It’s good that this huge issue is attracting media attention – and I’ll come on to the Government announcement in a moment – but it is disappointing to see the usual “red tape” sneer.
The problem isn’t the rules or bureaucracy: we have specific areas designated of particular ecological importance and sensitivity, the integrity of some of which is under threat because of the existing levels of nutrients draining into them, from farming (eg fertilisers, animal waste) and from homes (human waste), and the integrity of others which is under threat due to the consequences of over-abstraction of water. These situations haven’t been adequately dealt with by the water companies or government agencies, meaning that even one more home being built in these catchment areas is considered by Natural England to be unacceptable without adequate mitigation in place (which can be difficult, particularly for smaller schemes). The problem isn’t the housebuilding, it’s the pre-existing precarious state of these areas.
It is a big problem, and it has been with us for a long time now (see my previous blog posts).
These are the main measures announced by the Secretary of State:
“In order to drive down pollution from all development in the relevant catchments, we will be tabling an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. This will place a new statutory duty on water and sewerage companies in England to upgrade wastewater treatment works to the highest technically achievable limits by 2030 in nutrient neutrality areas. Water companies will be required to undertake these upgrades in a way that tackles the dominant nutrient(s) causing pollution at a protected site. We are also using feedback from the recent ‘call for evidence’ to water companies to identify where these upgrades could be accelerated and delivered sooner.”
Natural England is directed to establish a nutrient mitigation scheme. “Defra and DLUHC will provide funding to pump prime the scheme: this is intended to frontload investment in mitigation projects, including wetland and woodland creation. This will then be recouped through a simple payment mechanism where developers can purchase ‘nutrient credits’ which will discharge the requirements to provide mitigation. Natural England will accredit mitigation delivered through the Nutrient Mitigation Scheme, enabling LPAs to grant planning permission for developments which have secured the necessary nutrient credits…We will announce further details in the autumn when the scheme will launch, and in the meantime, Natural England will be in touch with local authorities and developers.”
“Longer term, we continue to progress proposals to reform the Habitats Regulations so that impacts on protected sites are tackled up front, focusing on what is best for bringing sites back into favourable status.”
“We will make clear in planning guidance that judgements on deliverability of sites should take account of strategic mitigation schemes and the accelerated timescale for the Natural England’s mitigation schemes and immediate benefits on mitigation burdens once legislation requiring water treatment upgrades comes into force. DLUHC will revise planning guidance over the summer to reflect that sites affected by nutrient pollution forming part of housing land supply calculations are capable of being considered deliverable for the purposes of housing land supply calculations, subject to relevant evidence to demonstrate deliverability. It will be for decision takers to make judgements about impacts on delivery timescales for individual schemes in line with the National Planning Policy Framework.”
Joanna Averley’s letter goes into more detail as to how the proposed new statutory duty on water companies will help:
“The majority of nutrient pollution from residential properties enters waterbodies via treated discharges from wastewater treatment works (WWTW). The performance of WWTW varies based on the limits in environmental permits issued by the Environment Agency, which in turn reflect the environmental requirements of the waterbodies to which the effluent is discharged. The performance of WWTW is therefore the central factor in the level of nutrient pollution associated with existing homes and new development. It is therefore logical that effort on reducing nutrient pollution associated with housing focusses on upgrading WWTW. The statutory obligation for upgrading WWTW, which will be introduced into the LURB, will ensure that WWTW in nutrient neutrality catchments are operating at the highest level of performance, rectifying nutrient pollution at source. This will reduce the pollution from not only new development coming forward, but also from the majority of existing dwellings in affected catchments, representing a significant decrease in overall pollution from housing.
The specific performance levels of the connected WWTW is a major variable when determining the amount of mitigation new development has to secure to achieve nutrient neutrality. Suitable mitigation measures might include constructed wetlands or land use change, which can be land intensive. Under Natural England’s Nutrient Neutrality methodology, the permit limit is used, or where there is no permit limit on nutrient discharges from WWTW, a standard precautionary figure is used (8mg/l for phosphates (P) and 27mg/l for nitrates (N)). The statutory obligation from 2030 will require WWTW to operate at the technically achievable limit (TAL); for phosphates this is 0.25mg/l and nitrates 10mg/l. This action will ameliorate nutrient pollution and significantly reduce the mitigation burden for developments.
The habitat regulations require that mitigation be secured for the lifetime of the development which Natural England consider to be 80-120 years. The obligated upgrades to WWTW required from 2030; will provide clarity from the point of the LURB measures coming into force. For developments this means that the current high level of mitigation will only be required up to the end of 2030. After 2030, the pollution levels via WWTW will be much reduced and so a lower level of mitigation will be required. This reduces the overall mitigation burden on housing developments coming forward in nutrient neutrality catchments.”
This should be welcomed (even if it is so belated and does raise questions as to whether water companies will actually be able to deliver – and at whose cost) but of course there is still the period to 2030 before these new permit limits apply and so it is important that the promised nutrient mitigation scheme is up and running as soon as possible. Housing Today have raised significant concerns on that score in their piece, Government’s nutrient mitigation scheme ‘years away’ (22 July 2022)
Finally, the ministerial statement sets out unambiguously the Government’s position as to whether the Regulations bite on reserved matters applications and applications to discharge pre-commencement conditions: “The Habitats Regulations Assessment provisions apply to any consent, permission, or other authorisation, this may include post-permission approvals; reserved matters or discharges of conditions.” Joanna Averley’s letter promises further planning practice guidance on this issue.
In the meantime, there is no Planning Law Unplanned clubhouse event this week but I am speaking at a clubhouse event arranged by Iain Thomson of Bellona Advisors for 6pm on Monday 25 July 2022 on the subject of Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges, alongside writer Gareth Dennis and Intermodality’s Nick Gallop – join here. And for a taster of what we may cover, here’s Iain’s recent SRFIs blog post.
I’ll turn in a moment to the Court of Appeal’s 15 July 2022 ruling on nutrient neutrality in R (Wyatt) v Fareham Borough Council and Natural England.
But first, on political neutrality. I can’t say that there is a political party at the moment I could support. Is that neutrality? It’s certainly depressing.
This week, in an effort not to waste energy when most of us have no voice in the selection process, I haven’t been tweeting about all the rights and wrongs of the prime ministerial candidates. One of my better decisions. However, it is frustrating to see the usual 2022 Tory comfort food being served up on a plate:
“A Labour solution to housing would concrete over the whole country and leave us with socialist homes, that are owned by the state, that we can rent on a temporary basis” (Tom Tugendhat)
Net zero = “well-meaning regulations” clogging up economic growth (Kemi Badenoch)
“low planning zones: new investment zones around key parts of the United Kingdom with much clearer planning rules so people can get on with building straight away to generate those jobs and opportunities.” (Liz Truss) – possibly a reference to the libertarian “Charter Cities” idea that seems to be gaining some traction in right wing conservative circles – Sunak and Mordaunt being other potential adherents. (For more on charter cities see for instance Ann Moody’s 6 June 2022 piece in Yorkshire Bylines, Brexit benefits: From Honduras to Hull, via Hong Kong).
Is any of this food, no doubt comforting for some, good for you? Are we even able to ask such a “woke” question?
Deregulation is of course an ever-present theme – Back To (Planning For) The Future, or what. Of course it will end badly, with botched plans and broken promises.
Meanwhile, in the real world, the inability of the Government and its agencies to arrive at any timely solutions is still the reason why Natural England’s approach to nutrient, water and recreational impact neutrality is such a blocker to house building in so many areas of the country. Water companies are failing to meet their obligations (see the Environment Agency’s no holds barred 12 July 2022 report Water and sewerage companies in England: environmental performance report 2021), farmers rail against existing restrictions on fertiliser use, off-site mitigation schemes are slow to gain traction and local planning authorities proceed (or rather don’t proceed) in a state of extreme caution.
Lichfields modelled five scenarios which estimate different levels of reduction in housebuilding as a result of the nutrients issue, as follows:
1 A 10% reduction in housebuilding;
2 A 25% reduction in housebuilding;
3 A 50% reduction in housebuilding; and,
4 The non-delivery of an estimated c.53,000-60,000 new homes across the (at that point) seven catchment areas.
By way of example:
“A 10% or 50% reduction in the number houses being delivered across the seven catchment areas would equate to a reduction in between 2,540 and 12,700 new homes being built each year. This would have the potential to result in:
1 An annual reduction of between £441.8 million and £2.2 billion economic output produced by builders, their contractors and suppliers;
2 A reduced opportunity to create or support between 8,100 and 40,560, indirect, and induced jobs per annum;
3 A loss of between £2.9 million and £14.7 million in potential Council Tax revenue per annum;
4 A loss of between £17.0 million and £84.9 million in New Homes Bonus payments each year;
5 A missed opportunity to invest between £12.0 million and £59.8 million in essential infrastructure collected from Section 106 and CIL contributions per annum; and,
6 The loss of affordable housing delivery valued at between £48.8 million and £244.2 million per annum.”
This examines whether Natural England’s assumption in its guidance to date of an average occupancy of each new home by 2.4 people is too high, leading to an over-estimate as to the likely effects arising from new development:
“Multiple strands of analysis all point to the fact that the nutrient calculators that have been applied throughout the seven catchments over-estimate significantly the likely additional population that would result from the development of new housing. This will tend to over-estimate the nutrient load associated with new development and expect levels of mitigation that may not be necessary.
By way of solution, we recommend that the nutrient calculator should be amended to adopt a more sensitive assessment of population change. This should reflect the level of households/dwellings associated with a net zero population growth scenario for which no mitigation would be required. Mitigation associated with the provision of new housing to accommodate population growth should be based on the net average household size figure; this will be lower than average household size to take account of the fact that the resident population in the existing stock will be falling going forward.”
The HBF has also continued to bang the drum for a more sensible approach to reserved matters applications and applications for discharge of pre-commencement conditions – all delayed in affected areas. The HBF’s James Stevens said this recently in a LinkedIn post:
“Based on an HBF survey of members 40% of the 38,365 homes delayed in the 42 local authorities newly affected by this issue (since 16 March 2022) are caught at reserved matters and discharge of conditions stages. It is likely that a comparable number of homes are at the same stages among the 60,000 homes delayed in the 32 local authorities initially affected by this issue (for many since 22 July 2019).”
