policy and sustainability – what I didn’t say in the case study

Consideration should be given to using supplementary planning documents for aspects of climate change (as a temporary measure) to speed up implementation.  Higher sustainable building standards should be set nationally to reduce the burden to local authorities for evidence gathering and justifying viability.  Development plan documents should set carbon reduction targets rather than energy supply targets. These are just a few paraphrased highlights from the slew of recommendations in a CLG commissioned report published a few months ago.  I wanted to talk about some of its findings in our latest case study about using supplementary planning documents (SPDs) to address climate change, but this isn’t the kind of thing PAS case studies cover.  (Don’t get me wrong, it’s not censorship.  It’s just about using the appropriate media for the topic at hand.  PAS case studies share good practice.  They don’t comment on what national policy should say.)

I think it would be great if authorities could use SPDs to set high standards for sustainability – provided that the policies allowed for flexible solutions if a site can show that it isn’t feasible or viable to meet those standards.   And that brings us quite swiftly to the crux of the issue: viability.

The concern is that inappropriately high sustainable building standards would put a burden on developers.  This would have implications for housing delivery and potentially economic growth.  So planners are left with the burden of stopping climate change whilst ensuring that growth and developers’ profits aren’t affected. It feels like an impossible position to be in.

The argument against using SPDs to set high standards is led by the developer community who consider them “to be ‘casual policy’ that would not stand up at examination.”  And since they are not examined, authorities are “at liberty to include a variety of targets and requirements, which has led to increased uncertainty, risk and confusion amongst developers”, according to the CLG commissioned report.

The authorities that have built flexibility into their policies have managed to secure high standards of sustainability in many developments.  When necessary they have negotiated appropriate solutions to meet sustainability requirements through carbon offsetting or contributions to decentralised energy schemes.  This is in line with the zero carbon development consultations which propose ‘allowable solutions’ to address the carbon emissions that aren’t reduced through building design and energy efficiency.  The SPD and climate change case study gives a few examples of approaches that have worked in this way.

At the moment, climate change policies need to be in a DPD.  The CLG report, produced by Arup, emphasises the urgency of climate change and the need for planning to be empowered enough to react appropriately.  One of the ways that Arup found that local authority planners aren’t empowered has to do with the time it takes to adopt development plan document (DPD) policies that set high standards for sustainability.  They reported:

…local authorities have commented that in light of the time that it takes to prepare and adopt a DPD and the likelihood that the Inspector will delete any policies not supported by a very strong evidence base, the provision of interim or supporting planning guidance in the form of an SPD presents a better option than the alternative, which is to proceed in a ‘policy vacuum’ until such a time as a sound DPD can be prepared and adopted – which in many cases may be over three years from the time the climate change PPS was published.”

On the basis of the risk of proceeding in a ‘policy vacuum’ and to speed up implementation Arup recommended “that consideration be given to allowing aspects of climate change policy to be included within less formal supplementary planning documents.”  This would be a temporary measure until the relevant DPDs have been adopted.

This recommendation may never be taken up and authorities may need to continue setting these policies in DPDs.  There have already been a few examples where the Inspector supported sustainability SPDs in appeal decisions (discussed in my case study).  But regardless of where the policies go, there are a few key points that I’ve learned from my research over the last few months that I want to share:

  • If setting higher standards than those set nationally, you can base your evidence gathering approach on authorities that have already done it successfully.  If their circumstances are similar enough to yours, you might be able to use the same studies.
  • You can start to develop and support carbon offset and decentralised energy schemes.  This will allow you to quickly adopt the ‘allowable solutions’ approach that will accompany zero carbon development.
  • Don’t set a Merton type renewable energy target.  As Arup said in their report, use carbon reduction targets rather than energy supply targets.  Specifying that the target is met on-site is problematic and could result in perverse outcomes where less carbon reductions are achieved!
  • Check out the good practice examples: Ashford, Aylesbury, Bath & NE Somerset, Brighton & Hove, Bristol, Cambridge, Dover, Milton Keynes, Plymouth, Tonbridge & Malling, Waveney…and more.

Just to be clear, this blog post is my understanding of the situation and it doesn’t necessarily represent the PAS stance on these issues.

The SPD and climate case study is hot off the press on the PAS website: Using supplementary planning documents to address climate change locally.

The CLG commissioned report was produced by Ove Arup & Partners Ltd and published on 9 March 2010.  It’s available on the CLG website here: Take up and application of the policies in the planning policy statement on planning and climate change

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