A fresh look at environmental statements

16th January 2012


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IEMA

Environmental planners Helen Kent and Elizabeth Davies consider the benefits of having environmental statements independently reviewed.

An important aspect of the EIA Quality Mark process is the opportunity to have IEMA peer review participants’ environmental statements (ESs). Such impartial examinations not only offer good feedback for environmental impact assessment (EIA) professionals but can also be useful to other stakeholders in the planning process.

Developers, consultees and local planning authorities, whether they receive many EIA applications or one every few months, can all benefit from the experience and knowledge offered by consulting with a third-party. As well as offering technical expertise which may not be held in-house and freeing up resources to deal with other elements of a planning application, an independent review of environmental statements can help to ensure:

  • Informed decision making – An independent review checks for regulatory compliance, and identifies whether sufficient environmental information has been provided to make a decision on the application.
  • Reduced risk of legal challenge – By ensuring decisions are made based on environmental information which meets the requirements of the EIA regulations.
  • The potential to speed up decision making and reduce costs – by targeting requests for any additional information.

A “stamp” of approval from an independent consultant can also help smooth the planning process.

The review process

The review method we use at LUC and Cascade Consulting is based on IEMA’s EIA Quality Mark ES review criteria, which aim to effectively assess the content and quality of an ES and then communicate it in a focused report.

We use the targeted questions provided in IEMA’s review criteria to check whether an ES provides enough information for the likely significant environmental effects of the proposed development to be identified, but we don’t assign a quality score.

Regulation 22 requests

The review report flags up the potential need for requests for information under Regulation 22 of the Town and Country Planning (EIA) Regulations 2011, and for any other clarifications. This pragmatic approach ensures that Regulation 22 requests are only used where information is necessary to inform the decision. Clarifying matters informally like this saves time, and may avoid the need to re-advertise the application.

Of the 35 ES reviews that we have carried out for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets since July 2009, all resulted in requests for clarification and around two-thirds resulted in requests under Regulation 22.

A more complete ES is often submitted the second time in cases where an application is withdrawn and re-submitted. For example, of six schemes which were subject to two ES reviews (for the original application and a re-submission) we identified potential Regulation 22 requests for all six original ESs, but for only two of the re-submitted statements.

Effective resourcing

For local planning authorities that receive many applications for EIA purposes the amount of material to review can be daunting. Freeing up resources to concentrate on other aspects of the planning application can help to reduce the time taken to make decisions.

Providing tailored scoping guidance can help applicants to address the most important local environmental issues and aid the identification of baseline evidence sources and clarify any methodological requirements.

LUC and Cascade Consulting helped Tower Hamlets to produce scoping guidance which highlights local issues as townscape and visual impacts, air quality, sunlight (in relation to tall buildings) and noise, and this is available on the council’s website.

Another potential benefit of independent reviews is that they can be focused on one particular aspects of an ES, for example deciphering townscape or noise assessments. This approach is often taken when assisting statutory bodies and groups are seeking to make targeted comments on a major development.

Lessons learned

Drawing on our experiences of reviewing ESs, many of which have been excellent, one thing has become very clear: communication is everything. ESs report on complex, technical issues and it is vital to clearly set out, and justify, the approach that has been taken to scoping, assessment, significance, alternatives, mitigation, and cumulative effects. Remember if a lay person cannot understand the ES, it will not be helpful to the decision maker.

Other important learning points for those writing ES to consider are:

  • Non-technical summaries must accurately reflect the impacts identified in the ES.
  • Where townscape, visual and heritage assessments are carried out by the architects promoting the scheme, it can be difficult to report impacts with objectivity.
  • The assessment of construction impacts is sometimes omitted as something to be addressed through a planning condition, but should be covered in the ES.
  • The credibility of the whole ES can be affected by a few judgements that are not justified, and which may appear to the lay reader to be unreasonable or unlikely.

This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice.

LUC and Cascade Consulting are framework consultants to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and carry out independent reviews of ESs. We regularly provide independent review services to statutory consultees and other stakeholders, and undertake between 5–10 EIAs each year.

For further information contact: [email protected]

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