New assessment approach for developments must lead to environmental improvements, says OEP

A new approach to environmental assessment must help deliver environmental improvement at the urgent pace needed, says the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP).

The OEP has responded to a Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) consultation on proposals for the introduction of Environmental Outcomes Reports (EOR), a new approach to environmental assessment around development plans.

Dame Glenys Stacey, Chair of the OEP, said: “Meeting government’s ambitions for the environment, both in general and in relation to recently set statutory targets for nature and species abundance, is a huge task. The next few years are critical. Without clear sight and a comprehensive approach there is no chance of halting further decline.

“If EORs are to support government’s ambitions, they must deliver an assessment regime that delivers environmental improvement and does so at the pace needed to tackle the current crisis. Avoiding and mitigating environmental harm will simply not be enough.”

The OEP’s response to the consultation recognises that there is a widely recognised need to improve environmental assessment regimes, although many of the issues relate to the way they work in practice rather than the regulations themselves.

An EOR regime that tackles known issues such as access to data, complexity of reports and late engagement on environmental issues during the development process would be of significant benefit, locally and nationally. A new regime could also ensure closer alignment with the government’s recently refreshed Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP).

But it warns of risks associated with moving away from well-established regimes and the need for all involved parties to quickly and fully understand the requirements of a new approach, especially at such a critical time.

The OEP identifies a number of elements that must be in place for an EOR regime to support the government’s environmental ambitions. It must:

  • be underpinned by evidence to provide confidence that development is being steered towards measures which deliver greatest environmental benefit and real improvement in the environment
  • be coherent with the EIP, and with legally binding targets set under the Environment and Climate Change Act
  • include environmental matters which are not covered by the EIP - such as noise mitigation, or improving the abundance of regionally important species, and those matters which are less easily measured, such as impacts on landscape character or delivery of wellbeing benefits

This should be combined with:

  • an evaluation framework to measure the new regime’s effectiveness and contribution to delivering EIP goals and meeting statutory targets
  • clear, effective guidance, including to mitigate any effects of weakening links between the new regime and existing case law and established practices
  • measures to address existing issues of insufficient capability and capacity in the environmental assessments sector
  • measures to address existing issues of limited access to the right tools, such as an environmental database and effective IT systems within Local Planning Authorities (LPAs).

The full consultation response can be found by clicking on the blue button to the right of this page. The OEP is currently carrying out a programme of work looking at current environmental assessment regimes in more detail to help inform and influence future changes and aims to report later this year.