Planning reform is here, but where's net zero?

In its current form, the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill misses a major opportunity to align the national planning system in line with climate goals, writes the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC)’s Philip Box

“The planning system will be reformed”.

It was a small, seemingly innocent sentence in the Queen’s Speech. Yet it is one with big implications for delivering net zero.

After the government’s previous planning reforms were reportedly shelved following the Chesham and Amersham by-election, their future became subject to much speculation. Now, finally, the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill has arrived.

As advised by the Climate Change Committee, in response to the government’s previous plans to introduce a Planning Bill, the planning system must be fundamentally recast in light of our international environmental commitments, and to miss such a proposal opportunity would be serious.

The key ‘test’ for this – as advocated for by a wide range of stakeholders and business groups including the UKGBC and the Better Planning Coalition – will be whether any Bill puts planning on a path to directly align with the Climate Change Act and carbon budgets, with the underpinning policy and reliable mechanisms to achieve this, including carbon accounting in local plan making.

Whilst some measures within the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill may have some indirect benefits for climate, such as the focus on regenerating high streets, and the introduction of a new locally set Infrastructure Levy, we did not see anything ground-breaking. Indeed, where climate is mentioned in the Bill, there is little advance beyond the current status quo or current wording.

However, three key areas are worth homing in on for their potential sustainability implications:


1. Street votes

Most of the media’s attention was inevitably dominated by street votes. The idea that streets can vote on plans for collective rights to suburban intensification. Away from focus on neighborly relations, a less likely talked about, but arguably more important, angle is the relationship with net zero.

The original plans presented to government for on street votes contained strong stipulations on sustainability, including a net zero carbon condition. It will be crucial that these make it into any trials, and form a clear part of the governing “…requirements prescribed in the regulations”.


2. Environmental Outcomes Reports

Elsewhere campaigners have already zoned in on plans to replace EU-derived Strategic Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Assessments (SEA/EIA) with “Environmental Outcomes Reports”. The new reports will show how plans and development achieve outcomes which are to be specified in regulation. Although what this means in practice has not yet been confirmed, some will reportedly come across from Environment Act.

Despite the upfront commitment that the Bill will not reduce current levels of environmental protection, it is unclear how this will be upheld. Ministers will be able to set new conditions for environmental consents for projects, which could bypass current rules such as requirements under Habitat Regulations. Likewise, any plans for ‘wild belts’, a new designation to protect nature recovery networks, were notably absent.


3. Plan making

Greater weight will be given to both local plans and design codes. Meanwhile some policies will be moved nationally, the example given being the green belt. The rest of the National Planning Policy Framework will be re-focused on setting out the principles for plan-making.

With the template national design code encompassing a broad range of sustainability criteria, including embodied carbon, greater weight for design codes, and their roll out across England, it is potentially a positive step. However, where there will be controversy is through the exact relationship between national-level policies and the local. With a controversial clause stating that – in the event of a conflict – national will always trumps local, what this means for climate remains unclear.


So, what’s next?

With at least five relevant consultations promised and parliament debate due soon, Pandora’s box has certainly been opened. And as far as sustainability is concerned, there are clearly significant gaps that need addressing.

As stakeholders including the UK Green Building Council and the Better Planning Coalition look at what needs to change, it’s clear that now is the time for the planning system to be clearly, and reliably aligned with the UK’s Carbon budgets and net zero targets.

Whilst small steps and measures are welcome, if levelling-up is to become a reality, and the sector’s green industrial revolution realised, then planning must play its part and set a clear, more reliable framework to support green investment and development.

Philip Box is policy and public affairs advisor at UKGBC





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