Local planning authorities will have just three months to deliver a final consent decision for environmental impact assessment (EIA) projects, under European Commission plans to update the EIA Directive (2011/92/EU)
Following the consolidation of previous amendments to the original 1985 Directive last year, the commission has outlined comprehensive plans to renew the legislation in a bid to streamline the EIA process; ensure a greater consideration of climate change and biodiversity in EIA; and create a more consistent approach across member states.
Under the proposals, EIA screening and scoping would be combined into a single process, and developers of projects listed under Annex 2, would be required to provide a screening report to local planning authorities describing: the project; a baseline analysis of the affected environment; the likely significant effects; and mitigation measures.
On the basis of this report the authority will then decide if an EIA is required. However, unlike under the current regime, if an EIA is not required the authority will have to outline in its decision any design alterations and mitigation measures that it envisages will be needed to reduce significant effects, as well as its reasons for not requiring an assessment. If an EIA is required, the scoping process, including consultation with statutory bodies, will need to be completed within the same three-month period – although this could be extended to six months in some cases.
In a bid to further streamline the process, EIAs would have to run simultaneously alongside any other assessments required under EU legislation, such as those under the directives covering the EU water framework and habitat protection. The commission gives member states the option to choose whether the assessments are carried out individually but coordinated by the local authority, or all incorporated in the EIA.
Meanwhile, to improve the quality of EIAs, the commission’s amendments have added greater detail on what environmental topics should be covered, including explicit references to climate change, human health and biodiversity, as well as ecosystems services, water availability and the risks posed by natural disasters.
Under the amendments the assessment of potential cumulative effects, will have to consider activities in the area, not just other projects. And the final environment statement will have to cover “reasonable alternatives” to the project, including “technical, locational or other alternatives”, and identify the alternative with the least environmental impact, as well as the reasons behind the chosen option.
A further key change is for all EIAs to be either carried out by, or assessed by, “accredited EIA experts”. However, the commission has not made it clear whether these experts are at the broad EIA level or at the more specialist level, such as ecologists or hydrologists.
IEMA, which played an important role in informing the commission’s plans, welcomed the potential changes. “If adopted, the proposals would create much greater certainty on both the scope and timescales of the EIA process,” commented Josh Fothergill, IEMA’s policy lead on EIA. “However, whether this would actually streamline the process would be influenced by how the new requirements are built into UK regulation. For example, the EIA quality mark operated by IEMA, could provide a basis for the UK to create an EIA experts accreditation process, but I’m sure it won’t prove quite that simple.”
The authorities hope to have a new Directive adopted in 2014, with implementation across the EU by 2016.