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Event preview: North East EIA update

Environmental protection

Is the planning system’s process of creating and presenting environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for planning applications and local plans fit for purpose? Martyn Earle, an associate planner with Barton Willmore in Newcastle, thinks there is room for improvement.

“I’d love to see environmental impact statements reduced in size, narrowed down so that the really key environmental impacts are focused on,” he says. “This would reduce the amount of input that goes into a statement in terms of pure data.”

As it is, typical planning applications can be weighed down by a mass of detail dealing with impacts on ecology and landscape which are collated at great time and expense. Assessments end up with “only a select amount of information which really gets to the heart of the determination of a project”, Earle suggests.

A better balance therefore needs to be struck between “supplying enough environmental information to make sure that the application is robust, but reducing the statement so it isn’t just a bombardment of information.”

Not only this, but greater consideration should be given to the balance of the EIA with other requirements for viability and sustainability, says Earle. In other words, the identification of significant environmental effects should not and does not always equate to an unacceptable proposal.

The idea may be unpalatable to some, but the future of environmental assessment within the UK planning system is uncertain. Brexit is looming and could spell an end to EU environmental legislation as we know it; the government is desperate to speed up local plan production, which could mean streamlining of processes; species loss is accelerating despite the EIA regime, and the pressure to build is growing.

“I’d love to see environmental impact statements narrowed down so that the really key environmental impacts are focused on”

It’s clear the time is ripe for discussion. In the North East, the annual EIA Update, taking place in Newcastle on 1 February 2017, is both timely and necessary.

This year it’s particularly pertinent, says Earle. “While there was a lack of confidence post-recession in development coming forward on the scale that would require EIA, in the North East we are now seeing a rise in applications for large scale development.”

It’s significant because “the pattern seems to be to make EIA associated with the bigger schemes, following the recent threshold changes for when screenings should take place,” Earle notes, adding: “We will potentially see this threshold raised again.”

All over the country, too, the government is pressing for swifter creation of local plans, which means authorities creating environmental capacity assessments. The Local Plan Expert Group, tasked with recommending improvements to plan making, has asked local planning teams to “consider whether SEA [Strategic Environmental Assessment] is required at all”.

Change is afoot and the North East EIA Update will provide a forum for discussing what that might be, as well as providing insight for practitioners. Case law updates, talks from practitioners from local authorities, development bodies and the private sector will add to the agenda for a day which, says Earle, “provides a real opportunity for people on all sides of the fence to have an open and frank conversation”.

He concludes: “Either you’ve had experience and you just want to discuss it, you haven’t had any and you want to gain knowledge, or you just want to get a feel for the process. Now is as good a time as any.”


What: NE Environmental Impact Assessment

Where: Centre for Life, Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear NE1 4EP

When: 1 February, 2017

Find out more and book: tinyurl.com/Planner0117-NEEIAEvent