SEA Directive & business

Consultancy Terence O'Rourke's director Andrew Mahon and senior environmental manager Olan Howell explain the ramifications of the new directive

A new European directive comes into force on 21 July 2004. Known as the Strategic Environmental Assessment or SEA Directive, it is intended to promote sustainable development through the integration of environmental protection into plan making. The idea is not new – SEA is currently practised in a number of forms around the world, and the directive has been a number of years in the making.

The existing legislative framework is effective in ensuring that specific projects are subject to environmental scrutiny, but it struggles to take account of environmental issues at the more strategic levels of planning and decision making.

Significant environmental effects

The directive will cover plans and programmes that “are likely to have significant environmental effects” and will apply in a wide range of sectors including agriculture, forestry, industry, transport, tourism and planning. However, it will only apply to plans and programmes prepared by public authorities. While the exact scope of application in the UK has not yet been specified, it is likely that it will focus primarily on local, regional and national government and also the privatised industries such as railways, water companies and waste disposal. Government guidance is available on the website of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

While the day-to-day running of private businesses will fall outside the immediate scope of the directive, there will be implications for those looking to expand or relocate through their interaction with the planning system. More sustainable locations and developments will be favoured under the new system, and businesses should plan well in advance and ensure chosen locations will fulfil such requirements. They should contribute to the consultation process to promote their interest, and ensure that the public authorities dealing with relevant SEAs are thorough.

This is to avoid the potential for legal challenge to the SEA that could spoil a favourable planning decision, as the EIA system that assesses individual development projects is still being refined through successful challenges to individual planning consents.

The Taunton Urban Extension Strategic Environmental Appraisal provides an early and current example of how the process may usefully be applied. Terence O’Rourke (in partnership with Halcrow, GVA Grimley, Roger Tym & Partners and James Nisbet & Company) has been appointed by the South West Regional Development Agency, Somerset County Council and Taunton Deane Borough Council to test options for the expansion of Taunton and to identify a preferred strategy.

The study has addressed the likely long-term growth of Taunton and evaluated various locations around the town where expansion might take place. The strategy took account of the forthcoming SEA Directive, as the Somerset and Exmoor National Park Joint County Structure Plan (1st Alteration) is due to be published this year and prior to its adoption will need to undergo SEA.

Assessment in stages

All of the available land around Taunton was examined, and broad areas of environmental constraint such as floodplains, nationally important landscapes, areas around scheduled monuments and areas of high agricultural land value were excluded through strategic sieving. A local landscape appraisal of the remaining land then identified areas for more detailed analysis.

Three options for urban extension were selected as being able to deliver the required development land, while causing the least overall environmental impact. Two final options were then subjected to a more detailed appraisal under a common set of 12 environmental criteria, such as nature conservation, transport, groundwater and impact on existing settings. From this analysis, a final set of the most relevant determining criteria was selected.

This illustrates how SEA can greatly improve strategic decision making. The implications of the SEA Directive are somewhat uncertain but it should lead to a more sustainable form of development that will benefit adaptable and sensitive businesses.

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