Net zero and beauty

13 Aug 2020

Planning and Environment

By Estelle Dehon

The Introduction to the White Paper articulates its goal as attempting to “rediscover the original mission and purpose of those who sought to improve our homes and streets in the late Victorian and early 20th century Britain”, which is said to have become “buried” under layers of legislation and case law (§1.6).

One might wonder why such nostalgia has been chosen as the animating goal of the “once in a generation” planning reforms, when both the Government and Parliament acknowledge that the greatest challenge facing the UK is climate change.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, having taken personal leadership of the forthcoming UN climate talks, said in February 2020 that the government would take “urgent action” on climate change, and commented: “As a country, as a society, as a planet and as a species, we must now act.” (4/2/20). In May 2019, the UK Parliament recognised “the devastating impact that volatile and extreme weather will have” on the UK, including on public health and biodiversity, and declared “an environment and climate emergency following the finding of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change that to avoid a more than 1.5°C rise in global warming, global emissions would need to fall by around 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero by around 2050” (1/5/19, Hansard Vol 659, no. 294, page 317).

Net Zero

Late Victorian and early 20th century planning is not an obvious solution to the climate crisis. Rather, in February 2019, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the independent statutory body tasked with advising the government under the Climate Change Act, advised the Government on the required approach in its report UK Housing: Fit for the Future? That report emphasised that net zero will not be met without “a major improvement in UK housing” – a general goal which it at the centre of the White Paper’s proposed reforms. The CCC set out that current planning policies were not driving the required change; identified the policy gaps and that local authorities “do not have sufficient resources to address these concerns”. The CCC identified five urgent areas for change, including the planning policies required for building new homes “integrating the highest levels of emissions reduction with a package of design improvements to adapt to climate change” and policies creating green finance.

While the White Paper’s Pillar Two – Planning for beautiful and sustainable places does express the ambition to “support […] efforts to combat climate change and bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050” (§3.1), there is little evidence that the CCC’s recommendations were considered in the production of the White Paper. Instead, the planning system is described as “only one of the tools” needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change (§3.32) and very little detail is given. Plainly, achieving net zero and addressing climate change are not the driving principles behind the proposed reforms, and perhaps the best that can be said is that is a missed opportunity.

The White Paper does articulate an expectation that new homes will “produce 75-80 percent lower CO2 emissions compared to current levels” and be “zero carbon ready” (§3.32) and that new homes will not need to be retrofitted (§3.33). There is no detail, however, and the proposals are dramatically less ambitious than the scrapped Code for Sustainable Homes, which would have imposed strict climate change and environmental requirements from 2016 onwards.

The White Paper also indicates that LPAs may play a role in setting energy efficiency standards for new build developments (§3.34), but again without any detail, apart from a strong indication that central Government will have a key role to play in setting these standards. In both the UK Housing Report of 2019 and its response in February 2020 to the Government’s Future Homes Standard, the CCC emphasised the need for new homes to be ultra-energy efficient (close to Passivhaus standards) by 2025, if not before. We will have to wait until the autumn to discover the Government’s view on this (§3.33).

Beauty

What clearly is a guiding principle of the proposed reforms is the need to “deliver beautiful places”. Beauty and design are the second most significant theme in the White Paper after Local Plan reform. Design is envisaged to become a matter of greater weight in the planning system, with “beauty” unlocking both faster planning decisions and some types of permitted development.

This is an interesting theme. The national housebuilders might argue that the need to produce the volume of homes required in the UK justifies a level of generic, but readily buildable, housing. The White Paper challenges this, following on from the recommendations of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission and its final report, Living with Beauty, which was published in January 2020.

So what are the key elements of building beautifully? They include:

1. A National Model Design Code: this will be published in the autumn and will supplement the National Design Guide and work along a revised and consolidated Manual for Streets in order to provide specific standards for development in different types of location (§3.5-3.6). This reflects the centralising ethos of the White Paper.
2. Local Design Guides and Codes: “wherever possible”, local guides and codes are to be prepared (§3.7). Here the White Paper emphasises and incentivises the need for effective input from the local community in the production of local design guides and codes, as they will only be given weight in the planning process “if they can demonstrate that this input has been secured” (§3.8). Where this can be demonstrated, the local design guides and codes will be given precedence; where it cannot be, or where such codes have not been produced, the National Design Guide and the National model Design Code will guide decisions on the form of development.
3. A new expert design body: this will be set up to help local authorities make effective use of design guidance and codes, as well as performing a wider monitoring and challenge role for the sector (§3.12).
4. A new chief officer for design and place-making in each LPA: this is one of the proposals which shows how central design is to the new planning vision. It is made in the same paragraph in which the Government heralds that it will bring forward proposals “later this year for improving the resourcing of planning departments more broadly” (§3.12).
5. A “fast-track for beauty”: in order to incentivise good design, where proposals comply with pre-established principles of good design (informed by community preferences), they will be expedited. This will be achieved through:

a. An update to the NPPF, making provision for schemes that comply with local design guides and codes to be approved quickly.
b. Legislation to require that sites in growth areas to have a masterplan and site-specific code as a condition of the permission in principle which is granted through allocation in the local plan.
c. Widening permitted development rights through the use of “pattern books” for standard building types.

To some extent, the need to achieve net zero may influence what is understood to be “delivering beautiful places”, as such places are described as embedding “high environmental standards” (§3.13); the need for green spaces and to build for healthy communities is emphasised (§3.2) and good design is described as including street trees and high-quality cycling and walking provision.

Finally, it is right to note that not all development can be planned for in the local plan or in the design pattern book: there will have to be space for different, iconic, trend-setting designs to come forward. In effect, however, the proponents of such development will have to make a very good case for development or design not foreseen in the local plan or the pattern book.

Conclusion

An emphasis on building for healthy people and healthy communities is to be welcomed, given that buildings and places that are healthier for people will inevitably be more climate resilient and likely less climate impactful. And plainly it is difficult to argue that making beautiful places is a bad idea. However, it is interesting to reflect on how the White Paper seeks to achieve that vision: it proposes to do so by taking what is perhaps one of the most subjective elements of planning – beautiful design – and turning it into a much more rules-based system than is presently in place. The consultation will draw out the extent to which there is support for supplanting planning judgment with pattern-book and design guide compliance.

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