An Appropriate Assessment involves a case by case examination of the implications of a development or activity for a Natura 2000 site and its conservation objectives.
Key steps in the Appropriate Assessment process include screening, which establishes whether a plan or project could have significant effects on a Natura 2000 site either on its own, or in combination with other plans or projects. Where potential impacts are identified, a complete Appropriate Assessment is undertaken, which will inform and assist the planning authority in their decision to grant or refuse permission.
The Habitats Directive Article 6(3) requires that “any plan or project not directly connected with or necessary to the management of the site but likely to have a significant effect thereon, either individually or in combination with other plans or projects, shall be subject to appropriate assessment of its implications for the site in view of the sites’s conservation objectives. Subject to the provisions of the Directive, the competent national authorities shall agree to the plan or project only after having ascertained that it will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned and, if appropriate, after having obtained the opinion of the general public“.
The Habitats Directive Article 6(4) requires that “If, in spite of a negative assessment of the implications for the site and in the absence of alternative solutions, a plan or project must nevertheless be carried out for the imperative reason of overriding public interest, including those of social or economic nature, the member state shall take all compensatory measures necessary to ensure that all the overall coherence of Natura 2000 is protected. It shall inform the Commission of the compensatory measures adopted”.
When may appropriate assessments be required in the planning process?
If a proposed plan or project is considered likely to have a significant effect on a protected habitats site (either individually, or in combination with other plans or projects) then an appropriate assessment of the implications for the site, in view of the site’s conservation objectives, must be undertaken. This does not apply to plans or projects directly connected to the conservation management of the features for which the site was designated.
A risk, or a possibility of such an effect, is enough to warrant the need for an appropriate assessment.
What must an appropriate assessment contain?
The scope and content of an appropriate assessment will depend on the nature, location, duration and scale of the proposed plan or project and the interest features of the relevant site, but the assessment needs to be proportionate and sufficient to support the task of the competent authority in determining whether the plan or project will adversely affect the integrity of the site.
An appropriate assessment must contain complete, precise and definitive findings and conclusions to ensure that there is no reasonable scientific doubt as to the effects of the proposed plan or project. The competent authority will require the applicant to provide such information as may reasonably be required to undertake the assessment.
An appropriate assessment must identify and examine the implications of the proposed plan or project for the designated features present on that site, including species and habitats, as well as the implications for habitat types and species present outside the boundaries of that site and functionally linked, insofar as those implications are liable to affect the conservation objectives of the site.
The competent authority must determine whether the proposal will not adversely affect the integrity of the site(s). The integrity of a site is the coherence of its ecological structure and function, across its whole area, that enables it to sustain the habitat, complex of habitats and/or the levels of populations of the species for which it was designated.
What are mitigation measures?
Where it cannot be concluded that there will be no adverse effects on a site’s integrity, there is a need to consider potential mitigation measures. Mitigation measures are protective measures forming part of a project and are intended to avoid or reduce any direct adverse effects that may be caused by a plan or project, to ensure that it does not have an adverse effect on the integrity of a habitats site(s). Any measure used to inform the decision about the effects on the integrity needs to be sufficiently secured and likely to work in practice. Measures aimed at compensating for the negative effects of a project cannot be considered mitigation measures. The mitigation hierarchy should apply and in the first instance, effort should be made to avoid an adverse effect on site integrity altogether; but if this is not possible, impact reduction measures should be applied. For example, this may involve:
- switching to a less damaging method of construction;
- undertaking works at a less sensitive time of year (e.g. outside a breeding season);
- not proceeding with some parts of the plan or project;
- incorporating additional works into the plan or project to avoid or reduce its impact.
The Appropriate Assessment is currently included in the Law on Nature Protection in Articles 8 to 10, but a specific Regulation should be adopted.