Climate Emergency – Opportunity from Risk

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:

  1. Stronger and clearer links to corporate climate change priorities, plans and targets;
  2. Developing a strong evidence base and better-aligned sustainability appraisal;
  3. Writing effective and challenging policy;
  4. 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.

Not straight-forward
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.   


When it comes to energy, we don’t know what’s good for us

Credit: kmichiels

Most of us in the public don’t have the knowledge to rationally respond to consultations on power stations. For that reason, big energy decisions aren’t made through local planning authorities. So why do we spend lots of time and money asking people whether they want certain kinds of energy plants?

We need nuclear power to meet our energy needs. A mix of renewable energy technologies in the right places could also make a difference. Unfortunately, when we ask people, they say they don’t want nuclear. Until a better technology comes to market we need to get real about our energy problem. Continue reading

Sustainable energy – don’t let them stop you

Compare renewables homepage

I’m convinced and really optimistic for a change. Despite the staggering cuts that local authorities face, our biggest conference room was jam-packed with councillors and officers talking about sustainable energy for six hours today. It was the launch event of Compare renewables, a resource that helps local authorities understand their sustainable energy options. Based on the enthusiasm in the room and discussions during workshops, I’m fully convinced that councils still see energy as a priority. Continue reading

Neighbourhoods taking developer contributions for sustainability

A ray of hope came forward on the topic of developers and sustainability in the PAS Neighbourhood Planning event yesterday in Bristol.  I was facilitating table discussions on the topic of how planners can support neighbourhood planning. I was keen to see what planners had to say about sustainability and neighbourhood plans. As it turns out, there are already examples of where communities have been vocal about their sustainability aspirations and they’ve been successful in getting developers to deliver them. Continue reading

Neighbourhood planning and sustainability: mutually exclusive?

Popular opinion amongst planners and environmentalists is that neighbourhood planning and climate change don’t go together. But is that necessarily true and what does it mean for the rest of the principles behind localism and planning? In this post I look at choices and decision-making in the context of localism and sustainability. I think there is a way to nudge people into making the best decision for themselves and the planet. Continue reading

Carbon is invisible, money is tangible

The recently abolished Sustainable Development Commission held a launch event for their report on empowering communities to improve their neighbourhoods a few weeks ago.  I went along because I needed some convincing to support the Big Society concept and how it might work for sustainability.  I’m not at all convinced, but after some time to reflect over my summer holiday I think I’m finally able to put my thoughts into words.  Many planners and sustainability professionals will agree that community groups are more likely to form and raise their voice on issues they oppose, rather than organising themselves to build schools and local energy schemes. 

Phillip Blond, Director of ResPublica, spoke at the SDC launch event about the ‘increasingly fragmented’ nature of our society and how people are not associating.  He spoke about how it’s problematic to get people to form groups on lots of separate issues like crime and health because it leads to disaggregated communities.  Not everybody in the audience agreed with this but I found it very thought provoking.  In terms of the environment, he said that climate change is the only topic on the environment agenda, but people just don’t get it.  Carbon is invisible: “have you ever seen any?” Continue reading

China is on my naughty list

Last month I wrote a post on our expectations for Copenhagen and urged that regardless of the outcome, we will all need to act to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Well, the results are in and they don’t look good.  In my pre-Christmas down time I’m reflecting on where we stand after Copenhagen.  The failure of these negotiations was the final blow to top off an incredibly depressing year globally.  You can blame Obama, the UN or the new global baddie – China.  Any way you slice it, Copenhagen failed to set targets and make countries accountable for their action.  So, to quote richardprichard, ‘ho bloody ho’. Continue reading

Copenhagen or not, we have local responsibilities

Expectations for Copenhagen have been a swinging pendulum over the last few weeks.  Obama is going…he’s not going.  We’ll have legally binding agreements…we won’t have legally binding agreements.  In this uncertainty, the LGA held a timely debate earlier this week called Copenhagen: can we turn global talks into action on the ground? The panel was suitably expert to stimulate thought and incite intense frustration (or maybe that’s just me).

Richard Kemp (Deputy Chair, LGA) started off the discussion with a sobering figure on the high percentage of people who still think climate change isn’t caused by humans.  Then Chris Church (Low Carbon Communities Network) told a similarly upsetting anecdote of doing a training session in a district authority where a group of councillors came together and said that the council shouldn’t do anything about climate change as it’s not an issue.  This points to one of the main issues with the role that councils play in the UK’s response to climate change: we need politicians who aren’t afraid to make a tough decision that might only realise benefits after their time in office.  (It would also help if they accepted the causes of climate change in the first place.) Continue reading

talk is cheap

The forthcoming National Policy Statements will not be assessed for carbon and the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) is not required to consider climate change in its decisions.  So how will we meet carbon reduction targets if major infrastructure is built without adequate consideration of the consequences for carbon?  Local planning authorities will need to produce impact assessments for applications being handled by the IPC.  How will this be funded and what support will planners have in preparing such assessments?  The Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum on Friday raised more questions than it answered.

The topic was The implementation and impact of the Planning Act 2008 and the speakers and audience focussed on the NPSs, the IPC and climate change.  To be fair, Sir Michael Pitt (Chair of the IPC) and Richard McCarthy (Director General, Housing and Planning, DCLG) had responses to the above questions, some of which were more convincing than others.  But they weren’t nearly as convincing as Hugh Ellis’s characteristically blunt thrashing of the regime. Continue reading