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The Research Brief: How planning problems are slowing down the green transition

Your weekly dose of policy thinking.

By Spotlight

Welcome to the Research Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, brings you the pick of recent publications from the government, academia, think tank, charity and NGO world. You can find more editions of the Research Brief here.

What have you been reading this week? With all of the news around net zero, planning reform, and the slow passage of the Levelling-up Bill through parliament, we’ve been reading Planning law, levelling-up, and net zero: empowering planning authorities to combat climate change. It’s a new “expert briefing” from the Centre for Climate Engagement (CCE) at the University of Cambridge.

Expert, eh? Cambridge, eh? Fancy. That’s right. The CCE brings together academics from across the university and elsewhere, with the aim of “bringing leading academic research to a targeted audience of chairs and non-executive directors to accelerate climate leadership on boards in the private and public sectors”. The lead author on this project is Samuel Ruiz-Tagle, an academic at Hughes Hall (that’s a Cambridge college) whose focus is on planning law and urban governance.

What has planning law and urban governance got to do with climate change? Glad you asked, because that’s the crux of the paper. Basically, the UK’s built environment is responsible for more than its fair share of carbon emissions – around 20 per cent of the total, to be precise – and most of that comes from housing. In fact, our old, draughty, poorly insulated housing stock is some of the least energy efficient in Europe.

Local planning authorities – those are the local council-run bodies that are responsible for planning permissions in any given area – are meant to prepare policies that address climate change, and have been under a legal obligation to do so since 2004.

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So far, so good. So what’s the issue? Well, this statutory obligation hasn’t been very effective. The buildings sector “remains the second largest source of emissions in the UK”, says the CCE briefing. (On behalf of our readers, we checked to find the largest source, which is, you guessed it, transport.)

Why aren’t planning authorities improving the situation, if they’re obliged to? As regular readers of Spotlight will know, when it comes to local authorities in contemporary Britain, the issue isn’t one of will but one of capacity. Councils don’t have the financial resources or personnel to carry out some of their key functions. They and their planning authorities are meant to draw up local plans for use by developers and anyone wishing to submit building proposals. These are a bit like a guide for what the planning authorities want building-wise for their respective areas, and what they’re likely to approve and reject. When it comes to climate change, these plans could account for measures around insulation, double-glazing, heat pumps, or areas for solar panel installation and green space.

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The problem is, in the diplomatic language of the briefing, this system “relies on the administrative capacity of local authorities”, which often leaves a lot to be desired (particularly since many councils have lost up to two-thirds of their central government funding in the past thirteen years). The current approach relies on cash-strapped councils drawing up detailed local plans with clear climate mitigation and adaptation strategies, and this “has not been fully effective”, says the CCE.

The briefing points to research from the government’s own independent Climate Change Committee, which has found that “most local plans do not acknowledge the extent of the challenge of delivering net zero and need significant revision”. Most local plans are long out of date – some were made the last millennium, and only around 40 per cent have been adopted in the last half decade. It takes an average of seven years for councils to develop new local plans. That’s because plan-making is “expensive, complex and time-consuming” and the lack of local authority resources “hinders the efficacy of the plan-making process”.

It’s worth noting, however, that even where local planning authorities are considering climate change adaptation and mitigation, they face inconsistent decision-making at the upper tier of the planning process. While councils are legally bound to make this consideration, the planning inspectorate and levelling-up secretary (who have the final say) are not. Some local planning authorities, such as West Oxfordshire Council and Lancaster City Council, have had their climate conscious planning decisions thrown out by the inspectorate.

What is to be done? The CCE says that there’s an opportunity to help solve this issue in the passage of the Levelling-up Bill (currently going through the Lords). Rather than relying on local plans that are often out of date or non-existent, individual decision-makers making the calls on planning applications should be given the powers to take climate mitigation and adaptation arrangements into account on individual planning applications. These could be considered irrespective of the overlap with often inadequate local plans.

Currently, the paper says, there is a “lack of express statutory provisions empowering decision-makers to assess the climate-related effects of individual planning applications”. Reversing this wouldn’t mean doing away with local plans, but it would be a quicker way of getting climate decisions embedded into planning applications. The alternative is waiting for local authorities to have the free resources and expertise available to write new, relevant, place-appropriate local plans – which could take, erm, let’s just say “a while”.

Quick! Somebody tell the Lords! Our ermine army is one step ahead of you. Amendments have been tabled which, says our briefing paper, “would empower decision-makers to consider climate change adaptation and mitigation, as well as climate and nature targets, in individual planning decisions.” They’ve been tabled by a group including Lord Ravensdale, a crossbench peer, Baroness Hayman, a former shadow environment secretary for Labour, and Lord Lansley, the former Conservative health secretary. Our very own policy respondent Megan Kenyon has the latest on this amendment and its passage through parliament as the bill goes into its final stages.

In a sentence? Local councils and planning authorities don’t have the time and money to draw up new local plans, so rather than waiting for them to do so, let’s give planning decision-makers the freedom to think about climate when individual applications are under consideration.

Read the full report from the Centre for Climate Engagement here.

If you have a report, briefing paper or a piece of research that you’d like featured in the Research Brief, get in touch at

[See also: The planning reform that will unlock net zero]