Strategic Environmental Assessment
SA and SEA?
Sustainability Appraisal (SA) and Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) are two similar, overlapping mechanisms for integrating sustainability into plan making. SA is of UK origin and includes social and economic considerations as well as environmental, while SEA is of EU origins and focuses exclusively on environmental impacts. As such, the EU's legal requirements for SEA - see links right for download - can be satisfied by undertaking a robust SA, and therefore the two are often written together as follows: SA/SEA.
Is SA/SEA mandatory for Neighbourhood Plans?
SA/SEA is not mandatory for neighbourhood plans, but if plans are considered to include proposals that would have a "significant" environmental impact, an SEA is triggered through EU legislation. It is critical that neighbourhood groups find out as soon as possible in their neighbourhood planning process whether an SEA will be required, otherwise they may have to repeat work (in all likelihood an undesirable amount). Your Local Planning Authority (LPA) is required to carry out a 'SEA Screening' to determine whether one is necessary or not. Sometimes, even local authorities are not clear on whether an SEA is required: it depends on one's interpretation of "significant" and you need substantial expertise in order to be able to weigh that up. As a general rule of thumb, if there are proposals of several hundred houses, or substantial infrastructure (e.g. trunk road, power station), or if development is proposed in or near to sensitive landscape (e.g. AONB) or designated habitats or species, then it is quite likely you will need one. If in doubt, seek professional advice and make sure they know what they're talking about.
What happens if neighbourhood groups don't do it properly?
The importance of this was underlined in January 2014 by a recent decision by Ann Skippers, an independent examiner, who decided that a neighbourhood plan (Slaugham Parish) had not delivered a sufficiently robust SEA, particularly given its close proximity to an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). This has led to addition cost and delays: Slaugham will have to re-do various aspects of the process in order to meet requirements.
Why the focus on sustainability? What about other impacts, such as health and equality?
Until recently, health has been seen as largely separate from sustainability, with each responding to their immediate priorities (i.e. symptoms that need immediate treatment versus longer-term risk-management). More recently, this has started to change. The 2010 Health White Paper stated that "climate change is one of the biggest public health threats of the 21st century". The fast rise in 'non-communicable' diseases, such as obesity, is also seen as an environmental concern, with built environments seen to be encouraging unhealthy lifestyles (e.g. remote access to services combined with relatively cheap oil promoting car use). Inequality is also seen as a primary driver of over-consumption, hence its link to sustainability and health. There are now so many different impact assessment methods, each focusing on a specialist area, that Public Health England recognises "impact assessment fatigue" as a serious issue. As a result, 'integrated impact assessment' is seen as one route through, but there are concerns around: 1) danger of superficiality; 2) creation of additional work, and 3) that it's only ever as good as those involved - see slides above.
Integrating health, sustainability and equality into the planning and development process is therefore not a simple matter, but most issues will already be familiar to communities (e.g. walking and cycling to school, etc.) Neighbourhood plans do now offer communities an opportunity of having more say in local development and, with some limited support, they are able to at least try to ensure that proposals are as healthy as possible and over the long-term. See our webpage on health for further information.