The Adaptation of UK Planning and Pollution Control Policy

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This paper reviews policies relating to planning and pollution control - their drivers, their implementation and the challenges they face. Throughout the 30 years since the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution reported on the use of planning controls over air pollution, the UK government's position has been characterised by ambivalence: urging the use of planning powers to control pollution while warning them to avoid encroaching on the remit of other regulatory agencies. While the language of planning controls over pollution and the pollutants of most concern have changed over the years, the role of planning in mitigating pollution must now be understood within the context of adaptation to European environmental policy, to recurrent demands for deregulation and, above all, to the pursuit of sustainable development. The paper argues that inadequate weight is given to pollution prevention in determining planning applications because of central government's reluctance to allow local planning authorities to jeopardise economic development. It suggests that public and political endorsement of clarified environmental objectives, together with improved procedures, are essential if planning is to continue to adapt to play its full part in combating the effects of climate change.

It is now 36 years since the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) was appointed in response to widespread public concern about the damage that pollution was causing in the UK. The Commission's first report reviewed the state of the environment, including the effect of increased carbon dioxide concentrations on climate (RCEP, 1971, 37). However, it did not mention the role of land use planning in controlling pollution. Five years later, the Commission's fifth report, on air pollution by smoke, sulphur dioxide and industrial emissions, included a path-breaking chapter on land use planning controls (RCEP, 1976). A quarter of a century later, the Commission devoted an entire report to environmental planning controls over all types of pollution, including various emissions which are now widely (but not univer-sally) believed to contribute to climate change (RCEP, 2002).

Inevitably, over such a long period of time, the pendulum of interest in pollution problems, and in the use of land use planning powers to help to control them, has swung back and forth and planners have adapted their approach accordingly. There has been an explosion of environmental regulation, not least as a consequence of the UK's accession to the European Community (EC) in 1973 - just as Europe was embarking on what was to become a formidable environmental programme. In spite of frequent opposition from a British prime minister whose attitude to Europe was negative and to the environment was, at best, ambivalent, the 1980s saw a considerable expansion in EC environmental regulation. The three Thatcher administrations were also antipathetic towards planning, largely because it added to a bureaucratic burden that was perceived as a restraint on the enterprise culture.

The fact that President Bush may be in a minority when discussing climate change with other heads of government is less important than the fact that such an issue is now a fixed item on the agenda of important international meetings. The linkage of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change has swung the pendulum of environmental concern to unprecedented levels. It is perhaps ironic that, at a time when antipathy towards planning (if not towards environmental) regulation had become apparent once again amongst senior members of the (third) Labour administration, the UK government-commissioned Stern Report stressed the grave economic consequences of global warming and recommended the use of land use planning controls in the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions (Stern, 2007). But government ambivalence towards the planning system is not new. The 1988 European directive (which was vigorously resisted by both Labour and Conservative administra-tions) requiring environmental impact assessment (EIA) of major developments was implemented, primarily, via the maligned planning system. …