Low-carbon Neighbourhood Planning – key policy changes and scope for influence for Transition Initiatives
Amy Burnett, University of Reading and Dan Stone, Centre for Sustainable Energy      
It’s been over a year since I wrote my article Neighbourhood Planning and the transition towards a low-carbon society back in October 2014 for the Transition Network special edition ofRethinking Real Estate. In it I reflected on the scope of low-carbon action in Neighbourhood Plans and illustrated examples of what Transition Initiatives had achieved, in both draft and adopted plans.  

Since then a number of policy changes have occurred which virtually transform the policy landscape and options for grassroots action in low-carbon Neighbourhood Planning in England.  The Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) is helping guide Neighbourhood Planning groups through these changes and to develop policies that are ambitious and feasible in this more circumscribed context.  In this joint article, I reflect on the significance of the recent policy changes for low-carbon Neighbourhood Planning and CSE explain what they are doing to support Neighbourhood Planning groups in this area.  

Key policy changes 

A number of significant changes have happened since October 2014.  Not least comes an unprecedented global commitment to tackle climate change under the CoP in Paris last December.  The Paris Climate Change Agreement sees consensus from 196 countries around the world on the need to take action on climate change.  The agreement commits nations to keep global average temperatures “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, [and] to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C”, leading to no net increases in carbon emissions in the second half of this century. This agreement and the pledges from individual countries promise massive investment in renewable energy technology and huge increases in renewable energy capacity worldwide.

However, here on the homefront, Government action on low-carbon development is seriously at odds with the emerging global consensus. 
Since the general election in May 2015 where the Conservatives achieved a minority government we are seeing the Conservative ideology permeate our social, economic, environmental and political terrain.  Environmental policy has taken a particular battering. 

In terms of Energy, the rise of community energy encouraged by the Coalition government’s Community Energy Strategy has seen the creation of over 450 such groups, according to Community Energy England.  However, the current government has withdrawn tax relief on investments for community energy, which was a great financial incentive for support for such schemes.  The Feed-in-Tariffs have also been reduced for different renewable technologies – up to 87% for solar PV, though there have been some recent meager concessions by the Government as a response to industry lobbying.  

The government argued that these schemes were too much of a good deal for investors.  However, these changes have cut the lifeline to groups that have only just started to develop projects in their communities. In fact, an estimated 1m fewer homes, schools and businesses will be powered by renewables because of these changes. Meanwhile the government shows continued support and subsidies for fracking and fossil fuels. Wind has been cut asunder, with on-shore wind no longer permitted, unless areas have been specifically allocated for this purpose in Local Plans or Neighbourhood Plans, and evidence is demonstrated of support from the wider community. This has played out in appeal decisions as a virtual veto on wind proposals.  Given the time to achieve such evidence it is unlikely that a Neighbourhood Plan could produce this before the subsidies for wind are cut in 2016, making them unviable requirements to implement anyway. 

In terms of Planning, there have been massive changes to policy on low-carbon new homes.  We did have a target of meeting zero-carbon homes by 2016 (and non-domestic by 2019), but with 2016 just around the corner the government has deemed this too stringent.  Two key things revoked this commitment. Firstly as a result of a government consultation – the Housing Standards Review - theCode for Sustainable Homes has been scrapped as the government’s standard for domestic dwellings. A number of draft Neighbourhood Plans, many of which supported by Transition Initiatives, such as Felpham, Kirdford and Chapel-en-le-Frith, had hoped to stipulate higher codes 5 and even 6 (i.e. above the mandatory requirements). 

Instead, the government sees that increasing the energy efficiency standard of Building Regulations by 20% from 2010 building regulations (or equivalent to Code for Sustainable Homes level 4) helps the housing sector – e.g. developers – to build more by simplifying and making the planning system more ‘efficient’.  As a result Neighbourhood Plans can no longer stipulate technical standards higher than building regulations, but they can indicate a preference for such measures in statements of intent, e.g. this community will look favourably upon new dwellings that exceed building regulations. 
There is a hint from a Neighbourhood Plan Inspector (advising Calne, Wiltshire) that where a Neighbourhood Plan identifies additional housing (i.e. beyond that needed to meet the 5 year supply set out by Councils), higher sustainability standards can be insisted upon. Following the same logic, it might be possible, where additional housing is allocated in a Neighbourhood Plan, to set other pre-conditions, for example requiring new developments to meet specific local housing needs in that particular neighbourhood.  This is detailed in the new iteration of CSE’s Guidebook, which can be viewed here

For existing homes, Neighbourhood Plan policies can be supportive of retrofitting, and there have been examples of this in Wirksworth’s Neighbourhood Plan.  Historic England is also supportive of sensitive retrofitting to historic and traditional buildings. 

