Net Zero Strategy: What’s the Plan for Planning?

Policy Update
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Back in June 2019, the UK government passed legislation committing it to achieving ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy has now published the ‘Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener’ policy paper which sets out proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy in order to realise this ambitious, world-leading 2050 net zero target.  The Strategy takes a largely positive stance, seeking to make the UK the ‘birthplace of the Green Industrial Revolution’ with an emphasis on the ‘unique creative power of capitalism’ driving innovative change and bringing down costs of green technologies.

So how does the planning system fit into the Net Zero Strategy?  It takes a bit of searching, but the Strategy does recognise the importance of the planning system ‘to common challenges like combating climate change and supporting sustainable growth’. Indeed, the net zero transition will require innovative spatial planning to initiate significant land use changes and deliver infrastructure. The Paper recognises that low carbon solutions rely on transforming the infrastructure needed to deliver them which is highly dependent on enablers that have intrinsic knowledge of local circumstances and opportunities for generation. Planning, alongside building regulations, is one of the fundamental controls and influences on the decarbonisation of new buildings. In addition, the re-purposing of current building stock which will represent 80% of the built environment in 2050, also often requires planning permission.

Whilst it is clear that the planning system will play a key role in delivering change, it is very much a case of ‘wait and see’ what this will look like as part of wider planning reforms.  The Strategy does confirm that ‘as part of our programme of planning reform we intend to review the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to make sure it contributes to climate change mitigation and adaptation as fully as possible’ – although no specific timetable is given.  At present, the NPPF (2021) has no specific mention of net zero requirements.  In contrast, the London Plan (2021) includes examples of more rigorous low carbon policies being imposed, with major developments expected to achieve net zero-carbon, as displayed through a detailed energy strategy.   As well as committing to updating the NPPF, the Strategy also advises that the energy National Policy Statements will be updated and ways to streamline the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) will also be explored.

As we wait for updates to these planning policy documents (and possible wider planning reforms), there are various policies in the Strategy which will have an immediate impact on developers.  For example, as recognised in the Paper, the UK has around 30 million buildings which are responsible for around 17% of our national emissions. From 2025 onwards, the Future Homes Standard will be applied to new buildings, ensuring all new homes in England are ready for net zero by having a high standard of energy efficiency, with low carbon heating installed as standard. Regarding non-domestic buildings, a consultation has been carried out on introducing a performance-based policy framework to large commercial and industrial buildings, with a pilot scheme proposed in 2022.

For some, the Net Zero Strategy doesn’t go far enough, for others, it goes too far.  Importantly, the Strategy sets out a pathway with expected carbon reductions by 2035 from 1990 levels.  This bridges the gap to the ‘far off in the distance’ date of 2050 and, in doing so, requires more immediate action over the next decade.  Of course, the planning system is only one part of the collective effort across all sectors to achieve net zero.  However, as the role of the planning system is to plan, it is essential that it is allowed to be on the front foot – any reforms and policy changes therefore need to be made promptly to ensure that appropriate Local Plans and policy frameworks can be in place to help deliver net zero.

The full Net Zero Strategy can be found here: