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1.0 Introduction

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Cowell, R., Ellis, G., Fischer, T., Sykes, O. and Jackson, T. (2019), Environmental planning after Brexit: working with the legacy of EU environmental directives, Royal Town Planning Institute.


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1.1 The Research agenda
1.2 Methodology
1.3 Structure of the report


1.1 The research agenda

The June 2016 referendum result in favour of leaving the EU has created a level of openness about the future trajectory of life in the UK almost unparalleled in living memory. This openness comes with profound uncertainties and risks and it may be a sound strategy for the planning profession to wait and see how events pan out before contemplating the implications for our sector. Equally however, there is a case for trying to peer through and beyond the uncharted waters, to identify areas where significant and progressive change can be made.

In few areas are there greater opportunities than in the interface between planning and EU environmental legislation. Environmental policy across the UK has been profoundly affected by membership of the European Union. The EU has developed principles, legislation and governance arrangements that have re-shaped the treatment of many issues, from air and water quality to habitats protection and waste (Burns et al 2016). This 'Europeanisation' of UK environmental policy has affected the planning system in myriad ways, both directly and indirectly (Cowell and Owens 2016): but it has done so incrementally, with little analytical reflection on how these two sets of institutions interact. Such abnegation was perhaps defensible in a world in which EU compliance was required; it may be illogical now.

There is also urgency. Although the scope for departing from EU-derived legislation will be affected by the kind of withdrawal agreements and trade deals that ultimately are struck (Hilson 2018; IEEP 2018; Reid 2018), key aspects of domestic Brexit-driven legislation are being formed now – such as The Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill (2018) – with major implications for how environmental policy and planning intersect into the future.

The question that guides this research is as follows: how should the relationship between EU-derived environmental legislation and the planning systems of the UK evolve, post-Brexit?

The task is to look beyond the uncertainty of the Brexit process itself to examine some strategic issues for planning across the UK, viz.:

  • to identify ways of improving the relationship between inherited EU environmental legislation and planning
  • to see where there may be opportunities for enhancement or simplification, in the way that environmental standards are achieved, and especially whether there is duplication between environmental and planning regimes
  • to do so on the basis of careful analysis of whether, how and how far EU environmental directives have contributed to positive outcomes

1.2 Methodology

There have been few previous studies of this nature or scope (TCPA 2018; RCEP 2002), and the interface between planning and EU environmental legislation can be a slippery thing to study. To give some structure and rigour to the investigation, the following methodology was adopted, involving:

Documentary analysis, of:

  • EU environmental legislation and associated research, focusing specifically on ten Directives identified as particularly relevant to planning in preceding RTPI Brexit research (IEEP 2018). This aimed to identify how these Directives and their various governance mechanisms have fitted on to UK planning regimes, and how this 'EU additionality' in turn relates to the outputs and outcomes delivered.
  • Previous commentary on EU environmental directives and associated UK implementing measures. This included red tape reviews and planning sector responses to government consultations. The assumption here was that future ideas for change might draw on past criticisms. Thus, the goal of the analysis was to tease out views on what was problematic, how arrangements might be improved, and to understand the underlying reasoning or evidence base.

Engagement with the planning profession, through:

  • Interviews with 21 individuals from public, private and voluntary organisations involved with planning and environmental policy, and all levels of government, from across the UK, chosen particularly for their prior experience in processes of policy change;
  • Four focus groups, held in Liverpool, Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh during September and October 2018, involving 38 participants in total [1], drawn from public, private and voluntary organisations engaged in planning and its environmental dimensions.

Both the interviews and the focus groups were designed to gather views on the interface between EU environmental policy and planning at present and to access views about the merits and direction of change in the future. They were also designed to tease out different perspectives created by devolution within the UK. As a further opportunity for discussion and feedback, our emerging ideas were aired at a session of the Planning Research Conference in Sheffield, held 4th September 2018.

As an integral component of the research, the team used the initial documentary analysis and interviews to draw up (a) propositions for potential areas of future institutional or legislative change, and (b) four broader scenarios about potential approaches to the planning/environment interface that could emerge post-Brexit (see Appendix 1). These were then tested and used as a focus for discussion in subsequent interviews and in the focus groups.

1.3 Structure of the report

Section 2 provides context for research on Brexit, environment and planning, covering: the wider dimensions of EU-UK relations around planning; the likelihood of change, post-Brexit; contestation and devolution.

Section 3 presents the findings of the documentary analysis, looking at how EU environmental legislation interfaces with planning, before reviewing evidence from critical reflections on that interface, from government and the planning profession, and finally from wider research.

Section 4 presents the key findings of the interviews and focus groups, summarising overall views on EU environmental legislation and planning, responses towards particular, specific propositions for change, and attitudes towards broader scenarios for future planning/environmental governance.

Section 5 presents the main outputs, which are: specific recommendations for new ideas and solutions; heuristic tools for assessing whether the retention of all or parts of EU Directives is appropriate or whether these should be altered or even extended; and priority areas for further investigation.


[1] Excluding the research team organisers and representatives from RTPI London HQ.


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