English planning’s darkest hour?

The failure of the new National Planning Policy Framework to prioritise climate change is a betrayal of our collective future.

The global impacts of climate change are truly shocking. Extreme weather from Canada to Germany is costing lives and will, because of the fatal inaction of governments across the globe, cost many millions more. The global spotlight is on the UK in the run up to the crucial COP 26 conference which is affectively our last chance to secure a sustainable planet.

That is the context for the publication of the new English NPPF. It was an opportunity to show how planning can play a crucial role in climate mitigation and adaptation and how we can build a zero carbon and resilient future. And so, it is simply staggering that the new version does nothing to recognise the changing dynamics of the climate crisis.

Government has ignored not simply the Committee on Climate Change’s 6th Carbon budget published on the 9th of December of last year but all the cross-sector responses to the NPPF which provided details on how the system could cut carbon.  In fact, the policy contained in the NPPF on climate mitigation hasn’t changed since the coalition government disastrously cancelled the guidance on the delivery of a low carbon future in 2010.   A crucial decade has been wasted which could have been put work on dealing with the climate crisis.

The sense of anger at this profound dereliction of responsibility on behalf of government should not distract us from being precise about what needs to be done now. The logic which the TCPA and many other organisations have been presenting to Ministers goes like this:

  • The planning system deals with a basket of issues of profound importance for tackling the climate crisis. It does this directly through planning for things like energy systems and fossil fuel extraction. It does this indirectly through a wide range of issues concerning the way we locate and design new development which impacts on human behaviours from sustainable transport to green infrastructure.
  • The 2008 Climate Act sets out an overall carbon budget and requires the Secretary of State to ensure all regulatory frameworks deliver on this budget. The planning system must clearly deliver on this legal requirement if the budget is to be effectively implemented. As a result, planning decisions must ensure but they deliver on the obligations of the carbon budget.
  • The current legal position is that section 19 of the 2008 Planning Act creates a powerful duty to require development plans to include policy that mitigates climate change. The current NPPF then includes a footnote which makes crystal clear that plan policy must be in line with the ‘provisions and objectives’ of the Climate Act. Since the 6th carbon budget is an objective and provision of the Climate Act it is directly relevant to plan making.

But there are three obvious and major flaws in the current approach:

  1. The NPPF does not give anything like the priority to action on climate change which the science demands. It is included at the end of a long list of environmental considerations. It receives the same policy weight as the new, and bizarre, text inserted on the fate of public statues. The most significant part of national policy on climate change is included as a footnote which is an unusual way to deal with the greatest global crisis ever confronted by humanity.
  2. Unlike the effort directed by MHCLG to setting out the detail of housing forecasting there is no policy guidance on how to handle carbon in local plans. While this is complex there is a growing awareness of the need for carbon literacy in local government and it will be perfectly possible to set out a strategic approach to how carbon is assessed. This can be simply accompanied by a requirement that the soundness test of plans explicitly ensures conformity with the 6th carbon budget.
  3. Finally, it would require government to apply carbon assessment to the dramatic expansion of permitted development. The current prior approval process does not allow local authorities to consider the impact of development on carbon emissions. This is both illogical and, like the cancellation of zero carbon in 2016, adds long term costs to people and the economy.

Taken together these major policy failures help account for why only a minority of local plans have an effective approach to carbon reduction and why we are failing to make the necessary progress on decarbonising buildings and transport and ensuring we are resilient to extreme temperatures.

Government has been made aware of all of these problems and their solutions. They could have acted but they didn’t. It remains unclear whether the new NPPF is lawful in relation to the obligations that the Climate Act places on the Secretary of State to ensure that all new government regulation contributes to the carbon budget regime. Having failed to persuade ministers to do the right thing in the new NPPF we now need an urgent ministerial statement, published before COP 26, which can fix these problems.

That could be done tomorrow if there was a political will.  The TCPA will throw everything we have to support a new legal duty which binds the climate and planning acts together in the forthcoming planning bill. This will require explicit consideration of the 6th carbon budget in all decisions in town planning and the major infrastructure regime.

This is truly our last throw of the dice on climate change, and I know everyone in the planning sector will commit everything they have to the delivery a zero-carbon future.  Action now goes beyond any professional and political allegiance.  Its matter of human survival and the fate of future generations.

They are fiddling while Rome burns, and we have to put out the fire.

If you want to support the TCPA, please consider donating, or becoming a member.

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