Our thoughts about the government’s proposed planning reforms

9 September 2020

The Government's planning White Paper (published on 6 August) proposes to completely rewrite the English planning system. While CSE accepts that the existing regime is not perfect, we are deeply concerned that the Government's proposals both undermine local democracy and will be detrimental to the fight against the climate emergency.  

The White Paper is only a first sketch and lacks detail or is altogether silent on a number of areas which we view as vital - not least how to deliver the zero carbon climate-adapted places that we desperately need. In the coming weeks, we will publish a comprehensive joint response to the White Paper with the TCPA and others detailing our own proposals for how the new planning system should address vital areas that have not been considered fully or have completely ignored.

The consultation (at www.gov.uk/government/consultations/planning-for-the-future) is open until 11.45pm on 29 October and we'd urge readers to respond. In the meantime, the article below highlights our key concerns.  


The next generation of local plans are the most crucial ever for the climate emergency. During the coming decade, we must cut our emissions by around half, and be ready to eliminate the remainder over the following 20 years, sooner if possible. The reformed planning system being consulted on now is the system that will determine whether planning becomes genuinely part of the solution, or is officially part of the problem. We do not have time to get this wrong.

Right now, we have until the end of next month [October] to respond to the Government’s proposals to completely overhaul the planning system, but the White Paper is vague in a number of key areas. These omissions make it difficult to produce a meaningful response.

CSE, working with the TCPARTPIUK Green Building Council and Client Earth, will be producing a detailed response to the White Paper in the coming weeks, looking specifically at how the proposed new planning regime will (or won’t) contribute to tackling the climate emergency.

Answers to these questions now will make our task, and that of hundreds of councils, much easier and more constructive for Government.

So here’s our list of seven questions… we’d be interested to see yours!

1) How will climate targets be robustly integrated in the new system?

The White Paper makes no mention of any requirement for local plans to pursue carbon emission reductions in line with the net zero target under the Climate Change Act, and is silent on how national and local climate targets will inform the new local plans and planning decisions under the new system.

This is a huge concern. In our view, this is an existing requirement in any case, but few existing plans meet this test.  If this requirement is not to be spelled out categorically in the new planning system, then all new local plans are unlikely to be consistent with a zero carbon future, undermining and frustrating action elsewhere in the economy, including at the level of national policy, by ‘locking in’ patterns and forms of emissions-intensive development.

We cannot simply rely on electrification of the economy and decarbonisation of the grid because those things will themselves rely on transformations in infrastructure and dramatic reductions in certain forms of energy use, including in terms of transport and spatial heating – all key areas of influence for planning.  And there’s also the need to protect and expand green spaces, tree cover and peatland to offset residual emissions in the economy. A crucial question here therefore is whether the moment will be seized to align the Planning Act and Climate Change Act in a direct and meaningful way.

2) Why hasn’t the government’s response to the future homes consultation been included within this consultation?

The government states that under the new planning system homes will be “zero carbon ready”.  This sounds comforting but can mean many things. Building standards are a central component to achieving zero carbon homes therefore it is imperative that the government publishes its response to the Future Homes Consultation and its intended revisions to building standards to enable meaningful responses to this consultation.

The Future Homes Consultation back in the spring was widely criticised for its lack of ambition in setting binding carbon standards for new homes and for the proposal to remove the discretion of local planning authorities to go further. National standards should be a floor, not a ceiling, on the ambition of local government, and the Planning White Paper provides no clarity on whether local government will retain powers to set higher standards. The lack of clarity suggests however that some form of restrictions on local authorities’ powers are being considered. Government must be more open now on this crucial issue.

3) What will be the permitted scope and content of design codes and pattern books and masterplans?

The white paper rightly places more concentration on design, but in the narrowest terms possible. By focusing on aesthetics, the proposed design codes will merely control how homes look, not how places actually function, and there is only vague reference to ‘masterplanning’.  This suggests fundamental under-estimation of the huge potential the planning system has to plan for the creation of genuinely sustainable, resilient places. The Design Codes will have to allow local authorities to require key climate and sustainability design elements for this new system to make sense in the context of a climate emergency.

