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Strategic Environmental Assessments — A Holistic Approach to Urban Sustainability

Strategic Environmental Assessments — A Holistic Approach to Urban Sustainability

Eric Bea

Year 3, LLB

National University of Singapore


Amongst environmental lawyers in Singapore, the need for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process for major developments is well-accepted, and there has been calls for the EIA process to be put on a statutory footing such that important elements of the EIA process such as public consultations and access to EIA reports become a mainstream and regular process.

However, with the rise of regional development master plans such as those for the Tengah New Town and Jurong Lake District, there is a need to consider all environmental and social issues in a holistic process, in order to truly attain the ideal of sustainable development.

Such a process already exists in some countries, known as the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). SEAs can be carried out on two levels: either a sectoral-type SEA (eg. a land transport master plan, energy production master plan, etc.) or a regional-type SEA (ie. a district, city, or other geographical area, including inter-national areas). The SEA process engages the public in decision-making processes which affect them, and this public participation, together with the precautionary principle, is recognised as a key element of sustainable development.

Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states:

“environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level.  At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities… and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes.”

Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration further states:

“In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities.  Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

This article will focus on the regional-type SEA as practiced in Scotland, and explore the possibility of introducing the SEA process into Singapore.

To illustrate the difference between the EIA and SEA, these are the key points differentiating the two:

Aspects of the assessmentSEAEIA
Stage in the processTakes place at earlier stages of the decision making process: aims to prevent impactsTakes place at the project level: aims to minimize impacts
Proactive or reactiveProactive approach to development of proposalsReactive approach to development of proposals
Consideration of alternativesConsiders broad range of potential alternativesConsiders limited number of feasible alternatives
Cumulative impactsEarly warning of cumulative effectsLimited review of cumulative effects
Area of emphasisEmphasis on meeting objectives and maintaining systemsEmphasis on mitigating and minimizing impacts
Breadth of perspectiveBroader perspective and lower level of details to provide a vision and overall frameworkNarrower perspective and higher level of details
ProcessMultistage process, continuing and iterative, with overlapping componentsWelldefined process, clear beginning and end
Area of focusFocuses on sustainability agenda and sources of environmental deteriorationFocuses on standard agenda and symptoms of environmental deterioration


Scotland, being a component home nation of the United Kingdom (UK), which is (for now) a member of the European Union (EU), is subject to the EU Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive, which seeks to integrate “environmental considerations into the preparation and adoption of plans and programmes with a view to promoting sustainable development, by ensuring that, in accordance with this Directive, an environmental assessment is carried out of certain plans and programmes which are likely to have significant effects on the environment.”

Pursuant to the Directive, the Scottish Parliament enacted the Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Act 2005 (EASA) which sets out the requirements for SEAs. (The Scottish legislation describes SEAs as “environmental assessments”. This is not to be confused with an EIA, which are regulated by the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) (Scotland) Regulations 2011.) In general, most national, regional, or local development plans require an SEA, unless they relate solely to national defence or civil emergency plans, or financial or budgetary plans.  Local and regional development plans are decentralised to the 32 local authority councils in Scotland which are elected in their own right, and thus have a direct mandate from local residents to plan, direct, and manage their own affairs, including local and regional developments.

The SEA report requirements are fairly comprehensive, with a statutory list of environmental and social concerns which must be covered by the SEA report, including:

  • biodiversity;
  • population;
  • human health;
  • fauna and flora;
  • soil;
  • water;
  • air;
  • climatic factors (climate change response);
  • material assets;
  • cultural heritage, including architectural and archaeological heritage; and
  • landscape.

The local authority council is required to open the local development plan, and the SEA report, to public consultation. Additionally, the council is required to notify the public of the publication of the local development plan, and the SEA report, by advertising a notice in at least one newspaper circulating in the relevant area, or other such means as to ensure that the notice is likely to come to the attention of the people affected / interested by the development plan. In addition, the local authority council is required to upload the report on its own website.

After the consultation period, the local authority council is required to consider the responses to the local development plan, and the SEA report (including any responses to that). It will then compile a finalised local development plan, taking into consideration all of the above and repeating the publication process in the same way as per the public consultation stage.

