EU Court Ruling: Ignore Mitigation Measures In Habitats Screening

POW, indeed. The People Over Wind ruling (Court of Justice of the EU, 12 April 2018) is short but striking.

The issue is an important one. There are two steps that a decision maker must follow in determining whether a plan or project is likely to affect a Special Area of Conservation under the Habitats Directive or a Special Protection Area under the Birds Directive (given domestic effect by the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017).

The first step is what is commonly called “screening”, although it is not a formal procedural process as there is with EIA. At this stage the question is whether the plan or project is likely to have a significant effect on an SAC or SPA (either alone or in combination with other plans or projects). “Likelihood” is a low threshold – as summarised in People Over Wind:

In the light, in particular, of the precautionary principle, such a risk exists if it cannot be excluded on the basis of objective information that the plan or project will have a significant effect on the site concerned“.

If the risk of a significant effect can be excluded at this stage, no further work is required under the Birds or Habitats Directive.

If the risk of a significant effect cannot be excluded, “appropriate assessment” is required to determine that the plan or project will not adversely affect the integrity of the SAC or SPA. If the answer at this stage is other than that it will not, the plan or project is in problems as there are only limited circumstances which would then allow it still to proceed.

Screening out the need for appropriate assessment is important to promoters of plans and projects:

⁃ it reduces the amount of work, time and cost spent, particularly in relation to smaller schemes if the screening stage can be relatively standardised for similar types of development (for instance residential developments in the vicinity of SPAs such as the Thames Basin Heaths).

⁃ paragraph 119 of the NPPF provides that the “presumption in favour of sustainable development (paragraph 14) does not apply where development requiring appropriate assessment under the Birds or Habitats Directives is being considered, planned or determined.” (This is carried over into paragraph 174 of the draft revised NPPF).

The English courts have long taken the position that proposed mitigation measures can be taken into account at the screening stage. Indeed Sullivan J’s ruling almost exactly ten years ago in R (on the application of Hart District Council) v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Sullivan J, 1 May 2008) was crucial in establishing the practicality of local authorities relying on the funding or provision of Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANGS) rather than requiring appropriate assessment in relation to each housing project that might lead to an increase in people wishing to use the nearby SPA for recreational purposes. He held that there was no reason why a commitment to provide mitigation in the form of SANGs could not be taken into account at screening stage:

…if the competent authority is satisfied at the screening stage that the proponents of a project have fully recognised, assessed and reported the effects, and have incorporated appropriate mitigation measures into the project, there is no reason why they should ignore such measures when deciding whether an appropriate assessment is necessary. Under Regulation 48(2), the competent authority may ask the proponent of a plan or project for more information about the plan or project, including any proposed mitigation, not merely for the purposes of carrying out an appropriate assessment, but also in order to determine whether an appropriate assessment is required in the first place. If for any reason the competent authority is still not satisfied, then it will require an appropriate assessment. As a matter of common sense, anything which encourages the proponents of plans and projects to incorporate mitigation measures at the earliest possible stage in the evolution of their plan or project is surely to be encouraged“.

That has remained the domestic law, as can be seen in R (Champion) v North Norfolk District Council (Supreme Court, 22 July 2015), where the reason why the permission was quashed was that at the screening stage the mitigation measures relied upon had not been fully identified.

However, the European Court of Justice has now driven somewhat of a bulldozer through this approach in its ruling this month in relation to a reference from the Irish High Court in relation to proceedings which had been brought by the People Over Wind campaign group and campaigner Peter Sweetman (not his first visit to the Luxembourg court, see Sweetman v. An Bord Pleanala (CJEU, 11 April 2013)) to seek to quash permission for a project to lay a cable connecting a wind farm to the electricity grid, potentially affecting rivers constituting a habitat for the “Nore pearl mussel”. According to the judgment, the consultants’ screening report for the project concluded as follows:

“a)      In the absence of protective measures, there is potential for the release of suspended solids into waterbodies along the proposed route, including directional drilling locations

b)      With regards to [the Nore pearl mussel], if the construction of the proposed cable works was to result in the release of silt or pollutants such as concrete into the pearl mussel population area of river through the pathway of smaller streams or rivers, there would be a negative impact on the pearl mussel population. Sedimentation of gravels can prevent sufficient water flow through the gravels, starving juvenile [Nore pearl mussels] of oxygen.’

18      It is apparent from the file before the Court that ‘protective measures’ were also analysed by that report.

19      Subsequently, on the basis of that report, the following recommendation was drawn up for Coillte by the ‘programme manager’:

As set out in detail in the … appropriate assessment screening report, on the basis of the findings of that report and in light of the best scientific knowledge, the grid connection works will not have a significant effect on the relevant European sites in light of the conservation objectives of the European sites, alone or in combination with the Cullenagh wind farm and other plans or projects, and an appropriate assessment is not required. This conclusion was reached on the basis of the distance between the proposed Cullenagh grid connection and the European sites, and the protective measures that have been built into the works design of the project.’”

The Irish High Court referred the following question to the European Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling:

“Whether, or in what circumstances, mitigation measures can be considered when carrying out screening for appropriate assessment under Article 6(3) of the Habitats Directive?’”

Even for the CJEU the resulting judgment is brief.

…it is settled case-law that Article 6(3) of the Habitats Directive makes the requirement for an appropriate assessment of the implications of a plan or project conditional on there being a probability or a risk that the plan or project in question will have a significant effect on the site concerned. In the light, in particular, of the precautionary principle, such a risk exists if it cannot be excluded on the basis of objective information that the plan or project will have a significant effect on the site concerned (judgment of 26 May 2011, Commission v Belgium, C‑538/09, EU:C:2011:349, paragraph 39 and the case-law cited). The assessment of that risk must be made in the light inter alia of the characteristics and specific environmental conditions of the site concerned by such a plan or project (see, to that effect, judgment of 21 July 2016, Orleans and Others, C‑387/15 and C‑388/15, EU:C:2016:583, paragraph 45 and the case-law cited).”

35      As the applicants in the main proceedings and the Commission submit, the fact that, as the referring court has observed, measures intended to avoid or reduce the harmful effects of a plan or project on the site concerned are taken into consideration when determining whether it is necessary to carry out an appropriate assessment presupposes that it is likely that the site is affected significantly and that, consequently, such an assessment should be carried out.

36      That conclusion is supported by the fact that a full and precise analysis of the measures capable of avoiding or reducing any significant effects on the site concerned must be carried out not at the screening stage, but specifically at the stage of the appropriate assessment.

37      Taking account of such measures at the screening stage would be liable to compromise the practical effect of the Habitats Directive in general, and the assessment stage in particular, as the latter stage would be deprived of its purpose and there would be a risk of circumvention of that stage, which constitutes, however, an essential safeguard provided for by the directive.

38      In that regard, the Court’s case-law emphasises the fact that the assessment carried out under Article 6(3) of the Habitats Directive may not have lacunae and must contain complete, precise and definitive findings and conclusions capable of removing all reasonable scientific doubt as to the effects of the proposed works on the protected site concerned (judgment of 21 July 2016, Orleans and Others, C‑387/15 and C‑388/15, EU:C:2016:583, paragraph 50 and the case-law cited).”

It is a frustrating judgment. There are so many unasked and unanswered questions arising from it, for instance:

1. Why does reference to mitigation measures presuppose that without the measures there is likely to be a significant effect?

2. Why is it assumed that there can be no certainty as to the effectiveness of proposed mitigation measures?

3. Why is there no dividing line between mitigation on the one hand and avoidance/reduction on the other (a distinction raised by Sullivan J in Hart, where he didn’t necessarily accept that the SANGs mechanism amounted to mitigation as opposed to avoiding effects in the first place) and where is the dividing line between mitigation and components of the project itself? If an inherent part of the project (say soundproof walls) also serves a mitigation function, surely it is not to be ignored. In which case, what is included in the project and what is mitigation that is not an integral or inherent part of the project is a crucial question.

It is going to be interesting to see how UK practice adapts in relation to the ruling and how soon the issue comes before the courts. Will attempts be made to distinguish it (that is possible) or will plan and project promoters take a more cautious approach of proceeding more frequently to appropriate assessment? Will this be the sort of issue where, post- Brexit, the domestic courts will begin to take an increasingly differing stance to Luxembourg?

