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4.0 The planning-environment interface: perspectives from the profession

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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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4.1 Introduction
4.2 Perceiving Europeanisation
4.3 Future scenarios
4.4 Propositions for change
4.5 Conclusions

 

4.1 Introduction

An important goal of the research was to understand how planning professionals from across the sector viewed the relationship between EU environmental legislation and planning. To address this task, data was gathered from a series of interviews and focus groups, involving. senior individuals from across the planning, development and environment professions, as detailed in Section 1.

The findings are presented below, organised into three sections: first an assessment of views, both positive and negative, on how EU environmental legislation and planning worked together; secondly, a review of responses to sets of specific propositions for potential change as well as broader scenarios for how the planning-environment interface could evolve, post-Brexit (see Appendix 1). Attention is given to the main patterns in the responses, as well as key areas of disagreement and concern.

4.2 Perceiving Europeanisation

4.2.1 EU environmental legislation is generally viewed positively

Most respondents were firmly of the view that EU membership had underpinned significant improvements in environmental quality and raised levels of environmental protection, drawing attention to a series of substantive effects. Respondents referred to the significant clean up of rivers and beaches, air quality improvements, and to areas of biodiverse landscape that would otherwise have been built on. There was clear reference to the causal effects of the EU in attaining these effects, with respondents observing that earlier, domestic legislation (such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981) lacked teeth by comparison, and that UK governments could have acted of their own accord but did not do so. EU legislation had tended to raise the profile of thresholds and carrying capacities as environmental planning concepts.

Respondents explained these effects with reference to specific legislation and to the wider capacity that EU institutions possessed for driving implementation. In particular, they pointed to EU action being arms-length from national, political pressures, and with the genuine threat of fines for infractions.

Respondents appreciated certain qualitative features of EU legislation, such as its purposive nature, its basis in scientific assessment of some form, the (generally) clear objectives and its durability compared to national political levels (Gravey and Jordan 2016), especially in England. Altogether, it was less easy to override and less subject to short-termist pressures. To this extent, interview and focus group data echoed wider analyses of the effects of EU membership on the UK environment (Burns et al 2016).

4.2.2 Caveats and concerns with EU-derived legislation and processes

These generally positive views were qualified in a number of ways. For a few, the fact that environment directives set tight constraints and prescriptive legal requirement could itself be a problem, as it diminished the scope for work-arounds and flexible solutions. Some saw the tests of the Habitats Directive as being too rigid, especially as they were attached to the EU's regulatory style of governance, perceived as allowing insufficient discretion where designated species or habitats were concerned. The way this rubbed against UK discretionary norms recurred as a concern; though with acknowledgement of positive outcomes in some areas, such as air quality. Meeting the procedural requirements of EU Directives – with what was perceived as an emphasis on compliance - was also seen as deflecting attention from achieving enhancement and improvement.

While there was consistent support for measures that had achieved substantive environmental gains, there was more diversity of view and equivocation on the effects of specific procedures, with EIA and SEA attracting much discussion. Perceptions that procedures could be bureaucratic, complex, disproportionate and costly were commonly expressed, linked to concerns that positive outcomes were not always obvious.

Respondents referred to the uncertainties arising from, for example, screening and scoping decisions attached to EIA, and questioned whether procedures - already perceived as onerous - were appropriate in all circumstances.

Respondents also discussed the trade-offs inherent in the creation of standardised, cross-European rules. For some, this created interpretive difficulties in applying pan-European requirements to the specific characteristics of the UK planning system, to different categories of development (each with their own regulations) or to the diversity of more localised circumstances. Others expressed concerns that EU legislation tended to manifest itself in 'one size fits all' procedures (such as the tests for the Habitats Directive). Such procedures were perceived as especially unwieldy or inappropriate when applied to 'the small' – i.e. projects or decisions perceived to be small in size or in likely effects. In the focus group discussions, Respondents also recognised risks in such lines of thinking – i.e. that notionally small projects can still have major environmental effects, ether individually or cumulatively, which needed to be considered.

