Building bridges between strategies and projects

22nd February 2012

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  • Construction ,
  • Property ,
  • Local government



Andrew Burwood considers the challenges in converting aspirations of plans and programmes into on-the-ground projects, and the influence this can have on environmental impact assessments

It has become widely accepted that for society to sustainably manage its current and future needs, then we need to plan how we use resources and develop communities over longer timescales and larger areas than are considered by individual projects. The theory is that by developing strategies, for everything from tourism to flood risk management, we can guide development and land management to achieve the best possible outcomes for society as a whole.

The successful delivery of many strategies is reliant on a series of projects being delivered. However, the fact that a proposed development is part of delivering an agreed strategy does not, in practice, necessarily mean a smoother pathway through the project consenting process. There can be many reasons for this, including:

  • people not making the connection between a strategy and actions being needed within their communities;
  • officers and councillors involved in considering planning applications not having been involved in developing the strategy;
  • a lack of understanding of the legal background that drives some developments;
  • community resentment, if members perceive they are being negatively affected for the benefit of others sometimes remote to themselves;
  • an unwillingness to accept that the site selection and design processes have been sufficiently rigorous and a distrust of technical studies; and,
  • a community focus on short-term, localised adverse effects and not the longer-term, wider benefits.

These challenges were encountered during the detailed design and planning application for the Donna Nook Managed Realignment Scheme in the Humber Estuary. The scheme is being promoted by the Environment Agency as part of the Humber Flood Risk Management Strategy (FRMS).

The Donna Nook scheme is necessary for the delivery of the Humber FRMS as it will provide compensation for the loss of internationally designated intertidal habitats. These habitats are being lost to “coastal squeeze”; the process whereby the intertidal area becomes constricted between rising sea levels and hard defences.

Although the scheme will provide a new set-back flood embankment, that is more robust than the existing defences and that eradicates current low spots, it does not provide obvious flood defence benefits to the local community, will result in the loss of some agricultural land and brings the high-tide line inland leading to a perceived increase in flood risk.

However, without managed realignment schemes such as Donna Nook, the overarching flood defence policy of “hold the line” for the Humber Estuary cannot be implemented due to the loss of protected habitats, meaning that all current and future flood risk management improvement schemes could stop. Under that scenario there would be major social and economic effects at a regional scale.

All of this puts environmental impact assessment (EIA) practitioners in a difficult position. A common complaint is that environmental statements are too long and not sufficiently focused on the significant issues. In theory it should be easier to address these concerns for a project that is part of delivering a strategy. The strategy should have justified the need for the development, been through public consultation, agreed by key stakeholders and provided information to help project level assessment.

In fact the exact opposite can be true. Concerns that are raised during EIA and project consultation can result in a whole strategy being called into question by some stakeholders. The EIA and environmental statement can then take on the role of justifying the strategy as well as identifying, appraising and mitigating for potentially significant environmental effects at the project level.

Bridging the gap between strategies and projects may need adjustments in how strategy development, consultation and strategic environmental assessment are carried out, as well how EIA is organised. Where a strategy identifies specific locations for certain types of projects it may be useful to hold focused consultation during development of the core strategy, and then at regular intervals thereafter as packages of work are developed to deliver the strategy. This could help communities make the connection between the strategy and future works in their area, to appreciate the timescales for development that may be several years into the future, and to understand the background and need for a project before detailed work commences.

A greater emphasis on scoping in EIA may also help bridge strategies and projects. A more extensive scoping stage that can identify, resolve and report on concerns that arise from linking a strategy to a project, as well as project-specific issues, could allow these to be scoped out of the EIA and lead to more focused environmental statements and smoother project delivery.

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

Andrew Burwood is an environmental scientist at Black & Veatch, Chester. He is a Chartered environmentalist, a Full member of the Institution of Environmental Sciences and an Associate member of IEMA.


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