His post included a link to Charlie Banner QC’s updated opinion dated 6 June 2022, which articulates a legal case for regulation 63 of the Conservation of Habitats Regulations not applying at these stages but I’m not aware of any authorities yet adopting that position. We await the inevitable appeal decisions.
The claimant secured permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal. If the court had overturned that ruling that would have put us in an even more difficult place but the court (Lindblom LJ, Singh LJ and Males LJ) dismissed the appeal on 15 July 2022. A bailii transcript is not available but barrister Conor Fegan (who acted for the claimant, assisting Greg Jones QC) has posted a link to the judgment on LinkedIn and, also on LinkedIn, David Elvin QC (who appeared for Natural England, leading Luke Wilcox – Tim Mould appeared for Fareham) has posted an excellent summary. Because it’s a hot Saturday afternoon I’m not embarking on my own summary – please read David’s!
After quite a gap we have another clubhouse Planning Law Unplanned session arranged for 6 pm on 19 July 2022. We were originally going to look at whether or not it is correct that LURB represents a “power grab” by Government, as postulated by some. But in the light of events, we will extend the remit of the discussion to a neutral (of course) evaluation of what the changes within DLUHC and the prospective change of prime minister are likely to mean more fundamentally for our planning system and any potential reform. The speakers so far include Steve Quartermain CBE and Killian Garvey but I’d love to hear your views. Join here.
Undoubtedly, the environmental protection and assessment system that has developed pursuant to European Union Directives and caselaw of the European Court of Justice is ripe for review now that we are no longer in the EU. It is complicated, uncertain and its tests can lead to wide repercussions, as we have seen with the “neutralities” issues the subject of Natural England’s advice. It was no surprise that the Government has been trumpeting for years (literally years) the opportunity to review the system post Brexit.
This was Environment minister George Eustice in his 20 July 2020 speech on environmental recovery:
“Later this autumn we will be launching a new consultation on changing our approach to environmental assessment and mitigation in the planning system. If we can front-load ecological considerations in the planning development process, we can protect more of what is precious.
We can set out which habitats and species will always be off-limit, so everyone knows where they stand. And we can add to that list where we want better protection for species that are characteristic of our country and critical to our ecosystems that the EU has sometimes overlooked– things like water voles, red squirrels, adders and pine martens. We want everyone to be able to access an accurate, centralised body of data on species populations so that taking nature into account is the first, speedy step to an application.”
“Later this Autumn”, my foot!! Only last month was the Nature Recovery Green Paper finally published, for consultation from 16 March to 11 May 2022. This was finally the opportunity to grasp the nettle.
I have read the paper several times now, together with the summary of findings of the HRA review working group comprising DEFRA ministers Lord Benyon and Rebecca Pow, Tony Juniper (Natural England chair) and Christopher Katkowski QC that was published alongside the green paper. I’m afraid I do not see any nettles grasped but rather far too much about how to assimilate the nomenclature and classification of EU designations (special areas of conservation and special protection areas) into our domestic regime and general aspirations for a system that is simpler and clearer without any ideas as to how to make it, in practice, simpler or more clear. How do we actually address these nutrient neutrality issues for instance and avoid any more applications via Natural England advice of an emergency hand-brake on the operation of the planning system?
I make the point forcefully because there is a risk that we all see this as complicated, long-term, expert-driven and ultimately one for the academics and planoraks, whereas it is vital stuff if we are to achieve a functioning planning system alongside a system of environmental protection and recovery that is fit for purpose (or at least as good as the EU system of which we are no longer part).
My Town Legal colleague Stephanie Bruce-Smith has summarised chapter 3 of the green paper in a piece which I set out at the foot of this post without amendment – and for which I take the responsibility (but not the credit). Chapter 3 is the meat of the proposals and Stephanie’s piece, which I think is great and I hope you do too, will give you a good sense of the Government’s thinking.
We are going to be discussing the green paper in a clubhouse session this week – at a changed time and date so please mark it in your calendars – 5.30 to 6.45 pm on Monday 4 April. Our main speakers will be Victoria Hutton (39 Essex chambers) (who has published this great summary on LinkedIn), Andrew Baker (Baker Consultants) and Stephanie Bruce-Smith (Town Legal). Event details here.
Simon Ricketts, 2 April 2022
Personal views, et cetera
Nature recovery green paper: protected sites and species
On 16 March 2022 DEFRA published its Nature Recovery green paper. The green paper opens by identifying two main problems. The first is the degradation and/or loss in habitats and species over the last 50 years. This problem is cited as a key reason for a renewed emphasis on nature’s recovery, rather than conservation, which has hitherto been the focus of nature protection regimes. The second problem identified is the complexity of the existing environmental regulatory landscape for protected sites and species. It references the overlapping site designations as a significant issue, noting how over 80% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) by area are also designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs). This overlap is said to be problematic in two main ways:
(i) It distracts from the ability to focus resources strategically or holistically on actions on-site and pressures off site in a way that best delivers for nature, and
(ii) Very few members of the public are likely to know what these terms mean, or why these sites are worth protecting, which is crucial to public engagement with and support for this work.
There is therefore a wish to “simplify and streamline environmental regulation, with a focus on delivering legally binding targets now enshrined in the Environment Act”. The paper also includes two further aims: moving towards a system where scientific judgment has a greater role (“rather than action being led solely by legal process”); and greater flexibility and accountability given to those delivering policy on the ground, to enable a more joined up response to the specific circumstances of particular sites and areas. In summary, the five main aims of the reform are:
1. Renewed emphasis on, and designation for, nature’s recovery;
2. Simplification and streamlining of environmental regulations;
3. Delivery of environmental targets or outcomes;
4. A greater role for scientific judgement; and
5. Increased flexibility and site-specific policy delivery.
The green paper builds on the findings of the Habitats Regulations Assessment Review Working Group and focuses on several “remaining” areas where DEFRA believes change is required to meet the UK’s nature recovery ambition, i.e. areas not covered by the Environment Act 2021, the Fisheries Act 2020, the Agriculture Act 2020, the Sustainable Farming Incentive and the Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery schemes. By far the most detailed chapter is Chapter 3, the proposals for protecting wildlife sites on land and at sea, which is the focus of this note. Chapters 4-6 will be dealt with in a separate note.
Protected sites: a primer
To understand why there is a significant overlap between protected sites, as correctly identified in the Green Paper, and why this might be problematic, it is useful to consider the various nature conservation regimes in place in the UK, their scope and their purpose. This section will therefore provide a brief overview of the patchwork of regimes that govern this area.
Sites of Special Scientific Interest (“SSSIs”) as their name suggests, have roots in the post-war idea that nature had a “scientific” value. Under section 28 of the Wildlife and Conservation Act 1981, Natural England may designate (notify) a site as being of special interest by reason of any of its flora, fauna, geological or physiographical features. A notification by Natural England specifies the features by reason of which the land is of special interest and any operations Natural England believe are likely to damage those features.
The practical implications of a SSSI notification are that if an owner or occupier wishes to carry out an operation considered likely to damage the features, prior consent is required from Natural England, unless the operation is carried out in accordance with a management agreement or management scheme.
Special Areas of Conservation (“SACs”) and Special Protection Areas (“SPAs”) are designations deriving from two EU Directives: the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive. The designation of sites under the two directives differs. The basis of designation of a SPA is scientific: it must be ornithological criteria alone set out in the Birds Directive (e.g. 1% of the population of listed vulnerable species). By contrast, for SACs, Member States must make a selection of proposed areas according to scientific criteria listed in Annex III of the Habitats Directive, to ensure that specific habitat types and habitats of certain protected species are maintained. Based on these proposals, scientific seminars are convened for each biogeographical region and a list of Sites of Community Importance (SCIs) are ultimately adopted. Member States must designate those areas of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) within six years.
The main implication of such a designation it requires an assessment (known in the UK as a Habitats Regulations Assessment or “HRA”) to take place before any potentially damaging activity can take place. If the HRA concludes that the impact is likely to adversely affect the integrity of the site, the only way in which development may occur on such a site is where there are imperative reasons of overriding public interest (IROPI). Where these are present, the competent authority will also decide what potential compensatory measures are needed to maintain the overall coherence of the site.
The question of whether such an impact requires a HRA and whether it meets the test, is a question for the decision-maker. As set out in the green paper, the HRA process “aims to inform decision-making regarding the protection of conservation areas of international importance from any harm that may arise from activities or development” – it is not intended to be prescriptive about what can or cannot be built, or deliver any set conservation outcomes.
Pausing there, it is possible to see why there is frequently (if not nearly always) an overlap between SSSIs, SACs and SPAs. It is likely that a site of special interest for reason of its fauna (and thus designated a SSSI), would also be a European protected site for the habitat it provides for such fauna (requiring a SAC designation) – and potentially even fall under a migration path for certain birds and protected for that reason too (SPA). However, not only do these regimes protect different things (site of special interest, habitats, birds) but also SSSIs and the EU regimes offer different forms of protection. For SSSIs, Natural England must grant prior consent for any specified operation whereas for SACs, and SPAs, any “plan or project” may trigger the need to carry out a HRA.
Marine Conservation Zones (“MCZs”) and a network of marine conservation sites were created under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance, designated under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar convention), of which the UK is a signatory.
Given its breadth, SACs, SPAs and Ramsar sites can easily be designated SSSIs and indeed almost all (if not all) land-based SACs and SPAs are also SSSIs. In contrast to National Nature Reserves (NNRs), SSSIs are often on private land.
Protecting wildlife sites – on land and at sea
There are two main limbs to the Government’s proposals for reform in this area: (a) consolidation and (b) promotion of scientific judgment.
The section opens with the statement that “the Government is interested in consolidating the protected sites we have into a simpler legal structure to deliver better environmental outcomes which are based on the best available science and evidence”. It highlights in particular the “disconnect between the historical purposes for which different types of sites were designated and our ambition to halt biodiversity loss by 2030 and protect 30% of our land and seas”. Accordingly, “a more ecologically coherent but less complex network of sites with a clear purpose could offer multiple benefits and ensure the network better addresses both nature recovery and climate change”.
These statements raise a number of questions which remain unanswered throughout the paper. Is case that the existing network of sites are not “ecologically coherent” or fail to be based on science? And whilst it may be the case that the historical purpose of SSSIs is not solely concerned with biodiversity or habitats (as we see above, it is much wider), it is difficult to see how designations such as SACs, MCZs and Ramsar sites are concerned with anything other than biodiversity loss. And as for the goal of protecting 30% of land and seas, one might legitimately ask why the goal of increasing the amount of land protected in the UK requires overhauling and redefining protected sites – unless, of course, this might make the goal easier to achieve by making it easier to categorise sites as “protected”.
Turning to the proposals, these fall under three main types (although the green paper splits them into five headings): (1) protected sites reform/consolidation (2) reform/consolidation of the designation procedure for such sites and (3) introduction of new nature recovery sites.
(1) Protected sites reform
The paper identifies three options for reform of terrestrial sites, all with the aim of better enabling “nature’s recovery through a less prescriptive system which allows the right actions to be taken in the right places” (unfortunately, the paper does not elaborate on the precise ways in which it believes the current system to be over-prescriptive, or what the “right actions” are that need to be taken are but cannot currently be taken in the existing system).
Option 1 is a tiered approach, which proposes to replace the existing regimes with ‘highly protected’ sites (applying only to a limited number of sites of the highest international importance) and ‘protected’ sites (managed for national or international biodiversity or geodiversity importance as SSSIs, SACs and SPAs are currently). ‘Highly protected’ sites would provide stronger protection than currently applied to existing SACs and SPAs and would largely focus on protection and recovery of terrestrial ecosystems (e.g. nature reserves). The paper notes that for ‘protected’ sites, as at present, economic and other activities would need to be sustainable in relation to the conservation objectives of those sites.
Option 2 would focus on “streamlining and merging existing site designations that operate similarly (SACs, SPAs, and SSSIs)”. An example provided is to “rename” the site designations as ‘highly protected’ and ‘protected’. It suggests that the areas of existing sites network which are of international biodiversity and geodiversity importance could be designated ‘highly protected’; and that ‘protected’ could apply to the remaining areas of the sites network, which could be managed and protected in a similar way to SSSIs.
The distinction between this proposal and option 1 appears to be that option 1 would strengthen the protection for a limited number of sites, whereas option 2 appears to be just a renaming exercise. However, for option 2, it is unclear where the distinction between ‘highly protected’ and ‘protected’ will apply, since it appears to suggest that the ‘highly protected’ designation will be give to areas of the existing site network which are of ‘international and biodiversity and geodiversity importance’. Logically, this would mean all Natura 2000 sites, i.e. all SACs and SPAs – and therefore nearly all SSSIs too.
Option 3 consists of consolidating existing sites into one single type of protected site designation, which could “reflect the existing sorts of protections whilst offering an opportunity to convey the value and benefits of these sites more easily to people”. The paper notes that existing rules already identify and offer additional protection to certain priority habitats and species, where a significant portion of their natural range falls in the UK – giving blanket bogs as one such example. It also suggests exploring scalable levels of protection within one type of designation, which it suggests could (i) help support recovery through higher protection levels where needed (ii) offer scope to adapt sites more easily to climate change or (iii) enhance protections to areas of particularly significant nature value.
By contrast, for marine sites, the paper notes that despite the multiple designation types, the MPA network is “ecologically coherent”. But, given that the range of marine designation types can cause confusion, there may be benefits to consolidating designations, which could mean a single designation type (such as Option 3) or formalising the current policy approach of MPAs and HPMAs into two designation types (i.e. an approach similar to Option 1).
(2) Reform/consolidation of the designation procedure
As set out above, notification (designation) of SSSIs is the responsibility of Natural England. By contrast, final decisions for other statutory designations (such as SACs and SPAs) rests with the Secretary of State.
The paper references the risks and opportunities from climate change impacting protected sites, noting that it is likely to become increasingly difficult to accommodate this impact unless designation and management processes are adapted. To solve this issue, it proposes to have “one consistent decision-making process as part of a rationalised site protection system” with one option being for it to rest with the Secretary of State, informed by the scientific advice of its statutory advisors “in a similar way to how SACs and SPAs are currently designated”.
In short, it proposes removing Natural England’s power to designate sites, and giving this to the Secretary of State, on the basis that having two designation processes means that the risks from climate change cannot be adequately addressed. It is not entirely clear how this follows, nor is it made clear, if there has to be one designation procedure, why the Secretary of State would be better placed to do this than Natural England. For those fearing that the Secretary of State, as opposed to Natural England, might be swayed by other concerns that nature protection, the paper seems to seek to allay such fear by emphasising that at any new decision-making process will “be consistent with our existing international commitments and be fully transparent with regard to the decisions taken”.
(3) Introduction of new nature recovery sites
The final area of ‘consolidation’ relates to nature recovery sites. The paper notes that designation of protected sites has not been successful in helping sites recover to a more favourable condition and avoiding further decline. To that end, it notes the new initiatives being brought forward (Nature Recovery Network, Biodiversity Net Gain, the Nature for Climate Fund and new contracts under Conservation Covenants) but also notes how it is considering whether a new sort of designation for nature’s recovery should be explored. To that end, it seeks views on several areas including:
– Identification (strategies to identify potential ‘Nature Recovery’ sites for formal consideration, such as those set out in the government’s vision for Local Nature Recovery Strategies)
– Safeguards (how the planning system can play a role in promoting environmental recovery and long-term sustainability)
– Management (suggesting less prescriptive management measures and a holistic approach)
– 30 by 30 (whether such sites should ‘count’ towards the 30 by 30 goal)
– At sea (creative thinking about opportunities for co-location and space sharing to maximise benefits for sea users while also protecting the marine environment).
The paper also references the recent ‘rewilding’ approaches that have been developed on land, noting how, due to failing to meet established selection criteria for designation (despite their benefits for biodiversity), they are frequently not recognised for the value they can bring in making space for nature. On the other hand, it notes the concern that designation of such sites could lead to management in ways that limit or inhibit the opportunity for other species and habitats to flourish. It therefore suggests providing flexibility as to what areas could be designated and also in the requirements following such a designation.
B. Scientific Judgment in site management and protection
This second part of Chapter 3 paints a pretty dismal picture of the Habitats Directive in operation – its “interpretation has often led to high levels of legal uncertainty which can be corrosive to good governance”; “process has become king and crowded out scientific judgment on individual cases”, and whether or not a certain activity should be altered or restricted is “guided as much by concerns about possible future legal challenge over decision making, as it is by the actual impact of the activity”. Another problem identified is that “the current process lacks the tools necessary to incentivise change on the main pressures and threats affecting a site, some of which are not subject to [Habitats Regulations Assessment]”
Strong criticism indeed, and it is worth noting that the HRA Review Working Group summary of findings (found here) presents a slightly less pessimistic picture. The experts highlighted the need for greater certainty and clarity throughout the HRA process, with key points being:
– Clarification of legal terminology and processes
– A need to make existing data readily available and user friendly
– Specific site advice accessible in one place
– Basing scientific judgements on a clearer framework of evidence (screening and assessment)
– Earlier consideration of avoidance or mitigation measures
– Earlier expert engagement to increase Local Planning Authority confidence in scientific evidence
They also suggested further exploration into:
– Use of strategic mitigation solutions to secure better outcomes from the assessment process
– A more strategic approach to “environmental compensation” to support nature recovery.
On the litigation risk, again the conclusion of the working group was more muted: “whilst it is a straightforward process in some respects, the amount and type of specialist evidence required coupled with the perceived risk of legal action, creates an elevated level of caution around decision-making.”
The Green Paper notes that the UK government wants to “fundamentally change” the way assessments under the Habitats Regulations work to create clearer expectations of the required evidence base at an early stage and with a focus on addressing the threats and pressures on and off site that will make the greatest difference to the site. In addition, there is a desire to “make sure there is space of individual evidence-based judgement by an individual case officer on an individual case”.
The paper identifies seven main areas for reform.
(1) Assessment and consent
In this section, the work of the HRA working group is referenced, namely their proposal for a single reformed assessment process which complements proposals for simplified site designations, and their suggestions for clarity, certainty and a strategic approach to mitigation.
It is suggested that the single assessment would remove some of the complexities from having a number of assessment regimes on SSSIs and provide greater certainty and consistency for users. The paper goes on to say that this single assessment would be supported by “a clearer decision-making framework aimed at addressing process and data issues, including the earlier consideration of alternative ways to implement a plan or project and mitigation measures and creating more reasonable and clearer expectations of the required evidence base.” However, there is no further detail at this stage as to what this framework would look like and how it would achieve those aims.
(2) Addressing the legacy impact of dormant SSSI consents
This second heading notes the problem that many SSSIs issued in the past which permit certain activities, might, if exercised, cause damage or deterioration to protected sites. It notes that currently Natural England has only limited powers to change such consents and that these can only be modified or revoked on a case-by-case basis and that such revocation may require compensation. However, no solution is proposed to address this issue – just that it needs to be addressed. It is interesting to note, however, that in previous sections the concern has been on the need for ‘site-specific’ and ‘case-by-case’ decision-making, whereas in the case of revocation, this is seen as part of the problem.
(3) Management of protected sites
Instead of the current focus on stopping the deterioration of protected sites, the Green paper underlines the need for a “future protection process which can also support the management of the site and nature recovery”. This again represents the shift identified at the start of the paper – away from conservation or maintaining the status quo, to focusing on improvement or recovery.
The paper suggests a greater role for Site Improvement Plans (‘SIPs’) as one option which would allow problems to be approached more strategically and in a more tailored way. SIPs currently exist as a tool for identifying actions that need to be taken by public, private and voluntary bodies on protected sites to address existing pressures and threats impacting their conservation status. The green paper suggests “making the concept [of SIPs] statutory”, as a means to increase their uptake as a basis for action.
