Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is a tool that allows decision makers to understand the impact of their plan or programme on the environment and how they can avoid or reduce any negative environmental effects whilst maximising the opportunities presented by the natural environment.

SEA is a legal requirement under European (SEA Directive 2001/42/EC) and UK law that requires certain public plans and programmes having potentially significant environmental effects to be examined in detail using the SEA process.

SEA can help to answer the following policy questions:

  • What are the likely and most important environmental effects, good and bad, of my plan or programme?
  • What do the public and other stakeholders think of the environmental effects of my plan or programme?
  • How can I reduce negative environmental effects?
  • How can I make the most of the benefits provided by the natural environment?

What is Strategic Environmental Assessment?

The diagram in the SEA full guidance document runs through the SEA process and includes the key questions and challenges the SEA can tackle with respect to the consideration of ecosystem services.

Case study - Scotland's Wild Deer Strategy

The strategy provided a long term vision for the effective management of wild deer across Scotland. The SEA process facilitated many elements of this, in particular providing a medium for cross-departmental and agency engagement. The SEA also sought to provide the opportunity to consider pertinent long term drivers and challenges.

The top three drivers (climate change, land use change and public perception change) based on a combination of their importance and predictability were then subject to network (causal chain) analysis involving experts and stakeholders views. The completed causal chains provide a systematic and transparent means of understanding better how the Strategy might be implemented and also what the likely impact on the ground may be (the image below depicts the influences and impacts resulting from climate change).

This process aided the identification and assessment of the potential environmental effects of the strategy as well as identifying various alternative management options whilst retaining its integrity as a strategic plan.

Added value of the Ecosystem Approach

  • Ecosystem services reveal the multiple benefits we receive from the environment and applying this to SEA is a more accurate and effective way of understanding environmental impacts enhancing the potential to deliver more integrated and valuable outcomes.
  • Ecosystem services reverse the idea that the environment is a constraint to development and instead recognises it as an asset. It allows consideration of how the environment supports delivery of a plan or programme and how the plan or programme can support this.
  • Ecosystem services are part of the policy landscape, therefore an effective review of relevant plans, policies and strategies at the initial scoping stage should include policies and tools that are based on ecosystem services.
  • The Ecosystem Services Framework is an integrating concept that can support assessment of cumulative effects. SEA supports the consideration of inter-relationships between topics.
  • Ecosystem services incorporates resilience and risk reduction by ensuring a properly functioning natural environment, e.g. flood risk management plans rely on the storage capacity of green spaces. 

The wider use of the SEA tool

  • When? Any policy, plan or programme will benefit from an SEA approach whether required by law or not.
  • Why? Ecosystem services are an important resource in any location and the benefits gained from ensuring they are maintained and enhanced are significant.
  • How? An SEA is already used to assess the environment of an area so the Ecosystem Approach will simply be an extension of the process to understand these services.
  • Who? Developers, authorities, stakeholders and consultants are all be involved in the process.
  • Where? In any circumstance where there is need for a policy or plan intervention.

The following principles of the Ecosystem Approach are evident (light green) or significant (dark green) within this tool: