We’re heading for environmental meltdown – how the planning system could help

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Posted Sep 4 2016 by Daniel Scharf of Dan the Plan
The planning system could have a vital role to play in our efforts to combat climate change

As a professional planner (of the town and country planning variety) and fan of Low-impact Living I always expect to see demands or requests being made of the planning system to assist in attempts by individuals or groups to experiment or set examples where impact on the environment would be minimised. When these requests have been brought to my attention I’ve been happy to help, but lately my preoccupation has been on what will amount to a revolution in the scale of change required as society as a whole desires or is forced to lower its environmental impact. This transition is likely to be extremely traumatic and it is just possible that an element of planning could reduce the severity of the harm that will be caused to both individuals and society.

There are about 23,000 members of the Royal Town Planning Institute, all of whom should be aware of the urgent need for carbon emissions to be reduced (as soon as possible and to about zero by 2050). This might be only one measure of “sustainable development” but it is one that can be measured. In fact, a statutory duty is placed on those preparing development plans (usually referred to as local plans or neighbourhood plans) to ensure that these mitigate against carbon emissions and contribute towards the achievement of sustainable development.

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Not all carbon emissions are attributable to the use and development of land and buildings (ie the extent of land-use planning control) but clearly a substantial proportion of future emissions will be. A ‘back of an envelope’ calculation shows that about 50% of emissions could come under the control of and be effectively eliminated by an intelligent use of the planning system; an amount that is non-trivial. To some extent these are ‘low hanging fruit’ but they are definitely worth picking and might not be dealt with either voluntarily or by any other existing regulatory system.

Those who have recent experience of the planning system will have noticed the extent to which the English language has been corrupted. This is not so much in the sense of planning jargon but in the distortion of the normal meaning of words such as “affordable” (meaning unaffordable), “sustainable” (meaning sustaining economic growth) and “viable” (meaning profitable). These distortions and others are the most obvious signals that the planning system has been captured by vested business and financial interests. However, this has been made possible by the absence of participation by those with other and countervailing interests, including a concern that the journey along a low-carbon pathway should be started now and be as smooth as possible.

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The planning system has developed a very open aspect towards the public – more so than in any other field of public life, for example education, transport, agriculture, health, or the military. Planning authorities, supervised by the courts, would experience some difficulty in resisting efforts to ensure that the words that appear in national policy (e.g. the National Planning Policy Framework) and in the relevant legislation are given their proper meaning. As an example, a planning inspector described sustainable development as that which, “would consume its own smoke”. This seems to be incontrovertible but has not become common currency in the making of planning decisions.

There may be many trials and tribulations to follow, but this would be a sensible starting position. Those interested in how the planning system could be used to reduce carbon emissions by 50% could be interested in a guide prepared for that purpose at: http://bit.ly/2asiQML

And, on an ongoing basis, at www.dantheplan.blogspot.com