Environmental assessments are not as effective as they should be due to practical barriers to implementation, says OEP

Practical issues with how assessment regimes are implemented must be addressed if Government is to meet its environmental ambitions, an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) report has found.

The OEP has carried out a programme of work looking in detail at the implementation of three regimes in place to assess the environmental effects of proposed developments: Environmental Impact Assessment; Strategic Environmental Assessment; and Habitats Regulations Assessment. 

It is commonly understood that these are not always operating as well as they should. Government aims to amend them and create a new approach with Environmental Outcomes Reports.  

The OEP has carried out this research to provide evidence of what is working well in the current regimes and where there are barriers to effectiveness in order to inform future changes.

Dame Glenys Stacey, Chair of the OEP, said: “The environment is under serious threat. We continue to see extremely worrying and persistent trends of environmental decline, with some increasingly difficult to arrest.

“Government is committed by law to significantly improve the natural environment for future generations, but it aims also to meet the need for new homes and improved infrastructure, and such developments can damage the environment. 

“Development need not be at odds with the environment. That is why environmental regulation is so vital – but it must be good regulation, and well implemented.

“In looking at these assessment regimes, we have found three fundamental root causes impacting on their effectiveness: access to information, the extent of post-decision monitoring, evaluation and reporting and access to expertise.

“These root causes arise less from the law itself, and more from shortcomings in the wider planning system that affect the way assessment laws are implemented. The issues are well recognised, deep-seated and not susceptible to easy, or indeed legislative, fixes.

“Addressing these issues will be increasingly important, not just to improve assessments, but because these matters underpin so much of the Government’s environmental ambition. Successful implementation of biodiversity net gain and local nature recovery strategies, for example, rests on the same foundations.

“A system-wide approach is needed if Government is to improve environmental assessments and at the same time, boost the delivery of its environmental commitments.”

One of the common features of the findings relating to data and to monitoring activities is the lack of sharing. Data is often collected but not made available to others, leading to work being duplicated. Monitoring activities may find that certain environmental mitigations have worked well, but this is not shared across the system, missing opportunities for wider improvement.

The OEP’s recommendations to address the issues identified in the report include:

  • publication and implementation of a plan to make data easy to find and available for reuse
  • creation of a map-based online portal to signpost users to data held on national and regional databases
  • new Government guidance on environmental assessments 
  • inclusion of information on the success of compensatory measures in Government’s statutory reports
  • collaboration between Government, local planning authorities and other public bodies to implement a strategy to resource and secure the necessary expertise to implement the assessments.  

“We are grateful to all of those who have submitted evidence to us, and who have given generously of their time and expertise to inform our thinking,” added Dame Glenys. “We trust that our report proves useful, as government considers options for reform.”

The full report can be found by clicking on the blue button on this page.
An HTML version of the report is available here.

The OEP commissioned three pieces of research to help inform its work on the implementation of environmental assessment regimes. That research is published here alongside the resulting OEP report. The views expressed in the research reports are those of the contractors and those engaged with during the process and not the views of the OEP.

The three reports are: 

  • Stephen Tromans KC and others, ‘Legislation, Case Law and Implementation of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) Regimes in England and Northern Ireland’
  • WSP, ‘Analysis of the Environmental Assessment Regimes England and Northern Ireland’ (including x2 surveys distributed to: practitioners (123 respondents) and organisations (65 respondents))
  • LUC, ‘Analysis of Environmental Assessment Regimes in Jurisdictions Outside the UK’ (includes additional annex published separately)

The OEP’s Emma Hawthorne and Elaine Webb from our Environmental Assessments project team were guests on webcasts with Josh Fothergill, from Fothergill Training & Consulting Ltd, in January (2024), to talk in detail about this report.

The recordings were part of a four-part series discussing the research behind the review and its findings, ahead of the Government’s response to the report due by Friday, January 19 (2024).