Amid the rhetoric and the sound of rattling sabres, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that professional bodies are doing a great deal of work on climate change.
The RTPI environmental planning and protection network has been exploring the experience of its members in developing or implementing planning policies to cut carbon emissions and respond to climate change. It hopes to identify some of the barriers and examples of good practice that we should learn from and promote.
The network brings together planners, researchers and environmental practitioners from different sectors and countries. It has assembled a good deal of evidence about the climate change phenomenon and its potential impact from many different sectoral perspectives. The ODPM guidance Planning and Climate Change points to what can be done through planning and development.
But identifying what is being done is another matter. Two main themes emerge - the practical role of spatial planning in minimising greenhouse gas emissions and its role in adaptation and response. The Energy Savings Trust has been holding a series of seminars on sustainable energy for planners. These have brought together good practice in Woking, Leicester, the Sherwood Energy Village and Merton.
The key to progress appears to be a strong political will, management support, in-house expertise and strong policy frameworks in an adopted development plan. Plans need to contain policies that enforce rather than just encourage low-carbon development with reference to building form, layout and orientation.
Woking Borough Council's climate change strategy, adopted in 2002, focuses on reducing carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, adapting to climate change and promoting sustainable development. It seeks to achieve the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's targets of a 60 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 and an 80 per cent fall by 2100.
A climate-neutral practice note seeks voluntary co-operation in the local development process to achieve reductions and mitigation. This is further supported by Woking's commitment to promoting the use of renewables, not least through setting up vehicles to increase its distributed generation capacity from renewable energy and combined heat and power networks.
The council estimates that since the inception of the strategy, a reduction of more than 17 per cent in carbon dioxide equivalent emissions had been achieved by 2004. These achievements owe much to the political leadership of the council in championing energy efficiency issues and achieving mainstreaming of sustainability throughout its business activities.
The European Energy Cities network is another important focus for innovation.
Leicester City Council has provided the vice-chair of the network for a number of years. Network member Martin Cahn works with the programme on Europe-wide projects to prepare spatial plans for small-scale hydro and wind energy schemes. He notes that small turbines have had a huge impact in promoting regional planning in Ireland and France, but less so in the UK.
Meanwhile, policies on flood risk, green infrastructure, landscape character and ecological networks that incorporate recognition of the impact of climate change are being progressed. Pembrokeshire Coast national park's draft unitary development plan aims to reduce the need to travel, supports sustainable urban drainage systems, seeks to protect flood plains and encourages community-scale renewable energy developments.
The continuing perception in local planning authorities that developers will be "put off" by policies setting targets for renewable energy or energy efficiency is countered by emerging evidence. But the planning system's ability to deliver higher standards of energy efficiency is constrained by the view that this is a matter for the building regulations.
Energy efficiency at the scale of individual homes is often regarded as a non-planning matter. The Government Office for the South West recently supported policy references to energy efficiency in proposed alterations to the 2003 Bristol local plan, but warned against seeking higher standards than those required by the building regulations.
The separation of energy efficiency from planning decisions prevents consideration of such matters as building orientation and solar gain, as they lie beyond the restricted limit of the building regulations and are too detailed to be considered as strategic planning matters. There needs to be greater clarity over the appropriate roles of different regulatory systems and their ability to influence siting, design and layout aspects to deliver buildings that contribute to our efforts to meet challenging climate change targets.
A recurring issue is the availability and reliability of data. There is no overall guidance on what levels of carbon dioxide reduction should be required at local planning levels to put an area on track to meet national targets. Information such as the overall wattage of solar panels and wind turbines being proposed or installed is not being collected at district level.
Leicester City Council has pioneered the development of a model for carbon emissions from the city. It is working to set up a city-wide remote metering system for gas, electricity and water. A combination of historical modelling and actual metering means that it is in a better position than other local authorities to measure its progress towards local, regional and national targets.
Another key issue is the lack of baseline information on flood risk and water resources. Even regional spatial strategies that incorporate adaptation strategies, such as the South East Plan, still do not provide the detail required. In this context the implementation of the EU's water framework directive will make an important contribution.
Local planning authorities are still waiting to see how they can best interact with the structures being put in place by DEFRA and the Environment Agency. It remains unclear what technical support is available to support the preparation and review of flood risk appraisals by planning authorities, let alone add the further complication of the impact of climate change.
Climate change represents a complex set of effects that need to be factored in to long-term development strategies. So, the climate change implementation plan for the South East Plan is aimed at focusing the actions required by different bodies in the region to mitigate and adapt to clearly forecast effects. What these are will be kept constantly under review.
- More information on the RTPI environmental planning and protection network can be viewed via www.rtpi.org.uk/resources/networks.
Jenny Crawford is head of research and knowledge at the RTPI.