EIA screening by local authorities

9th November 2011

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Savills' Chris Slater reveals the inconsistencies in how local authorities approach to screening environmental impact assessments (EIA).

Since the requirements of the EIA Directive were first implemented in the UK, the EIA Regulations have been revised on several occasions. The latest consolidation and amendment of the EIA Regulations came into effect in England during August this year. At the heart of these Regulations sits the local planning authority, acting as the “competent authority”; an unbiased decision-making authority recommending proposed development for approval or rejection.
In a recently study, I examined the effect of legal rulings on the procedures implemented by several local planning authorities across the South East of England and discovered an inconsistent approach to EIA screening of development proposals.

In 2006, the Barker case ruled that outline planning permission, and the decision that subsequently gives approval of reserved matters, is considered to constitute a multi-stage development consent process. In practice this means that local authorities should be considering the whether a subsequent application for approval of reserved matters requires EIA and should adopt an appropriate screening opinion. This concept was explained by the Department for Communities and Local Government in a letter to chief planning officers (June 2006), and subsequently formalised by the 2008 amendment to the EIA Regulations.

My investigations found that out of nine authorities interviewed only one had given consideration as to whether EIA was required at the reserved matters stage. During discussions in respect of this requirement, several the authorities even indicated that they were not aware of the requirement to do so.

The most surprising response came from a district council who, like other authorities interviewed, were unaware of the Barker case and the requirements introduced by the amending regulations in 2008.

However, they stated that they had been working on advice previously issued to them by their legal team pre-Barker and were under the impression that if a development “has outline planning permission, then you don’t need to go through any formal screening at reserved matters”.

I also investigated the impacts of the Baker case (2009). This ruling requires that when considering an application for the extension or change of a schedule 1 or 2 developments, an authority must consider the potential significant effects on the environment of the development as a whole when modified and not just the effects of the modification itself.

My survey revealed that the disparity in knowledge between the different tier authorities is even larger in respect of Baker than it is Barker. The county councils interviewed knew of this requirement and gave it consideration as a routine matter, however, several district councils indicated this requirement was not being fully considered and that there had been occasions when they had failed to screen applications for significant environmental effects. While these councils stressed the fact such developments were unlikely to have resulted in significant environmental effects, this highlights potential failings in their formal procedures, and could result in a planning consent that is susceptible to legal challenge.

Discussions with four EIA practitioners from UK consultancies contacted as part of the study reflected these findings. The practitioners confirmed they thought the manner in which EIA was dealt with by a range of local planning authorities was very inconsistent, particularly when they requested an EIA screening opinion. “You get some councils that are totally bamboozled by EIA and what is required of them,” said one interviewee.

Several consultants highlighted a clear distinction between the knowledge base within district and unitary authorities and those of county councils. They found that when dealing with county councils there was often a more detailed understanding of the Regulations, most likely due to the nature and frequency of the applications they dealt with.

In contrast, those district and unitary authorities that only have occasional involvement with EIA appear less likely to be up to date with recent case law or amendments to the EIA Regulations.

The inconsistency of approach to EIA screening of development proposals reflects a real lack of knowledge and understanding of the subject by some councils. There is a need to ensure that all councils have a full understanding of screening in accordance with the EIA Regulations and it remains essential for EIA practitioners to liaise closely with local planning authorities to ensure the screening requirements of the EIA Regulations are applied and formally recorded.

This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice. To discuss the themes raised by the article with other environmental professionals visit IEMA’s LinkedIn group.

Chris Slater is a graduate planner at Savills


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