(4) The Habitats Regulations: Power to amend the general duties
A further issue identified by the paper is that the requirements of the Habits Directive and the Wild Birds Directives (with regard to which public authorities are required to exercise their nature conservation functions) are not explicitly set out. The paper identifies this issue as providing scope for differing interpretations and disagreement, and emphasises the “new” power within the Environment Act to amend the ‘general duty’ under Regulation 9 to delivery domestic and international biodiversity duty.
(5) Management at sea
As for management at sea, the key area for exploration is whether existing processes in other legislation applying to the UK can delivery improved outcomes for MPAs and better support the objective or protecting important marine habits and species, as opposed to the current requirement for a HRA under Part 6 of the Habitats Regulations (which applies out to 12 nm).
(6) Environmental Impact Assessment
Tucked away on page 19 of the green paper, this section is of particular interest as it notes that the Government is “committed” to reform of both the SEA and EIA process “to better support nature recovery”. One reason why this is particularly noteworthy is that both regimes are currently very broad, looking and impacts on “the environment” rather than just nature or habitats – so it will be interesting to see whether the reform proposes to narrow it or merely refined it in certain respects in the area of nature recovery.
It notes that the reforms “will ensure environmental protections are more relevant; and more closely monitored and enforceable with a stronger focus on delivering the outcomes we need” – in short, the revised EIA seems like it will no longer be about assessment for the purposes of informed decision-making but may set down targets or rules to deliver outcomes. An interesting approach in a paper determined to be less “prescriptive”. The paper does not state when the proposals will be brought forward.
(7) Establishing priority areas for woodland creation
The final subheading looks at afforestation projects, noting that the existing requirement for a determination under the forestry EIA regulations can be resource and time intensive. The paper proposes that the Forestry Commission undertake an Afforestation Strategic Assessment, described as a “landscape scale scoping project” assessing the relevant features likely to be affected by afforestation, with the aim of establishing preferred low risk areas for afforestation. Afforestation projects within those areas would then not require an individual EIA or equivalent impact assessment (except in “exceptional circumstances”). The aim is to “kick-start” afforestation projects and encourage locating new woodland in areas of the least risk to surrounding habitats
Implications of NE’s updated generic Nutrient Neutrality Methodology and updated catchment calculators referred to on page 4 of its 16 March 2022 letter
The updated methodology and calculators are appended to the letter, which advises that individual authorities consider how to transition to “the new tools and guidance”.
My blog post focused on the implications for areas not previously caught by nutrient neutrality issues but of course the guidance also creates an element of uncertainty for areas already caught, where good progress has been made towards solutions, if calculations need to be amended and given that there can be no certainty as to what transitional period (if any) each authority will allow for.
Examples of progress
A huge amount has gone into developing strategic mitigation solutions, but it is inevitably complicated – involving multiple land interests, commercial arrangements, local authority joint working, robust survey work and ecological analysis. The Solent nutrient market pilot is a great example – see this LinkedIn post by Simon Kennedy last month, strategic environmental planning officer for the Partnership for South Hampshire.
As another example, in Kent, Ashford Borough Council is progressing with a strategic mitigation solution in relation to potential effects on Stodmarsh Lakes, taking a report to cabinet on 31 March 2022.
Let’s hope that the new advice does not slow down progress in relation to these initiatives. Let’s also hope that these pioneers pave the way for a much faster roll out of solutions for the additional areas now caught.
Another dark cloud?
The Natural England advice letter also referenced last year’s High Court ruling, R (Wyatt) v Fareham Borough Council (Jay J, 28 May 2021), which is currently subject to an appeal – which the Court of Appeal will hear in the first week of April 2022. The advice should be regarded as provisional until the outcome of that case. The concern is that the case concerned a challenge to Natural England’s 2020 advice on achieving nutrient neutrality in the Solent region on the basis that the advice, in effect, was not stringent enough – see our Town Library summary of the first instance ruling prepared last year by my colleague Safiyah Islam. The court rejected the challenge but if the Court of Appeal takes a different stance then Natural England may need again to reconsider its methodology.
Reserved matters and pre-commencement conditions
One particularly unfair aspect of the way in which many local planning authorities are applying Natural England’s advice is to assert that if the necessary Conservation of Habitats Regulations assessment work was not done at planning permission stage (which will often not have been the case if the nutrient neutrality issue had not been identified by Natural England at that point) it must now be done at reserved matters stage, in the case of an outline planning permission, or at the stage of discharge of any pre-commencement condition, in the case of a full planning permission.
This of course cuts across the traditional planning law tenet that the planning permission stage is the point at which the principle of the development is determined to be acceptable, with subsequent approvals serving to define the detailed scale and disposition of development within the tramlines of what has been authorised by way of the permission. The authorities’ stance means that planning permission no longer gives any certainty as far as purchasers and funders are concerned and is a real impediment to market certainty and confidence. Who knows what equivalent restrictions lie ahead, after all? Even if your area is not affected at present, this should be of concern.
Local planning authorities appear to base their position on a decision of the High Court (i.e. a first instance ruling, not the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court) in R (Wingfield) v. Canterbury City Council (Lang J, 24 July 2019), but surely the case is capable of being distinguished in at least the following ways:
• The basic facts were different – a claimant was seeking to quash the outline planning permission because the LPA had failed to carry out appropriate assessment in a lawful manner. The developer and LPA had accepted there was a breach but had sought to rectify it by carrying out appropriate assessment at reserved matters stage – which the court agreed remedied the breach. This was not a case where the developer was challenging the ability of the LPA to undertake appropriate assessment at reserved matters stage or indeed to require appropriate assessment at that stage.
• Lang J relied in her reasoning on the Habitats Directive and interpretation of the Directive in rulings of the Court of Justice of the European Union. That was permissible at that time but since 1 January 2021 is no longer how the UK courts are able to approach these issues. The Habitats Regulations are now to be interpreted on their own terms without reference to the Directive. This potentially gives the UK courts the opportunity to ensure that the approach to assessment in relation to the stages of decision making allowed for in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 are consistent with the legislative framework of the 1990 Act – i.e. issues of principle are for outline permission stage, with the outline permission setting the parameters for subsequent more detailed decision making at reserved matters stage and discharge of other conditions – but without the principle of the basic acceptability of the development being able to be re-visited at those later stages.
It should also be noted that regulation 70 of the 2017 Regulations is headed “grant of planning permission” and provides that the “assessment provisions” apply to specified categories of decision. None of these is a decision to grant reserved matters approval, or a decision to discharge a pre-commencement condition.
Is anyone aware of this issue having been tested, on appeal or in litigation post 1 January 2021? Or is everyone being terribly British and waiting patiently for strategic solutions to be found to all of these neutrality issues before their reserved matters and pre-commencement conditions can be signed off? I suspect that some permissions will expire in the meantime. In my view this is not acceptable, or warranted, but am I a voice in the wilderness here?
Just to note that there was also a Welsh case on nitrates last week, R (National Farmers Union of England and Wales) v Welsh Ministers (Sir Wyn Williams, 23 March 2022). Welsh farmers are unhappy about the Welsh Government ending, post-Brexit, certain dispensations as to the amount of livestock manure that can be deposited on grassland. The claim, based on an asserted breach of legitimate expectation, as well as lack of rationality, failed.
This coming Tuesday 29 March at 6pm we will be focusing on all of these Natural England neutrality issues: “More Natural England Development Bans – What To Do?” – there is so much to cover with our panellists, who will include Charles Banner QC, Mary Cook, Tim Goodwin (Ecology Solutions) and Peter Home (Paris Smith). Link here.
Developers face some immediate additional impacts on their proposals as a result of two advice letters written by Natural England this week. Some additional guidance has been published by DLUHC and DEFRA. DEFRA has published its nature recovery green paper, setting out its options for reform of nature conservation legislation and processes, together with a summary of the findings of its HRA review working group.
On 16 March 2022 Natural England set out in a letter to local authorities its “advice for development proposals that have the potential to affect water quality in such a way that adverse nutrient impacts on designated habitats sites cannot be ruled out.” With appendices it runs to 25 pages. The letter isn’t online but you can see it via a LinkedIn post by James Stevens (Centre for Cities). 27 new catchment areas (covering 42 new local authorities) have been added:
This news will be unwelcome for those seeking to deliver development, and those looking to accommodating local housing needs, within the affected areas. Planning permissions will not be issued unless Natural England can be satisfied that the effects on protected habitats cannot be fully mitigated, whether by on-site or off-site solutions. There will be delays and, at best additional cost. The advice may also of course have implications for plan making in the 42 local authority areas.
“Many of our most internationally important water bodies are designated as protected sites under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. Under the Habitats Regulations, competent authorities, such as local planning authorities and the Environment Agency, must assess the environmental impact of planning applications or local plans. As a result of these regulations and European case law, Natural England has advised that in areas where protected sites are in ‘unfavorable condition’ due to nutrient pollution, Local Planning Authorities can only approve a project if they are certain it will have no negative effect on the protected site.
Following further work to understand the sources of site deterioration, Natural England has today issued updated advice and support to the 32 Local Planning Authorities currently affected by nutrient pollution, as well as 42 new LPAs. So far this approach has too often been complex, time-consuming and costly to apply, and government is clear that action is needed to make sure that we both deliver the homes communities need and address pollution at source.
Firstly, to help all Local Planning Authorities affected to navigate this requirement, Natural England have published a “nutrient calculator” to enable development to take place in a sustainable way. The Government is offering £100,000 to each affected catchment to support cross-Local Authority work to meet Natural England requirements and enable development to continue.
These solutions are pragmatic short-term steps but do not amount to a permanent solution that will improve water quality and allow sustainable development to proceed, and so we are going further. The government already has highly ambitious plans to reduce nutrient pollution from both agriculture and sewerage works and has further plans for the future. We have also secured a series of pledges from water companies to provide new funding for nature-based ‘strategic solutions’ to tackle nutrient pollution. We welcome the new and proactive investment from Severn Trent Water, United Utilities, South West Water and Yorkshire Water in collectively investing an additional £24.5m in reducing nutrient pollution affecting these sites, including nature based solutions. We will work with the wider industry to deliver further action, as far as possible.”
