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LDF L&DG: Making sustainability appraisal manageable and influential

Date: 6/6/2006

The LDF learning and dissemination project is working with ten pilot authorities to capture what they learn from the preparation of their LDF and disseminate that learning to practitioners. The reports of the learning from meetings of the pilot authorities are to be found on the Planning Advisory Service website.

The pilot authorities met on 6 June 2006, and this bulletin sets out what came out of that meeting. The meeting addressed three main sets of issues:

        • experience and perceived difficulties in relation to sustainability appraisal, and how practice might be improved in the light of the learning

        • reflections on the practical issues around annual monitoring reports

        • the relationship between LDF spatial planning and development management

HEALTH WARNING - The material here sets out the broad conclusions that came out of discussion with the pilot authorities, and represents an early view of what seems to be sensible practice. It is not presented as good practice at this time, because the test of that will only come when it has been applied in reality and can be seen to have worked.

Sustainability appraisal - moving towards improved practice

Overview

The discussion brought out some key points about experience to date and how sustainability appraisal (SA) practice can be improved in the future

SA is intended to be an integral part of the decision-making process in LDD preparation, and not some form of free-standing process to check or validate decisions already made. DCLG takes the view that SA is the key decision tool in ensuring that the LDD contributes to the achievement of sustainable development, which should be at the heart of every LDD. For this reason, as well as because of the requirements of the SEA Directive, it is essential that the SA process inform each stage of LDD preparation, with relevant SA information made public as appropriate in accordance with the legislation and DCLG guidance. SA information should be framed in a manner which assists consideration, and the way in which it has influenced decisions should be clearly recorded.

Figures 7 and 11 of the DCLG guidance summarise how the SA process should publicly inform each stage of DPD and SPD preparation respectively. For example the guidance advises in respect of DPDs that although the SA report is not produced and consulted upon until a later stage in the process, an SA commentary on the likely significant effects of the options at regulation 25 stage should be made available on the LPA's website to inform consideration of those options.

An SA scoping report covering a number of LDDs is now encouraged as good practice by the DCLG SA guidance. This is subject to ensuring that in addition to generic information, the report provides any scoping information which is specific to individual LDDs, or where there is none that this is stated in the report. For example, there may be some sustainability issues which are not relevant to the other LDDs covered by the report. As long as these principles are respected it should be possible to produce a single SA scoping report for all the LDDs proposed in the current LDS.

Some authorities have tended to gather too much information, sometimes without knowing how it will be used, and consequently produced very lengthy SA reports containing material the relevance of which is not always clear. These present problems because they obscure the key SA evidence which ought to shape decision-making and inform the public, and are thus neither effective decision-making tools nor usable public consultation tools. They are likely to go unread by the decision-makers and confuse consultees, and thereby frustrate their purpose.

Where consultants have been used, some authorities have not managed them very effectively. Consequently a variety of problems have arisen, including:

        • reports not being provided in time to be adequately considered and influence decisions

        • the form and style of reports being inconclusive or not bringing out the clearly the significant findings which should be influential

        • the authority's own staff having inadequate understanding of the methodology used, how conclusions were drawn or how they should be considered in decision-making.

 

The view emerged that wherever possible authorities should carry out SA themselves, and take care that it is integrated with other aspects of the plan-making process and built into decision-making. However, value was seen in using consultants to transfer skills to the in-house team, provide advice and guidance as and when it is needed, and provide independent verification of the methodology and conclusions. The selection of consultants should appraise their willingness to do these things.

Where possible the collection, analysis and monitoring of sustainability data should be managed as a corporate process linking with the development and review of sustainable community strategies as well as LDDs. This will both offer economies in the use of resources and strengthen the links between the LDF and the community strategy.

Other assessment regimes

There are issues as to how SA relates to other assessment regimes. The DCLG guidance has sought to avoid the need for a plethora of assessment regimes. In general the aim should be to see how much of the actual assessment required is covered already by sustainability appraisal, and judge what else needs to be done to meet the other assessment regime.

However, there is a particular issue about "Appropriate Assessment" (AA). Appropriate Assessment and SA are two separate processes, each with its own legal requirements. SA aims to ensure that LDDs contribute tosustainable development by integrating consideration of social, environmental and economic impacts into plan-making. AA on the other hand aims to ensure that the plan will not have adverse effects on the integrity of sites designated under the Habitats Directive. DCLG recommend that AA should be undertaken in association with SA, and that it would be best practice to maximise the relevant exercise gathered in SA and use it to inform the AA, and vice versa. The SA and AA outputs should be clearly distinguished and reported upon separately. DCLG have advised that draft Appropriate Assessment guidance "Planning for the protection of European sites: Appropriate Assessment for regional spatial strategies and local development documents" is due to be published for consultation by the end of September 2006.

