Monday, July 24, 2023

Upfront carbon

In refusing permission for the redevelopment of the M&S Oxford Street store against the recommendation of his inspector,Michael Gove the Secretary of State for DLUHC relied on the unacceptable level of upfront carbon emissions. This is the sensible term applied to embodied emissions that occur in the short term before the relatively low emissions from and energy efficient replacement building kick in. I particularly like the evidence given by Susan Barfield who "... highlighted that the IPCC told us in 2018 that we have 12 years to avoid a catastrophe, and we see growing evidence all around the world that it is happening – with floods, droughts, fires and melting ice caps. Instead of acting as if there is an emergency, by proposing to throw a huge carbon bomb unnecessarily into the atmosphere, the scheme misunderstands the urgency of our situation. What the science tells us is that what we do in the next 8 years is critical. The brief here was clearly to maximise the site’s potential and the architects have fulfilled their brief well – creating a building minimising operational carbon that 5-8 years ago would have been considered fine. However, now that we understand the upfront impact of embodied carbon it really isn’t. Particularly building two extra basements! They are the worst in terms of embodied carbon.” This decision should make it hard to justify building 300,000 houses every year instead of devising ways to use the under-used space in the existing housing stock. The use of unwanted retail space in town centres as being proposed by the PM would be a step in the right direction but is very unlikely to be sufficient. Sub-dividing some of just a small proportion of the 28m existing dwellings would meet genuine housing needs, including an element of custom-splitting (see numerous previous blog posts).

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Too little too late or climate tittle tattle

The planning and development industry is becoming increasingly frustrated with the Government's attitude and approach to both mitigating climate chnage and nature recovery. A letter has been sent coordinated by the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) and sent to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, levelling up secretary Michael Gove, environment secretary Thérèse Coffey, and energy secretary Grant Shapps. It claims that the planning system is not providing a consistent approach to handling climate change and environmental considerations resulting in delays, costs, and legal challenges. The 100 businesses that have signed the letter are calling on the government to strengthen the current planning bill by including “a new, clear legal duty for planning decisions and plan-making to explicitly align with the UK’s carbon budgets and adaptation goals under the Climate Change Act 2008, and nature restoration targets under the Environment Act 2021”. The letter is on the UKGBC web site.All these businesses should be taking posve action while they wait for a response. Unfortunately the Government is preoccupied by fighting off legal challenges to its dangerously ill informed approach to climate change; the Saltcross Garden Village, coal mining, airport expansions and north sea oil licensing. Instead of steering the UK onto a path consistent with the carbon budgets set by the Climate Change Committee it continues to make unwarranted claims about world leadership and claims that Lord Callanan at Beis is still, after 5 years of trying, up to the job of insulating over 20m sub-standard dwellings to address both fuel poverty and carbon emissions. Having it explained that deploying carbon negative technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere could trigger rebound effect as carbon will re-emerge from the oceans Beis have confirmed that this effect is not taken into account in the Energy Bill as the focus should be on reducing emissions in the first place. And the Climate Change Committee are issuing its progress report on 28 June 2023 which should analyses the impact of building large numbers of houses with high levels of embodied carbon. Suggestions are welcomed for a collective noun for well meaning but useless individuals and organisations that are failing to deal effectively with carbon emissions that build the Keeling Curve showing concentrations at 424ppm

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Builders not blockers but carbon blind

It is not everyday that the Guardian publishes my letter. This is the theme of a Blog sent to rd Brick, rejected on Any Answers but accepted by the paper on second asking subject to a little editing. "Promising to be the "builders not the blockers" might be good electioneering but suggests that Labour is attempting to sidestep carbon budgets when making its policies (Labour plan to free up land to tackle housing crisis 30 May). If new housing is to be added to the existing surplus (currently about one million more dwellings than households) it must be right to focus on registered providers building houses on cheaper land, preferably at social rent. But the proposed 300,000 new dwellings a year would result in carbon emissions embodied in the houses and associated services equivalent to 113% of the carbon budget for the whole of the economy. The crisis is caused by the grossly unfair distribution of housing and, in particular, under-occupation is at unsustainable levels. About 50% of the space and fabric required to be insulated and heated is not meeting housing needs. As under-occupation is also a main cause in the closing of local schools (Primary schools in cities at risk as families move to cheaper areas 30 May) this is where Labour should be focusing its attention." It's nice to have an audience but Labour will take no notice.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

