Amendment 367

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Committee (13th Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 18 May 2023.

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock:

Moved by Baroness Hayman of Ullock

367: Clause 138, page 169, line 26, leave out “may” and insert “must”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment will ensure that climate and other key environmental considerations, including the need to improve the condition of protected sites, will be included in the new EOR regime.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I have a number of amendments in this group. I will not go into detail on all of them but will talk about our concerns about this part of the Bill and home in on a number of them.

Part 6 gives Ministers the power to amend or replace 17 systems of environment assessment with a new environmental outcomes regime. Changes to these technical systems will have significant environmental impacts on the ground. Environmental assessment provides the critical processes that ensure that nature, climate and heritage considerations are properly considered in the planning system and that help protect sensitive sites from damage. Given the potential for environmental harms—or benefit, of course—to arise from these changes, we believe that detailed parliamentary scrutiny is essential. We are concerned that, as drafted, Part 6 largely freezes Parliament out from shaping the process that is going to have significant impacts for net zero and for nature’s recovery.

The bulk of the detail of the environmental regime, including the outcomes that it will be built around and which actual projects it will apply to, are all going to be set by secondary legislation. In the words of the Office for Environmental Protection, the body set up by the Environment Act to scrutinise environmental policy,

“its potential environmental implications will only become fully apparent through ‘EOR regulations’”.

We believe that giving the Secretary of State Henry VIII powers to reshape all systems of environmental assessment is unsatisfactory and inappropriate, considering the climate and ecological emergency that we are living through. My amendments would require Ministers to set higher environmental ambitions in primary legislation and allow for greater parliamentary scrutiny of any subsequent EOR regulations. This would enable parliamentarians to ensure that the new processes lift rather than lower environmental standards, something that Ministers have often declared they want to see.

My Amendment 372 would ensure that the central aspect of the EOR regime—the nature of the environmental outcomes it will strive to deliver—is fully set out in primary legislation. Currently, the lack of detail in this area is such that climate is not in fact mentioned at all within the EOR scope set out in Clause 138. Perhaps the Minister will explain why. Friends of the Earth has observed that we

“are left to hope that Government will, at some later stage, include the protection of the climate as an environmental outcome”.

A consultation on the EOR published by DLUHC in March sheds little further light on this baffling omission of climate from this Part of the Bill. The consultation suggests that climate change will be inherent in the consideration of the factors listed in Clause 138 and adds that Ministers can always use secondary legislation to update it if required. Does the Minister agree that such a relaxed approach to the consideration of climate impact within environmental assessment is inappropriate in a climate emergency? My Amendment 372 clarifies that protection of the climate from the effects of human activity should be a core environmental outcome, set through primary legislation.

My Amendment 371 adds further essential details to the description of other outcomes—for example, the need for natural environment outcomes to include improvements to the condition of protected sites. Adding these core environmental aspects to the Bill will then embed them into the EOR regime right from the start and allow their detailed application to be further considered through proper scrutiny.

My Amendment 377 would strengthen the non-regression safeguard in Part 6 and ensure that the EOR regime will not be weaker than current systems of environmental assessment. The current safeguard set out in Clause 142 is far from robust, because it gives the Secretary of State the power to actually weaken standards in the EOR regulation, as long as they are satisfied that the overall level of environmental protection will not be less than before. The Office for Environmental Protection has highlighted that this “overall” wording allows for highly subjective assessments to be made by Ministers, with declines in crucial standards potentially being offset by strengthening of standards that a Minister alone feels has the same weight. For example, a Minister could balance weakened standards for the condition of protected sites with improvements in standards for environmental data collection, allowing the weakening of protected sites to proceed, to the detriment of nature.

My Amendment 377 replaces this weak safeguard with a stricter legal test, requiring no diminution of environmental protection in any one area. This provides a higher bar to shape EOR regulations and for parliamentarians to assess them against. It also echoes the wording of the non-regression clause—Section 20—in the Environment Act 2021. This robust non-regression test should also be applied to this Bill. I hope the Minister agrees. The Government have already responded positively to one set of amendments to Part 6, and we thank them for that.

My Amendment 369 and Amendments 375 and 376 tabled by my noble friend Lady Taylor of Stevenage highlight that, due to confused drafting, Clauses 139 and 141 would undermine the mitigation hierarchy, which is a keystone in environmental protection in the planning system. We very much welcome government Amendments 373A, 373B, 373C, 373D, 373E and 373F, which were tabled in March to address this. Will the Minister and her department look again at how this responsive approach could be extended to ensure that the EOR regime has climate considerations and that there is a robust non-regression clause built into it?

The process for scrutinising the regulations that will implement Part 6 needs to be enhanced. Currently, the Bill sees EOR regulations subject only to the affirmative procedure, which, of course, precludes amendment and almost always leads to the regulations being passed. Given the significant environmental impacts that EOR regulations will have, we believe that a more thorough and constructive form of scrutiny is required. My Amendment 388 will achieve this by requiring EOR regulations to be made under the super-affirmative procedure. This means we have an additional 60-day period for amendments and will allow for meaningful input into the detail of the new system.

It is important to highlight that a number of the environmental assessment systems that EOR could replace were originally set through primary legislation. Detailed parliamentary scrutiny and potential amendment of replacement regulations are clearly appropriate and commensurate with the need to get right the detail of vital climate and nature policies. In a letter to Peers following Second Reading, the Minister suggested that scrutiny concerns were unfounded, as the Government’s EOR powers were tightly constrained by their commitment to consultation with the public and public authorities. Public consultation is welcome, as long as it is for longer than 10 days, as I said earlier, but it does not provide a constraint on ministerial power. It is also no substitute for proper parliamentary debate.

Together, my amendments constitute a repair package for the EOR proposals. Currently, they constitute a ministerial power grab, with the Government asking us, once again, to trust they will do the right thing with the considerable powers that Part 6 confers. These amendments will provide a legislative underpinning to limit this leap of faith, embedding high environmental ambition in the Bill and enabling meaningful parliamentary scrutiny of any additional detail. I urge the Government to carefully consider the case for these improvements to Part 6 of the Bill, so that it meets the minimum scrutiny standards we expect of such significant policy changes. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Randall of Uxbridge Lord Randall of Uxbridge Conservative

My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment 384. Before I start, as there has been some gap between my appearances in this Chamber due to health issues, I remind the Committee of my conservation interests as laid out in the register. My amendment is supported by the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, Lady Willis of Summertown and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. I was very grateful to those noble Baronesses for moving some amendments in earlier stages of Committee when I was not able to because of health issues.

I begin by making my view very clear. The laws that are meant to safeguard our most important nature sites, such as the habitats regulations and the Wildlife and Countryside Act, can be improved—in fact, they should be. However, they should be strengthened to take better account of climate change and extended to cover more projects and land-use choices. They should take better account of damaging off-site activities such as upstream pollution and should be stricter in prohibiting planning applications in the most sensitive areas. Laws such as the habitats regulations have been shown scientifically to be effective and industry has backed them for the certainty that they give over and over again, but they are not perfect.

However, that is not the question before us today. The question is whether we should give Ministers carte blanche to replace existing systems of environmental assessment with environmental outcomes reports. Instead of specific proposals for improvements, we are being asked to sign off powers that could fundamentally change our most important environmental protections. The wide-ranging powers in Part 6 could allow a less environmentally responsible future Government to seriously weaken the habitats regulations and environmental impact assessment. I support several of the amendments to these clauses in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Taylor, which try to circumscribe the powers to ensure that they cannot be used to weaken environmental law.

I will focus on my amendment, which deals with the habitats regulations. These are the laws that protect our most vulnerable habitats and species. They give a higher and more effective level of legal protection than other protections, such as being a site of special scientific interest. My noble friend the Minister may repeat the line in the environmental outcomes report consultation that said:

“The Bill does not include powers to reform assessment under the Habitats Regulations. The powers in Clause 149 … mirror the position under the current system to allow for co-ordination between the processes and joint working, with a view to avoiding duplication”.

