00Executive summary

Large urban areas are often perceived as being bad for the environment, and this is true for air pollution. But when it comes to tackling climate change and reaching the Government’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050, cities and large towns are greener than the countryside.

This is because of the specific nature of the challenge ahead. So far, the UK has made good progress on reducing carbon emissions, which have halved in the last 30 years mostly thanks to a shift away from coal and carbon-intensive industries. But further reductions are likely to be tougher to achieve, because they will involve bearing down on emissions in two sectors where cuts have been much less impressive in recent years: transport and housing. And on these two counts, cities and large towns will need to play an outsized role.

Density, something that is inherently unique to an urban area, tends to encourage lifestyles that are less carbon-intensive. In dense urban environments, journeys – whether for work or for leisure – require less energy. They are often shorter, facilitating active travel like walking or cycling, and are more likely to be made on public transport than in cars. And as cities and large towns tend to have a higher proportion of flats, which are smaller in size and more energy efficient than typical detached, single-family housing, domestic emissions tend to be lower too. All this meant that, in 2018, the carbon footprint of an average city resident was about four tonnes of carbon a year, compared to more than six tonnes for people living outside cities.

In fact, because density underpins public transport usage and domestic emissions, the fight to reduce transport emissions should not just focus on transport policy. It needs to focus on the way we plan, build and manage cities and large towns around the country.

The challenge is that, compared to their international counterparts, UK cities and large towns are not very dense. New residential developments often tend to be on poorly connected greenfield land on the outskirts of urban areas rather than on brownfield land and in existing built-up areas, which results in higher levels of car dependency. City centre residents own on average 0.2 cars per person, while the figure is twice as high for residents of suburban areas, and higher again in rural areas. And, as the location of new residential development is closely tied to the types of homes that are being built, these patterns have also negatively affected domestic emissions: despite the fact that new flats emit 67 per cent less carbon that new houses, the latter account for an increasing share of new-build completions.

This report argues that cities and large towns – and their density – are central to the UK meeting its net zero objective, and that this should be a key consideration as we contemplate the role of urban areas post-pandemic. For net zero to be within reach, cities will need to survive and thrive. To do this:

  • The UK’s approach to development needs to change to work with net zero goals, rather than against them. Both transport and housing emissions can be addressed through spatial planning policies, for instance to allow more homes to be built on brownfield land near existing public transport networks and in existing built-up areas.
  • On transport, the priority is to move away from car dependency and incentivise the take-up of low-carbon alternatives.
  • On housing, the challenge is twofold – to retrofit existing houses and to prioritise the development of compact, more energy efficient housing stock.

This has important implications in terms of policy. Net zero is a national pledge: much action to achieve it will happen ‘to’ cities, rather than being driven by them, such as changes in electricity generation. But in the areas of transport and domestic emissions, alongside government intervention (such as the phasing out of petrol and diesel cars), cities and large towns have the potential to bring about change. So, as many are already considering, they will need to play their part. They already have levers to pull, through their approach to planning or by discouraging car use for instance, but their room for manoeuvre is often hampered by a lack of powers and resources, a disorganised local government structure, and a dysfunctional planning system.

To address this, national government should:

  • Devolve more powers at the local level to ensure transport and housing planning are integrated as part of a single, coordinated strategy. In mayoral combined authorities this entails moving powers down from Whitehall and up from local authorities, so that all mayors have the same statutory spatial planning powers as the Mayor of London.
  • Reform planning by introducing a flexible zoning system that will facilitate and accelerate the densification of existing built-up areas at scale.
  • Deliver on the pledge to phase out petrol and diesel cars by 2030, and set an intermediate milestone to reach by 2025.
  • Reintroduce, extend and better fund the Green Homes Grant to subsidise retrofit measures, associated with tax incentives like a ‘green offset’ on property tax adjusted to the energy performance certificate of the property.

Local governments running cities and large towns should:

  • Use their existing powers to disincentivise car usage, by adopting schemes like Clean Air Zones, Workplace Parking Levies or Park and Ride.
  • Invest in public transport and active travel infrastructure. This may include making permanent some of the measures put in place temporarily as a result of the pandemic, such as pedestrianisation of central areas or pop-up cycle lanes.
  • Use building regulations and trading standards to impose higher standards of energy efficiency and carbon emissions and make use of the £500 million Green Homes Grant Local Authority Delivery scheme to improve the energy efficiency of homes of low-income households.