Monday, 27 April 2015

THE TIMING OF EIA SCREENING





Jo Baker, senior environmental manager and Emma Robinson, associate director at Terence O'Rourke consider the best timing for EIA screening to take place.

EIA screening, the procedure used to determine whether a proposed project is likely to have significant effects on the environment, is traditionally considered an exercise to be completed early on in the development of a project. Indeed, it is often the first involvement an EIA practitioner has in a scheme. 

The online planning practice guidance from the communities department (DCLG) states: “EIA screening should normally take place at an early stage in the design of the project. However, it can also occur after a planning application has been made or even after an appeal has been made.” 

An early EIA screening decision can be important for clients, in terms of financial planning and the project programme, but we are finding a growing number of instances where delaying the submission of a screening request can be instrumental in a more streamlined progression of a project through the planning process. This has primarily arisen for projects where the decision as to the need for EIA may be more ambiguous either due to the scale of the development and nature of potential effects. 

In these cases, the lack of sufficient baseline information and initial assessment work can make it difficult to give sufficient detail to a local planning authority (LPA) to enable it to reach the appropriate conclusion. We have found this to be increasingly the case as many LPAs no longer have in-house technical expertise to advise on the validity of claims and conclusions set out in EIA screenings, particularly on topics such as transport, natural heritage, landscape and cultural heritage. 

While all LPAs have the option to seek external advice on EIA screening, many do not due to the turnaround time for issuing the screening opinion or in some cases the cost implications of the consultation. If they are unsure of potential environmental impacts, LPAs correctly adopt the precautionary principle, in particular to avoid the threat of judicial review and deem EIA necessary based on the basic information submitted at the time of screening. 

A lack of information early on in a project can also be critical in respect of the proposal itself. Screening at an early stage of the development of a project will often result in the process being undertaken on a ‘maximum quantum of development’, well above that of the final scheme, which is refined following the results of technical work. On occasion, the conclusions of an EIA screening opinion may have been different if it were undertaken on the submitted scheme. While the DCLG guidance makes some provision for a proposal to be rescreened and potentially a screening opinion changed, it is clear that such instances are not commonplace. 

EIA Directive 2014/52/EU must be transposed into UK legislation by May 2017. It amends the screening process substantially. In particular, it:
  • Requires detailed screening reports.
  • Changes the selection criteria of Annex II projects at Annex III.
  • Adds a new Annex IIA setting out what information developers should provide when seeking a screening opinion. The emphasis is on project description, baseline, likely significant effects and the relationship of the proposal to the relevant criteria in Annex III.
  • States that mitigation measures can be considered, including integrated design.

Although nothing is specified in the 2014 Directive with regard to the timing of screening, the additional information requirements suggest that there will need to be more detailed consideration of project design and potentially significant issues at an earlier stage. This will probably lead to a delay in the submission of screening reports while the information is being compiled. 

As such, the requirements of the 2014 Directive dovetail with our argument that it is sometimes worth the time, effort, money and patience to develop proposals more fully, consider the embedded design and mitigation measures that may be needed, back this up with robust baseline information and see if it is possible to avoid or minimise the likelihood of generating any significant environmental effects. This may either reduce the scope of EIA required or perhaps even avoid the need for EIA at all.

Source: IEMA, The Environmentalist.



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