SEA in practice: a new challenge for plan-makers and consultants
In July 2004, the strategic environmental assessment (SEA) Directive was transposed into UK legislation. It requires a swathe of public plans and programmes to be assessed for their environmental impacts, leading some environmental consultants to dub it "the new EIA" and forecast a tidal wave of work from local authorities and utilities struggling to comply. There is little doubt that the Directive will mean more work for consultants, although it is far from being the golden goose of early predictions. Indeed, reports Keith Tyrell, its biggest impact may be to build awareness and expertise on environmental issues among the plan-makers themselves.
Discussions on EU legislation to address the environmental impacts of policies and plans began as long ago as the early 1990s. By then, it had become apparent that, even with a requirement for environmental impact assessments (EIAs) to be conducted at a project level, significant impacts were being missed. The aim of the SEA Directive was to move up a level and get at some of the root causes of environmental damage by assessing the overarching pressures and cumulative impacts of policies and plans.
The tortuous process of EU law-making ensured that it was not until 2001 that the Directive on the assessment of environmental effects of certain plans and programmes finally appeared. However, the decade of negotiation and wrangling in between saw the Directive watered down considerably from the European Commission's early proposals and it now applies only to plans and programmes - polices are excluded.
Despite this erosion, the Directive is likely to have far-reaching effects. For the first time, most plans or programmes prepared by (or for) national, regional or local government must be assessed for their environmental impact. Importantly, plans or programmes prepared by utilities acting as authorities are also covered by the Directive (see box).
What is a SEA?
A strategic environmental assessment is a tool for estimating the environmental consequences of decisions which can be incorporated into the planning process. SEA does not make the decisions, it provides information to the decision-makers to allow them to better consider the environmental consequences of their plans and programmes. The principal constituents of SEA are as follows:
- Environmental report
At the heart of the SEA is an environmental report which should describe and evaluate the significant effects of the plan or programme and "reasonable alternatives" to it. The Directive sets out detailed requirements for what information should be included in the reports. But briefly, the report should set out the aims of the plan/programme and its relationship to all relevant environmental policies. A key part of the report is a baseline environmental study describing the condition of various environmental parameters. The impact of the plan/programme is assessed against this baseline. A key difficulty experienced by SEA practitioners so far has been in establishing this baseline and setting up systems to collect the data for it.
The Directive stipulates that both statutory environmental bodies and the public be given "an early and effective opportunity" to comment on the plan/programme and its environmental report. The UK transposing regulations require the plan-maker to send the draft plan and report to the statutory consultees (listed below), and to inform interested parties like NGOs and those affected by the plan of their existence. The regulations do not specify a minimum time for consultation, but the Scottish regulations require consultees to be informed early enough to allow them to express their views. Critically, their opinions must be taken into account before the plan/programme is adopted.
- Statutory consultees
- UK/England: English Nature, English Heritage, Countryside Agency, Environment Agency
- Scotland: Historic Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency
- Wales: Welsh Assembly Government, Countryside Council for Wales, Cadw
- Northern Ireland: Environment and Heritage Service
- Integrating findings into the plan
The plan-maker must explain how the environmental considerations identified by the assessment were integrated into the plan, and how the consultees' views were taken into account. They must also justify their choice of options in the plan and explain why they opted for them over the "reasonable alternatives" identified in the environmental report.
- A powerful requirement of SEA is that the effect of the plan/programme must be monitored after its adoption so that any unforeseen impacts can be spotted early and remedial action taken. The plan-maker must set out its monitoring arrangements when it presents its final plan and environmental report.
Some consultants have predicted that hundreds of plans will need to be assessed each year, most of them originating in already stretched local government planning departments. The lack of resources in local authorities - either in expertise or staff time - makes it likely that environmental consultants will be called on to fill the gap, resulting in a significant and new income stream for the sector.
How many plans?