New build and bust

Pressure is building for a change to the planning regulations to enable the Government to claim that it is helping young people onto the housing ladder. And any such claim will immediately be exceeded by Labour. The volume of this debate will increase as a general election approaches. Despite there only being a tenuous link between the plight of the thousands of households in need of a decent home and the building of new estates by the volume builders, there is fresh talk of renewing the recently expired Help to Buy scheme that makes it easier to raise deposits on new homes. The explanation that the scheme has increased to price of houses for those both on and those off the scheme is falling on deaf ears. There is a growth in those claiming that even 300,000 new homes a year would not be enough to meet the need without a mention that the embodied carbon would exceed the budget for the whole economy, the 1million empty homes (there are about 28m houses and 27m households) and the 50% of space in existing houses that is not meeting housing needs (but the space and fabric needs insulation and heating). Another current debate is about the meaning of 15min neighbourhoods and how these can be achieved. I have not heard mention of the impact that under-occupancy has on the viability of services in these areas that could be significantly increased if the existing houses were subdivided, enabling downsizing in place and new households creating a home. Meanwhile the statutory self build registers started in 2016 are fading into the distance. For those who spotted the story about the former RAF Upper Heyford in a previous blog, on 9 September 2022 Cherwell District Council approved the 2018 application for a masterplan but did not inform me until 19 December. It has taken 5 months to provide an explanation for a delay that extended beyond the statutory 6 weeks in which to challenge a decision in the courts. An officer who had emailed after 9 September implying that the decision had not been made claimed that there was no delay because the public could and should be tracking applications online. The notification was in response to emails enquiring about progress, but not such an enquiry made within the 6 week period. This will now be a footnote in the book about Upper Heyford and Cold War memory to lower expectations about the delivery of the planning service, describing the lack of remedies for mistakes including the closing of ranks as officers cover for the failings of each other.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The Oxford Real Farming Conference and time for planners to promote agroecology

As is my wont I attend and then produce a blog about the Oxford Real Farming Conference.  This year the conference grew to over 4000 delegates with 1300 in Oxford and the remainder joining online from around the world.  My purpose is gauge where real farming is heading and whether the planning system could help. Nothing I heard dented my conviction that the potential of the planning system continues to be ignored.  The failure of the agroecology movement to engage with the planning system handicaps its growth and  prevents those operating the system from learning whet agroecology has to offer and how it could be supported and encouraged - a true double whammy. When one of the few (I think that there was one other) chartered planners could not even name the Minister for Planning (Lucy Frazer?) it is clear that some steeled status is needed before normal people can be expected to spend time on plan-making or decision-taking. It is almost impossible to understand the impact of existing plans and policies before trying to keep up with proposed changes.  The latest consultation to the National Planning Policy Framework actually signposts further changes scheduled for next year, and then wonders why people find better things to do.

Unfortunately when discussing what the land use planning system could do I also need to recommend changes to the system as well as challenging officers, councillors and inspectors to do what is already possible with existing controls to privilege applications that advance the cause of agroecology.  This includes the allocation of land for smallholding around settlements where there would be a presumption in favour of approving agricultural workers dwellings.  This would complement a practice of requiring all development proposals on the edge of settlements to place land for smallholding purposes into a local community land trust (through the use of s106 undertakings). One or more of the houses being proposed would be transferred to a housing association as part of the social housing quota but with the occupation limited to somebody working all or some of the smallholding land being secured.

It has become increasingly clear that agroecology has a materially different impact on land and soils that industrial farming in ways that can be measured; nutrient density of crops, soil depth and fertility, biodiversity etc.  In these circumstances there are grounds for changing the planning legislation to require permission to be sought than granted for material change of use.  It would be permitted development for farming practices to improve soil depth and fertility but planning permission would be needed for any operations that would harm soils; deep cultivations; applications of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.  Industrial farmers would not approve but that is the point.  The expertise in planning offices would have to grow but the distinctions being drawn would be no more detailed than in the change of use of buildings that can be extremely tricky to investigate, measure and enforce. 

This change would excite those who are doing their own thing and to form a critical mass of 'real farmers'.