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Environment Bulletin: Recent changes to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Thresholds

On 6 April 2015, new legislative provisions on Environmental Impact Assessment came into force, raising screening thresholds for residential, urban and industrial estate developments.

Those involved in property development will be familiar with Environmental Impact Assessment (or “EIA”), a procedure designed to ensure that the likely effects of new development on the environment are fully understood and taken into account before development is granted planning permission.

The Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations1 sets out two types of projects: those listed in Schedule 1, for which EIA will always be required, and those listed in Schedule 2, for which EIA will be required if the project is likely to give rise to significant environmental effects. Both Schedules contain thresholds below which EIA will never be required – so, for example, EIA will not be required for the construction of a new road if the development area is less than 1 hectare.

Late last year, the government held a public consultation on possible changes to the EIA thresholds. It was generally considered that some of the thresholds were unnecessarily low and that certain increases would avoid “unnecessary bureaucracy”, reducing the time and cost involved in obtaining planning permission. The consultation demonstrated that there was significant support for change, particularly from local planning authorities. As a result, increased thresholds came into force on 6 April 2015.

From that date:

  • For residential development, the previous threshold of 0.5ha is increased to 5ha or 150 units;
  • For other urban development projects, the previous threshold of 0.5ha is increased to 5ha; and
  • For industrial estate developments, the previous threshold of 0.5ha is increased to 5ha.

In the case of residential development, consultation responses expressed a concern that high density housing, such as tower blocks, could have a significant impact even where the development area was well below 5ha. The threshold of 5 ha or 150 units was introduced to ensure that the provision remained suitable for both low and high density housing.

The government has suggested that it would like to increase the threshold further still to 1,000 homes (or about 30ha). There are, though, doubts as to whether such a significant increase would comply with the European Union (EU) Directive underpinning the legislation and there has been no formal consultation on the proposal.

Further changes to EIA are anticipated following the adoption, in April 2014, of a new EU Directive on EIA. The Directive recognises that, since the original Directive was adopted in 1985, resource efficiency and sustainability, biodiversity protection, climate change and risks of accident have all become increasingly important in planning policy yet this has not necessarily been reflected in environmental impact legislation. Any necessary changes to domestic law must be made by 16 May 2017.

The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.

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