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Is the Government’s planning policy helping to meet the net zero carbon target by 2050?

Evolution of Government policy for addressing climate change

The pathway towards a greener economy and a net zero target by 2050 was first set out by the UK Government in the “Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener” publication in October 2021. The UK was the first G7 country to sign this commitment to law.

Since then, we have had the British Energy Security Strategy, published in April 2022, which highlighted the progress being made on the Prime Minister’s 10 point plan for a “green industrial revolution”.

More recently, the “Mission Zero: Independent Review of Net Zero” published by Chris Skidmore MP in January 2023 sought to provide a plan for the UK’s future energy transition. Through a planning lens, it identified that reforming the approach to planning was key to realising the infrastructure required for net zero across all levels of development.

The revised draft NPPF published in December 2022 has the potential to play an important role in terms of guiding net zero objectives. Furthermore, the “Powering up Britain” policy paper published by the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero in March 2023 stated that changes to the NPPF will be required to ensure an effective system that supports the UK’s net zero and energy security goals.

It is worth noting that a public consultation closes on 23 June 2023, seeking views on the revised energy National Policy Statements that support decisions on major energy infrastructure. The updates are expected to speed up the planning process so that “low-carbon generation can be brought forward at the right time and in the right places”.

Application of Government policy

At a local level, more than 300 District, County, Single-Tier Councils and Combined Authorities have declared a climate emergency. In essence, these declarations have been made to reduce or halt climate change and its irreversible environmental impacts. A large proportion of these authorities have set a more progressive target of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. This ambition is mirrored by Skidmore, who encourages a set of “trailblazer places that want to go further and faster on net zero, with the aim of reaching net zero by 2030”.

It now seems that this approach will be demonstrated with greater clarity in the NPPF. Powering up Britain refers to a set of proposed changes to address energy policy and that the Government will respond to the NPPF consultation in due course.

A flavour of the Government’s approach to energy and sustainability can be found in a set of planning decisions related to a development plan and determinations in recent months, which reflect the challenges associated with achieving the net zero target.

i. West Oxfordshire District Council

In the summer of 2022, West Oxfordshire District Council (WODC) submitted its Area Action Plan for a Salt Cross Garden Village to the Planning Inspectorate. The plan included a policy that required all new development to be net zero on site through the use of “ultra-low energy fabric specification, low carbon technologies and on-site renewable energy generation”. The Local Plan Inspectors rejected the net zero policy within the plan for two reasons, stating that it was not “consistent with national policy or justified”.

In March 2023, the Inspectors released their full report on the examination of the Salt Cross Garden Village Area Action Plan. The first reason for refusal was that the net zero policy was confirmed as being inconsistent with national policy, as the standards within it amounted to significant uplift on key performance indicators. These related to building fabric, overheating, energy efficiency, use of fossil fuels, renewable energy and embodied carbon, as set out in the 2013 Building Regulations. The approach therefore conflicted with national policy including the 2015 Written Ministerial Statement (WMS), which stated that policies should “not be used to set conditions on planning permissions with requirements above the equivalent of the energy requirement of Level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes”.

It is worth noting that the 2015 WMS predates the climate emergency declared by WODC, the recent publications from government on net zero targets and the changes to the Part L Regulations in June 2022. The changes to the building regulations are intended to pave the way for the Future Homes and Buildings Standard in 2025, however, the Inspectors stated that “notwithstanding the passage of time and intervening events, the 2015 WMS remains current national policy on this matter”.

Section 1 of the Planning and Energy Act 2008 does allow for some policies to exceed energy requirements of building regulations if they are deemed reasonable and consistent with national policies. In this case, the Inspectors did not regard the requirements as reasonable.

The second reason for rejecting the WODC policy on net zero was that it was not justified. The Inspectors noted that there was a lack of evidence base to demonstrate the appropriateness of building typologies and how key performance indicators were selected over alternatives. It was also deemed that the standards within the plan were too rigid, and could not be realistically met by the end user. The report also questioned the flexibility of the standards of the policy, in relation to the ever-changing net zero building policy and in response to “technological and market advancements and more stringent nationally set standards, including within the Building Regulations”.

This outcome suggests that further clarity is required on how the planning system responds to the challenges of net zero.

ii. West Cumbria Mining

With regards to the determination of applications, in December 2022, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, gave the green light for the UK’s first new coal mine in 30 years in Cumbria. The coal mine is estimated to produce 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year. The Secretary of State stated that carbon offsetting from the coal mine would result in it having an “overall neutral effect on climate change and is thus consistent with Government policies for meeting the challenge of climate change”. He added that it would be consistent with paragraph 152 of the NPPF by supporting the transition to a low carbon future, while providing much needed employment and investment.

However, in March 2023 the energy think tank Ember produced a study that estimated that the applicant’s forecasted methane emissions had been underestimated, and that the mitigation levels were overstated. As a result, the report states that “the approval endangers the United Kingdom’s commitments under the Global Methane Pledge and other international climate change agreements”.

iii. M&S / ITV, London

Finally, the Government’s approach to adapting existing buildings has recently been tested at two public inquiries held in November and December 2022, relating to the proposed demolition and redevelopment of two buildings in London – the Marks and Spencer Store on Oxford Street and the former ITV studios in South Bank. We understand that the Inspectors’ Reports have been submitted, so the Secretary of State’s decisions are awaited with much interest.

Concluding comment

There does appear to be a genuine commitment from the Government to reach the net zero target by 2050. However, the Government itself acknowledges that clearer guidance is needed in its planning policy about how to achieve this ambition. We will await with interest how changes to policy will affect decision making on strategic projects.