There is a potentially wider question, as to whether the same “ignore mitigation” principle will begin to infect the EIA process where, again, the relevance of proposed mitigation measures at screening stage has long been accepted (see eg Gillespie v Secretary of State for Transport Local Government and the Regions(Court of Appeal, 27 March 2003)).

There is no reference to the EIA Directive in People Over Wind but it will be one to watch. It would be quite a step, given that the EIA Regulations specifically require that a negative screening opinion or direction should “state any features of the proposed development and measures envisaged to avoid, or prevent what might otherwise have been significant adverse effects on the environment“!

Lastly, on the subject of screening under the Habitats and Birds Directives, R (Mynnydd y Gwynt Limited) v Secretary of State (Court of Appeal, 22 February 2018) is another recent case worth reading, which demonstrates the difficulties of challenging any decision by a competent authority that appropriate assessment is required. The claimant, promoting a wind farm by way of a DCO, was perhaps entitled to feel rather sore. National Resources Wales had first taken the view that appropriate assessment was not required but then changed its position, saying that more information was required. The examiner was on balance satisfied but in the light of NRW’s concerns advised the Secretary of State that she might decide that an appropriate assessment was necessary, which indeed in due course she did. Back to the drawing board.

The Secretary of State’s determination was challenged, alleging that she had erred by:

“1)  Requiring certainty in relation to each element of the data, instead of using the available information and making a reasoned judgement, always taking the precautionary approach.

2)  Reaching an inconsistent conclusion about the in-combination level of risk to the red kite population in this SPA to those reached in relation to other Mid-Wales windfarm proposals.

3)  Not referencing or showing that she had considered the Appellant’s December 2014 response to NRW’s concerns about survey methodology

The court rejected the challenge:

For this appeal to succeed, it must be shown that the judge was wrong not to have concluded that the Secretary of State’s decision was unlawful on Wednesbury principles – that she had taken account of irrelevant matters or failed to take account of relevant matters, or that her decision was so unreasonable that no reasonable authority could have made it.

For my part, I am not persuaded that the Secretary of State’s decision was unlawful, nor that the judge’s careful review of the decision was wrong. The Secretary of State was required to exercise a judgement at the junction between two important social objectives – renewable energy and species protection. She was faced with a conflict of views between her statutory conservation adviser and her examiner. She asked for further assistance: NRW responded, the Appellant did not. I accept that the Secretary of State might have been persuaded by the arguments that found favour with the examiner, but in the overall circumstances I consider that she was entitled to accept the advice of NRW and conclude that she did not have the information necessary to enable her to grant the application.”

Whilst it may be frustrating for clients and professional teams alike, these cases demonstrate the care that needs to go into the promotion strategy for any scheme (including the definition of the project itself) where there is a potential impact on an SAC or SPA, and the importance of resolving matters with the relevant conservation bodies – as well as the degree of scientific work required, which often feels like an endless search to prove a negative which may ultimately be unprovable. Mitigation or not, life isn’t as certain as the legislation requires it to be.

I just wish I understood the rationale for that People Over Wind ruling. If you do I would be delighted to hear it.

Simon Ricketts, 20 April 2018

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

3 thoughts on “EU Court Ruling: Ignore Mitigation Measures In Habitats Screening”

  1. Simon,

    Reading between the lines of the judgement there is logic to the ruling, put basically if mitigation measures are not detailed and tested (it would appear in the Coillte case they were, in part, left to a condition) they need be subjected to the level of scrutiny required by an Appropriate Assessment.

    The problem with the ruling is that it is entirely devoid of nuance and did not explore or distinguish between different levels of mitigation (mitigation that integral to the project, strategic mitigation or avoidance measures that has been tried and tested in the courts and inquiries (e.g. Thames Basin Heaths) or mitigation that has been left to a planning condition and has therefore not been fully detailed).

    The ruling seems to have logic but is a proverbial sledge hammer to a nut and consequently less than helpful.

    Until further clarification of this judgement is forthcoming then it would seem essential that those who carry out HRAs will have to respond accordingly.

    Andrew Baker FCIEEM

    Like

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