Royal Commission Study of Environmental Planning

Royal Commission Study of Environmental Planning

Royal Commission Study of Environmental Planning

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution study of environmental planning. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows with direct experience of environmental issues.

One of the biggest problems in relation to environmental planning relates to the piecemeal approach which has generally characterised the work to date. This has led to a problem of cumulative effects with each small development having a small effect, probably of little importance by itself, but when aggregated to the whole, potentially very damaging. There is also a need for consideration of the marine environment and in particular the coastal zone. This area is governed by national and International legislation and by agreements which must be taken into account when establishing a framework for environmental planning onshore, especially where pollution control, the development of major new coastal construction sites and resource exploitation are being considered.

One other issue relates to the fact that the enforcement of planning conditions is not sufficient. This is due to resource constraints in relation to inspection and the lack offollow-up monitoring. Possible areas for consideration include, should the public sector (for example, the regulators) pay for the monitoring, or should the developer pay, and what would be the impact on public confidence of the results?

The specific areas of consideration are addressed below:

1. Environmental sustainability - Has the pursuit of sustainable development as the broad objective of policy had favourable or unfavourable consequencesfor protection of the environment? To the extent that consequences have been unfavourable, how could that best be remedied?

In general, the effects of policies have had a beneficial effect on most areas of environmental sustainability and have changed the climate of opinion within which development has to operate. However, there are some difficult balances to be found where the quest for ‘environmental sustainability’ prejudices economic sustainability. In some cases loss of the latter has a long-term impact on the former. Typical examples of this are found in the need to maintain economic activities in rural areas so as to ensure the husbandry of the land. In addition, actions which might be regarded as 'sustainable' at one level (e.g. national), may not be so at another (e.g. local).

Can environmental objectives always be balanced against other issues or are there environmental imperatives? If so, how are they (or how should they be) determined?

Environmental objectives cannot always be balanced against other issues. There are environmental imperatives, for example, in National Nature Reserves, Special Areas of Conservation and other reserve areas, or where endangered habitats or localities particularly rich in biodiversity are likely to be damaged or permanently lost. In some cases, however, it may be essential to accept short-term limited damage to the environment as a basis for a longer-term gain. The over-riding imperative should be 'The public good'.

What regulatory approaches are likely to be the most effective and practicable to protect the environment, in both measurable terms, e.g. water, soil and air quality, and less tangible aspects, e.g. landscape and amenity?

It is questionable whether the objectives can be achieved by regulation – which tends to be a rather blunt instrument. There are strong arguments, in the case of land management for example, that a better approach is through the use of Codes of Good Practice. This is recognised in the current Scottish proposals for land reform (see Land Reform Group; Recommendations for Action – Scottish Office January 1999).

Some aspects of the environment (e.g. water supplies) are already subject to quite stringent regulation and a more regulatory approach might provoke an adverse reaction. Depending upon local needs and political make up, the environment tends to become a low priority for local authorities, as there are no immediate and tangible rewards for adopting a sustainable development policy. Planning authorities, however, need more powers to regulate the quality of design in development and to limit the intrusion of large-scale operations (e.g. in quarrying and open-cast mining).

In practice, to what extent does land use planning still embody a presumptionin favour of development? Has the legislative change to a plan-led system given land use planning the potential to become a more effective instrument for achieving environmental sustainability? Is any further change necessary, and, if so, what?

Evidence at the local level does suggest that planning is less effective than it should be, since environment-sensitive plans are liable to be over-ridden by elected representatives for short-term economic reasons. The legislative changes have been valuable, but should be backed up by financial sanctions.

In practice, how far have planning regimes in general moved from "predict and provide" to "plan, monitor and manage" to avoid environmentally unsustainable outcomes?

Planning regimes have yet to fully move from the "predict and provide" focus to the "plan, monitor and manage". In large measure, the appraisal process of seeking to accommodate development in the least damaging and most effective locations has, together with other environmental policies which safeguard development, generally been a successful feature of the development plan system. The shift of emphasis would require a much quicker turn round in plan preparation and approval procedures than currently available and, in terms of much of Scotland's interest, not necessarily have a significant change of outcome. It would, however, be helpful for there to be a statutory, or regulatory, requirement for the undertaking of strategic environmental appraisals of development plans in order to clarify the consistency, or otherwise, of policies within plans and between plans. This problem has been tackled by a number of councils in Scotland and yet there is no clear guidance from Government despite the imminent introduction of a European Directive on this subject.

Do current arrangements for environmental planning sufficiently take into account the cumulative impacts of developments?

This appears to vary from area to area. Cumulative impacts of developments can also take a long time to assess. One way of revisiting this subject could be to place a requirement on those significant developments required to undertake Environmental Impact Statements, for the effects of the development to be reported to the local council five years after the completion of the physical development. This would enable an appreciation of the accuracy of such statements as well as assessing the effect of one development on another. It is fairly unusual for councils to be looking at cumulative impacts in the abstract.