However, I am not convinced that that is a true reflection of the effects of this legislation. Clause 149(2)(d) clearly gives Ministers powers to make regulations

“disapplying or otherwise modifying any provision of … the Habitats Regulations”.

The Office for Environmental Protection agrees that the powers could affect the habitats regulations. In its evidence to the Public Bill Committee, it said that

“on our reading, the Bill does provide for HRA to be replaced for ‘relevant consents’ and ‘relevant plans’ by the EOR process”.

I would be interested to hear my noble friend’s view on the difference between reforming and modifying a law.

My amendment aims to make the Government’s intentions clear in law. It is true that there is sometimes duplication between the habitats regulations and other environmental impact assessment requirements. Industry has become very used to this and I understand that it is not an obstacle to development. Applicants simply submit one combined assessment. On the other hand, the uncertainty brought by the prospect of changes to the habitats regulations could create a problem for industry. Respondents to the recent National Infrastructure Commission report were clear, for example, that a bespoke system of assessments in England could be a problem for business.

However, if the Government are determined to tidy up this instance of duplication, I hope my noble friend will find my amendment a helpful and simple solution. It would ensure that environmental outcomes report regulations can replace habitats regulations requirements only if they are functionally the same. This would take away any risk that a future Government would weaken these essential environmental laws, while clarifying the Government’s intention to reduce duplication. I hope my noble friend will agree to this simple solution.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 3:45, 18 May 2023

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and I am sure the entire Committee will join me in saying that we are delighted to have him back with us. I also commend the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for the huge amount of work that has gone into this. So much is having to be filled in from the Opposition Benches and indeed the Back Benches on the other side, because this is such a skeleton Bill.

We have not only a shortage of birds, mammals and insects, but we are running into a shortage of Henry VIII metaphors. We have Henry VIII on steroids with rockets strapped to his boots—I have run out of additions to that one. The Bill as before us now would put into law an extreme right to Ministers to do whatever they would like. It is interesting to be having this debate in the context of the just-completed Report of the retained EU law Bill, because then your Lordships’ House expressed very clearly a desire to see non-regression in environmental regulations, but we need amendments such as these to the Bill to deliver the will that the House has expressed.

This group also made me think of debate on the economic crime Bill, where we were recently discussing the issue of freeports. There is a great deal of fear and concern in the community that these are places of open slather, where businesses will be allowed to do whatever they like and destroy whatever they like, where all the rules are taken away. As the Bill is written, that is what environmental outcome reports will effectively be doing: taking away EU-derived protections and leaving nothing written down in their place.

I will not run through it in detail, but if any noble Lords have not seen it, I point them to Wildlife and Countryside Link’s excellent report going line by line through a number of the amendments and explaining their importance. I pick out a couple of points. Amendment 372 concerns the climate. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, we are in a climate emergency, and how can that be missing from this crucial Bill? We are supposed to be talking about a levelling-up Bill. These changes to environmental protection around the country seems a long way from levelling up, but that is where we are. If we think about the protection of nature and the impact of the lack of nature on public health, people’s well-being and communities, it is of particular interest to communities generally seen to be in need of levelling-up support.

I particularly pick up one element of Clause 141: the fact that it destroys the mitigation hierarchy. The environmental mitigation hierarchy starts with “avoid”: do not trash things in the first place. We are one of the most nature-deprived corners of this battered planet and should be absolutely avoiding environmental damage. At the moment, we are doing the opposite. I think of how often my social media feed and my email queue are full of desperate people saying, “How can we be cutting down this ancient tree to build one house?” or, “How can we be destroying this hedge when, with a bit of initiative and creativity, we could leave the hedge and build some houses as well?” There is so much we are not doing, and the way the Bill is written allows open slather to that.

I just note one point on Amendment 388, which introduces a super-affirmative procedure for regulations. It is an inadequate backstop: it is a backstop, but not nearly good enough. We need to write the essential protections into the Bill. That would mean that the Committee is following the desire that the House expressed at Report on the retained EU law Bill.

Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Conservative

My Lords, I will speak to three amendments in my name in this group: Amendments 378A, 378B and 386A. They are designed to try to ensure that this part of the Bill works effectively, and I hope will be regarded as helpful by my noble friend on the Front Bench. Not everything I have had to say has always been helpful, but I hope this is—it is all intended to be helpful, of course.

I remind the Committee of my registered interest as chair of the Cambridgeshire Development Forum. In that context, members of the forum from BDB Pitmans helped me with the construction of these amendments. Amendment 378A relates to Clause 142(3), which provides for informing the public and for “adequate public engagement” to take place in relation to the exercise of functions under this part. The effect of this new provision could be to extend public consultation requirements to the exercise of permitted development rights, because of the use of “proposed relative consent”. These are consents.

The present situation does not require such consents to be the subject of such a consultation requirement. In the legislation as it stands, adequate public engagement does not imply no public engagement. This would therefore increase the burdens on utilities, for example, in exercising a consent for a permitted development right in relation to telecommunications, highways, rail, et cetera. Amendment 378A would enable the Secretary of State to disapply the requirement where it would impose a disproportionate burden on development. Alternatively, page 174 mentions

“proposed relevant consent or proposed relevant plan” in relation to “adequate public engagement”. If “proposed relevant consent” was replaced with “EOR regulations”, it would serve the purpose perfectly well, and save the problem that might otherwise arise.

Amendment 378B relates to Clause 142(1) on non-regression. It is a pleasure to welcome back to his place my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge. We have heard from him about the

“overall level of environmental protection”.

This is defined by reference to the European Union law when this Act is passed. My Amendment 378B would enable the Secretary of State to take into account, in exercising this responsibility to maintain the level of environmental protection, any urgent need for energy resilience. It is worth remembering that Section 20 of the Environment Act 2021 provides for environmental legislation to be introduced with a statement that

“will not have the effect of reducing the level of environmental protection provided for by any existing environmental law”.

There is then in that section a statutory provision enabling the Secretary of State to make

“provision that is different from existing environmental law” and

“might provide for the same or a greater level of environmental protection”.

Why then is there no equivalent provision in relation here to the making of EOR regulations? The inflexibility of this provision is particularly illustrated by the prospect in the European Union of the introduction of a streamlined environmental assessment process for low-carbon technologies. I have reflected this in the phrase

“urgent need for energy resilience”.

This would enable Ministers to take account of such a process to advance low-carbon technologies and not be tied specifically to a level of environmental protection defined by current environmental law. I encourage my noble friend to consider either my amendment or something similar to the provision in Section 20 of the Environment Act 2021.

Amendment 386A refers to Clause 150, which makes the consequential amendments to this part. It is about the proposed repeal of Section 71 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which is what provides for environmental assessments. As it stands, that section will be repealed two months after this Bill passes into law. Existing environmental impact assessment regulations will then subsist from that moment until such time as the EOR regulations can be made, following the entry into force of those regulations.

But how long is the gap? How long will it be between this Act coming into force and the making of the EOR regulations? It could easily be well over a year and possibly two. For the greater part of that period, no power would remain to amend the environmental impact assessment regulations, pending the environmental outcomes reports regime. The EOR power is not able to amend the EIA regime until that stage.

My Amendment 386A would link the repeal of Section 71 of the TCPA 1990 to the first making of EOR regulations. That would therefore enable the current regime to be amended, if need be, before the point at which the EOR regulations first used create a new power that would be able to amend the existing EIA regulations or introduce EOR regulations. I commend those amendments to my noble friend.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat 4:00, 18 May 2023

My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment 372A in this group. Previous speakers have invested a huge amount of time in devising alternatives and improvements to the existing legislation, and I support their efforts very much. My amendment is much more basic and straightforward, and based less on research and more on intuition. It says that no new standards should be set lower than those in force at the time that the Bill comes into law. It is just a very basic, no-steps-backward amendment.

I am well aware that Clause 142 is, at least in essence, saying the same thing, except that it has a get-out clause, which has already been spoken to. It balances one sort of harm offset by another sort of good, all to be decided by a Secretary of State. That is not a no-steps-backward provision at all.

