Net zero and the climate emergency could lead to Heathrow expansion being reconsidered. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images Net zero and the climate emergency could lead to Heathrow expansion being reconsidered. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

7 times climate emergency declarations have hit development plans

Climate emergency declarations by local councils, the Welsh government and parliament have been used as both a reason to refuse and accept planning applications. ENDS looks at some of the impacts the declarations have had so far.

1 South Oxfordshire local plan stalled

Last week, South Oxfordshire District Council resolved to consign a controversial local plan to the dustbin and begin afresh. The plan was submitted for government approval in March, when the Conservatives controlled the council. A climate emergency motion was passed in April.

But following May’s local elections the administration was replaced with a coalition of Liberal Democrats and Greens who opposed the draft plan. It is based in part on the construction of the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway, the subject of separate legal challenges concerning habitats and strategic environmental assessment this year. The development of thousands of homes depends on it – 28,500 in South Oxfordshire alone.

However, communities secretary Robert Jenrick responded by threatening to use reserve powers to force the plan through.

2 Drax’s gas expansion approved

Arguably, one of the first key tests of this year’s net zero amendment to the Climate Change Act 2008 and the climate emergency was the government’s decision to allow Drax’s Re-power project to go ahead. It intends to replace its two remaining coal-fired units with a more efficient and responsive 3.6GW gas-powered system.

Examiners appointed by the Planning Inspectorate reached the conclusion that the development should not go ahead on climate grounds on the basis of the older 80% by 2050 target, as the amendment came too late to be considered. It represents “a significant risk of high carbon lock-in”, while the extent of consented gas generation already in the pipeline “shows low level need and urgency for fossil fuel generation”, the examiners’ report noted. They also doubted that it had been provided with a reliable estimate of greenhouse gas emissions.

But business and energy secretary Andrea Leadsom the government rejected the advice, stating that “there must be some fossil fuel generating capacity to provide back-up for when generation from intermittent renewable generating capacity” and that CO2 emissions do not form a reason to prohibit power station from gaining consent.

READ MORE: Has your council declared a climate emergency? 

3 Heathrow’s third runway under question

In the spring, a senior government official admitted that net zero and the climate emergency could stymie the expansion of Heathrow airport.

The Airports national policy statement (NPS) gave effective outline planning permission for a third runway. But a section of the Planning Act 2008 provides for the revision of NPSs when circumstances have changed significantly and without being anticipated since their designation.

The forthcoming Aviation 2050 strategy and the Committee on Climate Change’s views on aviation add to the argument that this power should be invoked, wrote Caroline Low, director of Heathrow expansion, aviation and maritime analysis at the Department for Transport.

The department will write to environmental lawyers Plan B Earth after the strategy is published to say if the review will be undertaken. 

Earlier this week, the chief executive of British Airways owner IAG Willie Walsh said he thought Heathrow would struggle to justify the environmental impact when the economic argument to expand the airport gets undermined by the cost of the expansion. IAG has also pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

4 Devon gas-fired plant rejected

In September, East Devon District Council rejected plans to build a 40 megawatt peaking plant, built around a series of gas engines. It cited a commitment in its local plan to promote renewables and low-carbon energy as a reason to go against the advice of a planning officer, adding it would be inconsistent with the emergency it had declared the previous month.

Applications to build power stations able to generate up to 50 megawatts of electricity are handled by local authorities, rather than under the nationally significant infrastructure planning regime.

5 Blaenau Gwent solar farm approved

Climate emergency declarations do not necessarily act as a block on developing energy infrastructure.

Last month, Welsh planning minister Julie James approved plans for a vast 30-megawatt solar farm in Tredegar. It went against the advice of a planning inspector, who had cited its visual impact on the landscape, particularly a nearby historic cemetery.

But James noted the climate emergency passed by the Welsh government in April, that Welsh planning policy emphasised decarbonisation and that the development would contribute to meeting 70% of national electricity demand from renewables by 2030.

6 Abergelli power station approved

Prefiguring her decision on Drax Power’s main facility, last month Leadsom decided that the firm’s 299MW gas-fired peaking plant project north of Swansea should be allowed to go ahead. It “would not itself be incompatible” with the Welsh emergency declaration or reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, she said.

Though the open cycle design would be more responsive to dips in power generation, it would also be less efficient than a combined cycle plant with a steam turbine. The amount of power it would produce, just shy of 300MW, also means that it would bypass the need to ensure that carbon capture and storage equipment can be retrofitted.

7 Hereford bypass ‘paused’

Herefordshire Council granted planning permission for a major bypass to the south of Hereford in July 2018. But following a change of control to an independent/Green coalition in May, it decided to pause the development, considering that it may be incompatible with the climate emergency that it declared in March.

The move has disrupted plans to build more than 3,000 homes around it. The Marches Local Enterprise Partnership has warned that it would ask for the £3.8m it provided for the project to be paid back.

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