On Reshuffle Day, In Another Part Of The Forest

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Maybe the biggest news this week wasn’t the replacement of Robert Jenrick by Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the consequent likely pause of the still-paused-anyway planning law reforms.

Maybe it was the difficulties which the Government is having with its Environment Bill (original progenitor one M Gove). Aspirations of enactment by the time of November’s COP26 are surely fading fast in the light of a series of defeats for the Government at the report stage of the Bill in the House of Lords. On Monday (13 September 2021) it was already being reported in a Green Alliance blog post, on the back of a Daily Telegraph story, that the Government was reluctant to accept the amendments which had been passed which could ultimately lead to the Bill entering into a period of ping pong (less fun than it sounds) between the Lords and Commons.

The amendments at that stage were reported in this piece: Environment Bill: The 10 government defeats in the Lords (ENDS Report, 14 September 2021). They include:

– making interim targets for nature, air, water and waste legally binding;

– requiring the Government to make a formal declaration of a biodiversity and climate emergency;

– a more ambitious approach to targets in air pollution;

– making soil health a priority;

– removing exemptions for the Treasury and Ministry of Defence from taking into account environmental principles in policy making.

However, on the day of the reshuffle, 15 September 2021 the Lords continued its scrutiny of the Bill and inflicted a further four defeats by way of voting for amendments which in various ways seek to introduce greater environmental protections. Two of the issues are intertwined with matters to do with planning and development and I thought I would give them a bit of airtime – after all, these days can you be a planning lawyer without being an environmental lawyer? And surely DEFRA and MHCLG are going to have to work with each other in ever closer ways.

Habitats Regulations: limits on powers to amend

Baroness Young, chair of the Woodland Trust and former chief executive of the Environment Agency, moved an amendment to ensure “that powers to amend the Habitats Regulations may only be used for the purposes of environmental improvement following consultation. It ensures that the level of environmental protection that must be maintained includes protection for important habitats, sites and species as well as overall environmental protection

It was passed 201 to 186.

The amendment provides that the Secretary of State may only amend the regulations

for the purposes of—

(a) securing compliance with an international environmental obligation, or

(b) contributing to the favourable conservation status of species or habitats or the favourable condition of protected sites;

(c) if the regulations do not reduce the level of protection provided by the Habitats Regulations, including protection for protected species, habitats or sites; and

(i) following public consultation and consultation with—

(ii) the Office for Environmental Protection,

(iii) Natural England,

(iv) the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, and

(v) other relevant expert bodies.”

Duty to implement an enhanced protection standard for ancient woodland in England

Baroness Young moved an amendment “intended to address the more than 800 ancient woodlands in England that are currently threatened by development. As a large number of these threats result from indirect effects of development next to ancient woodland, these changes will improve the weight afforded to protecting these irreplaceable habitats in planning policy.”

It was passed 193 to 189.

The amendment introduces the following additional clause into the Bill:

(1) The Government must implement an enhanced protection standard for ancient woodland, hereafter referred to as the “ancient woodland standard” in England as set out in subsections (2), (3) and (4) and this must have immediate effect.

(2) The ancient woodland standard must set out the steps necessary to prevent further loss of ancient woodland in England.

(3) The ancient woodland standard commits the Government to adopting a Standard of protection which must be a requirement for all companies, persons or organisations involved in developments affecting ancient woodlands in England.

(4) This standard must be that—

(a) any development that causes direct loss to ancient woodland or ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees must be refused unless there are wholly exceptional reasons and, in addition, a suitable compensation strategy must be in place prior to development commencing,

(b) any development adjacent to ancient woodland must incorporate a minimum 50-metre buffer to provide protection, reduce indirect damage and provide space for natural regeneration,

(c) any ancient or veteran trees must be retained within a development site, including a root protection area and appropriate buffer zone.

(5) This buffer zone must be whichever is greater of—

(a) an area which is a radius of 15 times the diameter of the tree with no cap, or

(b) 5 metres beyond the crown.”

The debate is here and Parliament’s summary of the House of Lords report stage is here.

(Incidentally, Ruth Keating (39 Essex Chambers) gave a very clear summary of the Environment Bill at today’s (virtual) Joint Planning Law Conference. Watch out for the paper in due course.)

As a further indication of how environmental matters are going to take centre stage in coming months, Duncan Field brought to my attention yesterday that Lord Frost made a statement to the House of Lords (16 September 2021) as to the Government’s approach in relation to various areas of retained EU law. A supporting paper, Brexit opportunities: regulatory reforms contains references which may be of interest to those in the planning and environmental areas:

Environmental Licencing [sic] and Permitting – Defra is continuing to rationalise the existing Environmental licensing and permitting (ELP) regimes so they are more streamlined and easier for businesses and users to navigate, whilst maintaining and even enhancing environmental protections.

Promote a flexible, market-based trading system for biodiversity offset credits – Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) is a critical part of Defra’s strategy for enhancing the natural environment and promoting sustainable growth. Defra will shortly be publishing a consultation on our plans for implementing BNG. This consultation will include proposals for a market-based approach to delivery of biodiversity offset units.

That latter is interesting in the context of the biodiversity net gain provisions within the Environment Bill, which do not currently refer explicitly to any notion of a structured “market-based trading system for biodiversity offset credits”.

Keep your ears open is all I’m saying…

Simon Ricketts, 17 September 2021

Personal views, et cetera

And on the theme of ears, do join our clubhouse Planning Law Unplanned event at 6pm this Tuesday 21 September 2021, whether to listen or participate. We will be returning to the big news story and associated question – “ALL SYSTEMS GOVE! What to expect from our new Secretary of State?”. We have a planoply of leading commentators lined up to give their views including Catriona Riddell, Matthew Spry, Zack Simons, Wyn Evans and Nick Cuff as well as our usual planel. Link to app here.

Photograph by Michael Aleo courtesy of unsplash

Thanks to my colleague Stephanie Bruce-Smith for some background research. All errors mine.

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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