Dame Glenys Stacey's speech to the National Infrastructure Planning Association
Dame Glenys Stacey spoke at the National Infrastructure Planning Association's AGM on Tuesday, 6 June.
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak at your event.
I will start, if I may, down in the sewers of London. Those sewers were built to serve a population of 4 million people. The population is now at nine million, and is due to reach 16 million people by 2160.
Those sewers overflow into the River Thames every time it rains. Every time.
The solution to this is the Thames Tideway Tunnel. It is 25 kilometres long and 7.2 metres in diameter. At times when it is operating, it will be completely full of sewage. It is due to be completed in 2025 and is expected to protect the river for at least the next 100 years.
It has not been without controversy – the inevitable debate over immediate and local impact versus the long-time benefit and need.
I was so interested to hear your Chair talk about this project in her evidence to the Lords Built Environment Committee, from the perspective of delivering such a huge infrastructure project and doing all that can be done to mitigate and manage the impacts on the environment and on people living nearby.
As you may be aware, we have an interest in the sewers, with an on-going investigation into the regulation of Combined Sewer Overflows. Staff from the OEP recently visited the Thames Tideway Tunnel to see the project for themselves. I understand that NIPA also recently organised a site visit for some of its members.
That projects stands as a great example of where our interests meet. It is your job to deliver those infrastructure projects that are so important to the future prosperity and security of the country. It is our job to make sure that the laws and regulations in place to protect the environment, which is also crucial to our future prosperity and well-being, work well and are being complied with.
You want to meet your obligations to the environment when delivering these projects. We want to play our part in ensuring the government meets its ambitions for the environment. And it has lofty ambitions – to leave the environment in a better state for future generations.
Development and the environment need not be in conflict.
This is why environmental regulation is not only necessary but desirable.
But for the last two statements to be true, regulation needs to be good regulation, and well implemented.
I was struck when listening to your Chair’s comments to the Lord’s committee, and on reading the National Infrastructure Commissions recent report on planning, that the issues that those of you on your side of the fence, as it were, are concerned about are very similar to the issues that we raise in our work at the OEP.
To summarise my understanding of some of what I have heard, there are calls for greater coherence and clarity over policies and assessment regimes, which can cause delay and frustration. There are calls for better collection, collation and accessibility to environmental data to inform and aid planning and decision making. And there are concerns about shortages of environmental expertise and capacity in the system, particularly within local authorities.
I will take this opportunity now to run through some of the work the OEP is doing that will hopefully provide some reassurance that we are pulling in the same direction.
Environmental Assessment Regimes
We are at an important time for the environmental assessment regimes that are so key to our shared interests.
Government has stated its intention to replace or modify the Habitats Regulations Assessment, Strategic Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Assessment legislation, in its nature recovery green paper from last year and the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which includes provision for new Environmental Outcome Report regulations. I will come back to those in minute, if I may.
Such changes present opportunities to achieve improvements over the current regimes, but there are also risks. Reform must be approached with care, based on proper assessment of its impacts and to ensure that all-important clarity for those who have to operate and implement them.
We have already signalled in evidence to the LURB Committee that we have concerns over how government has assessed the current EIA and SEA legislation and the basis for the proposals. And we have asked for clarity over the level of ambition for the environment built into the proposed new approach – we need commitments to improve the environment, to address the critical negative trends. Maintaining current protections is not enough. Not nearly.
Due to the importance of these regimes we are carrying out a programme of work which aims to get into the detail of them – what is working, what isn’t, - to inform and influence future changes.
First up, in a few days time we will be responding to the consultation on the aforementioned Environmental Outcomes Reports, as I am sure many of you here will be too. In our response, we will talk of the elements needed for an EOR regime to be effective. These include: the need for outcomes and indicators to be underpinned by evidence; an evaluation framework to be in place to measure the new scheme’s effectiveness; and clear and effective guidance, particularly around how existing case law and established practices relate to the new regime.
We will also point out that existing issues of insufficient capability and capacity in the environmental assessments sector will need to be addressed, and the right tools, such as an environmental database and effective IT systems with local planning authorities, will need to be available.
We will publish our full response on our website when it has been submitted, please do take the time to read it if that taster is of interest.
Slightly longer term, we intend to report on the findings of our work on the assessment regimes later this year. There are some emerging themes from this work that I think may resonate with this audience and your experiences.
The first theme is around the need for improved skills, information and capacity. Research has identified a skills shortage, capacity limitations, lack of government guidance, and training provision across the regimes. This is felt to be a key contributor to delays, disproportionate reporting and assessment requirements, and poor decision making.
