The government has launched its long-awaited 25 Year Environment Plan - 'A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment' (Plan). Angus Evers, Shoosmiths environmental and planning partner, gives his verdict on the comprehensive report.
This report is long overdue, but has required a new focus in the light of Brexit and the realisation that the UK will have greater control over its own environmental policy from 2019. It sits alongside the government's Industrial Strategy and Clean Growth Strategy.
It is not clear what the status of the plan is. It is not a White Paper or Green Paper and is vague in setting out any clear policy proposals. There are no proposals for any new environmental legislation, such as the new Environmental Protection Act recommended by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee. It is more a set of high-level ambitions and aspirations, and we can expect a lot of consultations over the next 12 months.
The plan also looks back at the progress made by the UK over recent decades to improve the quality of the natural environment, for example, improvements in water quality and reductions in emissions of pollutants such as sulphide dioxide and nitrogen oxides. However, it conveniently overlooks the fact that many of these improvements have been driven by EU legislation which, in many cases, the UK opposed.
The plan covers six main areas.
Chapter 1: Using and managing land sustainably
This chapter covers a wide range of topics and the many different types of land use that need to be protected and nurtured. With regard to development and planning, it focuses on the principle of 'net environmental gain' and explains that this means that development should deliver environmental improvements both nationally and locally, which will 'enable housing development without increasing overall burdens on developers'. It is difficult to see how this will be done. The plan refers to establishing strategic, flexible and locally tailored approaches that recognise the relationship between the quality of the environment and development so that measurable improvements to the environment will be achievable while ensuring economic growth and reducing costs, complexity and delays for developers. It is not obvious from this explanation how or why this would lead to reduced burdens for developers, as it suggests that environmental impact considerations would be more important in the decision making process.
The plan also suggests that the existing policy requirement to achieve biodiversity net gains where possible could become a requirement to achieve environmental net gains in all cases. This would enable local authorities to develop locally led strategies, which would create greater certainty and consistency, and avoid increased burdens on developers, leading to a net positive impact on overall development. It also mentions exploring the possibility of stronger standards for green infrastructure and using design to contribute to environmental improvements. Again, however, there is no explanation as to how or why these measures would not increase the burden on developers.
The plan does suggest that the government will work with interested parties to develop and improve existing tools and guidance and to see if existing approaches used in areas such as wildlife could be used for other areas in order to streamline processes. This potential focus on making regulatory systems more efficient may be what the government perceives to be the best route to counterbalance increases in costs for developers arising under other policies. There is also a commitment to explore the use of a tariff system for developer contributions to steer development towards the least environmentally damaging areas.
Changes may be made to the National Planning Policy Framework and Planning Practice Guidance to encourage SuDS and to strengthen the Environment Agency's role in planning consultations relating to flood risk.
Chapter 2: Recovering nature and enhancing the beauty of landscapes
Alongside the publication of a new strategy for nature, one of the main announcements in this chapter is the development of a 'Nature Recovery Network' providing 500,000 hectares of additional wildlife habitat to link existing protected sites and landscapes. There is no explanation of where this land would come from or how it would be funded. It may need to be funded (at least in part) by development and is one of many ambitions set out in the plan which, although environmentally beneficial, would need funding. Further consideration will be given to the Law Commission's report on the role of 'conservation covenants' in securing the long-term delivery of conservation benefits.
The government makes a commitment to reviewing National Parks and AONBs, and looking at the administration of those areas. Exactly what this may mean for the planning system is unclear, but if the boundaries were reviewed or additional areas deemed worthy of designation, then this could result in changes of responsibility for existing areas or the creation of new National Park Authorities. The plan refers to the fact that the last major review of National Parks was 70 years ago.
Chapter 3: Connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing
The plan identifies the link between a healthy natural environment and public health and wellbeing. It proposes drawing up a national framework of green infrastructure standards, ensuring that new developments include accessible green spaces. There is no indication of how this would be implemented, but planning policy would be the obvious route.
Chapter 4: Increasing resource efficiency and reducing pollution and waste
In the days leading up to the launch of the plan, the issue of waste plastics attracted considerable media attention and this chapter focusses strongly on that issue, with a pledge to work towards eliminating all avoidable waste by 2050 and all avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042. 'Avoidable' is defined as 'technically, environmentally and economically practicable' - a term that is well understood in waste policy and legislation. We can also expect a new national Resources and Waste Strategy later this year, together with a call for evidence on how the tax system or charges could reduce the amount of single use plastics waste. The 5p plastic bag charge will be extended to small retailers in England (as it is already in Wales and Scotland).
Air quality receives considerable attention in the plan, with the government committing to meet its legally-binding targets for improvements in air quality. However, this has arguably been prompted by the legal challenges that the government has faced for failing to take action to address air quality issues previously. A new Clean Air Strategy is to be published for consultation this year.
A new Chemicals Strategy will also be published. The way the chemicals industry is regulated post-Brexit is still unclear, with much of the industry wanting to remain within EU regimes much as REACH.
Chapter 5: Securing clean, healthy, productive and biologically diverse seas and oceans
Much of this chapter is devoted to the development of a new fisheries policy to replace the Common Fisheries Policy, but there is also a pledge to consult on a third tranche of Marine Conservation Zones in the first half of 2018, with designations within 12 months of that date.
Chapter 6: Protecting and improving our global environment
This chapter tackles a diverse range of issues including global climate change, wildlife crime and biodiversity. It seems likely that the Climate Change Act 2008 will remain in place.
Other key consultations that we can expect this year are consultations on setting up a new independent body to hold the government to account for upholding environmental standards (a role currently performed by the European Commission) and on the development of a policy statement on environmental principles to underpin environmental policy making post-Brexit.
It is important to note that the plan is generally only relevant to England, as the environment is a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, the government is conscious that this could lead to the creation of new barriers to doing business within the UK if environmental policy were to diverge in the different parts of the UK once the consistency provided by EU rules is lost. The plan states that there will be some areas where common frameworks will be needed, but this may lead to concerns in some of the devolved administrations about devolved powers being clawed back.