Lord Ravensdale’s amendment and the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill a blog by Patrick Hargreaves
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Today, September 4, 2023, the House of Lords will vote on whether to back Net Zero local plans.

A new amendment on the horizon

Amendment 191 to the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill places a duty on the Secretary of State and relevant planning authorities to have special regard to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change with respect to national policy, local plan-making and planning decisions.

The amendment is championed by Lord Ravensdale and backed by Baroness Hayman, Lord Lansley, and Lord Teverson, aims to ensure that climate change mitigation and adaptation are at the forefront of national policy, local plan-making, and planning decisions. This proposed change echoes recent changes remit of the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem), where the regulator was mandated to ensure its decisions align with the UK’s 2050 Net Zero goal.

The need for alignment

To achieve Net Zero it is crucial that climate change mitigation is a key consideration for both policy makers and national agencies. Without this alignment, we risk ineffective and contradictory policymaking. Currently, the planning system in England is divided into two parts; the plan makers, comprising local leaders and their planners who develop the planning policy, and the Planning Inspectorate (PINS), who act as the arbiters and final decision makers. However, while local authorities must contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation, a similar duty does not apply to the Planning Inspectorate or the Secretary of State.

The two-speed approach

As highlighted in UK100’s latest report, "Powers In Place", this creates a two-speed approach to planning, where the climate focus falls to only one lever of the government. This misalignment has led to local Net Zero plans being weakened during the approval process, as decision-makers at the inspectorate are not required to prioritise climate change mitigation to the same extent as the planners who originally developed the proposals.

Case Studies: West Oxfordshire and Lancaster City Council

West Oxfordshire’s ‘Salt Cross Area Action’, which would have expected all new developments to demonstrate Net Zero operational carbon on-site, was watered down by the Planning Inspectorate. PINS opposed the ambitious plan saying, “we are not satisfied that Policy 2 [Net Zero Carbon Development] is either consistent with national policy or justified.”

UK100 member, Lancaster City Council, developed a Climate Emergency Local Plan that aimed to set higher carbon standards than the current building regulations, although not as ambitious as previously approved plans in Cornwall or Bath & North East Somerset. The Inspector’s report required this policy to be removed on the basis that “[the policy] would fail to accord with the Written Ministerial Statement and the Planning and Energy Act 2008”. 

This decision demonstrates an inconsistency in planning decision making, where individual inspectors are giving different weight to the climate change considerations stated in the National Planning Policy Framework. In Bath & Somerset, a different inspector came to a different conclusion, stating:

“The relevance of the Written Ministerial Statement 2015 to assessing the soundness of the policy has been reduced significantly, along with the relevant parts of the PPG on Climate Change, given national policy on climate change. The NPPF is clear that mitigating and adapting to climate change, including moving to a low-carbon economy, is one of the key elements of sustainable development, and that the planning system should support the transition to a low-carbon future in a changing climate.” 

The consideration of climate change mitigation would bring much needed consistency to planning. It can take several years to develop local plans, and each appeal by the PINS against strong climate plans weakens the UK’s transition to Net Zero. 

The impact of inconsistency

This inconsistency in planning decision-making undermines the UK’s transition to Net Zero. It can take several years to develop local plans, and each appeal by PINS against strong climate plans weakens our progress. Policies written early in the process can be overruled by subsequent national policy changes or government statements.

The potential for Local Plans to be downgraded at inspection, and an assessment of the associated risks and costs, often leads planning policymakers to play safe and stick with the minimum standards required. This inconsistency, therefore, poses significant challenges to local authorities in planning and implementing ambitious projects.

Towards consistency: Amendment 191

However, Amendment 191 offers a solution. By ensuring that the inspectorate must consider climate change, individual planning applications would also contribute to the mitigation of climate change, delivering successful Net Zero changes as soon the bill receives Royal Assent. Dr Samuel Ruiz-Tagle, an expert in planning law at Cambridge University, argues that the amendment would allow climate implications to be assessed immediately after the amendment becomes law, rather than waiting years for local climate policies to be developed through local plans.

The proposed amendment will also ensure that addressing climate change through planning becomes a priority not just for local authorities, but also for the Secretary of State, who holds substantial powers to intervene in plans. Requiring the Secretary of State to consider climate mitigation and adaptation will provide consistency and strategic focus on Net Zero goals regardless of the particular minister in office. This will help entrench climate action as a core objective across the planning system, building trust and reliability after years of constant changes. 

Conclusion: aligning climate responsibilities

It is important to note that this amendment calls on planning authorities to “have regard to” climate change, it does not introduce statutory targets or place a proactive duty on the planning decision-makers. Ideally, all planning decisions should be compatible with meeting our Net Zero target. It is a step in the right direction of what the Climate Change Committee calls for ‘radical change’ to the planning system. UK100 would like to see the government also embed a requirement for local planning authorities to prioritise The Climate Change Act in planning policy over developer viability and remove competition between climate mitigation and adaptation criteria and other “planning contributions.” 

With backing from local governments, climate research groups, and urban planners, there is widespread support for this amendment.

In conclusion, Amendment 191 would align climate responsibilities between the Secretary of State, local authorities and PINS, without burdening the planning system. It would hasten effective climate policy, whilst reducing confusion from mixed messaging across levels of governance in England. It's time to take urgent action to ensure the planning system is fit for a Net Zero future.