A related issue is the quality of information. More could be done to maintain datasets to support decision-making about multiple applications. Because of a lack of expertise, information can be patchy or inadequate to support good decision-making. The need for better targeted and timely data collection and collation was also a major theme in our report monitoring government’s progress against its Environmental Improvement Plan.
Another theme is around weaknesses in monitoring, mitigation and enforcement. Evidence shows weak practice in the use of planning conditions to ensure measures to mitigate environmental impacts are actually implemented and are effective. Non-compliance is commonplace, and monitoring and enforcement levels are low. This can undermine environmental outcomes, and reduces scope in the system to learn from past decisions.
Again, lack of resources is a factor here. And a developer-led monitoring system can cause potential conflicts of interest and undermine public trust. And requirements for unwieldy and complex reports to meet environmental assessment requirements can actually hinder accessibility and clarity.
The last emerging theme I will point to is that regimes could be improved with earlier, more integrated, assessment. Our evidence suggests that for all regimes, but SEA in particular, earlier consideration of the environment would be beneficial at the concept or feasibility stage, otherwise assessments can amount to “box ticking”.
The view was also expressed that the three regimes should be better integrated, with data flowing down from SEA to EIA and HRA. This is often not the case, causing duplication of effort, expense and delays. But a proportionate approach is necessary – while best practice can be seen in Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project assessments, such an approach would be disproportionate for many smaller projects.
Of course, there are other areas of environmental governance where our interests meet, and the same themes appear.
Biodiversity Net Gain
As you are no doubt aware, Biodiversity Net Gain requirements come into effect from November. During the consultation we called for a strong system of governance to oversee implementation, monitoring, reporting and enforcement, and for adequate resourcing and expertise to be put in place, covering both initial assessments of applications and long-term oversight.
I note the announcement of additional funding, £16 million, from Defra for local planning authorities to expand and upskill teams, including ecologists, and the phased approach for small sites to allow more time to prepare. We will watch with interest whether Biodiversity Net Gain realises its potential for environmental improvements, and will welcome your perspective.
Finch appeal and our first NI investigation
You may also be interested in our intervention in the appeal of Finch versus Surrey County Council in the Supreme Court. The hearing is just a few days away now.
In case anyone is unfamiliar with the case, the appeal concerns a judicial review of the grant of planning permission for new oil well development at a site in Surrey. The Supreme Court is to consider whether the council acted lawfully by not requiring the developer’s environmental statement to include assessment of the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from future combustion of oil produced by the development.
Our interest is not to back one side or the other. Rather, our submissions highlight our concern that previous court decisions in this case leave the law on EIAs in an uncertain position, making it difficult and unclear when decisions are being made. We want the Supreme Court to take the opportunity presented by the appeal to clarify the law on assessing the indirect effects of developments in general. That clarity will benefit us all.
And that need for clarity is a key aim of our first investigation in Northern Ireland. We are looking into whether the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA)’s advice to local authorities on ammonia emissions when considering planning applications from large agricultural developments has breached environmental law. We want to ensure that everyone is on a level playing field, with guidance that effectively considers environmental impacts.
Environmental Principles Policy Statement (EPPS)
There is one more aspect of environmental governance I want to point to here, and that is the Environmental Principles Policy Statement, or EPPS. Your Chair spoke of the need for collaboration across Government departments. This was again another major theme of our report on the EIP.
The EPPS requires all government departments to consider environmental impacts when developing policy. It can only be right that delivering on the government’s ambitions for the environment sits across them all, it is not the responsibility of just one department alone.
We are interested in how this is implemented, and I am sure you are equally interested in what this means for large infrastructure projects. Having environmental considerations upfront at the earliest stages of any large project can only benefit us all, I am sure.
We are developing our approach to monitoring this, but I can say that we have a role to play in holding departments to account against it and we will take that seriously.
I hope I have done enough here to convince you that while we have different perspectives, there is much common ground.
Back to the sewer – only briefly, I promise – a great example of large infrastructure project that benefits society and the environment, where consideration of the long-term well-being of that local environment has been part of the delivery through creation of public spaces and landscaping, and not simply sacrificed to meet a policy aim, as important as it is.
The environment is in crisis. We have to do better. Where large infrastructure projects are needed, the environment has to be a foremost consideration. It is vital that the regulations that ensure that is the case are effective, with clarity over requirements and expectations and proper governance overseeing delivery. We intend to play our part in achieving that, I would greatly value your support.