Assessing the impacts of Offshore Wind Leasing Round 4 on the network of protected areas covering Europe’s most valuable species and habitats.
This will assess the impacts of Round 4 on the Natura 2000 network of designated sites. The plan-level HRA must be completed before seabed rights can be awarded.
Before awarding seabed rights through Offshore Wind Leasing Round 4, The Crown Estate will undertake a Plan-Level Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA). This process requires us to assess the potential impacts of the projects identified through the Round 4 tender process (the “Round 4 plan”) on the network of protected areas covering the UKs most valuable species and habitats.
What is a Plan-Level Habitats Regulations Assessment?
The Habitats Regulations protect certain habitats and species through a network of core breeding and resting sites for rare and threatened species, and some rare natural habitat types which are protected in their own right.
The Regulations specifically refer to Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs). These sites are given legal protection because they are designated for habitats and species of importance. Together they form a network of protected sites across the UK called the UK national site network.
The multi-stage HRA process will determine the likely significant effects of the Round 4 plan on the UK national site network before undertaking a detailed technical assessment known as an Appropriate Assessment.
The Appropriate Assessment will assess the Round 4 plan in more detail (either alone or in combination with other plans or projects) and its potential impact on the integrity of the protected site features identified. The purpose of the Appropriate Assessment is to determine whether an adverse effect on site integrity (AEOI) can be ruled out (the integrity test); mitigation measures to avoid or reduce environmental effects will also be considered at this stage.
The Crown Estate may then only grant seabed rights at this step having concluded that the Round 4 plan will not have an AEOI of any UK national network site, where no reasonable scientific doubt remains to the absence of adverse effects.
If it is concluded that an AEOI cannot be ruled out, in exceptional circumstances The Crown Estate may consider making use of the derogation process if it can be established that there are no feasible alternative solutions; there are imperative reasons of overriding public interest; and compensation for any impact is secured.
Where projects do progress through the Plan-Level HRA and secure an Agreement for Lease with The Crown Estate, successful developers would then undertake project specific environmental assessments - including a more in-depth, detailed Project-Level HRA - as part of their application for development consent through the statutory planning process.
Working with stakeholders through HRA
Throughout the Plan-Level HRA process, we will be supported by expert independent advisors, and will consult with the relevant UK statutory marine planning authorities, statutory nature conservation bodies and relevant non-governmental organisations.
Building the evidence base
We recognise that building the evidence base for the Plan-Level HRA with good quality research and insight can help to reduce uncertainties and ensure a more informed assessment. We worked with stakeholders to establish an Expert Working Group and identified a series of priority research projects to help build the evidence base ahead of the Round 4 Plan-Level HRA.
The following five projects were commissioned by The Crown Estate in 2019:
- Review of cable installation, protection, mitigation and habitat recoverability
- Review of seabird foraging ranges in the breeding season
- Cumulative effects assessment tool – scoping study
- Reducing underwater noise study
- Review of seabird density data needs for plan-level HRA
The abstracts and full reports of these projects are available on the Marine Data Exchange.
Each project was delivered by technical specialists in the relevant fields and through collaboration and engagement with a project-specific steering group, made up of topic experts from the Expert Working Group.