Why neighbourhood plans should tackle climate change

... and how they can help with the climate emergency

8 May 2019

Dan Stone, CSE's in-house planner, looks at how neighbourhood plans can address the climate emergency  

No one with the least interest in current affairs can have failed to notice the current heightened public concern about climate change.

Much of it is manifested in ‘bottom-up’ demands for more determined national action. School children on strike, Extinction Rebellion activists blockading central London, local councils passing of climate emergency resolutions, or Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg speaking truth to power (in near perfect English).

But why now? I can see several reasons. One is the woeful lack of any meaningful climate action by global leaders despite decades of talk. (Yes, there are some noteable successes, for example the UK’s significant uptake of low-carbon energy, but generally the pattern is too-little-too-late.) Another is the extreme weather events from terrifying heatwaves and wildfire in Australia to catastrophic flooding in the USA, India and Japan.

And David Attenborough’s intervention has helped too.

On 1 May, Parliament responded, adopting a UK wide climate emergency. (This doesn’t, of course, legally compel the government to act, but it was nonetheless an impressive demonstration of the will of the Commons.) And in their report the following day, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommended that the UK’s existing commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 be upgraded to full carbon neutrality.

The truth is though that the government needs all the help it can get to make this happen, as we aren’t even on track with our current carbon reduction targets.

So what can the planning system do?

The TCPA and RTPI talk persuasively about the role local plans can play in promoting policies that address climate mitigation and adaption, and of the need for local plans to be carbon audited. They also stress the need to “achieve radical carbon reductions in line with the climate change act” (see the TCPA/RTPI publication: Rising to the Climate Crisis - A Guide for Local Authorities on Planning for Climate Change), a requirement already in place within planning legislation and guidance but not enforced by the planning inspectorate.

But I believe that there’s a critical role for neighbourhood plans too. These are the officially recognised plans drawn up by communities covering things like transport, housing and infrastructure which feed into the local authorities larger spatial strategy. 

These now need to have a much stronger focus on climate change and related issues like energy generation. After all, does it make sense to develop 5-year neighbourhood plans which don’t take into account an existential threat that needs to be solved in the next ten?  What use is a plan which tacitly assumes that everything can go on unchanged?

Most of the technical solutions to tackling the climate crisis are already here. We can build low carbon homes, wind farms, bike lanes and so on. What’s lacking is the political will to apply them, not least because now that we’ve picked off the low hanging fruit, the more radical changes that lies ahead require the informed consent of the public.

Neighbourhood planning is an opportunity to nurture this consent. The development of a neighbourhood plan is a rare moment when a local community gets together to talk about the future. So why not encourage them to consider the range of futures that might actually be ahead of them? Why not use the opportunity to normalise and localise discussions of climate change which are mostly so removed from daily experience?

When we do this, we’ll be expanding the space within which politicians can safely work, and providing some of the answers to the question “what now?”

CSE’s Low Carbon Neighbourhood Planning Programme encourages neighbourhood planning groups to consider their resilience to climate impacts and incorporate locally relevant adaptation and mitigation policies.

We’ve published a guidebook encapsulating the best policies we’ve seen (10,000 downloads, and new edition on the way). We give free hands-on support to groups seeking to push through climate friendly plans, and we’re developing a suite of workshops and community engagement approaches that neighbourhood planning groups can use to build a mandate for ambitious policies.

And we’re definitely making progress. Our on-the-ground experience tells us that local people are increasingly ready to develop really ambitious policies (the constraint being what their examiner will accept). And there is now an impressive list of exemplar plans promoting the local rolling out renewables, building climate resilient developments and fostering more self-sufficient settlements.

But so much more could be done. Unbelievably, there is currently no requirement or even encouragement for neighbourhood plans to address climate change, only a meaningless requirement to promote “sustainable development” with no cross reference to the most serious threat to it.

So, what's our message to different players in the game?

To government (and the CCC) we’d say this. People are looking for ways to respond to the climate crisis and neighbourhood planning is a great opportunity to harness their efforts in and build support for broader and more difficult changes. The government should take two actions now:

Revise planning practice guidance to encourage neighbourhood plans to address climate issues and contribute to carbon reductions in line with the climate change act.
Link the general requirement for neighbourhood plans to contribute to sustainable development with the most urgent threat to it, climate change.

To councils we’d say this. Put groups in touch with us for free support and get in touch yourself; use and our resources (copy whole sections of our guidance if you want – we like to share!); encourage innovative policies; and get in touch with us if you want us to speak at an event. We’re keen and willing to speak free of charge at any public event following on from a climate emergency resolution.

And finally to climate activists of all stripes we’d say this. Why not seize some of the policy levers already available to you (imperfect though they are) and hack the system to plan for the zero carbon future we need in your local community? We’re already supporting groups around the country doing just this.

Exciting times.

Dan Stone (MaTP MRTPI) manages CSE’s Low Carbon Neighbourhood Planning Programme which supports neighbourhood planning groups seeking to incorporate climate adaptation and mitigation policies into their neighbourhood plans. Contact the project on neighbourhoodplanning@cse.org.uk 

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