HOT TOPIC: Roads? Where we're going we don't need roads

By Chris Cummings, Technical Director at chapmanbdsp.

The UK’s 2050 net zero emissions target is enshrined in law; the Heathrow expansion ruling gives a glimpse of what that might mean for the built environment.

Plenty of big infrastructure projects will be keeping a close eye on the fallout from the recent ruling that the Heathrow expansion plans are considered unlawful, because they go against our legal commitment to reduce emissions to net zero.

The big question many of them will, or at least should, be asking themselves is “how is what I’m doing on my projects any different to what they are being penalised for?” and this provides food for thought for the whole built environment industry. There’s a long way to go before we can describe the campaigners’ efforts as a success, but there’s nothing like a legal precedent for giving everyone a good kick up the backside.

Legislation and policy are taking a long time to catch up with the social and financial drivers. Part L hasn’t made any meaningful progress in years, and, if the recent consultation on new homes is anything to go by, we shouldn’t expect any revolutions there anytime soon. The London Plan 2019 is creaking into life at last, but the majority of local plans and core strategies across the country are in dire need of updating, with some having been in draft version for more than a decade. Will ticking these boxes count for much if you are leaving your new development proposal open to legal challenge on the grounds of how much carbon it’s going to be emitting?

More importantly how do the investors and insurers, that ultimately make many of these schemes viable, view that risk? BlackRock has provided an insight this past week into the bigger picture around returns and prices, making a compelling case for the “can we afford not to?” movement.

Many new developments face local opposition on several fronts. Whilst massing and heritage impacts are often the motivation, the cracks in the armour are often affordable housing provision and environmental impact. We have seen our energy strategies scrutinised by local groups to ensure they are policy compliant, a simple enough process to defend for the reasons set out above. If the new benchmark is to ensure we are fully aligned to the legal implementation of the net zero commitments, more robust sustainable design proposals are going to be required than a traditional compliance-led approach.

RIBA has launched their 2020 Plan of Work, reinforcing their advocacy of the engagement of a Sustainability Champion, such as ourselves, from the outset of any project. We are seeing Design for Performance initiatives and Passivhaus principles becoming part of our standard brief, rather than belonging exclusively to the domain of the sustainability pioneers.

Laws may not be broken but they can certainly be changed. The Heathrow case will rumble on and our government’s response will have a big bearing on how much this does ripple out into wider development. If a runway can be stopped because of the carbon emissions of the planes that use it where does that leave future road infrastructure, even considering the long transition to electric vehicles. HS2 has hardly positioned itself as a sustainable solution on the rails either.

It would certainly undermine the case for huge car-led infrastructure projects, say in the form of an enormous sea-spanning bridge, and may even help to drive cars out of cities, improving air quality, enabling natural ventilation and prioritising low-carbon transport. All of which is definitely aligned with the 2050 commitments.

Christopher Cummings is Technical Director responsible for all aspects of Environmental and Sustainable design at chapmanbdsp.

HOT TOPIC: Roads? Where we're going we don't need roads