Environmental planning in the UK and US

25th March 2014

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Andrew Pozniak

Temple Group's Eric Steltzer compares the environmental planning policies of the UK and the US

In recent history, the policies in the United Kingdom and the United States have shared more similarities than dividing differences. A recent study went so far as to suggest that the British public feel a closer affinity to their American cousins than its European neighbours (Opinium Research, 2013).

The environmental planning policies of the two nations are no different, sharing a common goal to protect the environment through an environmental impact assessment (EIA) process. Despite the similar goals, the application of the EIA process to major infrastructure projects are different and by exploring these differences, lessons can be learned in both countries.

Thresholds standardisation

In the US, the EIA processes vary across different governmental bodies. At the federal level, the centralised government, the EIA review is commonly referred to as NEPA after the founding law, the National Environmental Policy Act.

NEPA requires all federal agencies to give appropriate consideration to the environment when taking an action. NEPA requirements are overseen by the Council for Environmental Quality, with support from the Environmental Protection Agency, but NEPA reviews are implemented within each federal agency. Therefore each agency may implement different EIA thresholds, and arrive at different outcomes.

NEPA reviews are applied only on projects requiring federal actions and each state government has the power to determine whether an EIA should be undertaken. These “little NEPAs” have sprung up in many states, but just as at the federal level, the threshold requirements vary between states.

Owing to the varying requirements between federal agencies, and across state governments, the EIA process in the US is complex. The ramification is that major infrastructure projects that meet national policy goals are simultaneously encouraged and discouraged in different regions of the country.

The EIA system in the UK is very different. The EU Directive 2011/92/EU establishes the EIA thresholds for all member states. Under the Infrastructure Planning (EIA) Regulations 2009, nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIP) are defined. Meanwhile, the Localism Act 2011 requires the secretary of state (SoS) to determine a development consent order (DCO).

The Planning Inspectorate is an executive agency that manages the reviews and makes recommendations to the SoS. Therefore whether a project is built in Northumberland or Cornwall, the plans are subject to the same criteria and a single governmental body has jurisdiction.

If the thresholds are standardised in the US, the market is likely to have more confidence in the EIA reviews and it would create an even playing field.

Public engagement

While the UK the EIA process is more consistent than the US, the public engagement is less robust. In the DCO process, local authorities are given statutory status and a process to engage the public is agreed upon in a statement of community consultation.

Local authorities can also undertake a community impact report to assess a project’s impact on a community. However, some residents may feel that their input won’t have an effect on the proposed development because it is inputted late in the process.

In the US, the public is often engaged earlier in the development of a project, during the planning stages before a project’s application has been submitted for review. Through the planning process government bodies often hold open public hearings and one-to-one meetings with stakeholder groups are common to identify preferred zones for development.

In addition, public hearings are required during EIA review processes at the federal and state level. During these public hearings, any citizen can speak on a project, regardless of whether they are an effected landowner or a supporter of a project. All comments are entered into the public record. As a result, there is a greater level of accessibility and transparency in the decision-making process than in the UK.

By engaging the public earlier in the planning process, and providing a forum for citizens to share their views, the DCO process could instil greater credibility into the government’s action, and minimise the potential for legal challenges.

For almost a decade, the US and the UK have been in an economic recession deeper than that has been experienced in more than 60 years. Having consistent environmental policies delivered through a streamlined process is good for business and the environment. Likewise, increasing public engagement results in better designed projects and reduces time for projects to be reviewed.

An assessment of UK EIA laws this year would be timely, particularly given the vote on 12 March 2014 by the European parliament to adopt the new EIA Directive.

Once approved by the European Council, the Directive will require the UK to revise its EIA Regulations to ensure biodiversity and climate change issues are included, and the public consultation process could also be assessed.

Both the US and the UK are on the verge of exiting the economic downturn and improving the EIA processes will benefit all involved.

Eric Steltzer, AIEMA, is a senior EIA consultant at Temple Group

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