Examination of Witnesses

Part of Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:10 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Dr Benwell:

We cannot give a complete view, because so much is proposed to be done in regulations and that itself is a problem. The idea of taking a more outcome-based approach to environmental impact assessments is a good one and there are definitely areas where environmental impact assessment and strategic environmental assessment can be improved. So things like making sure that you get the thresholds right to include all potentially environmentally damaging plans; that could be improved. Things like making scoping decisions mandatory; that could be improved. The problem as we see it with the environmental outcomes proposed in the Bill is that the outcomes set can simply be spliced in in place of existing environmental requirements. We do not know that those will be robust enough.

For example, in the environmental impact assessment process, if anything proposed in a plan or a project is likely to cause significant harm to the environment, there is a duty to avoid, mitigate or compensate for that potential harm. In the new system, if an environmental outcome is set that, for example, talks about a general outcome of improving the abundance of species at the national level, any sort of project that claims to be doing that nationally could ignore local impacts. It could ignore the impacts on particularly important sites and species at the local level. That could be extremely damaging for things like sites of special scientific interest and UNESCO sites, which are afforded their main protection through the planning system and through the EIA and SEA.

I should point out that these clauses will affect not just the EIA and SEA; it is really important to note that the habitats regulations and the habitats regulations assessments are also affected. If you look at clause 127, you will find an extraordinary provision that says that anything done in an environmental outcomes report can be treated as satisfying any existing duties under the habitats regulations assessment process. That process, which is what protects our most internationally important wildlife sites from harm, is even stronger than the EIA and SEA, because under the habitats regulations process, before a site can be affected by a project that causes significant harm on site or by contiguous activities, the developer must prove that mitigation is in place to avoid that significant harm, or that there are imperative overriding public interest reasons to proceed and compensatory measures are in place.

That is a really high legal bar to protect our most important sites and species of international significance. Under the Bill, the Government could put in its place a more parochial and limited environmental outcome, such as saying that the best available technology has been used to reduce water pollution, or that overall national trends will be going in the right direction. That would weaken and undermine the extremely important protection provided by the habitats regulations. You do not often see a clause in a Bill that says that anything in regulations can be treated as satisfying existing legal duties, or indeed that anything in them can amend, replace or repeal any of the most fundamental parts of the habitats regulations that we have come to rely on for decades. The concept is quite good, but the way in which it is being applied brings serious risks of undermining long-standing environmental rules that would potentially create huge uncertainty in the planning system, because developers and conservationists alike have become used to operating under this system.