Implications of the revised EIA screening thresholds

13th October 2015

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John Hartill

Ruth Jones, environmental consultant at Campbell Reith, examines the pros and cons of recent changes to the EIA screening process.

EIA has been formally established in the UK since 1988, however the framework allows for flexibility and adaptation, resulting in changes to legislation. This article summarises recent amendments to the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011 (EIA Regulations) and examines the benefits and disadvantages of increasing the thresholds to the screening process in project development.

Overview of EIA and schedule two thresholds

EIA is a systematic process used to identify, predict and evaluate the significant environmental effects of proposed actions. There are three stages to an EIA; screening, scoping and the environmental statement (ES). The changes examined in this article concern screening, which determines whether an EIA is required in the first place.

Proposed development either falls with schedule one or two of the EIA regulations. Developments under schedule are required to go through EIA. EIA is only needed for developments under schedule two if the nature, scale and location meet certain criteria. It is the responsibility of the local planning authority (LPA) to establish whether a project is a schedule one or schedule two development.

Changes have been made to the screening requirements in schedule two, category 10 (a) and (b) of the EIA regulations. Previously, the EIA regulations defined schedule two, category 10 (a) and (b) developments as follows:

10. Infrastructure projects (a) Industrial estate development projects; and (b) Urban development projects, including the construction of shopping centres and car parks, sports stadiums, leisure centres and multiplex cinemas.

Changes to the EIA regulations were a result of a technical consultation held between July to September 2014 with the Department for communities and local government (Dclg). The now amended regulations; The Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 came into force on 6 April 2015, however the UK government has until 2017 to implement these changes. They are as follows:

• The screening threshold for the development of homes has been increased from 0.5 hectares up to five hectares, including where there is up to one hectare of non-residential urban development;
• The threshold for other urban development has been raised from 0.5 hectare to 1 hectare; and
• The threshold for industrial estate development has been raised from the 0.5 hectares to 5 hectares.

Implications of increased screening thresholds

The purpose of an EIA is to address the significant effects of development. The Dclg has stated that the increase in threshold will not pose any significant effect to the environment and that smaller developments often undertake unnecessary EIAs, even when they fall within schedule two.

One main implication from the increase in screening thresholds will be the reduction of EIAs submitted to the LPA. The government believes this change will save LPAs time and money, as EIAs are often thorough and time-consuming documents.

There has been no change to previous legislation regarding proposed development in sensitive areas. EIAs will still be undertaken where proposed development falls within these sensitive locations for example sites of special scientific interest and special protection areas.

There was some dispute with the increase in threshold, particularly in urban areas. Respondents to the consultation believed the increase was too substantial to attribute 'no significant effect' in urban areas. In response to these concerns, the government has added a new criteria for 150 homes which would cover tower blocks and flats in urban areas.

It could be argued that the new thresholds should address site-specific conditions and include more detail such as rural and urban areas, and the type, size and height of a dwelling.

Do the changes pose challenges for future EIAs?

After evaluating the technical consultation and response from the Dclg, it can be concluded that the new thresholds hold many challenges to the future of EIA in schedule two, category 10 (a) and (b). There was a need to readdress the current legislation to alleviate pressures on local authorities, however this begs the question, is time and cost saving more important than the environment?

The advantages to amending the screening thresholds can be summarised as:

  • Time-saving for local authorities and developers;
  • Cost reduction to local authorities and developers;
  • Reducing unnecessary EIAs; and
  • Alternative option of submitting screening direction through the secretary of state if development does not meet threshold.

The disadvantages to amending the screening thresholds can be summarised as:

  • There is no distinction between urban and rural areas, despite the qualities of the areas being are significantly different;
  • The increase in hectares was too large, particularly in urban areas;
  • Subjectivity to housing size and height;
  • Smaller projects collectively can account for larger impacts, which may eventually become detrimental; and
  • Smaller projects are now overlooked.

In summary, as the changes to the screening thresholds in schedule two, category 10 (a) and (b) of the EIA regulations have only recently been introduced and have not yet been well used, the real implications to both the developers and LPAs and to the EIA process are uncertain.


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