Some respondents also reflected on the more fundamental worth of procedures mandated under requirements, such as SEA (and Sustainability Appraisal) or EIA per se. Given that planning legislation also empowers local planning authorities to request sufficient environmental information before making a decision, respondents discussed whether a full EIA is always necessary. Assessments were perceived as potentially at risk of being tick-box exercises.

However, having standardised, formal regulatory requirements was seen as providing a valuable backstop, and for driving consistency of practice across local authorities: Indeed, this was a common line of thinking about the value of EU legislation for procedures – that it created consistency, across time and space, and across planning contexts where the politics of development and attentiveness to environmental impacts could vary significantly. EIA also provided a robust setting in which substantive environmental standards, such as for air quality, could be brought to bear on the more significant development proposals.

4.2.3 But what to change?

A further major recurring theme of the interviews and focus groups was that few precise suggestions for change were made. This is despite the researchers pressing respondents specifically (and often repeatedly, in different ways) to consider ways in which, post-Brexit, it might be desirable to change aspects of EU environmental legislation as they pertained to planning. A number of reasons can be given for this.

Difficulties in attributing the cause of problems

Respondents rarely attributed difficulties they experienced with EU-derived environmental legislation and planning procedures to the legislation itself. The main example in which they did so was the concerns expressed about the interpretive uncertainty of key terms: e.g. what makes a 'significant effect'? In other cases the complexity was seen as coming from transposition, where EU requirements get translated into national, domestic regulations. The variation of EIA regulations across different categories of project, between those governed by Town and Country Planning legislation and others, created complexity that generated inconsistencies and needed careful negotiation. With SEA, some respondents attributed problems to the guidance, but also to tendencies to follow it slavishly in all circumstances rather than fitting it to the specific situation. Respondents raised frequently the problems with monitoring and enforcement, for example of mitigation measures, but such issues are more about domestic implementation than the Directives per se. Risk aversion (to judicial review) was seen as affecting both transposition and implementation.

In some cases, problems were perceived as arising from weaknesses and inconsistencies in practice rather than in the Directives and what they were trying to do. A key dynamic in many responses (and from the wider literature) is that EIA and SEA can be valuable drivers of improvements to projects and plans where used pro-actively from an early stage. Treating them minimally, as a bolt-on exercise purely to meet the regulations, will likely ensure that they add little. Respondents from the Scotland identified the Scottish Government's creation of their 'SEA Gateway' as a useful vehicle for enhancing practice and learning across the sector (Jackson and Illsley 2007), which has no equivalent elsewhere in the UK.

A widely-mentioned mediating variable was that implementation problems could be exacerbated where planning authorities and other bodies lacked resources and/or experienced staff. This was pertinent to a key recurring concern about EU-derived legislation – the growing scale of environmental impact assessments - where inexperience was perceived to drive risk aversion leading to more frequent or larger-than-necessary environmental assessments being conducted (see text box below).

Text Box 1: Proportionate EIA

When asked about the effects of EU environmental legislation on planning, respondents often refer to the growing scale of EIA documentation.  There is clearly an issue here. If EIA is designed to facilitate informed decisions and wider transparency, then it is problematic for environmental statements to expand to the point where few are able to read and assimilate the information they contain. However, few attribute the problem to EU requirements, with suggestions pointing instead to the need to be better at scoping out unnecessary areas of assessment which, in turn, requires qualified practitioners to make good judgements (IEMA 2017).

Reducing the scale of ES is undoubtedly challenging, with legal experts still regularly advising developers that submitting a 'more complete' environmental assessment can reduce potential legal challenge and uncertainties downstream. Moreover, one driver of 'complexity' is that the scope of legitimate public concerns has tended to increase. Respondents to this research often supported the move to include health impacts and climate change adaptation in EIA and the increased attention given to air quality effects.

Ultimately, ameliorating the issue and moving forward requires key principles to be confronted. In particular, the precautionary principle (how much information is sufficient for decision-making and where is it likely to be unnecessary?); authority (who can decide this?); and accountability (what arrangements are made for judgements on adequacy of information to be challenged?). This is discussed further in Section 6.2 below.

