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Planning to fail: net zero is impossible without urgent changes to planning

25 March 2022

  • Most local authorities have ambitious climate targets – but national planning policy is not fit for purpose, leaving council leaders without the tools to hit their legally-binding targets
  • Housing, transport, business and industry generate 62% of our carbon emissions – the only way to hit net zero is for these key sectors to commit to measurably reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • This isn’t happening – the government must fix the planning system so local authorities have the power to demand and enforce year-on-year reductions in emissions

Reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is impossible without urgent changes to national planning policy, analysis by CPRE, the countryside charity, has found.

A study of all 24 local plans outside Greater London, that have been adopted since the Climate Change Act was updated in 2019, shows just one local authority has introduced a quantified, strategic-level carbon reduction target. No other local authority has a plan to hit net zero. In each case, government planning inspectors have been content to sign off plans without making tackling the climate emergency a central priority. A study of inspectors’ reports produced before plans are adopted showed an average of only one mention of ‘climate’ for 24 mentions of ‘housing’.

Housing, transport, business and industry generate 62% of our carbon emissions. That is why CPRE is calling for the climate emergency to be urgently put at the heart of planning decisions so that we have a realistic chance of hitting net zero by 2050.

For this to happen, the National Planning Policy Framework must be amended so that:

• All new developments demonstrate a measurable reduction in net carbon emissions over the life of the development;
• All plans demonstrate how they will deliver a reduction in private car mileage;
• Any plans to boost housing and employment must also be justified on the basis of the additional carbon reductions they will deliver; and
• All councils must have their net-zero carbon target integrated across the local plan as a whole, and this should be an additional test of soundness at examination.

Planning inspectors must give as much weight to environmental targets as they do house building targets. Yet national planning policy has failed to keep up with climate change legislation, leaving ambitious carbon reduction targets impossible to achieve.

CPRE’s research shows how national planning policy sets detailed and specific house building targets, with planning inspectors regularly requiring changes to local authority plans that fall short. Conversely, climate targets are generalised, subjective and hard to enforce, with no evidence that inspectors find fault with plans on environmental grounds.

Commenting on the research, Crispin Truman, chief executive of CPRE, the countryside charity, said:

‘We’re not going to hit net zero by accident – we need to plan for it. Unfortunately, local authorities are hamstrung by national planning policy that is woefully behind the times on this issue. Local plans need to act like road maps plotting the path towards the sustainable future envisaged by the government’s climate change legislation. The fact that they don’t come close to doing so is proof of the failure of current national planning policy.

‘In terms of climate, we are planning to fail. It is impossible to hit net zero if it isn’t prioritised in local plans. Providing the attractive, affordable homes that people need and ensuring it is environmentally sustainable is not an either/or trade off. We need to do both at the same time and with the same level of commitment.

‘Worryingly, CPRE’s research has found clear cut evidence that planning inspectors routinely force local authorities to adopt house building targets with no attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Worse still, there is no evidence of any serious effort to reduce car journeys – new developments are frequently planned on the edges of towns with no requirements to provide better public transport or cycle lanes to reduce road journeys.

‘We found not a single example of planning inspectors demanding changes to plans to ensure they reduce carbon emissions. This was in sharp contrast to how local plans must itemise and quantify how they will meet housing needs. Both objectives are important, but there is a stark difference in emphasis. It’s time for a revitalised, net zero-focused planning system to increase biodiversity, enhance the countryside’s ability to soak up carbon and create sustainable places to live.’

Changing how places work in order to make them a lot less energy-hungry is a crucial step on the road to net zero – and the planning system is the means to do it. Local plans need to radically reduce public dependence on car travel, including by introducing thriving ‘20-minute neighbourhoods’ that place housing, amenities and workplaces within walking distance of each other. Industrial and commercial developments could be permitted on the condition they install solar panels, helping create a modern network of rooftop renewable energy that would reduce pressure on the countryside. A renewed ‘brownfield first’ approach would redevelop land and buildings in the heart of communities where housing is most needed, retaining and reusing the embodied carbon.

Notes to editors

CPRE has looked at the 24 local plans adopted since the legally binding national net-zero 2050 target took effect, to find examples of the kinds of policies that are being included, and whether planning inspectors are intervening to address climate action. Our findings are set out below.

The best plan so far: Plymouth & South Devon Joint Plan
This is the only recently-adopted plan that contains a quantified, strategic carbon reduction target to support the council’s 2030 net-zero commitment. The council also won an RTPI Award for Planning Excellence, for its innovative use of the Community Infrastructure Levy with a climate emergency bonus to help fund local environmental projects. Whilst there are a number of aspects we would have liked to see improved, CPRE believes this is to be the best example so far of an adopted local plan getting to grips with climate action. The carbon target was added to the local plan during the public examination at the council’s initiative, with technical evidence to justify it, but not because the Inspector required it. We noted that there were no representations about carbon reduction from other participants in the examination – reinforcing our concern about the lack of climate advocates in the process.

Signs of improvement: Lancaster City Council
Lancaster adopted a plan in July 2020 which was already too far advanced to reflect the council’s declared climate emergency, and lacked a carbon reduction strategy. To remedy this the council embarked on a climate emergency review of the plan in summer 2021. This is an example that we hope other authorities will follow, and offers a sign that the next round of local plans we see adopted in 2022 and beyond will deal with climate issues better than their predecessors.

The 22 local plans that do not include quantified carbon reduction targets are:
Bedford Borough Council
Bolsover District Council
Central Bedfordshire Council
Chelmsford City Council
Cheltenham Borough Council
County Durham
Dartmoor National Park Authority
Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council
Harrogate Borough Council
Hart Borough Council
Isles of Scilly
Lake District National Park
Mansfield District Council
North-East Derbyshire District Council
North Essex Joint Plan
Northumberland National Park and North York Moors National Park
Oxford City Council
Runnymede Borough Council
South Kesteven District Council
South Oxfordshire District Council

For further information, case studies or to interview a spokesperson, please contact: Sam Relph, CPRE Media Relations Lead, 020 7981 2827 / 07982 805759

About the analysis
CPRE has looked at the 24 local plans outside Greater London which have been adopted since the government introduced its net-zero 2050 target. On average, these authorities need to reduce per capita CO2 emissions by around 9% every year in order to meet their net-zero commitments. Yet only one of those local plans actually adopts a quantified, strategic-level carbon reduction target.