How much weight should be afforded to addressing climate change in planning?

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It is undeniable that we are facing a climate change emergency. Planning policy and decision making will have a role to play in ensuring that development contributes towards addressing the emergency rather than exacerbating it. However, it is likely that a more balanced and flexible approach to wider policy objectives will be required to ensure that sustainable development can be delivered.

The long-term impact of climate change will largely depend on the choices we make in the coming years. These changes span all aspects of society, and planning is no exception.

We already have a range of measures enshrined in legislation, policy, and guidance which seek to reduce the environmental impacts of development by supporting ‘sustainable development’, and these are applied with varying levels of rigor across the country. The differing weight afforded to these measures reflects the relative importance placed on the three limbs of sustainable development defined as economic, social and environmental.

In an ideal world equal weight would be applied to the three limbs across all aspects of planning and development. However, perhaps understandably, this balance is influenced by prevailing national and local factors, particularly those that gain political momentum. For example, there was a clear shift towards favouring economic considerations following the global financial crisis; the need for development to act as an economic stimulus was afforded significant weight in decision making.

One might reasonably expect a similar shift to be taking place now in response to the COVID-19 economic shock. However, it is the environmental limb that appears to be gathering greatest momentum. This should not be surprising. We are, after all, facing a climate change emergency, and it is difficult to articulate a coherent argument against policy that seeks to stop or reverse climate change.

The more relevant question is whether the development industry can deliver on climate change aspirations in the absence of a rebalancing with other policy objectives. I will use Leeds as an example to highlight the potential implications.

Leeds City Council is preparing to consult on a Local Plan Update with a sole objective of strengthening the existing suite of planning policies to help address the climate change emergency. Leeds has adopted very ambitious targets for net zero carbon (2030 compared to 2050 nationwide) and sees the Update as a key tool to try and achieve this.

Leeds City Council – Core Strategy (as amended by the Core Strategy Selective Review 2019) Local Plan – https://www.leeds.gov.uk

Policy options are to be consulted on focusing on the themes summarised below. In each case the aspirational policy objective is presented alongside a more balanced, or cautious approach, but set within the context that a step change is required to achieve the stated ambition.

  • Carbon reduction: The vision is to minimise energy demand and meet all heat and power requirements without increasing carbon emissions; should new development be required to achieve a zero-carbon energy performance standard, and should this be alongside on-site renewable energy generation; should Leeds set a standard for sustainable construction for new residential development (e.g. BREEAM Residential).
  • Flood risk: Strengthening the policy requirement for use of SUDs in new development; including standards for flood resilient housing.
  • Green infrastructure: Strengthened policy for the protection, improvement and enhancement of green infrastructure; policies to enhance green space provision in the city centre; higher standards for biodiversity net gain (i.e. beyond 10%).
  • Placemaking: Support for the concept of ‘20-minute neighbourhoods’; a potential presumption against car dependent development.
  • Sustainable infrastructure: Should the Local Plan Update include a policy supporting mass transit transport

There is no dispute that a shift in policy is required. Leeds City Council should be applauded for taking a positive stance and leading from the front on this matter, and the initiatives correspond with the stated objectives of many organisations investing in the development industry. However, this investment is only made where it is viable because the additional costs driven by many of these measures can be supported by the local/sector specific market, or offset across a portfolio, for example.

Leeds City Council will have to assess their emerging policy approach against the viability of delivering development, and the weight to be attached to costs driven by other policy objectives, including those secured via s106 obligations and the Community Infrastructure Levy.

The challenge that Leeds City Council (and others) will face is getting the balance right. Can they contribute to addressing the climate emergency whilst ensuring development remains deliverable (i.e. viable). Addressing climate change has to be sustainable in its own right and this means balancing all three limbs of sustainable development; i.e. social and economic, as well as environmental.

We need to act fast to combat climate change. However, introducing uncompromising environmental policies must be underpinned by a proper understanding of their consequences for delivering sustainable development.

If addressing climate change, alongside the wide range of other policy aspirations and objectives is not viable then something will have to give. The phased introduction of some measures, and/or a temporary phasing out of other obligations may be one way of achieving this balance.

A more balanced approach to sustainability in planning would appear to be the best way of achieving our climate change objectives; a policy framework that has an environmentally sustainable focus, but with the flexibility in other areas to enable delivery of development where economic sustainability is undermined.

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