June has been a momentous month. The UK General election followed hot on the heels of May’s local and mayoral elections, Brexit negotiations opened between the UK government and the EU, and appalling tragedies were wrought by terrorist violence and the fire at Grenfell Tower. And there has been a heatwave in the UK which has consistently logged the highest temperatures on record since 1976. Together all of these events have left a powerful mark on society, and questions about future policy around safe and sustainable development and environmental protection.
The Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament focussed on the Bill to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and convert EU law into UK law. Membership of the EU has been a fundamental driver to UK environmental legislation, so withdrawal from the EU could affect numerous aspects of UK policy, with consequences for development processes, trade, fisheries, farming, infrastructure, energy generation and management, wildlife conservation and, not least, climate change. The Repeal Bill has yet to be debated, but once the EU directives that have increasingly guided sustainable development over recent years are no longer mandatory, the UK Government (and where appropriate, the devolved legislatures), will be free to make any future changes to its laws. This is likely to be achieved either by consultation on domestic changes to regulations drafted when the UK was part of the EU, or by cancelling regulations considered to be unnecessary ‘red tape’ or otherwise unfit for purpose. Some believe that this latter category includes the newly minted Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2017 (“the 2017 Regulations”), which came into effect on 16 May. The aim of the new Regulations is to reduce the EIA burden on developers and local planning authorities by screening out projects other than those for which EIA is essential.
Regulation and legislation are important in ensuring that investors and sectors which genuinely seek to deliver high quality and sustainable places are not disadvantaged by adopting a responsible approach to the environment. Whilst it seems likely that transitional arrangements will be required to maintain some regulatory clarity as EU regulatory frameworks are converted to or replaced by domestic legislation, there is nonetheless considerable risk of uncertainty for investors seeking to deliver places where people want to live and also to safeguard the environment.
The Queen’s speech includes Bills to cover fair housing, implementation of HS2 phase2, a general statement that the UK will continue to support international action against climate change (including the implementation of the Paris Agreement), and measures to put an effective system in place to support UK farmers and protect the natural environment. Getting these areas of legislation right is critical to the future of the UK, and to roll out of essential housing and infrastructure development. As such, it requires a long term vision that is not dependent on the outcome of Brexit negotiations.
In the short term, and especially after nearly a decade of turbulent markets, clarity and stability in domestic policy is needed to support both investment and environmental protection. Beyond that, a clear, long-term vision for is needed to underpin delivery of essential and long-term domestic policy decisions. Brexit negotiations are critical, but coherent policy for the future should not be undermined by focussing all effort on the next two years.