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Environmental Impact Assessment thresholds and Neighbourhood Plan regime to change following Technical Consultation

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12/01/2015

For a more comprehensive and updated summary of the changes, as a result of Environmental Impact Assessment thresholds and Neighbourhood Plan following technical consultation report, please see our more recent article More changes for planning following technical consultation reports.

Background

As part of continuing attempts to ensure greater efficiency and streamlined processes, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) launched its technical consultation on proposed planning reforms on 31 July 2014 (the Consultation).  The Consultation highlighted plans to:

  • improve the use of planning conditions;
  • introduce new environmental impact assessment (EIA) thresholds;
  • extend certain permitted development rights;
  • refine the determination process for nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs); and
  • alter the neighbourhood planning regime.

The eight-week response period ended on Friday 26 September 2014.  In November 2014, DCLG announced resultant changes to the process for discharging planning conditions and relating to NSIP Development Consent Orders.  Following further consideration of the feedback, DCLG has issued its latest response (the Response) confirming the proposals to be implemented vis-a-vis EIA thresholds and the neighbourhood planning regime.

EIA Thresholds

European Directive 2011/92/EU requires projects likely to have a significant effect on the environment to undergo an EIA.  The EIA procedures go beyond those normally required for a planning application, bringing heightened time and cost implications.  Responding to concerns that projects unlikely to cause significant environmental effects were unnecessarily subject to EIAs, DCLG proposed to raise the thresholds for certain types of development.  Projects below the threshold are deemed not to require screening for an EIA.

As a result, there is now to be an increase from the previous 0.5 hectare threshold for urban development projects involving housing.   In addition, the proposal for large housing schemes forming part of urban or industrial estate developments has been modified to make reference to the number of residential units involved.  Now projects will not be screened by the local planning authority (the LPA) to determine whether they should be subject to an EIA up to the following thresholds:

  • for residential development (including where there is up to one hectare of non-residential urban development) – five hectares or up to 150 units;
  • for other urban development – one hectare; and
  • for industrial estate development – five hectares.

The change is intended to cater for situations where a purely hectare-based threshold (and the national average of 30 dwelling-units per hectare) is ineffective in reflecting a project’s potential environmental impact.  For example, in areas of high housing density and urban locations with tower-block developments.

The National Planning Practice Guidance already appears to have been updated to reflect the above.  The Government intends to bring the changes into effect early in 2015.

It is hoped the raised threshold will reduce the number of projects unnecessarily screened, where they are evidently unlikely to have significant environmental effects.  While acknowledging that smaller-scale developments can bring adverse environmental impacts (either alone or in combination), these are unlikely to be significant – which is what the Directive aims to ‘tackle’.  In any event, the safeguard remains that that the Secretary of State can (with or without a third party request) issue a screening direction for any project regardless of the thresholds. Interested parties are also still able to make representations on projects’ environmental effects and planning applications will be subject to the broader-scale, existing environmental protection provisions.  Whether the thresholds will increase the number of requests to the Secretary of State for screening directions, at least in the short-term, remains to be seen.

Neighbourhood Plans

Approximately 31 neighbourhood plans are currently in force and used to determine planning applications across the country.  In addition, over 1,100 areas have already been designated as neighbourhood areas (NAs) following applications to LPAs.  Even more communities are now likely to follow suit, with the Consultation’s changes aiming to make it easier for residents and businesses to jointly produce a neighbourhood plan or development order.

Rather than the current average of 19 weeks, LPAs will now have to determine a community’s application to create a NA within:

  • eight weeks – where the proposed NA follows a parish boundary;
  • 20 weeks – if applications ‘straddle’ more than one LPA area; or
  • 13 weeks – for all other applications.

Time will start to ‘run’ from the date immediately following that on which the application was first publicised, to allow sufficient time for effective publicity arrangements.  No new or specific publicity requirements have been imposed, so that local flexibility and proportionate consultation are ensured.

Correspondingly, no time-limits are being introduced at other stages of the neighbourhood planning process.  Planning guidance is being used simply to reinforce that LPAs should “make every effort to conclude each stage of the neighbourhood planning process promptly”.  It will be interesting to see whether this results in a smoother, faster decision-making process in reality. Current funding arrangements are being retained, with £12 million available to LPAs in 2015/16 to undertake neighbourhood planning responsibilities.  In addition, the £22.5 million promised in October 2014 will remain from 2015 to 2018 for providing community groups with advice, grant funding and technical assistance in production of their neighbourhood plans.  While the Response states that LPAs will therefore experience no additional demands on expenditure or resources, some heightened administrative burdens seem inevitable.

Limited changes have been made to the information that must be submitted with a neighbourhood plan, to ensure compliance with the requirement that any land-use programme is compatible with Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) obligations.  Any neighbourhood plan proposal lodged with an LPA will have to be accompanied by:

  • a statement of reasons why the proposals are unlikely to have significant environmental effects (and accordingly do not require an SEA); or
  • an SEA report; or
  • an explanation of why the plan is not subject to the SEA Directive’s requirements.

New regulations are to be laid before Parliament as soon as possible, to come into effect by the end of January 2015.  Housing Minister, Brandon Lewis, stated that the measures “will speed up the process, making it quicker and easier to get a neighbourhood plan together so that the views of local people are written clearly in black and white for developers and councils to see”.

For more information on the possible impact of the changes contact the Planning team at Walker Morris.

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