The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive has been amended and codified several times since its implementation some 30 years ago. The current Directive (2014/52/EU) adopted in 2014, made several amendments to the previous iteration and is required to be transposed by member states on or before 16 May 2017. Various changes to the EIA Regulations are anticipated to be implemented; this article reviews recent consultation by the Government on amendments to Screening thresholds in particular.

The current Directive provides that member states may set thresholds or criteria to determine when projects need not undergo either a screening determination or an EIA. In the 2012 Autumn Statement the Government made a commitment to consult on proposals to change the EIA Screening thresholds (applied for certain types of development, or ‘Schedule 2’ development, to determine whether EIA is required). Projects that fall below these identified thresholds do not need to be automatically screened to determine whether an EIA is needed.

A technical consultation on planning ran from July to September 2014. This included a number of proposals for reducing the burden on both applicants and Local Planning Authorities by amending Screening thresholds to exclude projects for which adverse environmental effects are unlikely. Suggested amendments were as follows:

  • The screening threshold for the development of dwelling houses should be increased from the existing 0.5 hectare up to 5 hectares, including where there is up to 1 hectare of non-residential urban development;
  • The threshold for other urban development should be raised from the existing 0.5 hectare to 1 hectare;
  • The threshold for industrial estate development should be raised from the current 0.5 hectare to 5 hectares.

The response from Local Planning Authorities was generally supportive of the proposals, however, there were concerns of some respondents that raising the thresholds could result in some potentially environmentally damaging projects falling below the new thresholds and avoiding assessment (particularly in relation to residential tower blocks in urban areas for which a threshold based on number of units was suggested).

The Government carefully considered the comments and agreed that there is a case for changing the threshold for residential dwellings to include a number of units. The threshold has therefore been amended to refer to developments which do not exceed 5 hectares or do not include more than 150 units. This aims to provide suitable thresholds for both low and high density housing developments respectively and takes account, in particular, of the requirement to consider the impacts of projects in high density areas. It is worth remembering, however, that all proposals which are located in, or partly in, sensitive areas have to be screened irrespective of their size.

Whilst the Government’s attempts to improve the EIA process is to be commended it is questionable whether these threshold amendments will give rise to as significant an impact on the level of screening as was intended. Originally it was suggested that the proposals could cut the number of screenings of English residential development by around 80 per cent. Whilst raising the thresholds will certainly reduce the number of projects that are screened unnecessarily inclusion of the consideration of units will bring in other sites which may previously have avoided scrutiny. With Local Authorities coming under increasing pressure to meet 5-year housing land supply residential developments in excess of 150 units may become more common-place, especially in the larger towns and cities where housing densities are also at a higher level.

Ultimately only time will tell whether these measures will have the desired effects. The Government has indicated it will lay regulations in early 2015 which amend the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011 to bring these changes into effect.