Appropriate Assessment is an ecological assessment focused on how a plan or project may impact Natura 2000 sites. The EU Habitats Directive requires where a plan or project is likely to have a significant impact or potential to impact designated Natura 2000 sites they must be screened for Appropriate Assessment.
Natura 2000 is 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. It stretches across all 28 EU countries, both on land and at sea. The aim of the network is to ensure the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats, listed under both the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive.
Appropriate Assessment is referred to in Articles 6(3) and 6(4) of the EU Habitats Directive:
Article 6(3) of the EU Habitats Directive (Directive 92/43/EEC)
‘Any plan or project not directly connected with or necessary to the management of the site but likely to have a significant effect thereon, either individually or in combination with other plans or projects, shall be subject to appropriate assessment of its implications for the site in view of the site’s conservation objectives. In the light of the conclusions of the assessment of the implications for the site and subject to the provisions of Paragraph 4 of the Directive, the competent national authorities shall agree to the plan or project only after having ascertained that it will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned and, if appropriate, after having obtained the opinion of the general public.’
Article 6(4) of the Habitats Directive
‘If, in spite of a negative assessment of the implications for the site and in the absence of alternative solutions, a plan or project must nevertheless be carried out for imperative reasons of overriding public interest, including those of social or economic nature, the Member State shall take all compensatory measures necessary to ensure that the overall coherence of Natura 2000 is protected. It shall inform the Commission of the compensatory measures adopted.’
There are four stages of Appropriate Assessment:
Stage 1 – Screening Appropriate Assessment
Screening determines whether appropriate assessment is necessary by examining: 1) whether a plan or project can be excluded from AA requirements because it is directly connected with or necessary to the management of the site, and 2) the potential effects of a project or plan, either alone or in combination with other projects or plans, on a Natura 2000 site in view of its conservation objectives, and considering whether these effects will be significant. Screening is an iterative process that involves consideration of the plan or project and its likely effects, and of the Natura 2000 sites and their ecological sensitivities, and the likely interaction between these. These and other ecological issues should always be taken into account at the earliest possible stage in the planning, design or preparation process so that any constraints are identified and can be taken into consideration, and delays and negative outcomes can be avoided insofar as is possible. Specialist ecological input and advice is recommended in undertaking the various elements of screening.
Stage 2 – Natura Impact Statement
The impact of a project or plan alone and in combination with other projects or plans on the integrity of the Natura 2000 site is considered with respect to the conservation objectives of the site and to its structure and function.
Stage 3 – Assessment of Alternative solutions
This stage examines alternative ways of implementing a project or plan that, where possible, avoids any adverse impacts on the integrity of a Natura 2000 site. Before a project or plan that either alone or in combination with other projects or plans has adverse effects on a Natura 2000 site can proceed for imperative reasons of overriding public interest, it must be objectively concluded that no less-damaging alternative solutions exist. Therefore, this stage becomes critical if it appears that derogation procedures may need to be pursued.
Stage 4 – Imperative reasons of overriding public interest (IROPI)
In the absence of alternative solutions, or if alternative solutions are likely to have even more negative environmental effects on the site concerned with regard to its conservation objectives, or if a better solution is identified that will reduce but not avoid an impact on the site, the competent authority must establish whether or not the plan or project can be considered to be necessary for imperative reasons of overriding public interest (IROPI). These include, as a general protection measure, the need to have reasons of a social or economic nature that critically require the realisation of the plan or project in question. In the case of sites where priority habitats (or species) are affected, the protection mechanism is stricter, and the only IROPI reasons that may be raised are those relating to human health, public safety or beneficial consequences of primary importance to the environment. In the case of other IROPI that may need to be raised, the opinion of the European Commission must first be obtained, thereby introducing the additional safeguard of independent appraisal by the Commission.