Joanna Averley, the Government’s chief planner, has published a newsletter on the issue and written to affected local authorities. Under “What does this mean for decisions and plans” she says:
“For planning applications in the affected areas, this means you need to consider the possibility of adverse effects, as a result of additional nutrient loads (including from residential developments); as part of a Habitat Regulations Assessment (HRA). In practical terms, this means that before granting any new permissions following the receipt of the Natural England advice, you will need to be confident that the development in question does not require nutrient neutrality to be acceptable under the regulations or that nutrient neutrality is secured, as part of the proposal.
The nutrient neutrality methodology allows for mitigation to be secured to ensure there are no adverse effects. There may be a need to reconsult Natural England and consider requesting additional information. When undertaking an appropriate assessment, to consider mitigation and ensure there are no adverse effect as part of a HRA, there is a statutory 21-day consultation with Natural England.
I appreciate that this will have an immediate impact on planning applications and appeals in affected areas. There may be a need to reconsider the acceptability of current proposals, in light of the advice issued and you may need to consider seeking further information from applicants and reconsult as appropriate. In this situation you should follow the usual process of requesting a reasonable extension of time as necessary.
We recognise that in the newly affected areas, it is unlikely for there to be mitigation solutions in-place or readily available and so the ability for development to be made acceptable will be necessarily limited in the short term. As we have seen in catchments already affected by similar advice, it may take time for applicants to secure mitigation to be able to demonstrate neutrality.
As set out in the National Planning Policy Framework, I would encourage you to approach decisions on proposed development in a positive and creative way . This should include working with developers to identify mitigation solutions, and may be aided by the use of local validation lists to clarify the level of information that is required to adequately consider proposals in the context of nutrient neutrality. I realise that the issuing of this advice may be particularly challenging in relation to plan making. Our Local Plans team will engage with those local authorities who are facing challenges to understand what support can be provided to enable plans to continue to progress, such as the funding and PAS online workshops outlined below.
We are considering wider ramifications for this advice and are actively reviewing the relevant sections of the Planning Practice Guidance to ensure it provides the best support for decision-making and plan-making in-light of the challenges of nutrient neutrality. We also recognise that there may be implications for the Housing Delivery Test and 5 Year Housing Land Supply and will keep the situation under review.”
Recreational pressure on Chilterns Beechwoods Special Area of Conservation
We are all well aware by now of the issue of recreational pressure on protected areas which has led to, for instance, the whole SANGs (suitable alternative natural greenspace) industry – initially the pragmatic solution arrived at in relation to the Thames Basin Heaths for the purposes of the South East Regional Spatial Strategy 15 or so years ago (see the chapter SANGs: The Thames Basin Case Study, by me and Sarah Bischoff in a 2012 book edited by Greg Jones QC, The Habitats Directive: A Developer’s Obstacle Course?) but the use of which is now widespread.
Natural England wrote a letter on 16 March 2022 to Buckinghamshire Council (Aylesbury Vale and Chiltern Districts), Central Bedfordshire Council, Dacorum Borough Council, St Albans City and District Council, Hertfordshire County Council and National Trust to inform them “of emerging evidence which identifies significant recreational pressure on Chilterns Beechwoods Special Area of Conservation (SAC), more specifically Ashridge Commons and Woods Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) component. This advice applies to all Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) which were identified as partly or wholly with the 12.6km Zone of Influence (ZOI) and contribute to more than 2% of visits to the SAC. This relates to the piece of evidence instructed by Dacorum Borough Council and completed by Footprint Ecology, due to be released on 14th March 2022.”
“The Footprint Ecology report to inform the Habitats Regulations Assessment of Dacorum Borough Council’s Emerging Local considers that 500m represents a reasonable boundary for an inner zone around the SAC where new net increases in development will be very difficult to deliver. They will struggle to pass a HRA. It is proposed that net increases in development within the ZOI but beyond the exclusion zone will need to incorporate mitigation measures to avoid additional recreational impacts – with such measures to be delivered by a Strategic Solution.”
“Due to the early stage which the project is at we do not yet know what the Strategic Solution will look like and we would like to continue working with LPAs and the National Trust to develop a bespoke Strategic Solution to avoid and reduce visits to the SAC and ease recreational pressure. We have no preconceptions about precisely what the mitigation should look like (so long as it satisfies HRA requirements) and we would be happy to listen to any suggestions put on the table.”
Solutions could include, surprise surprise, Strategic Access Management and Monitoring (SAMM) (which commonly turns into a per dwelling section 106 agreement contribution), plus SANGS (although “due to the uniqueness of Chilterns Beechwoods SAC, we recognise that alternative mechanisms may also have to be considered”) and a “new gateway to the Ashridge Estate”.
“In light of the emerging evidence, we recognize that there could be a serious potential conflict between the plans for new major housing provisions in the areas surrounding the Chilterns Beechwoods SAC, and the conservation objectives for the site.
Natural England understand that Strategic Solutions can be a time consuming process, and will lead to a period of time where strategic-level mitigation hasn’t yet been identified. During this period we advise that HRAs will be needed, detailing how each individual site is going to avoid adverse impacts on the integrity of the Chilterns Beechwoods SAC. This is for all planning applications that result in a net increase in dwellings, within the entire 500m – 12.6km ZOI. We are happy to work with the Local Planning Authorities and developers proactively to seek to find solutions during this temporary period.
The interim position is likely to apply until such time that a formal strategic solution is found. We will be looking for all applications to incorporate mitigation measures that will avoid additional recreational impacts.”
The letter describes the particular pressures upon the SAC created by visitor numbers at the Monument, which is the main area within the Ashridge Estate, where people park, there are walks, a café and so on. I have to declare an interest in that I live in Dacorum District and have visited Ashridge on many occasions, parking indeed at the Monument. Yes it can get busy. But to look to solve issues by clamping down on new development and/or extracting financial contributions from new development is in my view inequitable (although predictable – look at the knee jerk reaction to nitrate, phosphate and water issues!). It’s we in the existing population who need to change our habits. But as a first step, why not promote the fact that there is actually a problem, to seek to encourage people to ration their visits? It may be that this should not be your daily or weekly dog walk venue, folks! As far as I’m concerned, the National Trust positively encourages people to walk on and enjoy its land at Ashridge. It provides car parking and refreshment facilities. If that is harming the nature conservation interest of the land, shouldn’t the National Trust as responsible land owner take sufficient steps to manage numbers and dampen demand? And given that it is existing residents who are causing the damage, not future residents, why are impacts not mitigated via council tax rather than entirely loaded onto developers and future residents whose homes are now stuck in the system pending a solution?
In mid Sussex, as far as new development is concerned every additional litre of water is seen as a problem and with situations of recreational pressure every potential additional footstep from a new home – blind to the existing reality, which that any problems are being created by existing residents!
Reforming the system
I think I need to go for a calming walk (don’t worry, I’ll stick to pavements in the future, leaving special parts of the countryside for a privileged few, and perhaps if I can pledge not to visit Ashridge again I can sell that to a developer as a credit?).
So I am not going to go into any detail as to the options floated by DEFRA in its Nature recovery green paper: protected sites and species (16 March 2022) for reform of the regulatory system for protecting sites and species (part of the long-awaited post-Brexit environmental law reform package). That will be for another day.
“We are today launching our consultation on legally binding targets under the Environment Act to leave our environment in a better state than we found it. This includes a world leading target to halt the decline of nature by 2030. This is our compass, spurring action of the scale required to address biodiversity loss. We are also proposing targets for air quality, water, trees, marine protected areas, biodiversity, and waste reduction and resource efficiency.
This goes beyond the legal minimum required under the Act and will support the delivery of many of the government’s priorities, including to reach net zero by 2050, build resilience against the impacts of a changing climate, and level up all corners of the country.
In order to meet these targets, we must move the emphasis away from bureaucratic EU processes that haven’t done enough to moderate the pace of nature’s decline, and instead put in place the governance regime that can deliver nature’s recovery. That’s why we are publishing a green paper today, setting out proposals to create a system which better reflects the latest science, has regard for our domestic species and habitats, and delivers nature recovery.
We have always said we will take a cautious and evidence-led approach to any reform. This green paper is the next step in setting out our ideas and gathering views to inform our approach.”
By way of a taster of the green paper itself:
“… the Government is interested in consolidating the protected sites we have into a simpler legal structure to deliver better environmental outcomes which are based on the best available science and evidence.
This approach could involve having a single legal mechanism for terrestrial designation and a single legal mechanism for marine designation, but within each having the possibility of varying levels of protection which could be site or species specific.
This would enable strict protection of certain habitats or species in a single protected site, as well as more general protection for other features or habitats which might affect the integrity of the site. This would also enable a tailored approach to delivering the recovery of protected sites.”
“…the UK Government wants to fundamentally change the way the assessments under Habitats Regulations work to create clearer expectations of the required evidence base at an early stage, for example, building on the concept of a site improvement plan.
The approach should focus on the threats and pressures both on and off the site that, when addressed, will make the greatest difference to the site and help drive nature recovery whilst enabling truly sustainable development – addressing challenging issues such as nutrient neutrality and marine development.
Assessments will better identify and manage areas of scientific uncertainty. Outcomes for each site will be regularly monitored, and actions taken to address failures in assessment and mitigation. It should then also streamline the process for addressing other impacts, such as by avoiding duplication and excessive burden, whilst ensuring a consistent level of protection.
Finally, the UK Government wants to make sure that there is space for individual evidence-based judgement by an individual case officer on an individual case. The scourge of modern government has been the obsession with uniformity of procedure, which has led to a scenario where the consistency of the process to avoid litigation risk has become elevated above the quality of decision making.”
The consultation period runs until 11 May 2022
There is an HRA review working group comprising DEFRA ministers Lord Benyon and Rebecca Pow, Tony Juniper (Natural England chair) and Christopher Katkowski QC and a summary of its findings to date was published on 16 March 2022 alongside the green paper.
This week’s clubhouse event (6pm, 22 March 2022) will look to bring us up to date on the question of who should pay for the remediation of unsafe buildings, following on from the Secretary of State’s threats to developers and revisions to the Building Safety Bill that I wrote about in a blog post last month. Join here whether to listen or participate.
The Environment Act 2021 was born on 9 November 2021, over 22 months after the first version of the Bill received its first reading on 30 January 2020 – a gestation period equalled in the animal kingdom only by the African elephant.