What are the implications of long-term risks, such as those posed by climate change or persistent waste, for environmental planning? Can planning systems become drivers for limiting the extent of damage from unavoidable climate change?

It is at present difficult to take planning account of long-term environmental change. It is probably a minor consideration in most planning assessments, although it may feature more strongly in river basin and coastal considerations. For example, provisions have been brought in through National Planning Policy Guideline (NPPG) 6 (on Flooding) for the setting up of flood alleviation groups to examine areas of potential flooding, and to prepare management measures to ensure that development is not allowed to take place in areas prone to flooding. This, however, becomes a complex and potentially expensive field of activity for which local authorities are not adequately equipped, even though they are expected to chair such groups on a river basin basis.

The challenge posed by waste is currently addressed through a series of targets for recycling and reduction, and the obligations arising from NPPG 8 on waste management and Scotland's National Waste Strategy. Identification of potential landfill sites is often not being undertaken within local plans due to the costs associated with such identification. Rather, the market is being guided in a similar way to that of indicative forestry strategies, through areas which might have potential. Consequently it is still questionable whether the planning system has become the driver for change.

To what extent does the achievement of environmental sustainability depend on permitted uses being time limited?

There are instances where a time-limited use of land could avoid long-term environmental damage and because consequences cannot always be fully predicted at the start. For example, there are still valid permissions for peat extraction in habitats now recognised as of international value and under serious threat of extinction.

2. Boundaries

To what extent does a mismatch between administrative areas and environmental processes contribute to environmentally unsustainable planning, for instance in river catchments or along coastlines? What should be done about it?

There is a need to take a more holistic view, not just of a single site but of its environs. Planning that relates to development in one place may have an effect on the whole of the catchment within which that development is taking place, including major areas of freshwater within the catchment. Recent EU directives on catchment planning are therefore a move in the right direction. The shore-line also marks a sharp break between one set of environmental planning structures which are pretty comprehensive and another which are extremely weak. This is an important concern in Scotland which has more than 90% of the UK’s freshwater resources. A flexible approach, (enabling appropriate partners to become involved according to the subject or process being assessed), is needed, with co-operation between planning authorities, and close co-ordination between national and international agencies.

The interaction of land-use planning decisions, and their implementation, with the marine environment is also an important topic. The latter is exploited by society for fishing, fish farming, energy, minerals, defence, leisure and waste disposal matters. Traditionally, the various laws regarding planning only extend to the low-water mark of ordinary tides. There is therefore a discontinuity between the land, which includes the intertidal strip, and subtidal areas. The need for a holistic approach is particularly important in the estuaries, coastal zones and shallow seas, where the natural processes in operation impact on both the on-shore and off-shore environments, and where anthropogenic inputs can be critical.

What problems arise from different plans being produced and implemented for overlapping geographical areas?

Problems can arise when plans are produced for geographical areas without reference to underlying natural distributions. Better regional databases and administrative coordination would be beneficial, together with a degree of joint working and co-operation between officers in overlapping areas.

Should the land use planning system be responsible for helping to deliver policy targets in other areas such as transport, energy, water provision, flood protection, climate change and nature conservation?

The land use planning system should co-operate with the agencies responsible for the other areas listed to produce agreed plans, and all should be required to incorporate environmental and land-use considerations into their policies and targets. The classical 'sieve' approach to land-use planning could also be relevant for determining target areas for conservation or development. In this approach, superimposed plans for each input are considered, for example,. transport, energy, mineral extraction, water supply, forestry, agriculture, S.S.S.I.s and National Parks.

How might geographical information systems (GIS) contribute to environmental planning in both the short and long term? What problems are associated with data accessibility and quality, and how might they be addressed?

GIS are invaluable tools in facilitating environmental planning. Their creation should be encouraged and funded. GIS systems, however, have to be mapped very accurately and so far the evidence seems to suggest that it is going to be an expensive and long-term operation to ensure that the mapping into the computer system is sufficiently accurate for confidence by users. Nevertheless, the relationships between different data sets, particularly linking social and economic issues with environmental data, are extremely important in scenario planning.

Does the lack of control over certain activities, such as forestry and agriculture, prejudice the achievement of environmental goals? If so, what would be the effect of introducing such controls?

The lack of control over forestry and agriculture has certainly prejudiced the achievement of environmental goals in the past, although this is now rather less obvious with regard to forestry. However, integrated and co-operative planning is essential on a regional basis, in which all interests fully participate rather than pursuing their own remits.

3. Integration or co-ordination? - Does the current system need "fixing"? What gaps, unnecessary duplication and conflicts exist in present arrangements for environmental planning?

The implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights in October 2000 will have implications on the way the planning service operates across the United Kingdom. This will broaden the remit of the planning service to ensure that matters currently considered as relatively low weight in the consideration of planning applications will now be given slightly greater status to ensure that the reasoning is fully explained in coming to planning decisions. Failure to respond to the rights of privacy in the Convention will result in third party appeals coming to the courts.

Another issue is the development of environmental plans by national agencies in co-ordination with the local development plan system. For example, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) has introduced an objective to limit the amount of green field development. However, with a low level of brown field sites in rural areas, such as Aberdeenshire, this has proved to be problematic.

Is there in practice a hierarchy in the formulation of different types of environmental plans? Would there be advantages in establishing a clearer hierarchy?

Caution should be exercised in developing an overly rigid hierarchy of environmental plans. It would be better to express this as the level of interaction between the different types of plan. In order to secure public confidence in the planning system there needs to be a level of community input and ownership and therefore an approach that may be appropriate in one community is sometimes less workable in another.

Should the process of environmental planning be further integrated or rationalised, e.g. as in New Zealand? Or would better co-ordination be sufficient to ensure an efficient and effective system?

The Society believes that better co-ordination would be preferred to further integration.

Are present arrangements for environmental planning efficient and cost-effective? Can the wish to speed up the land use planning process be reconciled with effective environmental protection?

Some speed-up may be desirable, but not at the cost of giving adequate notice of proposals and plans to the public, with opportunities to comment or object. The essential focus is to ensure that the quality of the decision, and the outcome on the ground, conform with the objectives set by the development plans. A recent Scottish Executive working party concluded that the targets for development control should be more focussed on the nature and complexity of the planning application rather than a blanket time be applied to all types of applications.

Are the mandates and procedures of the pollution control bodies appropriate to their environmental planning responsibilities? Are these responsibilities appropriate? Is it practical to have parallel decisions on land use planning and pollution control?

The Society believes the answer to these three questions is yes. In particular, it is important that parallel decisions on land use planning and pollution control take place to ensure that there is no need to re-visit the merits and conclusions of either system.

Has a satisfactory integration of transport planning and land use planning been achieved? If not, what more needs to be done?

No. There is a need for greater integration and co-ordination of transport planning and land planning. This has been notably the case in regard to new roads, but the provision of public transport should also take greater account of rural needs, including land-use changes. Joint work similarly needs to be done to bring about a suite of policies designed to reduce the need to travel, especially by private car, and thereby emit greenhouse gases.

To what extent could economic instruments, non-statutory procedures, or informal arrangements complement environmental planning regulation, and how effective would they be at providing environmentally sustainable solutions? Would there be implications for openness, transparency and accountability?

All these arrangements could complement environmental planning regulation, especially economic instruments, which could do much to drive changes in agricultural practice towards more environmentally advantageous ends.

One possible economic instrument could be a "betterment tax" aiming to increase public ownership of development gain. Is such a tax feasible and desirable? Might there be some way of linking the rate of tax to environmental impact?

The use of a "betterment tax" has been tried a couple of times before but found to be extremely complex. Currently, planning authorities seek to accommodate the impact of a development in the shape of a Community Impact Statement. Each individual case has to be assessed as to its detriment on the community, and not solely on environmental terms, and appropriate remediation measures taken.

Does the adoption of sustainability as the focus of policy intensify disagreements about the boundary between public and private development rights and obligations? To what extent does the current system enable such issues to be resolved?

Under the present system there is an increasing emphasis on the fact that private rights (of ownership) bring associated public responsibilities. This is a difficult argument to ‘sell’ in a free-market society, and it is more difficult when certain arms of government (most notably the MOD) appear to be exempt.

4. Subsidiarity and democracy - Is the current balance between elected leadership, expert assessment and public participation in environmental planning decisions appropriate?

Democracy and transparency are essential to a civilized society and yet the reality is that to reconcile this with the issues of sustainable development and pollution control (which are of great importance in the long term but have little short-term impact) is very difficult. The electorate is concerned with the issues of today as they see them. Until public perception of the need to protect the environment takes a much higher profile, and this is some time away, then those in power will be reluctant to respond to environmental needs, however much they recognise them.

How do we ensure that all levels of decision-making processes are sufficiently open, transparent and accountable to gain public acceptance? What are the best ways to reflect the range of public opinion whilst maintaining an appropriate procedural timetable? When should local public opinion be overridden in the interest of a broader common goal?

It is important to ensure that public notification procedures are properly observed, and genuine consultation is organised. The application of the World Wide Web will be helpful in extending access. However, there are bound to be occasions where a broader common environmental goal, or public safety issues, must over-ride local opinion but every effort should be made to explain these fully.

What should be the relationship between international, national, regional and local goals? Should environmental planning take place at the lowest level consistent with the common good (the principle of subsidiarity)? How far do current arrangements depart from that principle?

