Natural Resources Wales approach to impact assessments of Area Statements
Strategic Environmental Assessment
Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is a process that ensures the needs of the wider environment are considered in plan-making. It must be applied to certain plans and programmes, with the aim of minimising the adverse and maximising the beneficial effects on the environment. It is Natural Resources Wales’ view, as the responsible authority under the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes (Wales) Regulations 2004 (SEA Regulations), that Area Statements fall within the definition of a ‘plan’ or ‘programme’, as outlined in Regulation 2(1). The preparation of Area Statements is a legislative requirement and a statutory duty, under the Environment (Wales) Act 2016. The provisions of the SEA regulations will, therefore, need to be considered by Natural Resources Wales.
Habitats Regulations Assessment
The Habitats Regulations is the abbreviated name commonly given to the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, which transfer into domestic law under the 1992 EC Habitats and Species Directive and the 2009 Wild Birds Directive. Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) considers the potential effects of a plan or project on a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) or a Special Protection Area (SPA). SACs and SPAs, known collectively as ‘European sites’ or ‘Natura 2000 sites’, are designated under the Habitats Directive or Birds Directive to protect habitat types and species of European importance. As a matter of UK and Welsh Government policy, sites designated under the international wetlands convention (‘Ramsar sites’) are also afforded the same protection as European sites, meaning they require HRAs to be carried out. For the sake of consistency, the term ‘Natura 2000 site’ is used in this document to include both European sites and Ramsar sites. Natural Resources Wales must undertake a HRA of each Area Statement to identify any significant effects, adverse or otherwise, on the integrity of Natura 2000 sites, and the Area Statement can only be adopted or enacted where these effects have been avoided.
Health Impact Assessment
A Health Impact Assessment (HIA) is an evaluation of the likely effect, both in the short and long-term, of a proposed action or decision on the physical and mental health of all, or some, of the people of Wales. Part 6 of the Public Health Wales Act (2017) requires Welsh ministers to make regulations requiring public bodies to carry out HIAs. The regulations are to be introduced in Wales in 2021. The indications are that these regulations could make HIA mandatory for certain policies, plans or programmes (eg Strategic and Local Development Plans, certain large scale planning applications, Welsh Government legislation, some statutory plans such as Local Wellbeing Plans, and Area Statements). However, HIA should be considered as best practice in the development of all programmes and projects. In preparation for the duty on public bodies, NRW policy and operational guidance for HIA is under development. HIA of Area Statements will be kept under review during this process.
Screening of Area Statements
Natural Resources Wales has been undertaking a thorough screening of the Area Statements process under the SEA and Habitats Regulations. As already set out, we are of the opinion that the SEA and Habitats Regulations apply to Area Statements. However, there has been considerable uncertainty regarding the degree to which they will set the framework for the future development consent of projects. Setting that framework will depend upon the extent to which Area Statements include criteria, conditions and/or detailed rules which will be used to guide the consenting authority in deciding an application for development consent. The consenting authority may be the local authority or NRW. A project is defined by the Environmental Impact Assessment regulations as ‘The execution of construction works or of other installations or schemes, other interventions in the natural surroundings and landscape including those involving the extraction of mineral resources’. NRW will, therefore, continue to screen Area Statements as they are being developed.
Area Statements take a ‘place-based’ approach to examining the challenges and priorities set out in the Natural Resources Policy. This approach has been endorsed by our internal natural resource management business board. Engagement and collaboration have been at the heart of the development of Area Statements, in order to understand the root causes of the issues at hand. In this context, each area may well identify different courses of action needed to address those issues. With that in mind, it is quite possible that some may need SEA while others won’t, or that they undertake SEA at different times according to how they develop. The screening and integration of impact assessments, therefore, requires an adaptive approach whereby information and evidence are kept under review. As Health Impact Assessment policy and process is under development, the health team will welcome engagement on HIA screening of Area Statements in due course.
Implementation of Area Statements
Area Statements consist of a series of themes which explore the way we all work together to achieve the sustainable management of natural resources. Each of these themes will look to progress certain actions or activities, both by us and/or through others. These actions and activities may lead to the development of partnership projects and initiatives, changes in our processes and evidence-base, or the issue of guidance and advice that informs other plans and decision-making. As this work progresses there will be a need to continually review whether, by doing so, we are setting the framework for future development consent of projects.
The Environment (Wales) Act requires us to keep Area Statements under review and we may revise them at any time. Whilst they may not ‘set the framework for future development consent of projects’ in their April 2020 form, it is conceivable that they will become more instructive as and when they evolve, are revised, or reviewed. The process for undertaking a revision or a review and associated governance around this has yet to be confirmed. However, it will ensure that screening for all of the impact assessments described above is fully considered at the appropriate time.