UK: MIEU Publishes First Habitats Evidence Plan For Infrastructure Projects

Last Updated: 16 August 2013
Article by Angus Walker

Today's entry reports on the publication of the first evidence plan by the Major Infrastructure and Environment Unit.

The Major Infrastructure and Environment Unit (MIEU) was set up in April 2012 as part of a review of the implementation of the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives in the UK.

The purpose of MIEU, part of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), is to help promoters of projects with habitats issues navigate the requirements of these tricky directives, working with Natural England and the other nature conservation bodies to get as much agreement as possible before applications are submitted.

As part of its work, MIEU has developed the concept of 'evidence plans' as a way of nailing down the evidence needed to comply with the habitats directives, and published guidance on these last September.  These are designed to avoid surprises later on in the process, although whether they achieve that remains to be seen.

Finally, two projects have made use of this process, the East Anglia THREE and FOUR offshore wind farms (it beats me why the numbers for these wind farms are always put in capital letters). Their combined evidence plan was published yesterday and can be found here.

MIEU aims to produce an evidence plan within three months of being asked for one.  According to the plan itself it didn't quite make this in this case, as the plan was requested in February, six months ago, but no doubt it will be able to do the next one more quickly as the process becomes more familiar to all the parties.

The plan is now the property of East Anglia Offshore Wind (EAOW), and the aim is that it will be signed off by them and the nature conservation bodies before the applications are made - i.e. it is not finished yet.  The idea is that the plan will not only help with developing the necessary mitigation and compensation for the project, but assist with application documents such as the habitats regulations assessment, and then later with statements of common ground.

Once the plan is completed, discussions about mitigation should be well under way, if not concluded, and one or more statements of common ground are expected to have been concluded that identify likely significant effects, whether appropriate assessment is required, and if this is still unknown, how this will be dealt with, and also which issues are insignificant, which have been resolved and which ones haven't.

I'm not sure why statements of common ground are needed as well as the evidence plan itself, and how these relate to, or perhaps they are intended to replace, the statements of common ground that the examining inspectors are likely to ask for once the applications are being examined, but this is likely to evolve and settle down over time.

I am grateful to Defra for briefing me on the evidence plan.  Despite MIEU and EAOW sounding like a couple of cats fighting, they seem to be getting on well.  Indeed, Defra has supplied me with a quote from Mandy Gloyer of Scottish Power Renewables, one of the 50-50 joint venture partners for the East Anglia windfarms (the other being Swedish state energy company Vattenfall ('waterfall')).  She said 'EAOW is happy to be piloting the Evidence Plan process for our windfarm developments within the East Anglia zone, and hopeful that it will assist in agreeing key requirements with statutory advisers at an early stage. There is a lot of detailed work now to be done through the expert topic groups we are establishing, and we look forward to addressing key habitats regulations issues through these'.

Although this particular plan is still fairly skeletal in content, it is encouraging that the government is keen to sort out habitats issues with nationally significant infrastructure projects, as the former can have a considerable impact on the latter, ports and offshore wind farms in particular.  At a recent round table discussion held by the National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA), the feeling was that there was clearly some way to go in helping project promoters understand what sort of mitigation and, if necessary, compensation was likely to be acceptable for their projects to give them the requisite certainty and confidence to make applications, so this is definitely a step in the right direction.

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