Consultation on river basin planning in Scotland

Preparations for the drafting of the first river basin management plans under the EU water framework Directive moved ahead in Scotland at the end of April with a consultation paper from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.1 The thorniest issue is how to achieve effective integration between river basin plans and other bodies' land use plans.

The proposals maintain Scotland's lead in developing the practical arrangements for implementing the water framework Directive. A major consultation on controls on activities affecting the water environment was launched by the Scottish Executive in April, well ahead of the rest of the UK (ENDS Report 351, pp 46-48 ).

The Directive requires river basin management plans (RBMPs) to be in place by 2009. The requirement is to be met by a single plan for the whole of Scotland apart from two small cross-border areas, but there will also be additional "sub-basin" plans for particular catchments or smaller areas or specific water management issues.

Under the Water Environment and Water Services (Scotland) Act 2003, each river basin district must have "one or more" advisory groups whose numbers, membership and remit are to be decided by SEPA.

This is one of the three issues addressed by the new consultation. SEPA is proposing a national advisory group to provide strategic direction, guidance and oversight in the preparation of RBMPs, supported by a network of area advisory groups.

Four options for this network are put forward in the paper. However, the Agency's preference is for eight area groups embracing complete surface water catchments, aligned with existing coastal management processes and, perhaps most important, with boundaries aligned as far as possible with those of local authorities to facilitate the integration of river basin plans and sub-plans with local development plans.

SEPA wants the advisory groups to be put in place during 2005/06. Their responsibilities will be considerable - including the development of "programmes of measures" needed to meet the Directive's environmental objectives within their areas, delivery of the Directive's public consultation and participation requirements, and deciding on the need for sub-basin plans.

Ensuring that land use and other plans are consistent with the requirements of the Directive will be a major challenge, and the 2003 Act provides a starting-point by requiring all public authorities to have regard to the RBMP in carrying out their functions. SEPA and other authorities must also co-operate "with a view to co-ordinating the exercise of their respective functions".

Effective co-operation with planning authorities will be particularly important, but the consultation paper does not really confront the potential obstacles to achieving the Directive's environmental objectives in existing development plans.

Developers and public authorities may have based investment decisions on such plans, it notes, "and where these are consistent with the requirements of the water framework Directive, they will need to be accommodated in the policies and measures of the RBMP." What happens when there is inconsistency is not explained.

The RBMP will also inform new and amended development plans, and will be a material consideration in planning decisions, giving SEPA some formal leverage over planning authorities. The Scottish Executive has also recently proposed that it should be given an explicit duty to participate in the preparation of development plans, further extending its influence over land use.

SEPA hopes that it will be possible to resolve competing priorities by partnership working in its new advisory groups, on which local authorities will be represented. But it has also proposed the formation of a group of key stakeholders to advise the Executive on the need for guidance to planning authorities on the interaction between RBMPs and development plans.

The Directive also provides for public participation in the river basin planning process. SEPA intends to issue a participation and communication plan by the end of 2006.

To add further complexity, RBMPs will be subject to the 2001 Directive on strategic environmental assessment, which has its own provisions on public consultation. SEPA has proposed, so far in general terms, that some of the two regimes' consultations could be combined to avoid duplication and provide an early opportunity for public discussion of the environmental effects of RBMPs.

SEPA itself is expected to be a statutory consultee under the 2001 Directive, giving it another means of promoting integration between RBMPs and plans and programmes prepared by other authorities.

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