In general, environmental planning should take place at the lowest level consistent with the common good. It will be essential, however, that appropriate information and education is provided to ensure that national and international targets can be reconciled with local interests so as to try to command local support, and also ensure that local bodies adequately promote international, national and regional interests.

Are new regional planning arrangements, or other measures such as strengthening the strategic planning role of local government, needed to ensure greater coherence between national and local planning regimes? If so, what should these be and how should they be made accountable?

Local planning authorities would benefit from more power to plan, rather than just react to development proposals to ensure that rules are obeyed. The process of approving Structure Plans could also be opened up to give greater ownership by the Scottish Executive and its agencies to help the process of implementation of major development schemes. Accountability could be achieved by periodic review by a Parliamentary Select Committee or similar body with an appropriate remit.

To what extent do the principles of the environmental planning regimes in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland need to differ from each other? What are the specific drivers for these differences?

The principles in different parts of the United Kingdom are based on the different legislative structures that are now being put in place. In Scotland the Scottish Parliament is the vehicle by which new legislation will be debated, which may result in different priorities from other parts of the United Kingdom, reflecting locally understood differences in underlying geology, historical land use, climate and public attitudes.

Does the present form of planning inquiry offer the best way of resolving disputes? Should it be extended to permit a third party right of appeal? If so, should such rights be restricted to prevent abuse?

In terms of the appeals system, present arrangements are generally cumbersome and often too expensive for the proper representation of the public, including voluntary bodies, when there is conflict with powerful development firms or agencies. Public confidence in the system is correspondingly relatively low. There should be alternative mechanisms of conflict resolution other than the resort to drawn-out expensive quasi-legal public inquiries.

Would environmental tribunals or courts enhance public confidence in the land use planning appeals process? If so, would they impose significant extra costs and delays?

Environmental tribunals or courts will still require the use of planning and other experts, and may not actually increase public confidence. It would certainly impose extra costs and delays to a system which is already creaking at the seams. The aim should be to promote conciliation rather than formal confrontation.

5. Assessment approaches - What are the most appropriate appraisal methodologies for use in drawing up environmental plans and assessing the environmental impact of plans prepared for other purposes? Do appraisal methodologies applied to individual cases provide sufficient information about their implications for the achievement of wider environmental goals?

The 'sieve analysis' technique mentioned in 2(c) is flexible and can accommodate as many input levels as are required, provided that each input element is capable of being mapped, that is, being defined in space. No doubt there are many other relevant methodologies that could be applied. In general, the quality of environmental appraisals should be reviewed five years after the development has been undertaken to monitor the effect and remediation and to learn lessons from both the appraisal and the operation of the development.

Appraisal methodologies applied to individual cases, however, do suffer from the fact that they relate only to specific individual cases and rarely make reference to the achievement of wider environmental goals.

Could increased use of such methodologies dovetail effectively with the efficient operation of environmental planning systems? How widely applicable should environmental appraisal be? What level of detail is appropriate for the various plan types? Who should be responsible for: i) undertaking environmental appraisal, and ii) judging its quality?

Environmental appraisal should be applied as widely as possible. The undertaking of environmental appraisals should be specified by the local councils, drawn from a list of approved and accredited expert consultants, and be paid for by the applicant.

What would be the value of increased use of other assessment tools, e.g. sustainability appraisal, environmental capital, environmental footprint, environmental space, and health impact assessment?

Fully satisfactory models for assessment of sustainability are still being developed. Therefore what is done in practice at present is limited by the methodology available and it may be more appropriate to experiment with these tools without being drawn into any future statutory framework. Also it is sometimes difficult to ensure that the avoidance of an environmental issue at one location is not simply transferring the problem to a different location. This is particularly a concern where the alternative location is in another country.

How adequate is the knowledge base, including the location and availability of expertise, provision of training for practitioners, and the accessibility and quality of data? How far are any of these elements in the knowledge base constrained by the lack of resources or suitable institutions, and, if appropriate, how could that be remedied?

In general, our knowledge and understanding of environmental impact assessment is not sufficiently complete and needs to be further developed through continued investment in objective and appropriate scientific research, both fundamental and applied, and education. In addition, there are interface problems between the scientific disciplines operating in this field, not so much in principle but in practical matters like compatibility of, and easy access to, databases. The interface between scientists, planners and other users of such basic information also needs to be improved, with particular regard to jargon-free communication and recognition of the needs and aims of the different parties involved.

Additional Information

In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: National Parks for Scotland (November 1998); People and Nature: A new Approach to SSSI Designations in Scotland (November 1998); National Scenic Areas Review (April 1999); EU policy on Biodiversity (May 1999); National Waste Strategy: Scotland (July 1999); and Study of Environmental Planning (October 1999).


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