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What is a “plan or programme” under the SEA Directive? It’s the legal basis of development consent

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What is a “plan or programme” under the SEA Directive? It’s the legal basis of development consent

05.04.2018

For the 2017 yearbook TeRecht, published by Larcier, Guan Schaiko and Stefanie François elaborate on the concept “plans and programmes” under the SEA Directive.

[Also available in Dutch and French]

They examine in a methodical way the preparatory works of the SEA Directive in order to subsequently subject the case-law of the Court of Justice to a critical analysis. From their research, it appears, among other things, that the concept of “plan or programme” under the SEA Directive must be understood as the “legal basis” of development consent.

Legal uncertainty in regard to the concept of “plans and programmes”

Just as Olivier di Giacomo and Renaud Smal have already demonstrated in their earlier blogs, there is a lot of legal uncertainty about the concept of plans and programmes under the SEA Directive.

For the 2017 yearbook TeRecht, published by Larcier, Guan Schaiko and Stefanie François have thoroughly analyzed that concept. Furthermore, they examined in a methodical way the legislative preparatory works of the SEA Directive. Their research contains several important conclusions.

Objective of the Directive

The implementation of the SEA Directive served, as is apparent from the legislative preparatory works, a dual purpose: (i) integrate the environmental effects at an early stage of the decision-making process with regard to development consent of projects and (ii) offer more certainty to the initiators of such project.

Results of the research

The legal uncertainty that exists around the concept of “plans and programs” is not to be blamed only on the careless drafting of the SEA Directive by the EU legislator. The sometimes rather incoherent interpretation of the SEA Directive by the Court of Justice also contributed to that effect. Moreover, the Court dares to sometimes contradict the wording of the SEA Directive and the will of the EU legislator:

  • according to the Court, optional plans and programmes also fall within the scope of the SEA Directive, while Article 2(a) of the Directive expressly states that it must concern plans and programmes that are “required” (French: “exigés”, Dutch: “voorgeschreven”) by statutory or regulatory provisions. This is also confirmed in the legislative preparatory works. In addition, the mandatory or non-mandatory nature of the authority’s decision in question should be assessed in light of the intention that is served with the authority’s decision, namely the creation of the possibility (and not merely the regulation) of future development consents. The condition of Article 2(a) of the SEA Directive therefore concerns the question whether the authority’s action in question is necessary for future development consent;
  • the most important criterion that the Court currently uses to establish whether an authority’s decision qualifies as a plan or programme in the sense of the SEA Directive is the question whether or not the concerned governmental decision can have significant environmental effects. This evolution in case-law detracts from the system that is set out in Articles 2 and 3 of the SEA Directive;
  • only governmental decisions that satisfy the specific formal conditions that are presented in Article 2(a) of the SEA Directive qualify as plan or programme in the sense of the Directive. The exact wording of these formal conditions was amended a few times throughout the parliamentary procedure, but the essence always remained the same: it must concern governmental decisions (according to the wording of the Directive: “plans and programmes”) that:
    • are adopted by a formal procedure (according to the wording of the Directive: “which are subject to preparation and/or adoption by an authority at national, regional, or local level, or which are prepared by an authority for adoption, through a legislative procedure by Parliament or Government”);
    • must be adopted mandatorily (according to the wording of the Directive: “which are required by legislative, regulatory or administrative provisions”);
    • aim to create a framework for future development consent of projects (according to the wording of the Directive: “which set the framework for future development consent of projects”). This requirement was not retained, however, in the “definition” of Article 2(a) of the final version of the SEA Directive, but it was added to Article 3(2)(a) and Article 4. The latter Articles however do not concern the definition of “plans and programmes” but concern the scope of the obligation to conduct an SEA.

These formal conditions, clearly show the EU legislator’s intention when drafting the Directive: the notion “plan or programme” refers to the “legal basis” for development consent, i.e., the provisions of domestic law that empowers the competent authority to give its development consent. Or, in the words of the EU legislature: “formal plans and programmes, that is, those subject to adoption by a competent authority or those adopted by an act of legislation for the purpose of setting the framework for subsequent development consent decisions.” Therefore, the notion of “plans and programmes” does not refer to every legal or regulatory framework that a competent authority has to take into account when assessing an application, but only the governmental decisions that are required for making development consent possible, i.e. the legal basis of such development consent.

Conclusion

From the research conducted, it therefore appears that the objective of the EU legislature remains underexposed in the case-law of the Court of Justice. We hope that the research conducted encourages case-law, academics, and the Court to devote more attention to the actual intention of the EU legislator and to the explicit wording of the SEA Directive instead of the purely teleological interpretation of the SEA Directive.

Team

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