If you are asking this in the context of People Over Wind (EU Court of Justice, 12 April 2018), you are asking the wrong question. Whilst the reference to “mitigation” is useful shorthand (as in my 20 April 2018 blog post, EU Court Ruling: Ignore Mitigation Measures In Habitats Screening), the precise position is more complicated and, despite a helpful judgment of the High Court this week, not easy to resolve in a practical way.
The People Over Wind ruling can be summarised very briefly by paraphrasing its final paragraph: In order for a competent authority to determine whether it is necessary to carry out an appropriate assessment of the implications, for a site protected under the Habitats Directive or Birds Directive, of a plan or project, it is not appropriate, at the screening stage, to take account of the measures intended to avoid or reduce the harmful effects of the plan or project on that site.
In that case the measures which the court held could not be taken into account were requirements to be contained in a construction management plan to “provide details of intended construction practice for the development, including … (k) means to ensure that surface water run-off is controlled such that no silt or other pollutants enter watercourses …’.“
In referring the case to the EU Court of Justice, the Irish High Court had referred to the requirements as “mitigating measures“. The promoter of the scheme which was under challenge had described them as “protective measures“, but the EU Court of Justice disregarded the distinction:
“25 […] Article 6 of the Habitats Directive divides measures into three categories, namely conservation measures, preventive measures and compensatory measures, provided for in Article 6(1), (2) and (4) respectively. It is clear from the wording of Article 6 of the Habitats Directive that that provision contains no reference to any concept of ‘mitigating measure’ (see, to that effect, judgment of 21 July 2016, Orleans and Others, C‑387/15 and C‑388/15, EU:C:2016:583, paragraphs 57 and 58 and the case-law cited).
26 It follows that, as is apparent from the reasoning of the request for a preliminary ruling, that the measures which the referring court describes as ‘mitigating measures’, and which Coillte refers to as ‘protective measures’, should be understood as denoting measures that are intended to avoid or reduce the harmful effects of the envisaged project on the site concerned.“
The court’s position was clear: “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.”
So the big question is whether there are any measures which can be taken into account at the screening stage which are not caught as avoidance or reduction measures.
There was a judgment of the High Court this week, R (Langton) v Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and Natural England (Sir Ross Cranston, 15 August 2018), where this is dealt with briefly in the context of a broader series of challenges arising from DEFRA’s badger culling programme and (more relevant for the purposes of this blog post) decisions in August and September 2017 by Natural England to grant badger culling licences. I only address the latter below, although I may come back in a later blog post to other parts of the judgment in the context of the requirements of a lawful consultation process.
The claimant argued that in granting licences in Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation, Natural England had not carried out adequate assessment under the Habitats Regulations.
Natural England’s standard form assessments, undertaken in May 2017. “In each case the conclusion to these screening assessments was that the licensed culling of badgers was unlikely to have a significant effect on the qualifying features of the relevant site. In none of the areas was an in-combination assessment considered applicable.” (paragraph 79)
The assessments identified the possible disturbance effects of badger culling as follows:
“disturbance to the species (firearm report, lamping, vehicles, humans), physical damage to habitats/species (vehicles, trampling, digging-in of traps), physical damage to non-target species, and “indirect damage to species from an increased abundance of other mammalian predators (in particular foxes) due to reduced badger population density.”” (paragraph 81)
Each of the assessments referred to “mitigation measures” which had been incorporated into the proposal and stated that complying “with the mitigation measures will ensure that there is no significant likely effect alone“.
The measures were various restrictions proposed to be included as conditions on licences, including:
⁃ limiting shooting activities to outside the bird breeding season
⁃ restricting vehicles to existing tracks
⁃ various restrictions on the location of traps and of activities. (paragraph 83)
Sir Ross Cranston sets out the law on Habitats Regulations Assessment at paragraphs 94 to 96 and then addresses the challenge to the validity of the decisions from paragraph 126 onwards.
The claimant argued that Natural England hadn’t adopted a precautionary approach (particularly in relation to the risks arising from a greater proliferation of foxes as a result of badger culling), and as a consequence had not even carried out HRA screening in relation to a number of SACs and SPAs, and that the screening process had improperly taken into account avoidance or reduction measures in breach of People Over Wind.
