Published by Daily Mail
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the irrepressible Rt. Hon. Eric Pickles MP, has apparently had enough of the EU’s Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA). These demand in-depth screening, scoping and consultation on all major planning and development projects, and have long played havoc with domestic planning law as every road, railway, factory and housing estate becomes mired in months and years of delay as bats are counted, wind-speed recorded, decibels measured and earthquake risks monitored.
Every brown-field site is seemingly treated as a putative Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty as each development has become subject to uniform assessment criteria. And it’s not only the hassle of delay, but the additional significant costs on the whole planning process. Quite why our own town and country planning systems in England and the devolved administrations can’t be trusted to conserve our own birds and bees is something of a mystery. But in local government there is almost a default fealty to EU supervision and oversight as the planning regime has become increasingly subservient to European Union law.
It is puzzling indeed that our domestic environmental safeguards are deemed inadequate by local planning authorities, many of which zealously demand detailed assessment of all environmental issues irrespective of whether EU Directives actually require it.
So Mr Pickles has announced that his Department will be consulting imminently ‘on the application of thresholds for development going through the planning system in England, below which the Environmental Impact Assessment regime does not apply. This will aim to remove unnecessary provisions from our Regulations, and to help provide greater clarity and certainty on what EU law does and does not require’.
Of course, discerning what EU law does and does not require is something of an art: it has simply become the norm for both our elected political officials and their civil-service bureaucrats to demand the most extreme administrative EU rigour on such matters, irrespective of subsidiarity or national statutory provisions.
But wading through the plethora of tedious and complex directives won’t be easy: in addition to the EIA Directive (85/337/EEC of 27 June 1985; amended 2011/92/EU), the EU has spawned such legislative verbiage as the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive, Flooding Directive, Habitats Directive, Wild Birds Directive, Waste Framework Directive, Revised Waste Framework Directive, Seveso II Directive, Public Participation Directive, Renewable Energy Directive, Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, Environmental Noise Directive, Draft Airport Noise Regulation, Energy Efficiency Directive, Draft Regulation on trans-European energy infrastructure, Water Framework Directive, Air Quality Directive and the draft Soil Framework Directive.
The weight of these combined effectively gives the European Union competence on land use planning, despite planning remaining a national competence. And so, again, we see the EU’s incremental ‘regulatory creep’ which is undermining Parliament, negating accountability and eroding democracy.
And the Commission’s new proposal to ‘harmonise’ the EIA Directive with a one-size-fits-all approach ‘for greater consistency’ flies in the face of the UK’s demands that the overall regulatory burden at EU and national levels should be reduced. They plan to amend it so that instead of the 450-700 environmental impact assessments which are presently carried out each year, hundreds of thousands of developments would be brought under the environmental screening process. This would represent a significant additional burden for developers and competent authorities.
The EU Commission is of the view that the objectives of EIA cannot be sufficiently achieved by Member States alone: the UK is quite simply, in their view, incapable or incompetent or both.
Eric Pickles observes: ‘Draft European Union legislation often receives little Parliamentary or public scrutiny.’ He’s not wrong there: it is almost as if our Parliament has surrendered its sovereignty to teleological inevitability and political impotence. He pleads: ‘I would encourage Hon. Members to examine carefully this latest proposed increase in EU regulation.’
Personally, I think we’re a bit beyond the ‘encourage’ phase: the rigorous scrutiny of EU directives ought to be a statutory obligation upon all our elected representatives, rather than being left to ad hoc blogs such as this or the odd conscientious minister like Eric Pickles. There is no other way of carrying out a thorough cost-benefit analysis, or of establishing whether EU burdens are a proportionate load to bear in the national socio-economic context.
When it comes to the environment and human health, I’d rather trust the manifest competence of Eric Pickles than the collective incompetence of Brussels bureaucracy any day. When responsibility lies with the Secretary of State, Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers and Northern Ireland Ministers, at least you can vote them out and demand a change of policy.
What on earth has bat preservation got to do with the free movement of people and goods anyway?