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Race to net zero: the crucial role of Planning in driving sustainable development

Planning By Matt Brooksbank, Principal Planning Consultant – 23 February 2022

Aerial view of green fields and a road


Matt Brooksbank standing in a brightly lit office hallway

Matt Brooksbank

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In the first of a series of articles exploring the tools at planners' disposal for helping to drive sustainable development, Matt Brooksbank provides an overview of key planning challenges and opportunities related to the climate crisis and what this means for clients.

The climate emergency has been at the forefront of debate recently and this rightly shows signs of accelerating. COP26 acted as an effective catalyst for discussion, and the Government's recently published Net Zero Strategy is interesting, however resulting action is less clear.

A planner's role involves mediating stakeholder interests and balancing issues and opportunities for the right outcome. Planners connect the dots between different aspects of a development proposal, and they bridge the gap between the competing interests of stakeholders. This gives planners a key role to play in enable development which is sustainable and deliverable.

The UK has a plan-led system - this means the starting point for decision making is the Development Plan, which must be adhered to unless material considerations indicate otherwise. One such material consideration is the National Planning Policy Framework, which adopts the Brundtland definition of sustainable development, 'meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'. Local planning authorities are required to maintain an up-to-date local plan, a valuable opportunity to set meaningful targets at a local level.

Many local authorities, including the vast majority of London Boroughs, have formally declared a Climate Emergency. This is a positive step, though the read-through into policy and development is sometimes unclear. Continued delays in adopting local plans across the UK in recent months have proved a further obstacle to change. This can lead to local areas relying on decades-old planning policies in development plans which might not reflect the latest thinking.

Another interesting recent change lies around the expansion of permitted development rights. There are positives to this from a whole life carbon perspective – their expansion makes retrofit and reuse of existing buildings more straightforward. However, the fact that the Development Plan and the planning process can be bypassed for an increasing array of development proposals calls into question the effectiveness of this aspect of the planning system in underpinning sustainability. As the development opportunities afforded by permitted development rights has grown, powers such as Article 4 directions are an important tool at Council's’ disposal. Building regulations also have a greater role to play in filling this void in the planning system.

Despite the slow pace of change, there are changes on the horizon which could bring clarity and consistency. There is a push for climate-friendly planning policies in local plans and local plan reviews. For example, the London Plan includes a commitment towards net zero targets for major development, paving the way for local authorities in other parts of the UK to follow suit with similarly ambitious policies. Client-side ambition is clear to see, and the construction industry more widely is increasingly switched on to the issues at hand. The need for well-resourced planning departments, and effective and meaningful collaborative working has never been more important.

Clearly emerging policy and legislation relating to sustainability and the environment can have wide ranging implications for development proposals. The nature of these implications is fluid and depends on many variables including project location and timescales. It is key for consultants - and their clients - to stay abreast of the evolving policy and legislative context to drive planning strategies which enable sustainable and deliverable development proposals.

Next in this series, Claire Hattam who explores the significant role the historic environment can play in helping to meet national net-zero carbon reduction targets, and importantly, how we should adapt our approach to historic building conservation to ensure the opportunities presented by the UK’s historic building stock can be harnessed effectively.