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Peers seek balanced policies on development and the environment

Housing development construction site in progress - aerial view

The UK government should give greater direction on how competing policies that promote development and seek preservation of the environment should be balanced by local planning authorities, a committee of peers has said.

The recommendation came in a new report published by the Built Environment Committee in the House of Lords at the end of an inquiry it undertook into the impact of environmental regulations on development. Planning law experts Robbie Owen and Jan Bessell of Pinsent Masons provided evidence to the inquiry.

The committee found that separate government policies – to drive development and promote new infrastructure; and protect habitats and halt the decline of species – “should be achievable in a mutually reinforcing way”. However, it considered that there is “a current failure to deliver either goal”.

It cited uncoordinated policymaking and “haphazard and unbalanced implementation” among the reasons for the failure, and further highlighted concerns raised to its inquiry of “unresponsiveness, time-consuming duplication, delay and overlapping responsibilities on the part of government departments and of Natural England and the Environment Agency”. It called for “a comprehensive strategy for both development and the environment” to be delivered and implemented.

Among the series of recommendations it outlined, the committee called for “national political leadership … in setting out which priorities should prevail” when policies that promote development and emphasise environmental protection conflict with each other.

The committee said there is a business impact when new environmental regulations are not introduced “thoughtfully, with consultation and adequate notice”, and referenced industry concerns raised in recent times about how rules on ‘nutrient neutrality’ are impacting housebuilding.

The committee advocated a review “into the cost implications of satisfying environmental regulations for both housebuilding and large infrastructure projects” and recommended that “the need to deliver housing” is placed “on a statutory footing equal to that of environmental protection”, which it said would help support balanced decision-making. A separate review of “the full suite of environmental regulations delivered through the planning system” should also be undertaken – and necessary amendments made – to bring them “in line with the government’s environmental principles policy statement”, it said.

In its wide-ranging report, the committee also called for requirements in relation to habitats regulations assessment to be streamlined, and for clarification on how biodiversity net gain targets are to be monitored and enforced.

The value of data in driving balanced decision making in respect of development and environmental considerations was also recognised in the committee’s report, which cited a recommendation made by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) earlier this year for the development of a new data sharing platform for “environmental data with clear data standards” by the end of 2024. 

The committee said “improved and accessible baseline data would reduce costs for developers, improve the quality of information available and, if provided by an independent body, reduce conflict in the planning system”. It also promoted the concept of a paid-for system whereby developers can access data that provides an insight into housing and other infrastructure demand in specific areas of the country.

Plans being taken forward by the Planning Inspectorate to introduce data standards for ‘nationally significant infrastructure projects’ (NSIPs) should also be expanded so that the data standards apply to “all projects of the scale which requires an environmental impact assessment”, with suitable adaptions for smaller housing developments, the committee said.

In relation to NSIPs more generally, the committee called on the government to set out before the end of this year its timeframe for reviewing and updating the raft of national policy statements that govern how applications for development consent for NSIPs are assessed. The government set out an ‘action plan’ for overhauling the planning process relevant to NSIPs earlier this year.

Owen said: "This report is very timely given the growing tensions between housebuilding and the environment, evident from recent debates on the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, and the scale and urgency of the climate crisis. New energy sources – and the means to connect them to the National Grid – are needed swiftly and in large number. Incremental change to the NSIPs regime, as currently proposed by the government, will not secure the energy transition and deliver renewable and nuclear energy, nor the necessary grid infrastructure, quickly enough. More fundamental change to the NSIPs regime is needed for these technologies at least, and this report should help to inform what those changes should be and how they can balance the competing interests highlighted by the Committee."

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