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.
A key goal of the research was to identify specific areas of potential change in the way that planning and environmental policy fit together. Rather than simply producing these as outputs, potential changes were created and actively used and tested in the research itself, especially in the interviews and focus groups where they were used to stimulate thinking and reflection. They were derived from the desk research, but also emerged iteratively from the earlier interviews.
As well as identifying specific propositions for change, we also identified a number of broader scenarios about the planning/environment interface. This is to reflect the fact that the bigger impacts (or areas of potential change) arising from Brexit lie less in the details of potential tweaks than in the broader governance styles and formats associated with EU legislation compared to planning in the UK.
As noted above, many of the ideas do not necessarily need Brexit for them to become possible, as EU legislation per se is not the barrier to action. Thus many of the ideas also pick up themes and issues that can be found in the RCEP (2002) report on environmental planning, especially on coordination and integration.
In certain areas, the scenarios connect to issues that are already emerging in the Government's own, domestic responses to governance architecture questions, post-Brexit. For example, proposals in DEFRA's consultation on the new environmental body and principles, could have the potential to bring the performance of planning more closely into alignment with environmental goals (Ricketts 2018).
Broad scenarios for future environment/planning interface
- More European? A goal-led system
In this scenario, the UK nations retain and continue to strengthen firm goals and targets for environmental issues, sets timetables by which they are to be met and improved, and tighten the role of planning in helping to achieve them. It might mean, for example, raising the materiality of air quality and water quality goals in plan-making. It may also mean making greater use of Sustainability Appraisal/SEA to check performance of plans against goals.
- More European? Clear, independent and transparent procedures
In this scenario, the UK recreates the kind of formal, arms-length mechanisms for policing compliance with environmental policy that existed when we were EU members. It might mean that the new environment body proposed to replace the role of the European Commission also deals with planning-related implementation issues, overseeing discretion of local and national decision-makers. It also means ensuring that the opportunities for public engagement and access to the scope to make complaints are at least as good as at present.
- More domestic? Flexibility of means
In this scenario, the UK nations retain and continue to strengthen goals and targets for environmental issues, but there is more flexibility for domestic actors in how these goals are achieved i.e. we judge the rightness of plans or project decisions more in terms of (environmental) outcomes than procedures. It might mean, for example, using catchment-scale solutions to meet water quality goals rather than mandating particular treatment facilities. It might mean being more flexible in how we ensure that decision-makers have sufficient environmental information.
- More domestic? Flexibility of goals
In this scenario, the UK nations take a different approach to environmental goals and standards. It may look to soften them to help accommodate development. It may retain environmental goals and standards but allow increased scope for derogations or delaying compliance, if decision-makers believe the case for a particular project warrants it, perhaps for economic or social reasons.
A sample of these propositions was used in each focus group, with the selection tailored to the expertise of the audience.
De-risking EIA for developers
Steps should be taken to ensure that, for developers, where projects evolve or new issues arise, there is not a need to begin the whole of the EIA process again.
Steps should be taken to combine the public consultation requirements for land use plans with the public consultation requirements for SEA/Sustainability Appraisal.
Higher material status for air quality standards
Steps should be taken to further tighten the links between plan-making and air quality standards, with land allocations and policies doing more to demonstrably reduce the risk of air quality standards being breached.
Higher material status for water quality standards
Steps should be taken to further tighten the links between plan-making and water quality standards, with land allocations and policies doing more to demonstrably reduce the risk of water quality standards being breached.
A flexible, landscape-scale approach to nature conservation
For those species whose conservation needs allow it, and where mitigation strategies are well accepted, we could move to approaches that rely less on application-by-application approaches to reducing impacts on specimens (such as translocation) and make greater use of approaches that link development to landscape scale habitat enhancement and wider population outcome goals.
Reducing the use and complexity of EIA
After Brexit, steps could be taken to reduce the bureaucratic impact of environmental impact assessment, perhaps by raising the thresholds for the categories of development to which it applies, and making more use of the scope that already exists in planning legislation for planning authorities to request that applicants provide more information on the issues that concerns them before making a decision.
A 'directive-style' measure for housing need
After Brexit, we should take steps to identify clear targets for housing need, especially for affordable/social housing specifically, and pursue these with the kinds of rigorous attention to implementation and enforcement that currently backs-up EU environmental directives.
Integrated assessment and permitting (plans)
After Brexit, steps should be taken to integrate further different forms of assessment relevant to plan-making, such as linking SEA/Sustainability Appraisal to Appropriate Assessment (under the Habitats Directive).
Integrated assessment and permitting (projects)
After Brexit, steps should be taken to integrate further different forms of development consent, building on steps underway to integrate EIA with the Appropriate Assessment (Habitats Directive) and Health Impact Assessment, to also consider pollution control permits, and perhaps planning permission and licenses to handle protected species.
Nature conservation and small projects
After Brexit, we should take steps to reduce the tests and mitigation requirements that apply to development applications that are small and also likely to be negligible in their effects on protected habitats and species.
Towards integrated environmental plans
We should take steps to align the production of land use plans, air quality management plans and river basin management plans much more closely together, with a view to possible integration.
After Brexit, it is important that environmental and planning legislation is as consistent as possible across the UK, with steps taken to contain the level of divergence between the constituent nations of the UK.