A new SEA pathway

20th September 2010

A new sea pathway



Peter Phillips and William Sheate describe the approach and outline practical implementation issues and recommendations for good practice that have emerged from the SEA Pathfinder project.

In Scotland in early 2006 a new piece of far-reaching environmental legislation and a key part of the then Scottish Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition administration's manifesto entered into force.

The Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Act 2005 repealed existing secondary legislation and extended its application of strategic environmental assessment (SEA) to plans, programmes and strategies prepared by public bodies.

In parallel, the then Scottish Executive commissioned a substantial piece of longitudinal research that would examine emerging SEA practice in Scotland to identify key practical implementation issues and help shape future SEA policy and practice in Scotland.

The new Act in itself, by repealing the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes (Scotland) Regulations (2004), would appear to have reflected a commitment at the time by Scottish Minsters to the environmental agenda in Scotland.

The Scottish Act included some additions to the Regulations, the most significant being Section 5(4), which broadened the scope of its European and UK counterparts to include all ‘plans, programmes and strategies' deemed likely to have significant effects (both good and bad ones).

The SEA Act, therefore, covers all ‘plans and programmes' with significant environmental effects over and above those prepared for certain sectors: those that set the framework for future development consent of EIA Directive Annex I or II projects and those that require assessment in line with Articles 6 or 7 of the Habitats Directive.

But what does this mean in practice? Section 5(4) captures policies, strategies, legislation and some guidance documents (eg supplementary planning guidance) with significant environmental effects (referred to collectively as plans, programmes and strategies or PPS).

Given this significantly different approach to SEA policy from the rest of the UK, Scottish Ministers made a commitment to support the introduction of SEA and assist the public bodies who would be doing the SEAs - the Responsible Authorities (or RAs).

This commitment was to be taken forward through day-to-day support and advice provided by the SEA Gateway and initiatives including the SEA Pathfinder Project and Scottish SEA Guidance and templates.

Research approach

Constituting the research element of the then Scottish Executive's wider portfolio of SEA support, the SEA Pathfinder Project (2006-2009) aimed to cast a case-study focused microscope over early Scottish SEA practice to evaluate and sift out emerging SEA practical implementation issues and develop a suite of good-practice recommendations.

This necessitated two important elements of approach:

  • identification of volunteer Scottish SEA case studies; and
  • development of a consistent approach for evaluating case study SEA processes.

Seven Scottish RAs volunteered and were subsequently invited to participate, representing a diverse range of SEA case studies across a disparate selection of PPS and scale:

  • Cairngorms National Park Authority - National Park Plan;
  • Forestry Commission Scotland - Scottish Forestry Strategy;
  • Fife Council - Local Biodiversity Action Plan;
  • Orkney Islands Council - Community Plan;
  • South Ayrshire Council - Core Paths Plan;
  • West Dunbartonshire Council - Local Plan; and
  • West Lothian Council - Local Transport Strategy.

A key early task for the project team was to develop a consistent evaluation approach that could be applied collaboratively with the case studies.

Throughout the project, the ethos was one of participation and, wherever possible, the project's steering group (made up of Scottish Government, environmental regulators, health specialists, environmental appraisal/assessment specialists and of course the case studies themselves) was consulted and actively engaged in developing the approach.

With the aid of the steering group a detailed methodology, involving pro-forma documents to log key stages of the SEA process, was developed and tested. This represented a comprehensive and consistent tool for evaluating the diverse case study SEA processes - from the very strategic to the very local and specific.

In practice, the case studies would complete an SEA ‘stage' (screening, scoping, scoping consultation etc) then undertake self-evaluation using the evaluation proformas developed during earlier project team/steering group collaborations.

Clearly, the pace at which evaluation progressed was dictated by the pace of the case study plan-development/SEA process, but this provided the project with real time ‘tracking' of case studies' progress.

As well as this process of ‘self evaluation', a Pathfinder forum or research coordination group (the RCG) was put to good use throughout the project. The RCG meetings provided a useful forum for debate around key issues emerging at each SEA stage and helped to identify early good-practice recommendations as well as some of the pitfalls.

Given the project's substantial three-year time-frame, a wealth of information was produced for analysis. To help make sense of the diversity of data generated, the issues were grouped and categorised then mapped using a network analysis (complex mapping) approach.

The very visual nature of this approach really helped both the project team and steering group to get a handle on the interactions and interdependencies between policy, process and actors/stakeholders and the issues raised. A draft mapping stage fed into one of the RCG workshops which helped to better understand relationships between issues and develop more refined good-practice recommendations.

Key issues

The project's evaluative approach helped to capture a broad range of issues occurring in early Scottish SEA practice. Of all the methodological elements, the RCG meetings were particularly useful, providing a forum of expertise and context for sifting out the most pertinent issues.

