Andrew Wood, Senior Engagement and Impact Officer with Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission, gives some personal reflections on the Leeds Local Plan update and shares the Commission's response
The Leeds Local Plan update stage 1 consultation contains the most ambitious climate policies yet seen in the English planning system, making Leeds a genuine leader in climate action. Even if you – like me – wish that it went further and faster, this is something to celebrate, support and champion.
The climate gets a bumpy ride in the planning system. National policy requires planning to “help shape places in ways that achieve radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions”. However, most local plans don’t contain strategic carbon reduction targets, and very few have genuinely attempted to tackle car dependence, which is a proxy for a whole range of spatial and social inequalities besides carbon emissions. And, when it comes to adapting places to make them resilient to the climate change that is already happening, there is no headline policy requirement equivalent to ‘net zero’.
Local plans have an expansive scope, setting policies for housing, commercial development, transport, green space, nature, energy, minerals and more. But they have a limited toolkit, mainly providing the basis for approving or refusing planning permissions. This constrains their influence on, for example, retrofitting buildings or enabling local food-growing, where planning permission is often not needed. Governments often regard planning as a barrier to growth, and seek to deregulate it, while communities often distrust the planning system, fearing it is rigged against them in favour of big commercial interests. There is a widespread lack of confidence that planning will deliver good outcomes, which risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The draft Leeds Local Plan update is a bold attempt to break out of that trap and make the local plan a force for good. Highlights for me are:
It sets out a framework for requiring all new developments to be net zero emissions, in terms both of operational carbon – arising from a development being used (such as for heating), and of embodied carbon – arising from the lifecycle of construction materials and waste products.
It has a suite of policies for flood and water management, green space, tree planting and habitat networks that could, if implemented effectively together, create healthier and more resilient local environments.
To support these measures the Plan provides evidence that setting higher development expectations now will save on future costs and risks, which is an excellent rationale for planning as a whole: put the effort in now to make the future better. I would take this rationale a stage further, because the planning system offers a crucial basis for places to act on climate without being disempowered by the notion that the problem is too large, too global. Every piece of land has its own part to play in tackling the climate emergency. That means every decision is significant, and a local plan can provide vital policies to guide those decisions.
Making a local plan is difficult. There is a powerful economic and social case to focus on the low-carbon economy, but many commercial interests prefer to wait for nationwide regulation to provide a level playing field. Meanwhile, environmentalists will understandably want Leeds to take a harder line, especially on high profile issues such as Leeds Bradford Airport and development in locations that remain car dependent.
There are no easy answers but, when you accept that every piece of land must play its part, the picture begins to make sense. A local plan should say clearly, “Here is our climate mission, and if you want to develop this piece of land, you must show us how it will contribute to our mission”. The Leeds plan is a big step in the right direction.
Of course, there are some aspects of the Leeds plan that we would like to see improved. In particular, the renewable energy policies are well equipped to shape decisions on commercial-scale wind and solar farms but they risk discouraging the small, community-led schemes that could be crucial to building local support for renewables and making places more resilient to the strain that climate change is placing on energy infrastructure. So, we’d like to see a policy that is more specifically positive towards community-led renewables.
There is also scope to make better connections between the flood and water management policies within Leeds and upstream initiatives for regenerating soils and peatlands, much of which are in neighbouring local authorities and would benefit from a regional approach.
The Commission's response
Our Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission response focuses on the matters where we already have broad-based agreement from our Commissioners, and the support of the region’s local authorities through the Yorkshire Leaders’ Board. This is essential for two reasons.
Firstly, while other authorities may wish to take different approaches when reviewing their own local plans, they will all benefit if Leeds’s policy innovations become adopted. In Public Examination, the government-appointed Inspector traditionally only hears the main objections to the draft plan. (Recently, a plan in West Oxfordshire that contained similar policies to Leeds on carbon reduction was rejected by Inspectors as being inconsistent with national policy, so Leeds may yet face difficulties.) By demonstrating to the Inspector the range and magnitude of support for the climate policies, we hope to raise the bar and inspire other authorities across the region to innovate too.
Secondly, the Commission’s impact depends on the wide range of organisations who support it: public bodies, environmental groups, research institutions, utilities and industries. Inevitably these organisations won’t agree on everything, but where they can agree their shared mission becomes very powerful. The English planning system is hard to influence because its core policies are highly centralised, so harnessing our shared power gives us our best shot at getting the policies we need.
One underlying issue is that, while net zero targets set a clear sense of direction for carbon reduction, the equally crucial missions of nature recovery, adapting to a changing climate, and ensuring that action is socially just and has public support, are less easily quantified and may therefore be less politically compelling.
This is a gap we must all work to fill as further local plans in the region are reviewed.
15 December 2022
Photo: Aire Park panorama, Leeds City Council
Download the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission's response to the Leeds Local Plan Update below