The court said this on the precautionary principle:
“The precautionary principle in this context is fundamental, but “[i]t is for a third party who asserts that there is a risk which cannot be excluded on the basis of objective information to produce credible evidence to the court that the risk is a real one…”: R (on the application of DLA Delivery Ltd.) v Lewes District Council  EWCA Civ 58, , Lindblom LJ (with whom Lewison LJ agreed), Boggis v Natural England EWCA Civ 1061, , per Sullivan LJ (with whom Longmore and Mummery L.JJ agreed).” (paragraph 133)
The court considered that “Natural England’s failures, even if only to record that no consideration of the risk was necessary with these close-by sites to cull areas, was a breach of its duty under the Habitats Regulations.” (paragraph 133).
However, it found that, on the evidence, the outcome would not have been substantially different if it had considered fox predation risk arising from granting culling licences
The court then turned to the implications of People Over Wind from paragraph 154 onwards. It referred to the Hart judgment from 2008, approved by the Court of Appeal in Smyth (2015) finding that there was no legal reason why preventative safeguarding measures incorporated into a project should be ignored at the initial screening stage.
It has of course been widely assumed that this approach has been overruled by People Over Wind. It is therefore intriguing how Sir Ross Cranston addresses the issue.
In paragraph 155 he refers to the measures in People Over Wind as measures “which seem to have involved reducing run-off” and indicates that the EU Court of Justice had found that they “should be understood as denoting measures intended to avoid or reduce the harmful effects of the envisaged project on the site concerned“.
He records at paragraph 156 the claimant as submitting that “the conditions which Natural England had attached to the cull licences, following advice to applicants, fell within the People Over Wind ruling and should not have been taken into account at the screening stage. These were that no culling activity would take place in certain locations (e.g., Severn Estuary SPA) or at certain times of the year (e.g., bird-breeding season with Dorset Heathlands SPA and Poole Harbour SPA).”
In the final paragraph of a 76 page judgment he then simply concludes:
“In my view the licence conditions which Natural England attached to the licences in Areas 16 and 17 are not the mitigating or protective measures which featured in the People Over Wind ruling. They are properly characterised as integral features of the project which Natural England needed to assess under the Habitats Regulations. I accept Natural England’s submission that it would be contrary to common sense for Natural England to have to assume that culling was going to take place at times and places where the applicants did not propose to do so.”
So what do we take from this? On this basis we have up to date first instance authority (I do not know whether permission to appeal is being sought) for asserting that integral features within a scheme can be taken into account. But how is it to be determined when a condition restricting operations is or is not an integral feature? I can see that conditions that define the temporal and physical limits of a permitted activity can be said to be integral features but there is not always a clear dividing line. Were the construction management plan requirements in People Over Wind so very different?
What I do take from it is the potential willingness of our judiciary (or at least one judge, technically retired – which is why he is not referred to as “Mr Justice Cranston“) to seek to push back against the ruling and seek to retain the traditional, more pragmatic, approach from Hart.
Are our courts going to be able to hold that line? The approach in Langton appears to me to be potentially less restrictive than for instance the Planning Inspectorate’s advice to inspectors (9 May 2018), which states at paragraph 17 that “there is no definition of what constitutes avoidance and reduction measures and what could be viewed as an integral part of a works or development proposal. If a measure is being introduced to avoid or reduce an effect on a European site then it can be viewed as mitigation. This includes measures outlined in SPDs such as the provision of Sustainable Alternative Natural Greenspace and Strategic Access Management and Monitoring as in the Thames Basin Heaths approach. However it can also include ‘embedded mitigation’ such as a commitment within a development proposal to employing standard methods to prevent run-off from vehicles contaminating watercourses.”
Aside from the issue arising from People Over Wind as to what are “mitigation” (short-hand for “avoidance or reduction“) measures, which need to be disregarded in the screening process (but can be taken into account as part of appropriate assessment if the need for appropriate assessment is not screened out) there is the issue as to what “mitigation” measures are in fact “compensatory” measures which cannot even be taken into account at the appropriate assessment stage.
This was the subject matter of the latest relevant EU Court of Justice case, which in short-hand I will refer to as Grace, Sweetman (25 July 2018) arising from yet another challenge brought by Irish environmental campaigner Peter Sweetman, this time against the Irish national planning board’s decision to grant permission for a wind farm project on land that stretches from Slieve Felim in Limerick to Silvermines Mountains in Tipperary, that was designated as a Special Protection Area because it hosts the natural habitat of the hen harrier.
