The UK government reaffirmed its commitment to the ‘net-zero by 2050’ emissions target within the Queen’s Speech on May 11.
While to many, the net-zero by 2050 target does not go far enough, to achieve even this clearly requires action now.
It certainly requires action by 2028. Especially in a borough where there is a local net-zero emissions target of 2030.
Therefore, CPRE Kent was extremely disappointed by the decision by Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, to remove measures intended to reduce carbon emissions when approving the Quinn Estates proposal for 675 houses at Wises Lane, Sittingbourne – a development that had already sparked a ‘Cash for favours’ headline.
This is even more disappointing when you consider that in doing so he has overridden the planning judgment of both Swale Borough Council and the Planning Inspectorate, both of whom had the benefit of actually hearing the evidence at the inquiry. This is compounded further by the fact the full net-zero carbon emissions measures were not even being sought until 2028 at the earliest.
While the proposed development at Wise Lanes has a long and complicated background, the facts regarding the carbon emissions point are as follows:
- Swale Borough Council took the position that if the Wises Lane development was to be approved, it wanted to see planning conditions imposed that reduced carbon emissions. This was to be on a tapered basis, culminating in a zero-carbon requirement on any new houses where details were to be agreed after 2028. This was deemed necessary to meet the Swale 2030 carbon-neutrality target locally and the national target of 2050.
- Although the Planning Inspectorate allowed the appeal, it agreed the conditions setting the path to net-zero emission should be applied. Specifically, it reasoned:
“The planning regime has a role to play and cannot leave climate change to other regimes to deal with, particularly when those regimes have not kept pace with the requirement to take urgent and material action.
“The scale and urgency of the climate change emergency is such that it would constitute a material consideration of significant weight to support the imposition of conditions to mitigate the impact of the development.”
- As this was a ‘called-in’ appeal, Mr Jenrick had the last say on the matter. In very simple terms, this meant he got to review the written evidence, including the planning inspector’s report and then issue a final decision on the matter.
- While Mr Jenrick agreed with the planning inspector on most issues, he directed that the conditions setting the path to net-zero emission be removed. The stated reasoning was as follows:
“Notwithstanding the high-level national commitment to carbon neutrality, and the significant weight attaching to tackling climate change, these conditions also go beyond current and emerging national policy. He therefore considers that the proposed conditions cannot be said to be either reasonable or necessary.”
While the ins and the outs of such a position in technical planning law could be debated, ultimately this was a matter of planning judgment on which the Secretary of State had a clear choice.
He could have accepted Swale Borough Council’s and the planning inspector’s position and let the conditions stand. These might not have been perfect, though at least would have provided a hook within the decision which could have been amended in the future by way of a variation of condition application should national policy change.
Or he could have accepted the applicant’s position that, as we cannot predict which policies might apply in the future, the only option is to do nothing now.
By taking the latter position, he is likely to have handed the developer huge cost savings, though without reviewing the viability evidence up-front. This is on a scheme where a much lower than policy-compliant affordable-housing provision had been agreed. While the legal agreement does allow for this to be reviewed once 400 houses have been built, the need for affordable housing in Swale is now.
There is, however, no option to review the net-zero-emission conditions.
There were a number of seemingly positive climate and environment soundbites within the Queen’s Speech. However, the position taken by the Secretary of State at Wises Lane raises serious questions as to just how genuine the government is about tackling these issues and indeed where priorities actually lie.
Saying is the easy part, it is the doing that matters!
Thursday, May 20, 2021