Should planning be a friend of the earth?

Should planning be a friend of the earth?

by aurora planning

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 
The importance of addressing the global climate emergency has very much been brought to the fore this month as world leaders debated their collective approach to this at COP 26, including actions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius per the Paris Agreement. At the same time, albeit without the same international media coverage, this month saw the Scottish Government publish its draft National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4), the opening text of which includes a commitment to embracing and delivering radical change to tackle climate change as part of creating great places, and which states that:
“The way we live, learn, work and play in the future will need to be consistent with our ambition to achieve net zero emissions and nature recovery.”
But just what is planning’s role in this. Or, what should it be?
This is of course not a new question. Indeed, our Director Maggie was first asked whether planning should be a friend of the earth at an interview for acceptance onto a planning course over 30 years ago. And, while the profession’s response to this may have evolved over time, planning has always sought to balance considerations of environmental, social and economic sustainability in the public interest (with the Paris Agreement likewise recognising that economic and social transformation is required to deliver its environmental goals). As a result, the planning system should always have been expected to support developments that are resilient to climate change in terms of their location, nature and scale, as well as developments that are designed to facilitate behaviour changes through, for example, the creation of green and walkable streets and delivery of renewable energy sources.
Back in the present day, in the run up to COP 26, the Town and Country Planning Association and the Royal Town Planning Institute sought to specifically address the role of planning in tackling climate change by publishing a Climate Crisis practice guide for local authorities, looking at how the planning system can help communities tackle the climate crisis, whilst still taking account of economic and social considerations. In particular, this highlights that:
- the planning system cannot deliver places for people to live happy and healthy lives if it does not address both climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation;
- without comprehensive action, climate change will severely limit economic growth; and
- there is good planning policy across the UK on these issues, but that this needs to translate into the delivery of meaningful action on the ground.  
The last point is, we think, significant, with positive rhetoric and high level Government commitments on their own not going to be what makes the difference, particularly since they can’t always be taken into account when making planning decisions.
For example, the Supreme Court recently made it clear that the Paris Agreement itself is not a statement of Government policy, and so does not require to be taken into account as such when planning applications are being determined (R (on the application of Friends of the Earth Ltd and others) v Heathrow Airport Ltd, for further details on which, see our December 2020 Spotlights). And, whilst there have been number of recent legislative changes that seek to embed climate change action into the Scottish planning system - with the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 placing a duty on plan makers to help mitigate and adapt to climate change, and the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019 requiring local planning authorities to include policies in their local development plans aimed at avoiding increased greenhouse gas emissions through improved design and supporting the development of low- and zero-carbon energy in all new developments - these changes won’t in themselves necessarily address the current gap between policy and delivery.  
Our eyes are therefore now on the impact of the draft NPF4, as this requires planning applications to demonstrate how they help to meet current targets to cut emissions to net zero by 2045 if they are to be granted planning permission, and this will need to be taken into account as a material consideration in the determination of applications.
Meantime, the positive benefits that the planning system can deliver in terms of environmental sustainability, while also supporting economic and social interests, was brought home to us by the chairwoman of Melness Crofters’ Estate in Sutherland, Dorothy Pritchard, addressing COP 26 delegates on the subject of peat restoration in connection with the development of Space Hub Sutherland (for which we were delighted to obtain planning permission last year). Notably, in doing that, she highlighted that Space Hub Sutherland is set to be the world’s first carbon-neutral spaceport and described it as:
“…a good example of how development, sustainability and protecting our natural environment can go hand in hand.”
This is particularly so as satellites from Space Hub Sutherland will be used for monitoring climate change, thus informing future mitigation and adaption measures that might be taken.
The climate crisis is of course a global issue but, as projects like Space Hub Sutherland demonstrate, “embracing and delivering radical change” at a local level is essential if this is to be addressed, with the locally devolved nature of the planning system meaning that it clearly has a key role to play in this regard.
And, when decisions are informed by the need to balance environmental, social and economic sustainability in the public interest, planning intrinsically is a friend of the earth.
Thanks for reading!

Pippa and Maggie

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