An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is the assessment of the environmental consequences of a proposed development project. It ensures that the environmental effects of a project are taken into account before a decision to grant planning permission is made.

EIAs generally apply to housing schemes and more urban forms of development. A development of 100 houses, for example, would almost certainly trigger an EIA. But since May 2017, agriculture has been subject to new EIA regulations under a European Union directive.

On 16 May 2017 the amended Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) regulations came into effect. These regulations protect rural land in England that is uncultivated or semi natural. Uncultivated land continues to be defined as land which has not been cultivated in the last 15 years. However, uncertainty remains regarding the interpretation of the words “semi natural”. Guidance suggests that it is “land that hasn’t been intensively farmed, such as unimproved grassland or lowland heath”. This is arguably difficult for a farmer to interpret and in practice the focus has been on the definition of whether cultivation has occurred in the last 15 years.

THE KIND OF CHANGES WHICH MIGHT CAUSE DAMAGE TO SEMI NATURAL OR UNCULTIVATED LAND ARE:

  • increasing productivity of land for agriculture;
  • restoring semi natural grassland or semi natural heathland;
  • altering field boundaries or adding new fences that are over four kilometres long, or two kilometres long in protected areas such as a national park;
  • moving or redistributing significant quantities of earth; and
  • changing rural land of over two hectares, or less if of regional significance.

Farmers will almost certainly be unaware that the regulations have been introduced. If, for example, they want to alter a field boundary, they will not realise they have to submit a screening request to Natural England under the new regulations. There is no reason they should be aware, especially as the process can be expensive. Changing a field boundary and the other changes in the list above fall outside of planning controls, and the EIA regulations are therefore designed to provide environmental protection which is otherwise lacking. It is possible that any one of these changes could harm a protected species such as a rare mouse, and farmers could be fined for that.

Environmental Impact Assessment and Agriculture

Where any of these changes are proposed, you must apply for a screening decision from Natural England to determine whether your project requires an EIA. Completing the screening process notifies Natural England that a farmer or land manager is seeking to carry out work which may be covered by the EIA regulations. The land is then assessed and a decision is provided within 35 days. The screening process provides for agricultural projects that do not significantly affect the environment or landscape to be completed, while at the same time ensuring protection for land with special environmental, historic or cultural importance.

If a project does require an EIA, then you will need permission, known as a “consent decision” to carry out the works. To apply for a consent decision, an environmental assessment report will be needed which considers the effects of your proposal on certain aspects of the environment, such as ecology, landscape and climate change.

EIA regulations are part of cross compliance, the rules farmers and land managers must follow if they claim for the Basic Payment Scheme, a Stewardship Scheme or the English Woodland Grant Scheme. Failure to follow EIA regulations could affect your payments.

Where an EIA is needed, the regulations require that the resultant environmental statement be prepared by a competent expert. Not only is Batcheller Monkhouse a corporate member of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment but our EIA team comprises experienced practitioner and associate members.

Many farmers will be thinking of responding to the Government drive to build houses. On a big development of say 1,000 houses, a screening request would be required. This asks the local planning authority whether what you intend to do needs an EIA. If it does, then you submit a scoping request so that, for example, if the site is near a site of special scientific interest and has some archaeology underneath, the procedure sets out which topics have to be considered. These can include anything from traffic, air quality and noise to human health, a more recent consideration which could ask how the development will encourage people to exercise daily.

I have recently worked on over 25 EIA’s and there have been large problems with each one. But I have never come across an EIA which stops a development. There are always ways of working round the problems. I dealt with one large housing scheme which had some field mice nearby. The ecologist said there was no way the scheme would work without taking out about 100 houses. But that would have had a financial impact on the client, so we found a way round that by the ecologist recreating a field mouse environment on the other side of a hedge.