The Government published draft guidance on the 2001 Directive on strategic environmental assessment of plans and programmes a year ago. It provided a mix of practical advice on how to conduct assessments and interpretation of the Directive's complex requirements (ENDS Report 355, pp 45-46).
The revised document, issued in October, clarifies methodological aspects, but its updated "indicative list" of plans caught by the Directive has muddied already cloudy waters.
The list was always intended to be updated regularly in the light of evolving interpretation of the Directive. Indeed, the new version includes a dozen plans, including nuclear decommissioning strategies and some waste management plans, that were not on the original.
But the removal of water company resource plans and the national waste strategy has been met with surprise. Both of these plans appear to fall squarely within the remit of the Directive as they "are likely to have significant environmental effects" and "set the framework for future development consent" in relevant sectors.
If these plans are no longer considered to be caught by the Directive, other less obvious ones - particularly those prepared by the privatised utilities - may also be let off the hook. Most observers expected the list to be lengthened rather than shortened.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which led work on the new document, explained that water resource plans were removed because discussions are still ongoing about whether they are covered. The decision was taken to remove them rather than hold up publication of the guidance, and they may well return to the list at a later date.
Revisions to England's national waste strategy have been removed from the list, but several related plans are now listed - including municipal waste strategies, waste local plans and national planning policy statements such as PPS10. The Scottish national waste plan is also on the list.
Stephen Jay of Sheffield Hallam University was surprised by the omissions, but warned organisations not to be complacent.
"If the clarification doesn't come from government, then it will be through the courts," he said. "[The removal of the plans] is a red rag to a bull - it opens the door for third parties to launch legal challenges to get them assessed. A lot of this is going to be decided through legal challenge."
But SEA expert Riki Therivel is not too worried by the changes and explained that just because a plan is not on the list it does not mean that it is not covered by the Directive. "The list just helps people get a feel for whether SEA is required of them," she said. "If they are in any doubt, they should seek legal advice."
Other changes are aimed at improving the assessment process. The guidance offers more advice on how to develop and refine alternatives in the plans and how to assess effects, introducing a more iterative process. It also clarifies details on monitoring and includes more guidance on what data to use in baseline assessments.
The ODPM will release further guidance on sustainability appraisal (SA) and its relationship to SEA in the coming weeks.
The Government's decision to subsume SEA into the sustainability appraisal process in the case of land use and spatial plans in England last year was opposed in some quarters - partly because SA is considered a more shallow process but also because of concerns that it opens the door for environmental issues to be traded off against social and economic factors.
ENDS understands that the forthcoming SA guidance will draw strongly on the revised SEA guidance to head off these criticisms.
Scottish templates: Scotland has adopted a more ambitious approach to implementing the SEA Directive. The Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Bill, introduced to the Scottish Parliament in March, will require the assessment of a far wider range of plans and programmes than south of the border (ENDS Report 365, pp 37-38).
In October, the Executive published a series of templates to assist organisations in carrying out assessments. While the Executive lent its name to the revised UK-wide guidance, it also plans to produce its own detailed guidance next year which will include refined versions of the templates.
The templates are designed to hold organisations' hands through each stage of the strategic environmental assessment process, highlighting the sort of information to be included and the level of detail expected.
Each template sets out the activities to be conducted at each stage and identifies the purpose and best practice to meet legal requirements.