The role of spatial planning in responding to climate emergency

  • Climate and sustainability

Professor Simin Davoudi FAcSS FRTPI FRSA, Chair of Town Planning, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape , Co-Director of the Centre for Researching Cities, Newcastle University  

In this piece Simin Davoudi explores the role of spatial planning in addressing climate change. The piece covers challenges relating to energy, transport and housing, as well as governance-related constraints that can limit the effectiveness of planning and reduce its ability to increase sustainability and contribute to tackling climate change.

Climate crisis is affecting people, places and environment across the globe. Tackling its uneven impacts requires ‘societal transformations’ and a deeper understanding of the contributions made by different disciplines, actors, and institutions, including spatial planning systems.  In the UK, much has been achieved in reducing the country’s own carbon emissions (40% between 1990 and 2019) since the Climate Change Act 2008, a world-leading, legally-binding and long-term framework.  However, most of this reduction is due to decarbonisation of the electricity sector. Progress in other sectors has remained slow, especially in the transport and built environment sectors where planning has a vital role to play.  In a 2009 book on  Planning for Climate Change,  researchers from the social and physical sciences offered evidence-based recommendations about areas in which planning can help to deliver climate change mitigation and adaptation.  Subsequent national strategies for Low Carbon and  NetZero transition have reaffirmed the critical role of spatial planning.  Indeed, a key message of the Climate Change Committee’s latest report is the need to make planning decisions compatible with climate targets; a core principle which the National Planning Policy Framework for England expect to underpin both plan-making and site-specific planning decisions.

Social scientists with expertise in governance and planning have identified three interrelated climate policy areas in which planning can play a vital role: decarbonisation of energy supplies, reduction in energy demands, and adaptation to climate change.

Decarbonising energy supply

Local planning authorities can grant permission to the development of infrastructures for renewable energy. They can also reject applications for fossil fuel extractions. These regulatory powers are subject to conformity with national policy and open to ministerial challenge.  Identifying sites that are not only suitable, but also acceptable to local communities has not been easy, as the controversy around planning decisions on windfarms has shown. Strong local opposition often leads to the rejection or withdrawal of applications, which in turn paint a negative image of planning as a barrier to meeting the renewable energy targets. Despite the 2008 reform of the English planning system– which centralised the decision making for larger windfarms- these issues have not been resolved.  Instead, it has become clear that rather than blaming planning, the emphasis should be on addressing local concerns. This is even more pressing now given that planning decision on large (50MW+) onshore windfarms was returned to local planning authorities in 2016.  The importance of the local buy-in seems to have been acknowledged by the government. This is reflected in the 2022 Energy Security Strategy which considers partnering with some “supportive communities who wish to host new onshore wind infrastructure in return for guaranteed lower energy bills”. Whether lower energy bills can secure public acceptance is questionable as decades of social science research in the UK and internationally has shown.   One area where pioneering local planning policies have made a difference is the use of smaller scale, decentralised renewable energy infrastructure (such as solar panels and heat pumps). Initiated by the London Borough of Merton in 2003, today all major new developments are required to provide a locally-specified proportion of energy use through renewable and low carbon technologies on or off-site.

Reducing energy demand

This has been a longstanding sustainability objective in planning with a particular focus on private car travel and energy efficiency of buildings.  Reducing car-dependency involves a range of social, economic, institutional and technological factors. But, as previous social science studies have shown, urban form and land use patterns are also important factors in nudging people to walk and cycle. Density, settlement size, layout of the buildings, mixed use of land, and access to facilities and services are key aspects that can be shaped by local plan policies and planning decisions. However, the legacy of past developments and the dependence on private developers to deliver on plans’ policies have led to limited success. Even when policy tools are available, planners are sometimes reluctant to make planning permissions conditional to climate- and health-friendly urban forms. The reason lies in the risk of making the development financially unviable (or indeed less profitable) for developers and landowners. The result is a continuation of car-dependent developments in many parts of the country.  Similar trade-offs between the perceived viability of projects and the delivery of climate-related policies affect a more recent climate-related national policy, which is the requirement for all new housing developments to install  home charging points for electric vehicles (EV). As the findings from an ongoing research show, the push for EV may have unintended consequences for just transition to NetZero.

Increasing energy efficiency of new buildings is another longstanding planning aspiration with some pioneering initiatives by local planning authorities. Planners’ ability to achieve this objective was increased through a government-endorsed rating system for all new homes. In 2015, this was replaced with another set of standards which enabled planners to set higher energy performance standards than the minimums set out in the Building Regulations.  Once again, whether planners actually impose these depends on their impact on viability of proposed developments.  None of these touch on the bigger problem of existing, leaky stock of old buildings and the pressing need for retrofitting to reduce energy demand and ameliorate fuel poverty. However, planning plays a more limited role in pursuing this agenda.


Progress on adapting to climate change has been slower than mitigation. This is despite planning’s ability to reduce vulnerability to the inevitable impacts of climate change such as flooding and heat waves. Planning can guide and regulate the location, mix and design of new developments. Based on the Environment Agency’s flood maps, planners can steer development away from flood prone areas.  This sounds a simple enough decision to make but, in practice it can be highly contentious. Confronted with scarcity of suitable lands for development in many parts of the country and the pressure to build new houses, planners often have to strike a balance between the risk of flooding and the risk of exacerbating the housing crisis, which planning is wrongly blamed for.

In dealing with the rising temperatures especially in urban areas (a phenomenon called Urban Heat Island effects), planning can impose building standards to make developments more adaptable. Protecting and enhancing green, blue and open spaces, which is a planning principle as old as the Garden City idea, is an effective way of building resilience against heat.  This principle has moved up public’s and planning’s order of priorities after the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing concerns for health and wellbeing of people and environment. However, government’s recent extension of permitted development rights (PDR) prevents planners from stopping or regulating a growing number of poor quality housing developments which have little or no provisions for green spaces and amenities. Despite social science evidence showing its pitfalls, PDR are set to extend further, producing, what the RIBA calls, slums of the future.

Can do versus will do?

There is much that planning can do to tackle the climate emergency and at the same time create better, healthier, more sustainable and more equitable places.  However, the extent to which planning can fulfil its role depends on its legally prescribed scope, regulatory power, policy tools, skills, and resources, all of which require a sustained political drive and public support.  Planning decisions are inherently contentious and their implementation needs democratic processes to gain the acceptance and backing of those who are affected by them.  Planning’s contribution to climate change requires consistent national prioritisation of the climate emergency over other objectives such as fossil fuel-based energy security. This, however, has not  always been the case, as the controversies over shale gas fracking in Lancashire and coal mining in Cumbria have shown.  Conflicting national policies, constant reforms of the system (which sometimes are designed to diminish planning’s positive and progressive potentials), under-resourcing of local planning authorities, and under-valuing of the planning profession have had detrimental impacts on the ability of planning to fulfil its potentials for tackling climate change.  What is needed urgently is an adequately resourced and valued planning system which is politically supported to do what it is called upon and aspires to do.

Photo credit: Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

About the author

Professor Simin Davoudi FRTPI, FAcSS, FRSA is the 6th holder of Newcastle University Chair of Town Planning at the School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape, and Co-Director of Centre for Researching Cities.  Simin has a background in architecture and expertise in spatial planning, cities, environmental governance, climate change and resilience, spatial imaginaries, and civil societies.