 

For some respondents, the problem was framed in terms of social interactions around development proposals, with EU Directives providing 'loopholes' or 'tripwires' that actors can exploit because of their specific, regulatory requirements. Some suggested opponents to development (represented as middle class or NGOs, or lawyers and consultants) most often exploited these opportunities. For others, the key issue was developers exploiting any softening of requirements.

These findings suggest that there are a whole variety of areas where fresh thinking would improve the relationship between planning and environmental regulation and tackle some enduring concerns. Brexit might provide a triggering opportunity to think afresh about this issue, but that the easing of EU strictures is not necessary for this to happen. As discussed below, the devolved governments have already been evolving new approaches to planning and environmental governance within the framework set by EU membership.

Counterfactuals – UK environmental governance without the EU

If the UK was shorn of the requirement to comply closely with EU legislation, then questions arises as to what if anything might replace it and whether that replacement would address concerns with EU-derived measures? This raises the issue of counterfactuals, which emerged in two ways.

  1. Where respondents felt that the imposition of EU legislation did overlap with terrain covered in UK legislation it was acknowledged that UK legislation would in any case have needed to become more precise and comprehensive in what it covered (e.g. EU EIA legislation and UK town and country planning legislation; or the Birds and Habitats Directives and domestic wildlife legislation). In the case of wildlife legislation – UK legislation would need to tighten the level of protection given.

  2. If the UK went for a form of Brexit that meant that EU legislation no longer applied directly to the UK, respondents still felt it necessary for the UK to draft laws or regulations to cover the relevant issues, with a high likelihood of broad similarity with EU law, and no immediate belief that domestic drafting would necessarily be better. Whatever problems may arise in practice (or erupt from particular European Court of Justice judgements), the basic wording of EU legislative requirements was rarely identified as the sole cause of problems.

EU legislation and consistency across space and time

There was some optimism about the scope that Brexit might bring for new policy flexibility at national level, but respondents also articulated the merits of consistency. One facet of this was the way that the consistency of EU legislation provided a backstop which militated against divergence in local authority or national implementation practices.

Another facet of the importance of consistency came from economic sectors like the minerals industry. Here respondents were supportive of maintaining EU regulatory standards, because this would underpin consistent standards vis a vis our European neighbours, prevent adverse competition from the undercutting of standards, and underpin frictionless, cross-border trade (see also MPA 2018).[1] That is not to say, however, that respondents widely believed that approaches in other countries to adopting EU legislation achieved a high degree of consistency.

The issue of consistency also arose concerning the relationship between environmental legislation and planning across the devolved nations, where respondents recognised some dilemmas. They reported that divergence in planning approaches arising from devolution was an established fact, and that there were positive merits in arrangements that allowed parts of the UK to demonstrate best practice and search for locally-appropriate solutions. Furthermore, respondents also recognised that some of the devolved nations had taken a deliberate political stance on retaining close regulatory alignment with the EU, notably Scotland (Scottish Government 2018).  However, at the same time it was recognised that cross-national collaboration would be desirable where issues required consistent intra-UK treatment, for example in addressing cross-boundary problems of an environmental or environment-trade nature, making things simple for developers and avoiding 'race to the bottom' deregulation.[2] Whether these needed to include planning matters, in the narrow sense, was sometimes disputed.

In sum, the qualitative primary research echoes strongly the findings of the earlier desk analysis, that there has been very limited reflection on the future interface of environment and planning, at least in England (TCPA 2018), and the EU referendum and its aftermath have yet to trigger much close examination. Given the observations on attribution, counterfactuals and consistency, perhaps this is unsurprising. And in the very short term, with all the turbulence and uncertainty of the Brexit process itself, one can well understand why most key actors have been consumed with maintaining the continuity of existing legislation and repairing gaps in future governance arrangements. Indeed, concerns were frequently expressed that domestic legislation should not be tweaked until more fundamental uncertainties of the Brexit process are resolved.

If specific complaints about EU legislation were relatively few, respondents directed much more attention to the wider governance system in which planning and environment sat, and broader political agendas for change, which brings us to debates about future scenarios.

