Laying down the law: On the threshold of a new era for EIA?
Andrew Wiseman highlights changes to the thresholds for environmental impact assessment and wonders whether raising them will make much of a difference in practice.
In 2014, the government consulted on proposals to “simplify and streamline” the process for making and determining planning applications in England. These included changes to neighbourhood planning and the deemed discharge of planning conditions. One of the more controversial proposals was to raise and modify the thresholds for when an environmental impact assessment (EIA) is required as part of a planning application.
The communities and local government department (Dclg) published its response to the consultation in January. It summarises the consultation responses received and sets out the Dclg’s decision on how it intends to proceed with the proposed increase in the thresholds at which EIA screening is required.
Raising the thresholds
There were 327 responses to the consultation. Of these, 60% were from public authorities. Having reviewed the consultation responses, Dclg confirmed that it would introduce a number of changes to the threshold at which an EIA is required. To recap, the key changes are that the current 0.5 hectare limit will rise for:
- housing developments, so that it is now 5 hectares or more than 150 units. The 5 hectare threshold can include developments with up to 1 hectare of non-residential urban development. The alternative threshold of 150 units has been introduced to recognise the impact of high-density development projects in some urban areas, which may be well under the hectare threshold, such as city centre tower blocks;
- other urban development will be raised to 1 hectare; and
- industrial estate development will be raised to 5 hectares.
It is Dclg’s belief that these higher thresholds will not result in any significant environmental effects being missed by the lack of an EIA because:
- all developments in or partly in an environmentally sensitive area will still need to be screened irrespective of their size;
interested parties will continue to
be able to make representations on
the environmental effects of a project as part of the normal planning process; and
- the secretary of state will continue to be able to issue a screening direction for any project irrespective of whether it falls above or below the threshold.
Dclg believes that the changes to EIA thresholds will remove what it describes as unnecessary bureaucracy and will reduce the cost and time taken to grant planning permission. Whether the thresholds were unnecessarily low has long been a matter for debate but Dclg expects that raising the thresholds could dramatically reduce the number of screenings. Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen.
These changes will reduce the upfront assessment costs a developer will have to meet and also ease a local planning authority’s concerns over the likelihood of a legal challenge. In the longer term, the degree to which the developer’s costs are reduced remains to be seen, with many of the issues an EIA looks at still needing to be addressed.
The intention is that the communities and local government department will lay the necessary regulations before parliament soon to bring the changes into effect before May’s general election.
Rationale for raising thresholds
The chancellor announced measures in his 2012 autumn statement to improve the application in England of environmental impact assessment (EIA), including a pledge to consult on changing the EIA thresholds for certain types of development. In the subsequent consultation document, the government argued that EIA procedures went beyond those normally required for a planning application. This increased the workload of developers, local planning authorities and the consultation bodies, and added to the cost of making a planning application as well as the time taken to make a decision.
“Therefore subjecting projects, which are not likely to give rise to significant environmental effects, to an EIA unnecessarily adds to the time and cost of preparing an application and obtaining planning permission,” it stated. The document went on to say: “We believe that concern about the risk of legal challenge has led some local planning authorities to require EIA for projects which are not likely to give rise to significant effects.”
The consultation set out plans to raise the screening threshold solely on the basis of land area. But after respondents to the consultation, including IEMA, raised concerns that restricting the threshold to land area would ignore the environmental impact of tower blocks, it was broadened to cover the number of homes in a project.
However, many EIA practitioners warn that the change could result in smaller projects with the potential for significant environmental impact being challenged in the courts. IEMA members have reported several recent housing projects under 5 hectares and 150 homes that local authorities said required an EIA. Josh Fothergill, policy and practice lead at IEMA, said: “There is a lot of precedent where local authorities have said that a particular type of development needs an EIA.”
In June 2021, the UK’s governing Conservative Party lost a by-election in Chesham and Amersham, a seat it had held for 47 years. The principal reasons reported as the cause of this defeat were proposed planning reforms and the promotion of housebuilding on greenfield sites across the south of England.
As we celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the EIA Quality Mark, IEMA can announce that, during the past 12 months, the scheme has undergone a thorough review of practice, including stakeholder consultation with registrants and assessors, in order to improve it.
The delivery of effective outcomes for the environment, communities and development is a team effort, and more so when it comes to consenting projects that undergo Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).