September 15, 2019

Local authorities to face legal challenge on climate action

Potential claim

Over 100 local authorities who are in the process of developing a new local plan have received a warning from ClientEarth, an environmental campaign group, that they will breach their legal obligations if they fail to include "robust evidence-based carbon reduction targets" in their plans. The local authorities have eight weeks to respond and explain how they will implement "meaningful" targets. If they fail to comply, ClientEarth has said it may commence litigation.

ClientEarth has stated that for the carbon targets to be "meaningful", they must be incorporated into local planning policy as a main objective against which all decisions are tested. It has also said that authorities must monitor performance against these targets at least annually.

Legal framework

The Committee on Climate Change in July this year criticised the UK's failure to take action on emissions from buildings and transport – two areas where local planning plays a critical role. In practice, decisions around new and existing infrastructure such as buildings, roads and utilities are made at local level, so what local authorities and their planning committees decide is key.

Under the National Planning Policy Framework ('NPPF'), local authorities are required to "adopt proactive strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change, taking into account flood risk, coastal change and water supply and demand". The NPPF provisions must be taken into account in preparing local and neighbourhood plans and is a material consideration in determining planning applications. The NPPF doesn't require a local authority to have a specific climate change strategy but to adopt a set of measures.

Local authorities must also:

  • include policies in local plans that are "designed to secure" that the development and use of land contributes to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change (Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004), and
  • assess the plan's cumulative climate impacts against, and consistency with, all relevant climate objectives and targets (The Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004).

One such target is under the UK's Climate Change Act ('the Act'), which now aims for the UK to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. At a city level, Greater Manchester and London have committed to net zero greenhouse gas emissions targets by 2038, while Bristol and Leeds are aiming for 2030 and Nottingham for 2028. In addition, more than half of UK councils have now committed to reducing carbon emissions by declaring a 'climate emergency'.

ClientEarth's position is that "each and every planning decision taken today" by local authorities "must be in line with long-term climate goals, because what and how we build today will determine our climate impact and resilience in the crucial decades to come".