This kind of issue, the discretion being given to Secretaries of State, has come up on several previous days. We have had many earnest assurances from noble Lords on the Front Bench that there is every intention of maintaining, indeed increasing, the level of protection. It was said just this morning in relation to council houses; we are going to have more social provision, not less, as a result of the changes, and we are to trust them. Well, I am sorry to tell noble Lords that there is still a degree of uncertainty in the minds of many of us about how those promises will be delivered.

I have to say that Conservative Governments have proved quite transient things. We have had four Secretaries of State since this time last year and at least three fundamentally different approaches to housing targets and the levelling-up Bill. At least one key feature of the levelling-up mechanism set out in the White Paper was scrapped only this week—the regional levelling-up director posts—at, apparently, a saving of £144,000 a year for each of them.

There is a right royal battle under way, on and off stage, among senior Conservatives, aimed at setting our country free of all the enveloping red tape that stifles innovation and money-making. That is a paraphrase, but I hope not an unfair one. Mr Rees-Mogg, Mr Redwood and the Home Secretary are all hoping for a return to one or other of the alternative models of levelling up that Conservative Governments have played with over the last 12 months. Those versions have had lots and lots of levelling up, none at all or several mixtures in between.

So I ask noble Lords and the Front Bench Ministers opposite: what is the future of environmental outcomes reports? What guarantee is there that standards will not be allowed to drop, or perhaps even required to drop, in future, as red tape is cut and industry set free to make money and innovate? The current safeguarding guarantees are time-limited, fundamentally, to the assurances given by Ministers in Hansard. Based on the last 12 months, that level of protection is somewhat transient, and Clause 142 has its own get-out, as has already been pointed out.

If you look out of the window and see big clouds rolling in, you know that it is sensible to take your umbrella with you when you go out. That is common sense, not paranoia. If you look out the window and see big blue clouds rolling in from Bournemouth, or this weekend from Westminster, it makes even more sense to have your umbrella with you. My Amendment 372A is that umbrella. Yes, I want to see the other amendments in this group adopted, but surely we have to secure in the Bill the standards that we already have. That is why I have tabled Amendment 372A.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Conservative

My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment, which has been coupled with this group. We are now moving on to Part 6 of the Bill, which involves Scotland. We have heard about all these doubts and areas that need to be cleared up, which are even more worrying for devolved Administrations.

My amendment is to Clause 143, “Requirements to consult devolved administrations”. I declare my family’s interest, as noted in the register, in that we own land in Scotland. We are fortunate; it is not a big area in Scottish terms, but it includes part of a national park, a nature reserve, a site of special scientific interest and special protection areas. As the Minister pointed out in an earlier debate, this is the section of the Bill that is most likely to affect devolved competencies. There can be no doubt that the Bill is causing much concern in the UK’s devolved Administrations, and we have just been hearing about the extent of the existing Henry VIII powers. Anyone who has spent any time in this Chamber knows that we are allergic to Henry VIII powers, and I hope that my noble friend can assuage us on the extent to which they will be included.

In the earlier debate on Clause 83, my noble friend rejected my proposed amendment. That issue only involved powers regarding planning data. Clause 143, as drafted, is a mirror of that text:

“The Secretary of State may only make EOR regulations which contain provision within Scottish devolved competence after consulting the Scottish Ministers”.

My Amendment 382 provides that, following the consultation, the Secretary of State must report the outcome and provide reasons. This is surely a necessary step for transparency and to maintain the trust between the parties on an ongoing basis. Consultation implies that all will put their cards on the table; agreement, as we all know, is harder to achieve. My noble friend may like to say that we would carry out these steps anyway. This amendment as drafted does not give any more power to devolved Assemblies but just gives them the comfort of knowing exactly where they stand.

It was further encouraging to hear my noble friend say, in his reply to an earlier debate, that

“the Government are continuing to work with the devolved Administrations to understand whether there is scope to extend the EOR powers to provide a shared framework of powers across the UK. Once those discussions have concluded, the Government will bring forward any necessary amendments to both Part 6 and Official Report, 22/3/23; col. 1803.]

