The implementation of environmental assessment regimes needs to improve to meet the UK’s environmental targets

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP)’s review of the implementation of environmental assessment regimes in England was published in October. It argues that there are three root causes of the problems and inefficiencies of environmental assessments, and these causes occur during the implementation of the assessments in the wider planning system.
November 8, 2023

Environmental assessment regimes balance the need for new housing and improved infrastructure with environmental protection

Environmental assessment regimes are included within England’s environmental laws. The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP)’s review examines three environmental assessment regimes in England: Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), and Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA). These environmental assessments are EU Directives. Although the UK has now left the European Union, UK legislation is still guided by the EU legislation.

An EIA ensures that a consenting authority fully acknowledges and considers the likely significant environmental effects of a development when it grants consent for the project. The UK EIA has been heavily influenced by the European directives on EIA introduced in 1985 and its various revisions, including those in 1997, 2003, and 2009. EIA legislation covers town and country planning, infrastructure planning, transport, harbours, highways, offshore oil and gas production and pipelines, drainage, forestry, nuclear reactors, water resources for agriculture and water extraction, agriculture, marine works, and electricity works.[i]

A SEA is usually connected to a sustainability appraisal. It occurs during the strategic stage of infrastructure development and land use planning. It aims to include the relevant environmental information into decision making and to identify the likely significant effects of a development or plan on the environment against a baseline.[ii] 

An HRA is three stages of assessment that determine if a plan or project may affect the protected features of a European site or European offshore marine site, before an authority decides if said project can be authorised. After Brexit, the Habitat Regulations were amended for England in the Conservation of Habitats and Species (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. The 2019 Regulations created a national protected site network on land and at sea in the UK. The process for undertaking HRAs has not been changed by the 2019 Regulations, and the UK needs to maintain a coherent network of protected sites with conservation objectives in order to meet the UK’s international legal obligations including the Bern, Oslo, Paris, Bonn and Ramsar Conventions.[iii]

There are issues with environmental assessment regimes which means that they are unlikely to deliver the urgent action needed to achieve climate commitments

Compared to the rest of the world, the UK is in the bottom 10% for biodiversity intactness.[iv] Furthermore, after Germany, the UK emits the second-largest amount of greenhouse gas in the EU14.[v] However, the UK has a set of legally binding targets to improve its air and water quality and boost its nature. These targets include halting the decline in species populations by 2030, and then increasing populations by at least 10% to exceed current levels by 2042; restoring or creating over 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat; increasing tree and woodland cover to 16.5% of total land area in England by 2050; and delivering on net zero.[vi] So, currently there is a mismatch between the UK’s environmental protection and what is needed to achieve ambitious targets. The OEP states that,

“This underscores the urgent need for a step-change in how the environment is protected and improved. Environmental assessments must be made to operate as effectively as possible to help deliver this step-change.”[vii]

At present, environmental assessments aren’t operating as effectively as they could. The OEP’s review has found three root causes for the issues of environmental assessment regimes, relating to data accessibility, post-decision monitoring, evaluation and reporting, and access to the necessary expertise. The root causes do not come from England’s environmental legislation itself, but rather how the environmental assessment regimes are implemented in the wider planning system. Environmental assessment regimes predominately operate through development control (although they do extend beyond this in certain instances). This means that the environmental assessments occur via town and country planning or development consent processes for nationally significant infrastructure projects.

Root cause 1: data accessibility

Good-quality environmental data is not always readily available for environmental assessments. This is because there are no standards for the quality of data used, nor can an assessor easily obtain data that has been collected by others. This means that time and resources are wasted when data that has already been collected could be reused. Furthermore, the date when the environmental assessment happens can be delayed. Instead of occurring at the early strategic plan or programme level, the assessment may take place at the project level. By this time, there may be fewer options to reduce environmental harm. Not having high-quality environmental data can also affect decision-making and can lead to negative environmental effects not been avoided or mitigated.

The OEP has three recommendations for how to improve data accessibility:

1.      The UK government should publish and implement a plan for resolving the shortfalls identified in the report, so that data used for environmental assessments is easy to find and available for reuse.

