Ruth Chambers, senior parliamentary affairs associate, at the Green Alliance’s Greener UK Unit, says full judgment has to be reserved for when the Planning Bill’s detail is published. The only key to the government’s direction of thought is the planning white paper, whose promises to streamline the planning system have concerned green groups, although no formal outcomes have yet been published.
Chambers has some immediate concerns. The most serious is that the proposed relaxation of planning laws could undermine environmental protection, making it harder to deliver the Environment Bill in practice. “Planning is one of the most effective ways that we can deliver environmental protection on the ground”.
“If the focus is solely on speed,” asks Martin Baxter, chief policy advisor at the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA), “will there be an appropriate level of assessment for appropriate types of development?”
There is particular concern about the planning white paper’s zoning proposals, which would designate all land as for either ‘growth’ (attracting automatic planning permission) or protection.
Dr Bonnie Holligan, lecturer in property law at the University of Sussex, wants to know how the growth designation fits with the Environment Bill’s requirements for biodiversity net gain as a condition of planning permission. “It is vital that development in growth areas is not exempt from this net gain requirement, and we need to know more about how the environmental integrity of biodiversity assessments can be preserved in areas designated for growth.”
She also questions how “front-loading” environmental assessment in the planning process will allow for reliable application of biodiversity metrics based on high-quality and up-to-date environmental assessments.
Baxter adds that there will be questions about the extent to which there is public participation in decision-making with the planned changes.
Holligan agrees, saying the planning white paper’s “streamlining” proposal could take power away from local planning authorities and communities by, for example, changing the role of local plans in decision-making. “This seems to be pulling in the opposite direction from the proposed clause 95 in the Environment Bill - strengthened duties on public authorities to protect and enhance biodiversity.”
Chambers adds that the white paper promised a follow-on consultation on environmental planning, which was meant to inform any potential changes to environmental impact assessment (EIA) and strategic environmental assessment (SEA). “We haven't seen that yet.”
Paul Miner, head of land use and planning at countryside charity CPRE, says: “We are expecting that the government’s going to merge plan or programme-level SEA with project-level EIA but there’s a real question as to whether in terms of where you allocate land for development you’re going to look for the environmentally least damaging option when you’re doing it - particularly if the [Environment Bill’s] environmental principles have no formal bite in the planning system.”
Chambers is also concerned about the proposed enabling power for the secretary of state to change environmental assessment regulations. “Generally when governments grant themselves broader powers they are really open ended. Even if the intent of this government was positive towards those protections, a really widely scoped power could be misused by future governments.”
On the other hand, says IEMA’s Baxter, the Planning Bill has the potential to help create a more integrated approach to planning and the environment. He notes that the Environment Bill’s legally binding targets will have to be delivered, in part, through the statutory environmental improvement plan that the government must regularly publish. “At the moment, the mechanisms aren’t in place in the Environment Bill to translate all those into on the ground activities.”
Baxter sees an opportunity to link up digital access to data on planning and the environment to make better impact assessments and development decisions, avoid duplication of work and inform post-development monitoring.
Chambers says there are also opportunities to progress some of the Environment Bill’s planning-related measures such as biodiversity net gain and local nature recovery strategies. “Local nature recovery strategies, in particular, don’t really have in the eyes of the Environment Bill an anchored place in the planning system and actually the Planning Bill is really well placed to ensure that they do. To give them more heft in local authority decision-making could only be a good thing.”
Claire Petricca-Riding, head of planning and environmental law at Irwin Mitchell, sees the Planning Bill as a good place to bring the housing and development industries in line with carbon budgets. “I think that the Environment Bill will be tinkered with a little bit more but it’s already huge and at the third reading stage. The planning white paper also touched upon these different elements of green recovery, environmental protection and biodiversity net gain, so potentially what's left out of the Environment Bill will end up being in some form or another in the Planning Bill. And I can imagine in the Planning Bill there will be something about carbon emissions and local plans.”
Earlier this week, the government announced that it intends to amend the Environment Bill to include a species abundance target and that it would consult on what kind of ambition it should set. It will also include a new power to “refocus” the habitats regulations “to ensure our legislation adequately supports our ambitions for nature, including our new world leading targets”, prompting concern from green groups.