Friday, 21 June 2013

Sound plans, and the importance of the Sustainability Appraisal

Now that a number of local plans are being examined by the Planning Inspectorate, it's becoming apparent just how much importance is attached to the Sustainability Appraisal (SA).

The Planning Advisory Service (PAS) explains:
The purpose of the sustainability appraisal process is to appraise the social, environmental and economic effects of a plan from the outset. In doing so it will help ensure that decisions are made that contribute to achieving sustainable development.

The sustainability appraisal is integral to the plan making process. It should perform a key role in providing a sound evidence base for the plan and form an integrated part of the plan preparation process. It should be transparent and open to public participation. The sustainability appraisal should inform the decision making process to facilitate the evaluation of alternatives. It should also help demonstrate that the plan is the most appropriate given the reasonable alternatives.
Last year we pointed out, in an open letter to the Head of Planning and Transportation at DCC, that the Council's SA had not informed the selection of future mineral sites. DCC responded, saying:
As this [site appraisal] methodology ensures consideration of social, environmental and economic impacts, it was not considered necessary to undertake SA of the site options prior to identifying the preferred and excluded sites for consultation. However, value was seen in undertaking SA of the sand and gravel site options to provide an 'audit'...
Which is all very well, but, without the SA input, the outcome could be seen to lack objectivity. According to the PAS advice note:
SA is most useful when applied to alternatives... The [SA] should inform the decision making process to facilitate the evaluation of alternatives. It should also help demonstrate that the plan is the most appropriate given the reasonable alternatives... The assessment of ‘reasonable alternatives’ is also a legal requirement under the ‘SEA Directive'.
The SA did not inform the rejection of the 18 'alternatives'. The Environment Agency also commented:
We advise that this SA should have accompanied the formal consultation in March 2012… In this circumstance it is not clear how the SA has influenced the preferred site options which have been put forward by your Authority. It is apparent from the SA that some of the excluded sites may [be] preferable in environmental terms.
The graph below, first posted last year, showing the number of SA "significant negative events" for the southern alternative sites, alongside the site appraisal "showstoppers", demonstrated as much. The Planning Inspectorate makes clear:
If the strategy chosen is not endorsed by the SA the reasons for the choice of strategy contrary to the SA will need to be fully justified. Failure to do so is likely to result in a finding of unsoundness.
From the SA and the consultation responses received, statutory or otherwise, Straitgate or S7, although owned by a minerals company, was far from the most appropriate strategy.

Recently the Core Strategies of two councils were found to be 'unsound' by the Planning Inspectorate. Waverley Borough Council was advised to withdraw its plan since it required "a significant amount of additional work" including "the proper testing of alternatives through the SA process". Melton Borough Council's plan was also withdrawn after the Inspector said:
In my view the SA process appears to contain serious errors. Critically it is not evident that the sustainability considerations have informed the site selection process. This makes the plan very vulnerable to legal challenge.
It is clear that the SA must be at the heart of the decision-making process for councils to be able to demonstrate a sound plan. That's a legal requirement; not an afterthought, not just an "audit".