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Written Statement - New woodland planting and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in Wales

Lesley Griffiths, Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs

Environmental Impact Assessment (“EIA”) is a process which enables decisions to be taken about projects which are likely to have a significant impact on the environment with the fullest possible information and for projects to be designed to mitigate those impacts.

On 31 January, a joint public consultation by the UK and Devolved Governments on EIA and the transposition of Directive 2014/52/EU closed.  This Directive made amendments to Directive 2011/92/EU which established the EIA process across the European Union.

The joint consultation covered several regimes including forestry, which is governed by the Environmental Impact Assessment (Forestry) (England and Wales) Regulations 1999 (“the Regulations”).  Under the Regulations consent of Natural Resources Wales (“NRW”) is needed for forestry projects including new woodland planting of a nature, size or location likely to have a significant effect on the environment.  Where consent is required, an environmental impact assessment must be carried out by the project proposer.

The Regulations operate thresholds to define the point at which new planting, or afforestation, projects are likely to have a significant effect and require consent.  Generally a project below the relevant threshold may be considered as not likely to have significant effects.  Projects above the threshold are considered (“screened”) by NRW who will decide whether or not a full EIA must be undertaken.  The current thresholds are:  5 hectares in non-sensitive areas, 2 hectares in sensitive areas such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty; and zero in the most sensitive areas such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.  Projects below the threshold may still require consent where NRW considers that despite their small size, (for example where they are close to a particularly sensitive habitat) they are likely to have significant effects on the environment.

The consultation sought views on increasing the threshold for non-sensitive areas to either 20 or 50 hectares.  The consultation proposal was to keep the threshold for sensitive areas at 2 hectares or less and zero in the most sensitive areas where all afforestation projects will be screened.  A total of 95 responses addressed this issue.  Whilst there was widespread support for woodland creation, the majority (80%) of respondents were not supportive of an increase in the threshold for non-sensitive areas and many considered the threshold should be reduced to better safeguard   habitats and wildlife.  Views on the level of threshold (as evidenced by the consultation) are highly polarised between those who considered environmental protection will be weakened if the threshold is increased and those who consider an increase will encourage more woodland planting.

The current thresholds for afforestation projects have operated for nearly 20 years.  During this time there have been no projects in Wales which have proceeded to environmental impact assessment.   This is largely due to the way NRW has worked with and assisted applicants to develop projects to mitigate their environmental impact.  However there is no evidence the current threshold has been a barrier in increasing new woodland planting in Wales and other variables such as land price act as a significant constraint on tree planting.  Therefore it is sensible to retain the current threshold in the Regulations.  

Welsh Government remains committed to increased levels of new woodland planting to improve the resilience of our rural and urban areas.  The forestry sector is a vital industry in Wales and tree planting assists in preventing flooding, reducing diffuse pollution, tackling climate change and in providing jobs in the manufacturing and building industries. Additionally, woodlands provide havens for wildlife and for people to visit contributing to our mental and physical health and wider wellbeing.  

The Welsh Government and NRW will now work collaboratively during 2017 to bring forward measures to support stakeholders in developing new woodland creation proposals and to improve the way the various EIA regimes are implemented.  This work will address the issues raised by consultees in their responses, including assessing consistency between the application of the forestry and agriculture EIA regulations and testing new approaches to protecting important habitats while also allowing for an increase in the amount of new woodland creation in the context of the Natural Resources Policy and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 to help meet our goal of planting more trees in Wales.

The response to the joint consultation will be published after the General Election.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank everybody who took time to respond to this important consultation.