This is entry number 83, first published on 11 January 2010, of a blog on the implementation of the Planning Act 2008. Click here for a link to the whole blog.

Today's entry looks at the first two scoping opinions published by the Infrastructure Planning Commission.

The Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) is the new independent body that will receive applications for nationally significant energy and transport projects from 1 March 2010 - a mere seven weeks away.

Most of the projects that the IPC will consider - being nationally significant, after all - will require environmental impact assessment (EIA) under European Union law. EIA is the process where for projects above certain size thresholds, the environmental impact of the project must be assessed and the decision maker made aware of what the impacts are and how they will be mitigated before making the decision. The main role for the promoter of a project is producing an Environmental Statement (ES) that sets out the promoter's view of the impacts and how it proposes to deal with them.

Not all projects will require EIA, though, since the thresholds in the Planning Act seldom match those in the EIA regulations. For example the Planning Act threshold for an airport is that it will have a capacity of at least 10 million passengers per year, whereas the threshold in the EIA regulations is that it will have a 2100 metre runway, or if not, that it will have significant effects on the environment. The full list of EIA thresholds can be found in the regulations here.

The IPC has two roles in EIA at the pre-application stage, 'screening' and 'scoping'. Screening is deciding whether a project needs EIA, and scoping is deciding, if it does, what the ES should cover. Projects coming before the IPC are unusual in that the applicant can't decide for itself that the project doesn't need EIA - it must ask the IPC to confirm that. It can decide that it does need EIA, however, and that seems to be the case for all of the projects currently in the pipelnie - there is no evidence yet that the IPC has been asked for a so-called 'screening opinion'.

Asking the IPC for a scoping opinion is voluntary, however - the promoter is at liberty to decide what should go into its ES. It is of course safer to ask the IPC for its opinion as to what the ES should contain.

At the end of December the IPC issued its first two scoping opinions, for the two nuclear power stations proposed by Horizon Nuclear power, the joint venture between RWE and E.On, at Oldbury, South Gloucestershire and Wylfa, Anglesey respectively. The scoping opinions can be found here and here. They are essential reading for those charged with the preparation of ESs for projects coming before the IPC.

The two opinions are quite long but the bulk of them is taken up with reproducing the responses they received from various consultation bodies. The meat of the Oldbury opinion is contained at pages 10-19, and the Wylfa one at pages 10-25. Both opinions are responses to the 'scoping report' produced by the promoter for each site - i.e. its own view of what should go into the ES. The Oldbury one was produced by RPS, and I think I detect the hand of the Cooper Partnership in the Wylfa one. They can be found here and here. The two cover the same topics, although the Oldbury one additionally covers the marine environment. The IPC is satisfied with the topics for the Wylfa report, but asks that elimination of waste, transportation of waste off-site, use of natural resources and climate factors should be included in the Oldbury ES in addition.

The two opinions have different authors but the same chapter headings, although the Wylfa one has an additional chapter called 'Presentation of the Environmental Statement' that talks about paragraph numbering etc.

The IPC is suggesting quite a lot of additonal information for inclusion in the two ESs in addition to that proposed by the promoter. Other promoters who have not sought a scoping opinion would be advised to pay heed to this advice.

Finally of note is that the IPC has erred on the side of caution in interpreting the wide list of local authorities it should consult, and has consulted even more than strictly necessary. For Oldbury it consulted Monmouthshire and Forest of Dean, both across the Severn Estuary from South Gloucestershire, which contains the site. For Wylfa, it consulted Gwynedd and Conwy councils and also the Snowdonia National Park Authority, all across the Menai Strait from Anglesey. The message is therefore if your project is in a coastal local authority you should include authorities 'across the water', if there are any.