A shared framework of powers is precisely what this amendment is aiming to achieve. There is always the danger that, without achieving this framework, and with one party withholding consent, the outcome might go against any changes at all.

The Scottish Parliament’s legislative consent Motion for this measure was tabled on 27 July 2022. As I mentioned before, the main one of the three committees to give it consideration was the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee. In its report, brought out on 22 December, it could see some elements of the Bill that it welcomed. But, after taking evidence, it concluded that:

“Environmental Outcome Reports would lead to a significant change to environmental assessment in Scotland. However, the UK Government has not provided sufficient clarity around how they will operate in practice.”

Similar concerns were also highlighted by both the other committees in the Scottish Parliament. After consideration, all were still not prepared to grant approval.

The Government have introduced quite a raft of amendments to the Bill already. It would be interesting to know whether some of these are the fruits of their intergovernmental discussions, but we are still a long way short of achieving an agreed framework. Can my noble friend say whether that is still their aim?

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment 384, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and to which I, like the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Willis of Summertown, have added my name. It is a pleasure to see the noble Lord in his place once again. He has set out his case for this amendment extremely well, as always.

Environmental outcome reports are key to monitoring our environment and the effect that we, the population, are having on it. We have had debates during the passage of the REUL Bill on the habitats regulations and the importance of ensuring that the regulations surrounding habitats are protected and would not run foul of the sunset clause on 23 December 2023, which has now, mercifully, been removed.

Habitats regulations are the strongest in our planning system, precluding nearly all development that could harm a site protected by the habitats regulation. EOR requirements, the detail of which will be set only by secondary legislation, could be weaker. Therefore, the habitats regulation requirements could be swapped out for weaker EOR actions.

Clause 149 deals with the interaction of the EORs and the habitats regulations, and Amendment 384 would insert at line 6 of page 178 the words:

“Where any requirements made by EOR regulations and environmental outcomes (specified or otherwise) deriving from those requirements are the same as those for existing environmental assessment legislation or the Habitats Regulations”.

This would provide certainty that the interaction between the EORs and the habitats regulations are dovetailed together, ensuring that there are no gaps. It would also ensure that, where there is the possibility of duplication and overlap, this is addressed.

We have heard a great deal about environmental regression in the Chamber over the last few weeks. The Minister will therefore be aware that this issue is causing concern among your Lordships. This amendment seeks to prevent this from happening. I hope she will agree.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 4:15, 18 May 2023

My Lords, having listened with care to what has been said on these amendments on this important part of the Bill, I will make a couple of comments.

I listened with care to what my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge said on habitats. These are hugely important areas. There are two points that I hope my noble friend on the Front Bench will take into consideration. The first is that land varies very quickly, within a matter of feet in some instances. Although one wants the designation, one also wants the flexibility within that designation to get different solutions where things, and farmers, are slightly different. That flexibility within the overall framework is terribly important.

There is one aspect of the habitats directive that I hope my noble friend will look at in particular. Under the directive as it stands, no experimentation can take place within that area. On upland heather, it is hugely important that we do experiments, strictly controlled, in order to determine which is the best way of managing that fuel load. If we cannot do that within an area subject to the habitats directive—the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust has had an application to do an experiment turned down by Natural England because the habitats directive will not allow it—we are putting at risk areas within that directive and the wildlife within them. I hope my noble friend will look at that in particular.

I support the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, on her Amendment 374, but I would wish to make one small alteration to it, if my noble friend were to accept it: it should be “scientific data”, not just “data”. That is hugely important.

I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, will agree with me on this next point. The definition of environmental protection relates to the level of activity, but what about the level of inactivity? The noble Baroness spoke at length recently, and quite correctly, about flooding, and I spoke about wildfires. Both of those can be caused as much by activity as inactivity, so could my noble friend tell me whether, within her definition, action can be taken where there is no activity, because that also puts wildlife and habitats at threat? I hope my noble friend can answer me on those points.

