act on both the causes and impact of climate change. It is a political commitment, but also provides the foundation for a regulatory framework. In a planning context, it prompts consideration of the location of development, modes of transport, energy efficiency, and clean energy production.

The first British council to make a declaration was Bristol in 2018. As of April 2021, 224 local authorities across England have declared a climate emergency, representing 71% of the country’s total. In Wales the proportion is even higher, with 73% of local authorities declaring a climate emergency. For Scotland, the proportion is slightly lower, at 20 authorities accounting for 63%.

How well are Local Plans in England responding to climate change?

Of areas that have announced a climate change emergency 71% have an up to date Local Plan in place, but only 19% of these Local Plans contain specific policies relating to energy efficiency or binding carbon targets.

The report shows that the more recently adopted plans are the most likely to contain these types of policy.

Some 50% of plans adopted in 2020 contain specific carbon emission reduction policies,compared to just 13% of those adopted in 2015.

“Across England there is little correlation between local authorities declaring a climate emergency and those implementing climate mitigation and adaption measures in their local plan.  The act of making a declaration doesn’t necessarily signal any significant change in policies,” said David Jackson, Savills head of UK planning.

David Jackson

He continued: “The real question is how soon will the remainder of the country begin to adopt policies that are pro-active in their approach to carbon emission reductions? Our research shows a more positive trend is emerging, although if the typical timescale for the adoption of new local plans is maintained this will take a number of years to become widespread. Meanwhile the clock is ticking on the Climate Crisis.”

A third of English local authorities without specific carbon reduction policies in place still have not adopted a Local Plan since the publication of the 2012 NPPF. Based on the current progress of Local Plans in these areas, we expect 70% will be adopted by 2023.

The remaining local authorities have all adopted NPPF-compliant plans, with the strategic policies in plans requiring a review every five years. Just under half of these local authorities are currently reviewing their plans, with adoption dates expected throughout 2022 and 2023. Once these reviews are complete, if local authorities meet the commitments made in their climate emergency declarations, we should see climate resilience policies in local plans reach over 50% coverage by 2024.

The potential trade offs

There is a tension between delivering climate mitigation measures – balancing environmental requirements which add to build costs with the need to deliver enough homes to meet housing need.

Emily Williams, Savills research analyst, said: “As Climate Change policies become a more established part of Local Plans, it will become clearer how realistic it is for housebuilders and other developers to deliver these new targets alongside other policy requirements as well as adhering to any new regulation introduced through the National Model Design Code aimed at addressing the Government’s Building Beautiful agenda.”

Savills concludes that it is important that requirements for different areas are clarified and set to reflect the local market, otherwise we risk making some development unviable and reducing the potential to meet need, including housing requirements, across the country.

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