One of the less controversial but potentially most useful elements of the Act is Part 7, namely the introduction of a mechanism for land owners to enter into “conservation covenants”. What is this new beast?
In simple terms, a conservation covenant is a private voluntary agreement between a land owner and a local authority or other responsible body designated by the Secretary of State with commitments given by the land owner, enforceable against successors in title, to do or not do specified things on the land that have a “conservation purpose”.
The Law Commission first recommended in a 2014 report that this regime be introduced in legislation, given that existing legal mechanisms each have significant legal and/or practical limitations, for instance planning obligations need to fall within the types of commitment specified in section 106(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and regulation 122 of the CIL Regulations will often be a constraint on the authority’s ability to take the obligation into account in its decision making; restrictive covenants more generally carry with them the constraint of requiring the party with the benefit of the covenant to have an interest in land that will take the benefit of the covenant (the “dominant tenement” as any legal fule kno) and with the covenant having to be a negative obligation in order to be automatically enforceable against successors.
The Commission gave three examples of how conservation covenants might be used:
• “protecting woodland over the generations”
“Example: The owner of an extensive family estate, much of which is forested and used by the public for hiking, intends to leave the land to her children. She wants to ensure that the forest is maintained and that public access continues, but she is not sure that her children – or future generations – would share those priorities”
• “selling heritage property”
“Example: A heritage group has invested funds in buying and restoring a Tudor house. The organisation wishes to sell the property, but wants to ensure that the work it has undertaken, and the heritage value of the property, is preserved.”
• “”protecting a biodiversity offsetting site”
“Example: A local planning authority is faced with a planning application for an affordable housing development. The proposed development site is a wild flower meadow. If the development were to go ahead the meadow would be destroyed completely. In this instance the planning authority is willing to grant planning permission, provided the damage caused to the meadow is offset by the creation and long-term maintenance of a similar site elsewhere.”
DEFRA then carried out a consultation in 2019. Its subsequent response to the consultation process confirmed that it would proceed with legislation, by way of the Environment Bill, and would develop guidance.
The provisions in Part 7 of the Act the provisions do indeed give effect to what was proposed. For a good summary I recommend that you look at the explanatory notes to the Act (pages 132 to 141). Some highlights from that summary:
• It must be apparent from the agreement that the parties intend to create a conservation covenant.
• Any provision must be of a “qualifying kind”, which can take one of two forms. “First, it may require the landowner to do, or not to do, something on specified land in England, or require the landowner to allow the responsible body to do something on such land. Second, it may require the responsible body to do something on such land.” The agreement can also include ancillary provisions.
• The land owner must have a “qualifying estate” in the land – namely a freehold interest or a leasehold estate of more than seven years.
• A conservation purpose “extends to the natural environment of the land, such as plants and animals and their habitats; the land’s natural resources, such as water on the land; the land as a place of archaeological, architectural, artistic, cultural or historic interest; and the setting of the land. The reference to setting provides for the protection of land around a conservation site, which may affect its conservation status. For example, the architectural or artistic value of a country house could derive in part from the landscape in which it is set.” This is important! Conservation covenants are not just about nature conservation but can also be used in relation to, for instance, heritage conservation (see back to that second example from the Law Commission report).
• Bodies (including local authorities) need to apply to the Secretary of State to be designated by the Secretary of State to be a responsible body. If not a local body, the applicant body “will, additionally, have to satisfy the Secretary of State that at least some of its main purposes, functions or activities relate to conservation”. Criteria will need to be published by the Secretary of State. (Interesting that local authorities are not automatically designated).
• A conservation covenant is a local land charge and once registered is effective against subsequent owners of the land. It has indefinite effect unless otherwise stated in the agreement (and subject to the length of the relevant lease if entered into by a leaseholder). Enforcement will usually be by way of seeking an injunction or order for specific performance. It can be discharged or modified by agreement or by application to the Upper Tribunal.
• Section 135 (1) “gives the High Court, the county court or the Upper Tribunal, on application of any person interested, the power to make a declaration as to the validity of a conservation covenant, whether land is subject to an obligation under a conservation covenant, who is bound by or has the benefit of such an obligation, and the true construction (that is, meaning) of such an obligation. It will be for the court or the Upper Tribunal to decide whether an applicant has sufficient interest to make an application. The power to make a declaration extends to any agreement or order that modifies a conservation covenant. A person might seek a declaration under subsection (1) in circumstances where they needed to know the status of a conservation covenant – for example, in order to resist an action enforcing a breach or because the land was wanted for a different use.”
There is no news yet as to when the Regulations will be made to bring Part 7 into force. The biodiversity net gain provisions are likely to be a couple of years away from being switched on. Let’s hope that conservation covenants are not that far off, although of course we do need some good guidance to accompany what could prove to be a well-used procedure, because the opportunities for use of conservation covenants are wide: commitments to provide biodiversity net gain off-site are an obvious example but think also about commitments in relation to offsetting to address nitrate, phosphate or water neutrality for instance, as well as commitments which might previously have involved transferring land to a conservation or heritage group – the land will now be able to be retained with long term commitments given by way of a CC.
This week’s Clubhouse session (6pm 7 December) will be a descent into the strange world of planning enforcement. Whatever your perspective, Scott Stemp and Nicola Gooch will be leading us through the murky depths. Stories welcome. Link to app here.
Just as solutions are beginning to emerge to unlock the development embargos that have been in place in many areas due to the nutrient neutrality issue, areas of Sussex now have a new problem: water.
For over two years now, where the integrity of special areas of conservation or special protection areas (areas of nature conservation importance previously protected at EU level) are already under stress due to nitrate or phosphate pollution (usually due to historic farming practices), Natural England has been advising local planning authorities that an appropriate assessment cannot be reached under regulation 63 of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 to the effect that further development, causing additional sewage or surface water run-off will not affect the integrity of nearby SACs and SPAs unless measures will are secured to achieve neutrality, either on or off site. Under the 2017 Regulations, unless a development can pass that appropriate assessment test it’s stuffed, no go.
Topically, HBF’s director for cities, James Stevens, has written an article Wading through the effluent in the October 2021 edition of Housebuilder magazine as to the problems being caused to housebuilders by needing to achieve nutrient neutrality, even where a technical solution can be found – the average costs being apparently over £5,000 per dwelling.
But those involved with development in Horsham, Crawley and Chichester, which fall within the Sussex North Water Supply Zone, are all now faced with an even more challenging issue: the potential need to demonstrate water neutrality. Natural England has become increasingly concerned as to the impact of groundwater abstraction on the Arun Valley SPA, SAC and Ramsar site. It has recently published its Position Statement for Applications within the Sussex North Water Supply Zone – interim approach (September 2021):
“Natural England has advised that this matter should be resolved in partnership through Local Plans across the affected authorities, where policy and assessment can be agreed and secured to ensure water use is offset for all new developments within Sussex North. To achieve this Natural England is working in partnership with all the relevant authorities to secure water neutrality collectively through a water neutrality strategy.
Whilst the strategy is evolving, Natural England advises that decisions on planning applications should await its completion. However, if there are applications which a planning authority deems critical to proceed in the absence of the strategy, then Natural England advises that any application needs to demonstrate water neutrality. We have provided the following agreed interim approach for demonstrating water neutrality:
The relevant authorities are now advising applicants accordingly. Crawley Borough Council’s website for instance now says this:
“Developers / planning applicants who can demonstrate water neutrality such as having significant water efficiency measures built into their development and by providing offsetting measures to reduce water consumption from existing development, and who are able to enter into legal obligations to secure these measures, would be able to proceed, subject to the planning process. The onus is on developers and planning applicants to demonstrate that they can deliver water neutrality for their proposals. For applications in these circumstances which are not able to do this, the Local Planning Authority [the council] when determining a decision, would unfortunately have no choice but to refuse them, as a matter of law, in light of the Natural England Statement.
The Local Planning Authority [the council] has written urgently to agents of affected applicants advising them of Natural England’s position and advising them that, for the time being, all applications where a positive decision / recommendation was / is to be made on an application will have to be delayed if they are within the Southern Water supply zone, until the matter of water neutrality can be addressed.”
Without speedy solutions, this is going to create real problems both for individual developers in the area and for authorities in bringing forward deliverable local plans.
No doubt there will be solutions in due course (and questions do have to be asked as to whether the issue really lies with the water abstraction licences, which presumably were the subject of appropriate assessment under the 2017 Regulations and their statutory predecessors, rather than with those who are seeking to have access the abstraction of which has already been licensed!) but how long will that take and at whose cost?
In the meantime, what an unplanned mess.
Simon Ricketts, 9 October 2021
Personal views, et cetera
Talking of Planning Law Unplanned…our clubhouse session will tackle this subject in more detail with practical, authoritative, input from special guests including Peter Home (mentioned above), Tim Goodwin, Charlie Banner QC, Richard Turney and others. Do join us at 6 pm on Tuesday 12 October. Link to app here.
We’re probably all increasingly familiar with the basic principles of biodiversity net gain. Even ahead of the statutory system being introduced which is the focus of this post, there is a growing policy basis for authorities to use at least a basic version of what is set out in the Environment Bill (although without any formal national prescription yet as to, for instance, the extent of net gain required or national process for the purchasing of credits).
The Environment Bill is reaching its final stages – report stage in the House of Lords is on 13 October 2021 and it then finally returns to the Commons (subject to the possibility of there then being some ping ponging between the Houses in relation to the Lords amendments I referred to in my 17 September 2021 blog post On Reshuffle Day, In Another Part Of The Forest) before receiving Royal Assent.
DEFRA indicated back in 2019 that once the Bill is enacted there will be a two year transitional period before the provisions on biodiversity net gain come into effect, but in that period there is going to be a lot of important stuff happening (and with the delays to the Bill whilst progress has been made on other aspects of the system might there be a prospect of that two years being abbreviated?). The robustness, and workability, of the system depends on:
⁃ sensible and efficient, but water-tight, administrative processes being set out in secondary legislation by way of regulations, for instance in relation to the pricing, availability and use of biodiversity credits
⁃ the availability of good data and methodologies (in relation to which Natural England has made good progress)
⁃ standardised, arrangements for securing long term (30 years plus) management arrangements by way of conservation covenants (not covered in this post but another crucial element of the Bill) and, our old friend, section 106 agreements
⁃ a workable system of monitoring and enforcement.
