In June and July last year I looked into the legal and regulatory grey area in which the Streets Ahead programme operates. The next logical step after looking into the regulatory context is to review the early stages of the programme, starting with the assessments. This might seem late in the day or an oblique line of reasoning, but the environmental assessment process is fundamental to the later stages of a project: it sets the tone for the project, identifying the type and extent of works required and frames the standards of work that are expected. Whilst it is tragic that so many healthy, beautiful and useful street trees can be felled legally, the process within which Streets Ahead is being carried out is so obscure that careful analysis of the original documents and practices is essential to finding out how it was decided to fell so many trees.
Looking into the environmental assessments was a difficult process: whilst some isolated examples have been published, the combined assessments have not, so I submitted a Freedom of Information request to see them in the autumn last year. The FOI was answered just before Christmas: reading them was no small undertaking: in total, the FOI response was over 2,000 pages long, including large scale A1 and A0 format plans.
Regulatory context: a recap
The first thing to note is that because the Streets Ahead programme sits within the regulatory framework of the Highways Act of 1980, the works are not considered to be Development. Because the work is not considered ‘Development’, the scheme is not subject to the National Planning Policy Framework and National Planning Practice Guidance, meaning that it cannot qualify for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and in turn, the usual tools that landscape architects use to assess projects are not formally required: our standard approach for significant urban landscape projects is use the GLVIA to carry out a townscape assessment as part of a wider EIA. In this case, because EIA does not apply, neither is a Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment (LVIA) is required. As a further complication, this grey area also sits outside the guidance and Technical Information Notes that are published by the Landscape Institute, meaning that consultants who carry out these types of highways projects have to develop their own methodology to assess environmental impacts.
What are the Environmental Scoping Assessments?
As a result of highway trees sitting in a regulatory grey area, Amey developed a process to identify the nature and scope of the works that Streets Ahead would entail, and then identify the potential environmental impacts of these works and any mitigation that might be necessary as a result, including any statutory processes that might be involved: these assessments were named the Environmental Scoping Assessments (ESA). The ESAs are typically about 20-25 pages long and were carried out in 111 zones within Sheffield where the Streets Ahead programme would be delivered (the codes for the zones run from A01 – A27 and B01- B81). Each ESA has chapters similar to those you might expect in an EIA, covering appropriate topics such as Landscape and ranging from Air Quality to Energy and Lighting.
In the absence of guidance or Technical Information Notes, the reasonable process would be to follow the methodology set out in GLVIA and adapt it to suit the scale of the project. For a project such as Streets Ahead, one might expect this to start with an overview of the project, setting out the rationale for how the zones were described and the aims of the project, and then for each zone, carry out an assessment of the baseline landscape character, describe the proposed works and then review the degree of fit between the proposals and the landscape character before identifying suitable design strategies to avoid, reduce or mitigate the adverse impacts. Amey’s approach was slightly different, and I will set out an overview of the chapters and my comments on the process below.
The writing and checking process
Looking at the title box for each ESA, it appears that the ESAs were prepared by a Graduate Environmentalist, before being checked by Assistant Environmentalist, and then received by Project Manager who authorised the work. This checking process is standard practice but the issue to note here is that it appears that the specialist chapters were all authored by junior staff with generalist skills- granted, the ESAs were all approved by more senior or experienced staff but this does raise a question of whether suitably qualified professionals were tasked with carrying the assessments out.
Each ESA is made up of eleven assessment chapters, plus an Appendix that shows the extent of the works in a drawing. The chapters cover Air quality, Archaeology and cultural heritage, Landscape, Ecology and conservation, Geology, soils and contaminated land, Materials use, Noise and vibration, Effects on all travellers, Effects on the community and private assets, Drainage and the water environment, and Energy and lighting. The formula for each chapter is to set out the Methodology of the assessment, the Baseline Conditions, Key construction activities, Temporary effects, Permanent effects, Control measures or mitigation required and then identify whether further assessment was required.