4.3 Future scenarios

Both interviewees and focus group participants were asked to reflect on a number of scenarios for the future evolution of planning and environmental regulation, the interface between them, and the wider governance system they sit in. After going through a number of iterations (see Cowell 2018), a four-fold typology of scenarios was created for pathways that future planning-environmental governance could take. The labelling given below was deliberately simplistic and provocative in order to prompt discussion, but they were backed by more detailed written descriptors (see Appendix 1).

Table 6: Typology of scenarios - future evolution of planning and environmental regulation

Direction of change

Goals

Process

"Remaining/becoming more European"

1.Retaining firm environmental goals and standards; firm time frames for implementation

2.Robust arms-length oversight of implementation, 3rd party rights/complaints for non-implementation

"Becoming more domestic"

4.More scope to soften goals, or make exceptions, at discretion of local and national decision makers

3.Firm goals remain, but more flexibility given to local and national actors as to how goals are achieved

 

One might have labelled the 'becoming more domestic' direction of change as 'environmental legislation also becoming more like domestic planning legislation', with its tradition of allowing considerable scope for discretion, 'balance' and trade-offs, political accountability and the flexibility of enforcement (see Cowell 2017).Discussion of these scenarios in the focus groups generated interesting patterns.

Much positive support was expressed for Scenario 1: 'retaining firm environmental goals and standards'. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that wider views about the positive dimensions of EU membership discussed above focused on substantive environmental improvements. Respondents frequently expressed their distrust of politicians, using this as a justification for regulatory arrangements that restricted political discretion. EU-style legislation was supported precisely because it comes with statements of purpose and creates 'red lines' and 'harder edges' (Burns et al 2016), which UK planning legislation tends to lack. The limited domestic capacity for enforcement was also a concern.

Scenario 1 also intersects with important trends emerging from the documentary analysis towards a goal-centred orientation to environmental governance. Emerging UK government moves to create new governance frameworks to replace the functions of the European Union (DEFRA 2018), along with aspects of the 25 Year Environment Plan (HM Government 2018), bring with them a strong emphasis on environmental goals, monitoring and enforcement and – importantly – the proposals raise the possibility of embracing planning (Rickets 2018). Respondents recognised these trends to link the planning system more closely to the delivery of goals. In Wales, steps are underway to tie in planning to the well-being goals of Future Generations legislation. In England, the 2018 revisions of the National Planning Policy Framework (MHCLG 2018) firm up the role of planning in improving air quality and meeting limit values, and take forward  25 Year Environment Plan goals of achieving 'net environmental gain'[3] more widely. In turn, a system of clearer goals and outcomes could inject clearer purpose into EIA and SEA.

What was less expected, was that respondents' support for Scenario 3 ('more flexibility to local and national actors as to how goals are achieved') would be nearly as strong as for Scenario 1. Respondents often referred to being unable to decide which they favoured most. There was widespread positivity towards greater procedural flexibility on how goals were achieved. What was particularly interesting is that support for this scenario – as with the general pattern of views – could not easily be ascribed to any particular 'category' of actor. It was not the case that those from statutory bodies delivering environmental regulations had a different pattern of view to those involved in planning, or that those involved in development-promoting roles had different views from those involved in regulatory or plan-making roles. Indeed, environmental regulators and civil servants too mentioned areas where freedom from specific EU procedural requirements could be beneficial, and not just in reducing bureaucracy. Spatial delineation was identified a potentially important role for planning in this scenario i.e. identifying particular areas where more tailored approaches could be taken.

Support for Scenario 3 may well have been buoyed by stating that it operated in the context of firm environmental targets (i.e. we were just talking about flexibility of means), though a few respondents did recognise that being more flexible about the means by which conservation objectives are achieved could implicitly affect the ends. This links to a specific point that came up frequently in the research. When asked whether EU environmental targets could themselves be problematic, the most commonly given response was to refer to the protective measures required under the Habitats Directive to conserve specific species: e.g. dormice, bats, otters and Great Crested Newts (see Text Box).

Text Box 2: Great-Crested Newts and environmental values

The demands that the Habitats Directive has created for the protection of Great Created Newts, and the uncertainties and costs these have created for developments came up spontaneously and frequently when talking with planning professionals about EU environmental standards and the scope for changes, post-Brexit. Such concerns can be split into two sets.

