Do we really need to think about sustainability before submitting planning applications? Not the question at the forefront of most minds, but one of the most crucial for our generation to answer correctly. In short, planners and developers must think about sustainability before submitting their plans as: (1) they are likely to get accelerated approval at reduced costs, which makes plain business sense, especially in light of growing regulation, and (2) this will increase the value and competitive differentiation of developments as all stakeholders increasingly demand lower environmental footprints and better social impact. It’s the right thing to do, and increasingly laws and public pressure are focusing action. However, there’s slightly more to the situation that just that…
It was hard to miss the launch of the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC’s) Net Zero report, which is currently being translated into hard law by the Government. It provides the country with a blueprint for reducing carbon emissions, mitigating climate change and building the foundations for a sustainable future. A regular feature in this report is ensuring that planning and development (P&D) in the UK enables this “technically feasible but highly challenging” transition, with low-carbon heating, energy efficiency, low-carbon transport and infrastructure, and timber, all highlighted as opportunities. Soon, P&D will have to think beyond the National Planning Policy Framework and usual legislative pieces and abide by new mandates.
Demand for green building is increasing globally as a growing number of people recognise the impact such spaces can have beyond environmental benefits, for instance on employee productivity and satisfaction. As explored later, the top social drivers for green buildings now include improved occupant health and well-being. Society now demands development that supports sustainable and healthy life. Research from the World Green Building Council shows that the market for green construction projects will continue to grow over the next several years. In 2018, 27% of respondents said that the majority (>60%) of their projects would be ‘green’; this is predicted to rise to nearly half of respondents (47%) in 2021.
The direction of travel is therefore clear; build green and think how, as a P&D operator, you can positively contribute to the environment and to society. But what does this mean in practice? Where do issues lie? And what can we do?
What is meant by ‘sustainability’ in P&D?
Integrating sustainability into the P&D context means accounting for all the environmental and social factors that are affected by the construction and operation of a proposed development, or vice versa. Although there are factors that are common across nearly all developments (e.g. wildlife displacement, energy performance), what is considered material varies from development to development. For instance, those looking to develop a new smart countryside town situated close to nearby motorway and rail connections will have different range of material sustainability factors to integrate into their work than those building student accommodation blocks in busy city centres (e.g. ‘pressure on nearby primary schools from new families vs noise pollution related to high density student accommodation’). Outlined below are the environmental and social factors that are currently most common, and those that will have a substantial influence in the future:
- Enhancing biodiversity. One key environmental factor for P&D in the future will be ex-Chancellor Phillip Hammond’s ‘biodiversity net gain’ commitment which mandates, through the forthcoming Environment Bill, all new developments to leave biodiversity in a better state than it was before, regardless of size or scope of project (exceptions only for extensions and potentially some small and brownfield sites). This means making notable efforts to encourage a thriving natural environment, for instance through the installation of green walls, green roofs and green spaces. ‘Net Gain’ was a key feature of the UK Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan which was put out for consultation by Defra in late 2018. Detailed guidance about the mandatory requirement and the biodiversity metric that will be used will be released in due course.
- Wildlife and habitat displacement. This must not be brushed off lightly as a secondary concern, as is proven by already significant opposition to proposed Oxford-Cambridge Expressway routes. Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), as designated in the Habitats and Conservation of Species Regulations 2017, and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) dictate whether or not developers can target certain locations. For coastal developers, Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) are the areas to watch out for. 91 MCZs form England’s “blue belt”, which protects rare and threatened species in English coastal waters. The impact on such environments must be considered as early as possible to mitigate risk of opposition.
- Carbon emissions and environmental pollution. The CCC’s Net Zero report has brought carbon emissions back to the forefront. The report calls for P&D to specifically work on low-carbon heating in buildings, energy efficiency, scaling up low-carbon transport infrastructure (e.g. EV charging networks), and to evaluate the role of wood in construction (as timber structures provide long-term carbon stores) – similar to how Canadian developers are exploring wooden tower blocks. It is crucially important for P&D to tackle carbon-related matters now as it is this group that will build the infrastructure that enables the rest of the world to become more sustainable.
- Buildings’ energy performance. Energy-efficiency-focused design concepts such as Passivhaus are growing in popularity, with over 65,000 buildings worldwide reportedly having been designed, built and tested to this standard. A recent report shows that leading members of the EP100 initiative – which focuses on delivering energy productivity (higher economic output per unit of energy consumed) and includes UK REIT Landsec – have collectively prevented 522 million MTCO2e to date through the saving of 730TWh of energy; reducing energy cost by over $55m. Large-scale success is therefore possible. Net Zero pledges and occupier demands for spaces with lower ongoing energy costs are likely to drive the construction of energy efficient spaces. For those not building to Passivhaus, the globally accepted BREEAM assessment method and certification provides a robust methodology for targeting environmental sustainability alongside social and economic performance and is applied in over 80 countries worldwide.
- Health and wellness. Occupant health and well-being alongside worker productivity rank among the top social drivers for green building. Pressure is on P&D to build new spaces – and to retrofit older spaces – to satisfy this demand and allow citizens to live and work in positive environments. The WELL Building Standard takes a holistic approach to health in the built environment and has become a widely accepted method of improving human well-being. Spaces become certified by performing under seven dimensions: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. Spaces that are designed with such factors in mind raise productivity, reduce absenteeism and increase attendance, as features such as better air circulation and improved lighting can improve employee experience. If P&D are to build the spaces that society desires, they should follow standards like WELL and demonstrate they are improving human health and well-being.
