Ministers table neighbourhood planning amendments in light of EU court ruling

The government has published amendments to neighbourhood planning regulations following a landmark European court ruling on habitats assessments earlier this year and has promised imminent new guidance on the "implications of the judgment".

Parliament: neighbourhood planning regulations laid earlier this month
Parliament: neighbourhood planning regulations laid earlier this month

In April, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued a ruling in the case of People Over Wind and Sweetman v Coillte Teoranta which overturned a decade of established practice in the UK.

Habitats regulations assessment (HRA) has two stages – a screening stage followed by a full ‘appropriate assessment’.

Previously, if applicants could show at the screening stage that negative impacts on EU-protected habitats would be mitigated effectively, there was no requirement for an appropriate assessment.

However, the ECJ ruling dictated that a full appropriate assessment is required for all plans and projects that require mitigation, regardless of the mitigation measures proposed.

Following the case, experts warned that the ruling could impact on neighbourhood plans in or close to protected habitats, and was likely to cause plan-makers additional expenses and delays.

The amendments, tabled earlier this month, relate to various aspects of planning legislation, including neighbourhood planning, local development orders, and simplified planning zones, and will come into force on 28 December.

In terms of neighbourhood planning, they amend one of the basic conditions that plans must comply with before passing examination.

The amended condition states that neighbourhood development plans must not "breach the requirements of Chapter 8 of Part 6 of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017", which outlines how land use plans must comply with the HRA process.

The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) earlier this month contacted neighbourhood planners to explain that the legislative amendments would allow their work to progress.

Helen Keen, MHCLG head of plan-making policy, said the amendments would "ensure neighbourhood plans that are ‘screened in’ to the assessment process can continue to progress, following an appropriate assessment".

She said: "The appropriate assessment would consider any impacts alongside mitigation measures, following the same process as assessments for local plans."

Keen said the new condition would not apply retrospectively, adding: "We hope to issue planning guidance on the implications of the judgment around the same time as the new regulations."

An MHCLG consultation paper published in October also proposed a change to the National Planning Policy Framework to take account of the ECJ ruling.

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