Last week the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities released its consultation on proposed changes to the Environmental Impact Assessment (‘EIA’) Regulations, with the intention of introducing a new system called Environmental Outcomes Reports (‘EORs’).
It’s long been accepted that the current EIA Regulations have created a system that’s complex and bloated. A development that requires EIA can potentially add months to the pre-application stage, and is increasingly seen as a barrier within the planning process.
Under the proposed new system, developers would be required to prepare an EOR to assess environmental impacts, with a focus on how developments can achieve data driven environmental outcomes, set at a ‘high level to reflect the government’s environmental ambitions’.
The consultation identifies that it will be a challenge to measure how a development contributes to the delivery of an outcome using national indicator sets. Assessing the likely environmental impacts of a proposed development should be seen as a tool to aid the design process and minimise any adverse effects, however, the details on whether EORs will move away from this, to focus on national outcomes, remains to be seen.
Some of the proposed changes are likely to have a significant impact (pun intended…) on the planning system.
The links between the planning process and mitigation of environmental effects are well established, with identified measures in an EIA translated into planning conditions and obligations. Guidance on monitoring however has never been fully established, and can often be an afterthought. The consultation for EORs seeks to strengthen monitoring requirements, and it will be interesting to see how this is incorporated into the planning system.
More prescriptive screening thresholds are proposed in the consultation. This is welcome in principle, as the current process for determining EIA development leaves considerable opportunity for interpretation by the decision maker, leading to inconsistencies in application.
Alongside these changes are a renewed emphasis on assessing alternatives and aligning single-project environmental assessments with strategic plan-making. The consultation acknowledges that proposed changes will place additional resource pressures on decision-makers, and it remains to be seen how the government can support local authorities and stakeholders in this area.
The consultation fairly identifies issues within the current EIA process that need to be addressed, however it is clear that the consequences of these on the planning system will need to be carefully managed. Whilst it may achieve its aim in the short term of simplifying the process and reducing developer costs, it remains to be seen how the planning system copes with the changes, and potentially starting over on 30 years of case law and precedent.
If you have any questions on the consultation, or require any EIA assistance, please do contact the Iceni Impact Management Team.