Getting the foundations right

Part of front-loading is to take the time to get the foundations right for LDD preparation, and this applies particularly to SA. Barking and Dagenham stressed the importance of getting right the scoping and the gathering of baseline data, consulting properly on objectives, and making effective use of feedback from stakeholders and statutory agencies such as the Environment Agency. They used stakeholder workshops to focus people on sustainability objectives and build consensus on them, ending up with 19 objectives, but found it difficult to explain the difference between sustainability and plan objectives.

Several pilot authorities reported difficulties with getting other departments to buy in to a corporate approach to SA, with some reporting repetition of work between planners and other departments, and others recounting resistance to carrying out (or even considering) assessment of their strategies under the SEA Directive. It seemed that other services were in danger of ignoring the SEA Directive, despite the guidance issued by Government. This may change if there are successful legal challenges to authorities or Government for failure to carry out SEA. Ipswich has been successful in taking on the role of producing the corporate framework, works with a corporate SEA group meeting every few months, and is working on baseline data with other Suffolk authorities.

In carrying out SA as part of the decision making process in preparing a LDD it is important to have sustainability indicators which assist that process. The pilot authorities found a danger in having too many indicators and saw no point in having indicators which would not assist the assessment of the effects of strategy/policy alternatives or bring out differences between them. Barking and Dagenham were minded to reduce the number of indicators by omitting those they felt would bring out no distinctive differences, but encountered pressure from the statutory environmental bodies to retain them. Hillingdon felt this "all-inclusive" tendency was a factor in making their sustainability appraisal exercises so big.

The point was made that there is no value in persisting with indicators which do not assist the assessment of the significant effects of strategy/policy alternatives, including any differences between the alternatives in those effects. The point was also made that there is a risk of making sustainability objectives so broad that they cannot help distinguish between the impacts of actual strategy/policy alternatives, and defeat their own purpose. This appears to be generally an area where practice will need to develop in the light of experience, both among local authorities and on the part of other main players such as the statutory environmental consultees.

Reporting sustainability appraisal evidence to elected members

Given that SA evidence is intended to be a major driver of decision making, it is axiomatic that it needs to be clearly presented to elected members and that they must give it proper consideration. However, several pilot authorities reported difficulty in getting members involved in the development of the SA framework or in considering the findings of appraisal. This may be attributable in large part to the fact that many sustainability reports are long and daunting, and their findings are not presented in a readily accessible way.

Hambleton addressed this issue by producing a non-technical summary of the sustainability appraisal report to put its conclusions in front of members, and brought them back to it whenever decisions were discussed. As a general principle, it is suggested that presenting SA findings in a user-friendly format should assist in engaging members in comparing the impacts of different policy alternatives.

Concern was also expressed that some members see the process of SA as detracting from their role in decision-making. This comes back to how SA and its purpose are explained to members. It needs to be made clear that appraisal does not seek to override political judgements, but to provide members with evidence to assist decisions.

There is also the wider issue of conveying to elected members the different nature of the LDF process, and getting them involved early in shaping the approach to SA as well as other key member areas such as community engagement and the relationship with the community strategy. In relation to the latter, Hambleton found that it helped to see and present the process of SA as very similar to the appraisal process for the community strategy. There is also value in refreshing member training and briefing on the new system, drawing on the improved understanding now available of its principles and implications.

Community engagement in sustainability appraisal

The same matters which tend to make it difficult to get elected members engaged in SA apply to consultation with communities, who are easily put off by lengthy documents. This needs to be addressed as part of thinking about the overall approach to community engagement. Not all established planning approaches to participation fit well with the new system, because they were not designed around the explicit consideration of alternatives. Neither is it sufficient to offer people access to documents whose presentation and content present real barriers to lay people's comprehension.

Some pilot authorities have found it hard to engage the public on SA, with few final representations. However, Barking and Dagenham held option stage workshops with invited participants on difficult or contentious topics, which they found very helpful with good input from those involved. They began each workshop by setting out options and the accompanying sustainability matrices, and then split into discussion groups.

Again, the general principle should be to present sustainability appraisal findings in user-friendly formats which facilitate their use for communicating the impacts of policy alternatives. Furthermore, ensuring that these alternatives are meaningful will have been assisted if elected members and the local community have had the opportunity earlier in the LDD and SA process to identify the relevant spatial threats and opportunities which the LDD needs to address, many of which one would expect to see reflected in sustainability issues and problems.