Some are concerned at the procedural complexity, costs (and doubtful effectiveness) of measures that focus on protecting existing newt populations and translocating them into new habitats. This could be characterised as concerns about means, and it is an issue being addressed by new measures that focus on maintaining overall newt populations and the creation of more suitable habitats at a wider scale (Pickstone 2018). However, respondents also often wondered whether, on leaving the European Union, there might be useful scope in reducing the level of protection for species they perceived to be rare at EU level but relatively common in the UK. This is a point about ends – about what is valued in the environment and warrants conserving.

One might interpret these commonplace remarks as inferring that a significant proportion of planning professionals hold the view that (some) wildlife is sufficiently abundant across the country that there is no reason why its conservation should restrict (or even slow down) development, and that there is no problem in moving, post-Brexit, to seeking only to maintain minimal viable UK populations, existing mainly within special nature reserves, safely removed from new development areas. This may not be what many interviewees ultimately would wish, but the views obtained were sufficiently frequently expressed to show that there is a need for significant discussion across the wider planning community about the value of abundant, diverse wildlife amidst the places we inhabit and create.

By comparison, the focus groups generated less spontaneous engagement with the merits of Scenario 2, with its reference to the procedural rights and checks and balances that have been instituted or under-scored by EU membership. Concerns that emerged did so as part of concerns for Scenario 4: respondents asked who would hold decision-makers to account once we left the EU? It may be that some respondents are genuinely ambivalent about the value of procedural checks and public engagement opportunities; or at least uncertain as to how often they translate into substantively better outcomes – especially perhaps where they work in planning authorities, public bodies or developers who have stronger rights in planning processes already. This is of course a much wider issue, that links with emerging proposals to fill the 'environmental governance gap', and whether the process for making complaints and securing redress seeks to emulate the significant scope afforded by EU institutions and environmental legislation, or the more restrictive scope of domestic planning legislation (see for example, discussion of Aarhus Convention application in TCPA 2018).

For almost all respondents, Scenario 4 – 'More scope to soften goals'– was viewed highly negatively. One respondent referred to it as 'my worst nightmare'. For all the Brexit rhetoric of 'taking back control', respondents were almost uniformly concerned that this might translate into domestic politicians exercising any new found powers to weaken environmental protections in the pursuit of short-term gains. For some, this reflected perceptions that government (e.g. MHCLG) had long come to regard EU requirements like EIA as a barrier to development, especially housing. Respondents added that any 'gains' to such procedural streamlining could be illusory, insofar as weakening standards and requirements could simply create more uncertainty and lead to more cases ending in the courts.

Many of the concerns about the planning-environment interface were UK-wide, but it is also clear that scenarios for the future could be perceived very differently outside England in the devolved government areas. Perhaps the starkest concerns came from Northern Ireland. Here respondents were concerned about the limited capacity or interest of the devolved government in environmental concerns, and the weakness of institutional arrangements compared to the rest of the UK (Northern Ireland has no independent environment or conservation agencies). The prospect of losing the safety net of EU environmental protections was thus seen as presenting grave risks of a major governance gap (see also Gravey 2018), especially given the collapsed state of devolved government.

In Scotland, respondents were confident that devolved governments would sustain their commitment to high environmental standards, allied to Scottish Government goals to continue benchmarking themselves against standards and goals applying in the EU. For instruments like SEA, Scottish respondents felt strongly that they had been advancing 'good practice' within this area: an illustration of how 'the impacts of EU legislation on planning in the UK' need disaggregation in the context of devolution, but also of scope for intra-UK policy learning regardless of Brexit.

Similar arguments can be heard from Wales, albeit that explicit EU alignment was less discussed by our respondents than strategic economic agendas that linked the future economic competitiveness of Wales to maintaining high environmental quality. Quite unrelated to Brexit, Welsh Governments had used extensions of the devolution settlement to significantly reform environmental and planning legislation, creating a distinctive set of approaches, many of which were beginning to link environment, sustainability and planning in new ways. Steps towards simplifying planning legislation are also on the agenda (Mynors 2018).