The entire process is overseen by the SEA consultation authorities — the Scottish Ministers (ie the Scottish Government), Scottish Natural Heritage, and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency.  They receive and review the reports and advise the local authority council on the SEA process and report. At the end of the process, the local authority council is required to monitor any significant environmental effects, and take remedial action where necessary.

As can be seen, the SEA process in Scotland goes beyond the traditional “brown” and “blue & green” environmental issues to take into account the social impacts of the masterplan. The holistic framework ensures that a comprehensive stocktake of the natural and human geography in the local area is considered, and that local views are taken into account. The SEA process also allows various stakeholders to resolve any sensitive issues at an early stage such that the local authority council is able to redesign its plan before committing to any project within.


Unlike Scotland, there is no EIA or SEA legislation in Singapore; therefore, no statutory framework exists to guide the development of regional plans. The Master Plan of Singapore is a statutory requirement of the Planning Act, and which must be reviewed every 5 years, pursuant to s 8 of the Act. It must be acknowledged that the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has in fact conducted some form of public consultation through various channels such as exhibitions, focus group discussions, and public forums.

A case in point is the recently concluded Jurong Lake District (JLD) master plan exhibition, where the public was able to voice their opinions to URA to consider.  However, this comes after the projects in JLD have been plotted, such as the new Science Centre, and the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High Speed Rail (HSR) terminus. The consultation process is also a relatively short 2 weeks, only one of which will be in the JLD area itself (the other being at URA’s office in Maxwell).  While the SEA process is not meant to challenge or undo these planned projects, the public consultation should have been introduced at an earlier stage to allow the public to give timely feedback such that the various projects can be improved to serve their target audience better.

More interesting is the Tengah New Town development. This involves the redevelopment of the Tengah area, which is currently mostly forest and scrubland, into a new public housing estate, under the direction of the Housing Development Board. A key concern amongst nature conservationists is that it sits on a key eco-corridor linking the Western Catchment Area (which houses rare local wildlife such as the pangolin and the leopard cat) to nature reserves in the Central Catchment area. While a forest corridor will be created to maintain the link between the two wildlife catchment areas, there will still need to be a wildlife shepherding process to ensure that the wildlife is evacuated to the two catchment areas to allow the Tengah development to proceed.

Which brings us to an interesting question: could the 42,000 homes slated for Tengah not be integrated into JLD instead, promoting a transit-oriented lifestyle hub centered around the Jurong East MRT/bus interchange and the HSR station? By creating residential developments within what is meant to be the second business district, rather than adjacent to it, it would reduce, if not obviate, the need to commute in and out of the business district. The Tengah forest area could also have been left as-is as well.

Already, there are concerns that the JLD will suffer from a glut of office space — could this have been developed into model public housing along the lines of The [email protected], providing the critical mass of people needed to keep the JLD alive after-hours? (That being said, it must also be taken into account that there will indeed be residential developments in the HSR terminus area, to the tune of 20,000 homes — but this is likely to be privately developed. This does not even take into account the land available from the vacation of the Science Centre from its existing location when it moves to the new location.)

Singapore has committed itself to sustainable development through the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint (SSB). The SSB itself encourages civic participation, and seeks to inspire Singaporeans to play a part in building a liveable and sustainable Singapore.

At the end of the day, deference must be given to the Executive to implement policies that benefit the people. It has a mandate to govern, and that should always be respected. Singapore’s governance model is based on “consensus, not conflict”. It is submitted that the SEA process, being an upstream process, would allow for more consensus in decision-making in land use planning in Singapore, by bringing the public on board at an earlier stage to allow deconflicting of the positions of various stakeholders in society.

While Singapore is already adopting parts of the SEA process, it needs to be put on firmer footing with a more structured process laid out in legislation. It would also provide for a common reference point as to the various environmental and social factors that need to be taken into account. With the upcoming developments of the North Coast, and Southern Waterfront being developed, it would be a good idea to have a comprehensive and holistic assessment of these regional development strategies through a complete SEA process, allowing for all positive and negative impacts to be brought to the table for consideration by the public. Being coastal developments, we should ensure that the developments do not cause knock-on damage to coastal habitats, amongst others.

At the end of the day, we need to make sure we do what is right. There must be safeguards to ensure that all options are considered and that we choose the most sustainable option. After all, “if we pollute the air, water and soil that keep us alive and well, and destroy the biodiversity that allows natural systems to function, no amount of money will save us.”