Assessing the impacts of Offshore Wind Leasing Round 4 on the network of protected areas covering Europe’s most valuable species and habitats.
The Crown Estate is currently conducting the Round 4 Plan-Level Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) to assess the potential impacts of the six projects identified through the Round 4 tender process (the “Round 4 plan”) on the network of protected areas covering the UK's most valuable species and habitats. It must be completed before awarding seabed rights.
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 begins with an initial screening process to determine the Likely Significant Effects of the Round 4 plan on the UK national site network.
Once complete, a detailed technical assessment known as an Appropriate Assessment is carried out to examine 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 Appropriate Assessment will determine whether an ‘adverse effect on site integrity’ (AEOI) can be ruled out (the integrity test). It will also consider mitigation measures to avoid or reduce environmental effects.
If the conclusion of this work is that the Round 4 plan will not have an AEOI on any UK national network site, The Crown Estate may grant seabed rights (an ‘Agreement for Lease’).
However, if it is concluded that an AEOI cannot be ruled out, the HRA moves to the final stages to examine alternative solutions. At this point, and in exceptional circumstances, The Crown Estate may consider making use of the derogation process - seeking the agreement of the Secretary of State and Welsh Ministers to allow habitats sites to be impacted 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.
Working with stakeholders
Throughout the Plan-Level HRA process, we engage and consult with an Expert Working Group (EWG) comprising experts from relevant organisations who provide sector and topic-specific technical expertise, including relevant UK statutory marine planning authorities, statutory nature conservation bodies and relevant non-governmental organisations. The EWG is independently chaired by Professor Dickon Howell.
The EWG comprises representatives from the following organisations:
- Natural England
- Marine Management Organisation
- Joint Nature Conservation Committee
- Natural Resources Wales (advisory)
- Natural Resources Wales (regulatory)
- Welsh Government
- Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Northern Ireland
- Marine Scotland
- Nature Scot
- The Wildlife Trusts
- Whale and Dolphin Conservation
- The Crown Estate
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. Therefore, ahead of the Round 4 Plan-Level HRA, we worked with stakeholders to establish an Expert Working Group and identify a series of priority research projects to help build the evidence base.
The five projects below were commissioned by The Crown Estate in 2019 and delivered by technical specialists in collaboration with the Expert Working Group. The evidence will be used to inform the Round 4 Plan-Level HRA:
- 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.
What happens next?
Projects which progress through the Plan-Level HRA will be awarded an Agreement for Lease with The Crown Estate. Developers will 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. You can read more about the HRA process in our Guide to Habitats Regulation Assessment and more about Offshore Wind Leasing Round 4 by clicking here.