Junior Programme Officer
Lancaster City Council has conducted a prompt review of its Local Plan to ensure the policies it contains will help tackle the climate crisis. Aligning plans, policies and guidance with climate targets forms part of Action 5 in the 50-point Climate Action Plan for Councils.
To play their full part in delivering national and local climate targets, councils will need to embed climate action across all their policies and strategies, particularly in crucial areas such as transport, economic development, housing and planning. Lancaster City Council has carried out a climate emergency review of its Local Plan, ensuring that climate-conscious placemaking is a fundamental part of the district’s future.
Local Plans guide the location and design of new development in an area, and so influence how people travel, whether new buildings are energy efficient and where space can be found for renewable energy. Although Local Plans are legally required to consider climate change mitigation and adaptation, they don’t have to be aligned with net zero targets. The UK government needs to change this to ensure all planning policies and decisions align with legally binding net zero targets. But Lancaster City Council hasn’t waited for national change and has gone beyond what’s currently required.
The Climate Change Committee reported in 2020 that most Local Plans require “significant revision” if net zero is to be delivered. In 2021 the Committee recommended that a “net zero test” be applied to planning. And in 2022 it reported that local government “is still not sufficiently supported” with “insufficient progress” made on reforming planning standards. Now, despite concern that planning regulations could be weakened rather than strengthened following government announcements in its Growth Plan in September 2022, Lancaster remains committed to strong local policies on climate and nature.
Like dozens of other local authorities across the UK, in 2019 Lancaster declared a climate emergency. In July 2020 the council adopted its new Local Plan, which had been in development for 8 years. Yet Lancaster then took the unprecedented decision to launch straight into its climate emergency review of the Local Plan.
Councillor Gina Dowding, Cabinet Member for Planning and Placemaking, Lancaster City Council.
Two documents make up the Lancaster Local Plan: the Strategic Policies & Land Allocations Development Plan Document (DPD) and the Development Management DPD. An initial scoping consultation took place between September and November 2020 to establish exactly what the climate emergency review should investigate, since it wasn’t the intention to rewrite the entire Local Plan. Thirty-two policies were selected for possible amendment to address climate change adaptation and mitigation across 5 key themes:
A revised draft of the Local Plan was ready within a year and went out to consultation for the community’s feedback between July and September 2021. The council proactively embraced positive community engagement to ensure that changes made to the plan were supported and shaped by the district’s residents. There was a final opportunity for public input between January and March 2022, after which the new climate-focused Local Plan was submitted to the Secretary of State for examination. If successful, Lancaster City Council will be able to officially adopt the new plan in late 2022/early 2023.
Lancaster has both strengthened existing policies and introduced new ones as a result of its Climate Emergency Local Plan Review. Some of the headline changes are:
Responding to climate change and creating environmental sustainability (Strategic Policy CC1): This is a new, overarching strategic policy that responds to the council’s declaration of a climate emergency and its ambition to reduce emissions to net zero by 2030. The policy sets out the future vision for a climate-resilient Lancaster District and the expectation that all new developments will address environmental and climate impacts from the outset.
Retrofitting historic buildings (Development Management policies DMCCH1 and DMCCH2): This allows for the retrofit and installation of micro-renewables in historic buildings. Lancaster has many traditional, stone masonry buildings that are heritage assets. These 2 new policies, written with input from Historic England, support responsible retrofit so that housing with historical value can maintain its original character while also cutting carbon emissions.
Walking and cycling provision (Development Management Policy DM61): This policy prioritises walking and cycling. Updated transport policies in the Local Plan now aim to achieve a “modal shift” away from private car use towards accessible active and sustainable travel options – creating new walking and cycling networks is crucial for this.
Green and blue infrastructure (Strategic Policy SC4 and Development Management Policy DM43): These policies refer to green and blue spaces (like rivers, ponds and lakes) and have been updated to give greater emphasis to the connectivity of green and blue infrastructure. There’s also a new emphasis on the quality, role and value of green and blue spaces, including their role in climate mitigation and adaptation, recreation, active travel, water management, landscape and biodiversity. These must be considered in the design of new development.
The council will strongly resist any proposal that involves the loss of such spaces. It produced a Green and Blue Infrastructure Strategy to support these policy changes, and has even created a toolkit to help developers incorporate green and blue spaces into their designs.
Sustainable design and construction (Development Management Policy DM30a): This new policy focuses on sustainable design and construction and is a major change to the original plan. It supports a fabric first approach, meaning all new buildings must have high levels of insulation and energy efficiency. The policy also highlights the need to mitigate for overheating through, for example, the inclusion of shading and shutters.