Commercial buildings have been largely unaffected by the policy changes as the government did not formally adopt a technical standard for commercial buildings (e.g. as they did for the Code for Sustainable Homes). Neighbourhood Plans can still have a policy of using BREEAM ‘Very Good’ or “Excellent” for commercial properties, for instance.  Individual developments can use BREEAM Communities on mixed development sites (e.g. commercial and residential), which insists on high community engagement and environmental standards.  However, such standards are generally used on individual mixed-use sites and cannot be applied to residential-only dwellings through the Neighbourhood Plan process. 

Sustainable transport has been largely unaffected by the recent policy changes (other than taking out road tax reductions for low-polluting vehicles – see table below).  

With the success of the Paris talks, the world is questioning why Britain is acting in a way which is at odds with the general trend to incentivise low-carbon action.  In this changed policy context what can grassroots actors such as Transition Initiatives do to respond to the need for low-carbon development?   The following table sets out the key changes and scope for action: 
Coalition Government Policy
Current Government Policy
Current scope for low-carbon NP policy
Community Energy Strategy
Shared ownership (e.g. community and commercial) up to 5MW
Withdrawal of tax incentives for investors

Cut of FiT makes new projects unviable

Sites for onshore wind developments must be identified in Neighbourhood Plans or Local Plans and have community support
Indicate support for community energy or intention to create a group

Identify potential renewable energy resources / sites

Onsite generation of renewables

District heating schemes

Include community support for wind through NP

Renewables could also be funded through the Community Infrastructure Levy
Residential development – new
Code for Sustainable Homes
Target of zero-carbon homes by 2016 (Zero Carbon Homes Policy,)
Allowable Solutions to offset homes that do not meet zero-carbon standard
Code for Sustainable Homes cancelled
Withdrawal of Zero-Carbon Homes and Allowable Solutions

Cannot stipulate standards higher than current building regulations (equivalent to Code for Sustainable Homes, level 4)

General policy re: sustainable design / construction (if gaps in Council policy)

Individuals developers could still use other frameworks e.g. BREEAM Communities

Potentially, more stringent low-carbon requirements for additional housing allocated in NP (beyond the Council’s 5-year housing supply)
Residential development – existing
Support in NPPF for retrofitting (paragraph 17, 28)
No change in government policy.

Historic England supportive of sensitive retrofitting.
Policies to support retrofitting, including responsible retrofitting of historic / traditional buildings.
Commercial development
Zero Carbon non-residential (e.g. commercial) by 2019
BREEAM standard ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ can be applied for commercial development (NB: not a government-owned standard)
BREEAM standard for non-residential development not affected by policy changes as not adopted formally by the government
Commercial buildings should adhere to BREEAM Very Good/Excellent
Sustainable Transport
Support in NPPF (paragraphs 29-41)
No real change
Setting cycle pathways
Development to be in walking distance of town centre
Encourage cycle pathways, funded from Community Infrastructure Levy/ Section. 106 contributions

Support in NPPF

Sustainable Urban Drainage systems to be used on all major developments unless demonstrated to be inappropriate.
Water use now covered in Building Regs - standard maximum use of 125 litres per person per day, plus new optional higher standard of 110 litres per person per day, where justified by LPA.
Encourage sustainable urban drainage

Greywater recycling

Encourage the use of natural Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems incorporated into landscaping with biodiversity benefits
No real policies under Coalition Government
Self-build positioned as more sustainable development option
Allocating ‘plot ready’ sites and register for self-builders by Local Planning Authority
Opportunity for Neighbourhood Plans to identify self-build plots.

Opportunity for highly sustainable, affordable housing to meet local needs and local action.  

