Using the planning system to tackle the climate emergency

Annabelle Parkinson, Carter Jonas, Birmingham, explains how the planning system is just one of many tools that can be used to help combat climate change.

Related topics:  Planning,  Development,  Climate
Annabelle Parkinson | Carter Jonas
12th February 2024
Carbon Neutral 416
"We need to get out of the political limbo we are currently in and have a clear steer from the government on the future of planning policy. Until this happens, local plans will remain paused and no up-to-date climate policies will be brought forward"
- Annabelle Parkinson - Carter Jonas

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time. From rising temperatures and sea levels to ocean acidification and more frequent and intense extreme weather events, the impacts of climate change are already being felt around the world.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023 confirmed that the earth’s global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over at least the last 2,000 years. Scientists predict that global warming will only get worse over the coming years unless greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly curbed.

The planning system is one of the many tools that can be used to tackle the climate emergency. It has the potential not only to mitigate climate change but to adapt to its effects. The role of planning in addressing climate change is addressed in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which has a whole chapter dedicated to ‘Meeting the challenge of climate change, flooding and coastal change’.

But what is being done at the local- and hyper-local levels? Do local plans and neighbourhood plans have the potential to tackle the climate emergency? What challenges do they face?

The potential of local plans and neighbourhood plans in addressing climate change

Local plans do not only have the potential to tackle the climate emergency but are legally required to do so under the provisions of Section 19 (1A) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.

There are two main ways in which they can do this – through climate change mitigation and through climate change adaptation. In terms of achieving mitigation objectives, local planning authorities (LPAs) can use local plans to provide opportunities for renewable and low-carbon energy technologies, reduce the need to travel, and promote low-carbon design approaches, to name just a few.

With regard to adaptation, local plans can be used to direct development towards areas that are least likely to flood, encourage tree planting and protect local green spaces.

While local plans are legally required to contain policies which support climate change mitigation and adaptation, neighbourhood plans are currently under no such obligation. Instead, they just have to meet the basic conditions set out in Paragraph 8 of Schedule 4B of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which requires them to contribute towards the achievement of sustainable development.

Over the last few years, an increasing number of organisations have begun to recognise the potential that neighbourhood plans have to address climate change at the hyper-local level.

The Centre for Sustainable Energy, for instance, has recently received funding from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation to run a three-year low-carbon neighbourhood planning support programme.

Moreover, a recent RTPI report, Rising to the Climate Crisis: A Guide for local authorities on planning for climate change recognises that neighbourhood plans present a positive opportunity for dialogue with communities on climate change.

The challenges for local plans and neighbourhood plans in addressing climate change

While both local plans and neighbourhood plans clearly have the potential to address climate change, a recent study has found that they often fail to include strong, positive climate change policies in practice. But why?

There are a number of reasons why local plans are struggling to make a difference when it comes to tackling climate change, ranging from lack of resources to the current political climate. In Planning Agencies: Empowering Public Sector Planning, the RTPI found that local authority net expenditure on planning had fallen from £844 million in 2009/10 to £480 million in 2021.

This has left local authorities incredibly under-resourced which, in turn, has impacted their ability to prepare up-to-date local plans. Some local authorities are still relying on local plans that were prepared in the early 2000s when climate change was relatively low on the political agenda.

Their policies therefore often lack the strength and specificity required to meaningfully contribute towards climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Another barrier facing local plans in relation to climate change is political uncertainty. In December 2022, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities launched a consultation seeking views on proposed revisions to the NPPF.

Planning Resource's Local Plan Watch in April this year found that 26 local planning authorities have paused or delayed work on their local plans since the consultation was published.

This slow-down in local plan-making means fewer local planning authorities are bringing forward up-to-date climate policies.

One of the greatest challenges facing neighbourhood plans in tackling the climate emergency is the lack of funding for neighbourhood plan groups. Many neighbourhoods, particularly those in deprived, urban areas, do not have the funds to hire a consultant to help guide them through the neighbourhood planning process.

While some groups may have members with expert knowledge, many do not. Therefore, many neighbourhood planning groups do not have the planning knowledge required to formulate sound policies which address climate change.

How planning can help tackle climate change: recommendations

With researchers suggesting there’s now a 66% chance we will pass the 1.5°C global warming threshold by 2027, there has arguably never been a more important time for the planning system to step up and tackle the climate emergency. So what needs to change?

Firstly, and most importantly, we need to get out of the political limbo we are currently in and have a clear steer from the government on the future of planning policy. Until this happens, local plans will remain paused and no up-to-date climate policies will be brought forward.

Secondly, we need local planning authorities to prepare stringent policies which genuinely address climate change. While some strong, positive policies do exist, they are few and far between, with many policies often containing viability clauses which allow wiggle room for developers.

Thirdly, we need to ensure that local authorities receive the funding they so desperately need so they can appropriately resource local plan-making. This will not only lead to more thorough plans but will also speed up the plan-making process.

Fourthly, we need to provide communities with the financial and educational support they need to be able to prepare innovative, sound neighbourhood plans. Especially those communities located in deprived urban areas.

And finally, we need to keep pushing for awareness and understanding of the disastrous impacts climate change will have on people, nature and the economy if urgent action is not taken.

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