Environmental Outcome Reports
The UK Government is currently working on changing the process of assessing the impact of development on the natural environment. To this end, they plan to introduce a new framework, namely Environmental Outcomes Reports (EORs).
This proposal is set to replace the current system of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), which is hugely expensive and time-consuming for developers and other planning applicants, but typically achieves a good level of environmental protection in the short-to-medium term. In comparison to its predecessor, this new regime is intended to provide a more streamlined method of appraisal with, as the name suggests, a greater emphasis on outcomes.
Currently the effects a new development will have on the environment are considered through two legal mechanisms, EIAs and Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs), both of which were brought into English law through European directives in 1988 and 2004 respectively. Despite their length of service, this bipartite regime has faced criticism for being unnecessarily complicated and administratively burdensome on developers. These inefficiencies were one of the reasons put forward in the Government's consultation report to justify the implementation of the EORs model. On 11 May 2023 when the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) was enacted into law, the Secretary of State was granted the power to draft the EORs regulations after the end of the consultation period on the 9 June 2023. Following this, the draft regulations will be subject to further consultation, and it may, therefore, not actually be until 2024 or later that EIAs and SEAs are replaced by EORs. Nevertheless, in expectation of change it is useful to be aware of how EORs are set to operate.
The new regime will require assessments to be carried out against, what is thought will be, 'high-level' outcomes. These outcomes are intended to be standards, which reflect the Government's environmental commitments and goals. The consultation has revealed that whether a required 'outcome' has been attained or not will be determined by reference to a set of 'indicators', which will inform each outcome. Indicators are intended to be nationally set and predicated on available data, for example population levels and physical surveys, should this be possible. Moreover, the Government has advised that indicators are to be, amongst other criteria, evidence based, replicable and proportionate. Accordingly, at its crux, if a EOR is required the framework will mandate consideration of the relevant indicators, which will provide a measure for the anticipated change the development will cause on the environment. The measure arrived at will then be considered against the corresponding outcome. To elucidate this further, the consultation report provides the below example in relation to biodiversity:
Outcome: An increase in the abundance of protected species and supporting habitat.
Indicators: Changes in the status of protected species and supporting habitat across the geographic area.
Changes in the abundance and/or distribution of protected species and supporting habitat in the relevant geography, agreed study area or immediate locality.
In addition to biodiversity, the consultation report provides that air quality, landscape and seascape, geodiversity, noise and vibration, water, waste and cultural heritage will be specific outcomes; though, it is worth noting that this is not an exhaustive list and other outcomes may also be devised. Given that this approach is unified and standardised, it is believed that it will elude the unwieldy nature of the EIA and SEA framework. Therefore, it should be that the time and cost of undertaking an environmental assessment is lessened and that, in turn, will expedite the planning process.
It is not only the method of assessment that the Government is seeking to simplify. The consultation also outlined plans to reform the process of when an environmental assessment is required in the first place and the extent it needs to be, which under the EIA framework are referred to as 'screening' and 'scoping' respectively. For the new regime 'screening' is going to be divided into Category 1 projects, which will always require an EOR, and Category 2 projects, which will sometimes require an EOR. Regarding the latter the criteria for determining if an EOR is needed is still awaited. In respect of 'scoping', the proposal under EORs is for this to be removed entirely and thereby, meaning that all outcomes are to be reported on albeit in a proportionate way. It could be argued, however, that this goes against avowed objective of reducing the administrative burden.
This regime has been designed to make the planning process more efficient and less expensive for applicants, but at what cost to the environment? The answer to this question will only become apparent once we have Regulations in force and can see how they are being applied and enforced.
If you would like any advice in relation to EORs or if you would simply like to discuss this topic in more detail, then please get in touch.