What does the shrinking number of environmental statements signify?

In recent years, there has been a marked decline in the number of environmental statements, which under the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regime are required for developments likely to have a significant environmental impact, received by local planning authorities.

The number of statements submitted to councils has been going on for some time. Photograph: ewg3D/Getty Images

Data published by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government shows that in the 2018/19 financial year authorities received 383 environmental statements – a fall of 8% on 2017/18 when they received 416 statements. Looking further back, it is clear that the fall in the number of statements submitted to councils has been going on for some time. In 2016/17, 430 statements were received, in 2015/16 440, in 2014/15 501. 

The greatest fall in percentage terms in the last five years was seen between 2014/15 and 2015/16, when a decline of 12.2% was recorded. And that, said Emma Tattersdill, environmental partner at law firm Freeths, should come as no surprise. She points out that changes to the regulations in April 2015 meant that the size of development required to trigger a statement increased dramatically.

“[The decline] is likely to be attributable to an increase in the thresholds for screening Schedule 2 developments – particularly ‘urban development projects’,” said Tattersdill. “Significantly, the threshold for screening housing development projects was increased from a development area of 0.5 hectares to developments of 5ha, or more than 150 units.”

Further changes to the EIA regulations were made in 2017. For instance, the amended regulations made it clear that additional information needed to be submitted at the screening stage, including a description of “the physical characteristics of the development and any demolition works, the location of the development and environmental sensitivity of the affected areas and the environmental aspects that are likely to be affected by the development,” according to Burgess Salmon partner Elizabeth Dunn.

However, Tattersdill does not believe that the 2017 changes will have made much of a difference to the number of environmental statements received by planning authorities. “While these changes have certainly affected the content of environmental statements and scoping reports, they are less likely to have affected the number of environmental statements submitted,” she said. “I would expect the more recent reductions to result from, for example, economic factors rather than changes in EIA legislation.”

Josh Fothergill, founder and director at Fothergill Training & Consulting, agreed, although he added that interpreting the data isn’t easy.  “[The decline] will be due to many different factors as the data runs across 250-plus separate local authorities and over 12 different sectors of the economy, from housing, and energy to mining, waste and sport stadia,” he said.

Overall, however, Fothergill believes that the downturn in developer confidence in the last three years is probably the reason for the fall in the number of statements submitted. “I seem to remember a similar decline in the couple of years up to 2008 crash, which then saw a big drop off in environmental statements submitted for a few years and then recovery,” he said. 

“I am not saying environmental statement figures predict recessions; just that by their nature they demonstrate the scale of investment in bigger planning applications per year. Concerns over investment and future direction of the UK economy have been abound the last few years and as investor confidence falls, they are less likely to commit to pre-application preparation activities that carry irrecoverable costs.”

Fothergill also pointed to other factors that may have played a role in the decline. For instance, the establishment of the development consent order (DCO) regime in 2008 redirected environmental statements for nationally significant infrastructure projects from planning authorities to the Planning Inspectorate by establishing an alternative route to gaining planning permission.

Of course, the set up of the DCO regime wouldn’t have had an impact on the environmental statement numbers in the last five years, but changes in 2016 that allowed some housing developments to gain permission via DCO could. “The message is a decline in environmental statements in English planning could, in part, be due to diverting some development to other consent regimes,” says Fothergill. 

Finally, it is also possible that better use of strategic environmental assessments (SEAs) by planning authorities has also had an impact. Based on an EU directive, SEAs came into effect in 2004/05 and are intended to ensure that environmental factors are considered effectively in policy, plan and program making. It is possible that in recent years they have been bedding in and leading to better site allocations in local plans from an environmental perspective.

“The idea [is that] housing and industry sites are better located in plan-making and stakeholder issues are discussed and managed earlier so as to avoid sites that carry as much risk to the types of issue an [environmental statement] looks at,” says Fothergill. “SEA came into effect in 2004/5, but there has been much rejigging of local authority land use plan-making since then.”