Engagement v consultation

11th July 2012

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Tom Wells and Ruth Jones of CampbellReith discuss why engagement throughout pre-planning can be critical to achieving a timely decision on an EIA development

While applicants tend to see the benefit of close liaison and meetings with the local planning authority prior to submitting their planning application, they can sometimes be more reluctant to put time and money aside for dealing with other stakeholders, including statutory consultees, during the pre-planning stage. However, relying purely on written correspondence can be a risky strategy.

Avoiding nasty surprises

Applicants often feel that submitting a request for a scoping opinion is sufficient for the views of statutory consultees to be taken into account within the scope of the environmental impact assessment (EIA). However, this fails to recognise that the local planning authority, and indeed the statutory consultees and other stakeholders, are not held to the views expressed therein.

Though certainly not true in every case, all too often it seems that written responses received from statutory consultees strongly resemble, if not replicate, previous responses received on entirely different developments that have the potential for entirely different environmental effects.

Ongoing engagement on the scope of an EIA is therefore critical throughout pre-planning to avoid any nasty surprises (ie, any Regulation 22 requests on the survey, the assessment or design requirements) arising during the 16-week determination period for an EIA development.

Such requests can have obvious implications for the project programme as there is no recourse for the developer that enables them to say the issue is not one that has been raised previously as needing to be covered as part of the EIA.

Often EIA practitioners hear that these generic written responses can be accounted by the fact that, due to recent cut backs, individuals working for statutory consultees are overworked. But could it not equally be due to the fact that written correspondence is a very limited way of liaising with these organisations, a way of consulting rather than of properly engaging them?

A better outcome

It is always easier to provide the background on the scheme, the alternatives considered, an overview of the various environmental effects (including interrelationships) and the requirements of other consultees face-to-face rather than by report/letter. These meetings often result in a much more detailed discussion of the issues needing to be addressed to satisfy requirements than would be received by way of a written response.

As well as being valuable in fully scoping the EIA, face-to-face meetings can result in better outcomes for the environment, with the scheme design “agreed” in advance of the planning application being submitted.

This approach has worked particularly well for us recently, where a workshop was set up between CampbellReith (as environmental consultant and project engineer), the local planning authority, Natural England and the Environment Agency to discuss the retreat of the river edge on a site on the Isle of Wight.

The workshop allowed all attendees to understand the potential constraints of the site, including restrictions on site levels (due to access safety) and the operational requirements of the applicant (including sufficient room to manoeuvre a 200-tonne boat hoist).

The meeting enabled a solution to be designed that avoided the need to import/export materials; allowed all buildings and working areas to be above the extreme flood level; and addressed coastal squeeze by providing as much intertidal and lower/middle salt marsh habitat as would naturally develop on the site over the next 100 years (beyond the lifespan of the project).

Not bad for an afternoon’s work, and certainly not an outcome that could have been achieved by relying on written correspondence at the request for scoping opinion stage.

Our advice to new EIA practitioners would be to recognise the difference between consultation and engagement and not to overlook the value of face-to-face meetings with statutory consultees and other stakeholders.

Face-to-face meetings offer the opportunity to properly engage and provide confidence that issues have been overcome before the planning application is made. This results in cost-savings to the client, as alterations to the scheme are not required after the planning application has been made, and will ultimately result in a more timely determination by the local planning authority. It may just result in a better environmental outcome as well.

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

Tom Wells, MIEMA CEnv, is an associate and Ruth Jones, AIEMA, is an environmental consultant at CampbellReith


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