3. Identifying alternatives

The first assessment of a strategic action is typically an assessment and comparison of various alternatives to the strategic action.  The next two pages discuss alternatives assessment, starting with the question of what alternatives should be assessed.

Assessment of alternatives: the 'heart' of SEA

The assessment of alternatives (also called options) has been called the 'heart' of the assessment process.  Developing and comparing alternatives allows the decision-maker to determine how to achieve the strategic action's objectives at the lowest (social/environmental/economic) cost and greatest benefit: it basically asks "is this the best strategic action that we can get?". 

The role of SEA is to help identify the preferred alternative, and help ensure that this is as sustainable and environmentally sound as possible.  Clearly, the assessment of alternatives should be carried out as the alternatives are actually being considered and not near the end of the plan-making process.  It is not possible to 'retrofit' an assessment of alternatives, and 'making up' alternatives near the end of the plan-making process does not fulfil the purpose of this stage.

Because of its important role, the development and assessment of alternatives is a prominent step in most SEA systems. For instance, the EC Directive on SEA requires that:

  • "an environmental report shall be prepared in which the likely significant effects on the environment of implementing the plan or programme, and reasonable alternatives... are identified, described and evaluated" (Article 5.1);
  • the environmental report must include "an outline of the reasons for selecting the alternatives dealt with" (Annex I); and
  • a statement must be prepared after the strategic action is adopted, which explains, inter alia, "the reasons for choosing the plan or programme as adopted, in the light of the other reasonable alternatives" (Article 9.1b). (our italics)

Identifying 'reasonable' alternatives

Although identifying alternatives is not strictly part of the SEA process, by default it often becomes so. Planners often think about and discard alternatives withough documenting their thought process. SEA can help not only to identify more sustainable alternatives, but also to document the decision-making process. But notice the term "reasonable" in the SEA Directive: What is a "reasonable" alternative for consideration in SEA?

To get a feeling for what alternatives look like - as a precursor for deciding what is "reasonable" - please look at the four different sets of alternatives below, all of which have been assessed as part of real-life SEAs. Which give you a feeling for the real issues that were considered when the strategic action was being developed? What are good and bad points of the sets?

(You can click to see the answers/author's view below each set)

Set 1. a proposed land-use plan for 2006-2015 which must be prepared under regulation x

  • The proposed plan;
  • The existing land use plan 1996-2005;
  • No land use plan.

Set 2: For redevelopment of a site that was formerly used as a military airfield and which includes some historically important buildings and an area of high biodiversity value:

  • 1000 new homes; 1300 new jobs; retain the historically important buildings but demolish all the remaining existing buildings; manage grassland as public open space
  • 1000 new homes; 1300 new jobs; retain those existing buildings that are structurally sound and reuse where possible; manage grassland as public open space
  • 1000 new homes; 1300 new jobs; retain the historically important buildings and leave the rest in situ but with minimum management; manage the rest of the site to maximise the site's ecological benefits
  • Discarded options: do nothing; more than 1000 new homes because this would be contrary to higher level plans;  less than 1000 new homes because this would make it difficult to fund historical/ecological improvements and provide good services for the new and existing residents; re-opening of the airfield; development as warehousing because this conflicts with the rural nature of the area.

Set 3: For licensing of an offshore area for oil and gas exploration and production:

  • To license the whole area
  • Not to license any of the area
  • To license those parts of the area that are not environmentally sensitive.

Set 4: For a national strategy on forestry:

  • preparation of sites using: machines, prescribed burns, chemicals
  • afforestation through: sowing tree seeds, planting tree seedlings at all sites, natural regeneration at all sites, site by site decision of whether to plant trees or allow site to regenerate naturally
  • sowing tree seeds using: aerial application, hand seeding, seeding in conjunction with scarification
  • provision of tree seedlings as: bareroot, container grown
  • growth of tree seedlings by: private sector, government workers 

The following table suggests some do's and don'ts for identifying alternatives:

Recommendations for identifying alternatives
Based on: Collingwood Environmental Planning et al. (2005) Do's and Don'ts Guide to Generating and Developing Alternatives, London.
Identify main issues being dealt with as part of the plan-making process, and develop those into alternatives Make up alternatives just to satisfy legal SEA requirements
Propose alternatives ways to a) deliver the plan's objectives or b) deal with issues/ problems identified during the scoping stage (and documented in the scoping report) Produce end of spectrum alternatives to support a middle option
Consider options that may be politically unpalatable or that contradict higher level policies if you can prove that doing so would clearly lead to a more sustainable solution, as long as the options are otherwise feasible Suggest options that are clearly unrealistic or infeasible (e.g. technically, financially). Stakeholders should be presented with genuine options.
Document how the alternatives have been narrowed down, possibly using an "alternatives tree"; and particularly document constraints to generating alternatives... but... ... just take planners'/ stakeholders' words on constraints. Query how much room for manoeuvre there still is.
Consider alternatives in hierarchies: need/ type/ location/ implementation (see below). (Generally) suggest one set of plan wide alternatives, e.g. "the plan is more socially v. environmentally v. economically oriented".
  • broad alternatives that provide an underlying strategy for the plan
  • topic alternatives for component measures of the plan
  • alternative sites for development
Unnecessarily produce alternatives for every minor issue, or every permutation of options, or alternatives that are difficult to distinguish from each other: alternatives should be reasonably significant and reasonably distinct.
Proactively engage with the community and stakeholders (including those from neighbouring authorities) in generating and developing alternatives
Be willing to consider new options as they emerge through the plan-making process


There are different types of alternatives, which can be considered in a rough sequence as shown in the figure below. Clearly, the results of choosing between 'earlier', more strategic alternatives will influence the range of subsequent alternatives to consider. For instance, if demand for electricity can be reduced enough, there will be no need to consider ways of generating more electricity.  Reducing demand is normally the most sustainable alternative.

Revisit the four examples above.   Which level of the alternatives hierarchy do they represent?

The type of alternatives considered for a specific strategic action will depend on the type of strategic action, and whether it is a policy, plan or programme. More 'strategic' actions (policies) will probably consider need and type/process. At the programme level, location and management approaches will be more relevant.

Where a potentially huge number of alternatives could be considered, a more limited number of alternatives is often chosen which portray different themes or approaches. For instance, alternatives could portray an emphasis on renewable energy v. fossil fuels, or have new power stations located in areas of electricity demand v. in areas of least impact.

June 13, 2006 Uncategorized — brendan @ 2:15 pm

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