Net zero needs UK planning, infrastructure reforms and safeguards

Leading professional bodies warn Downing Street that a climate-positive future depends on major reforms to guidance and consent around new construction projects. 

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Unveiled late-February, the UK Government has outlined a number of intended changes to process surrounding Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP), including major developments linked to emissions reduction and net zero. Amendments touch upon the need to set a clear strategic direction for infrastructure planning, creating a faster consent process, and ensuring better outcomes for the natural environment.

More recognition of the roles communities can play in this framework, and better engagement with local residents, has also been tabled. As has building a more diverse and resilient resourcing model. 

The proposals have been welcomed by the Royal Town Planning Institute, which has warned that delays and processes bogged down by bureaucracy place both the economy and net zero ambitions at risk. Official figures back this claim up.

Between 2012 and 2021, the average timeline for Development Consent Orders – required in order to start work on any infrastructure project – increased by 65%, to 4.2 years. The number of projects that had to be granted extensions to the decision-making period also grew, while some individual proposals resulted in more than 90,000 pages of documentation.

‘The Government’s NSIPs action plan is a promising step towards building infrastructure better and faster. Used effectively, infrastructure can be an integral part in delivering a net zero future whilst driving economic growth. All too often we see important projects delayed by an increasingly drawn-out consenting process and mounting paperwork,’ said Victoria Hills, Chief Executive of the RTPI. 

Elsewhere, local authority network UK100 has issued an open letter to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, raising serious concerns over potential alterations to the National Planning Policies Framework (NPPF) following a consultation period. Building on recommendations set out in a response document published by the Better Building Coalition, the document urges Government to enshrine UK environmental commitments into any updated planning system. 

More specifically, the letter requests that the NPPF be formally bound to the Climate Change Act, with net zero at its core. Local authorities should also have power to prioritise the environment, move away from the current competition between climate mitigation and adaptation criteria, and other planning contributions.

A new national framework for Local Area Energy Planning should be created, helping regions develop their own balanced system, along with a regulation code that insists on the use of some technologies, and bans on others, in new and existing buildings within net zero heat zones. 

‘In order to address the climate and ecological emergency, seize the economic opportunities that the transition to net zero presents and build communities and infrastructure resilient to the worst impacts of climate change, we need to take concrete steps towards meeting the UK’s environmental commitments within the planning system,’ UK100’s Interim Chief Executive, Jason Torrence, wrote in the letter. 

The need to guarantee better outcomes for the natural environment from large infrastructure projects has been widely discussed in recent years. Last month, The Wildlife Trusts released a damning report of the impact of the HS2 high speed rail line, describing ‘fundamental flaws’ in how impact assessment was conducted. Read more on this here

Image: Etienne Girardet


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