Assessing the environmental impact of building and infrastructure plans, Mike Wilson

THIS is primarily an appeal for help.

It follows the presentation (here), to the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday, of the latest, draft version of Scotland’s national planning framework (aka NPF4).

Despite the centrality of planning to how Scotland moves forward, the parliament chamber was remarkably empty, as Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth, Tom Arthur MSP, argued that the original draft had since been revised, as something much clearer, bolder and more direct.

It was instructional also, the relative lack of subsequent media coverage.

The problem might have been a lack of what journalists (and their editors) call ‘a top line’.

Even the Scottish Government’s own website (here) struggled to capture the significance of the revised draft, beginnings its report, thus: “Developments which reduce carbon emissions to tackle climate change and restore nature would be promoted under finalised proposals for long-term planning reform.”

Which, rightly, prompts the question: how, exactly?

Forgive the ignorance coursing through this thought piece, like lettering through a stick of rock.

A friend informs me that ‘environmental impact assessments’ have been around for a while, not that I have seen, or heard of, any in action.

And, who knows, the way our buildings and infrastructure is built might be already subject to strict environmental standards?

But in the absence of any standards one can point a finger at (I’ve never encountered any mention in all the local authority planning committee meetings I have witnessed), how might one begin to assess exactly how a new housing development, or transport system or other piece of infrastructure might impact on what Arthur describes as the “twin crises” of climate and nature?

The difficulty begins with identifying the threshold whereby a planning application requires to be judged on its impact on the climate and nature. 

Housing developments of ten or more homes?

It then continues with agreeing which criteria require to be applied, such as ‘carbon miles’, demolition emissions, heating systems, ‘off-gassing’, etc, etc.

And it then gets much more complicated, when it comes to carrying out meaningful measurements. 

When, for instance, one considers the hundreds, maybe even thousands, of components that are used in the building of a new housing development, how does one even begin to conduct an audit of their collective environmental impact?

How does one meaningfully compare the environmental impact of recycled steel transported halfway around the world versus timber grown in Scandinavia and then shipped to Scotland? Do we have an environmental ‘currency’ or vocabulary, to speak of?

It risks being self-defeating should the whole process become arduous and potentially overwhelming. Mandatory environmental testing is one thing, albeit potentially expensive; but it would be an entirely different proposition were it to be voluntary (hoping that developers, in good faith, will want to be seen to be doing the right thing).

And those charged with deciding whether a development should go ahead will want guidance as easy to understand as the energy efficiency rating on a fridge.

So, where to begin? Who has already carried out this type of work, in its entirety or an element of it?

And if it’s just about elements, to what extent can they be coalesced into a coherent whole?

This website is about showcasing our collective wisdom and expertise.

Maybe, in the first instance, calls should be put in to, say, the Architects’ Climate Action Network (ACAN), the UK Green Building Council and Zero Waste Scotland.

Who else?

There are, of course, Environmental Product Declarations, to be going on with.

Pulling together a workable but credible environmental test of every major planning application would be a significant achievement… for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government to apply, as either of them see fit.

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

Pictured: Scottish Parliament building, Edinburgh, Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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