The Climate Emergency Local Plan Review proposed that all new developments must achieve a minimum 31% reduction in carbon emissions at plan adoption and increase to a 75% reduction by 2025. The emissions reductions are in line with the new Future Homes Standard proposed by the government but require that emissions reductions are initially done through a fabric first approach. Lancaster’s new policy also goes further than national government by setting out that by 2028 all new developments must be net zero carbon from day one rather than “zero carbon ready”, which is the government’s approach. This requires highly energy-efficient buildings as well as on-site renewable energy or an off-site renewable energy source so that emissions are zero or even negative (ie generating a surplus of renewable energy).
Diane Neville, Principal Planning Policy Officer, Lancaster City Council.
Minimising waste and material use (Development Management Policy DM30c): This policy refers to material use and waste during construction. Under the revised policy, developers must consider the lifecycle carbon emissions of new buildings, from concept to demolition. Where possible, local suppliers and low-carbon materials should be used. Reuse and recycling of construction materials is expected. Addressing lifecycle emissions is a progressive policy that’ll help to reduce embodied carbon, a significant source of emissions that’s currently unregulated in the UK.
Water management and flood risk (Development Policy DM34): This updated policy is about water management. It prioritises reusing water as well as sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) to reduce flood risk. The original version of this policy encouraged sustainable drainage, but the review has upgraded this “encouragement” to become a policy requirement. The revised policy will require all proposals for new developments to incorporate SuDS and face stricter assessments of flood risk. Under the proposed new policy, more developments will also need to supply a sustainable drainage strategy including any residential development over 5 units. Previously this would have only applied to “major development”.
Renewable energy generation (Development Management Policy DM53): National planning policy sets an extremely high bar for onshore wind developments. Along with a minority of other councils, Lancaster has taken a proactive approach to enable wind energy generation in its area, by including a “wind energy opportunity area” map in the Local Plan – unlocking potential where others have only seen barriers. Although, following a government announcement in its September 2022 Growth Plan, national policy may soon remove barriers to onshore wind development, it’ll take time for new policies to be developed – Lancaster is already well ahead with its positive approach. New policies regarding energy storage have also been added. This is important because the UK will need more storage capacity in the future so that energy can be released when needed most. Yet not many, if any, Local Plans are addressing this.
The climate emergency review has also updated the economic objective of the Local Plan from “growth” to “prosperity”, reflecting the idea that growth based on extraction isn’t a sustainable way to live within planetary boundaries.
Lancaster isn’t only looking at its Local Plan to promote planning as the key to unlocking truly transformative climate action. It’s also participating in 2 other projects that link planning and the climate emergency.
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Political courage and commitment – At the time of Lancaster’s climate emergency declaration, the new Local Plan was already close to completion, a process that had taken almost a decade. It wasn’t possible to start from scratch. But elected members didn’t take this as an excuse and recognised that something had to be done. The Local Plan is the major document dictating the future of local authority areas – climate change needed to be fundamental to it.
It was elected members who initiated the Climate Emergency Local Plan Review from the top down, and they’ve continued to back it even through political changes. The 2021 local elections left the council under no overall control by a single party. Now led by the first Green Party council leader in the North, Lancaster’s engaged and concerned councillors of all parties have wholeheartedly supported the Local Plan review process. Lancaster is working to reject adversarial politics and embrace consensual politics.
Strong community engagement – Planning influences the shape of the places we live in. Communities therefore deserve a say, but often find planning dry and complex to understand. Lancaster wanted to have dynamic conversations with residents, so it planned its community engagement carefully along the principle of meeting people where they’re at. Having a creative and committed consultation officer also boosted this.
Due to pandemic constraints, consultation was hybrid, taking place online but also reaching people through outdoor events such as the Great Big Green Week and events around COP26. This meant residents didn’t have to attend a designated planning event and the council was able to reach people who wouldn’t otherwise actively seek to participate.
Lancaster found that digital engagement reached more – and different – people than usual. Using multiple different digital platforms meant the council could engage people whatever their preferred platform. Lancaster also created interactive digital storyboards and explanatory videos that used simple language and visual aids to make the process clear. The council wanted to tell a story that everyone could engage with. For instance, the review was framed as “having your say on how the city council should tackle climate change”, rather than the technicalities of Local Plan regulations.
