Brussels has published draft proposals to update the European Union's 25-year-old EIA directive, which the European Parliament and Council have yet to approve. For the first time, the European Commission (EC) has both defined the EIA process and proposed a time limit on it.
An EIA is defined in the document as "the process of preparing an environmental report, carrying out consultations, the assessment by the competent authority, taking into account the environmental report and the results of the consultations in the development consent procedure as well as the provision of information on the decision".
The draft document states that planning authorities determining applications that require an EIA would face a standard three-month deadline to make decisions as soon as consultation on an EIA's environmental report is completed. The document proposes that consultation on EIAs must take no more than 90 days (see box).
The deadline to decide on an application requiring an EIA starts, says the document, when "all necessary information gathered" is provided to the planning authority, including consultation results.
Josh Fothergill, policy and practice lead for professional body the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, said that, because the proposed EIA process would include the assessment and a final decision by a planning authority, decision-makers would have to decide within that period whether to grant approval.
An EC spokeswoman confirmed that the three-month limit to determine applications would apply in this way, but it could be extended to six months for particularly large or complex projects.
Fothergill and planning lawyers believe the proposed timescale could affect planning processes in England and Wales, particularly for nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs), which are determined by the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) under the Planning Act 2008.
If approved, the directive would mean, for larger schemes, decision-makers would have no more than about nine months from the date of submission of the application, including the environmental report, to carry out a consultation, determine the application and make a decision, but as few as four months for less complex projects.
The major infrastructure process can take up to 16 months from the date an application is submitted, according to PINS.
Fothergill said his interpretation was that the consultation period as stipulated in the draft directive took place in the pre-examination stage, which begins after PINS decides to accept an application for examination, during which people can make representations to the inspectorate on the applicant's environmental statement. He said the end of this stage would trigger the three-to-six-month deadline, though under the NSIP process there would still be a year to run.
An inspectorate spokesman said nationally significant infrastructure project applications typically include the developers' environmental report and consultation results. However, he added that interested parties can still make representations during the pre-examination stage, and further evidence on a proposal's environmental impact can be taken during the examination period itself.
Paul Maile, a partner at law firm Eversheds, said: "Under the Planning Act's major infrastructure process, you have to go through pre-application consultation, which, by and large, should give you all of the requested information.
"You are probably going to be upwards of a year or 15 months from making the application until you get a decision. That would obviously be outside the three-month period in the proposed amendments."
The potential implications of the draft proposals for planning decisions in the UK were first highlighted by Planning's sister title the ENDS Report.
The draft proposals can be viewed via PlanningResource.co.uk/go/referencesection
EIA Directive: a primer
Q: What is the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive?
A: It was introduced to ensure that the environmental consequences of major schemes are considered when member states approve them.
Q: Why is the directive being updated?
A: The European Commission says it wants to improve and harmonise the EIA directive across all member states and streamline it with other consents, such as strategic environmental assessments.
Q: What proposed timescales are set out in the draft directive?
A: Firstly, an authority should take no more than three or six months - depending on the size of the project - to decide whether an application requires an EIA. There is no time limit for the developer to then produce an environmental report, which the planning authority must consult on for 30 to 90 days. The rest of the EIA process, including a decision on approval, must take no more than three months, although six months would be allowed for larger projects.
Q: How does this compare with current planning deadlines?
A Currently, English and Welsh local authorities have a 16-week deadline to determine planning applications that require an EIA, including carrying out a consultation. Under the major infrastructure process, from the start of the examination period to when the government makes a decision should take no longer than a year. However, the Planning Inspectorate says that the process can take up to 16 months from when an application is submitted.