Before I briefly summarise the provisions on BNG in the Bill, given that the BNG system is going to live on for some time on a purely policy basis, I thought it was worth setting out that policy basis.
First of all there are relatively general references in the NPPF (extracts below showing amendments from the 2019 version).
There is more useful detail in the “net gain” passages within the natural environment section of the Government’s planning practice guidance.
Local authorities are under a general duty under Section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 to have regard, in the exercise of their functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity, but the level to which they can prescribe particular approaches to BNG and the level of net gain required depends on whether they have policies in place addressing these matters – with the weight to be attached to the policy depending on the nature of the document.
Turning to the Bill itself, the provisions on biodiversity net gain comprise clauses 99 to 104 and schedules 14 and 15
Standard condition on planning permissions
Clause 99 introduces schedule 14, the effect of which I briefly summarise as follows:
• “The biodiversity gain objective is met in relation to development for which planning permission is granted if the biodiversity value attributable to the development exceeds the pre-development biodiversity value of the onsite habitat by at least the relevant percentage” which is 10% or such other percentage as is set out in regulations.
• The biodiversity value attributable to a development is “the post-development biodiversity value of the onsite habitat, (b) the biodiversity value, in relation to the development, of any registered offsite biodiversity gain allocated to the development”, and (c) the biodiversity value of any biodiversity credits purchased for the development”.
• The biodiversity metric is a document for measuring biodiversity value and it is to be published and updated from time to time by the Secretary of State.
• Pre-development biodiversity value for the site is measured as at the date of an application for planning permission (or the applicant and local planning authority may agree an earlier date). If activities are carried out on the land on or after 30 January 2020 without planning permission which reduce the biodiversity value of the onsite habitat, the biodiversity value is to be taken to be that which was the case immediately before those activities (a measure to avoid land owners intentionally reducing the pre-development biodiversity value).
• Post-development biodiversity value is “the projected value of the onsite habitat as at the time the development is completed”. There must be a condition or planning obligation requiring the habitat enhancement to be maintained for at least 30 years.
• Registered offsite biodiversity gain means any habitat enhancement where there is a legal commitment to carry it out and the enhancement is recorded in the biodiversity gain site register (see below).
• “Every planning permission granted for the development of land in England shall be deemed to have been granted subject to the condition” that a biodiversity gain plan has been submitted to and approved by the relevant planning authority.
• The biodiversity gain plan must show how the biodiversity gain objective is to be met either through on site enhancement by registered offsite biodiversity gain or by purchase of biodiversity credits. Regulations will set out the procedure the planning authority is to follow in determining whether to approve a biodiversity gain plan and the factors to be taken into account. At the moment there is no prioritising as between on-site, off-site and the purchasing of credits.
• The standard condition does not apply to development approved under a development order, on Crown land or any type of development which is specified within regulations as exempted.
• Regulations may modify or exclude these provisions for “irreplaceable habitat” and “must make provision requiring, in relation to any such development, the making of arrangements for the purpose of minimising the adverse effect of the development on the biodiversity of the onsite habitat”.
• There will be provisions in regulations to deal with the outline planning permissions, retrospective planning permissions and so on.
Clause 100 introduces schedule 15, which sets out how BNG works with in relation to nationally significant infrastructure projects, and the effect of which I briefly summarise as follows:
• If there is a national policy statement covering the type of development, it will be down to whether the national policy statement contains a biodiversity gain statement, in which case the biodiversity gain objective contained in the statement must be met.
• If there is no national policy statement covering the type of development, it will be down to whether the Secretary of State has made a biodiversity gain statement for that type of development, in which case the biodiversity gain objective contained in the statement must be met.
Biodiversity gain register
Clause 101 enables the Secretary of State to make regulations providing for a register of biodiversity gain sites – land which is legally required by conservation covenant (a binding mechanism provided for elsewhere in the Bill) or planning obligation to be maintained for habitat enhancement for at least 30 years and the “enhancement is made available to be allocated (conditionally or unconditionally, and whether for consideration or otherwise) in accordance with the terms of the covenant or obligation to one or more developments for which planning permission is granted”. The regulations will provide for the register to be open to the public, who should maintain it (the Secretary of State, Natural England “or any other person”), the information it includes and the procedure to be followed for a site to be placed on the register.
Clause 102 allows the Secretary of State to “make arrangements under which a person who is entitled to carry out the development of any land may purchase a credit from the Secretary of State for the purpose of meeting the biodiversity gain objective”, including the biodiversity value of a credit, its pricing and procedural arrangements, including “reimbursement for credits purchased for development which is not carried out”. “In determining the amount payable under the arrangements for a credit of a given value the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to determine an amount which does not discourage the registration of land in the biodiversity gain sites register.” Payments must only be used by the Secretary of State for the carrying out of habitat enhancement works on land in England, purchasing the necessary land and operating the arrangements. He must report annually on payments received/used.
This is such a big subject and it’s only going to get bigger.
“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.
– 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.
Thanks to my colleague Stephanie Bruce-Smith for some background research. All errors mine.
This post collects together in one place some of the recent planning, environmental and compulsory purchase litigation in relation to the High Speed Two rail project.
R (Keir) v Natural England (16 April 2021, Lang J; further hearing before Holgate J, 23 April 2021, judgment reserved)
This is the interim injunction granted by Lang J preventing HS2 and its contractors from varying out works at Jones’ Hill Wood, Buckinghamshire, until either the disposal of the claim or a further order.
The claim itself has Natural England as the defendant and seeks to challenge its grant of a licence under the Conservation of Habitats Regulations 2017 in relation to works that may disturb a protected species of bat.
The question as to whether the injunction should be maintained came back to court yesterday, 23 April, before Holgate J, as well as whether permission should be granted in the claim itself, and he has reserved judgment until 2pm on 26 April.
Secretary of State for Transport v Curzon Park Limited (Court of Appeal hearing, 21 and 22 April 2021, judgment reserved)
This was an appeal by the Secretary of State for Transport against a ruling by the Upper Tribunal on 23 January 2020. My Town Legal colleagues Raj Gupta and Paul Arnett have been acting for the first respondent, landowner Curzon Park Limited, instructing James Pereira QC and Caroline Daly. Thank you Paul for this summary:
The case concerns certificates of appropriate alternative development (‘CAADs’) under the Land Compensation Act 1961. A CAAD is a means of applying to the local planning authority to seek a determination as to what the land could have been used for if the CPO scheme did not exist. Its purpose it to identify every description of development for which planning permission could reasonably have been expected to be granted on the valuation date if the land had not been compulsorily purchased. Importantly, subject to a right of appeal, the grant of a CAAD conclusively establishes that the development is what is known as ‘appropriate alternative development’. This is significant as:
• When compensation is assessed it must be assumed that planning permission for that development(s) in the CAAD either was in force at the valuation date or would with certainty be in force at some future date and
• Following reforms in the Localism Act 2001, where there is, at the valuation date, a reasonable expectation of a particular planning permission being granted (disregarding the CPO scheme and CPO) contained in a CAAD it is assumed that the planning permission is in force which converts the reasonable expectation into a certainty.
There are four adjoining sites, each compulsorily acquired by HS2 for the purposes of constructing the Curzon Street HS2 station terminus at Cuzon Street Birmingham – four different landowners and four different valuation dates (i.e. vesting dates under the GVD process). Each landowner applied for a CAAD for mixed use development including purpose-build student accommodation (PBSA). In the real world, the cumulative effects of the proposed adjoining developments (e.g. including but not limited to the proposed quantum and need for PBSA in light of a PBSA need in the local plan) would have been a material planning consideration. However, Birmingham City Council considered each CAAD application in isolation. The Secretary of State argued that they should have considered the other CAAD applications as notional planning applications and, therefore, as material considerations which would have been very likely to result in CAADs issued for smaller scale mixed-used development being issued leading to a lower total compensation award and bill for HS2. The preliminary legal issue to be determined by the Upper Tribunal and now the Court of Appeal is:
‘Whether, and if so how, in determining an application for a certificate of appropriate alternative development under section 17 LCA 1961 (CAAD) the decision-maker in determining the development for which planning permission could reasonably have been expected to be granted for the purposes of section 14 LCA 1961 may take into account the development of other land where such development is proposed as appropriate alternative development in other CAAD applications made or determined arising from the compulsory acquisition of land for the same underlying scheme’.
The Upper Tribunal had rejected the landowners’ argument that the scheme cancellation assumption (i.e. disregarding the CPO scheme) under the Land Compensation Act 1961 required CAAD applications on other sites to be disregarded. However, critically, the Tribunal agreed with the landowners’ that CAAD applications were not a material planning consideration and that there was no statutory basis for treating them as notional planning applications as the Secretary of State has argued. The Tribunal also disagreed with the Secretary of State that the landowners’ interpretation of the statutory scheme would lead to excessive compensation pointing out that the landowners’ ability to develop their own land in their own interests was taken away when their land was safeguarded for HS2 and from November 2013 when the HS2 scheme was launched until 2018 when the land interests were finally acquired by HS2 any planning permissions for these sites would have been determined in the shadow of the HS2 scheme and safeguarding of the land. The Secretary of State appealed the Upper Tribunal decision and the Court of Appeal granted permission to appeal in July 2020 noting that the appeal raises an important point on the principle of equivalence (i.e. the principle underpinning the CPO Compensation Code) that a landowner should be no worse off but no better off in financial terms after the acquisition than they were before) which may have widespread consequences for the cost of major infrastructure projects.
A judgment from the Court of Appeal (Lewison LJ, Lindblom LJ and Moylan LJ) is expected in the next month or so.
This was an appeal against the refusal by HS2 Limited to disclose, pursuant to the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, information as to the potential effect of its works on chalk aquifers in the Colne Valley. The information requested was as follows:
“What risk assessments have taken place, of the potential increased risk to controlled waters as a result of imminent works by HS2 contractors along the Newyears Green bourne and surrounding wetland?
Are any of the risk assessments independent from the developers (HS2) and where are the risk assessment (sic) accessible to the public?”
