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“It’s not that radical”: the planning reform that will unlock net zero

An amendment to the Levelling-up Bill is looking to weld the planning system to the UK’s climate commitments.

By Megan Kenyon

The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is in the running to be the most amended piece of draft legislation in parliamentary history.

Nestled within more than 200 proposed changes is an opportunity for the government to address one of the biggest decarbonisation tasks facing the country: ensuring homes and other buildings are energy efficient. About 20 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions come from buildings, and around 15 million homes must be retrofitted by 2030 to meet the UK’s legally binding target of net-zero emissions by 2050. Retrofitting homes is expensive. In London alone, the estimated cost of re-insulating all eligible properties is over £98bn.

Although the urgency of this situation is well known, the UK’s planning system still hasn’t caught up. Homes that will later need to be retrofitted are still being built; gas boilers are being installed in new-build properties despite a plan to phase them out by 2035.

Planning reform holds the key to change. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which has been bouncing around parliament for the past eighteen months, mentions “planning” 680 times. At present local planning authorities must consider climate change mitigation and the country’s net-zero targets when making their decisions. The planning inspectorate and levelling-up secretary are not required to do the same, however.

Amendment 191, which was tabled by Lord Ravensdale, a crossbench peer, is intended to end this “two-speed approach to planning, where climate focus falls only to one lever of government”. It was passed by 182 votes to 172 in the House of Lords on 5 September.

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The amendment would make it much easier to make sure that planning decisions made in England are aligned with the UK’s climate mitigation targets. It would allow for councils to ensure that all developments are energy efficient and use low-carbon techniques. It would also place a heavier regulatory burden on controversial decisions such as the approval of a coal mine in Whitehaven, Cumbria.

[See also: What to expect from the shadow levelling-up secretary]

Lord Ravensdale told Spotlight that “putting net zero at the heart of planning decisions is a fundamental enabler for our climate and energy security ambitions” – and that goes beyond housebuilding. “[The amendment] will unlock the massive benefits that action on climate can bring UK businesses and communities, whether that is new onshore wind, grid infrastructure, or sustainable developments.”

Hugh Ellis, policy director at the Town and Country Planning Association, described the current system as “inconsistent”. He pointed out that the Climate Change Act, which sets the UK’s net-zero deadline of 2050, is not joined up legally in any way with planning policy.

This has resulted in contradictions. While the planning inspectorate has approved some local authorities’ plans for achieving net zero in their area, such as Bath and North East Somerset Council, others have been told that theirs could not go ahead because they do not align with national planning policy. Last year Lancaster City Council proposed a Climate Emergency Local Plan that set higher carbon standards for developments than current building regulations. The inspectorate told the council it must remove this policy from its local plan on the basis that it did not align with the Planning and Energy Act 2008.

UK100, a climate network for councils, worked closely with Lord Ravensdale on his amendment. Patrick Hargreaves, parliamentary officer for UK100, cited Lancaster’s example. “Their local plan was knocked back by the planning inspectorate on the basis it exceeded the national planning policies on energy efficiency standards,” he said. “We want our members to be able to develop really strong net-zero local plans and have confidence that the planning system is going to back them up and support them.” He urged the government to accept the “pretty mild” amendment. “It’s not that radical.”

Ellis said that if the amendment were included in the final bill, it would make a “tremendous difference” and would “reset the direction of planning in this country”. But he was not convinced the change would make it through parliament, because the government has not supported it yet. Ellis was also pessimistic about there being options that might stop the construction of inefficient homes.

If the government doesn’t support the amendment or update the National Planning Policy Framework to align it with the UK’s net-zero targets, he argued, “we’re just going to keep on building housing to the wrong standards”. This will only add to the considerable retrofitting task at hand.

[See also: How London and Boston are using their financial might to divest from fossil fuels]

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