The number of plans and programmes which will require SEAs remains open to speculation. What is clear though is that while a whole range of sectors are covered by the requirements, local and regional authority planning departments will bear the brunt of the new regulations. The majority of SEAs are likely to be conducted on spatial development plans, while most of the rest will be for transport, minerals, waste and water management plans.
Back in 1999, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) estimated that there would only be around 100 SEAs in the public sector and 25 in the private sector in the whole of the UK each year. This now appears to have been a massive underestimate. A regulatory impact assessment conducted by the Scottish Executive this year identified 73 plans and programmes which may require an SEA within the Executive alone and a further 200 in the Scottish public sector. Meanwhile, the Environment Agency expects to conduct SEAs on around 80 of its own plans a year.
Dr Stephen Jay of Manchester University said it was still unclear how many SEAs would be conducted, but he thinks it will be a significant number. "Every planning authority - that's 400 or so - is going to have to conduct SEAs on their plans," he said. "The planning system is in a process of change. The local development frameworks consist of a whole range of documents and most of these will require an SEA." Although each document would last a number of years, given the large number of plans subject to the regulations he would not be surprised if each local authority ended up averaging one SEA per year.
If accurate figures are hard to come by for local government, things are even less certain for other sectors. "Once you step outside planning, it's unknown territory," said Dr Jay. "Nobody seems to know what plans and programmes are open to SEA in other sectors. Some plans like water and waste management have been identified, but what about others?"
Most of the uncertainty lies in the privatised utilities. The Directive requires all plans "...which set a framework for future development consent..." to be assessed. Exactly which of the major energy and water utilities' plans fall into this category remains to be established. The ODPM, Environment Agency and other bodies have issued a flurry of guidance over the past couple of months, but none of it answers this vexed question.
"Our concern is that it is not entirely clear what is and what isn't caught," said Richard Venters of Water UK. "Water resource and management plans? Yes. Management schemes and drought plans? Perhaps."
Simon Hewett of Environmental Resources Management revealed that the consultancy has been fielding enquiries from companies concerned that they might be covered by the legislation. "The utilities are in the dark - the guidance isn't there yet." He thinks that some companies will end up conducting SEAs whether they are captured by the legislation or not, simply because they think it will become best practice and will deliver better plans. But he does not think it will be a pot of gold for consultants. "It's certainly not going to rival EIA as a market," he said. "We've got 75-80 people working full time on EIA - there's nowhere near that amount on SEA."
A new way of working
Mr Hewett also thinks that the structure of the market and the way SEAs are conducted will turn off some of the larger consultancies. "The demand is going to be largely from local authorities and they're price sensitive - that will limit the level of interest from some consultants," he said. "It's also going to be time consuming." He explained that a good SEA should be conducted as part of the process of drawing up the plan, and this will require a whole new way of working for some consultants. "You have to be embedded in the planning team from the beginning; without that it's fairly fruitless."
The experience of the South West Regional Assembly seems to confirm this. The SWRA is conducting a joint SEA and sustainability appraisal of its spatial strategy. Clare Reed, its regional policy manager, explained that the team appointed and worked very closely with Land Use Consultants (LUC) from the outset. "We appointed the consultants to work with us from the start," she said. "The appraisal had an impact on how the options were developed and presented. They [the consultants] had to be flexible. The plan changed all the time. There was a lot of 'to-ing' and 'fro-ing'. Having a good relationship with the consultants was crucial to its success."
Jeremy Owen of LUC gave the consultants' point of view. "Our approach sees SEA as part of the plan-preparation process - it's in there from day one - the key thing is that it informs the plan preparation from beginning to end," he said. "In the south-west, we worked closely with them [SWRA] and became integrated into the process." He explained that while it was possible for clients to farm out all of the SEA tasks, or to do it all in-house, most opted for something in between where consultants offer advice and support at critical stages in the process. He believes that consultants at the very least bring objectivity to the proceedings.
