The NPPF and the Climate Crisis– Some Movement; and Opportunities for Local Design Codes

27 Jul 2021

Planning and Environment

While “climate change” appears four more times in the July 2021 NPPF than its predecessor, the update does not align national planning policy with the Net Zero obligation in the Climate Change Act 2008. Beyond some changes to tree planting and assessment of flood risk, addressed below, the amendments do not require climate change adaptation or mitigation. The National Design Guide (“the Guide”) and the National Model Design Code (“the Code”) do, however, contain some elements that address climate change, although the Net Zero obligation has clearly not been the animating force behind any of the new documents.

The Revised NPPF and Climate Change

Two key climate change related paragraphs in the NPPF remain unamended. Paragraph 152 (former paragraph 148) still requires the planning system to “shape places in ways that contribute to radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions”. Paragraph 7 still defines “sustainable development”, at a “very high level” as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs“. This has arguably been strengthened by the addition of the 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development from the UN to paragraph 7.

The presumption in favour of sustainable development has been retained, and the requirements for development to improve the environment and mitigate climate change have been introduced into paragraph 11a for plan-making.

Trees: One of the most directive elements of the updated NPPF appears in new paragraph 131, which provides that both planning policy and decision-making “should ensure that new streets are tree-lined“. This will have significant highways implications, and is reflected in the Guide (pgs 22-25) and the Code (Part 1 §60 “Nature” pg 31 and N.3.iii).

Flooding: The updated NPPF changes the Sequential Test quite significantly. The updated text in paragraph 161 requires that “[a]ll plans should apply a sequential, risk-based approach to the location of development – taking into account all sources of flood risk and the current and future impacts of climate change – so as to avoid, where possible, flood risk to people and property.” (emphasis added). The inclusion of all sources means that the need for a Sequential Test may be triggered if a site is located in an area at high risk of surface water or groundwater flooding (although the guidance on applying the Sequential Test has not yet been updated to reflect this). The Environment Agency has, however, issued an update to climate change allowances for Flood Risk Assessments, which significantly changes the river flow allowances, apparently to reflect the greater risk of flooding caused by climate change.

Design Codes: One of the biggest changes is paragraph 134 of the NPPF, which provides that development that is “not well designed should be refused, especially where it fails to reflect local design policies and government guidance on design“. That has the potential to give real impetus to the design-related elements on climate change in the Guide and the Code (see below), although it is not entirely clear how paragraph 134 is to interact with the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

Paragraph 134 also requires “significant weight” to be given to development which reflects local design policies, government guidance and outstanding or innovative design which promotes high levels of sustainability “or helps raise the standard of design more generally in an area.” Again, this could incentivise development which has been sensitively designed for climate mitigation and adaptation.

The National Design Guide

“Climate” is included as one of the three overarching characteristics that lead to well-designed places (pg 8). Climate is embedded in characteristics such as places being accessible and easy to move around; homes and buildings being “functional, healthy and sustainable”, with social and inclusive public spaces; resources being “efficient and resilient”; nature being “enhanced and optimised” and places being made to last.

Climate change is addressed in most detail in relation to Resources, which emphasises the need for design to respond to the impacts of climate change by being energy efficient and minimising carbon emissions, through both mitigation and adaptation (pg 42). The Guide goes on to address the energy hierarchy; to give guidance on the careful selection of materials and construction techniques and on maximising resilience.

The National Model Design Code Parts 1 and 2

Part 1 of the Code sets out the design parameters to help local authorities and communities decide what good design looks like in their area. It offers local authorities some significant opportunities to address the climate crisis.

In its Objectives, it states that creating “more beautiful places requires a greener approach that supports progress towards our environmental goals.” (§9, pg 2, emphasis added). It goes on: “This means more energy efficient buildings, enhancing nature, integrating with the natural environment creating more resilient places and delivering progress towards to the net zero carbon target by 2050.”

Under “Resources”, the Code encourages that standards relating to sustainability are incorporated into codes or covered in other policies, including through encouraging local low carbon and low energy networks (§66, pg 34). Importantly, codes may set standards for new development to meet in relation to: embodied energy/carbon; whole life-cycle carbon; BREEAM ratings and other best practice guidance, and water usage (pg 34).

This represents a significant opportunity for local authorities. However, it is plainly contingent on authorities having access to the requisite information and metrics needed to develop such codes. Part 2 of the Code looks forward to the Future Homes Standard, which will be included in Building Regulations, and which will be applied nationally “in order to meet zero-carbon targets”. In the meantime, authorities can draw on the resources provided by the UK Green Building Council, the Town and Country Planning Association, RIBA and the Passivhaus Trust, among others.

This also represents a significant opportunity for housebuilders to get ahead of the curve and distinguish their development proposals by adopting low carbon principles and demonstrating how their design follows the principles of whole life carbon assessment and includes climate adaptation via material, layout and design.

Estelle Dehon