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their thoughtful consideration and hope that, in addressing the points raised, I can demonstrate how the new system of environmental outcomes reports offers a real opportunity to protect the environment.

On Amendment 367, I welcome the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for the setting of outcomes, but the proposed amendment would have unfortunate consequences. Changing a discretionary power to specify environmental outcomes in regulations to a mandatory requirement would require each regime to set environmental outcomes for every element of the definition of environmental protection.

Perhaps I should add a bit of detail as to how the outcomes will be set. The Government have committed to public consultation to ensure that the public and stakeholders have the opportunity to shape them. Regulations specifying environmental outcomes pursuant to Clause 138 will also be subject to parliamentary debate and scrutiny via the affirmative procedure. We will work across government and with key stakeholders to develop our outcomes, which will cover a range of environmental issues. In addition to the commitments in the 25-year environment plan, other strategies will be considered—for example, the clean air strategy, the UK marine strategy and the Government’s wider environmental targets.

We want to make sure that outcomes are deliverable by developing comprehensive guidance to demonstrate how plans and projects are contributing to the delivery of outcomes. As the current legislation covers a range of assessments with different environmental contexts, it would not be appropriate to require regimes to set outcomes for every area in the definition as not all would be applicable.

Amendment 368 seeks to include social outcomes as part of the EOR framework. As noble Lords will be aware, environmental assessment was originally established to provide an additional level of scrutiny to environmental concerns, which were often overlooked in decision-making on development. This need is greater now than ever before. It is important to remember that EORs sit within wider planning and consenting systems, which include extensive democratic processes, where social considerations are already well represented. Our current consultation includes questions on the role of EORs in considering impacts on local people.

Amendments 368A, 369A, 370 and 371 relate to the definitions of environmental protection and the natural environment. The Government are clear that the definitions in Clause 138, which draw on the definitions in the Environment Act 2021, will allow the Government to consider all matters considered in the existing assessment processes and are capable of capturing the substance of the proposed amendments. For Amendment 368A, the existing definitions already include cultural heritage. For Amendments 369A and 370, the definition of environmental protection includes “protection of people”, which would allow the Secretary of State to consider health-related matters.

Amendments 369A and 372 seek to include climate change in the definition. We are absolutely not relaxed about climate change. Our consultation sets out the challenges of addressing climate change through assessments, and reforming environmental assessment provides us with the unique opportunity to go further for the environment. These reforms allow us to consider the role that environmental assessment should play in addressing crucial issues such as climate change and the challenges of transitioning to net zero. Under the current system, these matters are often dealt with in a reactive, inconsistent and ineffective manner, generating paperwork but not the change we need to see. Additionally, climate change is not a single issue but a network of interconnected considerations. Subsection (3)(c) already includes

“natural systems, cycles and processes” to ensure that matters such as climate change can be addressed. Many of the indicators to be used in the assessment will also relate to climate change.

Amendment 371 seeks to specify protected sites in the definitions. We are confident the definitions are sufficient to ensure that protected sites will form part of the new system.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, for tabling Amendment 375, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for Amendment 369 on the mitigation hierarchy. For the first time, we have legislated to include the mitigation hierarchy in law. We have brought forward an amendment to bring the hierarchy more in line with current practice.

On Amendment 372A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and Amendment 377 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, we recognise the need to maintain the highest environmental standards, which is why we included a clause setting out our commitment to non-regression. The drafting of Clause 142(1) mirrors the provisions of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement to ensure that we abide by our previous commitments. We have also included significant duties to consult and given Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise regulations through the affirmative procedure. The Bill requires public consultation and regard to the environmental improvement plan when setting environmental outcomes. They will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny via the affirmative procedure and to our overarching commitment to non-regression, so I hope that my noble friend the Duke of Montrose’s concerns are assuaged.

Amendment 373, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, seeks to link EORs to baseline studies. Baseline studies will remain a key means of measuring the effect of development on the environment. Given recent catastrophes, such as bird flu, we intend to modernise the process to meet the challenges of the 21st century. For this reason, we wish to preserve flexibility in how we shape assessment. We will work with experts to agree methodologies and set these out in regulations and guidance.

