PLANNING REFORM BRINGS EIA CHANGES

The government have started to respond on some sections within the “Technical Consultation on Planning”, which proposes to streamline parts of the planning system. As we wait to hear the response on EIA Thresholds, we look at whether or not the proposed changes will build on improvements already made and assist in simplifying the EIA process.

In the run up to an election, the government, has reiterated its commitment to simplifying and streamlining certain arrangements linked to planning applications in England. Within the proposals, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) have proposed a number of measures, including the expansion of permitted development rights which aims to reduce red tape and so promote housing and growth.

In relation to EIA, the consultation specifically proposes to remove unnecessary bureaucracy and reduce the cost and time taken to get planning permission, by raising the screening thresholds for industrial estate and urban development projects which are located outside of defined sensitive areas

Believing the existing screening thresholds to be unnecessarily low, the consultation focused on industrial estate and urban development projects, which are listed at paragraphs 10(a) and 10(b) of Schedule 2 respectively. This section covers a wide range of developments including shopping centres and car parks, sports stadiums, leisure centres and multiplex cinemas.

The current screening threshold for industrial estate development is 0.5 hectare and the proposal aims to raise this to five hectares. The current screening threshold for ‘urban development projects’ is also 0.5 hectares, though the indicative thresholds do differ for different types of development. The proposal aims to raise the screening threshold for the development of dwelling houses of up to five hectares, including where there is up to one hectare of non-residential urban development. The consultation reasons that based on an average housing density of 30 dwellings per hectare, the new higher threshold will equate to housing schemes of around 150 units.

The consultation is limited to these two categories within Schedule 2 and this focus on housing reiterates the government priority for house building without the need to open up the consultation to some of the more sensitive categories of development such as retail, wind developments or quarries.

Although these changes are anticipated to reduce the requests for screening opinions for residential development by about 1300, it is extremely likely to result in to an increase in the number of screening directions being requested from the Secretary of State. It may lead to local authorities, statutory bodies or other interested parties challenging whether the intentions of the EIA Directive which require all developments with the potential for significant environmental effects to undergo EIA have been met.

Furthermore, basing the thresholds solely on area may result in Local Authorities inadvertently overlooking other criteria that need to be taken into account, such as absorption capacity of existing environment or magnitude of the impacts.

As well as potential complex legal challenges, critics have pointed out that London Plan target residential densities are between 150 – 1,150 dwellings per hectare. Thus, this proposal based purely on area, could potentially lead to developments with extremely high number of dwellings falling within the 5Ha threshold not requiring an EIA.

We await the government response and will keep you updated on developments as they emerge!