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Richard Blyth: How planners can actively deliver net zero

Richard Blyth FRTPI is the RTPI’s Head of Policy, Practice and Research. This is the latest in a series of weekly blog posts from Richard and his team about the government’s proposals for reform of the planning system.

It’s a great privilege to be here in Glasgow for COP26. The “conference of the parties” had always seemed an event that happened far away and to famous people. And now I am here as part of the RTPI delegation under President Wei Yang. On Monday night we held a fringe event in association with the Global Planners’ Network, Commonwealth Association of Planners and ISOCARP, at which we featured our headline research publication for COP26 : Urban Planning after COVID-19

Richard arrives at the COP26 summit (pictured with RTPI Young Planner of the Year, Ryan Walker)

This highlights four areas of focus for policy and actions that are relevant to planning:

  • Governance and resourcing:Financing the recovery should involve advancing processes of decentralisation and strengthening the fiscal capacities of global sub-national governments, as well as providing them with appropriate powers over land development and for cross-boundary strategic planning.
  • Joined-up national and local strategies:Countries should develop national urban policies to co-ordinate sustainable urban growth with sectoral national strategies - e.g., on food security and sustainable industrial development – stressing the role of secondary cities and towns.
  • Common objectives and metrics:Infrastructure decisions and bailout packages should be tested against shared objectives for the future, with metrics that target decarbonisation as well as health and inclusion. Such metrics should enable communities to swiftly progress towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, ambitious biodiversity gains and drastic emissions reductions in ways that are context-appropriate and fair.
  • Data and technology:Effective, open and accountable data governance structures that improve information accessibility for critical decision making on adaptation and mitigation efforts should be established. The adoption of digital technology should dovetail with the formulation of national and local policy that enable its benefits to be spread to all parts of society, including informal and precarious workers.

It’s interesting that this huge conference is being held in the Scottish Exhibition Centre (SEC). It is the product of strong positive planning activity along the Clyde Waterfront, something we have celebrated as an Institute in the past. It is very fitting that the venue is a piece of urban regeneration (rather than a greenfield site).

Whilst a lot of the focus of COP26 seems to be on innovation, it could be argued that planners’ role in climate action can in one sense be summarized as “keep on doing what you were doing.”  

Returning the theme of the SEC (pictured alongside Richard enjoying a local beverage!), this is a site which can be reached by public transport, cycling, and walking easily. Surprisingly many major conference centres can’t.  Urban regeneration has been a key theme in planning since the very beginning but now reusing brownfield land and avoiding urban sprawl is doubly important because of the need to reduce carbon emissions. The pandemic has also reminded us of the possibility (or not) of local opportunities for exercise – making it very clear that we need to build physical activity into our lives, and the simplest way of doing that is to use active travel to reach places.

As part of our own contribution to net zero we published last month in association with the Town and Country Planning Association an update to our earlier guide to local planning authorities on how to use the tools at their disposal to achieve climate action. We have taken this opportunity also to extend the range of the Guide to the whole of the UK.

The Guide contains 6 actions local planning authorities can take:

  1. Unlock the potential of the local development plan as the heart of local climate
    solutions. Ensure that the community is at the heart of the process and that the plan
    is seen as a key corporate priority in responding to the climate crisis.

  2. Understand the legal and policy obligations for action on climate change, including
    the UK Sixth Carbon Budget and how these national targets apply to actions that can be controlled or influenced locally.

  3. Ensure that there is comprehensive relevant evidence on climate mitigation for your area, and use that evidence to set local carbon reduction targets for the local development plan. Make full use of existing online tools: we published a handy guide to climate tools inside our RTPI Learn platform last year.

  4. Apply that evidence to assess and then select the policies that are consistent with
    achieving carbon reduction targets.

  5. Use established assessment frameworks to monitor the effectiveness of policy
    wherever possible, and engage knowledge partners such as higher education institutions to support the analysis of policy impacts. Report progress at least annually as part of the Annual Monitoring Report process.

  6. Ensure that whenever a decision is made contrary to plan policy the climate impacts of that decision are fully assessed. Development should not be approved if it would increase risks to the community or exceed established carbon budgets.

Our guide has been developed with reference to the current position in each country. However the RTPI continues to lobby for stronger climate policies in England, to ensure that the NPPF is aligned with legal commitments including the Climate Change Act 2008.

I am leaving Glasgow today but the RTPI is not leaving the issue of climate behind. It remains  a central policy platform and will feature in our policy research and advocacy in coming weeks and months.

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