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Planning for climate change?

Source: PSE Feb/Mar 17

Planning is at the heart of responding to climate change, but new research finds many local authorities have deprioritised key policy actions vital to our collective future, says Dr Hugh Ellis, head of policy at the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA).

The planning system has the potential to make a major contribution to preparing communities for the growing impacts of climate change. It has the capacity to do this through resilience measures and renewable energy systems over the long term, but the findings of a recent TCPA report, ‘Planning for the Climate Challenge’, points to a systemic failure to meet this challenge, leaving many places critically unprepared for the future. The research, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is set in the global context of dramatically intensifying climate change impacts. These are likely to get worse in an era when the actions of the new American president could make the Paris climate agreement largely meaningless. 

Despite the increasing intensity and frequency of climate-related impacts in the UK, English local plans are not delivering on the basic policy standards set out in national law and policy for either mitigation or adaptation. To deliver the fundamental change required, climate change must be placed front and centre of the policy priorities of the spatial planning system. Only a radical refocusing of the system will meet the challenges of climate change, now and in the future. 

The study underpinning this report explored how local plans, published since the National Planning Policy Framework was produced in 2012, are addressing climate change. 

Drawing on a sample of 64 local planning authorities in total, and based on an analysis of local planning documents, a survey of local authority planners and four more detailed, area-based case study examinations, the study established the extent to which climate change mitigation and adaptation are reflected as priorities in local plan policy in England. 

Failing to deal with carbon dioxide emissions reduction 

The study found that local plans in England are not dealing with carbon dioxide emissions reduction effectively, nor are they consistently delivering the adaptation actions necessary to secure the long-term social and economic resilience of local communities. 

There was a wide variety of practice and some examples of positive responses, but, taken as whole, it is clear that since 2012 climate change has been deprioritised as a policy objective in the spatial planning system. The report recommends 10 actions for national and local government that could significantly and cost-effectively improve the performance of local plans in relation to climate change. 

There are complex reasons for this situation – ranging from perceived contradictions in national policy to political signals from ministers in the DCLG and the Treasury about the overwhelming priority to be given to the allocation of housing. In addition, in many cases local plans do not meet national policy requirements on climate change but are still judged sound by the Planning Inspectorate. Underlying all of this is a crisis in resources in the local planning service which inhibits effective local policymaking. 

The failure to use the planning system’s capability to help mitigate and adapt to climate change is inefficient, and is likely to lead to long-term avoidable costs to the economy. 

Conversely, there is a real opportunity to harness the system as a key local part of the national response to climate change. Fulfilling this potential requires, above all else, a signal from national government that climate change is a primary political, legal and policy priority for the local plan process.

 This report recommends a number of actions for national and local government that could significantly and cost-effectively improve the performance of local plans in relation to climate change. Above all, this requires a fundamental culture change in government that places climate science at the heart of decision-making. 

Government must recognise the overwhelming priority to cut carbon emissions and to prepare for combined impacts of sea level rise and severe weather.

For more information

TCPA’s ‘Planning for the Climate Change? Understanding the performance of English local plans’ report can be viewed at:


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