Planning for climate change

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Overview: A new Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) is warning that the majority of new local plans in England are failing to cut carbon emissions and to plan for the scale of severe weather predicted over future years.  The report Planning for the Climate Challenge? Understanding the performance of English Local Plans, found that 70% had no carbon reduction targets or any way of monitoring their progress with carbon reduction.  The study established the extent to which climate change mitigation and adaptation are reflected as priorities in local plan policy in EnglandClick here to download the full report.

The spatial planning system provides for the democratic regulation of the built environment in the public interest, and has the potential to make a major contribution to both reducing carbon dioxide emissions and preparing for the growing impacts of climate change.This report reveals that the planning system is failing to fulfil this potential.

Despite the increasing intensity and frequency of climate-related impacts, local plans are not delivering on the basic standards set out in national law and policy for either mitigation or adaptation. To deliver the fundamental change required, climate change must be placed front and centre of the policy priorities of the spatial planning system. Only a radical refocusing of the system will meet the challenges of climate change, now and in the future.

The study underpinning this report explored how local plans published since the National Planning Policy Framework was produced in 2012 are addressing climate change. Drawing on a sample of 64 local planning authorities in total, and based on an analysis of local planning documents, a survey of local authority planners and four more-detailed, area-based case study examinations, the study established the extent to which climate change mitigation and adaptation are reflected as priorities in local plan policy in England.

The study found that local plans in England are not dealing with carbon dioxide emissions reduction effectively, nor are they consistently delivering the adaptation actions necessary to secure the long-term social and economic resilience of local communities. There was a wide variety of practice: there were some examples of positive responses, but, taken as whole, it is clear that since 2012 climate change has been de-prioritised as a policy objective in the spatial planning system. The large-scale failure to implement the clear requirements of national planning policy is a striking finding, as is the reduced capacity of the local authority planning service and the reduced capacity of Environment Agency to support the long-term plan-making process.

There are complex reasons for this situation – ranging from perceived contradictions in national policy to political signals from Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government and HM Treasury about the overwhelming priority to be given to the allocation of housing land. In addition, in many cases local plans do not meet national policy requirements on climate change but are still judged sound by the Planning Inspectorate. Underlying all of this is a crisis in resources in the local planning service which inhibits effective local policy-making.

The failure to use the planning system’s capability to help mitigate and adapt to climate change is inefficient, and is likely to lead to long-term avoidable costs to the economy. Conversely, there is a real opportunity to harness the system as a key local part of the national response to climate change. Fulfilling this potential requires, above all else, a signal from national government that climate change is a primary political, legal and policy priority for the local plan process.

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Key findings:

  1. Climate change has been de-prioritised as a significant local planning policy issue.
  2. Policy and legislation on climate change are poorly understood.
  3. National policy as set out in the National Planning Policy Framework and in National Planning Policy Guidance does provide for a clear approach to climate change. However, it also contains policy on viability which prevents some key actions from being delivered. In addition, changes made by subsequent amendments to energy, zero carbon and sustainable urban drainage policies have made action on many climate change responses more difficult.
  4. The evidence-gathering, methodologies and policy-making used to address flood risk were far more sophisticated than the equivalent for climate mitigation or any other aspect of adaptation. Local plans deal with carbon dioxide emissions reduction vaguely, often without an explicit methodology for measuring reductions.
  5. LPAs are failing to plan for future climate change and therefore are not planning for the adaptation measures necessary to secure long-term social and economic resilience.
  6. The governance of climate change issues at the local level is complex and sometimes contradictory. LPAs are not supported by a national agency to secure national carbon dioxide emissions reduction objectives, while the specific challenge of flood risk is reliant upon the support of the Environment Agency.
  7. Planning requirements do not apply to a wide range of land uses, which affects local responses to climate change.
  8. Specific approaches to dealing with climate change are still novel to many local authority planners, and access to affordable training is a major issue.
  9. Climate-change-related policy outlined in local plans is generally short term and not sufficiently future-facing to deal with climate risk.
  10. The duty to co-operate among LPAs is overwhelmingly focused upon housing growth, with little to no emphasis placed on cross-boundary climate change issues. However, strategic co-operation on issues such as evidence-gathering is a major opportunity area for climate change work.

This report recommends ten actions for national and local government that could significantly and cost effectively improve the performance of local plans in relation to climate change:

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