Government urged to reform the planning system to reach net zero

New Centre for Cities research shows that planning and transport changes in cities would bring the UK 26% closer to its net zero target.

Press release published on 6 July 2021

Planning and transport changes in cities would bring UK 26% closer to its target

  • Make it easier to build energy efficient low-rise flats and terraces in city centres and suburbs
  • Improve public transport and charge polluting drivers to halve urban car emissions
  • Encourage people to ditch their cars post-pandemic

The Government need to press ahead with planning reform to meet its net zero target according to Centre for Cities’ research in partnership with HSBC UK.

Its campaign should begin in cities which, despite being big carbon emitters, have the best chance of leading the UK to net zero. The report finds that the right policies targeted in cities will bring the UK a quarter of the way closer to achieving a carbon neutral future.

Doing this will require the Government to progress its planned reforms as the current system is a barrier to reaching net zero. They should encourage housing development in isolated areas over better-connected inner-city and suburban brownfield sites.

Houses emit more carbon than flats, but they accounted for nearly eight in ten homes built in 2019 – an increase of 12 percentage points since 2013. Therefore, providing a more balanced mix of low-rise flats and terraced houses close to city centres would therefore help the UK reach net zero.

Building new homes centrally would also reduce car dependency. If the share of journeys made by public transport rose from one third to two thirds then urban carbon emissions would halve. Therefore, providing good public transport in all cities is essential to reaching net zero.

The number of people using public transport fell sharply during the pandemic and has not yet reached pre-Covid levels. Reaching net zero will be impossible while so many people continue to shun public transport in favour of cars. Policy makers therefore must encourage the public back onto public transport.

They should also introduce charges to disincentivise non-electric car usage and improve the public transport system in all cities. Doing these together could reduce total urban transport emissions by 87% by 2035.

The report argues that, to help cities reach net zero, the Government should:

  • Make it easier to build new energy efficient homes in city centres and suburbs.
  • Reintroduce the £2 billion Green Homes Scheme to retrofit existing homes. This would reduce carbon emissions by around 30% across England and Wales’ largest cities and towns.

And local government leaders should:

  • Improve public transport by bringing buses under public management.
  • Introduce Clean Air Zones that charge drivers of the most polluting vehicles.
  • Encourage walking, cycling and public transport usage.

Centre for Cities’ Chief Executive Andrew Carter said:

“The majority of people in the UK are based in our cities and largest towns. This means that changing the way that we live, work and move around them will be essential if we’re to reach net zero by 2050.

“Because 64% of the UK’s total carbon emissions come from homes and transport, it will be impossible to reach net zero without changes to our planning and transport systems. If the Government does these together it will help it reach its goals of becoming carbon neutral and levelling up.”

Ian Stuart, CEO of HSBC UK said:

“This report shows the key role Britain’s town and cities, and decision-makers leading them, are going to play in helping the UK reach its net-zero ambitions. Consumers, businesses and local communities will need support from both central and local government if we’re going to make the big lifestyle changes needed over the coming years in the way we travel and in the way we build and heat our homes. There is a real opportunity to build a partnership between the public and private sectors to create the new solutions to meet the climate challenge and to open up new green opportunities for growth for small and medium sized businesses right across the country.  HSBC UK stand ready to play our part in this partnership.”


Notes to editors

About Centre for Cities

Centre for Cities is a research and policy institute, dedicated to improving the economic success of UK cities. We are a charity that works with cities, business and Whitehall to develop and implement policy that supports the performance of urban economies. We do this through impartial research and knowledge exchange.


HSBC UK serves around 14.5 million customers across the UK, supported by 32,000 colleagues. HSBC UK offers a complete range of retail banking and wealth management to personal and private banking customers, as well as commercial banking for small to medium businesses and large corporates. HSBC UK is a wholly owned subsidiary of HSBC Holdings plc.

More on these issues