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The UK government has committed to reaching Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and many local authorities are pushing to reach this goal even sooner. As policies and regulations take shape to drive this transition, the critical role of planning comes into focus. In this article, we delve into the relationship between planning and Net Zero targets, acknowledging the lag in planning policies and the potential for strategic decisions to expedite the transition.

Accelerating the Transition to Net Zero: The Role of Planning: Text

Planning and Net Zero Targets

Local authorities with up-to-date Development Plans or those revising them in response to the Climate Emergency can have policy requirements including:

  • Expectations for major developments to achieve Net Zero.

  • Requirements for achieving a minimum on-site carbon reduction beyond Building Regulations.

  • Consideration of carbon offset pricing when on-site Net Zero is unattainable.

  • Requirements for life cycle carbon assessments to be submitted.

  • Mandates for comprehensive energy, sustainability strategies, and post-development reporting.

Whilst these policy requirements can complicate the already lengthy planning process and potentially impact project viability, developers are often exceeding minimum policy standards due to internal Net Zero motivations and market demands. On the other hand, due to the current Development Plan lag, 67% of local plans are currently out of date (more than five years old). As a result, policies relating to sustainability and Net Zero targets often precede national targets and regulation changes. Based on our own experience, development that complies with the new Part L regulations, which require higher energy performance targets, often comfortably exceeds policy requirements of out of date local plans.

Whilst there may be a legacy of ‘slow to change’ planning policy, there is also a growing imperative for occupiers to demand high energy performing buildings. The demand for energy-efficient structures has grown due to a heightened focus on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) standards. Benchmarks, once markers of compliance, have now become effective marketing tools, shaping consumer preferences and brand identities. The rise of ‘green premiums’ demonstrates the potential for differentiation through sustainability.

Shaping Precedents: Net Zero in Decision-Making

So, what’s next? New developments might be meeting latest regulations and exceeding local policy requirements but how long does this last? The latest news from the government does not suggest that the delivery of Net Zero is speeding up. The Climate Change Committee’s Report to Parliament in June 2023 set out a number of key messages, one of which was to do with the role of the planning system:

‘Planning policy needs radical reform to support Net Zero. In a range of areas, there is now a danger that the rapid deployment of infrastructure required by the Net Zero transition is stymied or delayed by restrictive planning rules. The planning system must have an overarching requirement that all planning decisions must be taken giving full regard to the imperative of Net Zero’.

Planning policy may always end up being behind the curve but there is an opportunity for strategic decision making to accelerate this transition and help to create benchmark cases that embody sustainable ideas. These kinds of decisions can be made at different scales and for various types of development. Notable cases have arisen where Net Zero goals have been afforded significant weight in appeal decisions such as a solar farm in the Lincolnshire countryside where the Inspector concluded that the UK’s Net Zero targets justified the scheme’s visual impact. A planning inspector has also allowed an appeal and granted outline planning permission for 530 new homes in North West Bicester Ecotown which is the first of its kind in the UK. In addition to renewable energy and large-scale residential schemes, smaller schemes can also provide benchmark cases through the use of innovative materials in construction and development.

These case studies demonstrate the importance of Net Zero objectives and the weight that can be given to exceeding policy requirements. Whilst exceeding policy may reach and end, planning decisions should not stop giving weight to these kinds of outcomes and as the UK navigates its path to Net Zero, strategic decisions can champion sustainability.

To the contrary, NJL have recently witnessed a situation where the Local Authority was in the process of reviewing their Local Plan in response to the Climate Change. As part of the review, the LPA prescribed impressive net zero targets ahead of government regulations. Whilst it was expected that such ambition should be commended, through their main modifications to the Plan, the Inspector removed all references to ‘net zero’ and removed these targets instead replacing them with much more modest goals of beating Building Regulations by 10%. This unusual situation demonstrated an active agenda at the Local Level, yet national policy was unable to keep up/support this ambition.

We are proud to have worked on a number of landmark projects such as the residential development at Horwich Golf Club in Bolton where residential units will utilise a ‘fabric first’ approach with increased air tightness and effective heating controls that exceed forthcoming building regulations and support climate change mitigation. Another scheme is Plot C3 in MediaCity, an 11 storey office development which seeks to deliver the largest office development in Greater Manchester capable of achieving Net Zero carbon status, with an iconic design and smart enabled technology which will differentiate this new building with existing office space within MediaCity and the wider city-region. The approval of these schemes continues to raise the development standards across the North West.

If you're considering better Net Zero outcomes for your project and wish to seek further advice, please get in touch.

Accelerating the Transition to Net Zero: The Role of Planning: Text
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