Gerard Stewart and Chris Saville describe the role of the Environment Agency in the new duty on planning bodies to cooperate
Natural processes do not respect political boundaries. It is essential to plan properly for sustainable development and for most environmental infrastructure this requires cross-boundary working and management on a larger-than-local scale.
The statutory “duty to cooperate” in the preparation of local plans, as set out in the Localism Act 2011 and described in the national planning policy framework (NPPF), acknowledges that some social, environmental and economic issues can only be addressed effectively through strategic planning across multiple local authorities.
The duty requires local planning authorities and other public bodies, including the Environment Agency, to cooperate in the plan-making process to ensure strategic priorities, such as managing flood risk, waste management and water scarcity, are reflected in local plans. It provides an opportunity to improve strategic planning by building on cross-boundary ways of working that are, in many instances, already well established.
The agency has recently published case studies to help share understanding of how successful cross-boundary working can be effective in achieving environmental outcomes as part of sustainable development.
Remit and aims
The agency is a consultation body for local authority development plan documents and supplementary planning materials, as well as a statutory consultee under the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Regulations. In 2011/12, it provided advice to 295 strategic plan documents in England, and, together with Natural England, is a primary source of environmental evidence and advice for local plans.
The regulator already works with local authorities on a range of environmental issues, including flood and coastal risk management; waste management; land and water quality; climate change; emergency planning; and environmental health. Its aims are:
- to create better local environments that enhance people’s lives and support a sustainable economy;
- to ensure that new and existing developments have a reduced environmental impact and well-planned environmental infrastructure; and
- that spatial and economic planning meets environmental standards and objectives, and considers climate change.
The Localism Act did not change the regulator’s role as a consultee on local plans and SEAs. The duty to cooperate does, however, alter stakeholders’ expectations. The requirement in the Act to “engage constructively, actively and on an ongoing basis” steers public bodies, such as the Environment Agency, to seek opportunities to work more closely with local authorities and proactively provide information and advice that helps the decision-making process.
Local authorities are keenly aware that plans risk being found unsound by the planning inspectorate if they do not demonstrate adequate cooperation between parties, as illustrated recently by the north London waste plan. Following an examination of the plan, an inspector concluded there had not been “constructive, active and ongoing engagement during the plan’s preparation between the north London councils and the planning authorities to which significant quantities of waste are exported”.
As a national organisation with a local presence, the agency is well placed to contribute to strategic planning. This is illustrated through its published case studies, which show how cross-boundary collaboration can work in practice. The studies demonstrate how the regulator has been engaging with planning authorities and others to tackle strategic issues.
For example, in its work with the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire (PUSH) – which is made up of 10 local authorities, from Havant in the east to New Forest in the west – the agency provided advice and data that helped the partnership to create a strategic flood-risk assessment and unlock £50 million of private-public funding for flood defences.
Also, by working with the Forestry Commission and Natural England, the organisation has helped PUSH to develop a green infrastructure strategy that will deliver 14 sub-regional projects and an action plan that will enable the area to ensure sustainable water supply and sewage treatment.
The Environment Agency is also collaborating with the local authorities, businesses and other partners involved in the Atlantic Gateway project, including the city regions of Manchester and Liverpool, to adapt the area for green growth. It is advising on the Atlantic Gateway’s business plan and is working with the project’s partnership board to oversee proposals for:
- the Atlantic Gateway landscape park;
- the Mersey to be the “cleanest river in an urban setting in the world”;
- the development of the gateway’s landscape adaptation programme; and
- projects for managing future waste, water and flood risk, as well as green infrastructure, that build on existing large-scale projects, including the Irwell River park and Mersey waterfront park.
These collaborative initiatives illustrate how the agency is already engaging with planning authorities and other bodies in a cross-boundary way, and it believes the new duty can help it to build on such existing relationships and approaches.
Evidence and advice
The regulator’s evidence and advice is crucial to sustainable strategic planning. DataShare, the agency’s data download and live feed portal, has more than 3,500 registered users who have direct access to spatial data. This includes nearly 120 agency, Ordnance Survey, Defra network and third-party data layers.
The agency’s water, flood and coastal strategic plans inform decisions in areas where cooperation is needed, as well as setting out location constraints, potential opportunities and long-term needs (see below).
The Environment Agency already outlines on its website how it can help with SEAs and sustainability appraisals, and details the evidence and advice it can provide on biodiversity (including flora and fauna); climatic factors (such as strategic flood risk); material assets (for example, geological and infrastructure assets); soil (including waste and contaminated land issues); and water (quality and available resources).
