At 2028, Nottingham has the most ambitious zero carbon target of any city council in the UK. For it to stand a chance of succeeding, there are some fundamental changes needed in terms of how the planning system operates and how the council engages with its residents. Speaking at last week’s Futurebuild show at London’s Excel, Dr Laura Alvarez, Nottingham City Council’s senior principal, urban design and conservation officer, explained how the council is seeking to align its planning to meet its targets and bring its residents with it on the journey.

In planning, economic considerations still typically dominate, said Dr Alvarez. “Consultations are based purely on the object we are trying to produce.” Then, “we build it and the planning system forgets it. That’s not how the world works.” Environmental and societal considerations are often deemed too complex or peripheral – “let’s leave them for the next meeting”. This has resulted, she feels, “in so much unsustainable development, without the social infrastructure”. By social infrastructure she includes physiology, psychology, identity, social hierarchy, support systems and social cohesion. It is about looking at the spaces around the building, more than at the building itself, and asking what people value most in their communities.

The council as a result has moved from traditional consultations to a form of continuous engagement, that is neither site- nor project-specific. She describes it as “place-making to empower people to deliver social targets and enhance social resilience”. This includes considering social isolation and loneliness.

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The council has opened an ‘Urban Room’ in the city centre, a restored shop that is an open hub for anyone to use to discuss what’s happening in the city. “It is fantastic as a space that is neutral.” Located at 38 Carrington Street, the Urban Room for Nottingham is an independent partnership between Nottingham City Council, University of Nottingham, Historic England, and the Nottingham and Derby Society of Architects, and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

The Council’s planning department has also sought to learn from the past and has carried out an audit of its planning system from 2013 to 2018, including looking at how long the processes took, who was involved, what steps were taken, and what conditions were imposed, to see common trends and identify where things went wrong.

For the new ways of planning, the policies cannot be fixed, said Dr Alvarez. There will need to be a readiness to constantly change, absorb new evidence and fix things that are not working. Those flexible processes will be supported by supplementary design guides within an overall Design Quality Framework which is intended to allow anyone involved in the planning process to “make better design choices for their building projects and to meet Nottingham City Council planning requirements more easily”.

The first design guides are a ‘Street Design Guide’, ‘Facades Design Guide’, ‘Housing Design Guide’ and ‘Wellbeing Design Guide’. On the way are ones for Community Engagement and Shop Front Design. The guides are intended to be applicable to all kinds of projects, from small-scale domestic projects through to large-scale commercial developments.

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Nottingham’s ‘Urban Room’ at 38 Carrington Street

The Wellbeing Guide, for instance, covers nature first design, productive green spaces, food growing spaces, closing the food loop, things to do together and places to eat together. It includes short case studies to highlight best practice. The guides are available to download here:

The changes are radical and different and have caused a degree of panic among officers, she admits, but without a radically new approach to planning, the city will miss its ambitious environmental and societal goals. To re-skill officers, the council has a Co-PLACE team, of which Dr Alvarez is one member. Its aim is to hold “dynamic sessions” to look at how to remove some of the key barriers found in community engagement during design and planning processes. The council has also created two Climate Change Adaptation Associate Facilitators roles.

In terms of the overall climate emergency action plan, this is currently out to consultation and is divided into Carbon Reduction Measures; Carbon Offsetting; and Resilience and Adaption – This is across transport, the built environment, energy generation, waste and water, and consumption.

When it comes to the planning component within this, Nottingham’s approach is a long way removed from that of many other councils. The UK’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) lacks detail and is sometimes seen as a developers’ charter, as the government has tried to prioritise the quantity not quality of homes in particular.

However, that has to change radically and quickly if the country as a whole is to meet its climate targets which, it is now clear from the recent judicial review on the proposed Heathrow third runway, are legally binding when it comes to infrastructure projects.

The NPPF is an opportunity for local authorities to put their stamp on future development in the hands of planning departments that are proactive, have the right skills and still have the resources (many have been hollowed out by austerity). Given its ambitious overall zero carbon target, it is perhaps not surprising to find Nottingham leading the way on planning as well.

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