The long-awaited Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for the Faversham Creek Neighbourhood Plan has at last made an appearance – though it took a Freedom of Information request to get it released, and it is not the final version; there are apparently still some ‘typos’ to be corrected.
Under European law, an SEA is required for a neighbourhood plan when initial ‘screening’ indicates that the plan may have significant environmental effects (in this context, environmental does not just refer to the natural environment, but includes broader issues such as social and cultural). Since Swale Borough Council had determined as long ago as 2008 that a development plan for the Faversham Creek area would require an SEA, and had drawn up a ‘scoping’ document saying what the SEA should evaluate, it was a legal requirement for the Neighbourhood Plan to have one.
The government’s Planning Practice Guidance explains the process and shows (para 033) how the SEA should be prepared alongside the plan, so that the environmental impact of different options can be compared and used to inform the development of the plan. The SEA, along with a non-technical summary, is then to be put out to consultation alongside the draft plan. In practice, the SEA played no part in the development of the plan, and it is not clear how its production five months after publication, and with no consultation, fits into this process.
There is no comparison of the relative environmental impact of alternative options for individual sites or areas. The only ‘reasonable alternatives’ considered are those put forward at the first consultation in 2012: all housing, all employment, or mixed – plus a fourth (‘Maximising housing and employment numbers’) which is said to have been one of the options in the consultation, but was not.
Can these seriously be considered as the ‘reasonable alternatives’? Virtually every land use development plan contains a mix of uses; the true options are what, where and how much – that is the whole point of having a plan.
In setting out (Section 12) the Town Council’s reasons for its ‘preferred approach’ in the face of public opposition, the report asserts that the public unreasonably wanted ONLY industrial use for boatbuilding and repair and the exclusion of ALL residential use, and that this would not have been sustainable. This is, to put it politely, a gross misrepresentation, given that alternatives were repeatedly put forward that included a variety of land uses, including residential and other forms of employment, but with a different distribution, and the council chose not to consider them.
The opening paragraph of the report states that it was commissioned by Swale Borough Council in support of the Neighbourhood Plan – ie, a post-hoc justification of the finished product, rather than an evaluation of the least environmentally-damaging options. Not surprisingly, given this brief, it manages to identify positive effects for the plan against many criteria. Some of the claims made are questionable (eg, that the ‘proposed use’ of Iron Wharf as a boatyard would have a ‘significant positive effect’ on employment and skills – this seems unlikely, since it is already a boatyard, and keeping it as a boatyard would be neither positive nor negative).
What this document cannot do is determine whether a different set of policies and land use distribution would have been more or less beneficial.
Buried in the middle of the report (Section 16.1.2), however, is the information that a Habitat Regulations Assessment (HRA) – a separate document, also legally required because of the potential impact on the Swale SPA and Ramsar site – says the plan as it stands would have negative environmental effects, and recommends amendments that would be needed to mitigate these effects. The SEA concludes that unless and until these recommendations are accepted and incorporated, the Neighbourhood Plan would have a significant NEGATIVE effect on biodiversity.
The recommendations are not known since the HRA report has not been made public.