He was certain about one thing: "The overall workload is going to significantly increase, especially over the next two or three years." Clare Reed backed up this assessment. She explained that, even with the support of LUC, conducting the SEA involved more work for the authority, but exactly how much more was difficult to gauge. Managing the relationship with the consultants, working with other partners and taking account of the findings of the assessment has all taken time. But she said it was tricky to put a figure on exactly how much more time because integrating SEA into the process has made it difficult to disentangle the assessment work from the planning work, and estimate the amount of time spent on it.
The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology thinks that each SEA will require around 50-100 person-days of work, but this is a very rough estimate. Jo Treweek, a freelance consultant who has worked on SEAs for the Environment Agency among others, believes the POST estimate to be realistic, but notes that the resources required may vary considerably from assessment to assessment. "The time taken depends totally on the nature of the plan and the information that exists," she said. "The first one I did for one of my clients took at least 50 to 100 days, but the next one was quicker."
She explained that information-gathering systems and assessment approaches established in the first SEA were transferable to later ones. She also cautioned that a lot of the delays were out of the hands of the plan-maker and consultant alike. "The main thing that took the time was not collecting or assessing the data, it was working with consultees. You can't force the pace with them."
Stakeholders and devolution
The Directive places stakeholders at the heart of the SEA process (see box 2). Both designated environmental authorities and the public must be given "an early and effective opportunity" to express their views on both the plan and the SEA report. Crucially, their opinion must also be taken into account prior to the plan's adoption.
Scope of SEA regulations
The SEA regulations which transposed the Directive cover plans and programmes started after 20 July 2004, and earlier plans and programmes which will be adopted after 21 July 2006. They apply to plans and programmes prepared by regulatory authorities - or utilities acting as regulatory authorities - to fulfil a "legislative, regulatory or administrative" obligation.
However, SEAs do not have to be prepared for all of the plans or programmes which meet these criteria. They are only mandatory for plans which "set the framework for future development" in the following sectors: agriculture, forestry, fisheries, energy, industry, telecommunications, tourism, town and country planning and land-use, transport, waste management and water management. If a plan is likely to impact a nature conservation site protected by the EU habitats Directive, or if a government ministry (or even the authority itself) considers that the plan is likely to have a serious environmental effect, then an SEA must be conducted.
A raft of public and private sector plans are potentially caught by the Directive. It will take a few years to determine exactly which - particularly in the privatised utilities - are covered. The ODPM and the Scottish Executive have issued guidance on the implementing regulations and on planning. The Environment Agency, English Nature and others have issued guidance on SEA and climate change and on biodiversity, and the Department for Transport has issued its own paper on SEA and transport.
A series of sector-specific guides are in the pipeline. Many authorities and companies will remain in the dark until these documents are released. Until then, the plans listed below are the ones which have so far been identified as definitely requiring an SEA.
ODPM's indicative list of plans and programmes subject to SEA Directive
Land-use and spatial plans
- Structure plans
- Local plans
- Unitary development plans
- Area plans (NI)
- Minerals local plans
- Minerals plans (Scotland)
- Waste local plans
- Combined minerals and waste local plans
- Subject local plans (Scotland)
- London Mayor's spatial development strategy
Forthcoming and subject to sustainability appraisal under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004:
- Local development documents (England)
- Local development plans (Wales)
- Regional spatial strategies (as revisions to existing regional planning guidance)
Other regional and local plans/programmes
- Regional economic strategies
- Regional development strategy for Northern Ireland
- Regional transport strategies
- Review of regional transportation strategy (NI)
- Regional housing strategies
- Community strategies
- Local transport plans
- Local air quality action plans
- Local housing strategies
- Recreation/sports strategies and action plans
- Primary care trusts' local delivery plans
- Revisions of the waste strategy 2000
- River basin management plans/programmes of measures
- Salmon action plans
Sectoral plans and programmes
- Offshore oil and gas licensing rounds
- Offshore windfarm licensing rounds
- Water company resource plans
- Water Service capital works programme (NI)
Jo Treweek thinks most SEAs will need at least three stakeholder meetings. But identifying appropriate stakeholders, involving them and incorporating their comments can be challenging, and many environmental consultants will have little experience of working with stakeholders. Jo Treweek is worried that many consultants won't have the skills to conduct an SEA properly. "Stakeholder participation in particular is an area where most consultants coming from a biophysical background will face a challenge," she said.
