Westminster Labour is pushing Conservative-led Westminster Council to be more ambitious in its Environment Supplementary Planning Document (SPD).
The Council recently made its long-awaited draft Environment SPD available for public consultation where it set out measures to reduce carbon emissions, protect biodiversity, and tackle air pollution through its planning framework.
Once adopted, the SPD will inform how planning applications are judged by Council Planning Committees and strongly influence whether applications are accepted or rejected. It sets out details about how the Council intends to achieve its climate ambitions in relation to the way it manages the granting of permission for new buildings as well as applications to alter existing ones. Given buildings account for 86% of the City of Westminster’s emissions, tackling greenhouse gas generation through the planning process is critical.
The Labour group is arguing the Council needs to be bolder and that the current policies are too timid. Labour is challenging the Council to require stricter green credentials for developments classed as ‘minor’; whilst the SPD sets out that major developments will be expected to be net zero, it lets minor developments off lightly (even those that are high value) and has far weaker targets for these, running a real risk of hindering the Council’s ambitions to get to net zero.
The Group also argues that there needs to be a more flexible approach to upgrading buildings of historic significance in the City. Whilst it is important to safeguard buildings with heritage value, there needs to be more ambition to ensure that listed and other historic buildings play a more decisive role in getting to net zero; currently, the Council’s Planning team arguably adopts an overly conservative approach to upgrading buildings of historic significance which might stymie progress in getting to a green future.
Cllr Pancho Lewis, Shadow Cabinet Member for Environment and the Climate Emergency, said: “We welcome the SPD and the Council’s City-wide ambition to get to net zero by 2040 – we pressed the Council to declare a climate emergency and are pleased to see they are responding to our demands. However, the Council needs to enable faster and more decisive action. The SPD is an opportunity to embrace a blueprint for bold change, it can’t miss this opportunity to get to net zero as soon as possible.”
The Group’s full response can be read here:
The Labour Group welcomes the Council’s focus on climate action including through the Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) and in other areas, following sustained pressure from the Group, residents and campaign groups to declare an emergency in 2019.
We recognise there is work underway to track Council and City-wide emissions to measure progress in achieving the 2030 and 2040 goals. However, for the moment this work is still underway and has not been made publicly accessible; this should be made available as soon as possible for residents and other interested stakeholders to hold the Council to account on delivering on its objectives. In addition, there should be a clear timeline of actions and milestones needed to achieve these goals. Without this there is a risk that there is space for procrastination, both within the Council and outside it; in the midst of other more immediate and short-term pressures, it is easy for difficult but important decisions around Greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction to be delayed. The area of tracking reduction of emissions is particularly pertinent to goals in regard to Westminster’s built environment given that Westminster’s buildings contribute 86% of the City’s emissions.
The SPD is a step forward in setting the foundations for climate and environmental action, however we believe there are several areas for improvement.
We are concerned about the potential implications of one of the opening statements in the SPG: namely that “[t]his document aims to help applicants understand how to make successful planning applications without adding unnecessarily to the financial burdens of development in line with the requirements of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).” It is right that costs are wherever possible minimised, but it is crucial there is recognition from this local authority and others, and critically also national government, that adapting and shifting our built environment to net zero will cost substantial sums of money; making resources available to get to net zero needs to be seen as an investment which will be far less expensive than dealing with the effects of runaway climate change. National government needs to be fronting a lot more investment than it is currently; the Council should be explicit in recognising this as well as the point about short to medium term large investments paying off in the long-term.
We would like to see more ambition around energy use. City Plan Policy 36 aims for net zero Carbon on major developments, but most developments in Westminster are classed as minor schemes and if net zero is only ever achieved on some larger schemes, the Council will not achieve its target. Advances in technology mean development can do much better than a 35% reduction on Part L of the 2013 Building Regulations, and the SPD should require energy assessments for net zero on major schemes (both residential and non-residential) as well as also pushing developers to achieve reductions on Part L in minor developments.
Also of concern is that, although developers are encouraged to connect to community heating projects, this has been the policy for some time but often it does not happen; the SPD should seek to ensure a far greater number of future developments do this.
The SPD is right to look at existing buildings and their energy use, recognising that a large portion of GHG emissions come from these. It is also right to say that historic buildings need to be sensitively retrofitted and refurbished to reduce energy use. The Council will have to find a way to square this with heritage constraints, however, and move away from overly orthodox and conservative interpretations of what constitutes ‘sensitive’ development. A case in point is the recent recommendation for the rejection of a planning application for 13 Soho Square by planning officers; this was a sensitive refurbishment project to allow the house to become the first Grade 2* listed building in the country to be awarded the top ‘Outstanding’ energy efficiency standing by BREEAM, and enable a dramatic sixfold decrease in the amount of carbon emissions, from 53 tonnes of annual CO2 emissions to only 8 tonnes. The committee decided to approve it but had it followed officer advice it would have been turned down.
The Labour Group has long advocated for all new developments to be car free and we would like to see the SPD embrace this policy.
The point about ‘whole life carbon’ assessment is important and we would like to see this remain in the final document. The Council should only approve applications to demolish or rebuild applications where the whole life CO2 is reduced.
The role of trees is mentioned at great length in the SPD, which we welcome. One challenge is the uncertainty of tree planting because of the damage roots can cause to underground infrastructure like pipes and cables. The Council should become a leader in using radar technology to see where trees can be planted safely; currently trees are sometimes removed because of damage caused to underground infrastructure.
We share the concerns of the Notting Hill East Neighbourhood Forum that there has been an increase in front gardens being paved over. The SPD should seek if possible to introduce policies to guard against this and encourage more greening and gardens at ground level of new developments.
In respect to biodiversity, the SPD repeats what is in City Plan policy 34 and the London Plan. Neither of them explain what biodiversity net gain actually means nor how it should be achieved, though we note that the Mayor of London is publishing guidance on what net biodiversity gain means. It is important this is not delayed so that there can be clarity on this point.
We welcome the focus on local environmental issues surrounding new developments including noise, vibrations and air quality; these are a source of considerable disruption and disturbance to residents and others. However, there is still much that is weak in the SPD. There is merely a suggestion of “controlling dust and emissions from construction, operation and demolition” as one of the examples of air quality mitigation. Many construction sites try to minimise dust but the HSE hasn’t updated its guidance since 2013 and the latest London Plan SPD is in 2014. It’s, therefore, difficult to refer to any new standard that sites should try to meet. The Council should press for an update to the HSE guidance & London Plan SPD to provide more teeth in this area. Also important when it comes to mitigating the impact of development is engaging local communities early on; the Council had promised to bring forward a ‘Neighbourly development’ plan in 2018 but this appears to have fallen by the wayside; this should be brought forward.
We await to see other representations from expert organisations and may make a further submission then.