Infrastructure planning regime: Scoping and delivering a proportionate EIA

9th March 2015

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Diane Kovacs

Laurence Copleston, EIA coordinator at AECOM, investigates the number of documents typically included in applications for major infrastructure projects.

Major infrastructure projects are an important part of the political agenda, demonstrated by the government’s recent commitment to Hornsea Project One (part of a 4GW offshore wind farm) and Hinkley C, which will be the first new nuclear power station in the UK for a generation. Developers of these nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs) are required by the Planning Act 2008 to submit a Development Consent Order (DCO) application to the Planning Inspectorate (PINS).

A total of 32 NSIPs have been determined since this new regime became effective in October 2009 (31 of which were granted consent and one was refused). A further 22 projects are currently going through the examination process and 50 are at the initial pre-application stage.

A recent government review of the NSIP planning regime and its perceived effectiveness found that although the regime is largely working well, the pre-application phase needs certain improvements to streamline the process. Comments made as part of the review suggest that “risk aversion amongst developers was leading to a greater focus on quantity of material rather than on quality”, and this may be leading to applicants choosing to undertake technical assessments for environmental issues that should perhaps have been scoped out of the EIA (ultimately to avoid the risk of the examiner at PINS highlighting the omission as a reason for refusal). This has both reduced the effectiveness of the regime, and increased the burden on consultees and stakeholders.

To demonstrate the array of technical assessments typically undertaken for NSIPs, AECOM has reviewed a random sample of 15 environmental statements (ESs) prepared for DCO applications that have now been consented. The review looked at both the total number of pages and the number of technical chapters included within the ESs. It excluded non-technical chapters such as the description of the development and assessment of alternatives. It shows that the average (mean) length of an ES for an NSIP, excluding figures and appendices, is approximately 850 pages, with each ES containing an average (mean) of 12 technical chapters on topics including noise, air quality, landscape and visual.

The graph below presents a breakdown of the data for each of the sample projects reviewed. Of the projects reviewed, the ES with the greatest number of technical chapters is Hornsea Offshore Wind Farm, with 25 technical chapters. The ES with the least was Willington C Gas Pipeline, with only 8 technical chapters. The graph shows that offshore wind projects and marine-based projects such as ports seem to generate the largest ESs, both in terms of page numbers and technical assessments. This is likely to be because offshore projects tend to have both onshore and offshore components, potentially affecting a greater variety of environmental receptors. By contrast, the length and number of technical chapters for ESs that are solely onshore such as power, transport and pipeline projects appears to be fairly consistent. They are generally smaller and contain fewer technical assessments than their offshore counterparts, with 10-12 for each ES.

One exception to this is the ES for Triton Knoll offshore wind farm, which included noticeably fewer technical chapters (14), and pages (approximately 500) than the other offshore projects. This can be attributed to the developer having submitted a DCO application for the onshore element of the project separately to the offshore element, so fewer technical assessments were required as part of this ES.

A further breakdown of the types of technical assessments included within the ESs is provided in the second graph. Although not exhaustive, it represents the array of disciplines that should be at the very least acknowledged in a scoping report. Impacts on landscape and traffic and transport were included in all of the ESs that were reviewed. Cultural heritage, ecology, ground conditions, noise, air quality, socio-economics, water and flood risk feature in most of the ESs sampled. The other disciplines listed feature less frequently, however these are by their very nature more specialist and not necessarily relevant to all projects; for example, benthic ecology and telecommunications.

Although this review only considers around 50% of the consented NSIPs, it suggests that non-key issues are being successfully scoped out of EIAs for some NSIP’s. Nevertheless the government review confirms that there is still room for improvement, and there appears to be a desire

within government to encourage more issues to be scoped out of EIAs, or at least for these ES chapters to be shorter and proportionate to the importance assigned to the issue. EIA practitioners, should try to reduce the page count of NSIP ESs, where possible. Whether this occurs in reality may in part depend on the clarity of the scoping opinion received from PINS, and crucially the confidence of the applicant teams.

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