Approaches to using consultants for SA

The pilot authorities had used consultants in a variety of ways:

        • to take responsibility for SA on the core strategy and development policies

        • to help simplify the process and act as an adviser

        • to validate or scrutinise in-house work

        • as a learning exercise, working closely alongside the consultants to build capacity in the in-house team for the future

        • to train staff

        • using other staff in the authority as in-house "consultants" to carry out the SA

 

In discussion there was a consensus that ideally the forward planning team itself should carry out SA, because of the importance of making it an integral part of decision-making and having full knowledge of all the judgements made within SA. However, there would still be value in using consultants for training, support to authority staff, and independent verification.

Improving sustainability appraisal practice

The essence of good practice in sustainability appraisal is effective management of the process. The pilot authorities considered how else, in addition to effective management, practice can be improved.

Applying the chain of conformity

 

In addition to a single SA scoping report covering a number of LDDs, the SA guidance emphasises the importance of applying the chain of conformity. Thus the SA of the Core Strategy DPD should take full account of the SA of the regional spatial strategy and not repeat it. Similarly, subsequent SAs of DPDs should take full account of the SA of the Core Strategy DPD, and SAs of SPDs should take full account of the SAs of the relevant DPD policy or policies. Using the chain of conformity through a hierarchy of documents will reduce plan preparation and SA work as the authority gets to more detailed LDDs.

Relevant plans and policies

 

The point was made that there is considerable repetition between authorities in identifying the relevant plans and policies at the SA scoping stage, and that it should be possible to develop a database of higher level current plans and policies which all authorities in a region or sub-region could draw upon. This might operate at both national level and regionally. Since the regional planning bodies need to carry out sustainability appraisal of their regional spatial strategies, it would appear logical for their database to be the main resource for the authorities in the region, to be augmented by the addition of local strategies. This approach would also help to improve clarity and consistency and may help to make SA reports less daunting documents. Regional planning bodies and LPAs may also work in partnership with neighbouring authorities when collecting the list of other plans and programmes to avoid repetition of work.

Sustainability objectives

 

All authorities have to develop their own sustainability objectives but the pilot authorities had found these have come out looking very similar to each other's, particularly as a consequence of consultation responses from the statutory consultation bodies. The observation was made that while the SEA Directive requires authorities to have regard to relevant international and national sustainability objectives, because they are high level objectives the way they are framed tends to make them too remote from the local situation. Regional sustainability appraisal objectives developed in relation to regional spatial strategies, together with locally developed objectives may be of more value in the SA process. Authorities still need to have regard to relevant international and national objectives but rather than preparing their own lists of these they may find it helpful to make use of the international and national objectives listed in the regional SA reports, provided these are sufficiently up-to-date. It was also felt that at the local level the sustainability objectives and plan objectives will tend to move closer together as documents are firmed up, despite their different purposes as referred to in the DCLG guidance.

Similarly, the logical aim is to make use of the baseline data collected by regional planning bodies and County councils in two-tier areas.

It was noted that the Government was shortly to issue guidance on the new sustainable community strategies. It would be interesting to see what that has to say about the evidence base for sustainable community strategies, and how their production should tie into LDF preparation and community engagement.

Significant effects

 

The authorities felt it would be helpful to have further advice on how to assess whether the sustainability effects of policies/strategies are significant, including secondary, cumulative and synergistic effects. However, it was recognised that it might be difficult for DCLG to go beyond the current SA guidance which advises that authorities need to determine significance individually in each case. The particular circumstances against which significance should be judged will include the level at which the LDD operates in the LDF hierarchy and the geographical area it covers. Among the factors to be considered the DCLG guidance refers to the probability, duration, frequency, reversibility, magnitude and spatial extent of effects. It also refers to the need to assess whether cumulative and synergistic effects will have a combined or total effect which is significant, where the concept of an impact threshold may be helpful.

Having taken all these considerations into account, final conclusions on significance are a matter of judgment, with the assumptions on which they are made needing to be set out in the SA report. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to engage elected members and consult extensively, including the environmental, general and specific consultation bodies.

Balancing environmental, economic and social matters

 

Concerns were expressed that the environmental aspect of sustainability appraisal tends in practice to secure greater weight than the economic and social aspects. Among the reasons given for this were:

        • the need through sustainability appraisal to comply with the SEA Directive, and the implicit pressure this creates to give particular attention to environmental impacts

        • the fact that environmental appraisal was already established and a reasonably familiar aspect of practice through environmental impact assessments and the like

        • the requirement to consult the statutory environmental bodies, which gives them considerable influence

        • the fact that most consultation representations tend to be from bodies with an environmental focus, whether amenity or conservation orientated

 

 

 

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