Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle drives much of our thinking on environmental issues. Better safe than sorry, they say. Like, er, no legal bar to dredging scallops mostly anywhere. Or raising GM crops. Is the PP an effective driver for the planning process? Is the PP an excuse for timidity and inertia? Indeed, has the PP been intoruduced into English Law?

The point to grasp is that the PP is not a general principle of law, but a principle of policy which informs environmental law.

And the definiton of the PP? Probably the Rio Declaration 1992 Principle 15 gives the most universal definition:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation

By contrast, the Treaty on European Union stes in Article 174: Community policy on the environment shall aim at a high level of protection taking into account the diversity of situations in the various regions of the community. It shall be based on the precautionary principle. This article binds the European Commission in terms of their law-making.

Unfortunately for the eco-earrior, Article 174 does not have direct effect on member states. The UK has stated in a White Paper (The Common Inheritance 1990) that: precautionary action must be based on objective assessments of the costs and benefits of action. The principle does not mean that we only permit activites if we are sure that serious harm will not arise, or there is proof that the benefits outweigh all possible risks.

The net result is that a planning decision based on the PP (ie refusing permission) would be open to legal challenge. An objective analysis involving costs and benefits is the proper route for planners.