Strategic Environmental Assessment: guidance

Scottish Government guidance on Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA).

1. Benefits Of Strategic Environmental Assessment

1.1 Introduction

This non-statutory guidance is designed to support practitioners when undertaking a Strategic Environmental Assessment ( SEA) in Scotland. The advice set out in this guidance is based on practical experience by those involved in the process. However, as non-statutory guidance, practitioners are not required to follow this advice and may opt to select other assessment methods that meet statutory obligations in terms of SEA.

1.2 What is a Strategic Environmental Assessment?

SEA is a means to judge the likely impact of a public plan on the environment and to seek ways to minimise that effect, if it is likely to be significant.

SEA therefore aims to offer greater protection to the environment by ensuring public bodies and those organisations preparing plans [1] of a 'public character' consider and address the likely significant environmental effects. Under the Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Act 2005, those bodies preparing qualifying Scottish plans are required to undertake a SEA of plans that are likely to have significant environmental effects, if implemented.

1.3 Why should I do a SEA?

Fundamentally SEA is a statutory obligation for qualifying plans. However, notwithstanding this fact a SEA can provide a valuable opportunity to identify and address the environmental implications of public plans. SEA processes can help plan-makers to consider how to deliver a plan differently, in order to achieve better environmental outcomes, while still delivering important plan objectives. The environmental assessment process can be challenging, but also very worthwhile, and the benefits of SEA can significantly outweigh its costs. When undertaken in a proportionate and effective way, SEA can lead to:

  • Better environmental protection: SEA can identify environmental effects and help the plan-maker to avoid potential problems by proposing alternative solutions.
  • Improved plans: SEA can help to make plan making more systematic, and contribute to an evidence base by providing meaningful environmental information.
  • Providing insights: SEA can offer a different perspective on a plan by ensuring that the plan-maker looks at it from an environmental view point.
  • Exploration of 'reasonable alternatives': SEA can be a source of creativity for a plan-maker, through the consideration of reasonable alternatives. Some alternatives can even secure wider benefits, beyond the environment, that could otherwise be overlooked.
  • Enhanced communication and transparency: SEA can help enhance the public's understanding of a plan's effect on the environment, so they are better informed. Reporting requirements improve the transparency of decision making and potentially greater appreciation of the reasoning behind decisions.
  • Reduced long term costs: by helping to avoid unforeseen environmental effects, an effective SEA can minimise the need for potentially remedial action.
  • Streamlined consenting: if significant adverse effects can be successfully tackled at the assessment stage, it may lead to a simpler approach to gaining consent or approval for a plan, or even for projects that may flow from it.
  • Potential smoother delivery: more knowledge of the environmental effects could result in some interest groups and/or the public being less likely to oppose the final plan, particularly where adverse environmental effects have been resolved.

The outputs of an effective SEA can help to address environmental problems, or enhance positive or beneficial effects of plans. It can provide opportunities for the public to understand the environmental issues and engage positively with the assessment process. It can be a practical tool, setting out how environmental effects are to be dealt with, when the plan is being implemented.

The value of a SEA can be measured in several ways. For example, alterations to a plan, in light of an assessment, have come in many different forms, from simple changes to the wording of policies to the removal of whole proposals. These small alterations can help to avoid adverse environmental effects, or enhance positive ones. There are also examples where SEA has helped to avoid potential significant environmental damage, such as; helping to identify and avoid areas at risk of flooding; suggesting changes to development plans in order to reduce impacts on landscape; recognising the potential loss of important habitat; and identifying potential breaches of European legislation.

In summary, since the introduction of SEA, examples of how the assessment process has added value to plan-making in Scotland is numerous. In some cases, cumulative effects have been avoided by making simple changes to a plan. Although significant adverse effects cannot always be resolved in full, a number of small improvements can collectively lead to larger benefits, which can only benefit Scotland's unique and irreplaceable environment.

1.4 How can I realise SEA benefits?

Better integration of the assessment and plan preparation processes can help release the benefits of a SEA. Policy analysis is therefore an important element of SEA, as is ensuring that the environmental assessment is based on a sound understanding of a plan's aims and objectives. This helps to ensure that the right environmental information is delivered, at the right time in the preparation process.

Sharing information between the plan and assessment evidence base allows environmental considerations to be taken into account consistently in both processes. It can also encourage exploration of reasonable alternatives, by creating a better understanding of the likely environment issues and informing discussion on what opportunities are available to reduce significant adverse environmental effects.

SEA should not be just about practitioners following set procedures. To be effective it is important that practitioners understand the findings and are offered an opportunity to meaningfully influence the plan and to seek better environmental outcomes. To achieve this, practitioners must be good communicators, and be involved in regular and effective dialogue with plan-makers. Practitioners have to be prepared to demonstrate where environmental effects are most likely to occur, to clearly and succinctly explain their severity and implications and to provide mitigation solutions to ensure adverse effects can be avoided or reduced as far as possible.