Support in NPPF (paragraphs 109-125)

Providing net gains in biodiversity where possible, contributing to the Government’s commitment to halt the overall decline in biodiversity
Discussion of Biodiversity offsetting, and erosion of protection
Identification and protection of wildlife corridors, assets and weak links.

Integrate new cycle / walkways with Green Infrastructure links
Local Employment

NPPF supportive of commercial development (see paragraphs 18-28)
Introduction of permitted development rights to convert offices to residential use without consent
Provision of start-up office facilities / micro-business hubs in rural settlements, localising working.

CSE’s support to neighbourhood planning groups 

nCSE is midway through a two year project to encourage Neighbourhood Plans to tackle climate change and sustainability issues.  Inspired by theResilient Cities initiative, CSE has been encouraging Neighbourhood Planning groups to examine the resilience challenges their communities face. 

Many resilience issues (for example, energy affordability, vulnerability to flooding) are universal and apply to all communities, but how these play out locally will vary from community to community.  The issues that might affect a rural market town (typically enforced car dependence, lack of local employment options, poor cycling / walking infrastructure) will be very different to those affecting an inner-city suburb, and different strategies may be appropriate. Consequently Neighbourhood Plans are a good vehicle for assessing resilience issues at this fine-grained level, leading to appropriate strategies, and are a good mechanism for normalising and localising discussions of the consequences and responses to climate change.  

Dan Stone, CSE says “it’s really rewarding enabling neighbourhood planning groups to take more control of their local areas, and exploring how neighbourhood plans can be used to understand and take proactive action on local sustainability and resilience issues, building on the efforts of Local Planning Authorities.” 

CSE’s support to neighbourhood planning groups in the form of their Low Carbon Neighbourhood Planning guide – which has had nearly 2000 downloads –,hands-on support to Neighbourhood Planning groups and local planning authorities on community engagement, and policy development has so far helped over 30 groups around the country. CSE are particularly interested in reaching out to Transition Initiatives to develop low-carbon policies. For more information on CSE’s low-carbon localism project see and support to neighbourhood planning groups.

Or to sign up to CSE’s Neighbourhood Planning Newsletter, contact Dan.Stone@cse.org.uk or 0117 934 1400  

Planning as a vehicle to demand low-carbon action from below 

These policy changes cast doubt on whether the UK can meet the challenge of responding to existing domestic and EU commitments (if Britain remains in Europe, that is…), and the emerging global drive to take action on climate change. The government’s attack on renewables threatens to waste the potential of the UK economy to capitalise on the opportunities offered by the Paris agreement - DECC’s own figures suggest that the solar FIT reduction could slash jobs in the solar sector by approximately 60%[1]  

What we can hope is that in the wake of Paris that grassroots actors - including Transition Initiatives, Neighbourhood Planning groups and Local Authorities - can show their commitment to these issues from below in their determination to achieve low-carbon communities. The creation of a low-carbon Neighbourhood Plan is just the beginning – implementing, sustaining and consolidating the dialogue on low-carbon action that has begun through the Neighbourhood Plan process is vital. 

To contact Amy or Dan with any questions relating to the issues raised in this article,
Amy Burnett a.burnett@pgr.reading.ac.uk or Dan.Stone@cse.org.uk 

Other relevant resources 
Previous article on Transition Network website with additional hints and tips about how Transition can influence neighbourhood plans– though note some policies now outdated.

Amy Burnett is a PhD Researcher at the Real Estate and Planning Department at the Henley Business School, University of Reading.  Her current research focuses on the role of communities in influencing low-carbon Planning in the context of Neighbourhood Plans.  Amy has worked on a number of community development projects with a particular emphasis on monitoring and evaluation.  Amy's work aims to promote creative and inclusive engagement between community groups and their local government.  

Daniel Stone is a chartered Town Planner working for the Centre for Sustainable Energy on their Neighbourhood Planning project, helping neighbourhood planning groups embed climate change and fuel poverty objectives in their plans.  Prior to joining CSE, Dan had 14 years’ experience as a local authority Town Planner in a range of rural and urban authorities, with experience of negotiating and determining a wide range of developments including significant housing, retail and commercial schemes and renewable energy projects.  Dan also had a brief stint working in a consultancy, working on feasibility studies and seeking planning permission for wind farms.