Late last month, environment secretary George Eustice announced a review of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process by which the effect on nature of proposed major developments is spelt out for decision-makers. He said the government, which is committed to leaving the environment in a better state than it found it, will launch a consultation “later this autumn” on changes to the system to ensure it can “protect more of what is precious”.
The announcement of the review of EIAs comes in the context of the current government having declined to commit to maintain environmental principles derived from EU rules post-Brexit. It also comes in the wake of the current prime minister Boris Johnson’s pejorative reference last month to “newt-counting delays” in the planning system, leading some to question whether the review may seek to diminish environmental protections.
Under the EIA system, developers of major schemes must produce detailed environmental statements setting out what a project will mean for the natural world. Only 423 English district, county matters and NSIP schemes were required to produce statements under the EIA system in 2019, equating to around one in every thousand planning applications – albeit they are generally the largest schemes in the system. Simon Marsh, head of nature protection at environmental charity the RSPB, said: “When you look at the numbers, it’s absolutely tiny.”
However, for those major schemes which are caught by the system, EIA has a significant impact. Angus Walker, partner at law firm BDB Pitmans, said for those applications submitted under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime – all of which must produce environmental statement – EIA requirements typically account for 75 per cent of the paperwork. He said: “It’s enormously significant for those projects where the system is engaged.”
In addition, for planning authorities there are the burdens of screening schemes to see whether EIA applies, agreeing the “scope” of an environmental statement where it does apply, and then processing the resulting application. Paul Stookes, solicitor advocate at law firm Richard Buxton Associates, said: “We’d welcome a review designed to simplify the system while maintaining existing standards – the complexity of the regulations now is unbelievable.”
In his speech, the environment secretary made no specific commitment to maintain existing standards, but neither did he imply that the purpose of the exercise was deregulatory. He said the review will look to see how the EIA process can be “front-loaded” in the planning system, and asked whether planning authorities were currently consistent about the way they screened applications, or had the capability to “engage over the lifetime of a project”.
In addition, he raised the prospect of the government itself collecting more data at a national level about “flood risk, habitats, species, and air quality” in order to enable better design, announcing a £5m pilot to establish a national “Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment”. Finally, he also said the government will look to protect distinctive UK species such as adders and pine martens through the new system.
It is not clear how those priorities will come together into a new process. The RSPB’s Marsh said the desire to “front-load” assessments suggested that more work be done at the local plan stage, but cautioned against expecting too much from this approach, with local plans already required to undertake strategic environmental assessments. He said: “It’s important to take a strategic view, but there are always site-specific issues.”
BDB’s Walker also pointed out that the desire to protect additional UK species under the system could result in additional workload for developers and local authorities.
However, many experts agree that local authorities do not apply the system consistently, and that benefits could be gained from using a nationally held database to even up this approach. Peter Traves, associate director of planning at Savills, said: “If they create a nationwide database of species and habitats, this could both be used as a benchmark for national strategies, and at screening stage by local authorities.”
Other experts said that the process could be streamlined by focussing an EIA from the outset to identify issues that are particularly contentious. However, Traves said that, again, the benefit may be limited. “Quite often you have to do the surveys to discover what the issues are going to be, and at that point you’ve done half of the work,” he said.
However, there remain concerns the review will reduce the level of environmental protection, particularly given a recent publication by think tank Policy Exchange, endorsed by housing minister Robert Jenrick, which included an essay calling for facets of EIAs to be “stripped out”.
Jennifer Rea, associate planner at environmental consultant LUC, said Johnson’s “newt-counting” comments appeared to signal a desire to “water down” rules which might deliver a faster track process for developers, but could worsen council decision-making, thus increasing the chances of a permission being challenged. She said: “Such a process could be open to great risk of judicial review and greater risk of adverse impacts for the natural and human environment if proposals are rushed through design and planning with less accountability and scrutiny.”