4.4 Propositions for change

Throughout the research, effort was taken to seek any ideas for specific potential post-Brexit changes and then, having obtained ideas, to test their merits in subsequent stages of the research. Through this approach, a series of 'propositions for change' were brought to the focus groups, and used to stimulate a more focused discussion. For each focus group approximately ten propositions were selected from a larger menu (see full list in Appendix 1). As discussed at the end of Section 3, while some propositions may be enabled (or at least made simpler to achieve) by Brexit, in many cases the propositions refer to measures that could be advanced under EU membership, but for which Brexit provides an opportunity rather than a necessity.

To summarise the findings, the propositions are dealt with in groupings that reflect their broad intent, and the patterns of responses is discussed for each. None of the propositions received wholly unequivocal endorsement; indeed, one of the benefits of using interviews and focus groups is that it encouraged counter-arguments to be presented.

Propositions to elevate the status of substantive goals

  • Higher material status for air quality standards
  • Higher material status for water quality standards
  • Shifting legal culture to create a stronger focus on purpose, goals and benefits rather than procedural compliance
  • A 'directive' for meeting housing need

Respondents were generally very positive about propositions that improved the outcome- and goal-orientation of planning, rather than a narrow focus on process. It was widely perceived that air quality had historically been too low profile, and too lacking in political support and skilled practitioners to champion it. Air quality concerns were already becoming more important. Some respondents pointed to Client Earth's legal challenge as vital in raising its profile; others to adjustments to England's National Planning Policy Framework (MHCLG 2018). Respondents also express a need to go further, including better integration with plan-making, enabling a more strategic role that could embrace otherwise cumulative effects (e.g. distributing land uses in ways less likely to generate traffic and therefore pollution).

Where there were challenges, it lay in giving the planning system a responsibility to address issues without the power to do so, and in potential duplication of agency effort. Some respondents from a legal background also recognised that reinforcing a goal- or outcome-orientation to decision-making in planning could entail deeper challenges to the types of interpretive approaches that the UK courts take to applying the law (Reid 2012[4]).

The 'directive[5] on housing need' proposition was design to respond to arguments that EU legislation unduly gave more weight to environmental concerns than social concerns, such as housing need. It tests the idea that housing delivery (or other social goals) could be driven forward by legal frameworks that echo the goal-focused and regulatory style of EU environmental directives. Recent reviews of the English planning system have also considered outcome-based housing duties (TCPA 2018). Connections may also be drawn to the broad concept of 'social justice floors', as a concept for giving a presence to serious social concerns in planning in a manner comparable to environmental limits. This proposition had more detractors than other propositions, through the reasoning that placing a legal duty on local planning authorities to deliver something that they cannot wholly control, and which requires balancing against other goals, could be a legal nightmare. Again, this points to wider challenges entailed in making planning more accountable for its performance against substantive goals.

Propositions to simplify or reduce the ambit of environmental regulation

  • Reducing the risk (to developers) and complexity of EIA
  • Simplifying the application of the Habitats and Birds Directives to smaller projects
  • More flexible, landscape-scale approach to nature conservation
  • Reforming SEA

Propositions concerned with reducing the costs and uncertainties of environmental regulation had their supporters, and not only among respondents that worked in development promotion. Discussion of the specific propositions merged into wider debate about the merits of inter alia EIA, revisiting issues around clarity and proportionality (discussed in section 4.2.3 above). Critics suggested that any simplification of process had its risks (leading to a 'race to the bottom' or developers gaming any size thresholds), and that there needed to be wider recognition of how EIA was used as an effective project design tool, alongside consenting processes. Using EIA in ways that enabled closer focus on the most significant environmental effects had many advocates, but with a recognition that any such adjustments could be inappropriately exploited. As some pointed out, developers can appreciate guidelines and rules where they provide certainty and avoid a vacuum.

The same debate dynamics could be observed for the proposition on taking a landscape-scale approach to nature conservation and other environmental issues. On the positive side, respondents felt it could help deliver locally-adapted and outcome-based approaches, but there could be risks to sensitive and valued sites if new flexibilities were not organised as an addition to protective measures. Greater flexibility requires careful controls, including provision for accountability, effective implementation and transparency.

