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Net-Zero Emissions: Planning and Building Regulations

Volume 814: debated on Thursday 9 September 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to align England’s planning system and building regulations with (1) the net zero emissions target, and (2) other environmental goals.

Through our current programme of planning reform we will ensure that the planning system continues to play an effective role in supporting progress towards net-zero emissions and delivering meaningful change for our environment. In addition, the future homes standard will ensure that new homes built from 2025 will produce at least 75% less carbon emissions than homes delivered under current regulations.

My Lords, I thank the Minister, but the fact is that the carbon assessments in the present system are not biting or binding. Construction and building use between them account for nearly 40% of carbon emissions. There are two things which might actually bite. First, in regeneration projects of housing or offices, demolish and rebuild means the release of embedded carbon, the carbon cost of rubble disposal and then the carbon cost of complete rebuild with carbon-intensive products such as steel, glass and concrete. Developers, local authority planners and architects should be required to first assess the relative carbon effects of the option of retrofitting to higher-grade efficiency standards. Secondly, building regulations should prescribe and enforce the use of energy efficiency and water-efficient systems and appliances in all new build and retrofit. Can the Minister include this in the reform of the planning system?

My Lords, I point out that the current approach is biting. We have achieved a growth in our economy of 78% while cutting emissions by 44% over the past three decades, which is something to celebrate and something that successive Governments can be proud of. We also recognise the benefits of retrofit ahead of demolition. Reuse and adaption of existing buildings can make an important contribution to tackling climate change, and the National Planning Policy Framework already encourages this.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. As your Lordships may be aware, the Church of England has declared a climate emergency and is aiming for net zero by 2030. In the diocese of Oxford, we are stewards of 470 parsonages and many other buildings. We have a lot of work to do, and a lot of investment is required to bring those buildings to net zero. Two things are preventing us making progress; we clearly need to spread the work over a decade. The first is knowing the Government’s plans for home heating and the second is the help and support that will be available from government for those changes. The system needs to be simple and sustainable and to carry confidence. When will we know the way forward?

Well, we are shaping the way forward through building regulations, and there will be further movement on that this year as we move towards the future homes standard in 2025. We welcome the fact that the Church is doing its bit to recognise the climate emergency. I point out that at least 74% of councils are also working towards that, but more will follow as we respond to the consultation following the publication of the White Paper.

Can my noble friend give an assurance that the planning system will continue to support and protect the environment?

I can give my noble friend that assurance. Existing environmental protections will continue to be upheld and mandatory biodiversity net gain will lead to wider environmental benefits.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. In June this year, the Climate Change Committee recommended that all government policy, including planning decisions, should be subject to a net-zero test, yet last week the Government announced that they would not be reviewing the outdated airports national planning policy statement, so we risk the approval of infrastructure projects which clash with our climate and environmental commitments. Will the Government remedy that situation by including a net-zero test in the planning Bill?

My Lords, I point out that our proposed outcomes-based system of integrated assessment will provide the Government with a mechanism to reflect their environmental ambitions, including wider net-zero commitments, in the planning process.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the decision in 2016 to scrap the zero-carbon homes scheme was a catastrophic mistake, and can he tell us the amount of carbon that has been emitted from the 1 million substandard homes that have been built since that time?

My Lords, I point to the considerable progress we have made in cutting carbon emissions while building more homes. We have a plan to further reduce that. Our work on a full technical specification for the future homes standard has been accelerated, and we will consult on it in 2023. This year, we are introducing an interim uplift in Part L standards that will deliver a meaningful reduction in carbon emissions. This is the stepping stone to ensure that our future homes reduce their carbon footprint and we hit our targets.

My Lords, the water companies are committed to achieving net zero by 2030. To be able to do so, they need the tools to do the job. In ending the automatic right to connect, it is essential that sufficient sustainable drains are built. Will my noble friend ensure that the Government adopt the necessary building regulations to facilitate this?

My noble friend is an inveterate champion of sustainable urban drainage, which is far better than the use of grey infrastructure. Of course, we will reflect the desire to see sustainable planning and urban drainage solutions where practicable.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Last month, the i newspaper reported that homes in the UK heat up twice as fast as the European average during heatwaves. As a result, demand for air conditioning units has increased, which in turn uses energy and increases emissions. Can the Minister outline what steps the Government are taking to address this, especially considering that temperatures are expected to rise in the coming decades?

My Lords, above all, we recognise the need to move away from fossil fuel heating to meet our commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. We are approaching that by continuing to set performance-based standards rather than mandating a solution. We are making progress to achieve that and we will continue to come up with ideas that drive progress in this area.

Could we also insist that the Government, as well as putting an enormous effort into zero-emissions reduction, look at all the industries that need to be supported so that they can counter the worst effects of what is happening with the climate?

I think we are well positioned to take that on board, because the number of people in low-carbon industries has increased considerably and we are seeing a reduction in emissions.

My Lords, two Liberal Democrat Secretaries of State for Energy and Climate Change quadrupled our renewable electricity output, making us a world leader in offshore wind. With only 52 days to go before COP 26, why are the Government not saying a categoric no to projects such as the Cumbrian coal mine, which will move us backwards and torpedo our international credibility, not least in persuading China and India to stop their investment in coal?

My Lords, I am not surprised that the Cumbrian coal mine has been mentioned. As noble Lords will know, on 11 March the Secretary of State called in the planning application for a coking coal mine in Cumbria. The Secretary of State’s published letter calling in the application set out his reasons for doing so. The application having been called in, a public inquiry overseen by an independent planning inspector is currently under way to consider the proposal. Once the inquiry is closed, the inspector will prepare a report and recommendation and the case will come before Ministers. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to comment on the details of the application.

My Lords, the built environment is responsible for around 43% of total carbon emissions and the planning system has a central role to play in addressing its environmental impact. As president of the CBI, I ask the Minister whether he agrees that it is absolutely essential to business that there is consistency and alignment across planning, net zero and building safety. Furthermore, although business supports the Government’s vision for a streamlined, faster process for planning decisions, surely he would agree that more needs to be done and set out so that planning can incentivise greener homes, greener buildings and a low-carbon energy network.

My Lords, I would agree with what the noble Lord said: it is important to join up government and we are making progress in this area. How we intend to do this will be outlined imminently as we respond to the consultation on the Planning for the Future White Paper and set out our legislation in this Session.