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Sustainability Appraisal: An uncertain future

Kate Nicholls MRTPI is a Director of Planning at LUC. Kate leads RTPI’s Sustainability Appraisal online CPD masterclasses. To find out more about upcoming masterclass dates, see the CPD Training Calendar.

This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of the RTPI. You can read the RTPI’s Environmental Outcomes Reports consultation response here.

On Friday 17th March the Government published its consultation on Environmental Outcomes Reports (EORs), providing some much-anticipated meat on the bones of the proposals set out in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) in May last year. At the time of the publication of the LURB, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) said that there were two critical issues that would have to be tackled: ensure public involvement in assessment – as per the Ȧrhus Convention – and ensure proper consideration of alternatives.

While the EORs consultation provides an impression of how this new regime will work, it raises as many, if not more, questions than it answers. The Government’s commitment to reforming the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Sustainability Appraisal (SA)/Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) regimes has been clear for some time. Criticism of the current regimes features throughout the consultation, with SA/SEA perhaps bearing the brunt. How much is motivated by a desire to distance the UK from anything that originated from the EU is debatable; however, it is easy to read the paper as an SA/SEA practitioner and feel disheartened. Phrases like ‘box-ticking exercise’ speak to the go-to criticisms of SA/SEA and a picture is painted of a laborious, pointless and inaccessible process. But is that really fair?

The consultation refers to the need to keep standards high – however there is only this very limited recognition of the positive outcomes under the current regime. The introduction of the SEA Regulations in 2004 contributed to the UK having arguably one of the most sophisticated and effective environmental assessment regimes in existence worldwide. Is it perfect? In short, no. Denying that there is any basis to the criticisms levelled at the SA/SEA regime would be pointless – it’s clear that the length of reports is off putting and that the worry of legal challenge based on a failure to meet the requirements of the SEA Regulations has detracted from the real purpose of SA/SEA as a tool for securing sustainable development. The consultation is a welcome opportunity to reflect, learn from and build positively on the last 20 years of SA/SEA practice. However, there is a real risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and it would be a huge mistake to overlook the aspects of the current regime that work, and work really well.

The consultation makes very clear that assessment is to be refocussed back on ‘critical environmental issues’, and that balancing social and economic considerations alongside environmental ones is not the role of the assessment process but rather the role of the planning or consenting system within which the assessment sits. The parallel consideration of the three pillars of sustainability is a huge strength of SA and a reason it can play such a valuable role as a decision-making tool for plan-makers. While it certainly isn’t the only mechanism through which the costs and benefits of development proposals can be weighed up, it is important to ensure that effective comparison of all outcomes is still able to be achieved in the absence of SA.

The assessment of reasonable alternatives, when done well, is recognised as one of the most valuable aspects of the current assessment process. Emphasis is placed in the consultation on the importance of exploring alternatives as early in the decision-making process as possible. We can therefore expect EORs to continue to tell a clear story of the plan-making process. Only a summary record is to be included within EORs, covering key dates on decisions and how the mitigation hierarchy has been applied to ensure the least environmentally damaging options have been prioritised. However, these EOR summaries will likely need to draw on more detailed evidence held elsewhere if they are to be robustly relied upon. It might therefore be the case that the streamlining and simplification of the statutory assessment regimes will not always, as it might first appear, result in the ‘cutting of red tape’, but rather the reorganising and rebranding of its most valuable and politically sensitive elements into separate evidence documents.         

How EORs will be used to assess strategic plans in practice is still very unclear. While the ambition of a more quantitative, outcomes-based assessment sounds great in theory, it is not yet clear how quantified outcomes will be able to be measured for alternative policy approaches which haven’t yet been, and in many cases will never be, implemented. The challenge of linking quantitative outcomes decisively to future actions is also significant – indeed, the consultation notes that ‘certain outcomes may not be conducive to a quantitative metric and agreed assessment methodologies that draw on qualitative assessment, using professional judgement, may have to be used’. There is clearly still much to iron out; not least, what are the environmental outcomes that will be sought.

Against the backdrop of general uncertainty created by the proposed reforms, a key question for plan makers and SA practitioners at this moment is around the length of the transition period. If it is as long as two years, as the consultation indicates it could be, plans at an early stage now are still likely to be examined and adopted under the current regime, so right now it remains business as usual. Plan-makers and SA/SEA practitioners need to remain focussed on the goal of sustainable plan making while we continue to watch this space.

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