The nature of plans and the need for consultation means that many environmental consultants will have to develop - or buy in - new skills. "There is a presumption that good EIA practitioners will make good SEA practitioners. I'm not convinced of that. It requires a whole new set of skills," said Dr Ross Marshall, an SEA expert at the Environment Agency.
Dr Gordon Mudge of RPS consultants agrees. "SEA encompasses a whole range of issues which are not traditional environmental consultancy issues," he said. "For example, at RPS we have a huge range of experience in being able to pull together targeted public consultation exercises: I'm not sure a lot of smaller consultants can say the same."
Despite the difficulties of working with stakeholders, experience so far suggests that they can provide valuable input. In the south-west region, a stakeholder steering group was set up to oversee the process, and LUC was given a platform at public consultation events to present the findings of the SEA. "We have found it helpful to have a stakeholder group," said Jeremy Owen of LUC. "There is a danger with the public of consultation fatigue. We used the group as a sounding board before consulting more widely."
While all SEAs require stakeholder input, devolution means that Scottish assessments are likely to give stakeholders more of a role than those conducted elsewhere in the UK. The Directive was transposed into UK legislation in July 2004 through four separate sets of regulations - for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Each is slightly different to the other, with the Scottish regulations diverging most from the other three. All regulations give the plan-making authority the decision as to whether an SEA is required for a plan or programme. In coming to this decision, the plan-maker has to take into account the advice of a group of statutory consultees. But in Scotland, if the consultees disagree with the decision, it is automatically referred to the ministers to decide. No such mechanism exists in the other UK regimes.
Similarly, if the Scottish ministers feel that the public have not been allowed enough time to express their opinion, they can require the plan-maker to allow a longer period. Scottish guidance is also more demanding in terms of the information it requires plan-makers to provide consultees with, and importantly plan-makers are under a duty to take account of their views. While these variations may seem minor, they could have a significant effect on the timing of SEAs and the level of public participation in the process.
Another significant difference is that the English, Welsh and Northern Ireland guidance stipulates that, for spatial plans at least, SEAs should be conducted as part of a wider sustainability appraisal addressing the social and economic impacts of the document. But in Scotland SEAs will be stand-alone documents and, once a proposed Bill has been passed, SEAs will be required for all public strategies whether or not they fall under the Directive's scope.
Whether SEAs are conducted in Scotland or in other parts of the UK, there is little doubt that it will change the way public sector plans are drawn up. However, Jeremy Owen of LUC thinks the changes may not be too drastic. "The bottom line is that this shouldn't be too new to people. Firstly, because there has been a requirement for sustainability appraisal for some time, and secondly, a lot of this is just good planning."
The ultimate effect of the SEA requirement may be to build capacity within the authorities themselves to consider environmental issues and make plan-makers more aware of the environmental consequences of their decisions. SEAs have to be conducted through the plan-making process and will need a lot of input from the planners themselves. "SEA requires much more engagement by the organisation bringing forward the plan or programme," said the Environment Agency's Ross Marshall. "Previously, you could be at arm's length from an EIA - you can't do that with SEA."
Clare Reed feels that the SWRA has built up some valuable expertise through SEA. "I think it would be possible to do this in-house given the experience we are developing now. If we get it right this time, in terms of setting the systems up, collecting the data and so on, we can do it. Manpower will be the critical issue." She is positive about the overall effect of the new regulations. "It has changed the way we prepare plans," she said. "The effect of the appraisal has been to improve our planning process."