2.      The UK government should publish environmental data standards that cover at least plan-, programme- and project-level data and set out principles such as those embodied in Q-FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable and of the right quality that is fit for purpose).

3.      The UK government should create a map-based portal that signposts users to data held across existing national and regional databases.[viii]

Root cause 2: post-decision monitoring, evaluation, and reporting

The OEP found that implementation of post-decision monitoring varies across EIAs, SEAs, HRAs. Compliance monitoring, effectiveness monitoring, and validation monitoring are all insufficient. Compliance monitoring checks that the required actions have actually been taken. Effectiveness monitoring assesses whether those actions have led to the expected environmental outcomes. Finally, validation monitoring reports on the accuracy of predictions made by an environmental assessment or the accuracy of the results that are shared to inform future assessments.

There are three main barriers that limit effective post-decision monitoring, evaluation, and reporting. Firstly, local planning authorities and other public authorities sometimes lack access to the skills and expertise needed to implement environmental assessment regimes effectively. Secondly, the value of monitoring is not recognised enough, leading to resourcing issues and the results of the assessments not being shared widely enough. Finally, local planning authorities may lack the time or confidence to fix and enforce the failings identified through post-consent monitoring. This undermines regulatory incentives and leaves post-consent measures up to developers’ integrity and internal governance.

The OEP has four recommendations to improve post-decision monitoring, evaluation, and reporting:

1.      The UK government should take action to make post-decision monitoring evaluations nationally accessible and ensure local planning authorities provide evaluation reports annually.

2.      The UK government should publish guidance to help resolve the shortfalls identified in the report in the monitoring, evaluation, and reporting of post-decision activity.

3.      Post-decision monitoring and reporting to the decision-maker should be overseen by a person with the necessary expertise and independence and paid for by the proponent.

4.      When publishing reports under regulation 9A of the Habitats Regulations, the UK government should include information on the success of compensatory measures.[ix]

Root cause 3: access to the necessary expertise

As ZCA has mentioned previously, there is a green skills gap, globally and in the UK. This includes the skills needed to deliver effective environmental assessments. In-house resources and expertise in local planning authorities and other relevant public bodies are also inadequate. A lack of skills, expertise, and resources can inhibit the positive environmental outcomes that should come from environmental assessment regimes.

The OEP’s recommendations are as follows:

1.      The UK government departments should work together, and with local planning authorities and other relevant public bodies, to develop and implement a strategy for resourcing and securing the expertise required by those public bodies to protect and improve the environment by effective implementation of the environmental assessment regimes.

2.      The UK government should work with local planning authorities and other relevant public bodies to revise the existing suite of guidance on environmental assessments to effectively guide practitioners in the performance of their functions.[x]

The UK government has acknowledged that local planning authorities need more resources and are facing challenges in recruiting and retaining skilled and experienced planners and other technical specialists such as ecologists.[xi] The government plans to develop a support programme that will build the capacity and capability of local planning authorities.[xii]


[i] WSP and Office for Environmental Protection- Analysis of the environmental assessment regimes: England and Northern Ireland

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Sky News- Biodiversity: UK is one of world's most nature-depleted countries, new data finds

[v] Our World in Data- Greenhouse gas emissions

[vi] DEFRA, Environment Agency, Natural England and Thérèse Coffey- New legally binding environment targets set out

[vii] Office for Environmental Protection- A review of the implementation of environmental assessment regimes in England

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Ibid

[x] Ibid

[xi] Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities- Technical consultation: stronger performance of local planning authorities supported through an increase in planning fees & UK Parliament- Written evidence: the impact of environmental regulations on development (IER0030)

[xii] Office for Environmental Protection- A review of the implementation of environmental assessment regimes in England

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Gemma Drake
Research Analyst

Gemma recently graduated with a degree in International Development. She is currently studying for an MSc in Sustainable Urbanism, which examines urban planning and urban design through a sustainability lens. “I’m passionate about addressing sustainability challenges in a holistic and pragmatic way. Zero Carbon Academy's diverse range of services targets many of the areas that need support if we are to transition to a liveable future. I’m excited to see the impact that the Academy makes.”

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