• Amanda Stobbs

Blog: The Environment Bill is Back!

The previous attempt to introduce the Environment Bill was thwarted by the dissolution of Parliament in November last year following the Government’s call for a General Election. The consequence for the Environment Bill was that, like Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue parrot, it ceased to be … or was it just resting?

A ‘new’ Government and a new year brought with it the Environment Bill 2019-21; back on the agenda, the Bill was given its first reading in the House of Commons on Thursday 30 January 2020.

The Environment Bill is effectively comprises two facets: 1) Governance – essentially the setting and monitoring of targets on key priorities, the requirement for a 15-year Environmental Improvement Plan and policy statement on environmental principles, the creation of an Office for Environmental Protection and various data and reporting requirements; and 2) Delivery – which provides for a host of legislation for on-the-ground measures in respect of waste and resource efficiency, air quality and environmental recall, water, nature and biodiversity and the creation of Conservation Covenants … interested?

We have looked into what this will mean for Developers. Read on …

Whilst many of the provisions within the Environment Bill may have an indirect effect on future development, clearly the most significant provision is the mandatory requirement to deliver a 10% net increase in biodiversity through the planning system. This requirement will supplement, not replace or undermine, existing protection for protected sites and irreplaceable habitats.

In July 2019 Defra published their ‘Net Gain, Summary of Responses and Government Response’ reporting the findings from consultation on their emerging proposals. Indications are that the net gain in biodiversity will apply to all forms of new development, although permitted development and householder extensions may be exempted and there may be some dispensations for minor developments and brownfield sites. Specific guidance and a spreadsheet-based tool is to be published on the ‘biodiversity metric’ ensuring consistency in application.

Local Nature Recovery Strategies, also introduced within the Bill, are intended as a tool for local authorities to support spatial planning, mapping existing natural assets and setting priorities and opportunities for protecting and investing in nature. These will, amongst other things, be used to direct developers in the identification of biodiversity net gain delivery.

It is expected that the biodiversity net gain will be delivered through habitat creation and/or enhancement, with a requirement for maintenance for a minimum period of 30 years, albeit longer term protection is to be encouraged. The proposed Conservation Covenants, another mechanism being introduced in the Bill, will provide for voluntary but legally binding agreements between landowner and ‘responsible bodies’ for the long-term conservation of natural or heritage features, which may be a mechanism for securing the long-term maintenance of net biodiversity gains.

Other ares of interest within the Bill include the introduction of long-term targets on the priority areas of air quality, water, biodiversity and resource efficiency and waste reduction, and separately on fine particulate matter. The implications of such targets, or risk of missing them, may filter down into local plans, strategies etc. and thereby local planning decisions and may see the implementation of existing policies, and/or new policies, being more stringently applied.

Similarly, the Bill raises the profile of air quality through various legislative changes which may pave the way for greater emphasis on demonstrating the sustainability credentials of proposals with greater scrutiny on Transport Assessments. Likewise, the strengthened requirements for Water Resources Management Plans and new Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans, with associated data collection and reporting, may result in added attention to policies on water efficiency and resource demand management, both in design and scrutiny of proposals; this may also encourage responses from utility providers for more information and/or modelling of proposals to demonstrate sufficient resources and infrastructure on new schemes, particularly where there is potential for demands on resources to jeopardize their meeting targets on resource management. Other than the above mentioned design measure, the proposals for increased waste and recyclable separation and collection may also effect the design of residential and commercial layouts.

As ever, the devil is in the detail and, with the exception of the 10% net biodiversity gain (to be applied nationally), will be subject to how rigorously local planning authorities apply their environmental policy. However, with the growing acceptance of the importance and urgency at which ‘we’ need to address climate change and the risks to the natural environment and human health, the direction of travel and the need for action is clear.