Commentary

Planning for a low carbon future

The past 50 years have seen patterns of development that lock us into unsustainable levels of carbon emissions, write Nick James and Pete Baker of LUC.

New residential developments are usually located on the periphery of our settlements, often with poor access to work, shops and schools, increasing car dependency and our reliance on fossil fuels. There is a need for radical change in the way that we plan for the future of our towns and cities – in terms of both new and existing development.

The tide is starting to turn. Just under three-quarters of councils across the UK have declared climate emergencies. There is, however, often a gap between the aspirations reflected in climate declarations and practical understanding of what is needed to reduce carbon emissions – including the role of the planning system.

Local government

Local authorities have a key role to play in helping to achieve challenging local and national targets for carbon reduction. Councils operate as large organisations and service providers. They can include measures to improve their buildings’ energy efficiency, installing or sourcing low-carbon energy, moving to a low-carbon vehicle fleet and encouraging employees to adopt low-carbon behaviours.

Local authorities can also provide leadership to local partners, businesses and communities, giving information and support to carbon reduction initiatives and measures across the council area. A fundamental aspect of this is developing partnerships and bringing together public and private sector interests to address challenges and funding gaps.

Through their development plans, local authorities have the opportunity to shape the type and location of development. Many local authorities are starting to define their vision of a low-carbon future, providing a policy framework to reduce carbon emissions whilst creating green, accessible and resilient place for people to live and work. This is a challenging task for many local authorities and they need robust guidance from central government, alongside advice and support from specialists in the field.

Sound evidence

Good policies need a sound evidence base. The CarbonJust project has combined information on key climate risks with socio-economic data to highlight those communities likely to be most affected by climate change, but least well-equipped to prepare, respond or recover from severe events.

There are a range of sources of data on current and projected emissions at local authority level. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy publishes local authority emissions data, broken down by sector. For most places, the data show a decrease in emissions, driven largely by decarbonisation of the grid. However, emissions from transport and domestic buildings – many heated by gas and with poor insulation – remain stubbornly high.

Census data can provide valuable insights into commuting patterns in terms of origins, destinations and modes of travel. This can highlight areas where interventions could encourage people onto low carbon modes, or areas where new development would almost certainly result in an increase in emissions from transport. It can also be instructive to identify particular sources of emissions and, equally importantly, those undeveloped areas that are important in sequestering and storing carbon.

Local authorities tend to rely on a wide range of sources to inform their environmental policies. Finding these sources and applying them to regional differences takes a significant amount of time and resources, reducing their ability to create dynamic and effective policies. This is where multidisciplinary consultancy firms can provide the information and advice that local authorities need to achieve net zero. An example of this is assessing the renewables capacity within the plan area can help inform policies for solar, district heating, hydro and wind energy development – something we have done for Test Valley and West Northamptonshire.

Clear vision and objectives

Ideally, plans will begin with a clear vision statement describing a low carbon future and the changes that are needed to achieve this within the current plan period. Salford’s Local Plan, for example, includes a vision which describes the intergenerational nature of the challenge, the links between climate and health and the importance of responding to the economic and policy changes that will result from the changing climate. Responding to the challenges of a changing climate should then thread through the plan, reflected in policies and the supporting narrative.

Our work with planning authorities has highlighted key areas where carbon reduction should be reflected in policy, including:

  • Energy hierarchy
  • Micro, small and large scale renewables
  • Heat networks
  • Emerging technologies
  • Walking, cycling, wheeling and public transport
  • New and remodelled ‘20 minute’ neighbourhoods
  • Mixed uses and home working
  • Parking standards and EV charging
  • Carbon sequestration and biodiversity net gain

Clear and unambiguous statements about what is required of new development will help create certainty for the development sector, particularly where policies are broadly aligned across local authority boundaries. There will always be concerns about impacts of higher building standards or the integration of renewable on viability but buildings with lower running costs are likely to be increasingly popular as energy costs continue to rise. Higher capital costs are likely to be spread across the value chain, with some reflected in higher purchase prices, some in slightly reduced profits and some in reduced prices paid for land.

Decisions, decisions

Good policies need to be accompanied by good decision-making processes. Our work with Blackburn with Darwen included development of a climate impacts framework linked to the climate positive policies set out in the local plan. The framework helps set out clear expectations for developers as well as guiding the development management process and providing a rationale for elected members’ decisions.

We may also need to review the weight that carbon reduction is given, relative to other issues, in planning decisions. The urgency of the climate and ecological emergencies are so great that we may need to compromise some values that until recently might have been regarded as sacrosanct. Can we accept solar panels on listed buildings or in conservation areas where these help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels?

As planners, we need to rise to the net zero challenge, ensuring that carbon reduction is fully integrated with plan policies and that these policies are reflected in development on the ground. We need to work with developers, communities and householders to create a shared vision for the creation of greener, healthier and lower impact places to live and work. This should be our legacy to a low carbon future.

  • Nick James is a director of LUC and an environmental planner. He has led much of LUC’s work focusing on planning and carbon reduction and sequestration
  • Pete Baker is a senior low carbon management planner at LUC, with a background in carbon modelling and practical carbon reduction measures

Your Comments

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Great piece and some fab ideas, should be applauded, enjoyed reading this. Whilst the carbon agenda is now happening at pace (or at least should / seems to be) the frustration is that many industry professionals have once again jumped on the bandwagon professing ideals that lack thorough understanding and coordination. Not referring to this post per se and to be fair there are some great points, but really, there are more off shoots appearing on this subject than a garden ivy bush. Every discipline needs to be involved yes and allowing ‘experts’ keen to up-sell into the dream is fine but please, please make sure that before offering advice that the right skills are available and have been considered. For example, M&E engineers have been trying to educate and get across these very issues for many years. We all saw this with the biomass craze of the noughties (are there any still any working?), importantly, beware not to only rely on what the computer models are telling you! Considered experience and common sense is key to forming and addressing policies and legislation.

By Norman Atall

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