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COP26: The importance of resourcing planning systems to achieve net zero

By RTPI Chief Executive, Victoria Hills

 Prime minister Boris Johnson opened the COP26 conference in Glasgow with a stark warning: “It’s one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock and we need to act now”. Mr Johnson also referenced the key outcome of the 2015 COP21 conference in Paris – an agreement to reach net zero – and urged delegates to maintain this commitment.

Limiting greenhouse gas emissions to a point where the planet achieves net zero is a tall order and will require us to fundamentally reshape the ways in which we live our lives. Central to this will be how our communities are designed and how they function. Enabling sustainable lifestyle choices is key to this.

Low carbon transport, greener homes and renewable energy sources will all be key features of the communities of the future but they will not miraculously appear by themselves. They have to be incentivised, prioritised, nurtured and enhanced. This is where planning comes in.

In preparing to make net zero a reality, national governments must recognise it is a feat that they cannot achieve on their own – they will need to pull every lever at their disposal. They must acknowledge that town planners, and the proactive planning they can do, will be crucial in translating national and strategic ambitions into local action.

Indeed planning is one of the most powerful tools local authorities have to embed sustainable placemaking in everyday decisions, through local plans, masterplanning, development decisions and placed-based coordination of investment decisions for example.

The challenge to national governments, then, is to understand this and back local planners with funding to enable them to get on with the job.

Today at COP26 the theme will be finance: considering how public and private finance can be harnessed to meet net zero and encourage climate resilient growth. World leaders would do well to begin by channelling funding into their country’s planning systems. In many countries the systems are already in place and there would be no need for an overhaul to ensure the money is being put towards achieving net zero goals. But the value that sufficiently resourced planning can add, will be worth its weight in gold.

The challenge to national governments, then, is to understand this and back local planners with funding to enable them to get on with the job.

That’s why, in England, the RTPI has called for funding worth £500m over a period of four years. The £67m handed out in last month’s Comprehensive Spending Review was a very good start but we would like a more generous and longer-term settlement to help address climate change, ensuring planning is proactively embracing a ‘no stone unturned’ approach to reaching net zero.

This funding could be used to enhance local plan capacity, with climate change policy elevated, and the requirement of a chief planner in every local authority in the country would see a senior responsible officer leading sustainable placemaking, tasked with designing communities that reduce carbon emissions and promote a healthier all-round lifestyle. On top of this, we have estimated that just £67m over four years would be enough for each council to employ one planner tasked exclusively with climate proofing policy and development management. Seeing all planning decisions through a climate lens would kickstart a new way of thinking with just one minute left on Boris Johnson’s doomsday clock.

Instilling a ‘climate-first’ attitude within planning is just the start. This will need to be complemented by attracting more young planners into the system. That is why we would like to see more apprenticeships made available and for routes into the profession broadened. After all, it is the next generation that will be hardest hit by the impacts of climate change and will therefore have the most motivation to address it. The time for talk is over. Planning is ready for action.

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