- Transport. This is of the utmost importance to P&D. It’s all well and good planning to develop high quality, efficient spaces, however if actual access to these is poor, their overall effectiveness is limited. Those in P&D must question whether existing road, rail and other transport services have enough capacity to support new developments, whether new infrastructure is needed, whether public transport strategies need amending, and how EV and other green transport infrastructure can be integrated.
- Services. Similar to transport, P&D must evaluate whether services around developments will be strained and what can be done to alleviate pressure. This goes for both public (e.g. healthcare, fire, police, education) and private (e.g. retail and leisure facilities) services. Where areas of stress are identified, planners must provision for these to ensure good quality of life for both current and future residents and users.
- Noise and air pollution. Beyond the environment, pollution has significant impacts on local society. The noise and air pollution that results from building sites and the vehicles travelling to and from them often forms grounds for opposition from nearby residents. Additionally, increased traffic flow resulting from significant new settlements can pose a similar problem post-construction, in that an extra X-hundred cars on the road significantly disrupts what might have previously been a peaceful community. Although this is generally more of an issue for larger-scale projects, and can be mitigated via conditions, it’s a factor that P&D must account for or risk a delayed and more costly project.
Why is all this important?
Perhaps the most convincing argument for integrating sustainability into P&D is one based on cost – though sustainability is assumed to cost more, it actually saves money. If a planner omits to consider whether their development impacts protected species, or if it would place significant strain on local services, or any of what is mentioned above, they risk a delay due to opposition or total rejection of their plan, which means wasted money. If you can’t build or sell your own plan efficiently, your approach must change.
By comparison, plans that account for all material environmental and social considerations stand the best chance of gaining support from local stakeholders, and therefore face increased likelihood of faster approval. Once consent is granted, constructing or selling on the plan can take place sooner; a source of competitive advantage for those who take this seriously. Such practices can lead to improved confidence from government and investors – delivering on sustainable promises as close to on-time and on-budget as possible could help your organisation become a preferred partner.
From a risk perspective, thinking about social and environmental impact right from the start of the planning phase enables P&D operators to future proof themselves against changing legislation and market trends. By reviewing all relevant legislation – including incoming pieces like the UK Environment Bill – and industry trends, planners and developers have the opportunity to mitigate against shocks. Organisations that get ahead of legislation and adopt innovative practices faster can then establish themselves as industry leaders, winning competitive advantage.
Moving beyond traditional cost and risk factors, there is an important point to be made around reputational capital. With the UK Government in the process of translating the CCC’s Net Zero recommendations into hard law, it is possible for the public, the media and other stakeholders to perceive inaction – i.e. not developing with sustainability at the core – as irresponsible. Traditionally, new build properties should have a 60-90+ year lifespan, so, with it being 2019, in order for the UK to achieve its carbon targets regarding the built environment, P&D are under pressure to begin work now. In this case, time waited can be seen as time wasted. P&D operators must think of their social and environmental impact early, evaluate how they can make their developments biodiversity-positive and energy efficient, and provide the rest of society with a sustainable built environment fit for the future.
How Sancroft can help your business in P&D:
- Sustainable design – Regardless of the size and scope of your plan, Sancroft can help you understand the opportunities and challenges your development is likely to face, and how to adjust your plans to achieve quicker, more profitable results that meet the expectations of end users and other stakeholders. We analyse current and forthcoming legislation that could affect you, assess stakeholder expectations to identify challenges and opportunities, identify sustainable technologies that improve performance, build the business case and strategy for going beyond Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) to enhance biodiversity, and develop a roadmap to move you forward.
- Stakeholder engagement – Sancroft can help identify key stakeholders beyond statutory consultees, implement a strategic engagement plan that demonstrates positive sustainability credentials in a local context, ensure plans are supported by key decision makers and influencers from the outset, and assess and integrate feedback from engagements into your plan.
- Sustainability performance – Sancroft can help planners, developers and other organisations in the P&D world to improve their own sustainability credentials. We can assess and benchmark your performance against peers and best practice, review against legislation (e.g. Modern Slavery Act, plastics and packaging consultations from Defra), develop a sustainability vision and strategy, and advise on reporting and communications across both print and digital channels.
 World Green Building Council, 2018. https://www.worldgbc.org/news-media/world-green-building-trends-2018-smartmarket-report-publication
 Environment Analyst, 2019. https://environment-analyst.com/75046/binding-biodiversity-net-gain-principle-takes-centre-stage
 Campaign for Better Transport, 2018. https://bettertransport.org.uk/blog/roads/oxford-cambridge-expressway-no-thanks
 Committee on Climate Change, 2019. https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/net-zero-the-uks-contribution-to-stopping-global-warming/
 World Green Building Trends Report, 2018. https://www.construction.com/toolkit/reports/world-green-building-trends-2018
 M Moser Associates, 2019. http://greeninitiatives.cn/img/white_papers/1426085987406Sustainable_workspace_design.pdf