Friday, 8 August 2014

UK to Reduce EIA ‘Burden’ for (All Things) Urban

Written by Tom Wells,
Associate Director, Environmental Planning & Assessment
Tom Wells, who heads up CBRE’s Environmental Planning & Assessment team, provides an update on proposed changes to the EIA screening thresholds for UK ‘urban development projects’ which includes the construction of shopping centres, sports stadiums and residential dwellings.

The Changes
The Government’s ‘Technical Consultation on Planning’ seeks views on raising the EIA screening thresholds for industrial estates and ‘urban development projects’ from 0.5 hectares to 5 hectares. Provided they are not proposed in ‘sensitive areas’ (e.g. Sites of Special Scientific Interest), developments below the threshold would fall completely outside the scope of the EIA Regulations.

‘Urban development projects’ is probably the most diverse category of all those listed in Schedule 2 of the EIA Regulations. The proposed threshold allows for the development of dwelling houses across five hectares including where there is up to one hectare of non-residential urban development. The consultation goes on to state that, based on an average housing density of 30 dwellings per hectare, the new higher threshold will equate to housing schemes of around 150 units.

Potential Impact
By limiting the proposals to raise thresholds across just two categories of development within Schedule 2, the Government appears to be focussing on its stated priority to increase the number of houses being built, without opening up the consultation to some of the more emotive categories of development, such as ‘energy industry’ projects. It should be noted that this consultation is being undertaken separately from that on the transposition of the amended EIA Directive (2014/52/EU). This came into effect in April 2014 and must be transposed into domestic law by European Union Member States within a period of three years.

The Government anticipates that raising the threshold for housing will reduce the number of requests for screening opinions for residential development in England from around 1600 a year to about 300 a year. However, the proposals are likely to lead to an increase in the number of screening directions being requested from the Secretary of State, either by competent authorities or other interested parties who believe that EIA may be required in order to abide by the intended scope of the EIA Directive. By way of recap, this is that all developments with the potential for significant environmental effects should undergo EIA. This is especially true as the thresholds may again be set based on area alone – unlike with some other categories of development within Schedule 2 – thus appearing to ignore the other selection criteria in Schedule 3 and overlooking the potential for, say, exceptionally tall buildings on relatively small sites to require EIA.

Developers are likely to welcome the proposals but would arguably have been better served by more objective guidance for competent authorities on the current indicative thresholds and what ‘significant effects’ actually are, given the inevitable rise of legal complications as a result of the screening threshold change. Critics will, amongst other things, cite the fact that target residential densities in the London Plan are between 150 – 1150 dwellings per hectare, as opposed to the average of 30 dwellings per hectare referenced, and that this is again an attack on environmental protection.

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