Tom Smeeton and Peter George set out how to ensure a balance to EIA outputs
Proportionality in the assessment of environmental effects and the development design process is often cited but rarely delivered. Research by IEMA has indicated that the main text of many environmental statements run to more than 350 pages, while those relating to nationally significant infrastructure projects are often nearer double that figure.
So how can proportionality be achieved at key stages of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process and what are the perceived barriers to delivering an effective, concise and proportionate EIA?
Cumbersome and unwieldy
EIA reports the predicted significant effects that a development proposal will have on the environment, enabling a decision to be made about whether to grant consent.
However, many EIA environmental statements (ESs) have become large, cumbersome and unwieldy documents, and feedback from stakeholders reveals that this often makes them inaccessible.
Reasons for the seemingly ever-expanding statements include the fear of challenge or the risk of litigation, resulting in a temptation to scope in topics with little consideration of whether the anticipated impacts are significant.
Some legal teams have a tendency to insist information is included despite it adding little value to the document or whether it is materially relevant to the decision-making process.
As a result, many ESs become less effective in communicating a clear, concise message to inform those taking the decision on whether to grant consent.
The reporting requirements of the EIA Regulations do not differentiate between significant adverse environmental effects and beneficial effects, and too many ES authors focus on the adverse outcomes, often forgetting that there may also be significant benefits.
Effective scoping underpins a proportionate approach to EIA, increasing efficiency and reducing the potential for unnecessary work. A common pitfall is the perception that all of the“normal” or “traditional” environmental topics need to be assessed and reported, when in many cases they can be scoped out.
Analysis by IEMA of 100 UK ESs indicates that, on average, they include nine topic chapters and 85% contain sections on ecology, noise, landscape, transport and water (including flood risk).
Experienced professional judgment should be employed during the scoping stage to focus the initial assessment work. Early engagement with statutory consultees is key to agreeing the scope and methods to be used.
Scoping should also be a dynamic process, subject to regular review and potential change throughout the life of the EIA. It should be adaptable enough to consider new environmental aspects as they arise, to review the potential need for detailed assessment, and also to scope out issues if it subsequently becomes apparent that they are not likely to give rise to significant effects.
Practitioners should not refrain from exercising their professional judgment to explain why a new aspect should or should not be included within the scope of the EIA.
Proportionality in EIA and design
To provide fit-for-purpose appraisals, it is important that the scoping and assessment are proportionate. These must be tailored to the scale of the development, the spatial and temporal scope and the likely impact of the project’s effects on the environment.
It therefore follows that the design and mitigation response should also be proportionate and based on the scale of anticipated impact.
This approach ensures that the relevant key issues are assessed and, where practicable, they are mitigated effectively – but without entailing excessive costs and are communicated to the decision maker clearly and concisely.
By its very nature, the design of any development is iterative, with refinements made throughout the project lifecycle from inception through to detailed design and construction. EIA is also an iterative process and should be undertaken at key points during the design process.
The two processes share many common elements. For example, the first stage of the design process – project preparation – typically involves a site survey, constraints mapping and consultation exercise. Similarly, the first steps in the EIA process include baseline surveys, desktop reviews and statutory and non-statutory consultation.
The traditional model is to undertake EIA at key points in the design – for example, when the design is sufficiently developed to understand the effects of the development on the environment. The design needs to be sufficiently “fixed” for its impact to be assessed effectively.
However, this approach can come across as clunky and sometimes be disjointed from the design process, resulting in mitigation measures being “shoehorned” into an advanced and inflexible design.
A more integrated approach, which embeds the environment professional in the design team, is preferable. This can truly integrate into the design the initial environmental findings and the approach to mitigation.
In this way, environmental assessment is not viewed as a process that merely reports back at the end of the design process. Rather, EIA is considered as a fully integrated and iterative process that is interdependent with the evolution of the design.
Role of the EIA coordinator
The EIA coordinator has a central role in the development cycle, and they must be able to communicate effectively with stakeholders and the design and wider project teams. This relationship is crucial to avoid and reduce the project’s effects on the environment and to ensure that mitigation is proportionate and integrated into the design.
Effective communication is also vital so that the developer and decision maker understand the environmental impacts. This includes understanding how the results of the assessment have influenced the design, as well as how avoidance and reduction strategies are necessary before compensatory measures are considered.
Clever design avoids the impact or reduces the effect on the environment as part of the scheme.
The appointment of an EIA coordinator early in the development process can ensure that environment and sustainability principles are integral to the project’s objectives.
This will also help to ensure the scope of the EIA is proportionate, to enhance potential efficiencies in the design and assessment, and ultimately to reduce the risk of consent being declined, with the inevitable impact this would have on project cost.
The coordinator needs a diverse range of skills to manage the interface between the environmental topic teams, design engineers and wider project team, as well as stakeholders and other interest groups. He or she must be conversant with engineering and construction issues, while also having an in-depth understanding of environmental assessment techniques, making it possible to engage with multiple project stakeholders with diverse viewpoints.
The benefits of having an embedded EIA coordinator in the core development project team include:
- communication – a conduit between the engineering design team and environmental specialists, allowing them to liaise on a technical level to integrate mitigation and enhancement into the emerging design;
- technical – an understanding of the key issues relating to the environmental baseline of the study area in order to inform the design process;
- design management – a thorough understanding of the environmental implications of design decisions and their potential for adverse impacts or potential contravention of legislation. It is essential for the coordinator to be experienced and confident enough to respond promptly to the evolving design;
- design advice – an ability to influence the design as it evolves, including adding mitigation; and
- impartiality – an ability to challenge conventional thinking or status quo design assumptions.
EIA has always been an iterative process running in parallel with design, but it has evolved to become much more integrated, resulting in improved design and environmental feedback.
Better integration of environmental mitigation and sustainability enhancements earlier in the design process and more effective communication across the spectrum of project stakeholders have also improved the process.
More work needs to be done by EIA practitioners to guide and advise clients and legal practitioners on the scope of assessments, moving ESs away from being information dumps to shorter, more concise documents that provide decision-makers with robust evidence on environmental impacts.
Embedding EIA practitioners in project design teams will lead to better education about environmental issues and a more holistic approach to impact assessment.
The EIA coordinator therefore has a key role to play, not only in terms of the assessment process but also the wider design development. This role will become increasingly important with the changes to the EIA Directive and the requirement for competent environmental professionals to be used, so the demand for competent practitioners is likely to rise.
IEMA Quality Mark organisations and individuals with relevant professional qualifications and experience – such as registered EIA practitioners, MIEMA and CEnv – should have the required level of competence.