Amendment 374, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, would limit the power to make regulations on certain processes as these would need to be linked to “available” data. It would also limit the power to make regulations about the gathering of necessary data. This would be contrary to our commitment to non-regression in Clause 142.

On Amendment 378, the 17 UN sustainable development goals are crucially important. However, as the noble Baroness will be aware, the purpose of environmental assessment is to ensure that environmental issues are not overlooked in favour of the social and economic drivers of development activity. We feel it is important to maintain that focus to ensure that environmental issues are not sidelined exactly when they need our attention most.

Amendments 378A and 378B, proposed by my helpful noble friend Lord Lansley, seek to build greater flexibility into the new system. I reassure him that we intend the EOR process to be as streamlined as possible so that it is useful in informing decision-making. Although we indeed recognise the importance of energy security and resilience, it is vital that we fulfil our commitment to non-regression.

On Amendments 379 to 381, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, and Amendment 382 from my noble friend the Duke of Montrose, which mirrors the position in Amendment 181, I assure noble Lords that, in bringing forward environmental outcome reports, the Government are committed to respecting the devolution settlements. We are in discussions with the devolved Governments on how these powers should operate, including extending them to provide a shared framework across the UK. Interoperability between different regimes and competences will be fundamental as we develop our regulations.

On Amendment 383 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, I can confirm that greater accessibility is at the centre of our reform agenda. We want to ensure that everyone is better able to use these reports to understand the impact of development on the environment, including decision-makers. The Government will develop prototypes and templates to make sure that the reporting process is more accessible. These will be tested as part of our commitment to user-centred design.

I thank my noble friend Lord Randall and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for tabling Amendments 384 and 385, which allow me to address concerns about how these powers relate to the habitats regulations. The intention of Clause 149 is to ensure that as we transition from EIAs to EORs, projects are not required to meet the requirements of both the old and the reformed systems. I recognise that the drafting of this section has left certain Members with concerns that the powers could be used to remove the protections of the habitats regulations. To reassure on this point, use of the powers in Clause 149 must be in line with our commitment to non-regression. I hope that this provides some reassurance. They could not be used in a way that reduced the overall level of environmental protection. As we bring forward regulations to implement the new system, it is important that the equivalent legislation for the old system cease to apply and be properly removed from the statute book. Clause 149 provides the necessary powers, meaning the new system will replace the old system and operate effectively.

Turning to Amendment 386A in the name of my noble friend Lord Lansley, in principle we agree that it is wise to retain the ability to amend the existing system. However, it would not allow changes to the numerous EIA regimes that EOR will replace, nor would it allow changes to be made to the strategic environmental assessment regulations. It is unnecessary to keep this power as we have no plans to make any amendments to the EIA regime ahead of EOR implementation, which will be brought forward as soon as possible. It would also not be appropriate to retain the power to amend TCPA EIA regulations when we would not be able to do so for the other EIA regimes or for the regulations for strategic level assessments.

Turning to Amendments 388 and 389 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, the Government have made broad use of the affirmative procedure and have included a number of duties to consult on future EOR regulations. For these reasons, the Government do not feel that the super-affirmative procedure is necessary.

Lastly, my noble friend Lord Caithness made the point that no experimentation should take place within the area of a habitats directive. It is a good point, but I shall need to consult Defra in order to give him a proper response. Similarly, on any other points made by noble Lords that I have not addressed, I will look through Hansard and provide a full response in writing.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:30, 18 May 2023

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her thorough and detailed response. I also thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and those who expressed support for my amendments and what I am trying to achieve with them. It is good to see the noble Lord, Lord Randall, back in his place; we wish him well.

The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, asked whether I agree with him on inaction and action. I absolutely agree.

My amendments are designed to ensure high standards and protection, including of the climate. If the Government are not relaxed about climate change, as the Minister said, I do not understand why this is not part of the Bill and cannot be included. Having said that, my main concern is the Henry VIII powers the Bill confers. We will read Hansard and consider whether we want to return to this issue. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 367 withdrawn.

Amendments 368 to 372 not moved.