Lancaster’s community engagement plan included briefings to elected members, so that they could confidently discuss the review with residents. Briefings were made to the local press. Additionally, 500 leaflets featuring a QR code that linked directly to the Local Plan consultation were distributed at events, schools, businesses, doctors’ surgeries and care homes. The council also reached out to community groups like FoodFutures.
Being prepared for objections and the “viability argument” – Lancaster knew that a major barrier could be the objections of developers and construction firms, and so made sure to pragmatically engage these stakeholders. Part of this involved being prepared for the “viability argument” – ie complaints that proposed policies would not be financially viable. Council officers appointed specialist consultants Three Dragons to conduct an independent viability assessment to ensure that all proposed policies were viable. Three Dragons were therefore on board from the start.
The viability assessment process included engaging with industry around the issue. During the consultation period, the council received a response relating to viability from a consortium of 8 developers. Over 350 industry representatives were then invited to an engagement event in summer 2021.
Responding to developers’ concerns by drawing on evidence provided by Three Dragons, the council pointed out that improving building performance may increase up-front costs but no more than the cost uplift for delivering the new 2021 building regulations. The council was also able to highlight that the fabric first approach should significantly reduce ongoing running costs, and that this should be factored into arguments about viability. Policy DM30a (sustainable design and construction) takes a fabric first approach – this prioritises reducing energy demand, which in turn minimises the impact on viability. It also has a phased introduction to allow developers time to adapt.
Cross-departmental and cross-boundary working – Within the council, the planning, climate and heritage teams have worked together closely to draw up new policies. Planning officers have also collaborated with Lancashire County Council, the highways authority for the area, on transport policies. The desired modal shift that Lancaster is seeking won’t be possible without the county’s input.
The Climate Emergency Local Plan Review was funded internally from the council’s own budget. The cost of completing the partial review was lowered by choosing to conduct much of the evidence base work in-house, rather than going out to consultants. To do this, 2 new specialist Climate Change Policy Officers, based in the planning team, were hired to support the Local Plan review.
While waiting for the existing Local Plan to be adopted, behind-the-scenes work to get ready for an immediate climate emergency review started in early 2020. Timescales were sketched out, the 2 new officer posts were integrated, and an internal Local Plan review group of elected members was formed.
National planning reform is needed – Council officers fear work going to waste if they’re unable to defend higher than national standards to inspectors in future planning decisions. This is especially the case in the context of perceived competing tensions between climate emergency objectives and the emphasis on building new homes. However, with the right policies in place, ensuring there are enough affordable, quality homes and protecting the environment aren’t mutually exclusive. The UK government must reform the planning system so that it’s fully aligned with tackling the climate emergency.
Susanna Dart, Climate Change Policy Officer, Lancaster City Council.
Keep it focused – When amending an already adopted Local Plan to account for the climate emergency, a total rewrite is unfeasible. Lancaster chose areas that would have the most impact and that were locally relevant. It’s a diverse district that includes urban, coastal and rural areas, with a high number of historic stonewalled properties. Lancaster’s also felt climate impacts in the form of severe flooding in recent years. Consequently, the Climate Emergency Local Plan Review prioritised themes of water management, retrofit in heritage settings and improving rural transport connectivity.
Ambition keeps timelines short – Lancaster’s example shows that, if driven by ambition, other councils could implement a Local Plan review in a short timeframe. Lancaster was able to reach the public consultation in under a year, and the whole process to submission stage has taken just 20 months.
Bring developers along with you – Lancaster made a concerted effort to prove to developers that doing things differently isn’t necessarily more expensive or onerous, just different. Using external witnesses and experts was crucial in communicating that the direction of travel is towards climate-friendly development anyway, so developers won’t be harmed in the long run. Lancaster also made the comparison to affordable housing, which was unpopular with developers when introduced but is now accepted, suggesting that climate policies will follow the same trajectory.
Lancaster produced many supporting documents to ease the concerns of developers. One example is its User Guide to the new sustainable design and construction Policy DM30a, which includes supportive quotes from local firms such as Bloor Homes, Green Rose and Tyson Construction.
Collaborate with other councils – Progressive councils should not feel alone, as officers can learn from their peers at other authorities. Lancaster reached out to Cornwall Council and looked into planning innovations at other councils such as Bristol and York. Since embarking on the Climate Emergency Local Plan Review, Lancaster has already been frequently approached to help advise other authorities inspired by its example.
For more information on the Climate Emergency Local Plan Review, contact Diane Neville and Susanna Dart, or go to: https://www.lancaster.gov.uk/planning/planning-policy/ and click on “Local Plans in progress”.
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