On the 17th March 2023, the Government launched its consultation on a new procedure which will supersede the current EU-derived Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) processes. It is proposed as part of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) to secure powers to introduce new ‘Environmental Outcome Reports’ (EORs) for development projects in England. This new system was first announced in Spring/Summer 2022 when the Bill was initially published, as summarised in Firstplan’s earlier update here: Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill: Environmental Outcomes Reports – Firstplan .
In the recent Government press release, it was noted that:
“Our vision is for an assessment to be more effective as a tool for managing the effects of development on the natural environment, supporting better, faster, and greener delivery of the infrastructure and development we need.”
The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill is currently before Parliament, and should it receive Royal Assent, it will provide the Government with the power to draft new EOR regulations in order to introduce an ‘outcomes-based approach’, which builds upon the provisions of the Environment Act 2021. It is the Government’s intention for this to “simplify and streamline the assessment process” in order to make it more effective in helping to achieve and deliver the UK’s environmental commitments.
There are a number of key points that can be taken away from the latest consultation, as summarised below:
– Building upon the provisions of the Environment Act 2021, the new regime intends to provide an ‘outcomes-based approach’. Outcomes would be set by the Secretary of State and are understood to be subject to further consultation in the future. Notwithstanding this, the consultation outlines that the Government is proposing various guiding principles to ensure consistency of approach across environmental issues.
– The consultation highlights that EORs will succinctly summarise and signpost underlying technical work carried out for development proposals. An EOR should contain:
1. A short introduction (which references the project details in the accompanying Planning Statement);
2. A short, high level, summary of how reasonable alternatives and the mitigation hierarchy were considered early in the development of the project;
3. An assessment of contribution towards achieving an outcome supported by the indicators set out in guidance, including:
> The residual effects of the environment identified through the underlying technical work, with relevant conclusions in the technical work clearly pinpointed;
> The current baseline and relevant trend data, similar identified;
> Commentary on levels of uncertainty for that data or indicator set;
> Proposed mitigation, and
> Monitoring proposals.
4. A summary of the contribution of the cumulative effects of the project as a whole on outcomes and how this relates to the conclusions of any strategic or plan level assessment.
– Currently, there is a requirement for the consideration of reasonable alternatives to certain development proposals. The consultation highlights that there is confusion about the range and scale of reasonable alternatives that are required to be considered as part of the existing process. As part of the new consultation, it is explained that the new process will aim to ensure that the consideration of options with less consequential effects on the environment is carried out within the early stages. It is the intention that this will be more effective in delivering the greatest environmental gains.
– The LURB outlines that development proposals will be categorised into one of two categories requiring EOR assessment. The first of these would require an assessment in all circumstances, with the second category requiring an assessment if certain criteria detailed within the relevant regulations are met. It is noted as part of the consultation that the details of which plans and projects require assessment will be consulted on as part of developing regulations.
– It is suggested as part of the new regime that the Government wants to maximise the value of assessment through effective monitoring and mitigation, which is to be supported by powers to address issues, should they arise. A ‘new adaptive mitigation’ approach is proposed which would allow mitigation to be fine-tuned in response to greater certainty on effects following implementation.
– It is noted that measures within the LURB would provide the government with the authority to require public authorities to report on the performance against specific environmental outcomes, which in turn, would assist the Government in generating a picture of whether and how environmental outcomes are being achieved across England.
– It is set out within the new consultation that making sure that relevant authorities have the capacity and capability to successfully implement the changes proposed within the LURB is critical. It also notes that the Government will look to support and work alongside local authorities to ensure that they possess the capability and skills to deliver an efficient service and feel assured that they can protect our environment and deliver levelling up.
– The consultation has provided respondents with the opportunity to give feedback on the length of the transition period that would be suitable between the new and current procedures, which includes the choice of six months, one year or two years.
The consultation is currently underway and will run until the 9th June 2023. It is understood that detailed provisions are to be set out in secondary legislation, which the Government will also allow further consultation on in due course. Full details of the consultation can be found here: Environmental Outcomes Reports: a new approach to environmental assessment – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).
Firstplan will continue to monitor for any future consultations relating to EORs and will publish further updates in due course.
Article by James Emblin