21 October 2014
In this viewpoint, Dr Steve Mustow, Head of Environment, WYG, addresses a few questions raised by the DCLG consultation on EIA screening in England. Steve has extensive experience of undertaking EIA, and is registered by the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA) as a Principal EIA Practitioner.
The Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) has been consulting over the application of screening for environmental impact assessment (EIA) in England*. The EIA Regulations (2011) require that an EIA is carried out for projects which are likely to have a significant effect on the environment by virtue, inter alia, of their nature, size or location, before planning permission is given. An assessment is obligatory for projects which are listed in Schedule 1 of the Regulations as they are considered likely to give rise to significant effects on the environment in every case. Schedule 2 lists more than 80 project types which only require an EIA if they are likely to give rise to significant environmental effects. Projects that fall below the threshold in Schedule 2 do not need to be automatically screened by the local planning authority (LPA) to determine whether an EIA is needed, provided they are not within defined ‘sensitive areas’.
DCLG considers that over application of screening is adding cost burdens and delays to developers and additional costs to LPAs and, in some cases, statutory consultees. This links to a wider concern by DCLG that England is over-implementing the EIA Directive.
DCLG has based this assessment on analysis of recent screening directions by the Secretary of State (SoS)**. This analysis showed that:
• Between 2011 and 2014 only 20% of urban development projects submitted for SoS direction were found to require EIA
• Of the housing schemes that were screened, 15 of the 17 that were found to require EIA were within sensitive areas
What DCLG Proposes
DCLG proposes to raise the Schedule 2 threshold for the following two development categories from 0.5 ha to 5 ha:
• Industrial Estates (Schedule 2.10.a)
• Residential Development (Schedule 2.10.b)
However, if the above development types fall within sensitive areas the original 0.5ha threshold will still apply. Also, thresholds for other types of urban development under Schedule 2.10.b would not be affected by the change to residential development.
Thoughts on the Consultation
The current thresholds may be too low. A typical 0.5 ha residential development, for example, may only include around 20 dwellings and the chances are low of such a development resulting in significant environmental effects, if located outside sensitive areas.
However, we have some concerns over the consultation, including:
1. Is the consultation exercise trying to fix a problem that doesn’t really exist ? Data compiled by IEMA (Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment) shows that England produces the lowest number of EIAs per million head of population compared to all other populous EU member states (>20M population). Also, DCLG’s own data from 2013/14 shows that 99.9% of English planning applications went ahead without EIA, only 453 EIAs were carried out in England in total and 60% of LPAs did not receive an ES in the year. The proposed changes would only take 0.28% of applications out of screening requirements. Therefore, is EIA really such a barrier to development and is it really being over applied in England ?
2. Could a greater risk of legal challenge outweigh any benefits of raising screening thresholds ? A higher screening threshold doesn’t prevent a third party making a legal challenge on the basis that EIA should have been undertaken if there is potential for significant environmental effects to arise. Data compiled by IEMA has shown that ineffective application of EIA screening is the most common area of legal challenge.
3. Are thresholds based on area too blunt an instrument ? In the case of residential development, for example, there is a large difference in potential environmental impact between a low density housing development and a 30 storey apartment building. Likewise, industrial estates may include a range of industrial types, some of which will be associated with a greater level of environmental impact.
4. Why haven’t recent changes to the European EIA Directive been factored in ? Major changes to EIA practice are already due to arise as a result of changes to the EIA Directive which came into force in May 2014 and which member states have three years to transpose. These include changes to screening which will enhance the approach taken by developers to pre-assess proposals to enable a screening decision to be made. Therefore, rather than making minor changes to screening procedures, would it not be better for DCLG to consider a more fundamental overhaul of the system, including early implementation of the new European requirements ?
5. Is scoping rather than screening the biggest factor affecting costs and programme ? Our experience is that scoping is a bigger issue for developers than screening. Even if EIA is screened out, a developer will frequently still need to carry out several standalone studies covering areas such as ecology and noise. The cost of these individual studies is usually not much less than an EIA covering the same areas. However, the inclusion of unnecessary topics in EIA due to inadequate scoping has a much larger effect on costs and programme. DCLG would therefore achieve better results by issuing improved guidance to LPAs and statutory consultees on scoping.
In conclusion, while there may be some logic to the DCLG’s current proposals on EIA screening, a more comprehensive approach would have been advised. This would have been more likely to produce significant benefits for developers, LPAs and statutory bodies, while continuing to protect the environment. DCLG is currently considering the responses that it has received to the consultation exercise and it will be interesting to see whether they decide to take these proposals forward.
This article has been written by Dr Steve Mustow and the opinions expressed are his own.
* Technical consultation on planning, DCLG, July 2014, available online
** If developers wish to challenge screening decisions made by LPAs they can appeal these with the SoS.
*** As analysed by IEMA