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Bishop's Stortford Independent Green Watch columnist Louise Tennekoon on why not all new houses in Bishop's Stortford have solar panels

Louise Tennekoon writes about environmental matters in Bishop's Stortford...

The question I get asked the most is: "Why don't all new houses in Bishop's Stortford have solar panels?"

It's a good question. Most people agree that we need to do something about climate change and that renewable energy is a vital step in the right direction. It's also widely known that building green from the ground up is cheaper and easier than retrofitting an existing building. So why isn't it happening?

The simple answer: the developers don't do it because they don't have to.

There's no requirement to fit solar panels – or to meet any specific carbon emission targets – in the East Herts District Plan, which sets out the planning framework from 2011 to 2033. All the developers have to do is comply with building regs and "demonstrate how CO₂ emissions will be minimised".

Stepping boldly into this policy vacuum is the draft revision to the Neighbourhood Plan for Bishop's Stortford. This set of documents, developed by residents, community representatives and town councillors, states that "every development should at a minimum contribute no greenhouse emissions in use (net zero carbon) and, unless demonstrably unviable, provide a net export of electricity to the grid". The plan is out for public consultation.

The Neighbourhood Plan team should be congratulated for this exciting statement of intent. It would transform local developments, slash emissions and make new homes warmer, more efficient and much cheaper to run.

Two questions spring to mind: Will the climate change policies as written make it through to the final version of the plan? And, if they do, will these policies have any impact on planning decisions?

We will have to wait for the answer to the first question. Unfortunately it seems the answer to question two is no.

Although the Neighbourhood Plan is intended to provide "a powerful set of tools for local people to plan for the types of development to meet their community's needs", it also has to "conform with the strategic policies of the development plan", which includes policies on climate change.

Louise is regularly asked why solar panels are not on all of the new homes being built in Bishop's Stortford
Louise is regularly asked why solar panels are not on all of the new homes being built in Bishop's Stortford

The plan does signal our community's intention to move climate change higher up the agenda and it articulates what I believe is a strong local desire for greener developments.

This message has got through to East Herts Council, which has recently produced a SPD (Supplementary Planning Document) for sustainability. Frustratingly, this document "cannot introduce new targets or standards that supersede the policies in the District Plan". In other words, when it comes to demanding more of developers, the council's hands are tied.

So it seems that the only route to mandatory standards for new developments – and possibly to solar panels on new houses – is a revision of the District Plan. This is a massive undertaking – the last District Plan was finalised seven years after it was due to come into force! The council does have the power to revise individual sections of the plan ahead of a complete review. Given the pace of local development, this would seem to be a priority.

That's certainly the view of the Bishop's Stortford Climate Group, as set out in its response to the SPD: "Given the council's commitment to do everything it can in supporting the whole of the East Herts district to become carbon neutral by 2030, it needs to now work to amend or replace the District Plan sections on climate change as quickly as possible, in particular to require precise carbon emission reduction benchmarks, to replace the advisory ones in the SPD."

There is one major caveat. All of this is set against the backdrop of changes to national planning policy. The Government wants to centralise and accelerate the planning process to "get the country building". The White Paper published in August outlines plans to remove councils from many planning decisions and instead use an algorithm to set new housing targets for local areas.

Planning permission would be automatic for developments in areas designated as "suitable for development" or a "renewal area". This suggests that an application for a housing development in Stortford would automatically get the green light, providing it is in the right place, with no opportunity for local objection.

The proposals have been met with alarm by campaigners and by many MPs, who fear a push to build in their constituencies. Friends of the Earth have expressed concern that the proposals include "ditching key safeguards, such as environmental impact assessments, and curtailing local democratic scrutiny... risking a wave of poor development in the wrong location".

What about climate change? The proposals make reference to "homes fit for a zero carbon future" but are short on detail. There is a pledge to make new homes carbon neutral, but not until 2050, by which time our whole economy is meant to be at net zero. The housing goal has been described by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England as "pitiful". It adds: "If this Government is serious about tackling the climate emergency, it needs to be much, much more ambitious on new build."

The White Paper is out for consultation until the end of October. It is likely to be some time before the details are ironed out and the system is finalised. In the meantime, despite the admirable ambition of the Neighbourhood Plan, I wouldn't hold your breath for those solar panels.

The consultation on revisions to the Bishop's Stortford Neighbourhood Plan is open until November 15. You can view and comment on the proposed changes at www.bishopsstortfordtc.gov.uk/neighbourhood-plan . Consultation on the planning White Paper is open until October 29. You can view and respond to it at www.gov.uk/government/consultations/planning-for-the-future .

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