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Councils must climate-proof plans

Environmental law charity ClientEarth has written to 100 local authorities in England urging them to set robust local carbon targets. Sam Hunter Jones outlines the rationale behind this move

In July, the Committee on Climate Change published its annual report to Parliament on the UK’s progress in reducing emissions and adapting to the risks of climate change.

Its conclusions were damning. The committee found there was “a substantial gap” between planned policies and what’s required and “an even greater shortfall in action”.

It outlined that the UK was on track to miss the fourth and fifth carbon budgets – and by a larger margin than last year. It emphasised the need for a “substantial step up in action” across the economy, – especially in acute sectors such as buildings and transport. On adaptation, the committee found that there was “little evidence of planning for even 2°C”, let alone for the recommended 4°C scenario.

Clearly, there is a failure by central government to prioritise this problem and to commit adequate resources. But local government also has a critical influence. This is particularly the case for local planning policy – a key regulator of emissions from building and transport.

"What – and how – we build today will determine our climate impact and resilience to risks"

There is a legal duty under section 19(1A) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 to ensure that climate change mitigation and adaptation are core objectives integrated across all local planning policy. There is also a legal obligation under the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) regulations to assess planning policy’s consistency with wider climate change objectives.

These duties are also supported by requirements in national planning policy and guidance that local planning support “radical reductions” in emissions in line with the Climate Change Act, on the basis of a “robust evaluation of future emissions”.

However, compliance with these long-standing obligations is poor. This was illustrated by a 2016 survey conducted by the Town and Country Planning Association that found only 30 per cent of the authorities surveyed assessed policies’ carbon impacts, with no indication that the picture has improved since then.

Although most local authorities have climate change policies, few can show that their planning policies are designed to secure their area’s contribution to the full decarbonisation of the UK, as required. This leads to a situation where those deciding applications are left with no clear guidance as to whether the proposed developments before them are consistent with their area’s decarbonisation plans.

In this context, the RTPI has emphasised that “without adequate planning systems and policies, there is no realistic way to progress to zero carbon” and that “nothing should be planned without having successfully demonstrated it is fit to take its place in a net-zero emissions future”. It is the only cost-effective, resilient and sustainable way to plan.

This is why ClientEarth has written to the 100 local planning authorities in England currently reviewing their local plans to remind them of their legal duties and to help them to understand what is needed to achieve compliance.

Specifically, local authorities need to do at least three things:

  • Set a local carbon target framework.
  • Demonstrate proposed planning policies’ consistency with this.
  • Monitor performance on at least an annual basis using relevant indicators.

A large number of councils have declared climate emergencies in recent months. Taking urgent steps to climate-proof local planning policy is one obvious way to implement those declarations.

The urgency of the situation is hard to escape. What – and how – we build today will determine our climate impact and resilience to risks. But it will also determine whether we can unlock the numerous benefits resulting from strong local action on carbon emissions, above all in allowing communities to lead healthier lives – for example, by reducing air pollution and increasing levels of cycling and walking.

Responding to the climate crisis is the defining issue of our time, and it is critical that local authorities invest enough time and resources on getting their response right, within their financial and other structural constraints.

A paradigm shift is required across every area our economy – and none more so than planning. For local authorities, this shift happens to be required by existing law. Sam Hunter Jones is a lawyer, climate accountability, with ClientEarth

Sam Hunter Jones is a lawyer, climate accountability, with ClientEarth

Image credit | iStock


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