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Local government, land use planning and net zero: a systems approach to meeting the climate challenges


Growth is a dirty word…but is it really? When we talk about growth we often conflate a number of contrasting understandings or perceptions without being clear about what we actually mean.

For example, we are growing as a population; we are actively trying to improve life expectancy to ensure our growth has longevity; in liberal societies we believe in freedom of movement and geographical migration and choice; and we are a naturally curious species. More philosophically evolution itself is about growth and progress (without it we wouldn’t be here).

If we are talking about growth in the last 150 years or so in terms of industrial capitalism and the economic paradigm of free market growth then yes, the very blunt metric of output GDP or GVA is something that needs a rethink and should evolve as in my humble opinion it is no longer fit for purpose as a sole metric of economic success in a complex 21st century society.

This is a different conversation, one we need to urgently have, but it is not this particular ‘growth’ conversation. Albeit the current economic paradigm requires a crucial and urgent discussion to be had by sensible people from all parts of society, it is only a part of what people are referring to when they use the term growth.

In my day job, I deal with growth mainly in terms of land use planning. This has such a crucial role in ensuring population growth, jobs growth, and that requisite land use is balanced and managed sustainably within the market systems in which we operate and within the values around freedom of movement and choice that we hold up in society. Land use planning has always been a controversial discipline whereby trade-offs and differences of opinion and need are par for the daily course.

Now a new (not very new) and critical consideration has sky rocketed up the ladder of absolute considerations when preparing land use plans: how to achieve the needs of our current and future growing communities whilst transitioning to a net zero world within the ever reducing timescales we have. Housing affordability and availability is already acute and Covid has exacerbated and amplified the scale of inequality, economic disparity and deepening social division in our societies. This is even true in places like Cambridge, which from the onlooker seems to be an economically vibrant and prosperous place. But it is still one of the most unequal cities in the UK with a number of city wards high up on the social deprivation index.

Planning is built on the foundations of trying to ensure people can have access to a home and employment that allows contribution to society whilst protecting and enhancing the built, natural and historic environment. However, plan making (where arguably the most leverage to ensure net zero can be addressed alongside the needs of growing and changing communities) must also be sustainable and more importantly be the tool for managing the complex interdependencies between the huge number of other organisations and stakeholders who have to come together to deliver places in the future. This will mean a comprehensive shift to delivery through place making, which as a concept is a much more holistic way to ensure issues on climate change are not siloed against other crucial outcomes including wellbeing, equality and economic development.

To quote my esteemed colleague Emma Davies at Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service (one of the most knowledgeable sustainability professionals I know): “Achieving net zero status cuts across all elements of place making; not just through how homes and buildings are designed and constructed, but also by ensuring new development is in places where it is or can be well served by low carbon transport links like public transport, cycling and walking as well as renewable and low carbon energy.”

In our emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan, we are equally focused on ‘the where’ in terms of how growth and climate change mitigation can co-exist. For example where we put development, how we site jobs floor space and homes, and what the likely patterns of movement we will effect when we do this are all critical in ensuring the best chances of reducing the carbon footprint of growth, remembering that travel makes up the largest percentage of carbon emissions when undertaking whole lifecycle carbon modelling of development planning. We have seen during the time of Covid that we are perfectly able to reduce the amount of unnecessary travelling and when we begin to regain some balance post-pandemic, I hope we will reflect on the necessity (or lack of it) in terms of our travel patterns.

Land use planning is crucial to the net zero pathway in many other aspects too, as it is not just concerned with buildings, spaces and the net outputs of carbon, but place making, circular economics, waste and development which can effectively stimulate markets, especially those engaged in clean tech, renewable energy and such like. It can also give certainty to a wider range of other businesses, and can be a lever to stimulate local growth. We should be using the last 21 months to catalyse the changes that have had positive outcomes and embed the behaviour changes which have been desirable, especially in terms of the big challenges we face. It would be remiss if we were not to embrace these to pivot towards strong, inclusive and sustainable progress which helped accelerate the shift to a prosperous zero carbon future.

From a plan making perspective in the Greater Cambridge context, as part of the massive suite of evidence we need to have in place to inform the plan, this time around we have commissioned detailed carbon evidence to guide our policy approaches, help decide the most sustainable places to put stuff (houses/infrastructure/floor space) and also knit all the various strands of environmental, social and economic principles, statutes and constraints together into something that can feasibly be delivered.

Our net zero carbon study (which is a pretty new area of study as far as plan making evidence goes) notes that to achieve net zero carbon by 2050, action is needed across all sectors and begins to really unpack some of the knotty issues which we will need to address to progress.

Coming back to economic development, a key area of future focus will be to try to give some clarity to areas of economic focus, from growth, skills, markets etc. This is really important so we can then have opportunity to flex or organise around that new or change in demand. We know a lot of the time that innovation comes from the public sector and is then delivered by the private sector. We need to get much closer in terms of co-designing solutions.

Economic development is such an important part of community, it is not just about business but bottom up understanding of behaviour change. There should be a real focus on medium to longer term options, and opportunities for councils to engage with climate change and embed it with how they deliver on economic development, because they need proportionate and fair growth, and prosperity across their geographies.

Unfortunately local government is not structured in the most effective way to deal with 21st century problems, with 20th century institutional legacy hangovers preventing the pace of change that the world has brought us. There are lots of amazing people doing good things, but the way local government is set up often makes progress slow. Short-term imperatives, which are mainly to do with the system rather than the individuals, and which will only get worse with the advancement of populist culture, can and should be designed out using existing levers and pushing for new ones when appropriate. More effective community participation and involvement has a key role to play here but will need to be properly resourced. This will help politicians, officers and communities come together to co-create the solutions to facilitate long-term problems such as climate and economic recovery.

During a recent webinar I chaired on “Economic development: how can we reconcile growth ambitions with net zero?”, I asked delegates two questions: What do you think are the three biggest challenges are in ensuring economic recovery delivers on the net zero targets? And what is the best example of local government working with a partner or partners to tackle the drive for net zero? The IED will take away these and see if there are things that we can explore further. However, how we exchange ideas and opportunities to build on existing good practice across the sector and create a bigger footprint, is certainly something which needs to be tackled.

We have all got commitments around this agenda, and it is incumbent on us to make it happen. There is an absolute necessity for us to understand what is in our gift, utilise it and kick on.


Paul Frainer is a Director of the Institute of Economic Development. Paul chaired the IED’s “Economic development: how can we reconcile growth ambitions with net zero?” webinar on 9th November.