By the time of the hearing before the First Tier Tribunal, three reports had been disclosed, redacted. The Tribunal summarised the issues before it as follows:
“(1) whether HS2 correctly identified the three reports as being the environmental information which Ms Green requested and whether there was further material held which came within the request;
(2) whether at the time of Ms Green’s request the three reports were “still in the course of completion” or comprised “unfinished documents” and, if so, whether the public interest in maintaining the regulation 12(4)(d) exception outweighed that in disclosure;
(3) whether disclosure of those parts of the three reports which have been redacted in reliance on regulation 12(5)(a) would have adversely affected “public safety” and, if so, whether the public interest in maintaining the regulation 12(5)(a) exception outweighed the public interest in their disclosure.”
The Tribunal found, expressing its reasoning in strong terms, that the public interest in disclosure outweighed the public interest in maintaining any exemption.
“The reports in question in this case concern a major infrastructure project which gives rise to substantial and legitimate environmental concerns. They specifically relate to the risks of contamination to the drinking water supplied to up to 3.2 million people resulting from the construction of the HS2 line. This is clearly environmental information of a fundamental nature of great public interest.”
HS2 appeared to be concerned that “if the versions of the reports current in January 2019 were made public they “… could have been used to try and impact work undertaken in finalising the information”.
“It seems to us that such an approach almost entirely negates the possibility of the public having any input on the decision-making process in this kind of case, which goes against a large part of the reason for allowing public access to environmental information.
The suggestion that public officials concerned in making enquiries and freely discussing options to mitigate environmental problems might be discouraged or undermined by early disclosure of their work seems to us rather fanciful and was not supported by any kind of evidence; the case is not comparable in our view to that of senior officials indulging in “blue sky” thinking about policy options. We accept that the material is “highly technical” but we cannot see why a lack of understanding on the part of the public would have any negative impact on HS2’s work; if a member of the public or a pressure group wanted to contribute to the debate in a way that was likely to have any effect on the decision-making process they would no doubt have to engage the services of someone like Dr Talbot, who would be able to enter the debate in a well- informed and helpful way.”
“HS2’s second main point, that the Environment Agency will be approving and supervising everything, does not seem to us of great weight. Of course the Environment Agency is there to act in the public interest in relation to the environment but its involvement cannot be any kind of answer to the need for public knowledge of and involvement in environmental decisions. The EA is itself fallible and should be open to scrutiny. If the public could simply entrust everything to it there would be no need for the EIR.
HS2’s third main point is that if inchoate information is released it could be misleading and they would incur unnecessary expense correcting false impressions. We were not presented with any specific evidence or examples to illustrate how this problem might have been encountered in practice. It does not seem to us a very compelling point.”
This was an interim ruling in an application for judicial review, made only nine days previously, of the decision by HS2 Limited to extract the protesters that were occupying the tunnel under Euston Square Gardens and alleging a failure to safely manage Euston Square Gardens in a manner compatible with HS2 Limited’s obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights. It followed a rejection of an application by Mr Maxey for an interim injunction and followed an order made requiring him to cease any further tunnelling activity, to provide certain categories of information to HS2 Limited or others and to leave the tunnel safely, with which he had not complied.
At the hearing, Mr Maxey was renewing his “application for orders requiring (a) the cessation of operations to extract the protesters from the tunnel and (b) to implement an exclusion zone. In addition, the Claimant has expanded the interest relief he seeks to include provision forthwith by the Defendant of (a) oxygen monitoring equipment; (b) a hard-wired communication method; (c) food and drinking water for the Claimant and the protesters; and (d) to make arrangements for the removal of human waste from the tunnel.” He was also seeking to overturn the orders against him.
The judge rejected Mr Maxey’s arguments:
“While I accept that the Defendant is (or at the very least there is a good argument that the Defendant is) currently under a duty to take all reasonable steps to protect those in the tunnel under the site (including the Claimant) from death or serious injury, on the evidence before me there is no realistic prospect of the Court finding that the Defendant is breaching its duty. In my judgment, the claim for interim relief does not meet the first test.
That suffices to dispose of the interim relief application. But if it were necessary to consider the balance of convenience, I would have to bear in mind the strong public interest in permitting a public authority’s decision (here a decision to proceed with the operation and a decision as to the necessary safeguards) to remain in force pending a final hearing of the application for judicial review, so the party applying for interim relief must make out a strong case for the grant of interim relief. The Claimant has not come close to establishing a strong enough case to justify the Court stopping the operations to remove those who are in the tunnel, given the compelling evidence as to how dangerous it is for them to remain there.”
I summarised this case in my 9 January 2021 blog post Judges & Climate Change. It was Chris Packham’s failed challenge to the Government’s decision to continue with the HS2 project following the review carried out by Douglas Oakervee, the grounds considered by the Court of Appeal being “whether the Government erred in law by misunderstanding or ignoring local environmental concerns and failing to examine the environmental effects of HS2 as it ought to have done” and “whether the Government erred in law by failing to take account of the effect of the project on greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2050, in the light of the Government’s obligations under the Paris Agreement and the Climate Change Act 2008”.
This case was heard consecutively with the Packham appeal. It related to Hillingdon’s challenge to the Secretary of State’s decision to allow (against his inspector’s recommendations) an appeal against Hillingdon’s refusal to grant HS2 Limited’s application for approval, under the Act authorising the relevant stage of the HS2 project, of plans and specifications for proposed works associated with the creation of the Colne Valley Viaduct South Embankment wetland habitat ecological mitigation. HS2 Limited had refused to provide Hillingdon with information so that an assessment could be made as to the effect of the proposed works on archaeological remains, HS2 Limited’s position being that it was “under no obligation to furnish such information and evidence. It says that this is because it will, in due course, conduct relevant investigations itself into the potential impact of the development upon any archaeological remains and take all necessary mitigation and modification steps. HS2 Ltd says that it will do this under a guidance document which forms part of its contract with the Secretary of State for Transport which sets out its obligations as the nominated undertaker for the HS2 Project.”
Lang J had upheld the Secretary of State’s decision but this was overturned by the Court of Appeal:
“The key to this case lies in a careful reading of Schedule 17 and the powers and obligations it imposes upon local authorities and upon HS2 Ltd. In our judgment, the duty to perform an assessment of impact, and possible mitigation and modification measures under Schedule 17, has been imposed by Parliament squarely and exclusively upon the local authority. It cannot be circumvented by the contractor taking it upon itself to conduct some non-statutory investigation into impact. We also conclude that the authority is under no duty to process a request for approval from HS2 Ltd unless it is accompanied by evidence and information adequate and sufficient to enable the authority to perform its statutory duty.”
[Subsequent note: Please also see London Borough of Hillingdon v Secretary of State for Transport (Ouseley J, 13 April 2021), “Hillingdon 2” where on the facts Ouseley J reached a different conclusion, holding that an inspector had not acted unlawfully in determining an appeal without information sought by the council from HS2 Limited as to the lorry routes to be used by construction lorries to and from the HS2 construction sites within its area].
This was a judicial review claim brought by the owner of a listed Georgian building near Regents Park. The property was separated by a large retaining wall, built in 1901, from the perimeter of the existing railway. “It rests approximately 17 metres from the front of the property and the drop from the level of the road to the railway below is approximately 10 metres. Unsurprisingly, given that the substrate is London clay, the wall has suffered periodic movement and shows signs of cracking. The Claimant’s expert says that it is “metastable”.”
The claimant was concerned as to the engineering solution arrived at for that section of the route, which was known as the Three Tunnels design. “This judicial review challenge is directed to the safety of the Three Tunnels design in the specific context of the outbound tunnel travelling so close to the base of the retaining wall. It is contended on the back of expert engineering evidence that this aspect of the design has engendered an engineering challenge which is insurmountable: in the result, the design is inherently dangerous. The risk is of catastrophic collapse of the retaining wall, either during the tunnelling works or subsequently, which would if it arose cause at the very least serious damage to the Claimant’s property. Consequently, the Claimant asserts a breach of section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 because her rights under Article 8 and A1P1 of the Convention have been violated.”
The judge boiled the questions down to the following:
“has the Claimant demonstrated that she is directly and seriously affected by the implementation of the Three Tunnels design, given the risk of catastrophic collapse identified by Mr Elliff? In my view, that question sub-divides into the following:
(1) should I conclude on all the evidence that the Three Tunnels design is so inherently flawed in the vicinity of the retaining wall that no engineering solution could be found to construct it safely? and
(2) have the Defendants already committed themselves to implement the Three Tunnels design regardless of any further work to be undertaken under Stage 2?
After detailed consideration of expert engineering expert on both sides, the judge rejected the claim.
This was a compulsory purchase case, about whether an owner of four units on the Saltley Business Park in Birmingham, faced with compulsory purchase of one of them, had served counter-notices in time such as to trigger its potential ability to require acquisition of its interests in all four buildings. The court ruled that it had not.
It certainly seems an age since R (HS2 Action Alliance) v Secretary of State for Transport (Supreme Court, 22 January 2014) where in a previous law firm life I acted for the claimant, instructing David Elvin QC and Charlie Banner (now QC). The case concerned whether the publication by the Government of its command paper, “High Speed Rail: Investing in Britain’s Future – Decisions and Next Steps” engaged strategic environmental assessment requirements and whether the hybrid bill procedure would comply with the requirements of the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive (for more on the HS2 hybrid bill procedure, see my 30 July 2016 blog post HS2: The Very Select Committeehttps://simonicity.com/2016/07/30/hs2-the-very-select-committee/). The loss still grates. And in consequence of that ruling…
There’s a slow, slow train comin’.
Simon Ricketts, 24 April 2021
Personal views, et cetera
Thank you to my Town Legal colleague Lida Nguyen for collating a number of these cases.
Our clubhouse Planning Law, Unplanned session at 6pm on 27 April will follow a similar theme, so if you are interested in issues relating to HS2 or in wider questions as to judicial review, interim injunctions, access to information or compulsory purchase compensation, do join us, whether to contribute to the discussion or just listen in. As always, contact me if you would like an invitation to the clubhouse app (which is still iphone only I’m afraid).