Few ‘climate emergency’ councils have carbon-cutting plans

Less than a fifth of councils that have declared a climate emergency have an up-to-date local plan that includes specific policies to increase energy efficiency or cut carbon emissions, according to recently published research.

Consultancy Savills looked at climate change-related policies in local plans across England, finding “little correlation between local authorities declaring a climate emergency and implementing climate mitigation and adaptation measures in their local plans”.

Of the councils that have announced a climate emergency, 71 per cent have an up-to-date local plan in place, but only 19 per cent of these contain “specific energy efficiency or binding carbon policies”, Savills said.

However, more recently adopted plans are the most likely to contain these types of policy. “Fifty per cent of plans adopted in 2020 contain specific carbon emission reduction policies, compared to just 13 per cent of those adopted in 2015,” the research found.

Savills also found that, of the two-thirds of councils with local plans adopted since the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012, just under half are currently reviewing the documents, with adoption dates expected throughout 2022 and 2023.

“Once these reviews are complete, if local authorities meet the commitments made in their climate emergency declarations, we should see climate resilience policies in local plans reach over 50 per cent coverage by 2024,” the report said.

The research highlighted the “spatial and regulatory levers” available to local planning policy decision-makers, including that planning permissions are being delivered “in the most sustainable locations or in ways that encouraged active travel or use of public transport”; co-location to, for example, “facilitate heat from one land use being beneficially used for another use through a shared heating system”; and through building regulations.

The research said that councils have the ability to set higher energy efficiency standards than the existing Part L building regulations requirements on energy efficiency, or stipulate a minimum BREEAM rating, a measure of sustainability for new buildings.

In total, the research found, “67 local authorities in England have policies for residential development in their most recently adopted local plans that do this, accounting for 21 per cent of local authorities across the country”.

However, it added that, “this leaves 79 per cent of local authorities, with housing need totalling 216,000 homes per year, not requiring any additional measures beyond existing Part L regulations”.

Such policies are more frequently found in urban areas, including Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge, Reading, Portsmouth and multiple London boroughs, the research said.

Local authorities can also “specify carbon offsetting requirements, including making payments to an independent provider, or payment to a national CO2 abatement fund by means of an agreed cost per tonne of carbon”, it added.

It pointed out that “many local authorities have used £60 per tonne of carbon emitted over a 30-year period as a baseline for offsetting", but added that in higher value areas, “a higher level of pricing is possible; in Bristol and in the London Plan financial contributions are set at £95 per tonne over 30 years, although London boroughs can set their own requirements beyond this baseline”.

The report concluded that, while this flexibility “is a positive in terms of not placing undue burdens on developers”, it will “lead to a reduced contribution to carbon offsetting in lower-value areas where viability may already be marginal”.

The research also noted the “potential trade-offs” between climate mitigation measures and the need to deliver enough homes to meet housing need, highlighting areas that have both high policy requirements for affordable housing provision and ambitious carbon reduction policies, particularly:

Harborough and Harrogate, which have both “set an affordable housing requirement of 40 per cent, and encourage new developments to reach high environmental standards including passive design measures and renewable energy technology”;

Richmondshire, which “requires 30 per cent affordable housing while also asking for all new housing developments to incorporate on-site renewable energy”.

South Oxfordshire, where the recently adopted local plan “requires new development to reach a 50 per cent reduction against 2013 emission baselines from 2026, and for all schemes to be zero carbon from 2030, while also requiring 40–50 per cent affordable housing”.

“This level of policy aspiration in a combination of policy areas increases the risk to project viability and as a consequence, deliverability,” Savills warned.

A version of this story was first published in Planning Magazine.

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