If we look at the Landscape chapters in these assessments, part of the issue is that many of the component parts of ‘landscape’ (such as the soils, the hydrology, the plants, the surfaces, the interaction between buildings) are mentioned in other chapters. For example, the ‘Ecology and Nature Conservation’ chapter typically describes the nearby habitats and designated landscapes and as such, it feels like the landscape chapters are thin on information. It is easy to understand why the authors would want to avoid duplicating information between chapters but I’m not convinced avoiding duplication is the reason (there are many examples of typos throughout the ESAs where text has been cut and pasted, suggesting that the work was relatively formulaic and repetitive). It is also worth noting that the assessments were carried out over a four year period, from 2012-16 and that whilst the basic structure of the ESAs is uniform, there are notable differences between the ESAs in a range of issues from simple things such as typefaces to more structural items. Whilst a degree of change is expected for assessments that were written over a period of four years, it is a little surprising to see variation in the description of the statutory processes in something so formulaic.
I have summarised the type of information contained within each stage of the landscape chapters below.
The research for the Landscape chapters was carried out using Googlemaps & Magic: site visits were not generally carried out (or if they were, then they were not described). In only one instance was a site visit carried out (Hackenthorpe B74, carried out in 2013), where an Amey design engineer and arboriculturist identified 10 trees that ‘required permanent removal’ – but note that this site visit did not cover the wider streetscape or landscape. Some assessments identify that a site visit would be required but in each of these cases, it states that the site visit should not carried out by the Environmental Team. At this point, I think it is reasonable to ask, why not? And most importantly, is Googlemaps and Magic sufficiently informative to allow a reasonable landscape or townscape assessment to be carried out?
The Baseline conditions sections tend not to give a useful description of the landscape or townscape. Much of the contents of these sections would more appropriately be in the Project description / location to avoid duplication: a typical entry (such as Hallow Moor / B09) reads “The Hallow More zone encompasses the suburbs of Hallow More, Wadsley and Loxley… The suburb of Hillsborough is located directly east of the zone. Hillsborough is one of the larger Sheffield suburbs, featuring multiple commercial buildings and residential properties.” Other parts of this description of the baseline conditions should be in the statutory designations section: “The B09 Hallow Moor zone is not located within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)… The zone is not located within a National Park.”
Other assessments, such as High Green (B12) are especially cursory, with the landscape character never even referred to. None of the baseline conditions for any of the chapters discuss any of the vegetation within the zone, prompting the question of how it was possible to assess what works were required in later stages of the assessment? Vegetation (including tree species) are not even referred to in the Ecology / Nature Conservation chapters. Further, in none of the landscape chapters is there any mention of townscape character, open spaces, relationship between buildings, landscape materials, legibility, dimensions of access routes, quality of surfaces, proximity to areas which would generate high use (footfall, traffic, public transport etc) and would need especially good visibility, tranquility or perception.
It is hard to see what the landscape assessments contribute to the ESAs, other than identifying whether or not an area is within a National Park, AONB or Conservation Area. They do not describe the key elements and characteristics of the landscape, nor do they identify landscape or visual receptors, and nor do they offer a snapshot in time against which future developments can be assessed.
The Temporary effects sections typically describe the presence of contractor teams during the works. A typical example is in the ESA for the City South area (A12), which states “There may be a temporary visual impact resulting from the presence of plant, machinery and traffic management in the works vicinity during the construction period only. Materials and waste may be temporarily stored within the works areas causing temporary visual impacts within the zone. Temporary road closure/diversion signs will be erected during the construction period causing temporary visual impacts within the zone.” There is no mention, in any of the assessments, the 50 year establishment period for urban trees.
The Permanent effects sections are similarly brief. The assessment for Sharrow Vale (B42) states that “The majority of works within the B42 Sharrow Vale zone will result in aesthetic improvements due to the proposed highway network being improved as a result of the proposed works.” In none of the ESAs is there ever a reference to the fact that many of the avenues will see striking changes to the species composition. Much of the text is euphemistic, using phrases such as “Vegetation clearance” or “Tree removal” (Upperthorpe -B36) to describe a complex decision making-process of pruning, felling or replanting. Perhaps most strikingly, none of the ESAs even hint of the cumulative impact that major changes to the streetscape might have.
Control measures / Mitigation
A typical description of appropriate control measures or mitigation would be that carried out in Totley (A05), where the sum of all necessary or possible works was described as “Limit the duration that plant, machinery, vehicles and materials are stored on site. Vegetation clearance / trimming should be kept to a minimum. Removal of trees should be kept to a minimum. Where removal is required all mature trees should be checked for their potential for bats by a competent ecologist or arboriculturist. Any trees removed should be replaced to ensure no net loss. Replacement may occur at different, more appropriate locations. Any vegetation clearance/trimming or tree removal should be undertaken outside of the bird nesting season.”