The proposal would result in the permanent and temporary loss of habitat (directly through clearance of trees at each turbine location and indirectly on the assumption that foraging hen harriers would not come within 250m of a wind turbine) but a species and habitat management plan was proposed that envisaged the restoration of various areas to blanket bog, particularly suitable for hen harriers, and a ‘sensitive’ management regime that would provide suitable foraging habitat and an ecological corridor between two areas of open bog.
Ms Grace and Mr Sweetman argued that the management plan measures amounted to compensatory measures and therefore could not be taken into account at appropriate assessment stage by the planning board in its ruling that there would be no adverse effect on the integrity of the SPA.
The Irish Supreme Court referred the issue to the EU Court of Justice as to whether Article 6(3) of the Habitats Directive “is to be interpreted as meaning that the measures proposed in the management plan relating to the contested development which seek to ensure that the total area providing suitable habitat will not be reduced and could even be enhanced may, in the circumstances of the present case, be classified as mitigating measures, or whether they must be regarded as compensatory measures within the meaning of Article 6(4) of the Habitats Directive.”
As in People Over Wind, the EU Court of Justice noted that “mitigating measures” is not referred to in the Directive. It indicated that “the Court has previously observed that the effectiveness of the protective measures provided for in Article 6 of the Habitats Directive is intended to avoid a situation where competent national authorities allow so-called ‘mitigating’ measures’ — which are in reality compensatory measures — in order to circumvent the specific procedures laid down in Article 6(3) of the directive and authorise projects which adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned“.
It interpreted the referring court’s question “as asking, in essence, whether Article 6 of the Habitats Directive must be interpreted as meaning that, where it is intended to carry out a project on a site designated for the protection and conservation of certain species, of which the area suitable for providing for the needs of a protected species fluctuates over time, and the temporary or permanent effect of that project will be that some parts of the site will no longer be able to provide a suitable habitat for the species in question, the fact that the project includes measures to ensure that, after an appropriate assessment of the implications of the project has been carried out and throughout the lifetime of the project, the part of the site that is in fact likely to provide a suitable habitat will not be reduced and indeed may be enhanced may be taken into account for the purpose of the assessment that must be carried out in accordance with Article 6(3) of the directive to ensure that the project in question will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned, or whether that fact falls to be considered, if need be, under Article 6(4) of the directive.“
It noted that “there is a distinction to be drawn between protective measures forming part of a project and intended avoid or reduce any direct adverse effects that may be caused by the project in order to ensure that the project does not adversely affect the integrity of the area, which are covered by Article 6(3), and measures which, in accordance with Article 6(4), are aimed at compensating for the negative effects of the project on a protected area and cannot be taken into account in the assessment of the implications of the project“.
“As a general rule, any positive effects of the future creation of a new habitat, which is aimed at compensating for the loss of area and quality of that habitat type in a protected area, are highly difficult to forecast with any degree of certainty or will be visible only in the future.”
It held that the measures were compensatory and could not be taken into account at the appropriate assessment stage. Article 6 was to be interpreted as meaning that, “where it is intended to carry out a project on a site designated for the protection and conservation of certain species, of which the area suitable for providing for the needs of a protected species fluctuates over time, and the temporary or permanent effect of that project will be that some parts of the site will no longer be able to provide a suitable habitat for the species in question, the fact that the project includes measures to ensure that, after an appropriate assessment of the implications of the project has been carried out and throughout the lifetime of the project, the part of the site that is in fact likely to provide a suitable habitat will not be reduced and indeed may be enhanced may not be taken into account for the purpose of the assessment that must be carried out in accordance with Article 6(3) of the directive to ensure that the project in question will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned; that fact falls to be considered, if need be, under Article 6(4) of the directive.”
For some projects this is potentially as problematic a ruling as People Over Wind, given that unless any adverse effect on the integrity of any SPA or SAC cannot be ruled out without relying on measures of this nature, the scheme can only proceed if it can be demonstrated that there are imperative reasons of overriding public interest – a high test.
In conclusion, when dealing with plans and schemes with potential effects on SPAS and SACs, precise analysis is needed of the true nature of any proposed measures being relied upon to “mitigate” (short-hand) the potential harmful effects of the development. The relevant question at screening stage is whether they are measures intended to avoid or reduce those effects or can they be said to be measures which are integral features of the project? The relevant question at appropriate assessment stage is whether they are in fact measures intended to compensate for a reduction in the parts of the site that will be able to provide a suitable habitat for the relevant species?
Simon Ricketts, 18 August 2018
Personal views, et cetera
Image courtesy of http://www.badgerwatchdorset.co.uk