Government outlines plans to replace ‘over-complicated’ EIA regime

UPDATED: Plans to replace the “inefficient” and “over-complicated” EU-derived environmental impact assessment regime with a new system of environmental outcomes reports have been issued for consultation by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities (DLUHC).

A new housing estate in Hampshire, England (Photo by Chris Gorman/Getty Images)

The government is seeking to use its flagship Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill to bring forward powers to replace the environmental assessment regimes that originate from the EU Environmental Impact Assessment Directive (EIA) and Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes (Strategic Environmental Assessment or SEA) Directive with new domestic processes.

The consultation document says that users of the systems have raised a number of issues with the existing processes of EIA and SEA. The regimes are inefficient, involve duplication, and lead to “risk aversion” and a “loss of focus”, according to the document.

Despite being in operation in the UK since the 1980s, “there remain questions as to how effective these processes have been in managing environmental issues”, the consultation states.

Much of the UK’s wildlife-rich habitat has been lost or degraded and many of our once common species are in long-term decline, the consultation points out. “Our rich cultural heritage and treasured landscape are also under constant threat,” it says. “This is despite efforts to address environmental issues using tools such as environmental assessment.”

According to the consultation document, environmental issues will be placed “at the heart of the reformed system by introducing an outcomes-based approach”. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill has been drafted to allow the secretary of state to set outcomes which a plan or project will have to report against, the consultation document states.

The document proposes the creation of a national indicator set to measure how a development contributes to the delivery of an outcome. “This set will be based on existing indicators as far as possible and will be nationally set and agreed,” according to the consultation. “Indicators will be set out in guidance. However, they will be expected to be applied consistently for all assessments at the plan and project level.”

The consultation also sets out further details of the government’s thinking on when an environmental outcomes report would be required. “Category 1” consents will require an assessment in all circumstances, the consultation states, while “category 2” consents will require an assessment if the criteria set out in the regulations are met.

For Category 2 consents, the document states, the government is exploring “whether we should revisit the current screening criteria and consider whether and how we could better use proximity, or a defined impact pathway, to a sensitive receptor”.

“For example, the potential effects on a particular community or species could be used as the starting point for considering whether an assessment is required, instead of, a simple project size threshold,” the consultation states. “This would place protecting sensitive sites and species at the heart of all screening activity, with the scale of development as the secondary consideration.”

The document states that, “in creating a new system of environmental assessment, it is essential that standards are kept high”. “The government is committed to improving what already exists and ensuring it can deliver on the challenges we face in the 21st century,” the consultation says. The bill will enshrine “the commitment to non-regression in law and ensures that the new system provides as much overall environmental protection as the current system”.

Further, the consultation states that reforming environmental assessment “provides us with the unique opportunity to go further for the environment. Not only will we aim to make best use of the various mechanisms and tools currently in use, but we will use the EORs to amplify government initiatives such as Biodiversity Net Gain and Local Nature Recovery Strategies”.

Last month, the government's ‘action plan’ for the reform of the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) planning regime stated that the new system would be introduced “from 2025”.

The consultation document can be viewed here.