Amendment 100

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Report (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 18 July 2023.

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock:

Moved by Baroness Hayman of Ullock

100: Clause 143, page 171, line 37, leave out “may” and insert “must”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment will ensure that climate and other key environmental considerations, including improving 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, this group is made up of four amendments in my name. They are designed to ensure that climate and other key environmental considerations are included in the new environmental outcomes reports, the details of which will be set out in secondary legislation, as we have heard; and to probe whether the EORs will support the UN’s sustainable development goals. I would be grateful if the Minister could shed some light on these matters in her response.

My Amendment 106 specifically asks that the new system

“does not weaken existing environmental protections”; in other words, it is an amendment to ensure non-regression. Environmental assessments play an important role in limiting nature and climate harms from planning decisions. Such an extensive series of changes to environmental assessments, delivered largely through regulations, could, we believe, open the door to environmental regression that has limited parliamentary scrutiny. Concerns to this effect have been expressed by the Office for Environmental Protection and a number of environmental NGOs.

Unfortunately, the one safeguard in this part of the Bill fails to address the regression risk. Clause 147 states:

“The Secretary of State may make EOR regulations only if satisfied that” the

“overall level of environmental protection” will not be less than before. The stipulation overall undermines the utility of this safeguard as the effect is to allow the Secretary of State to weaken individual existing protections as long as they consider this to be balanced out elsewhere in order to maintain overall levels.

We discussed this issue at some length in Committee, so I will not go into detail on the risks that we believe this approach carries. However, it remains unclear why this low-bar test for new regulations has been chosen over the higher bar provided by the Environment Act, Section 20 of which requires Ministers to state that new legislation will not reduce the level of environmental protection provided for by any existing environmental law. My amendment would apply this recent and relevant non-regression precedent to EOR regulations, thereby ensuring that environmental protection is not weakened through the introduction of the new EOR regime by specifying that the Secretary of State should demonstrate that EOR regulations would not diminish any individual environmental protection applying at the time that the Bill passes. This would have the effect of aligning Clause 147 with the Environment Act and the Government’s own commitment, as stated in Committee, to use the EOR regime as an

“opportunity to protect the environment”.—[Official Report, 18/5/23; col. 444.]

I urge the Minister to consider accepting my amendment as the provision of a robust non-regression clause is the minimum required to ensure that the proposed EOR regime does not harm the environment.

A series of government amendments on Report—including Amendments 133 and 138, which we have debated today—seek to define more closely the environmental protections that would be subject to the new EOR powers. However, this listing exercise provides little to no assurance that environmental regression will not take place. We believe that the threat of environmental regression is significant. In its response just last month, in June, to the Government’s EOR consultation, the Office for Environmental Protection observed that

“there are risks associated with a move from well-established regimes when so much rides on effective delivery over the next few years (and beyond)”.

To address these risks, Clause 147 needs to be strengthened and non-regression assured before the EOR regime is introduced. My amendments would achieve this. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

My Lords, I support Amendment 106 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman.

I have been a great fan of the habitats regulations over the years; I was part of the movement that helped shape them and they have done some pretty sterling work for us, both here in this country as well as across Europe. They have one major feature at the moment: they are understood by both the development community and the environmental movement. There is a shedload of case law that surrounds them, enabling people to understand quite considerably and in detail how they operate. However, I accept that we move on; that is Brexit for you.

The regulations are now being replaced in what I regard as a rather piecemeal fashion but, nevertheless, that is what we have got. So we must make sure that all the building blocks that are being put in place to replace the habitats regulations are going to work properly; and this block, reflected in Amendment 106, is an important one. This is a risky time to be meddling with environmental assessment regimes, when we are at a crisis stage on the climate and biodiversity—but we are where we are, so let us have a look at how we can make this better.

I honestly believe that Clause 147 does not really do the job that it attempts: providing safeguards so that the EOR regulations do not result in regression from the current level of environmental protection. It uses the words

“overall level of environmental protection”.

