EIA replacement to stall amid criticism and political wrangling?

With the government looking for a way to unlock development potential and kick-start the ailing UK economy, we spoke to our EIA Lead, Tom Wells, to get his thoughts on the proposals for replacing the current EIA system and discover more about how the planning process could be impacted.

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) includes provisions for Environmental Outcome Reports (EORs) to replace Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs). With the LURB expected to be enacted later in 2023, many people seem to think that EIA will be redundant by the end of the year. The truth is likely to be very different.

The wording of the LURB has been amended to remove a proposed clause in an earlier draft that would have instantly revoked EIA and SEA in England. This is welcome news as the recent consultation on EORs, which closed on 9June 2023, contained very little detail on how EORs would work in practice and was based on a lack of evidence-based research, without having been developed in collaboration with professionals or academics. This has led to heavy criticism and questioning in response to the consultation, with IEMA concluding that: “it would be far better to modify and improve the existing regime of EIA and SEA than to start again with a new regime.”

The government’s consultation response on Biodiversity Net Gain took a year to be released. Given the other priorities across Westminster and the vast number of comments on fundamental aspects of the proposed regime, it would not be a surprise if the consultation response to EORs were to take a year or more. The government would then have to develop the EOR Regulations and following their publication allow for a suitable transition period: anything between six months and two years was suggested in the consultation. Separately, the environmental outcomes themselves would be subject to a separate statutory instrument or instruments as these would not be contained within the EOR Regulations.

With a general election due before the end of 2024 and current polls showing that a change of government is highly likely, there must be a question over whether EORs will ever actually come into force. A new government may well take the view that improving the EIA and SEA regimes, coupled with other wider changes to the planning system, are the way to achieve the better, faster and greener infrastructure and development the country desperately needs. Even if the government were to adopt EORs, plan-level EORs would need to come into effect before project-level EORs to avoid the risk of conflicts. EIA therefore looks to be here for at least another two or three years, and perhaps much longer.  I await further developments with interest and continue to monitor progress in relation to EORs.

We’re ready to help our clients adapt to any future changes in the environmental assessment regime, in whatever form they eventually emerge.

To discuss the expert EIA support we can deliver for your next scheme, contact Tom Wells.