SEA has an advisory role to play and is neither the only, nor the overriding determinant of a plan's content. However, the findings of the SEA are more likely to lead to action, where the process is undertaken in a practical and positive way, adding value to a plan rather than creating a barrier to its implementation.

Practitioners may have to work hard to play an integral role in the plan decision making process. To make a credible contribution, they must ideally have a good understanding of the plan making process, and directly address any concerns about delays or increased costs from the assessment process by matching timescales, maintaining proportionality and meeting deadlines.

1.5 How can I sell the benefits of a SEA?

It is important practitioners themselves appreciate the benefits of SEA before trying to 'sell' the assessment process to decision makers. Some of the benefits of undertaking a SEA are outlined in Section 1.3 'Why should I do a SEA?'

To sell the benefits of SEA it is important to ensure that the assessment process will add value to a plan's preparation. Practitioners need to work closely with plan-makers to identify ways of avoiding significant adverse environmental effects where possible. Positive working relationships are essential element to the effective delivery of SEA. It is therefore important that practitioners learn how to sell the benefits of the assessment process, to the relevant stakeholders, at each stage of the process.

It can be beneficial, at the outset, to discuss some of the perceptions and misconceptions about SEA. This can provide an opportunity to anticipate concerns and actively seek to strengthen working relationships and establish good communication.

Practitioners should aim to ensure that plan-makers are aware that there are a wide variety of approaches to undertaking an assessment, which can be adaptive and proportionate, and offer practical environmental information in a variety of situations. Providing some examples of Environmental Reports for similar type assessments, from other Responsible Authorities if necessary, may help to demonstrate what can be achieved and alleviate any potential concerns.

As awareness of SEA is still growing within interested groups and communities, where resources allow it can be helpful to provide some form of support for the public, to help them to access and understand the assessment findings and recognise their role in the consultation process. This can add value to the engagement process and sell to plan-makers the concept that SEA outputs can aid the consultation process and promote important values within the plan. To aid this, practitioners should remember to make their findings accessible and easy to understand for a wide audience.

The assessment process, as early as scoping, can help shape the content of a plan and encourage plan-makers to start considering reasonable alternatives. There are a number of simple practical steps a practitioner can take to facilitate integration of SEA into plan preparation and start to sell the concept that a SEA is not an unnecessary burden on plan-making. These are outlined in the table on the next page.

Whilst integration of the plan and SEA preparation processes is important, SEA has to remain objective and should not be viewed as a means to justify or 'sell' a plan to the public. The findings from the assessment should be an honest interpretation of the likely environmental effects.

Practical steps Benefit
Build consensus about the role of SEA with plan-makers, senior managers and/or elected members, from the start.

Plan-makers and decision takers are more likely to be open to the views and ideas of practitioners, if they understand the role of a SEA.

Effective communication lies at the heart of a good SEA. The findings of an assessment are just as important to those preparing a plan as those likely to be affected by it or with an interest.

Ensure the assessment findings are addressed at plan preparation meetings. Practitioners have to ensure the findings of an assessment are viewed as part of the plan's preparation process, thereby ensuring the two preparation processes are properly combined and supportive of each other.
A practitioner should provide factual environmental information to colleagues preparing a plan, offering solutions, where available, rather than viewing the assessment as a 'critique' of the policies. Working with and supporting plan-makers, rather than offering unhelpful opposition to proposals, can help to create a meaningful and cooperative working relationship, which can benefit both parties.
Use formal and informal communication as appropriate and aim to keep things simple. Plan-makers have a lot to consider when preparing a plan, and finding opportunities to discuss the findings from an assessment can be challenging. Informal discussions can be used to seek clarification, offer feedback, raise awareness or to seek amendments minimising delays.
Gain the support of the Consultation Authorities The support of the Consultation Authorities can help to ensure that the plan-maker recognises the importance of environmental advice.

1.6 What will happen if I ignore SEA?

Although SEA should be recognised as more than an exercise in legal compliance, it is important to bear in mind the requirements set out in the Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Act 2005. Although there is no direct financial penalty for non-compliance, failure to meet the obligations of the 2005 Act can result in:

  • Delays: if not undertaken at the appropriate stage, there may be a need for new or repeated consultation and reporting process.
  • Legal challenge: Responsible Authorities could be challenged through the courts. This can be costly and can result in reputational damage to the authority concerned.
  • Indirect financial costs: corrective action could involve further work being undertaken, and potentially additional costs arising from measures such as further consultation.
  • Environmental damage: Failing to take proper account of the environment, prior to implementation, could result in environmental damage requiring remedial action.
  • Policy uncertainty: Responsible Authorities could be forced to abandon a plan, resulting in a policy vacuum pending a compliant review process being undertaken.

Where a Responsible Authority fails to comply with the 2005 Act, Section 11 allows the Scottish Ministers to make a Direction requiring remedial action to be taken, even if a plan has already been adopted.


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