Over and above the RCG, final wrap-up style interviews held with the case studies were particularly valuable. These provided an opportunity to reflect back on the whole SEA process and allow the case studies themselves to consider how they approached the SEA and to identify where or how they might have done things differently, as well as suggest their own ideas for improving SEA more generally.

The final debated, tested and agreed issue categories (along with some key examples under each) are listed in Table 1.

Given that the Pathfinder project was put together to evaluate some of the very first statutory SEAs under the Scottish SEA Act, attempting to establish whether or not SEA was making a difference in terms of environmental protection and enhancement would have been inappropriate and/or impossible (ie within the timescales of the project, none of the case studies reached post-adoption stages of SEA). As such, issues identified through the research were mainly related to procedural matters and compliance.

Key recommendations

Issue category

Example issue(s)

Undertaking SEA tasks as part of PPS-development process

Lack of recognition of SEA activities within existing plan-development process

Scope for improving coordination between PPS developers

Integration of PPS-development and SEA processes

Opportunities to reduce duplication of effort between PPS and SEA processes

Communicating the SEA process

The outputs of SEA can be difficult to understand

Mitigation and monitoring

Need for fuller assurance that mitigation/enhancement measures prescribed in higher level SEAs are being implemented in the required lower level PPS and SEAs

Resources for SEA

Lack of personnel with the appropriate skills and experience in some authorities

Scope to improve pre-planning and creative thinking about allocation of resources

Flexibility in approach

SEA toolkit erroneously perceived as requiring a set, formal template approach for compliance

Institutional stakeholders

Scope for improved strategic overview of SEA requirements and framework within SEA team and/ or organisations

Opportunities for clearer and more logical tiering or consolidations of SEA assessments within PPS or between PPSs; including monitoring


Continuing lack of awareness of the relevance of SEA and its statutory requirements

Tied in to the process for identifying SEA implementation issues, we developed a refined list of SEA good-practice recommendations grouped into broad and sub-categories.

In particular, recommendations were developed to address specific and/or groups of issues identified through the evaluation and RCG meetings and workshops.

Crucially, examples of good-practice ‘sifted out' from the case study SEA processes were brought into the recommendation development process.

As with the issues, we used a ‘mapping' approach to explore recommendation category inter-relatedness, potential synergies, conflicts, areas of overlaps and further good-practice recommendations. All in all, 94 individual good-practice recommendations were made. Three examples serve to illustrate the nature of the recommendations:

Category 1 (see Box 1 by the Scottish Government) relates to better integration of SEA with PPS development. Key issues such as ‘alternatives' are often considered at early stages of PPS development, but largely forgotten about when it comes to the SEA itself, where reasonable alternatives, if considered properly at all, may end up being re-invented (and sometimes quite artificially) for the purpose of the assessment.

Recognising the synergies between elements of the PPS process and the SEA process is therefore essential to make best use of work undertaken in PPS development and the SEA.

Good planning for SEA resource requirements (Category 4 below) is needed to anticipate SEA well in advance. Separate screening of individual PPSs on a piecemeal basis - as typically happens - invariably means that few authorities had developed a strategic view across the range of PPSs produced to understand how they might relate to each other and how and where SEA might be needed.

Such ‘strategic screening' could help identify the likely resource demands on RAs well in advance, and also make a real difference to perceived value and actual effectiveness of SEA in influencing PPSs.

A common thread throughout these recommendations was the need to improve understanding of, and capacity to deliver, effective SEA, and that good SEA, that actually influences the planning process, cannot be delivered just as a box-ticking exercise.

It requires those undertaking it to understand it, know why they are doing it and how to adapt techniques and methodologies to fit the appropriate level of detail required for the level of PPS (Category 6 below on flexible and appropriate approaches to SEA).

In terms of the SEA implementation issues identified during the project, the overarching finding from the research was that, whilst the representative sample of Responsible Authorities studied had demonstrated some aspects of good-practice, the consistency with which significant issues were observed meant that, overall, there remains scope to improve the standard of SEA practice.

Given that SEA implementation in Scotland was still in its infancy at the time the case studies commenced, this is perhaps not surprising and mirrors some of the issues experienced with implementation of the EIA Directive and also recognised throughout the EU in the European Commission review report in 20091.

It is also important to recognise that the experience of SEA in Scotland has grown rapidly in recent years, and so many of the issues identified from these case studies have already been overtaken by improved capacity and expertise within responsible authorities.

However, many of the key points raised nevertheless remain valid. There are many complex and highly interrelated reasons for the issues observed and indeed they are not the responsibility of a single group of SEA actors in Scotland.

The research2, then, provided a suite of recommendations to help authorities and practitioners develop and improve SEA implementation; practical measures that can improve both process and methodologies for SEA.

