Many councils have declared “climate emergencies”, with some reviewing their local plans to introduce policies aiming to cut carbon emissions. But practitioners have warned that such local changes are constrained by national policies and guidance which conflict with climate change objectives.

Since 2019, around three-quarters of the UK’s district, county, unitary and metropolitan authorities have officially declared a climate emergency and started to work out what this means for planning policy. A report by government advisory body the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), published alongside the sixth carbon budget in December, concluded that most local plans do not currently acknowledge the extent of the challenge of delivering net zero and “need significant revision” to cut emissions from housing, energy generation and transport. A number of councils have taken this on board and have committed to reassessing their local plans with the aim of cutting emissions.

Just a few months after formally adopting its local plan in July 2020, Lancaster City Council entered into an immediate “climate emergency review” of the document and opened a scoping consultation to help it decide which areas needed to be re-visited. Having declared an emergency in January 2019, it said the the new plan “was too far advanced in the plan preparation process” to incorporate some of the key actions. But the review document would, the council hoped, “include the necessary mitigation and adaption measures necessary to address the climate emergency”.    

Other local authorities explicitly re-examining their key planning policy documents as a result of the climate emergency declaration include Wiltshire and Winchester. Winchester has brought forward its local plan update so that it can emphasise low-carbon housing development, while Wiltshire said the review of its core strategy provides “a real opportunity to introduce land-use policies to guide forecast growth in a manner that delivers sustainable development designed to tackle and adapt to and mitigate the effects of our changing climate”. 

Cornwall County Council has taken a slightly different approach, deciding instead to develop a climate emergency development plan document (DPD) that would update policies in its adopted local plan. Among its measure are policies supporting new homes in the open countryside, providing they meet eco-friendly “low-impact” standards and the allocation of areas suitable for onshore wind turbines.

Richard Grant, head of planning policy at Cornwall County Council, said local plan processes are simply too slow to respond to the climate emergency with the required level of urgency. “The DPD is actually an opportunity to put in place detailed policies that weren’t there before. You’ll see a lot in there about low-impact dwellings, renewable energy generation and how you start to locate facilities, how we start to really raise the bar for sustainable building standards.”

Given the long timescales involved in developing planning policies, “and with the agenda around net zero and its supporting programmes evolving so rapidly”, Eve Peverley, associate director of sustainability and climate change at consultancy WSP, said councils need to keep their local plans future-ready “and up to speed with the latest developments”.

Grant stressed that councils have not begun from a standing start with development plans having long been required to conform to environmental standards via the sustainability appraisal process. “Local plans for many years now have been developed to deliver sustainable development,” he explained. 

But he warned that any overhaul of local planning policies remains constrained by national regulation and guidance. He feels there has been an “almost single minded focus” on building homes from Westminster, which has sent a signal to planning inspectors that this goal trumps all others. “The government’s number one objective for the planning system is to deliver new homes. Well that’s fine but… how does that fit into the emergency or with carbon neutrality?”

This tension between competing national policy objectives was highlighted in the CCC report. It said that research it had conducted for the study “suggested that spatial planning was one of the biggest opportunities that local authorities have to deliver net zero”, but also that national policy and guidance on calculating housing targets and on viability requirements “undermine local authorities’ ability to require developers to build high quality low-carbon developments in sustainable locations”. It went on to say that some local plans seeking to secure zero-carbon developments “have been weakened by viability clauses” imposed by inspectors during local plan examinations. 

In an effort to strengthen climate change considerations in local plans, the housing ministry recently announced draft changes to the National Planning Policy Framework’s (NPPF’s) “presumption in favour of sustainable development” for plan-making. This sets out the key objectives that development strategies must meet to be found sound.

The current 11a paragraph states that plans should “positively seek opportunities to meet the development needs of their area and be sufficiently flexible to adapt to rapid change”. The longer, revised paragraph 11a states that plans should “promote a sustainable pattern of development” as well as aim to “improve the environment” and “mitigate climate change …. and adapt to its effects”.

Though the NPPF’s climate change policies look set to be beefed up in this way, leading planning bodies have highlighted existing legal requirements on climate change that plan-makers can rely on. Guidance from the Town and Country Planning Association and Royal Town Planning Institute, Rising to the Climate Crisis: A Guide for Local Authorities on Planning for Climate Change, issued in 2018, stresses that climate mitigation and adaptation duties for local plans under the 2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act are “much more powerful in decision-making than the status of the NPPF, which is guidance, not statute”.

And, it goes on to say, such duties stemming from the act are difficult to challenge by either objectors or planning inspectors at examination, on “the grounds, for example, of viability”, because such challenges “must make clear how the plan would comply with the duty if the policy were to be removed”.

However, some are concerned about whether proposed planning white paper changes to centralise development management policies could hinder councils’ ability to be more ambitious on climate in their local plans. Sam Hunter Jones, a climate accountability lawyer at environmental campaign group ClientEarth, said the white paper seems to be centralising consideration of planning topics that can affect climate when “it does make sense for a lot of issues to be considered properly at the local level”. 

However, Hunter Jones, who is working with a number of councils on updating their local planning policies to be more in line with net zero goals, said councils feel increasingly able to make and defend progressive planning policies and are under growing pressure from residents to do so. “We’ve seen some councils talk about a new generation of planning policies that have come forward since the declarations.”

While Cornwall’s DPD still has to adhere to national policy and is subject to examination by a planning inspector just like a local plan, Grant said there are elements of it where the council is “probably pushing as far as we can against that framework to get something in there which is more forward thinking”.

Hunter Jones is generally optimistic about the rate of progress. “We’ve seen a change in attitude in how seriously this has been taken by planning officers and councillors in a lot of authorities. It’s been really great to see a lot of councils saying these things aren’t mutually exclusive – you can build houses and [protect] the environment.”

Though you might expect developers and their advisers to feel concerned about more stringent environmental requirements in local plans, some consultants are looking at the benefits. Nick James is director of planning at Land Use Consultants (LUC), which recently advised Derbyshire Dales District Council on developing supplementary planning guidance on climate change, including checklists for developers and applicants to factor climate issues into the design and implementation of new development.  

James said: “Improving buildings’ performance may increase up-front costs in some cases, but should significantly reduce ongoing running costs – something that should be factored into viability discussions.” In addition, many climate-focused policies, such as creating 20-minute neighbourhoods or increasing the role of greenspace in capturing carbon, “should create more attractive, liveable and marketable places”, he claimed, adding: “As more local plans respond to the climate emergency, so achieving net zero development should become as normal as ensuring new homes are built soundly or provided with broadband.”

Link to Planning Resource article