Why the government needs to make sure net zero is in local plans

By Andrew Wood
25th March 2022

CPRE has been researching what local plans are doing, aren’t doing and should be doing about the climate emergency, and we’re now publishing our first set of findings. To be frank, it’s not looking good.

The vast majority of councils in England – around 85% – have declared climate emergencies and announced ambitious local targets. Many are aiming to reach net zero emissions by 2030, way ahead of the national target of 2050. But of the 24 local authority local plans adopted outside Greater London since 2019 only one – the Plymouth and South-West Devon Joint Plan – sets out a quantified strategy to reduce its area’s carbon output alongside building new housing stock and encouraging more economic development. Crucially, in the other 23 plans, the government-appointed Planning Inspector did not intervene to require a carbon target.

Despite a national policy requirement that local plans should help to achieve ‘radical reductions’ in emissions, there is very little evidence of radical measures to demonstrate how an area would reach net zero. None of the plans we studied tackles the tensions between economic growth, car dependence and reducing emissions, or shows that different spatial options for new development and transport links have been considered, and the lowest carbon option chosen.

'Despite a national policy requirement that local plans should help to achieve ‘radical reductions’ in emissions, there is very little evidence of radical measures to demonstrate how an area would reach net zero.'

Our research tells us that any council can put real climate action into its local plan if it wishes, and doing so is compatible with government policy. Unfortunately, those councils who choose to do nothing, face no scrutiny or sanction from central government. In effect, then, the government is being hands-off about the potential of local plans to address the climate emergency.

Intuitively, the government’s position makes no sense. Almost two-thirds – 62% – of our carbon emissions come from housing, industry and transport – all the main sectors for which plans have a shaping role through the developments they support or reject. Most emissions reductions achieved so far have come from the decline of polluting heavy industries and the welcome removal of coal from our energy supply. Switching energy supply to renewable electricity is another crucial ingredient. But there is no way to meet 2030 or 2050 targets without three big changes:

  • making existing places, and the buildings within them, much more energy efficient
  • ensuring that every new building that gains planning permission is zero carbon
  • reducing private car mileage by around 15-20% by 2040

Every decision that doesn’t embed these three changes is a missed opportunity for climate action, so we need to see serious and immediate action and planning policies to support them. Local plans should be doing this right now. So – why aren’t they?

Hopeful signs

There is evidence that councils do want planning to be more pro-active. Some emerging plans, such as Lancaster and Leeds, seem to be heading in the right direction, and in my experience most local authority planners understand the climate emergency and want to take action. But something is holding them back.

We think a crucial obstacle is lack of direction and focus from national planning policy. When it comes to housebuilding, local plans have to set precise, quantified targets, and there is much deliberation about them when plans are examined by inspectors.

By contrast, there is no requirement to set a carbon reduction target. If – as in Plymouth and South West Devon – a council does adopt a quantified carbon target then it will need to show that it is implementable. But if it doesn’t set a target, there is no scrutiny and no penalty. If you’re working hard to get your local plan adopted, why would you make additional work that the inspector is not demanding of you?

It’s time for the government to recognise that, even when there is an appetite for climate action at local authority level, progress will not happen without robust national policies that require ambitious, measurable and strictly enforced targets – giving net-zero the same importance that is attached to housing delivery. That’s why CPRE is campaigning for changes to the national planning rules, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and for amendments to planning legislation, to make sure this can happen.

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