The organisation also contributes significantly to environmental plans prepared by others. It formally advises water companies, for example, on their plans to manage water resources, and it provides vital evidence to local authorities for waste management plans, including the types and quantities of waste being handled in an area, helping local authorities balance waste arisings with the waste infrastructure capacity they need.
For local authority strategic flood risk assessments, which inform local policies and application of the sequential approach, the Environment Agency provides data and advice, including quality assurance review.
Environmental infrastructure comprises the services that protect people and organisations from flooding; deal with waste and sewage; and provide clean water and natural spaces. Development plans require consideration of environmental infrastructure needs, and collaborative working across boundaries is often the best way to achieve this.
Environmental infrastructure studies, such as water-cycle studies, used to plan water infrastructure, need cooperation between organisations such as water companies, local authorities and the agency.
These studies draw on evidence to understand environmental and infrastructure capacity and plan to accommodate growth, for example, by establishing:
- the best location for new development;
- a long-term planning framework for infrastructure – providing through efficient planning the necessary infrastructure when it is needed;
- ways to manage and reduce demand for new environmental infrastructure, while protecting environmental and service capacity;
- integrated solutions – for example, multi-use options that will provide water resources, flood-risk management, water quality, recreation and biodiversity benefits together;
- funding and delivery systems and incentives; and
- the means to plan for climate change adaptation and resilience.
Joint working and addressing issues collaboratively at the strategic level can reduce costs, save time and resolve issues earlier in the plan-making process. Prioritised environmental outcomes agreed at a strategic level may also pave the way for delivery in partnership with others.
In addition to public organisations to which the duty applies, others such as utility providers, including water companies, and local nature partnerships can also make important contributions to the process.
For example, in the Gatwick sub-region the agency has worked with four local authorities and various water companies to steer a collaborative infrastructure planning water-cycle study. This has resulted in an agreed framework to deliver the environmental infrastructure needed for planned growth, including 36,000 new homes by 2026. At the same time it has protected the already pressured environment through targets on improving water efficiency and sustainable drainage.
The cross-boundary approach has given each authority an understanding of neighbours’ goals, as well as those of the agency and water companies, and the confidence that they have satisfied the duty to cooperate. It has also saved money, for example through collaborative evidence compilation.
The duty to cooperate does not apply to local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), businesses and groups of local authorities. However, it does require public bodies to “have regard to the activities” of LEPs when preparing local plans.
The creation of local enterprise zones (LEZs), which aim to foster growth through simplified planning, has been an important impetus for such collaboration.
This is illustrated in the Tees Valley, and at Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, where the agency has worked with relevant local authorities to agree protocols for local development orders (LDOs). These orders allow local authorities to extend permitted rights for certain forms of development. In the Tees Valley, a joint protocol was agreed to streamline processes for developers and investors to get faster planning consent from local authorities and environmental permits from the agency.
The Tees Valley LEZ has the potential to create 1,200 jobs and up to 60 new businesses by 2015. Environmental protection has been maintained in the area for both sensitive, internationally recognised bird habitat and vulnerable ground waters. And, to tackle flood risk consistently while saving money, the Environment Agency has worked with five local authorities to form a strategic flood-risk management group and agree a single brief for strategic flood-risk assessments.
In Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, the agency cooperated with four local authorities on the development of enterprise zone LDOs in a coastal area where flood risk, sensitive aquifers and contaminated land are important. On flood risk, the regulator developed a bespoke design guide and a light-touch flood-risk assessment framework for developers.
Building on good practice
The new duty to cooperate recognises the need to address cross-boundary issues strategically and in partnership. It provides an opportunity to plan effectively for environment infrastructure and sustainable development.
The agency has a crucial role in implementing the duty, providing evidence and advice so that decision makers can ensure that environmental limits are respected when planning for sustainable development.
However, as illustrated by the recent agency case studies, cross-boundary collaboration in strategic planning is not new. Much good practice on cooperation already exists on which to build.
Environment Agency-led plans
River-basin management plans – are required by the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) and describe the river-basin district, as well as the pressures on and the status of the water environment. They also show what actions will be taken to address the pressures.
Catchment flood management plans – give an overview of flood risk across a river catchment. They recommend ways of managing those risks now, and over the next 50–100 years.
Shoreline management plans – provide large-scale assessment of the risks associated with coastal processes and help reduce risks to people and the developed, historic and natural environments. They provide a route map for local authorities and others to meet future needs.
Catchment abstraction management strategies – provide a framework to control water abstraction. They assess how much water is reliably available and introduce time-limited licences, ensuring impacts on water resources and the water environment are managed together.