‘Levelling Up’ reforms must be handled with care to safeguard environmental protection, warns OEP
The Office for Environmental Protection has warned that reforms proposed in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill must be approached with care if they are to avoid undermining current levels of environmental protection.
We also call for assurances that the proposals support the government’s ambition for overall improvement to the environment and don’t just seek to maintain current positions.
Our evidence to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill Committee focuses on proposals that would provide ministers with powers to significantly change environmental law through secondary legislation amending or replacing the existing Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) regimes.
Dame Glenys Stacey, Chair of the OEP, said: “We recognise Government's desire to develop a new, outcome-based approach for EIA and SEA. We see there are potential benefits to this approach and scope for improvement in the current regimes.
“Yet there are also risks. Reform needs to be approached with care, based on proper assessment of its impacts, to avoid undermining existing high levels of environmental protection and ensure clarity for those to whom the law applies.”
Our evidence states that it is not clear how the Government has assessed the current EIA and SEA legislation or compared it to the better environmental outcomes expected from proposals under the Bill. We believe Parliament and others need to see this analysis in order to make informed judgements.
We raise a concern that Government has not met a legal requirement to publish several EIA implementation review reports by May 2022, meaning that important analysis is not available for scrutiny.
Our evidence also considers the level of ambition in the proposals. The statement accompanying the Bill sets out Government's view that the Bill will not reduce the level of protection provided for by existing environmental law. We are not aware of how the effect of the current legislation has been compared against that of the Bill. We believe it would be helpful for Parliament and others if Government were to set out the analysis supporting its conclusions and judgements in these areas.
Elsewhere, government has stated an ambition for an overall improvement in environmental protection, which does not seem to be reflected in the ‘safeguard clause’ in the Bill. It is also unclear how the safeguard clause, which requires overall levels of environmental protection to be maintained rather than improved, will be assessed and scrutinised.
We also state that while we understand it is not Government's intention that the Bill should provide for the replacement of Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA), it does appear that this could be the effect in practice. We call for the intention around HRA to be clarified.
Dame Glenys added: “Securing an effective environmental outcome-based system will be a complex, long-term endeavour. As well as effective policy and legislation, it will depend on adequate delivery mechanisms and governance, taking account of considerations such as resourcing, monitoring, reporting and enforcement.”
Our evidence can be read in full by clicking on the blue button on this page. It has also been published by the Committee and can be found here.