A planning puzzle

In a recent blog, I compared some decisions of the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) regarding zero-carbon development to an illness – Easter Island Syndrome – which drives a society towards its own degradation, or even destruction.

The Planning Inspectorate has an Environmental Policy dated October 2021 which, under the heading “Reducing our emissions”, says:

  • We will work to reduce the carbon impact of our activities ensuring that we support and achieve the government’s objectives for climate change by becoming a net zero organisation [my italics];
  • We will work to reduce the environmental impact of our organisation’s activities and adopt more sustainable methods of service delivery.
Easter Island syndrome

This policy appears at first to be focused solely on the Inspectorate’s internal workings, but it extends to the “organisation’s activities”. Those activities include making far-reaching decisions on planning proposals that will have a significant and lasting impact on the environment, the climate and biodiversity. The Inspectorate is, therefore, in a good position to exert a positive influence on our attempts to address the climate emergency (pace Lord Frost, whose name seems sadly ironic).

Instead, the planning inspector’s modifications to West Oxfordshire District Council’s forward-looking Area Action Plan for the proposed Salt Cross Garden Village exhibited an alarming dilution and, in some cases, removal of ambitions and performance indicators for creating an “exemplar” new community fit for the future.

This prompted Hugh Ellis, in a blog for the Town and Country Planning Association, to write in July 2022: “It’s no exaggeration to say PINS has wrecked the overall net zero approach.”[1]

The inspectors have so far refused to give a full explanation for their decisions until after the final public consultation for the Area Action Plan, when it will be too late to challenge their arguments. All they have said so far is: “we anticipate that our conclusions in relation to Policy 2 (Net Zero Carbon Development) will come as a disappointment. As such, we will say at this stage that we are not satisfied that Policy 2 is either consistent with national policy or justified”.

Leaving aside the patronising use of the word “disappointment” (many people and organisations are outraged, not disappointed), surely anything that helps to ensure a habitable planet is “justified”? As for national policy, it is well known that building regulations and environmental standards lag some way behind what new circumstances demand.

Laws of the land likewise continually need to be updated, and quietly ignored until the slow-moving cogs of statutory change grind round. Writing in 2004, Nigel Cawthorne noted that it was still illegal to hail a cab while it was in motion. You had to go to a cab rank or “place appointed” that had a water trough to allow the horses to take a drink.[2]

If we want a long-term future, the Inspectorate’s planning decisions – so influential, potentially, in moving us in the right direction – need to tackle the climate emergency head-on and not persist with impractical, outdated and wholly inappropriate modifications that already look almost as ludicrous as the equine example above.

Why can’t the Planning Inspectorate change its ways and start by completely reversing its modifications to the Salt Cross Garden Village Area Action Plan, thereby setting a valuable precedent for all new developments, not just “garden villages”? If it can’t, we might be forced to agree with Mark Twain that: “Often it does seem a pity that Noah and his party didn’t miss the boat”.

Nigel Pearce

[1]  https://tcpa.org.uk/pins-assault-on-an-exemplary-net-zero-planning-policy/

[2]  Nigel Cawthorne, The Strange Laws of Old England, London, Piatkus Books Limited, 2004