Propositions to integrate procedures

  • Combining public consultation (for development plans and SA/SEA)
  • Closer integration of assessment and decision-making processes for plans and for projects
  • Moving towards integrated environmental plans

Respondents were broadly warm towards the idea and direction of travel indicated in the propositions, seeing closer integration as good project management from all sides, but they could also be equivocal about the specific gains or problems that might be achieved in practice. There was strong support for the idea of integrating the public engagement requirements of SEA with those of plan preparation, though this was often just part of wider concerns that SEA should be more closely integrated with plan-making, such as strategic option appraisal. For some, the low public engagement in SEA generally was a much bigger problem, but if SEA was more closely integrated with plan-making then its relevance to the public may become more apparent (see also Illsley et al 2014).

When it came to integrating consenting/permitting procedures, respondents saw positive steps already being made (the DCO process, for example), and supported the scope for further alignment where that might make decision-making processes more efficient. But again, it was also recognised that procedural integration has its limits and costs. It is likely to be of greater benefit to the more complex developments, as it is larger projects that need to negotiate EU legislation more often in planning. Plus each of the consenting requirements has its own distinctive requirements and lines of accountability, which cannot easily be combined. The metaphor put forward of a 'one stop shopping centre' being preferable to a 'one stop shop' captures some of difficulties expressed here, along with the view that improvements would be most consistently welcome at the level of information flow and coordination.

Similar observations were made about the prospects of greater integration of environmentally-driven plans and those of the planning system, including anxieties that environmental concerns could be deprioritised, watered down or lose detail. Forms of integrated assessment were felt to be already driving forward aspects of this agenda.

4.5 Conclusions

A number of broad points can be taken from the data.

Firstly, the pattern of responses from the data very quickly reached 'saturation point' i.e. there was a high level of overlap between the areas of concern between interviewees and focus groups, such that over time progressively fewer new lines of thinking emerged. As an analysis of thinking in the profession, the research can therefore be seen as reasonably robust.

The key points to emerge are as follows:

  • The role of EU membership in driving substantive environmental improvements is recognised, and there is broad support for retaining focus on substantive outcomes, post-Brexit.
  • There is support for more procedural flexibility in how outcomes are achieved.
  • The devolved context makes important differences to how scenarios for the future are perceived, but the areas and themes of concern overlap substantially.
  • While the propositions for change had their supporters, few attracted unqualified support, and this illustrates a wider challenge for institutional design, post-Brexit. Just as EU membership and environmental legislation consists of a set of compromises between sovereignty and consistency (at different scales), between formality and discretion, any future post-Brexit arrangements will also need to consider how compromises on such issues are struck, with the prospect that different balances may be favoured by particular interests.

In case the point needs repeating, resourcing levels for the planning and environment sector frequently recurred as an issue.

However, the interviews and focus groups deliberately pushed participants to think about the scope for change – the opportunities and risks – and obtained useful data accordingly. But because the research team were pushing respondents to think about options for change, the responses do not necessarily indicate how actors will respond to actual future prospective changes and nor do they easily measure the intensity of concern. Indeed, the research has not encountered a major, pent-up desire to embark on radical changes to the governance of planning and environmental issues, post-Brexit. Moreover, the focus group discussions often revealed desires to maintain existing regulatory arrangements, at least in the short-term. Not unreasonably, the major, short-term uncertainties and risks that Brexit creates have rather pushed aside the appetite for long-term more strategic reflection.

 

[1] Similar concerns have been identified in other research examining the waste and resource sector (Cowell et al 2017).

[2] RTPI has previously commented on the merits of cross-UK frameworks, see http://bit.ly/rtpi-brexit-devo

[3] Noting that achieving environmental 'net gain' raises a whole host of issues that cannot be considered in any detail here (see for example Cowell 2000).

[4] Similar challenges will arise more widely as the UK courts have to deal, post-Brexit, with the concept of retained EU Law (see for example http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2018/16/notes/division/22/index.htm

[5] Noting of course that the very conception of a Directive applies very specifically to EU-level governance; the proposition was for something in the style of a directive.

 

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