Quality Mark: Enabling a natural capital approach in EIA
Peter Traves considers how the current EIA regime may be updated to help achieve a green recovery
Environment Secretary George Eustice recently set out a vision for a green recovery. In this, he makes reference to setting long-term targets for air quality, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency. These relate to the forthcoming requirements of the Environment Bill 2020.
When the Environment Bill is enacted, the government will be required to publish and implement a statutory Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP). This will seek to deliver significant environmental improvements, with a focus on the four priority areas listed above. These have been selected to complement the net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target and the vision presented in the 25 Year Environment Plan.
The EIP will set out the steps that the government intends will improve the environment over a 15-year period. It will have to review the situation every five years and publish a report on progress towards achieving the targets annually.
An Office for Environmental Protection will be established to hold the government to account on progress, and each year will recommend how it could be bettered, to which government must respond.
Within his speech, the Environment Secretary announced that a consultation will take place in the autumn on proposed changes to environmental assessment and mitigation in the planning system. The detail is not yet known, but it is likely that this is part of a move towards enabling a natural capital approach. This considers how environmental assets contribute to the wider aims of society and provides a structured approach to evaluating the trade-offs which might affect the assets. This was set out in guidance issued by the government in January 2020 ‘Enabling a Natural Capital Approach’.
This approach differs from the present EIA regime, which tends to focus on adverse effects and doesn’t have a standardised method to weigh the balance between the various different aspects that are assessed.
Further insight into the direction that the government might be taking is provided in ‘Planning Anew’, a collection of essays published by the Policy Exchange. One of the essays discusses how to update EIAs for the 21st century. It points to the way in which the expanding opportunities of data collection and management might help improve environmental planning and allow for more effective EIAs. Within this, there appears to be a desire to streamline EIA by stripping out aspects that are regarded as aesthetic, so as to focus on the ‘environment’ and make environmental statements shorter.
If this forthcoming refresh of EIA does bring significant changes to the approach currently required by the Town and Country Planning EIA Regulations, it would require a substantial transition period before it came into effect. Whether the government might announce interim measures that it considers would speed the delivery of development remains to be seen. However, it is considered unlikely that circumstances would change for projects already subject to an EIA scoping opinion and progressing towards a planning application.
Peter Traves is an environmental impact assessment coordinator at Savills.
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