How much does air quality influence our planning process?

By October 9, 2017 No Comments

Pollution and the importance of air quality, has captured the imagination of policy makers.  As a result, this month will see the advent of the T-Charge, whereby the most polluting vehicles entering into central London will have to pay an additional £10 on top of the congestion charge. With the Mayor’s London Environment Strategy, Housing Strategy, Transport Strategy and London Plan all currently being consulted on, and with the National Planning Policy Framework being scheduled for review in late 2017 or early 2018, we have a number of opportunities to get to grips with pollution and planning.

Current trends of urbanisation, as well as the desperate need for homes and important infrastructure can, if not considered at an early stage, have an adverse effect on our environment. As a society we rely heavily on fossil fuels in order to produce energy, heat our homes and travel. When burnt, these fossil fuels release harmful toxins into the air. Air Pollution is a multi-faceted challenge affected by wide ranging phenomena within city infrastructure systems. With air quality playing such a crucial role in determining the health and wellbeing of a city’s population, it is vital we revise the ways in which we build and maintain our towns and cities.

Strategic planning can play a key role in this process, encouraging sustainable practices which can in turn limit the negative impacts on air quality. One success story of the current planning system was in Sheffield in 2014. Sainsbury’s plan to expand was halted because the Planning Inspectorate proved that the developer’s Air Quality Assessment was based on wrong assumptions. It was concluded that the development would increase air pollution in an area which was already breaching EU limits[1]. Thanks to this, a precedent exists for the planning permission for development to be refused on the basis of air quality, although many cases since then have been approved. This case brings us hope that something can be done to include air pollution as factor in the planning process of developers.

The  National Planning Policy Framework is due to be changed, this presents us with a great opportunity for the government to ensure that air quality has parity with other issues such as health and disabled access.  It is a significant document, which serves as a brief overview to the specific role and responsibilities of the planning system. It will support planning officers to consider air pollution during their decision making process in planning applications.

For an example of environmental concerns being overlooked, we can look at Prior Approval. It was introduced in the GDPO 2015. SI No 596 as an emergency measure but now it had been made into a permanent regulation and is used on some types of permitted development. If Prior Approval is granted it can mean the normal planning application process is circumvented. The Prior Approval procedure is deliberately a light-touch process without any unnecessarily onerous requirements, so to not replicate the standard application process. There are, however, a few categories which require consideration, and the government urgently needs to add air quality to these requirements. A local planning authority cannot consider any matters that are not listed in the Schedule 2 (the GDPO 2015.  SI No 596), when determining a Prior Approval application. In most of the types of the permitted development listed in the Schedule 2, the subject matter of Prior Approval does not include air pollution. The only ones in which the air quality impact is considered are ‘storage or distribution centre use to dwelling houses’ (the GDPO 2015.  SI No 596, Schedule 2, Part 3, Paragraph P.2). This leaves a great level of risk, especially in the case of a public health issue, as air pollution can cause serious health problems.

One such example of where Prior Approval could cause significant harm if pollution isn’t considered is with the location of new schools, in particular free schools: – research published this year shows that 802 of the London’s schools in 2013 were within 150 metres of nitrogen dioxide levels that breached the EU limit. It is known that free schools can be located with prior approval i.e. little planning guidance, even near the main busiest roads; therefore children in these new schools will be put at unacceptable risk. With all this considered, we are suggesting that prior approval is not deployed in Air Quality Management Areas.

It would also be helpful if there was an amendment to the The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015, the GDPO 2015.  SI No 596 that will mean Prior Approval can be revoked on the basis of air quality. Ministers need to make it clear that they are supporting actions to strengthen the importance of air pollution in planning and to support the proposed amendment.

At this point in time, we are asking people to write to their MPs to demand they take this into account. A template letter that you can send to your MP, asking them to pledge their support for the T-Charge can all be found here.   Please do join in with these campaigns; your support makes all the difference.

[1] Appeal Decision, Ref: APP/J4423/A/10/2143547