Dozens of councils set to miss legal climate obligations, ClientEarth warns

The warning has been sent to every English council currently developing a new local plan

ClientEarth has today (2 September) sent letters to councillors and planning officers at dozens of English local authorities which are currently revising their local plans, urging them to align these plans with the Government’s new net-zero target for 2050.

The letter urges councils to reply within eight weeks, explaining how they will set “evidence-based” carbon reduction targets in line with total decarbonisation by mid-century. Local authorities are not able to apply for target verification by the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) at present.

It additionally asks councils to detail how they will incorporate climate considerations into all local planning policy as a “core objective”, and to report on their sustainability progress at least once a year.

While noting that some local authorities are leading on climate issues, with Manchester targeting net-zero by 2038 and the date set for 2028 and 2030 respectively for Nottingham and Bristol, the letter states that “there is a collective failure by local authorities across England to plan adequately for climate change”.

“Clearly, central Government needs to do more, as the recent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) progress reports stress; yet so many of the daily decisions around new and existing infrastructure – such as new buildings, roads and utilities – are made at the local level,” ClientEarth’s climate lawyer Sam Hunter Jones said.

“All of these decisions will ‘lock in’ an area’s future emissions and its resilience to climate change.”

Sticking points

Specific areas of action for local authorities, Hunter Jones said, should be transport and the built environment. Both of these sectors are largely linked to local planning – and both have come under repeated fire from the CCC over slow progress on decarbonisation to date.

Lagging progress in both spheres has repeatedly been linked to poor national policy support and high upfront technology costs, compounded by a lack of funding and expertise at a council level.

In transport, for example, a recent study by the Guardian found that one in four UK councils has paused the expansion of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, largely over funding concerns. On buildings, the CCC has attributed poor progress on decarbonisation to a lack of incentives surrounding retrofitting and insulation.

“Councils are already doing a great deal to protect the environment and health of our communities, including mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change – however, [they] can do so much more if they are properly and sustainably funded, allowed to set planning fees locally and if policies such as permitted development rights are scrapped as they allow developers to ignore community needs and undermine local plans,” the Local Government Association said in response to ClientEarth’s letter.

ClientEarth’s Hunter Jones accepted that many local authorities are facing funding challenges at present, but urged councillors to consider the “substantial” benefits to climate-sensitive planning, such as improving local economies and creating jobs.

“Climate action at a local level can transform people’s quality of life for the better, with clear net benefits to health, air and water quality, employment, energy affordability, community cohesion and biodiversity,” he concluded.

A list of councils to have received ClientEarth’s letter can be found by clicking here.

Sarah George

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