Amendment bolstering place of Habitats Regulations in EIA overhaul tabled by Labour

Labour has tabled an amendment to the Levelling Up Bill seeking to prevent ministers from replacing the EU-derived Habitats Regulations with their own definition of ‘environmental outcomes’ as part of the overhaul of environmental impact assessments (EIA).

Butterflies. Image: Pixabay Butterflies. Image: Pixabay

The draft Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, currently going through Parliament, proposes a system of environmental outcomes reports (EORs) centred on an outcomes-based approach. The bill would give the secretary of state the power to determine “outcomes relating to environmental protection” and the power to require an EOR for a “proposed relevant consent or a proposed relevant plan”, and states EOR regulations “may amend, repeal or revoke existing environmental assessment legislation”.

This would mean that the environmental effects of an individual project or plan would be assessed against the environmental outcomes determined by the secretary of state, instead of international environmental standards. It has provoked acute concern from green campaigners, with the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL)’s chief executive Richard Benwell having said it amounts to the government giving itself “almost unfettered power” to replace aspects of EIA.

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Today, Labour MP Matthew Pennycook tabled a series of amendments to the Levelling Up Bill on the subject of EORs, including one specifically aimed at seeking to prevent ministers from replacing Habitats Regulations rules with their own ‘environmental outcomes’.

“This amendment would ensure that any specified environmental outcomes arising from EOR regulations made would augment not substitute those arising from existing environmental assessment legislation and the Habitats Regulations,” reads the amendment’s explanatory statement. 

Reacting, Benwell said on Twitter that “this humble looking amendment is an essential one”. 

“We hope green-minded MPs from all parties back this important change, which would ensure our best conservation laws can't be replaced by regulation without proper scrutiny.”

Pennycook has also tabled a number of other amendments concerning EORs, including one that would entirely remove the clause allowing EOR regulations to amend, repeal or revoke existing environmental assessment legislation.

Another tabled amendment would require the secretary of state to ensure that any EOR regulations, which contain provision about what the specified environmental outcomes are to be, are in accordance with the current environmental improvement plan (EIP), biodiversity targets, local nature recovery strategies, and the target to meet net zero by 2050 under the Climate Change Act. A separate amendment to this also seeks to ensure that the new system of environmental assessment “would not reduce existing environmental protections in any way rather than merely maintaining overall existing levels of environmental protection”.  

Another amendment seeks to insert a clause which the explanatory statement says would ensure that the preparation of a baseline study, which sets the context for assessing the environmental effects of a proposed project, “remains a core requirement of producing an EOR”.

Parliament returns from recess next week (5 September), after which the Levelling Up Bill will resume its progress through Committee Stage. 

The amendments proposed by Pennycook will be discussed and voted on by the Levelling Up public bill committee in the coming weeks, which is expected to report to the House of Commons by Tuesday 20 September.