However, an important element of the Pathfinder research was also to establish a basis for prioritising where action is needed by the Scottish Government and other actors to help facilitate the delivery of the good practice recommendations.

Recommendations for action were also developed, based on five key clusters of issues (or ‘nodes') identified through the mapping process, and refined collaboratively through the RCG process, essentially:

  • integration of PPS and SEA;
  • participation and engagement;
  • resources;
  • methodologies; and
  • process and governance.

The findings and recommendations show many similarities to those of research undertaken for the Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) by Scott Wilson in relation to SEA and sustainability appraisal in English spatial planning3.

However, in contrast to England, where the CLG research recommended that practitioners should be bolder at scoping out issues, the pathfinder research found one example of bold scoping out of issues, although this cannot be interpreted as representing a bigger issue given the limited number of cases involved.

We are pleased to see that the Scottish Government is reviewing the SEA Toolkit and templates with this in mind in recognition that while guidance is vitally important to good implementation, over-reliance on it or over-prescription in it (real or perceived), can suffocate innovation and work against what might be most effective in any particular circumstance.

And the experience from Scotland, where SEA is being applied so much more widely than elsewhere in the UK, highlights that the more strategic the assessment the more that flexibility and creativity are needed to adapt and develop techniques to fit.

The Scottish Government has exclusively provided IEMA with its first official response to the findings of the SEA Pathfinder project. It is clear from this response (see Box 1) that a number of the project's recommendations are already being actioned by the Scottish Government.

The Scottish Government is clearly dedicated to improving the delivery of SEA in practice and is supporting (in line with the recommendations) a new study to the Pathfinder project to identify the real value SEA is adding to Scottish plan-making. This work is being led by SEPA with support from Historic Scotland and SNH.

Box 1: Scottish Government Response to the Pathfinder Project

The Scottish Government has been carefully reviewing the outcomes of the Stage 1 Pathfinder Project, and taking Stage 2 forward. Stage 2 involves developing a plan of action in response to the issues raised in Stage 1.

The Pathfinder Report generated a large number of broad recommendations, but these have been refined into a shorter and more focused list to avoid overlap and to reflect current practices, which have developed since the Pathfinder study was undertaken.

The 10 consolidated recommendations from Stage 1, which are currently being considered in more detail, are as follows:

  • Integrating the development of plans, programmes and strategies and SEA;
  • Integrating SEA with other assessment processes;
  • Integrating SEA with wider policy aims;
  • Planning for SEA resource requirements;
  • Better working within institutions to facilitate SEA good practice;
  • Flexible and appropriate approaches to SEA;
  • Communicating SEA purpose and requirements;
  • Approaches for effective engagement and consultation;
  • Good practice assurance in SEA;
  • Monitoring the outcomes of SEA.

Actions to address these recommendations are being built into the work plan of the Scottish Government's Environmental Assessment Team, focusing on the following three key delivery mechanisms:

Case studies to allow for sharing of best practice;

  • The Scottish SEA Forum, involving practitioners, Consultation Authorities and other interested parties; and
  • The review of the SEA Toolkit, including revisiting the SEA Templates.

However, in many cases realisation of the recommendations will depend on their implementation by other parties, including the Consultation Authorities and Responsible Authorities.

Mindful that there may not be universal support for some of the recommendations, and in the interests of minimising any unnecessary burden on those who are involved in the SEA process, the Scottish Government is giving careful consideration to their validity by revisiting the evidence within the original report.

This will avoid endorsing recommendations which are not fully and robustly evidenced, impracticable to resource or have been overtaken by more recent experience. Prioritisation to optimise the deployment of SEA resources is also being considered.

We will publish a fuller summary report of the research findings, linked to our response to the recommendations, later this year.

Led by SEPA, the Scottish Consultation Authorities have recently commenced a review of SEA in Scotland. This work will use the findings of the Pathfinder project as a starting point, but as it will be based on a much wider selection of Scottish case studies, it can provide a more in depth, robust and up to date assessment of the actual benefits of SEA within Scotland.

A project steering group involving SEA practitioners, academia, the Consultation Authorities and the Scottish Government has recently been established. The Review is due to report in Summer 2011.

Dr Fiona Simpson, Scottish Government Environmental Assessment Team, July 2010


  1. Commission of the European Communities (2009), Report from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, The European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions On the application and effectiveness of the Directive on Strategic Environmental Assessment (Directive 2001/42/EC).
  2. EnviroCentre/Collingwood Environmental Planning (2009), SEA Pathfinder Project Stage 1: Research Final Report to Scottish Government (April 2009). This is an unpublished draft report.
  3. Scott Wilson (2010), Towards a more efficient and effective use of Strategic Environmental Assessment and Sustainability Appraisal in spatial planning, Final Report to CLG, March 2010, at: www.iema.net/env/104/13


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