Assessing the urban environment

30th April 2015

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Paul A Reed

Towns and cities pose specific challenges when conducting environmental impact assessments, argue Bidwells' James Alflatt and Neil Waterson

Environmental impact assessment (EIA) tends to be high on the agenda for many developers, a position secured by the risk of possible delays from legal challenges. In an urban setting, development has potential for significant impacts on people, which bring specific challenges for assessments. As a result, there is often greater public interest in such projects.

The role of a competent EIA expert appointed early in the process can assist in delivering a robust and proportionate approach to EIA, and will save time and money in the longer term. There is huge benefit in having planners as EIA coordinators since they are often central to project coordination, and can add value in identifying political and planning sensitivities. They will also understand the control mechanisms in the planning process to ensure mitigation measures are viable, deliverable and can be sufficiently monitored by planning conditions and legal agreement.

In most cases, urban projects are likely to involve redeveloping previously built-on land. Although they may have less impact on the natural environment, their possible proximity to high numbers of people and other urban uses can have significant impacts.

Important issues

Issues of likely concern include increased traffic and noise as well as poorer air quality. For residential developments, existing residents and service providers are likely to be concerned that more people moving into the area will adversely affect access to doctors, dentists and schools. Heritage issues may also be more common due to a greater number of listed buildings and conservation areas in towns and cities.

Many of these issues will be addressed at least partly at the planning application stage in the case of urban developments. However, the requirement for EIA raises the bar, not only as to the scope and detail required, but the need to deliver what has been assumed in the environmental statement.

Equally, proposals for urban developments will often offer measures that will result in benefits for local people, whether in terms of housing, jobs, or recreational or community facilities. It is important that the EIA considers these benefits and sets these against any adverse impacts. In that way a balanced and informed picture of the effects of the scheme on the community can be provided.

On a constrained urban development, the ability of developers to mitigate impacts onsite may become increasingly difficult, making it essential to identify acceptable solutions offsite. These may include financial contributions secured from the developer and delivered through the planning process.

Communication is key

A further challenge lies in identifying the impacts against those perceived by the local community. To smooth the process, these can be addressed through public consultation early in the planning process.

The consultation should be seen as an opportunity to help inform the EIA and the evolution of the proposals, so that adverse impacts can be identified and avoided or minimised through design measures. When done effectively, the communication will help to limit the level of rumour and temper the popular perception that the scheme will work to the detriment of the local population and area.

Competent EIA experts will have the knowledge and ability to communicate the beneficial impacts and stress the positives from the scheme, and set these against other planning and political sensitivities.

Increasing requirements

The EIA challenges associated with developments in towns and cities are likely to increase with forthcoming changes to the EIA Directive, which will place more onerous requirements and obligations on developers and planning authorities. It may be some time – but spring 2017 at the latest – before these requirements are transposed into UK regulations, so the changes may not immediately have a direct impact on development projects.

Of more immediate concern will be the changes to EIA screening thresholds, which came into force at the start of April and exempt many smaller sites. Under the changes developers will no longer have to go through the screening process if a site is smaller than five hectares or 150 homes. However, the higher density of residential development in towns and cities will mean that in many cases the 150-dwelling threshold will apply and an EIA be necessary, irrespective of the site area. Demand will therefore continue for competent EIA practitioners with experience of developments in an urban environment.

James Alflatt and Neil Waterson are partners at Bidwells, an IEMA EIA Quality Mark accredited company.

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