Many will recognise the phrase Habitat Regulations Assessment (HRA), even if the details are unfamiliar. Before a plan or project can be permitted or adopted, the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 require that it will not adversely affect the integrity of an international wildlife site (a Special Area of Conservation, Special Protection Area or Ramsar site) except in certain exceptional circumstances.
The legal duty to comply with the regulations lies with the approving/permitting organisation: the ‘competent authority’. The practical responsibility for this work often falls to local authority planning officers. The law avoids being prescriptive regarding the content of an HRA, consultation arrangements, timing of HRA, or the point at which mitigation measures can be taken into account. This flexibility is valuable but can also make it a difficult process to comprehend. The purpose of this article is to enable town planners to improve their effectiveness and enhance their careers in the planning profession by grasping the essentials of the HRA process.
HRA can be highly technical, and specialist assistance is often invaluable. However, its key procedural elements are:
- The analysis must consider ‘likely significant effects’ on the interest features of the site, drawing upon (but not necessarily quoting) its conservation objectives. This is essentially a risk assessment (although it can be detailed if desired) and is commonly called ‘screening’;
- If the likelihood of significant effects can’t be dismissed, then an ‘appropriate assessment’ of the implications for the integrity (structure and function) of the site must be undertaken. Appropriate assessment is not a technical term: there is no specific technical analysis that constitutes an ‘appropriate assessment’; it literally means whatever level of assessment is appropriate in a given case to draw a conclusion regarding effects on site integrity. The content of an appropriate assessment can therefore differ radically from project to project.
- There is no set format for an HRA and no limit to the number of times ‘likely significant effects’ analysis or ‘appropriate assessment’ can be rerun on a plan or project. This also means that mitigation measures, if they are known, can be taken into account in making a judgment of ‘likely significant effect’.
- In practice, points (2) and (3) mean that the line between ‘likely significant effects’ and ‘appropriate assessment’ can be blurred in terms of technical content. One HRA might classify a particularly technical analysis as an investigation of ‘likely significant effects’ while another could classify the same technical study as an ‘appropriate assessment’ (having first made a much simpler investigation of likely significant effects).
- The HRA must consider the cumulative (i.e. ‘in combination’) effects that might result from that project/plan and others that would affect the same site over the same timescale.
- The relevant national conservation agency (e.g. Natural England or Scottish Natural Heritage) must be consulted on the HRA, although they have no right of veto. The competent authority has the right to consult others, but no obligation to do so.
- There is no statutory consultation period; the duration of consultation is a matter for the competent authority.
- If the plan or project will result in adverse effects on the integrity of an internationally important wildlife site then it cannot be consented/adopted unless there has been confirmation of a) no alternatives, b) imperative reasons of over-riding interest why the project/plan should nonetheless proceed and c) appropriate compensatory provision identified to ensure the Europe-wide Natura 2000 network of internationally-important wildlife sites is preserved.
Provided you can grasp these key procedural principles you will understand a lot about the HRA process that may appear confusing at first glance, particularly the deliberately high degree of flexibility allowed regarding technical content.
Dr James Riley is associate director (Ecology and Habitat Regulations Assessment) at consultants AECOM