Similarly, the measures proposed for Ecclesfield (B15) were to “Limit the duration that plant, machinery, vehicles and materials are stored on site. Any trees removed should be replaced to ensure no net loss. Replacement of trees may occur at different locations if appropriate. Any vegetation clearance/removal or tree removal should be undertaken outside bird nesting season. The removal of trees should be kept to a minimum. Where removal is required all mature trees should be checked for their potential for bats.”
In none of the ESAs were matrices used as they are in LVIAs to assess the scale of impact or make an assessment of significance, suggesting that this formulaic set of measures have little understanding of the unique qualities of each zone. As such, opportunities to reduce the impacts or find innovative solutions were routinely missed in the assessments (e.g. where would it be possible to integrate SuDS systems?), and hence from later stages, meaning that opportunities to explore design improvements are limited or at least harder to integrate into the budgets / phasing.
It should also be noted that felling trees outside of bird nesting season was a measure that was frequently proposed; given that the bird nesting season is generally considered to run from February till August, or at the very least from 1st March to 31st July, it would be reasonable to ask Amey to what extent the recommendations in these sections are being followed by their own contractors.
Any further assessment required?
Each chapter concludes with an tick box asking whether any further assessment is required. Of the 111 zones, only 6% (7 in total) were identified as requiring further landscape assessment: Ewden (B01), Bradfield Vale (B05), Chapeltown North (B13), Longley (B18), Broomfield (B39), Fuelwood (B44), and Woodhouse (B72).
At this stage, I think a number of questions need to be raised regarding the methodologies and detail of the assessments, starting with who actually carried out the assessments and whether they were suitably qualified. If specialists were involved in the assessments, it would be useful to know which professions were involved for each chapter- Amey has a wide range of disciplines within its organisation so it should not have been difficult for them from a resource perspective. In a similar vein, it would be useful to see the brief for these assessments: did they place priorities on cost efficiencies or townscape character, for example? And further, it would be interesting to know what the Quality Management System was / is for this project and whether these assessments were reviewed by SCC before works on the ground were carried out. I noted in the previous post that the result of these assessments seems to be have been known by David Caulfield (see paragraph 47 of the Dillner judgment): there must have been some degree of coordination between Amey Hallam Plc and SCC and this needs to be explored.
In terms of the works being carried out at the moment, we need to know whether works have been carried out during bird breeding seasons and if so, whether licences have been granted for this work- if not, then Amey Hallam Plc will be in breach of environmental legislation. A full description of the records of replacement trees that have been ordered, as well as full plans for proposed kerb and pavement works should be assessed to identify how the guidance in the Streets Ahead 5 Year Tree Management Strategy has been interpreted. For example, Taxus baccata was identified as an appropriate species in some locations: how often has this been specified and where? To see how the replacement planting is being carried out, there is an excellent study by Dr Jan Woudstra on the STAG website.
Reading through the ESAs, the overwhelming impression of the landscape chapters is that the assessments were not carried out in sufficient detail: almost every stage of each ESA, from the baseline assessment to the design mitigation was carried out a desktop level with little analysis of what makes each zone different, with no unique proposals for each zone, a striking finding given Sheffield’s rich and varied urban fabric. It is not for me to assess other chapters but my impression is that the same analysis applies throughout, and it would be interesting to see thorough analyses by professionals working in the relevant fields.
In the meantime, there is a strong case to ask for guidance from the Landscape Institute on landscape assessments that do not fall within the GLVIA framework. The LI publishes a number of very useful Technical Information Notes and current guidancenotes that “GLVIA guidelines are available for all to use without restriction; one does not need to be a Chartered Landscape Professional to undertake an LVIA although Landscape Professionals are likely to be the best versed in their application.” However, this case has shown that specialist experience is valuable and can make a significant difference to the scope and delivery of a project- to prevent this situation occurring in other towns and cities, our guidance for best practice needs to be developed.
Perhaps the most striking finding from reading the ESAs is the confirmation that regulatory framework for highways does not afford sufficient protection to urban forests: urban forests are substantially more than the sum of their parts and need to be designated as such. Rural woodlands have a range of designations that can be applied, and these should be the starting point for assessing what measures are appropriate for urban forests. A sad aspect to this case is the reaction of some senior landscape architects that I have spoken to when seeking guidance on these issues, who have said “it’s complicated.” In truth, the situation is not particularly complicated, it just sits in a grey area outside of the regulatory protections, and this loophole needs urgent attention.