Navigating climate uncertainty: Strategic planning with imperfect data
by Sam Gill
In the thought piece below, Adam Gailitis – Graduate Planner - shares his personal thoughts on tackling the UK housing and climate crises simultaneously.
Climate change objectives have a long history of being developed in silo to other objectives within the planning system. There are numerous instances where the implementation of climate adaptation and mitigation has been used to justify neglecting other key planning issues and has consequently resulted in a ‘sustainability fix’ in which selective goals are pursued. I find this particularly worrisome given planners are arguably facing the two greatest challenges to ever face our planning system – the climate crisis and housing crisis – which often find themselves in competition in both policy and development. This poses a threat to the UK, given housing stock accounts for 15% of emissions and there is a backlog of 4.3 million homes.
Before discussing specifics of the housing and climate crises, it’s worth understanding what is meant by the term ‘crisis’. By definition, the term represents a ‘critical turning point’ from a stable to precarious position. To me, this definition perhaps creates a sense of emergency and requires outright attention. Therefore, given the severity of each crisis, it is surely impossible to tackle the two together and there is clear reasoning for the frequent separation between climate change and national housing shortages in a planning context.
However, from my perspective, I believe the term should be framed in a more ambitious and positive sense and be used as a rhetoric to assign responsibility to the planning system to produce innovative approaches to tackle two crises in an integrated manner.
There are several case studies where the above ambitious and positive conceptualisation has been used to tackle housing and climate issues using contemporary methods. For example, the development of urban extensions within the green belt provides a potential solution to the crises. This is because land (often of low-amenity value, on the edge of existing settlements in sustainable urban areas) is unlocked, which can be used to provide affordable housing. This allows buildings to be designed to high energy efficiency standards from the outset, which provides a more economical and sustainable solution than retrofitting later down the line. Extensions and new development can also be strategically laid out to ensure they are polycentric and sell-sufficient via the provision of a range of amenities. This approach is often associated with the ’15-minute neighbourhood’ concept which ultimately advocates active travel/pro-environmental behaviour and in turn lowers carbon emissions, providing an integrated solution to the two crises.
However, the two crises are often conceptualised in varying ways across society and consequently shared visions frequently fail to materialise. Within the political realm, until recently there was a focus on the delivery of housing numbers in which the UK Government sought to fast-track development to supply 300,000 homes per year (this figure is set to be relinquished and will become an advisory target).
This target juxtaposes the arguments put forward by housing campaigners who are against a pro-developer mindset. This is because such development is likely to result in the UK becoming a ‘growth machine’ whereby development is controlled by those located at the top of social hierarchies (those in positions of power/authority) and comes at the expense of the delivery of affordable/social housing.
Climate action groups are also against this ‘growth at all costs agenda’, as by focusing solely on housing numbers, this draws attention away from broader issues related to climate change.
Finally, contra to all these perspectives is the views of green belt conservations groups, who seek to preserve green belt due to the role the policy plays in preventing urban sprawl, and tackling the climate crisis by preserving natural features that act as carbon sinks.
These perspectives to housing development are not representative of the whole of society, however they provide a snapshot of the differing viewpoints which ultimately slow-down actions that tackle the two crises and the planning process due to their conflicting nature. Awareness of this challenge can be argued to present a much-needed opportunity for the planning system to increase cooperation and engagement between public and private institutions/disciplines. Attempts have been made to implement this at the local level; LPAs have a legal duty to cooperate with adjacent authorities and institutions in plan-making. However, this approach has been subject to critique as successful relationships rarely transpire. Moreover, under new guidance, the government have proposed to drop plans to use the ‘duty-to-cooperate’.
Moving away from the issues associated with new development, approximately three-quarters of the housing stock that will exist in 2050 has already been built, with a large portion of properties attaining low levels of energy efficiency. Not only is this of concern from an environmental perspective but this is also a case of social injustice; people are subjected to living in damp conditions and cannot afford to heat their homes. While the solution (retrofit) falls outside the remit of land use and the planning system in many cases, as stated by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), homes should be made a national infrastructure priority. This includes setting the goal of eco-fitting the majority of UK housing stock to relieve households of fuel poverty while lowering emissions. By making this a national priority, the planning system could support this objective by incentivising and setting out increased local-national policy to support this movement. Given the UK has an established net zero target by 2050, this approach could be invaluable to meeting this ambition.
Going forward, I believe cotemporary approaches such as developments that are self-sufficient, compact, and advocate 15-minute neighbourhoods’ principles are the best solution to our dual-crises. While in many cases this may involve the release of green belt land to provide space for such development, the benefits can significantly outweigh the loss of land and it can be argued to be the best approach that balances all the previously discussed perspectives. This is because from the outset, measures can be implemented to make development energy efficient, and the layout can be inherently designed to advocate pro-environmental behaviour. Equally, with the right strategy, this can provide much needed affordable housing, and overall can allow for an integrated approach, meeting the primary needs of both the climate crisis and the housing crisis.