Fyson on ... local climate change guidance that fans disquiet over government's policy responsibilities

Publication last week of the Planning and Climate Change Coalition guidance for local authorities performed two invaluable services.

The first was to bring the febrile debate about systems back to the practicalities of achieving progress in specific policies to meet the climate challenge.

The second was to raise the general question about how practical it is to expect locally devised plans to tackle issues that are acknowledged to be of wider than local significance. The forthcoming localism bill ought to clarify the issue, but is said to be shaping up merely as a glorified consultation document.

The prime movers of the coalition initiative, Friends of the Earth and the Town and Country Planning Association, did manage to influence the last government's draft climate policy statement, but that fell with the change of regime.

The new document, cleansed of any reference to regional approaches, proposes ten low-carbon policies to address in local planning and four more model development management policies. The focus is on low-carbon energy, development location and sustainable building requirements, though transport issues are only touched on.

The coalition makes clear that the informal groups which ministers hope will in future contribute to local planning should also heed the advice. Setting aside the questions that such a development implies for the role of representative democracy, there are significant further issues to consider.

If, as is distinctly possible, local activists promote climate change plans, is it to be assumed that the standards they apply will reflect a consensus? Or will the government's present Maoist inclination to "let a thousand flowers bloom" lead to communities each setting their own agenda, as apparently is to be the case with new housing provision?

Severe disadvantages arise from the decentralised model, and not merely in the matter of achieving a national carbon reduction target. There is a danger that where unemployment is high, lower standards may be adopted to allow localities to compete effectively for job-creating new development.

The government must surely recognise that climate is a policy area where national standards are set. In that case, it also has to be prepared to exercise its central power to monitor and enforce, influencing local priorities and overriding local preferences as necessary.

Common sense suggests that in many other local planning policy matters central government has direct responsibilities, not to be shirked for either economic or ideological reasons.

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