Our mini-series on the primary ecological surveys and reports that are required as part of the planning process, concludes in this blog post with Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA); but to start with, we have a couple of general updates: firstly, we’d like to reassure all of our clients that we continue to keep up to date with, and apply, any changes to government guidance and safe working practices during the COVID-19 crisis, and have been continuing to safely undertake ecology work over the last few months, remaining available to assist you with your ecology needs in relation to projects.

It’s also worth mentioning that there is currently a public consultation in progress regarding setting a new British standard for biodiversity net gain. As mentioned in a previous post, the draft Environment Bill proposes making biodiversity net gain a mandatory feature of development. You can find out more about the consultation and standard here.

Now onto the focus of our post:

HRA refers to the process of assessment that is undertaken – in accordance with the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (as amended) and the Conservation of Offshore Marine Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (as amended)1 – to determine whether a plan or project is likely to significantly affect the designated features of a ‘habitats site’; the information from the assessment is then used by the competent authority to decide whether to undertake, permit or authorise the plan or project.

HRA applies to all plans and projects, in addition to planning applications, that are not directly connected with, or necessary for, the conservation management of a ‘habitat’ site, which includes Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs).

The first stage in the assessment process is screening, which takes into account the potential effects of the plan or project itself, and the in-combination effects with other plans or projects. Where the potential for ‘likely significant effects’ cannot be ruled out, an ‘appropriate assessment’ of the implications of the plan or project for the designated site’s conservation objectives is made by the ‘competent authority’.

Where likely significant adverse effects on the site’s notable features and conservation objectives remain, and where there are no alternative solutions, the plan or project is only able to go ahead if there are ‘imperative reasons of overriding public interest’ and if appropriate compensation measures can be implemented.

The scope and content of an appropriate assessment will depend on the nature of the proposed plan or project and the interest features of the designated site. As a result of case law (2018)2 mitigation measures can no longer be taken into consideration at the screening stage of the assessment process.

Our team of experienced ecologists are well-versed in legislation, policy and best practice guidance and how this relates to your project, so do get in touch with any queries.

1 The Conservation of Habitats and Species (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 took effect when the UK left the EU. The amended regulations ensure that the 2017 provisions remain in effect until further notice.
2 Case C-323/17 People Over Wind & Peter Sweetman v Coillte Teoranta (‘People over Wind’), April 2018.