Room for improvement for a green recovery

Steven Pearson considers whether the government’s post-coronavirus recovery plan is as green as it should be

COVID-19 interrupted a rapidly growing movement calling for environmental change. However, that desire to be greener in all areas of life has quickly bounced back as we emerge from lockdown and reflect on the environmental benefits that it brought. We must ensure we don’t slip back into unsustainable habits, but move forward to make a real change through a ‘green recovery’.

The government’s ‘build, build, build’ plan has shown us what the recovery may look like. In the wake of the announcement, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and IEMA released their ‘Plan the World We Need’ campaign and ‘Build Back Better’ mission statement respectively, setting out visions for a recovery in which the ‘greener’ element is the focus. 

The ‘build, build, build’ plan has a heavy focus on economy and infrastructure. There are some environmental elements, but it doesn’t seem to recognise the environment’s potential contribution to the recovery. The government’s plan has four main aims: 

1. Accelerating the creation of infrastructure
This will create more jobs and boost the economy, but there is little suggestion as to whether sustainability will be a condition of new builds. Proposed road developments also counter the idea of a green recovery, as they could cause a loss of vegetation and biodiversity, disrupt ecosystems and increase air pollution.

2. Reforming the planning system
The Planning for the Future consultation contains detail of the proposed new planning system. It proposes that from 2025, all new houses will be ‘zero-carbon ready’. It also proposes that the sustainability appraisal system is sped up and simplified, though without further detail it will be difficult to assess whether it will be weakened or enhanced. At this point, the changes are proposals rather than policies.

3. Promoting a clean, green recovery
Much of the focus is on investment in clean vehicles. There is also an aim to plant 75,000 trees per year by 2025 and halt biodiversity loss. Furthermore, £10m is being made available to fund R&D into technology for removing carbon dioxide directly from the air. This is ambitious and will be welcomed if successful. However, this should not be a substitute for ensuring that carbon is not released in the first place. It is for this reason that the promised National Infrastructure Strategy this autumn, which will set out plans for core infrastructure such as the energy network, will be eagerly anticipated.

4. Strengthening the union
This involves an acceleration of infrastructure projects across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“We must use this window of opportunity to ensure we don’t slip back into unsustainable habits”

Missed opportunity

The chancellor’s summer statement did contain good news for the environment, with inefficient housing and public buildings benefiting from funding to become more efficient. However, this could be undermined if all new infrastructure is not designed, starting now, to be low or zero-carbon, and if improvements to large private commercial property are not also encouraged.

It certainly seems, at the time of writing, that the government has missed an opportunity to set tangible national targets to ensure all new building types have to be sustainable, efficient and low-carbon – especially with the UK net zero-carbon deadline just 30 years away. The proposed planning reforms address housing, but there will be no indication as to when or if these reforms will be implemented until the consultation ends in October.

Focus now turns to the autumn budget and upcoming policies and strategies through which, it is hoped, our desire for a green recovery is met. 

Steven Pearson is a legal author and consultant at Cedrec.

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