The more things change...
By David Walker, Director – Environment / Air Quality and Acoustics
While our politicians, bankers and business leaders pick their way through the ramifications of the Brexit vote, many stakeholders are beginning to focus on issues and influences that may exercise a more subtle, but nonetheless significant, influence on their operations.
This includes the environmental legislation that must be followed by the land development sector in order to ensure the smoothest possible delivery of large and complex schemes. Much of this legislation has found its way on to the UK’s statute books from directives and regulations originating in Brussels. So what can we expect going forward? Is our green and pleasant land in peril as a result of our departure from the EU? And what changes might we expect in legislative terms over the coming months as we navigate our way through uncharted waters?
In all likelihood, it’s unlikely that anything significant will alter for at least three years, given that the negotiating period provided for under Article 50 will continue for two years at least. The environment is some way down the present government’s agenda; and with the complexities of primary legislation derived from EU regulations, directives and decisions as transposed into UK law still to be untangled, don’t expect any radical changes soon.
What is most likely in the short to medium term is a slow down or complete cessation of the implementation of EU directives into UK law, so it is unlikely that the new EIA regulations 2017 (to be transposed from EU directive 2014/52/EU) will materialise as expected and therefore there is the possibility that the requirement to include Health Impact Assessment (HIA) may be diluted. On the flip side, whilst the implementation of upcoming legislation borne from the EU may enter a period of torpor, there is no reason to suppose that our existing environmental regulatory framework, whether based on EU regulation or EU directives as transposed, will be dismantled overnight and our protected environmental capital imperilled.
The eventual outcome will depend heavily on the nature of the eventual relationship that the UK negotiates with the EU after Brexit. EU legislation has two strands – one which only applies to EU member states, and another which has ‘EEA relevance’ and therefore applies to all member states of the European Economic Area (EEA). If the outcome of the UK’s negotiations with the EU is to become part of the EEA, then certain laws will continue to apply.
Those who fear a return to the ‘bad old days’ of polluted beaches, overfished seas and our waste being dumped in poorly managed landfills or worse, at sea, are remembering a time when our scientific understanding of the interaction of environmental systems was less advanced, our economy was weak and faltering following the sequential economic, labour and energy crises of the 1960s and 70s, and there were more pressing issues to address.
There is no reason to assume that the result of last month’s referendum heralds a slow and painful slide back to these grim times. We have come a long way since then. Our collective consciousness concerning the environment is much more developed, there is a greater awareness of environmental issues generally, and our statute books are full of both native and EU-derived law to protect the environment.
The UK has a track record for leading the way on environmental protection legislation on numerous fronts, and has proposed legislation which has been subsequently adopted elsewhere. It would not be in our interest to dismantle these until we have clarity on where the various negotiations might lead and the obligations and requirements that go with them. Indeed, on 5 July, London Mayor Sadiq Khan unveiled plans to consult on the implementation of an Ultra-Low Emission Zone in the capital, in the toughest crackdown of its type in any major city in the world. The announcement was made to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Clean Air Act.
What we now have in the UK is a lengthy record of positive environmental action. We can be proud of what we have achieved, and rest assured that even if political circumstances delay forward movement, our standards are now too deeply entrenched for any backsliding. Whatever our future relationship with the continent, we will never again be seen as “the dirty man of Europe.”