Spatial Planning and Energy for Communities in all Landscapes, also known as SPECIAL, is a European partnership led by the UK's Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), to equip town planners to drive the push towards sustainable energy.
The project ran from March 2013 and was completed in March 2016 and the findings are now being completed for dissemination. Its scope is certainly ambitious, as Diane Smith, the TCPA's Head of European Affairs, explains:
“Our previous work in this area was to devise methodologies for institutionalising Sustainable Energy Action Plans (SEAPS) into local authorities, but what we found was that generally speaking planners haven't engaged in energy issues at the local level, or didn't get a chance to. Local authority departments do not always have a tradition of cross-referencing or working together - we needed to make the case that energy is a big part of a growth agenda, and planning local energy changes is for everyone to think about.
“We've worked with representatives from national and regional Planning Associations across Europe to build knowledge and training programmes that can be shared with more organisations and interest groups – creating a multiplying effect. We started by working with eight organisations, and now 60 are engaged. It's just the start.”
There are certainly knowledge barriers to overcome to get planners at the heart of energy efficiency and local generation – and some cross-cultural, professional differences too. Smith explains:
“In Italy and Greece, for example, the profession of planner simply doesn't exist – the qualification is achieved through engineering or architecture degrees although conversion to planning is increasing - and there's no equivalent organisation to the TCPA in Europe.”
The project has involved developing pilots and working with the district heating and community energy teams at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Another big part of the work has been sharing best practice – and there certainly is plenty of that. Diane Smith cites Germany as a particular place to look to for inspiration:
“A major change in Germany has been local authorities and communities buying back the energy supply from the big utilities after public votes. Then there are some creative examples of re-using brownfield sites. The most amazing one is Hamburg, where an area that became a city dump after initially being used to dispose of World War Two debris has been completely transformed.
“The area has been grassed over, the heat below the surface used for a district heating scheme, there is solar PV on the surface, and even a wind turbine on top, using a new membrane to support its construction on top of the mound.”
This example from Europe is one that some public authority owners of land formerly occupied by open-cast coal mines in Britain were interested in emulating – until recent cuts to Feed-in Tariffs put a stop to plans. But there are British good news stories, too.
A community centre in the village of Gamlingay, Cambridgeshire, is one such example – where a woman single-handedly started an energy efficiency crusade (including becoming a councillor to raise the issue more forcefully) that resulted in some canny reinvestments, and ultimately, one of the greenest community buildings in the UK.
Plans for new Garden Cities are very much on the UK government's agenda at the moment – and the TCPA's Head of European Affairs thinks this is an example of good timing for planners, equipped with the right resources and training, to make their mark. DianeSmith said:
“The potential to build in district heat, energy efficiency, walk-to-school schemes at concept stage is phenomenal. To bring community wellbeing to the heart of long-term schemes, energy could be the answer. The reality is that planners aren't aware of the opportunities, or embarrassed to admit that they don't understand how things like district heating work from a technical point of view. Planners should be encouraging communities to take a participatory role.”
The TCPA is also working with a coalition of partners including Friends of the Earth to challenge changes to the Merton Rule, which required 10% renewable energy generation on site for new developments. The plan is to develop new guidance for planners which they hope will overturn the setback and reinvigorate the push for low-carbon options to be automatically under consideration as new construction projects are conceived.
Smith said: “With this guidance, planners will find there's a multitude of opportunities for renewable energy and energy efficiency. There needs to be a lot of engagement – this is not someone else's problem.”
Diane Smith sees government policy as the main barrier in the way of progress in planning sustainability into our towns and cities,but thinks plenty can still be done without central say-so.
“Communities underestimate their power and influence. Decentralised energy is a huge opportunity, but they don't understand how it could benefit communities. The meaning of 'community energy' has to some extent been lost – too often it's local authorities doing a procurement deal with the Big Six for tariff reductions, but it's so much more than that.
To drive home the point, she finds an example literally close to home.
“I live in Hove. In Shoreham, nearby there's a lot of development. In the town there is a power station cooled by seawater, so the water goes back in warm. At the moment, this just means it’s a nice place to go swimming, but it could be an excellent starting point for a district heating system.”
With the 'Brexit' debate dominating the news at the moment, it'd be easy for pan-European projects to be stalled—but the TCPA is pressing ahead to put together a new consortium to look specifically at the issue of transport, with another project with a catchy acronym, LUSTRE (Land Use Sustainable Transport and Renewable Energy). Smith adds:
“Transport is a huge, detailed area. If we had included it in the previous project it could have overwhelmed it, so it needs special attention. For England, it's very exciting to get to take a fresh look at considerable challenges. We're looking to present the full picture of what can be done, to say 'Open your eyes. There are ways of doing things better.'”