Local authorities are many things rolled into one: employers, landlords, policy-makers, energy consumers and even energy generators. As such they're key players in the shift to reducing the energy we use, getting more from renewable sources and tackling fuel poverty. And when it comes to shaping your area and ensuring a low carbon future, engaging with and influencing the planning system is absolutely crucial. Your local authority is responsible for controlling development in your area and the Localism Act gives, in theory, more scope for local decision-making.
This project page provides a little more information on how to use the planning system to support low carbon developments in your area. Much of what is possible will come down to your local plan. It may appear to all happen behind the scenes, but there are plenty of opportunities to engage. It is important to have effective communication with your local council and gain an understanding of your local plan, or if possible actually help with its development. Keep in touch with planning policy officers to keep abreast of wider developments in your area, see if your group or organisation can be officially added as a consultee for new proposals, and if your council operates a public consultation database, ask to be added.
What is a local plan? A ‘local plan’, previously known as a ‘local development framework’, is a suite of documents setting out the development vision for the local area, through the use of planning policies and site allocations. The local plan also includes a statement of community involvement, which shows how the council plans on involving the local community in the preparation of planning. This should include details about when consultations on planning documents are scheduled, and what form these consultations will take. The local plan includes a core strategy, supplementary planning documents, and an evidence base.
The core strategy is the central document of the local plan. It establishes a strategic policy framework for how the area will develop over the next 15-30 years, including showing broad areas that have been identified as suitable for specific types of development on a ‘proposals map’. Any other more detailed local policy documents must be in accordance with the core strategy. Most local authorities have at least a draft core strategy in place, and many have adopted strategies. Local authorities are obliged to consult the public and relevant stakeholders at various stages of their core strategy development. Their methods will be set out in the Statement of Community Involvement. Much of the public consultation occurs in the early stages, often taking place at events and online. This is an opportunity to comment on proposals and to suggest alternative options to those proposed, but make sure you provide evidence to demonstrate why your proposals should be considered.
Supplementary planning documents (SPDs) are non-statutory documents which go into greater detail about how to meet the policies contained in a local plan. They can be used to give further guidance for development on specific sites, or on particular issues, such as renewable and low carbon energy. They are non-statutory, but they are a material consideration (i.e. they must be taken into account) when looking at planning applications. SPDs are usually prepared by the local authority and all SPDs must go through a six-
week public consultation process. SPDs can offer community groups an opportunity to contribute to local planning policy. Once your local authority has completed and adopted its core strategy documents, there is no longer any scope to contribute to core planning policy until they come up for review. In contrast, SPDs can be developed at any time.
Communities or developers can prepare an SPD, but this must be done in collaboration with the local planning authority. For example, a community group could prepare a renewable or low carbon energy SPD, setting out the types of renewable and low carbon technologies that would be acceptable in different parts of the local area. If you think this might be a route to improving local planning policy in your area, the first thing to do is discuss the idea with planning policy officers in your local council’s planning department. It is important to be aware that the development of any SPD imposes responsibilities on the planning department, so you may meet resistance because of the potential extra workload for the officers concerned. If you feel this has happened, try gaining the support of councillors to encourage progress. SPDs vary greatly, both in content and in length! To give you an idea of what a SPD can look like, have a look at these examples:
Islington Council Environmental Design SPD, 2012: www.bit.ly/11BYpSn
Ashford Borough Council Sustainable Design and Construction SPD, 2012: www.ashford.gov.uk/sustainable-design-spd
Brighton and Hove City Council Sustainable Building Design SPD, 2008: www.bit.ly/19WOvOG
The Planning Advisory Service’s ‘Using supplementary planning documents to address climate change locally’ (2010) highlights more examples, and shows how local authorities are approaching climate change issues in different ways: www.pas.gov.uk/pas/aio/553457
Planning policies should be founded on adequate, up-to-date and relevant evidence, which sets out how they will meet local needs and opportunities for development. In planning, this part of plan-making is referred to as ‘the evidence base’. Any evidence your council commissions or compiles itself on renewable energy and low-carbon development is likely to be a vital resource for you in arguing the case either for specific projects or for changes to policy. Most authorities have a ‘local plan evidence’ webpage, which details all the evidence they are using. However, there may be cases where this evidence is not so straightforward to obtain – it’s always worth asking the planning policy officers for copies of the evidence they are working to. If they say they have no evidence, this is something you need to argue for as part of the consultation on the development of policy.
When to get involved? Well, the creation of any planning policy document takes a long time. There is always more than one opportunity to comment on the policies during their development. But in general, the earlier you get involved the better, as this will give you a chance to comment on the broad priorities of the plan as well as the details when these emerge. The nearer a plan gets to completion, the less scope there is to change its content. Have a look at your council’s Local Development Scheme, which will detail what development plan documents make up your area’s local plan, and what the timetable is for the development of these documents.
We can't emphasise enough the importance of engaging with the planning system. The following CSE resource includes more information about engaging with your local plan, finding the right contacts at your local authority, the typical stages in the creation of a local plan document, and more advice about engaging with your local authority in planning.