Effective scoping and proportionate EIA

13th February 2014

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Adrian Barnes

ENVIRON's Peter Bruce reflects on IEMA's EIA Quality Mark forum 2013 and the Scottish government EIA forum 2013 and discussions around effective scoping

Proportionality in environmental impact assessment (EIA) was an overarching theme of both IEMA’s EIA Quality Mark Forum 2013 and the Scottish government’s EIA forum, which reflected the strong emphasis on proportionality and efficiency in the recently published Planning Advice Note 1/2013 on EIA.

Both forums included representation from statutory stakeholders (for example, competent authorities and statutory bodies) and EIA practitioners, with the Scottish government forum being more focused on statutory stakeholders with some guest representation from EIA practitioners and developers.

The discussion at both events provided some interesting insight into practitioners’ and statutory stakeholders’ views on how to deliver proportionate EIA.

Delivering proportionate EIA has two main aspects:

  • avoiding an unnecessarily onerous EIA process, by focusing baseline data collection and technical assessment on the issues genuinely likely to cause significant effects; and
  • avoiding excessively long, repetitive and poorly coordinated environmental statements (ESs).

At both forums, a trend identified and acknowledged by practitioners and statutory stakeholders alike, was that over time ESs have continued to get longer, particularly those for larger nationally significant infrastructure projects. The documents are often criticised by statutory stakeholders and members of the public for being difficult to engage with and for failing to focus on likely significant effects. This is widely considered to be a key issue in ensuring effective and proportionate EIA.

While effective scoping is widely recognised as a key factor in achieving both aspects of proportionate EIA, a key theme emerging from the IEMA and Scottish government events was that UK practitioners still have some way to go towards achieving effective scoping and the ultimate goal of more proportionate EIA.

A view widely expressed was that while the trend for increasingly voluminous ESs may be in part due the complexity and scale of some of the developments. However, the trend more likely points to a failure to effectively scope EIAs and/or a failure to properly focus ES reporting in response to the scoping process.

Practitioners often level criticism at statutory stakeholders for failing to properly engage with the scoping process, resulting in generic responses, requests for information on issues which are clearly not likely to be significant, or responses from one stakeholder which conflict with another.

While this criticism may be valid to some extent, the strong and consistent message from the statutory stakeholder organisations represented at last year’s EIA events was that they recognise the importance and value of effective scoping and the need for proportionate EIA and they are ready to engage.

Driving forward an effective scoping process should, therefore, remain a key focus for practitioners The Planning Advice Note 1/2013 in Scotland and national planning practice guidance in England provide a strong basis for practitioners to push back on unreasonable and unnecessary scoping requests, and to demand better engagement from some statutory stakeholders with the goal of proportionate EIA in mind.

One theme that emerged from the two events was that while early engagement with statutory stakeholders on scoping was important in agreeing the likely key issues and methodologies at strategic level, there is also a need to see more continuous dialogue throughout the EIA process. Such an approach will enable further issues to be scoped out (or scoped in) and the refinement of the scope of individual assessments as more baseline information is collected and available to justify such decisions.

Viewing scoping as a milestone is problematic and can conflict with the goal of achieving a leaner environmental statement, particularly when issues are included only to satisfy a scoping opinion. A more collaborative approach using ongoing dialogue would potentially lead to leaner and more focused environmental statements.

That said, statutory stakeholders were clear that the onus remains on the developer and/or EIA practitioner to provide sufficient justification when seeking to scope issues out of the EIA. There needs to be recognition from practitioners that while taking this approach may not always result in doing less work, it could provide a significant improvement in focusing the final environmental statement on the likely significant effects and make it easier to engage with the full range of public and statutory stakeholders.

With this in mind, the emerging changes proposed to the EIA Directive, which include potential mandatory scoping together with screening, will be followed with interest. The hope being that the changes do not lead to unnecessary and unhelpful restrictions on the timing of scoping and on the potential opportunity for ongoing scoping engagement throughout the EIA process.

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

Peter Bruce is an senior environmental consultant at ENVIRON UK

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