I’m trying to put together a package of support to meet a growing demand from Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) for help in understanding ‘what good likes like’ when it comes to local plans and climate change. I’ve discussed this with planners, climate change and sustainability experts, local politicians and lawyers – all with a view to understanding how PAS might help.
I have found it both fascinating and difficult in equal measure; fascinating as there’s no end to the scope of this agenda, and difficult for similar reasons – where do you focus, and how do you create an effective local plan response that is more than a set of ‘green-washed’ policies? Or risks failing the tests of soundness at an examination?
I thought I’d set out what I’ve learned, what is driving this increased demand for support, the potential solutions and why now is a good time for PAS to do something.
Nothing’s new but everything’s changing…
The current conversations about a ‘green recovery’ are an obvious hook for any piece about climate change, but my starting point is before we’d even heard of Covid-19. Let’s go back to May 2019.
2019 was a watershed year for climate change – following many towns and cities across the UK, Parliament declared a climate emergency (the first national legislative body to do so) and set an enhanced national target of achieving zero net carbon emissions by 2050. Over a third of councils have now declared their own emergency and many have set themselves even more ambitious timetables.
Many councils are still working out the detail of what their climate emergency declaration actually means (here’s an idea), but bold statements/promises have been made and invariably it is the local plan and planning teams that councils are looking to for the ‘response’. Last September, sensing some lethargy, the climate lawyers ClientEarth wrote to senior local councillors reminding them of the Local Plan’s legal obligations in supporting the delivery of the National climate change policy and targets.
Not another ‘one silo train’…
None of this is new. Planners understand how to write local plans for sustainable development – it’s implicit in the plan-making process and discipline that the plan will consider, mitigate and adapt to climate change.
What has changed, and needs a response, is the environment that planners find themselves working in – this agenda has significantly ‘ramped’ up. LPAs need support to manage the increasing and accelerating expectations of their councillors and communities – who need a better understanding of the agenda and what can be achieved through the local plan, and to manage risk in the process as more and more interest groups get involved with the local plan examination process.
At the heart of this are two questions: how far can/could/should the local plan go, and how would you evidence more ambitious policies when (in most places) climate change expertise and experience at a local level is thin on the ground?
What risk does this present ?
There are 3 broad scenarios for LPAs. There are those for whom the council’s climate emergency declaration has happened close to or just after the local plan has been published. As they head towards examination – they are asking whether their plan now goes far enough, how to explain its limitations to councillors (many of whom were elected or are pinning re-election hopes on a ‘green ticket’), and whether an early review will be required. There are those that are about to publish their plan and are under increasing pressure to ‘go further’ – their concern is how changes might impact the timetable to adoption. And then there are those still early in the process, getting on with it but keen to quickly learn about what does/doesn’t work from their peers.
What should the support do and where should it focus?
In my mind the challenge boils down to how to get the most effective plan in place while reducing risk and saving time – classic PAS territory. There are 4 broad areas that local plans need to focus/strengthen:
- Stronger and clearer links to corporate climate change priorities, plans and targets;
- Developing a strong evidence base and better-aligned sustainability appraisal;
- Writing effective and challenging policy;
- Measurement – setting baseline, better monitoring and reporting methods;
New territory for many.
Below I have set out my ideas to help pull all of this together. Truth is, I am still deciding what it looks like – but I never let a lack of a completely clear end-game prevent me starting something (momentum is the best way of achieving inspiration in my book). I am working on the following broad ideas to support plan-makers:
- Engaging and training councillors and communities – Approaches to establishing a common understanding between councillors, communities and officers – what climate emergency means, and which policy options to explore, prioritise and fund;
- What does good look like? – Sharing examples of effective engagement, regional collaboration, evidence assembly and policy writing from the most forward-thinking councils;
- ‘Climate Change Challenge’ – Creating some short, sharp ‘challenges’ to the early stages of the plan production process and then between Reg 18/19 to give LPAs an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of their plan/policies (and perhaps better scoped and aligned Sustainability Appraisals);
- One place for good practice, guidance and examples – There is a dearth of good information, guidance, ideas and training out there but not everyone is aware of it, what it can do and where it applies. I’d like to gather this into one place and arrange it to reflect the different requirements and stages of the plan making process;
- Access to the experts – Understanding the work and objectives of organisations involved in the fields of digitalisation/PlanTech, sustainable/modern methods of construction, decarbonised heating, climate change law and social justice. We’ll also look at closer collaborations with our peer organisations such as TCPA / RTPI / POS / CPRE;
- Creating a support and knowledge-sharing network for frontline climate change plan makers.
Plan making can be complex and resource intensive. I understand the temptation to keep climate change issues at arms-length and to focus on the imperative to deliver housing numbers. Add to this issues of viability and all of the uncertainty/confusion about how far policy can push on energy performance/efficiency, and the task can seem quite daunting. I get it, and an overarching objective of this support is to share resources and build the capacity and confidence of a larger number of councils to push for the highest standards as a starting point.
Creating opportunity from risk
Two thirds of councils that have declared a climate emergency. They all need a credible corporate strategy and local plan to respond and deliver on it. This presents an interesting leadership opportunity. Can planning leverage increased corporate and political expectations to gain the required support and resources, and then create the evidence base and ambitious policy that will allow the local plan to push the boundaries on climate change? There’s arguably never been a better time to be as ambitious as we can be.
Vision / Place Making
While I am looking at supporting LPAs with their imediate plan-making requirements, I don’t want to lose sight of the importance of having longer-term strategic approaches to ‘place’ as this is how the most significant impacts can be achieved.
Take viability (please, take it) – the impacts we can achieve by driving quality up/carbon emissions down using better design and more ambitious energy efficiency standards, while effective, result in the arguments and surrounding conversations about viability focusing at a housing unit level. Whereas when we are establishing, with our communities, visions at the level of ‘place’, climate change mitigation across the whole piece can be ‘designed-in’ from the very beginning. By creating places that consider the impact of where people live on how (and where) they have to travel to work, study, shop, relax and play, sustainability is built-in from the start.
Bringing everyone with us
According to the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), around 10% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions are directly associated with construction activities. The number rises to 45% when considering the whole of the built environment sector. This is an issue for planning, developers, builders, and architects not to mention supply chains and emerging new technology.
It’s a vast and interesting agenda, lots of players, lots of legislation, lots of good guidance – and lots of good intentions. But what could and should LPAs do to seize this agenda and get local plans at the forefront of delivering a zero-carbon future?
My view is that while it is far too big and complicated an area for planning to solve by itself, it is an opportunity for local government planning to show leadership and a united front, pushing local plans as far as they can go, and working with the development industry – pushing back on the appeals and working through the viability issues.
Right time – right thing to do?
It feels like the right time for PAS to help build on and support the plan-making work that councils are already doing and to try and link up with and learn from the best in the development sector. If there is one thing that this pandemic can teach us, it’s that you can never be too prepared or act too early in an emergency.
The support package I am planning to develop is a small but hopefully powerful start. Let me know if you think it’ll help and how it can be improved.