We therefore ask - will design codes enable councils to:

  • Masterplan significant new development and key mixes of uses around key sustainable transport infrastructure and active movement routes to deliver healthy and sustainable communities?
  • Re-imagine standard development layouts and development patterns around presumed access by sustainable and active transport (rather than presumed access by car), to reduce vehicle miles and decarbonise transport, in accordance with the governments’ decarbonising transport consultation?
  • Require developers to integrate energy planning into their proposals (taking into consideration use mix, heat density and phasing) so as to make district heating networks economic?
  • Require the use of energy storage so as to help decarbonise the electricity grid and the rollout of electric vehicle charging networks to enable petrol or diesel vehicles to be phased out?
  • Integrate green infrastructure into all this in a joined up way that delivers climate adaptation and multiple co-benefits?

A focus on aesthetics and beauty is undoubtedly important, but compared to the task of planning for how zero carbon and climate adapted places must function, it is merely window dressing.

4) How will the single “Sustainable Development test” for local plans work, and how will it factor in environmental limits?

If housing growth levels are to be set predominantly on the basis of demand indicated by property values, how will the housing requirements factor in environmental limits such as air pollution, carbon emission reduction commitments and water stress? In the context of binding housing targets, how is weight to be ascribed to the three components of the test: economic, social and environmental issues?

Will the consideration of the environmental component of sustainability include objective measures against actual sustainability indicators including water stress and other ecosystem services, the loss of protected species and habitats and carbon emissions? If not, how will this system deliver environmentally sustainable development within planetary boundaries?  In growth zones in particular, where schemes will be allowed automatically, how will a development’s environmental impacts be judged and controlled? How will a net gain in biodiversity in these areas be measured and ensured?

Fundamentally, if a new Sustainable Development Test does not have at the heart of it a meaningfully measurable test of whether a new development will be zero-carbon, then it will not deliver sustainable places.

5) How are Nature Recovery Areas to be treated, and why is there no proposal for ‘climate action zones’?

The White paper discusses the potential for Local Plans to categorise land to most effectively support climate change mitigation and adaptation. This is welcome, but only one brief example of how this might apply is given.

What flexibility will there be designate rural areas for the role they can play in climate adaptation and providing ecosystem services, through imposing additional environmental standards?  Rural areas and particularly upland areas, typically outside of growth areas can play significant roles in:

  • Sequestering carbon in soils and biomass.
  • Conserving water resources, improving water quality and mitigating flooding.
  • Providing joined up natural habitats.
  • Mitigating air pollution.

And how are nature recovery areas to be treated within the new planning framework? In the white paper they look to be invisible in planning terms.

6) How will the three zones make provision for communities which need to be relocated because of existential climate impacts?

The UK already has examples of communities whose continued existence in their current location is now untenable due to climate impacts, for example Fairbourne in Wales. Given current trends with flooding, extreme weather and predictions for more intense rainfall events and sea level rise, there will be continued growth in the number of communities that cannot be economically protected and which must be relocated. How are the “Growth”, “Renewal” and “Protection” categories to address these communities? How is the new simplified system to protect residents of these communities, and plan for their relocation?

7) What is the role and function of neighbourhood planning under this system, and how will the powers and functions of a neighbourhood plan vary between growth, renewal and protection areas?

Through our work supporting neighbourhood plan groups we have seen that they have a key role in addressing climate change and building informed consent for the radical changes needed at local level. We believe that neighbourhood plans should be retained, with a clear role in the new planning system, and that they should deliver real power to local communities.

But there’s no detail in the White Paper on the intended role or function of neighbourhood plans. Their scope appears to be stripped back to focus largely on design

Given that neighbourhood plans are time and resource intensive, and almost entirely developed by volunteers it is vital for local democracy that these plans deliver real additional power to communities to tackle the climate emergency in their own area.

Conclusion

Overall, we have grave concerns that the White Paper as it stands does not describe a reformed planning system that will deliver the zero carbon, climate adapted future we need. Reforms on this scale could have been revolutionary moment for local authorities, allowing them to comprehensively address the climate emergency through their crucial responsibility of guiding development and growth. Instead, we see the vague outline of a new system that threatens to leave them frustrated bystanders at best or, at worst, unwillingly complicit in climate destruction.


CSE's response to the Government White Paper is being co-ordinated by Graham McGrath.

Photo: © Copyright Ian S and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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