Can the planning system help tackle climate change?
South Cambs DC and Cambridge City Council are exercising their devolved power to set the agenda on energy use in new buildings. Their draft Local Plan which is out for consultation presently proposes that all housing and non-domestic buildings should have a space heating demand of between 15 – 20 kWh/m2/yr. There are 300 + English Local Planning Authorities, and in the absence of a universally applied target, this could mean each Local Planning Authority setting their own energy parameters. From the perspective of builders, developers, and consultants it is clear, that such fragmentation will do nothing to speed up planning, save cost or reduce bureaucracy. The climate change emergency is a global phenomenon and addressing it requires joined-up thinking across the nation.
The process of achieving planning consent is complex enough as it is. Successive governments have tried to simplify planning and each intervention has either met with fierce opposition (the 2020 White Paper is an example) or created yet more complexity. A further expectation is being placed on Local Authority planners to police this additional level of energy performance scrutiny at the application stage. In theory this ‘bakes in’ and safeguards the principles of low-energy design into the viability equation of a project. In practice however, the cost and time burden of consultants providing such information, and local authorities scrutinising it at this early stage in the project, introduces further inequity into the equation of who can, and can’t afford to front-load the financial risk of development.
Whilst the end goal of reducing energy demand of new buildings is unarguable, the question of when such details are required is crucial to the viability discussion. In my view, the UK-wide Building Regulations are the place to enshrine such targets for two reasons. Firstly, so that they are applied consistently across all of the UK, resulting in standardised processes and details that achieve best practices with economies of scale. And secondly, so that the planning system can focus on broader matters of land use, sustainability and good design, as opposed to the minutia of technical specification and energy consumption.
The Government has its own inertia in respect of updating national policy, which is why so many individual Local Authorities have declared Climate Emergencies and are going it alone. From 2025 we will have the new Future Homes Standard applied through Part L of the Building Regulations. This standard is designed to reduce the carbon footprint of new homes by 75 – 80% over and above our current Building Regulations. How will this nationally applied standard interface with a range of separate energy targets set by multiple local planning authorities?
At a time when the economy is struggling and growth needs to be stimulated, surely now is the time for a clear and unambiguous approach to energy standards applied nationally, as well as a leaner, faster planning system.
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