Assessing Plans

Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)
Sustainability Appraisal and
Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA)


Strategic Environmental Assessment and Sustainability Appraisal

All four administrations have jointly published guidance on the Strategic Environmental Assessment of plans. This practical guidance is likely to be familiar to plan-making teams in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It is available at.

In 2004, the Environment Agency, English Nature, RSPB and the Countryside Council for Wales published joint guidance that aims to ensure that biodiversity considerations are appropriately addressed in SEA. ‘Strategic Environmental Assessment and Biodiversity: Guidance for Practitioners’.

SEA and Sustainability Appraisal are iterative processes intended to check the environmental / sustainability credentials of plans, inform the plan-makers and public as to the likely implications of the plans on the environment, and to improve plan content and effectiveness. SEA / Sustainability Appraisal should be:

  • An on-going, iterative process that results in changes to the plan as a result of feedback;
  • Objectives-led, whereby the direction of desired change is made explicit and can be subsequently quantified by targets;
  • Based on sound evidence;
  • Inclusive, subject to consultation with inputs from the community and other stakeholders including nature conservation bodies;
  • Timely, programmed in to the whole plan-making process from the outset;
  • Transparent and understandable;
  • Independent, objective and impartial with some scrutiny from outside the plan-making team;
  • Useful and influential in changing the plan.

However, it is also important to ensure that plans are equally tested, as to the best ‘environmental fit’ or most sustainable options as they pass through early stages such as the Issues and Options Report (England), the Issues Paper (Northern Ireland) and Main Issues Report (Scotland) and Pre-deposit Consultation Documents (Wales).

In June 2005, the Countryside Agency, English Heritage, English Nature and the Environment Agency, jointly published a widely acknowledged guide entitled ‘Environmental Quality in Spatial Planning’. It had a series of ‘Supplementary Files’ providing detailed guidance on various aspects of plan making. Whilst limited to England, now a few years old, and covering the full spectrum of interests from all four bodies, the biodiversity aspects of the checklist in Supplementary File 14 at can still provide a useful checklist, for plan authors, for considering the way in which biodiversity issues have been dealt with in plans.

Habitats Regulations Appraisal / Assessment

Article 6(3) of the EC Habitats Directive requires that any plan (or project), which is not directly connected with or necessary to the management of a European site, but would be likely to have a significant effect on such a site, either individually or in combination with other plans or projects, shall be subject to an ‘appropriate assessment’ of its implications for the European site in view of the site’s conservation objectives. The plan-making body shall agree to the plan only after having ascertained that it will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned, unless in exceptional circumstances, the provisions of Article 6(4) are met.

This procedure is applied in England and Wales through regulations 102 – 105 of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010, and in Scotland through regulations 85A – 85E of the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 (as amended). The whole process is known as the ‘Habitats Regulations Appraisal’ (or assessment) (HRA) of plans. Sometimes, it is referred to as the ‘appropriate assessment’ of the plan, but this can be misleading because ‘appropriate assessment’ is one specific stage in the whole HRA process and may not always be reached in respect of every plan.

As with SEA / Sustainability Appraisal, HRA should be a systematic, rigorous and iterative process, but there are important legal and policy differences between the processes and it is best to clearly distinguish between them.

Guidance on procedures and methodologies for HRA is still evolving and needs to be more proportionate and effective than has often been the case in the past. Up-to-date advice on effective, proportionate and compliant HRA is provided in Scotland in SNH / Scottish Government Guidance and in Circular  1/2009 Scottish Planning Series Appendix 1 : The Habitats Regulations (HRA)

In Wales there is guidance from the Welsh Assembly Government in Annex 6 of Technical Advice Note 5 Nature Conservation and Planning at page 75