Offshore wind is a large scale technology with the potential to play a pivotal role in Scotland’s energy system over the coming decades. The development of technologies such as floating wind, which offer scope for development in deeper water, have significant potential to contribute offshore wind energy supply at affordable prices. The Draft Sectoral Plan for Offshore Wind published in 2013 focused on conventional offshore wind technologies. The Scottish Government is therefore seeking to develop an updated Sectoral Marine Plan for Offshore Wind Energy which encompasses deep water plan options (the draft Plan) to provide the strategic framework for the deployment of future offshore wind in Scottish waters.
The purpose of this report is to present the results of the initial pre-screening stages of the Habitat Regulations Appraisal for the draft Plan. This includes setting out the evidence base and proposed methodology for undertaking the subsequent screening and assessment stages of the Habitat Regulations Appraisal.
The HRA pre-screening study has been overseen by a Project Advisory Group which includes representatives from within Scottish Government, Crown Estate Scotland, and Scottish Natural Heritage.
What is a Habitats Regulations Appraisal?
Under the Habitats Regulations, where a plan or project is not directly connected with or necessary for the management of European/Ramsar sites, and where the possibility of a ‘likely significant effect’ on these sites cannot be excluded, either alone or in combination with other plans or projects, an Appropriate Assessment should be undertaken. Habitats Regulations Appraisal is a recognised step by step process which helps determine if there is a likely significant effect and identify if there is an ‘adverse effect on the integrity’ of a European/Ramsar site.
The draft Plan is not for conservation management and has the potential to affect one or more European/Ramsar sites. A Habitats Regulations Appraisal is therefore required to be undertaken for the draft Plan.
How was the pre-screening review undertaken?
The approach that has been applied to this HRA follows established guidance for undertaking plan-level Habitats Regulations Appraisals. This includes carrying out each stage of the Habitats Regulations Appraisal in an iterative, auditable and transparent manner. This is to provide as much clarity as possible in the process and also ensure that the relevant documentation can be readily accessed, interpreted and interrogated.
One of the objectives of the initial pre-screening review is to broadly identify those European/Ramsar sites and interest features for which there is a potential for a likely significant effect (or where such a likely significant effect cannot be excluded) and should be taken forward into the screening stages of the Habitats Regulations Appraisal. This has involved applying a quantifiable and objective ‘pre-screening buffer zone’ around Scottish Waters to capture European/Ramsar sites and interest features that could be potentially affected by the draft Plan. This approach does not limit further review (in the subsequent stages of the HRA) of more distant locations or presume that all relevant features within this buffer zone are necessarily affected.
Another important objective for the pre-screening review is to set out the proposed methods for undertaking the subsequent screening and assessment stages of the Habitats Regulations Appraisal so that they can be discussed and agreed with key stakeholders. For coastal and offshore plans, this is often particularly vital as it sets the context for how the Habitats Regulations Appraisal progresses and how ultimately, it presents a clear and auditable mechanism for both the assessment conclusions and the future implementation of the Plan.
What are the key considerations for this Habitats Regulations Appraisal?
A major consideration throughout the Habitats Regulations Appraisal process is that the draft Plan has inherent uncertainties associated with it, for example, in terms of the location, scale and densities of development, and the proposed technologies to be used. There is also a high level of uncertainty associated with the future in-combination effects of the draft Plan with other plans and projects. The HRA will take account of these issues and identify the necessary mitigation measures to accompany the Plan to ensure there is no adverse effect on integrity of any European/Ramsar site.
A precautionary approach has been adopted in this Habitats Regulations Appraisal in order to ensure that no relevant European/Ramsar sites or features are excluded. The methods that are presented for the subsequent screening stages of the Habitats Regulations Appraisal are therefore based on the understanding about the sensitive nature of this judgement and the need to ensure that during this screening the presumption is for including sites unless it is definitely clear that there is no likely significant effect.
What are the outcomes of the pre-screening review?
The pre-screening review has identified a total of 652 European/Ramsar sites as requiring further consideration. These initially ‘screened in’ sites are made up of 363 Special Areas of Conservation, 194 Special Protection Areas, 76 Ramsar sites, 3 Sites of Community Importance, 3 candidate Special Areas of Conservation and 13 proposed Special Protection Areas. These sites and associated interest features will be taken forward into the screening stages of the Habitats Regulations Appraisal.
The screening process will involve reviewing and then screening either in or out the relevant European/Ramsar sites and associated qualifying interest features for which there could be likely significant effect (or the potential for likely significant effect cannot be excluded) as a result of the Plan. The proposed screening method draws upon the principles set out in past plan-level Habitats Regulations Appraisals (including for the previous draft Sectoral Marine Plan for Offshore Wind Energy), whilst recognising the lessons learned and our latest understanding of the impacts associated with offshore wind development, as well as the sensitivities and specific behaviours of interest features.
The screening method is structured according to the following key interest feature groups:
- Habitats and associated species;
- Marine mammals (cetaceans and seals);
- Migratory fish and freshwater pearl mussel;
- Otters; and
The proposed assessment method builds on the screening process by considering the particular environmental pressures and changes that give rise to a likely significant effect on an interest feature and then providing a generic assessment of the impact on site integrity having regard to the site’s conservation objectives. Based on the approaches adopted for previous plan-level Habitats Regulations Appraisal work, a standardised iterative assessment process is proposed to assess the impact on the relevant key interest feature groups.
What happens next?
The next screening phase of the HRA will confirm the European/Ramsar sites and interest features that could potentially be affected by the Plan. Any ‘initial’ mitigation measures that are identified as an integral strategic component of the Plan will be applied and the Plan re-screened for likely significant. The outputs of this screening process will be documented in a Screening Report.
Following screening, the impacts of the Plan on the screened in European/Ramsar sites and interest features will be assessed. The impacts will also be assessed in-combination with other plans and projects. Any ‘additional’ mitigation measures that are needed to ensure that the Plan will not have an adverse effect on the integrity of any European/Ramsar sites will be identified and reviewed. The outputs of this assessment stage will be documented in an Appropriate Assessment Information Report.
Ongoing consultations will be held with the Project Advisory Group regarding the appropriateness of the screening and assessment methodology being adopted, the value of the outputs being produced and the validity of the conclusions reached.