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A Wise Eye on the Scottish Environment

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Strategic Environmental Assessment has been introduced to ensure that policies, plans and programmes are subject to an equally vigorous environmental scrutiny as any specific proposal or development. This important European initiative has been implemented and supported in Britain by guidance from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and in Scotland by proposals for a framework of defined procedures and tasks aimed at easing the burden for authorities and agencies required to complete a Strategic Environmental Assessment.

SEA is part of a worldwide recognition that it is the decisions made at policy and plan level that determine the future environment of areas, regions, nations and continents. Certainly in Britain this has been understood for a great many years. The Planning Acts of 1947 and beyond have all had the key motive of ensuring a balanced pattern of development, ensuring growth whilst safeguarding people, communities and the environment. SEA, however, for the first time seeks to ensure that the environmental effects of strategic choice are assessed systematically and, more significantly, presented for public scrutiny. The method chosen, that of SEA, owes much of its structure to the experience of Environmental Assessment in the planning system and to the development of technological skills in environmental measurement, evaluation and projection.

Criticism and comment have inevitably been voiced. Are we identifying the appropriate level of decision making? Is it too heavily focused on development and land use plans and proposals? Who should do the Assessment, regular staff, a dedicated team or consultants? Are the environmental tools available, ready and able to meet the challenge? Can the political process be trusted? How much will it cost? What happens where you have a hierarchy of plans and programmes? These issues we will leave to others.

What we would like to examine are some of the challenges and issues for implementation by planners and others. In Scotland the Scottish Executive has put much store in establishing a mechanism of process and procedure that may assist both in quantifying the burden on plan making authorities and consultation authorities, and in establishing a consistent model of practice. Their package of measures includes

  • Providing written guidance and SEA templates
  • Establishing an SEA Gateway to provide advice and liaison
  • A Pathfinder Project to research the operation of SEA and inform good practice.

Whilst this positive commitment is welcome it would be counter productive if it leads to a tick box template and a centralised executive constraint saving cost at the expense of consideration. The timescale proposed, however, suggests a case of bolting horses, though we may well be able to rely on the addiction of planning horses to their stables.

Where then are the potential problems? We should, perhaps, look at three components of the process. For consultation authorities, expected to support, inform and comment, this will be a new and potentially expensive experience. For those responsible for plan and policy preparation the political, consultative and methodological issues may present unexpected new challenges and where the experience of EA and sustainable development may be of limited benefit. Finally for the public in general and local communities in particular the experience of planning consultation and, more recently, of community planning may provide an insubstantial framework on which to build.

The consultation agencies of SNH, SEPA and Water Authority have the dual role of providing baseline information and of guiding and commenting on the SEA at several stages. How well can these separate tasks be accomplished within each single organisation? Two key steps have already been taken by the incorporation through employment of professional planning skills and by the appointment of staff with a specific SEA responsibility. Much of the public debate so far has focused on the initial screening process and the criteria that will lead to the decision whether an SEA is prepared or not. There is always a managerial optimism that a new burden might not be needed or apply to their responsibility. The Scottish legislation does not, in our view, clarify the identity of ‘other’ organsations and bodies who might need to prepare a SEA or the plans or proposals that might be caught in the net, publishing instead a list of projects that bears more than a passing resemblance to that if the EIA legislation. It does, however, give a concise and clear statement of the position for Planning Authority generated plans and proposals, though some legal debate might well ensue. Consultation authorities will have a great deal of control over the need for a Strategic Environmental Assessment. There will, no doubt, be the temptation to adjudicate in the affirmative, for many scientific, political and precautionary reasons. Will this be right? Are there criteria that would be appropriate to define or restrict the instigation of SEA? In our view the most important part of the screening and scoping process will not be a definitive quasi-legal test but will be consensus building, not least among the consultation authorities themselves, the need to explore, explain and to understand the basis of any decision reached. A simple paper or correspondence exercise is likely to be inadequate and set little guidance for the steps ahead.
The provision of baseline information will require to be targeted. A geographic focus is a clear starting point, it may well be helpful to know, for example, that there are six SSSI in the plan area but that, in itself, will be inadequate. Some early advice from the Scottish Executive suggested that Planning Authorities already held all the environmental information they needed. This is a view with which the Consultation Authorities, I believe, are unlikely to concur. There will be a steep learning curve in understanding and defining the criteria of relevance. Not all site specific surveys, descriptions, characterisations, records of change, detailed research studies, regional and national surveys will be necessary as a knowledge base. A surfeit of data will be no more use than a paucity. But equally distilled and expertly prepared issue or area based scenarios generated specifically for the occasion may not, in themselves, be better. A trust in the environmental skills of the plan builders will be essential, with the implied responsibility of plan makers to acquire or access these skills directly. The Scottish Executive model which, in essence, anticipates the environmental skills to lie with and be drawn from the Environmental Agencies is , we believe, unsustainable.
Do the Planners need training? Many RTPI backed courses, at college or otherwise, now deliver relevant packages. However SEA is new and experience limited. We understand that the Scottish Executive have recognised and are responding to this issue, but dissemination of skills across the wide spectrum of Scottish Authorities could be more urgent than the solution will offer. There are also many timetabling problems to be considered here. How much information on the plan itself and its proposals will be sought, or needed, for the consultation authorities to assess the demand for appropriate environmental data? Will there be conflicts of time in the preparation and assembly of environmental data, of time for consideration and evaluation? There is also a need for the plan itself to define and adhere to a timetable. Planners have already been criticised, perhaps rightly perhaps not, for taking too long to produce plans that are rapidly out of date.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges could come with finding the right timetabling of the planning process. Planners will have a plan preparation schedule and process that they will not want to disrupt. Consultation Authorities will not want to be rushed, and any attempt to divorce the two processes is most likely doomed to failure. David Tyldesley has already looked briefly at this problem and proposed a model timetable. How good will this look in practice?

