The UK government has included proposals in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill Part 5 to change the system of environmental impact assessment (EIA). What are the implications for Scotland?
The proposal is that the Secretary of State will make Regulations to specify outcomes relating to environmental protection – "specified environmental outcomes".
These will protect the natural environment, cultural heritage, and landscape, including maintenance, restoration or enhancement; people will also be protected. EIA presently involves a much more detailed list of issues.
Environmental outcomes reports
The Bill proposes that environmental outcomes reports will replace environmental impact assessment reports (EIAR) for consenting, and strategic environmental assessment (SEA) for plan-making.
These reports will assess the extent to which the proposed consent/ plan is likely to impact on the delivery of specified environmental outcomes. This is a move from focusing on assessing impacts, to reporting on the outcomes of those impacts.
The Bill only contains broad-brush enabling provisions, so it is difficult to deduce the significance of this change: it might be a slight change in emphasis, or a fundamentally different approach. We won't know until the Regulations are published.
The Policy Paper says this "improves the process ..", which suggests building on the existing procedures; it also refers to introducing "a clearer and simpler process"; and "bringing forward a new approach to environmental assessment".
The focus on outcomes may not be a radical change – EIA practitioners may feel that assessments already report on outcomes.
The Secretary of State's power to designate specified environmental outcomes is about "outcomes set by government, rather than in Brussels". It gives an opportunity for a narrower focus than the EIA Regulations, although the Policy Paper says "we want to deliver more, not less, for the environment".
The Bill states that the Secretary of State may only make EOR regulations which contain provision within Scottish devolved competence after consulting the Scottish Ministers (section 121). There are similar provisions for Wales and Northern Ireland.
One assumes the hope is that agreement can be reached with the devolved administrations on a common approach/ system. For example, could all jurisdictions move to the outcomes approach, but with each having different specified environmental outcomes?
While it feels as though we have just got used to referring to "EIAR" instead of "ES", nothing in consenting stands still for long. In a few years time, will we be used to referring to "EOR"?