Energy efficient zero carbon ready homes and simpler environmental impact assessments for new developments are among the environmental proposals in the consultation on reforming the planning system in England.
Zero carbon ready homes
In a report published in February 2019, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warned that the UK’s legally-binding climate change targets will not be met without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from UK buildings. Energy use in the UK’s 29 million homes (which accounts for 14% of total UK emissions) actually increased between 2016 and 2017.
When the CCC published its report, the UK was committed to achieving an 80% reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 compared with 1990 emissions. The UK is now committed to a 100% reduction. To complement the other measures proposed within it, the Planning for the Future consultation states that the government will ‘facilitate ambitious improvements in the energy efficiency standards for buildings to help deliver our world-leading commitment to net-zero by 2050’.
Despite the inclusion of these aspirations in the consultation, it seems that the planning system will have no real part to play in setting the new energy efficiency standards. Instead, they will be implemented through the Future Homes Standard proposed in October 2019, whereby the standards in Part L (conservation of fuel and power) and Part F (ventilation) of the Building Regulations for new dwellings will be tightened from 2025. New homes built to comply with the Future Homes Standard will be expected to produce 75-80% lower CO2 emissions compared to current levels and will be zero carbon ready.
The concept of zero carbon ready suggests that new homes will be built to high energy efficiency standards, but will still produce indirect CO2 emissions through their use of grid electricity, some of which will be derived from fossil fuels. However, those indirect emissions will reduce as the grid decarbonises (presumably reducing to zero if and when the grid is fully decarbonised and all electricity is generated from renewables and nuclear power).
The consultation expresses an aspiration that local authorities will reassign internal resources to the monitoring and enforcement of building regulations, though that seems unlikely to happen given the myriad of other competing priorities that local authorities face.
Changes to environmental impact assessments
The consultation also mentions simplifying requirements for environmental assessment and mitigation. It echoes comments made by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice MP, in a speech on environmental recovery on 20 July 2020, in which he gave some signals as to how environmental policy and law may develop after the end of the Brexit transition period, including retaining features of EU law that have worked and changing features that haven’t. This raises the question of whether the government (at least in England) is likely to pursue a deregulatory agenda in relation to environmental matters.
Mr Eustice announced a consultation later this year on changing the approach to environmental assessment and mitigation, and front-loading ecological considerations in the planning process. He also suggested that lists of protected species (currently set by the EU) may be reviewed to provide ‘better protection for species that are characteristic of our country and critical to our ecosystems’, singling out water voles, red squirrels, adders and pine martens. Could those species become the great crested newts of the future, that every developer will fear finding on a potential development site?