Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Government To Raise EIA Screening Thresholds

 By Patrick Little
Environmental Consultant, CBRE

The government has outlined proposals that will allow more major industrial and urban developments to avoid the ‘burden’ of being subjected to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

During consultation on the upcoming amendments to the EIA Directive (2011/92/EU), Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, expressed the view that “the proposals could result in a significant increase in regulation, add additional cost and delay to the planning system, and undermine existing permitted development rights.”

While he is surely relieved that some of the proposed amendments did not make it into the final text, there is no doubt that the revised Directive does strengthen the existing EIA requirements. His response could be seen on 6th January 2015 when the Government issued its response to the ‘Technical Consultation on Planning’ which was launched in July 2014. The purpose of the consultation was to seek views on raising the EIA screening thresholds for industrial estates and ‘urban development projects’. Developments below the thresholds would fall outside the scope of the EIA Regulations 2011.

The government’s proposed changes are as follows:
  • The screening threshold for the development of dwelling houses will be increased from the existing 0.5 hectare up to 5 hectares, including where there is up to 1 hectare of non-residential urban development. A threshold relating to residential developments of more than 150 units will also be introduced
  • The threshold for other urban development will be raised from the existing 0.5 hectare to 1 hectare
  • The threshold for industrial estate development will be raised from the current 0.5 hectare to 5 hectares
Regulations will be published in early 2015, amending the EIA Regulations, bringing these changes into effect.

Raising the threshold for both the development of dwelling houses and other urban developments highlights that the Government’s aspirations are not entirely focused on expediting residential development but rather reducing the ‘burden of EIA’ (as they see it) on all urban development projects.

An absence of consideration for higher density residential schemes was one of the key criticisms raised during the consultation. The additional threshold related to residential developments of more than 150 units has clearly been introduced to ensure that higher density developments, which are generally more likely to exhibit significant environmental impacts, are still screened for EIA.

With the 150 unit threshold for residential developments acting as a ‘safety net’ for high density schemes, risks of legal challenge will be reduced in comparison with the original proposals. However, the changes remain likely to result in an increase in the number of screening directions being requested from the Secretary of State and the number of Environmental Statements being voluntarily submitted to planning authorities to avoid potential challenges.

Developers are likely to welcome the proposals. However, instead they may have been better served by more objective guidance for competent authorities on the current indicative thresholds and what significant effects should be considered to be, given the inevitable legal complications that will arise in changing the screening thresholds themselves. Critics will, amongst other things, cite it as an attack on environmental protection.

Further information on screening of industrial estate and urban development projects (both listed under Schedule 2 to the regulations) can be found here.

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