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Planning and Net Zero: The need for a change in political direction


Rishi Sunak’s commitment to environmental issues is not yet clear – his indecision over whether to prioritise the climate or the economic crisis was demonstrated in his procrastination over whether to attend COP27 or spend the time preparing the Autumn Statement.

On a more policy-specific level, the transformation of investment zones that occurred when Sunak replaced Truss indicates more support for the environment by this administration.  In this context, Secretary of State for Levelling Up Michael Gove stated, ‘anything that might in any way undermine environmental protections is out’.

So does this indicate that the necessary progress will be made in planning law to tackle the climate emergency, while also accommodating developers’ concerns? And are we likely to see the changes that are necessary to address each of these issues?

On a more positive note, the fuel crisis has expedited customer acceptance of energy efficient heating systems. Previously the greatest resistance to using only non-gas boilers in homes was buyer sentiment: concerns in relation to maintaining air source heat pumps and the fears attached to being an ‘early adopter’. In the past year, however, there has been a discernible change of heart, with many residents favouring new technologies.

The sticking point is now in installing and maintaining technologies such as air source heat pumps and ground source heat pumps. Developers and housing associations have teams in place to install and service gas boilers, but not necessarily the more recent technologies which require specialist knowledge of the latest systems – up-skilling is required, but will not happen overnight. Furthermore, local authorities are concerned about whether new technology will be as effective as is hoped – for example whether homes can be entirely independent of the National Grid. Even in those local authorities which have declared a climate emergency and are committed to fighting climate change, concerns remain about deliverability and longevity of renewable sources.

Whilst these implications are not necessarily impacting planning applications in the current pipeline, there will certainly be an impact on future applications where net zero may not have been a requirement when the site was allocated or purchased and could therefore impact viability. Emerging requirements for net zero should be taken into account at site promotion stage, although this is challenging with moving policy targets and ever changing technology.  

There is little sign of helpful legislation: the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill has the potential to deliver sustainable new developments featuring energy efficient housing and in doing so (most importantly in the case of affordable housing), can help address issues of fuel affordability, health and wellbeing and sustainability. But the Bill has stalled in its progress through Parliament and may not make it on to the Statute Book.

It was over a year ago that the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee published a report warning that the Government would fail to hit its 2050 net zero target unless it did more to engage with councils across a range of areas and called on the Government to give net zero a central role in the NPPF. Unfortunately, the proposed revisions to the NPPF, published for consultation in December, does little to provide certainty regarding environmental measures and the implementation of biodiversity net gain, as the amendments relate only to existing buildings rather than new development. Furthermore,  Research has found that just 13 per cent of land promoters and developers believe that the fulfilment of the proposed mandatory Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) requirements is ‘comfortably achievable’.

On a local level although emerging local plans are increasingly including policies to address environmental issues, many have stalled as a result of nutrient neutrality and other ‘moratoriums’, political indecision on issues such as housing targets and under-resourcing.

So is it possible to resolve both the housing crisis and climate change, and during a recession? Recent research (as reported in Environment Journal) has suggested that this is unrealistic: researchers from several institutions, including the University of Kent, University of Bath and University of Cambridge, used material flow and land use change models in relation to the Government’s target to build 300,000 new homes a year and, looking at both emissions needed to power homes and the emissions created through construction, found that the housing strategy would consume 104% of the UK’s carbon budget by 2050.

The combined forces of housing, financial and environmental demands create a considerable challenge. But facing up to the challenge must come with a realisation that delivering the required housing needn’t mean an adverse impact on climate change. It requires that the right policies are in place to ensure sustainable and responsible development and if effective policies can be implemented promptly, we can go some way towards resolving each of these issues.

Alice Davidson is an Associate Director at Boyer with over 9 years’ experience in the public and private sector. Alice works on a variety of projects but specialises in securing residential planning permissions and promoting land for residential development in the Thames Valley.

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