Once they have drawn attention to specific issues at the scoping stage and provided baseline information, there is, I suspect, likely to be a major challenge for Consultation Authorities to find appropriate methods and experience to assess the results. Again each agency has been given considerable authority at this stage. The requirement will be to test the factual accuracy and competence of the SEA’a environmental conclusions against the knowledge, studies and specific perspectives of each agency. What processes could or should be developed? We wonder, for example, what type of and whose predictive models should be used? There are many predictive models available. Which should be applied and in what circumstances? Who should make the choice? We do not want to see each responsible authority advocating their own or a specific approach to futures modeling. The need to co-ordinate this stage could be critical.

Most plan making Authorities have the experience of Sustainable Development and sometimes on Sustainability Assessments to draw on. But these may be a burden as well as an advantage. How well have they succeeded? There is little research to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the approaches adopted and too little time for monitoring to contribute any understanding. Perhaps the Pathfinder Project should consider this as an early option. Even the experienced may find difficulty telling them apart. Will the processes and conclusions developed influence the pattern and nature of the SEA? In England and Wales SEA may be implemented through Sustainability Appraisals. For Scotland SEA is expected to stand alone as a Consultation Authority led guide to environmental effects, leaving Sustainable Development Plans to accommodate the socio-economic impacts of plans and programmes even though, in Scotland, some Authorities have attempted to deliver sustainability appraisal.. The balance and potential trade-offs of this parallel processing may well lead to an inequality of status to the disbenefit of the environment.

One of the critical issues may well be the inter-relationship of different plans and planning levels. Most current land use planning units are economically or administratively based. How significant can environmental planning units such as catchment area planning become? Should the introduction of environmental planning units be a parallel development or should SEA demand an environmental unit. SNH advocated the concept of Natural Heritage Zones and the old Strathclyde and Highland Regional Councils toyed with the idea of ecological tracts as a planning tool. Is it time to reassess their objectives, purpose and potential role?

There must also be a clarification of the role of other environmental communities. Many stronger representative organisations, such as the Scottish Wildlife Trust and RSPB, will, no doubt, find ways to, at least, express their views but the desire to expand the involvement of local communities in the wider community planning and other choices has no reflection in SEA legislation. My area, for example, has had many recent debates and opportunities to comment on the location of wind farms and sewage sludge disposal, all voiced at the NIMBY level. But how is there view to be heard at the wider policy level where the choice is rightly to be made? We have already mentioned the need to consider how public consultation should be approached. There is an opportunity to explore innovative initiatives, maybe not the opera but at least the CD/DVD or a new role for Planning for People. SEA might well herald a sea-change in the process of strategic consultation.

A final thought concerns contestability. As currently envisaged the Strategic Environmental Assessment process appears like the simple development of a consensus view of uncontested environmental facts which will influence and perhaps alter a plan’s policies and proposals, and be subject to a comfortable monitoring process that will test the validity of the conclusions reached. The environment is not like that, its unpredictability and controversies well debated. Yet there is no public test for the SEA itself. Consultation yes, but contest no. There will be an agreed assessment of environmental effects which may change policies in the plan, perhaps to the perceived detriment of an organization, body or individual. There is no right or process of appeal except to the plan itself. What degree of contest for the environmental facts or interpretation will be accepted or considered. Can they be a ‘material consideration’? Will we need environmental training for Reporters in a couple of years time?
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