964: Infrastructure planning environmental miscellany
Today’s entry reports on some infrastructure developments related to the environment.
First, the committee considering the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill has considered Part 5, which is the part concerned with replacing environmental impact assessment with Environmental Outcomes Reports. No changes were made to the clauses in Part 5, but the minister, Paul Scully MP, made some useful comments on the intention of each clause in the ‘stand part’ debate after any amendments were considered. The Hansard report of the relevant committee session can be found here.
Of particular note on the outcomes themselves he said:
‘The outcomes will be fairly high level and user-friendly, simply setting out environmental priorities. It will be the job of indicators underpinning those outcomes to measure the delivery towards the outcomes. Indicators will be created and outlined in guidance for the different types of plans and projects and for different spatial scales. For example, indicators could set out which air pollutants should be measured and against which limits to measure the contribution towards an air-quality outcome seeking to reduce emissions.’
If you want to find out more about what is currently known about Environmental Outcomes Reports, how I think they will work and why I disagree with the reference to ‘indicators’ above, please sign up to my webinar at 10am on 28 September, here.
Secondly, the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice MP, has had to issue a correction. In July he told the Environmental Audit Committee that Best and Most Versatile Land, on which solar farms should not be built, was grade 3b land or better. He has written to say he meant better than 3b, ie not including 3b.
In a Parthian shot he still says that land of grade 4 or below should be preferred to 3b and that the new leader of the Conservative Party has pledged to take further action to strengthen protections for agricultural land.
Thirdly, as we previously commented it might be good-bye to Statements of Common Ground (SoCG) and hello to Principal Areas of Disagreement Statements (PADS). You’ll recall that on the A66 dualling project across the Pennines, the Examining Authority asked for ten ‘principal areas of disagreement summary statements’ from main parties, with column headings (slightly paraphrased) ‘Issue’ ‘Brief concern’ ‘What needs to change to overcome the disagreement’ and ‘Likelihood of the concern being addressed during the Examination’. That certainly appears to be cutting to the chase, but they have recently been published and might not have fulfilled their initial promise in every case.
The one from Cumbria County Council has 54 entries (these are just the principal areas, mind you) and for the last column in every single case they have said ‘there is a need for the Council to be adequately resourced…’ The one from Eden District Council (in Cumbria) has 99 issues and adds the Cumbria ones for good measure. They also all say they need to be adequately resourced, but at least preface this with ‘these issues can be addressed and resolved during the examination stage’. The one from Durham County Council just has three issues, one of which they think can be resolved. The Environment Agency thinks its eight issues have a ‘high likelihood’ of being resolved.
We shall see if this trial is extended to other projects. I still think it’s a good idea, not least that PADS is easier to pronounce than SoCG.
Fourthly, the Thurrock Flexible Generation Plant DCO was granted earlier this year, and some common land was involved. Because you can’t deregister common land unless you are compulsorily acquiring the land, the applicant had to do that separately and it has just been granted. It does raise the question: why shouldn’t a DCO be able to de-register common land (where replacement land is being provided) without compulsory acquisition being necessary? One solution is to simply follow the TWAO regime and allow DCOs to modify the application of the Commons Act 2006 as per our suggestion here.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that the Sunnica Energy Farm has yet to have Part 2 of its Preliminary Meeting. Part 1 was held on 26 July, and the ExA has made a procedural decision to hold Part 2 on the 28th September. The immediate cause for delay appears to be changes made to that application following representations from National Grid. Two-day preliminary meetings, introduced for Covid, have largely been abandoned now, having two possible half days on the same day instead, so this is a bit of an outlier. It is the biggest gap so far, although the above-mentioned Thurrock Flexible Generation Plant was going to have a four-month gap but then didn’t hold part 2 after all (the examination was still held to have started on the second date, though).