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Can Brexit bring a better way to protect the environment?

By Professor Richard Cowell, Cardiff University. This blog post was originally published on the Royal Town Planning Institute Blog.

Faced with so much uncertainty surrounding Brexit, the planning profession might regard ‘wait and see’ as the only logical position. But as the exit door nears, so the question ‘what happens next?’ looms ever larger. Doubly so if a ‘no deal’ Brexit torpedoes the proposed 21-month transition period.

The ‘what next?’ question is especially important for the relationship between planning and the environment, given the influence of EU legislation on the UK’s environmental policy over the last four decades.

Current government position leaves much up for grabs

A recent study for the RTPI identified ten directives as being particularly relevant to planning, covering air, water, waste, nature conservation, the marine environment and environmental assessment. The Government’s ‘Chequers White Paper’ proposes ‘no regression’ on existing EU regulations, but only in those areas seen as relevant to frictionless trade – air quality, water pollution and waste management. This leaves much else up for grabs.

To stimulate thinking about future agendas, the RTPI has commissioned a research team from the universities of Cardiff, Dundee, Liverpool, Stirling and Queen’s University Belfast to identify possible ways for re-shaping the inherited EU environmental legislation and its relationship with planning.

Scope for change: three scenarios

The first phase of the research has been examining the scope for improvement, or simplification, in the way that environmental standards are achieved, and especially whether there is duplication between environmental and planning regimes.

One interim finding is just how little thought has been given to alternative ways of organising the interface between planning and the environment, with the last major assessment coming from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 16 years ago.

While no shortage of commentators are exercised about EU ‘red tape’, much anxiety is directed to a relatively small number of directives, and critics may be seeking very different things. Within the environmental sector there is a vigorous discussion about how to improve particular instruments, such as Environmental Impact Assessment, but rarely are prospective adjustments to EU legislation part of the mix.

With Brexit the UK is heading to a relatively unfrozen moment for public policy, planning and the environment, bringing with it opportunities for change. What might be the possibilities?

A tighter, greener framework. One possibility would be to re-work and improve the system of environmental standards inherited from the EU and tighten the links to planning as a means of delivery. Such an agenda could support requirements for external regulatory alignment for trade purposes and uphold domestic political narratives of a ‘Green Brexit’.

Creating clearer environmental goals and priorities could also inform a post-Brexit purpose for planning, as well as providing a much called-for focus for EIA/SEA. A key challenge for this agenda would be creating a legal culture around planning more focused on outcomes rather than procedural compliance.

More pro-development flexibility. Another scenario is that Brexit becomes an opportunity for weakening environmental standards, or for allowing more exceptions in their implementation. Planning matters here because many environmental standards are determined in planning arenas where claims about the costs of meeting EU standards are most sharply debated, whether it is potential restrictions of conserving European wildlife sites, or the interface between development projects and air quality goals where Heathrow’s 3rd runway is ‘Exhibit A’. Brexiteers have presented regulatory flexibility as delivering dividends for innovation, global competitiveness and affordable housing, but what might be the environmental costs?

A more creative role for planning. This scenario bridges the previous two. It exploits any post-Brexit loosening of EU procedural requirements but suggests a greater role for planning in identifying creative, efficient and effective means of achieving environmental goals. One example might be to think about biodiversity at a landscape scale, balancing development with no net loss of natural capital. Another might be green infrastructural solutions for water quality.

Perhaps Brexit offers scope for streamlining the paperwork around planning and impact assessment without any diminution of relevant information or public engagement.

Devolution increases risk of divergence within the UK
Any future thinking must acknowledge devolution. Planning is a highly devolved function, environment too, and with devolved governments in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh already taking policy in very different directions to Westminster.

A single UK position on the future environmental dimension of planning seems unlikely. However, a governance gap exposed by Brexit is the weakness of mechanisms for coordinating the policy agendas of the UK’s constituent nations. EU membership created a shared framework for environmental governance, but with Brexit the scope for divergence increases, raising questions about compatibility, collaboration and competitive pressures.

Scenarios are not predictions, however, and subsequent stages of the research will engage with the views of those working in the planning system on what could or should happen to the environmental dimension of planning in a post-Brexit world.

Richard Cowell is Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning at Cardiff University.

Photo of the Welsh countryside courtesy of Phil Shotton.

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