Legal action could be taken against local authorities in England that fail to come up with proper climate change plans, environmental charity ClientEarth has said.
The organisation, made up of specialist lawyers, said it has put local authorities ‘on notice’ that if they violate their legal obligation to mitigate the climate emergency they could be open to prosecution.
ClientEarth has written to 100 local authorities that are currently developing a new local plan warning them that action must be taken, laying out their climate change obligations as well as offering their help.
Each local authority has to set out a local plan that sets strategic priorities around development and infrastructure.
ClientEarth is asking each local authority to explain to them, within eight weeks, how they will set evidence-based carbon reduction targets and ensure these targets will be central to the new plan.
Sam Hunter Jones, lawyer at ClientEarth, said: “This is about reminding local authorities that they have legal duties and offering guidance on what these are. This could, down the road, lead to the first step of litigation.
“It’s about raising awareness of the legal duties that really are not being complied with consistently, or at all in some cases.”
ClientEarth believes councils have a legal duty to act on climate change under a raft of planning and climate change legislation. The most important of these is the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act of 2004, which requires that local plans include policies that are 'designed to secure' the mitigation, or adaptation to, climate change.
ClientEarth said that for local authorities to meet this requirement, they must set local carbon targets for their area and test their planning policies against these targets as well as tracking performance over time. They say the need to take such steps is also supported by policies in the National Planning Policy Framework. Earlier this year the Town and Country Planning Association and Royal Town Planning Institute produced guidance that concurred with this view.
The 2008 Climate Change Act also sets legally binding carbon reduction targets for the UK and its 2050 target was recently amended to net zero emissions.
Worryingly, 36% of local authorities surveyed did not have a carbon reduction target, according to a report from the TCPA.
In July this year the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) reported that England is still not prepared for even a 2C rise in global temperature, let alone a 4C rise. Of 24 indicators showing underlying progress, just seven were on track in 2018, the CCC found. The CCC also argued that local authorities were ‘well placed’ to prepare for the impacts of climate change through local planning.
Hunter Jones said: “The policies we put in place now will have an impact for decades. The way we design our towns, villages, and cities now will be in place for decades if not centuries – the long tail of the impact of the policies we put in place now makes local planning really important.”
Local authorities have seen their funding from national government cut by 40% since 2010. Hunter Jones said ClientEarth was sympathetic. He said: “We want local authorities to go hard and fast within their constraints. We have to bear in mind resource constraints but councils have to meet their legal duties and obviously central government needs to do more as well.”
In a statement, Local Government Association environment spokesman David Renard said councils were already working hard to tackle climate change and would do more if they had more powers and funding.
He said: “Councils are already doing a great deal to protect the environment and health of our communities, including mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change.
“This includes tackling harmful air pollution by devising clean air zones and protecting at-risk areas outside schools, encouraging the use of electric vehicles through promoting recharging points, and investing in cycling.
“However, councils can do so much more if they are properly and sustainably funded, allowed to set planning fees locally and if policies such as permitted development rights are scrapped as they allow developers to ignore community needs and undermine local plans.
“The forthcoming Spending Round needs to ensure councils have adequate funding to protect local services next year to help improve residents’ lives, including through proactive environmental protection work.”
ClientEarth took the UK Government to court three times over illegal air pollution levels and has taken on numerous global challenges over climate change and pollution levels
* As Extra was sent out, CIEH welcomed news in the Government’s Spending Review of a £3.5bn package of funding for local services – particularly the £24m funding to continue the building safety programme to ensure that all high-rise buildings are made fire safe.
However, CIEH policy manager Tamara Sandoul said environmental issues “seem to have been sidelined”.
She said: “This Review has simply not taken the steps needed to begin properly addressing some of the key environmental issues our country is facing. Although there is some funding for the decarbonisation of bus services, there is concerningly little on the wider measures needed to tackle the growing air pollution crisis.
“In addition, with Brexit casting a shadow over the UK’s food industry, the Government has again been unable to provide clarity to our farmers and our local authorities about the funding to maintain our food production and food chains.
“With the Government’s flagship Environment Bill constantly being delayed, this was a chance for the new administration to show leadership in improving our environment and protecting our food supply. This opportunity seems to have been missed.”