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RTPI study opens debate in post-Brexit environmental planning

23 January 2019

The UK has made “substantive gains” from EU environmental directives but a lack of resources in their implementation and complexity of environmental assessments are growing concerns, according to a study commissioned by the RTPI.

The study looks at how planning and environment management can work better after Brexit and explores opportunities for enhancement or simplification between the two regimes.

Brexit gives planners the opportunity to rethink the interface between planning and inherited EU environment legislation for the first time in decades and to propose improvements in the long term. 

It finds that planners “rarely attribute difficulties they experienced with EU environmental legislation and planning procedures to the legislation itself”, but more to domestic implementation problems exacerbated by a lack of resources and experienced staff.

Richard Blyth, RTPI Head of Policy and Research, said:

“While there is short-term alignment with the existing EU regime, Brexit gives planners the opportunity to rethink the interface between planning and inherited EU environment legislation for the first time in decades and to propose improvements in the long term. 

“The study provides valuable insight into counteracting the prevailing obsession that Brexit is about easing EU restrictions or red tape, when the report shows that we need a fresh, strategic look at the UK's environmental goals and standards and how we can better use the planning system to achieve them."

Respondents to the RTPI’s Brexit study referred to the significant clean up of rivers and beaches, air quality improvements, and to areas of biodiversity landscape that would otherwise have been built on as direct benefits of EU directives.

Planners attribute these successes to the clear goals of specific legislation, the EU’s arms-length status from national and political pressures which helps to drive implementation, and its ability to impose fines.

EU-driven environmental assessments "a concern"

But planners are more equivocal about the effectiveness of EU-derived procedures, singling out Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) as concerns.

The report shows that we need a fresh, strategic look at our own environmental goals and standards and how we can better use the planning system to achieve them. 

Few, however, favour scrapping them, but point to the need to scope them more rigorously at the outset and to resource planning teams better.

Planners welcome EU rigour, ambition & clarity

Mr Blyth added: “The overall sense we get is that planners want to see the rigour, ambition and clarity of EU environmental governance re-created in the UK but with greater procedural flexibility on how outcomes are achieved. The RTPI will use this learning to push the Government and the profession to make a positive choice about the future of environmental planning.”

UK Planning and EU Environmental Directives After Brexit is a study commissioned by the RTPI and conducted by academics led by Professor Richard Cowell from Cardiff University.