Enhancing the effectiveness of EIA scoping

13th June 2016

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  • Business & Industry ,
  • Built environment ,
  • Planning ,
  • Management



Ian Humble, principal planner at Adams Hendry Consulting, discusses his experience on both sides of dealing with environmental statements.

Having moved from a local authority planning department to a private sector consultancy, I have had direct experience in both the preparation and assessment of environmental statements.

Despite my changing roles, one question has remained constant in my mind from my formative years as a graduate planner to my current role as a principal planner; how can the scoping process be made more effective?

Planning officers are often faced with the daunting task of analysing, assessing and understanding environmental statements of ever-burgeoning length and complexity, yet the statutory determination period for EIA developments remains the same at 16 weeks.

Likewise, planning consultants are under pressure from clients to submit applications and obtain permission as quickly as possible. So what can be done to streamline the process?

Post-screening, effective engagement between the local authority and the developer is paramount. Not only does this ensure the determining authority can develop a familiarity with the development proposal, it also provides early opportunity to consider what issues can be scoped out of the environmental statement.

As a local authority planner, I found that there was often a tendency to take the safe option and include issues in the scope of the environmental statement rather than leave them out. This approach was often borne out of fear of a legal challenge and scrutiny from both elected members and the public.

But this approach is not helpful, and is a contributing factor in lengthened chapters in the environmental statement, additional costs for developers, and scoping opinions that fail to objectively assess the specific environmental risks posed by a particular development.

At a time of significant staff shortages within local government, this is perhaps not surprising and it begs the question; can we really expect local planning authorities to have the time and resource available to proactively engage in the scoping process when, in reality, it is safer to assess all potential impacts as part of a planning application whether they are significant or not?

The answer is perhaps two-fold. Like the local planning authority, practitioners must avoid the potential for legal challenge. The onus rests on the practitioner, therefore, to present a comprehensive, yet comprehendible analysis of the significant impacts to be assessed. In this respect, framing scoping judgments around the perceived norms can sometimes become a necessary evil in order to reassure the local planning authority that all potential impacts have been considered. But the most effective EIA scoping work is bespoke and tailored to the unique context of a particular site and proposal and its environmental impacts.

The scoping process should include input from council consultees and stakeholders, creating a more collaborative and focussed approach that guides the content of the scoping report. This will help to ensure that work for the environmental statement is focussed on the correct areas of assessment, avoiding unnecessary time and expense without forgoing quality. Working closely with relevant stakeholders from the outset of the EIA process will have the added benefit of helping to reduce the likelihood of objections and can have a significant role in facilitating a smoother route to consent.

There is increasing guidance available to practitioners on all areas of the EIA process. But while the theory behind this literature can often be helpful, it can only be implemented with meaningful engagement between the interested parties, a willingness to co-operate, and the availability of adequate resource and knowledge within the public sector.

My early experience in the private sector suggests that stronger relationships must be forged between practitioners and planning officers if the scoping process is to be made more effective. But with planning department resources being ever diminished this seems an idealistic rather than realistic proposition.


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