For me, “overall” means “on the one hand, on the other hand”; it means trade-offs. We all know that trade-offs notoriously diminish levels of protection and often promise jam tomorrow that never materialises, so I am deeply suspicious of anything that looks at overall levels of environmental protection when we are in fact assessing a mechanism that will look at specific cases over time. I believe that Amendment 106 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, would provide a much more robust assurance and non-regression test by taking “overall” out of the equation, so I hope that the House will support the noble Baroness’s amendments.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government) 6:45, 18 July 2023

My Lords, this is an important set of amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock. They seek assurances from the Government that the replacement for the existing environmental tests for development—environmental outcomes reports—will be as robust as the ones they will replace.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, made a powerful case for a non-regression clause with her Amendment 106. Recently, there has been a lot of debate about this and pressure from those who want to point the finger of responsibility at the planning system for failing to produce the right number and quality of homes that are desperately needed in this country. When they do so, they point out the additional responsibilities of developers to adhere to environmental responsibilities and regulations, which are causing the difficulties they express. Of course, it is never as easy as that.

It seems to me that, after many years, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said, we have a much better balance now between development and protection of the environment in which developments are set. There are responsibilities that developers have to take up in order to make sure that they construct and do not destroy; to make sure that they create communities that sit well in their environment; and to make sure that nature and the environment are looked after for existing and future generations. So the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has made important points here; I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively to them, because they are important. I guess that they will be raised again later on in our debates on Report.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

My Lords, Amendments 100 and 101 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, would require that all regulations made under Part 6 specify environmental outcomes, whether or not they actually relate to the outcomes themselves. This would place a significant burden on subsequent regulations and would require outcomes across every process element, even where not relevant—for example, on regulations related to enforcement, exemptions and guidance.

We recognise that framing will be critical and recently carried out a consultation on how we can translate the Government’s ambitions into deliverable outcomes, which is surely the key consideration here. The Government have also legislated to ensure additional consultations on future outcomes, as well as adopting the affirmative procedure in Parliament on the associated regulations.

Regarding Amendment 101, the Government have been careful to ensure that the new system is capable of capturing all the current elements of the environmental assessment process. This allows the Secretary of State to consider health matters such as air pollution when setting outcomes. Impacts on human health are covered by “protection of people” in Clause 143(2)(b). When developing secondary legislation, we will consult with stakeholders to ensure that health-related commitments are sufficiently captured.

On Amendment 106, the drafting of Clause 147 mirrors the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement to ensure that, when bringing forward reforms, we live up to our commitment to non-regression. As well as departing from the existing drafting, Amendment 106 would create a rigid approach to non-regression. Removing “overall” from levels of environmental protection would remove the ability to look at the effect of reforms as a whole. When read alongside the commitment to international obligations and expansive duties to consult, we feel that the non-regression clause strikes the right balance to ensure EORs can be an effective tool in managing the environment.

Let me respond to all the noble Baronesses who have spoken by making it clear that, in creating a new system of environmental assessment, it is essential that the standards are kept high. The Government are committed to improving what exists and ensuring that we can deliver on the challenges we face in the 21st century. Focusing on environmental outcomes will allow the Government to set ambitions for plans and developments that build on the Environment Act and other environmental commitments. The legislation is clear that the Government cannot use these powers to reduce the level of environmental protection, and it includes a clause setting out this commitment to non-regression.

On Amendment 107, I have no reservation in saying that the UN sustainable development goals are crucial ambitions. The UK is committed to achieving them by 2030, as affirmed in the international development strategy and integrated review. The expansive nature of these goals is such that it is not possible for the planning and consenting frameworks within which EORs operate to support them all. To require the EOR regime to do so would significantly expand the scope of the assessment beyond the existing legal frameworks of the environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments.

This amendment would exacerbate the biggest issue with the current process, which is a mandatory list of topics that are required to be considered for all assessments, whether relevant or not. Listing matters to be considered in this way has resulted in overly long, complex and inaccessible documents, full of unnecessary material in case an omission invites legal challenge. It would thwart our efforts to make the process more effective, meaningful and manageable.

Environmental assessment was established as a tool to ensure that the environmental impacts of a development were not overlooked in favour of the social and economic priorities that drive development activity. A requirement to support the delivery of all goals would divert attention away from the EOR’s core purpose of providing an additional level of scrutiny of the effects of the development activity on the environment.

I hope this provides the reassurances necessary for the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, to withdraw her Amendment 100 and for the other amendments not to be moved when they are reached.

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 thank the Minister for her response. I have to say that I still have concerns about non-regression. If it works for the Environment Act, I do not understand why it would not work here. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 100 withdrawn.

Amendment 101 not moved.