Failure to revise planning rules are fuelling England’s climate disaster

Devastating and heartbreaking floods in North West Germany last week could have been the North of England if the weather system had gone a different way. At the same time yellow warning heatwaves in North Wales. Unheard of heatwaves in Portland, US while on the other side of the world in Hyderabad, India, they’re already living with devastating heat with little means to escape. And in the last few days, swathes of East London underwater.

Today the climate crisis seems ever more on our doorstep. And in England, the government has just published (20 July 2021) the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for controlling town and country decisions on what gets built where. These are the rules on how new homes, businesses, transport development should be decided; whether or not to consent coal, oil and gas extraction; and how we adapt to the changing climate that’s bringing sea level rise, extreme weather and flooding, and extreme heat in its wake. 

The planning system sits at the crux of how we can protect ourselves and our communities from the effects of climate change. It’s also the main tool we have in consenting development that doesn’t continue pumping climate changing emissions into the atmosphere. 

So you would have thought that the government would have moved Heaven and Earth to get tackling climate change into the rules that guide development. Instead this government seems more concerned about protecting statues than protecting people from clear and present danger. 

Change the rules?

Many of us asked them to change the rules. We said stop digging out coal – change the rules. We said stop extracting oil and gas – change the rules. We said stop building on flood plains – change the rules. We said stop building for more private car use – change the rules. We said make it safer for us to walk and cycle everywhere – change the rules. We said make every development zero carbon – change the rules. 

Nothing has been positively changed of any note. (See a tracked-changes comparison between the old and new versions of the NPPF).  

The national planning rules still say that coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, can be extracted and used despite the climate crisis, if there are “national, local or community benefits which clearly outweigh its likely impacts”. Not exactly clear that we need to stop extracting coal in order to tackle the climate crisis. 

No change has been made to the veto on onshore wind energy. This rule which requires that all ‘planning impacts’ are fully addressed sets a very high test that few applications can overcome. If that same test was applied to coal and climate changing emissions, then that would make sense in a climate crisis. But to effectively block a source of renewable energy that helps us tackle the climate crisis? It makes no sense.

Nothing is said about how to build a zero carbon housing development in the section on “delivering a sufficient supply of homes”. The same ideology about making it easier to build more in the hope that developers will forget about their profit margins and not restrict supply is unchanged, despite the evidence that disproves this approach. Don’t forget the million unbuilt homes, despite planning permission, in England. The only change to policy is that places be “well-designed and beautiful”. No matter if that means they are totally unfit for zero carbon living – which gets no mention. 

Instead developers and landowners are being handed the keys to design codes (sets of design requirements for development) that will be important in local decisions. There is no mention of how “effective community engagement” on these design codes will be ensured or required.  

In effect, local governments and communities cannot demand that the development around them is climate-proofed. 

Put communities and localities in charge 

On June 24th the Carbon Budget for 2033-2037 was adopted by the government, equating to a 78% reduction on emissions by 2037 (from 1990 levels). It’s quite a technical figure – but put it like this, in 2020 emissions only reduced by around 7% globally despite the pandemic. So it’s a huge challenge, and one that the government is singularly failing to respond to in the planning system (and beyond). Without leveraging it, we simply won’t build or retrofit our places so that we can face the impacts of climate change and stop making the problem worse.

It’s time we put communities and local government in charge of creating climate-friendly places, given the government and development industry are stuck in a rut of business as usual and driving us all to a climate disaster. Without leadership from countries such as the UK in the year of the global meeting on climate change action (COP26), it will be hard to persuade others to do more. Without wresting back power over our places, we are not going to be able to demand what we need here in England. 

Every decision matters now and the rules on planning for climate change are simply a national disgrace. 

It’s time to write to the government and say enough is enough.

>> Sign up to the Charter for Democracy: a community expression of what people want planning to be.


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