Can the proposed planning changes help to deliver net zero by 2050? – 12 Weeks of Planning (Episode 11)

By Tom Court Senior Account Executive at Newington Communications

Each week during the 12 week consultation, the Newington team will be analysing an aspect of the proposals in the ‘Planning for the Future’ proposals.

Read our latest analysis below to understand how the proposed planning changes will affect your future projects

The UK has set in law one of the most ambitious green targets in the world – bringing all its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Homes, both new builds and existing structures, account for at least 20% of emissions. Seeing as homes built today will still be around tomorrow, and almost certainly for the next thirty years, we will need to ensure that the energy efficiency standards we set are able to keep us on the right path to meet the ambitious net zero goal in 2050. 

To achieve this, the Planning White Paper has identified several objectives that need to be met. The question is, are the proposals radical enough to achieve a net zero target by 2050? In a recent report devised by the Energy Institute in which 350 energy professionals were surveyed, almost 90% believe the UK is currently off track for net zero by 2050. More than half of the same group of professionals believe the country is off track for the interim 2030 target unless urgent and decisive policy action is taken. So what exactly does the White Paper propose that could prove otherwise?
Before we can even consider what a development will look like, serve whatever purpose, or even how much of whatever it will emit, achieving net zero must start by looking at readdressing how developers can assess environmental impacts. Firstly, the White Paper states that we will need to rethink exactly how we approach environmental considerations and ensure that these are properly implemented into the planning and development process. Ahead of our exit from the European Union, we now have the perfect opportunity to strengthen and support existing protections to British wildlife and their habitats and ecosystems, and can ensure they can coexist with local communities with little to no disturbance. Therefore, in order to achieve this, developers must address certain procedures and considerations as early as possible. For one, it is essential the process in which environmental assessment and mitigation are determined must be improved. If we can simplify and speed up this process whilst implementing them early into the developments, it will make it all the easier to reuse and update data – reducing the need for site-specific surveys.
If we are to achieve the net zero target, the full decarbonisation of buildings by 2050 must be met. The Planning White Paper determines that moving forward, we have a system in place that enables the creation of beautiful places that will stand the test of time. We need a system that protects and enhances our precious environment and supports our efforts to combat climate change and bring greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. The built environment is estimated to be responsible for around 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint, according to research from the UK’s Green Building Council. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that reducing a development’s carbon emissions starts with looking at the choice of materials and construction methods.
Architects are notably paying more attention to the “embodied carbon” of developments, which can consist of the carbon emissions resulting from factors such as the processing, manufacturing, packaging, and transportation of materials in use. Looking at the typical materials used in developments, we have steel, concrete, and timber. Whilst timber has relatively lower embodied carbon than steel and concrete, the UK has placed significant restrictions on its use in high-rise developments following on from the Grenfell tragedy. Other countries such as Sweden however, continue to utilise it. Instead the UK relies mostly on steel, which is responsible for at least 7% of global COemissions, and concrete which is responsible for a further 8% of global COemissions due to its main ingredient cement. The problem here, is that the White Paper does not insist on any requirements for local plans to pursue carbon emission reductions through the use of materials. This could mean that all new local plans are inconsistent, which would undermine wider efforts and have a negative contribution to the overall net zero goal. 
We must also turn our attention to energy efficiency, as the White Paper proposes that we can maximise this through high fabric standards. New homes as a priority must have triple glazing for windows, and further minimum standards for floors, walls, and ceilings to significantly reduce heat loss. On top of this, the potential of low carbon heating technologies is also encouraging and consequently must be considered in order to support our goal. Particularly, heat pumps, heat networks, and direct electrical heating can be seen as a vital step forward.
Already it has been recommended by the Committee on Climate Change that new homes should not be connected to the gas grid from 2025, and have estimated that approximately 18% of UK heat will need to come from heat networks by 2050 if we are to meet our target. Direct heating as well can produce heat at nearly 100% efficiency – although it would be foolish not to consider the high cost factor that comes with this, and should only really be used where the very highest fabric standards are in place.
The White Paper highlights the importance of design, which whilst is important in some regards, does not really do much past the general aesthetics of a development. The White Paper’s emphasis on aesthetics and beauty is obviously important but when compared to the task of planning for how zero carbon and climate adapted developments should operate moving forward, it is practically meaningless.
I also find that whilst current planning is relative to growing demands and requirements from local populations, and to some extent property values, the White Paper makes no mention of an area’s existing carbon levels and emissions. So how does the White Paper factor an area’s housing requirements versus existing environmental concerns? Quite simply, it does not. Admittedly, the White Paper does discuss the potential for Local Plans to identify and pigeon-hole land in areas which might best support climate change mitigation and adaption, but I do not feel this is enough.

So are these proposals radical enough? Truthfully, I believe that local authorities probably could have delivered better reforms through their own means that would best suit their own situations – be it existing environmental concerns, housing requirements, and existing developments. However, all is not lost – assessing environmental impacts more robustly, considering the design and materials more closely, and maximising energy efficiency are all steps in the right direction. We won’t see the results of what is proposed for several years, and hopefully by then local authorities will have had the chance to adapt their own local plans to best address their individual environmental situations. In thirty years’ time I am sure we will see improvements, but these proposals are not radical enough in my eyes to achieve net zero by 2050.

The Newington team will be sharing 12 articles on different aspects of the Planning White Paper, during the consultation period. You can catch up with previous weeks here:

Week 1 – Phil Briscoe reviews the Planning White Paper
Week 2 – Paddy Kent considers the changes to Local Plans
Week 3 – Beth Park examines housing targets 
Week 4 – Aimee Howard looks ahead to the new Infrastructure Levy
Week 5 – Oliver Sargent asks if affordable housing is set for a fresh approach 
Week 6 – Paddy Kent questions the prescriptive approach to Local Plans
Week 7 – Phil Briscoe asks if the planning system needs change
Week 8 – Vincent Carroll-Battaglino uncovers the meaning of “beautiful design” 
Week 9 – Aimee Howard reflects on the role of neighbourhood plans
Week 10 – Laura Griffiths asks if the country is ready for digital planning