Environmental planners Adam Boyden, Alison Carroll and Jonathan Murphy at Nicholas Pearson Associates consider an example of where an EIA proved useful, despite not being originally required.
In 2014, Nicholas Pearson Associates contributed to a consultation held by IEMA on the government's proposal to amend the EIA screening thresholds for urban and residential development. The proposal by the Department for communities and local government (DCLG) aimed to deal with the perceived problem of the time and cost in dealing with both unnecessary screening reports and too many projects requiring EIA.
As a company, we were keen to take part as we have first-hand experience of EIA for a development that has been built and occupied, which would have fallen under the threshold originally proposed by government and therefore would not have undergone EIA.
Proposed EIA thresholds
The consultation, which ran from July to September 2014, sought views on proposals to raise some of the size thresholds for screening projects to determine whether there was a need for EIA. The proposals were:
- The screening threshold for the housing development should be increased from the existing 0.5 hectare up to 5 hectares, including where there is up to 1 hectare of non-residential urban development;
- The threshold for other urban development should be raised from the existing 0.5 hectare to 1 hectare;
- The threshold for industrial estate development should be raised from the current 0.5 hectare to 5 hectares.
"Sensitive areas", including national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, sites of special scientific interest, scheduled monuments and world heritage sites were exempt from the proposed changes as all developments in these areas area required to be screened for EIA, regardless of size.
Responses to the consultation
The government consultation prompted 327 responses in relation to the proposed EIA thresholds . While many respondents agreed that the existing thresholds for development outside sensitive areas were too low, the consultation also highlighted the risk that raising thresholds would remove the requirement for EIA regarding development within small sites which could still result in significant environmental effects. This was of particular concern for developments near to sensitive sites, but not actually within them, and for high-rise buildings.
While the following case study might be exceptional, it does serve to highlight some of these concerns.
The case of Castle Mill
In October 2014, the University of Oxford submitted an environmental statement (ES) for its Castle Mill graduate accommodation, which comprises 312 graduate accommodation units in four and five storey buildings over 1.2 hectares, to Oxford City Council for public consultation. Unusually, the ES was retrospective as it assessed the environmental effects of a development that already had planning permission and was fully built.
The ES identified a number of significant environmental effects on the landscape and the historic environment and considered several new design measures in order to mitigate these effects. It was widely publicised by the university and Oxford City Council received many hundreds of responses. Its consideration of the ES is ongoing.
The case highlights the value to the local community, the local authority and applicants of properly identifying the likely significant effects on the environment of a development before it is built, and that tall buildings can give rise to significant environmental effects, even when they are outside a sensitive area and have a relatively small development footprint.
The outcome of the DCLG's consultation was to introduce an additional threshold based on the number of homes in a development. The proposed new thresholds are:
- Increasing the screening threshold for residential development from 0.5 hectares to 5 hectares or 150 or more homes, including where there is up to one hectare of non-residential urban development;
- Raising the threshold for other urban development from 0.5 hectares to one hectare; and
- Raising the threshold for industrial estate development from 0.5 hectares to 5 hectares.
The government is expected to draft regulations later in this year to implement the changes.
In the case of Castle Mill, while the outcome is still uncertain at the time of writing, it is likely that a traditional pre-consent EIA would have identified the environmental effects of development if EIA had been required before planning permission was granted.
The screening thresholds originally proposed by government would mean EIA would not be required for this scale of development in future. However, the amended proposal to still require EIA for developments over 150 homes means that this scale of development would be screened for EIA in future.