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Guidance Note on Environmental Requirements for Neighbourhood Plans

Qualifying body: The Parish or Town Council
Local planning authority: Tunbridge Wells Borough Council
HRA: Habitats Regulation Assessment
SEA: Strategic Environmental Assessment
SA: Sustainability Appraisal

The following three environmental assessments are required for all Neighbourhood Plans:

(i) Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) screening
(ii) Habitat Regulations Assessment (HRA) screening
(iii) A demonstration that the plan contributes to sustainable development

One of the basic conditions that will be tested by the independent examiner of the Neighbourhood Plan is whether the making of the neighbourhood plan is compatible with European Union obligations (including under the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive and the European Habitats Directive).

Under the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive, draft neighbourhood plan proposals should be assessed to determine whether the plan is likely to have significant environmental effects. To decide whether a draft neighbourhood plan might have significant environmental effects, it must be assessed at an early stage of the plan’s preparation according to the requirements set out in regulation 9 of the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004. This includes a requirement to consult with the three environmental assessment consultation bodies (Natural England, The Environment Agency and Historic England).

Under the European Habitats Directive, draft neighbourhood plan proposals should be assessed to determine whether the plan is likely to have significant effects. Similarly, there is a legal requirement to consult with the nature conservation body (Natural England).

There is no legal requirement for a neighbourhood plan to have a sustainability appraisal as set out in section 19 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. However, a qualifying body must demonstrate how its plan will contribute to achieving sustainable development and a Sustainability Appraisal is a recognised way of doing this.

Strategic Environmental Assessment is a process for evaluating, at the earliest appropriate stage, the environmental effects of a plan before it is made.

Draft neighbourhood plan proposals should be assessed to determine whether the plan is likely to have significant environmental effects. This process is commonly referred to as a ‘screening’ assessment.

Before deciding whether significant environment effects are likely, the local planning authority should take into account the criteria specified in the regulations and consult the three environment consultation bodies. Each consultation body will be able to advise on particular topics relevant to its specific area of expertise and responsibility, and the specific information that it holds.

A Habitat Regulations Assessment screening identifies whether a plan is likely to have a significant effect on the integrity of a ‘European site’ *, either alone or in combination with other plans or projects.

This assessment must determine whether significant effects on a European site can be ruled out on the basis of objective information. Consultation for this process is with Natural England alone.

*European sites are nature conservation sites of European importance and include Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for Birds and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for habitat types and species (excluding birds). They were created under the EC Birds Directive and Habitats Directive and form part of a larger European network called Natura 2000.

Sustainability Appraisal (SA) is a useful approach for doing this.

The borough council has developed a scoring methodology which parish councils are encouraged to use. This same methodology is being implemented at borough level for the emerging Local Plan and thus its use at local level would help ensure a consistent approach between plans.

Please contact the Planning Environmental Officer at Tunbridge Wells Borough Council for a copy of the scoring methodology.

SEA considers the effects of a plan on the environment, whereas Sustainability Appraisal assesses how well the plan contributes to the three themes of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. Thus, sustainability is a much broader concept than that of the environment alone.

HRA and SEA Screening should be completed at the evidence gathering and engagement stage of the neighbourhood plan preparation.

It is the responsibility of the local planning authority to ensure that all the regulations appropriate to the nature and scope of a neighbourhood plan proposal submitted to it have been met in order for the proposal to progress.
The qualifying body should work with the local planning authority to be sure that the authority has the information it needs.

The qualifying body is encouraged to consider sustainable development from an early stage in neighbourhood plan preparation. The Sustainability Appraisal should be completed by the qualifying body once a draft plan is available for each policy or strategic objective in the neighbourhood plan where appropriate. The results of the Sustainability Appraisal will be useful for the local planning authority in preparing the SEA and HRA screening process.

Once a draft plan has been prepared and submitted to the Planning Environmental Officer, the local planning authority can begin preparing the screening reports. Qualifying bodies should allow at least three weeks for this process. Once complete, the local planning authority will send the screening reports to the necessary consultation bodies.

Legislation does not specify the timescales for consultation bodies to provide an opinion on a SEA or HRA screening report. However, the borough council has taken the view that we should follow the same timescales as that for
Environmental Impacts Assessment (EIA) screening (a similar process that assesses the effects on the environment of projects rather than plans). The EIA process allows three weeks for consultation bodies to respond.

All screening opinions and responses from consultation bodies will be published on the borough council’s website.

Environmental experts at the borough council will carry out the HRA and SEA screening process. The qualifying body should ensure the authority has the information it needs (i.e. the draft neighbourhood plan).

The Sustainability Appraisal process can be completed by anyone with planning experience within the qualifying body or the qualifying body’s consultant. Guidance is available from the borough council should the qualifying body require further advice.

Planning Environment Officer
21st January 2020