The Climate Crisis can’t wait: what neighbourhood and local plans can do to help? By Ruth Mayne, local resident.

By Ruth Mayne

Many people around the country volunteer to develop Neighbourhood Plans (NDPs) as a way of positively shaping and influencing local developments in their area. They want a say in the protection of green spaces, housing design, transport, local economy and employment, social infrastructures and utilities.  A government website promises that ‘NDPs give communities direct power and powerful tools to plan and shape the development and growth of their local area to meet their needs’.  This article explores how neighbourhood plans can also be used to help tackle the climate crisis.

Using Neighbourhood Plans to help prevent climate breakdown

With the climate crisis intensifying it is not surprising that many local people want to ensure that their neighbourhood plans help reduce carbon emissions, conserve resources and protect bio-diversity. In my community, for example, there was a strong and widespread demand for the neighbourhood plan to require new developments to achieve the highest standards of sustainability including minimising carbon emissions.  We were also aware of the important economic, health and environmental co-benefits of reducing carbon emissions. For example energy efficient homes lower fuel bills, reduce cold and damp and improve health.

So we designed a policy which required all new developments to adhere to the ‘highest standards of sustainable design and energy efficiency’, including a minimum 40% reduction in carbon emissions compared with 2013 building regulations, progressively increasing over a few years in line with the UK’s carbon reduction target. We justified this in relation to:

  • Need – referring to the latest evidence and guidance from scientists and the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about the crisis and action needed to counter it; and evidence of flooding and fuel poverty in our area.
  • Existing climate change policy – including the government’s recent strengthening of the UK Climate Change Act 2008 to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the recent declaration of climate emergencies by the UK Parliament and by 65% of local councils across the Country (including our District and Parish Councils)
  • Planning law – the Government’s National Policy Planning Framework (the NPPF),our national planning guidance and our local District Plan clearly states that it expects local planning authorities to adopt proactive strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change. This includes actively supporting energy efficiency improvements to existing buildings and designing policies to maximise renewable and low carbon energy development in line with the 2008 Climate Change Act.   
  • Economic viability –using evidence generated for a local district council in an adjacent area for similar housing types and with locally specific information on house prices.

Legal conflicts

Yet despite, the compelling and urgent rationale for our policy the Vale of the White Horse district council planners and subsequently the independent inspector recommended revisions which effectively  eviscerated the policy legally vis a vis developers. In a nutshell the revision changed the wording from saying all new developments ’must’ adhere to the ‘highest standards of sustainable design and energy efficiency’ to say that new developments ‘will be supported’ if they do so. They argued that (a) our policy went beyond the District local plan (b) conflicted with a 2015 Ministerial Statement and guidance which prevents NPs from applying higher technical standard and (c) required more specific evidence of economic viability.

We countered these objections with further arguments and evidence and eventually contacted the Environment Law Foundation (ELF) for advice. To our delight the ELF obtained legal pro-bono advice from a barrister – Kimberly Ziya – which provided a powerful, opposing legal interpretation based on previous jurisprudence and the current climate crisis. The barrister’s written advice stated, among other things, that in her view the ‘independent examiner’s recommendations are legally flawed in a number of ways’ including that:

  • there is ‘no basis whatsoever for the examiner’s conclusion that the development plan [i.e. the District plan] does ‘’not provide a strategic context’’ for the approach to reducing emissions and tackling climate change proposed in the policy’;
  • the absence of strategic policies in respect of a particular type of development does not preclude the making of a neighbourhood plan that meets this basic condition’;
  • that subject to a suggested focus the proposed policy ‘satisfied the basic conditions’; and
  • is ‘clearly in general conformity with the strategic objectives of the development plan’
  • that the policy did demonstrate economic viability in relation to new residential housing (although required further evidence in relation to non-residential buildings) . 

We know that many of our local District councillors would like to see strong sustainability standards and enforcement mechanisms and thought that the Barristers advice would provide them with the strong legal rationale they needed to support our original policy.  But because they had received conflicting legal advice they were still fearful that developers could appeal the policy and embroil them in expensive legal battles that they cannot afford.

We considered the option of launching a judicial review not least because a positive verdict would free up huge numbers of other neighbourhood plan groups and parish councils around the country to require high sustainability standards of developers.  But the costs and time involved were beyond the capacity of the Parish Council and NP volunteers.   The District Council ended up supporting the weakened policy which was very disappointing.

A step forward

The positive news is that the discussions and arguments with the District Council about the policy has pushed it up their agenda. In a welcome step it promised to (a) accelerate the process to revise and strengthen sustainability standards in its own local plan and (b) push a County wide Plan to include higher carbon standards both of which would automatically apply to our NP. Nevertheless, with a diminishing window of opportunity to avert dangerous climate change, this delay does not reflect the ‘climate emergency’ we face.  The process will take a few years. Which we don’t have.

Mobilising the shires

The science indicates that ALL new developments should be net zero – and evidence shows this is economically viable. Additionally, doing it now is more cost effective than retrospectively retrofitting buildings.

There are many other neighbourhood plan groups and local councils around the country who want to do their bit on climate change but are being similarly constrained by conflicting legal advice, inconsistent interpretation by planning Inspectors and the threat of developer’s challenges.

Yet the government is moving glacially to strengthen sustainability planning standards.  And now we hear that it is also considering transferring planning powers from local authorities to unelected regional authorities.   

So we need build a movement of NP groups, parish and district councils and lawyers which will (a) simultaneously helping to ratchet up sustainability standards for new developments from the grass roots upwards and (b) pressing national government to strengthen sustainability standards.

We are working with ELF and taking advise from the Centre of Sustainable Energy to develop a bottom up campaign to mobilise other neighbourhood plan groups, Parish and District Councils across the country to:

  1. Adopt a model sustainability policy requiring all new developments to be zero carbon/reduce carbon emissions by at least 40% below current building regs??
  2. Email or write to the government to urgently strengthen the sustainability standards in building regs. –    

Time is short. We hope you will join us. Watch out for further news on this.

(Ruth is writing in a personal capacity. She is a member of the Utility working group for North Hinskey neighbourhood plan and was previously a Parish Councillor).