Progress depends on action

Ministers have missed a crucial opportunity to put planning at the very heart of climate change policy, maintains Hugh Ellis.

Over the past two months, this campaign series has highlighted the importance of climate change. This has become far more than an environmental issue. It is now fundamental to our sense of well-being.

We are sensing a powerful imperative for action and a growing awareness that without climate security there can be no effective or lasting social or economic progress. There is a rare growing consensus between the differing sectors of the need to find ways to deliver effective action and an understanding that this action must be founded on transparent standards and targets that create a fair playing field for all partners in the planning process.

The need for action is reinforced by the opening represented by regional spatial strategies, local development frameworks (LDFs) across England and local development plans in Wales. Such a concentrated review of regional and local planning policy offers an unprecedented opportunity to enshrine effective policy on climate change reduction by the end of 2006.

Tackling climate change will inevitably suffer some setbacks. Unfortunately, the government's consultation paper on PPS3 and its code for sustainable homes (Planning, 9 December, p2 and 3) constitute just such a setback.

These documents are the biggest missed opportunity in the planning reforms.

The suggested measures will not only fail to deal with climate change, they will result in a net increase in domestic carbon dioxide emissions exacerbating climate change and breaching the government's own stated targets.

The code is no longer for buildings but only for homes. At a stroke, this reduces its effectiveness by ruling out its application to all commercial developments. The code itself will be applied to homes funded from the public purse but will be "voluntary" for everyone else. This is a recipe for confusion and uncertainty.

PPS3 on housing could have boosted the code by suggesting that local planning authorities should adopt it in their LDFs. Instead, it merely invites authorities to "encourage" its use, and even then only in the case of large-scale strategic housing sites. A whole range of smaller development will simply be ignored.

The internal code rating system is based on the eco-homes regime but includes key standards on waste and water. Developers can trade between the themes in the code to build up points, so they could have poor energy efficiency and great water recycling and get a "good" code rating. But the really telling issue is the minimum standards for energy efficiency set out in the code, which simply reflects part L of the building regulations.

This approach has deep implications for the major expansion of housing provision that the government is planning. Buried deep in the consultation exercise surrounding PPS3 is a report by Entec. This demonstrates that carbon dioxide emissions from homes is likely to increase by 6,780,000 tonnes by 2016, assuming the government achieves its annual target of 200,000 additional housing units.

While part L of the building regulations could reduce this figure by 20 per cent, the overall rise in carbon dioxide emissions is still dramatic.

The government's plans are a carbon disaster that will exacerbate climate change, breach its own carbon dioxide reduction targets and deny future generations vital climate security.

The most frustrating point is that the ODPM could transform this position through some simple changes to PPS3. It should require local authorities to incorporate the relevant aspects of the code for sustainable homes into local planning policy and issue a powerful national statement on the importance of the planning system in dealing with climate change.

This would transform the policy environment, creating effective and transparent frameworks for reducing carbon emissions. Crucially, it would provide certainty for the construction industry and investors by incorporating a voluntary code into the statutory land-use planning system.

While there is a real need for ministers to clarify the policy confusion on sustainable building standards, the responsibility for climate change cannot be laid solely at Whitehall's door. Local and regional government and the construction industry are all fully aware of the need to act.

LDFs and regional strategies must incorporate climate change reduction policies as the central aspect of their thinking.

Climate change issues must also be embedded in business plans and investment decisions. Politicians at all levels of government must provide the necessary leadership to support action on climate change. In particular, they must promote an understanding of the long-term and catastrophic costs that communities will face if we cannot stabilise climate change.

The science behind climate change is now undeniable. There can be no excuses for not doing everything that we can to deliver a low-carbon society.

The role of planning in reducing climate change is also clear. The task now is to turn these words into action before it is too late.

- Hugh Ellis is planning adviser to Friends of the Earth.

CLIMATE CHANGE CAMPAIGN SUPPORTERS Association of British Insurers - Bill Dunster Architects - British Photovoltaic Association - British Wind Energy Association - Centre for Urban and Regional Ecology - Friends of the Earth - Green Alliance - IT Power Ltd - Local Government Association - London Borough of Merton - London Borough of Croydon - Places for People - Planning magazine - Renewable Power Association - Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - RTPI - Solar Trade Association - Town and Country Planning Association - Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors - UK Climate Impacts Programme - Wildlife Trusts - Woking Borough Council - Woodland Trust - WWF-UK

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