Andrew Wood and Sam Herbert from the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission reflect on two very different aspects of our current work – a government consultation and an engagement event for families.
If you want to get a positive vision for environmentally friendly development, ask a child. If you want to understand a government consultation about it, ask a lawyer.
The principle that development should enhance the environment is obvious even to children. The University of Leeds’ annual Be Curious event is aimed at young children – and, of course, their parents. Starting with an outline illustration of a fictional city and some tubs of playdough, and little or no instruction other than the question ‘What would you like in your city in the future?’, nature was right at the heart of their vision. They made beautifully crafted vegetable gardens, wildlife ponds and an abundance of insects.
And it wasn’t just the younger minds that this activity seemed to feed. Whilst shaping the dough we found ourselves in deep discussions with adults about active travel and ground-source heating. Every building in our moulded city was topped with a green roof, as if this were an unspoken, universally agreed requirement. And why shouldn’t it be?
Contrast this with the time we asked a housing developer’s agent why they weren’t planning to make a housing scheme zero carbon, and he replied flatly, “Because we don’t have to”. Maybe we should have corralled some children to ask him the question, their wide eyes and unrestricted minds waiting for a convincing excuse for why he was willing to do only the legal minimum amount of good for the world.
Perhaps the very systems we’re working within are stifling our ability to see development as a way to enhance natural systems, rather than fight against them. Barely a week now passes without incidents of habitat destruction, water pollution or tree felling hitting the news, but behind the headlines are complex regulatory systems that don’t seem to be working in ways that people would expect.
Latest government consultation
The government is now consulting on a new system called Environmental Outcomes Reporting (EOR) to replace the current regimes of Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) and Sustainability Appraisals (SA) and Environment Impact Assessments (EIA). Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission is now working on a response to the consultation, and we’re collaborating with our friends in the Place-Based Climate Action Network (PCAN) to reflect the nationwide implications.
If you’d like to read and comment on the government’s consultation yourself, you are welcome to do so.
EOR attempts to solve two problems simultaneously (but holding young children’s attention is not one of them).
Firstly, the current system is heavy on admin, but hasn’t been effective in protecting the environment against harmful impacts from development, such as air pollution, water pollution and habitat loss. The consultation notes that “formal environmental assessment has been required in the UK since the 1980s” whilst “over the past 50 years, much of the UK’s wildlife-rich habitat has been lost or degraded and many of our once common species are in long-term decline”. Of course, there’s no control data; we have no way of knowing how much worse the situation would have been had assessments not been required. But in one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries it’s inescapable that environmental assessment has failed to reverse decline for 40 years, and that’s a big problem.
Secondly, the UK’s exit from the European Union might be an opportunity to do things differently. Although the UK was influential in writing much of the EU environmental legislation, Brexit was heralded as a chance for a fresh start. For some, that meant reducing regulation with the aim of accelerating development decisions. This is alarming to many in the environmental community, since almost every improvement we have seen in protections for natural systems has come from international regulation. But, knowing the failings of the current system, the Environment Act 2021 does offer a legislative basis for doing something better.
This presents a design problem: how to create a system of environmental assessment that reduces the regulatory burden and yet reverses decades of environmental degradation. The current system might be failing because the processes being assessed have not been the ones causing the decline - for example, the impact of agricultural fertilisers on soil degradation and water pollution have resulted from many small decisions that are not individually assessed. Or it might be failing because activities have been allowed to continue even when their harmful impacts have been identified – as when a road scheme offers relief for traffic congestion that is deemed to outweigh damage to an ancient woodland. In either scenario, the cumulative impacts of many decisions, and the weighting given by decision-makers to how serious a particular impact is, add up to complex variables, lots of uncertainty and a high risk of unforeseen consequences.
A strain on the synapses
Frustratingly, although the EOR consultation states its aim to “allow communities to better engage and fully understand” the new system, the whole consultation document is written in a desperately opaque style and riddled with caveats. Take this excerpt, for example: “In considering outcomes, we want to be live to the potential for overlap and duplication between policy and assessment. We will seek to avoid replicating elements of assessment where change is more effectively achieved elsewhere within the framework, within which the assessment process sits.” (para 4.12). Reading this even from a relatively experienced perspective, it strains the synapses to work out what it means, and we can feel our hopes for the whole process ebbing away.
There is no justification for such convoluted language in a public consultation, as it will exclude valuable opinions and produce confusing responses.
In theory, EOR provides a basis for joining up the outcomes that should be achieved across multiple policy and regulatory systems: whether a decision is made within the planning system, building regulations or health and safety, for example, it should still be properly informed by, and monitored against, a set of environmental outcomes that are shared and understood.
EOR should be easy enough for practitioners to use in a consistent way, and for the wider public to scrutinise. Judging by the government’s current consultation, it will fall well short on this expectation. Really, assessment should boil down to one straightforward question: what specific environmental benefits will this programme, project or policy bring? If the consultation does ask this question, then it is a needle in a haystack of obfuscation.
It may be a truism that we should tune in to our children’s imaginary worlds to know what to do in the real one. But it is very tempting to conclude that if we cannot explain the environmental benefits of a new building or an infrastructure project to an eight year-old, those benefits might well be illusory. It is, after all, their future we need to prioritise.
Andrew Wood and Sam Herbert, 18 May 2023