Is EIA scoping in England effective?

13th January 2014

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  • Consultancy ,
  • Construction ,
  • Local government


Antony Gerken

Eva Hansen, from Peter Brett Associates, describes her research into scoping practices in environmental impact assessment (EIA) and why they are not delivering to their full potential

Scoping is a fundamental stage in the EIA process. If carried out effectively, it arguably contributes to the quality and value of the EIA in the decision-making process.

During scoping, the involved parties agree the extent and focus of the assessment. Therefore the environmental statement (ES), the document presenting the results of the EIA, should inform the decision maker of those effects of a planned development that are relevant when deciding the planning application.

While scoping, as it is currently practiced in England, works well to identify potential impacts, its substantive aim of focusing the scope of the EIA on the likely significant effects is rarely achieved. Previous research shows that although practitioners generally understand the purpose and benefits of effective scoping, the scoping procedure is rarely implemented at a level that accomplishes its goals appropriately.

Effective scoping

Aspects of effectiveness are analysed distinguishing three dimensions: procedural, substantive and transactive. As two components of effectiveness, the dialogue between stakeholders and approaches to scoping are discussed in detail. Further, barriers in practice and theory are examined to gain a better understanding of effective scoping from the practitioner’s perspective.

There appears to be a mismatch in practitioners’ understanding of effective scoping between “substantive effectiveness”, in terms of focusing the EIA, and “procedural effectiveness”, such as saving resources.

Practitioners’ understanding of effective scoping generally coincides with what is described as “substantive effectiveness”. They believe that scoping is effective, when the assessment is focused on likely significant effects.

However, there are some differences regarding the benefits of effective scoping in “transactive” terms, ie achieving the “substantive” aims of scoping in the minimum cost and time.

From the consultants’ perspective, theoretically effective scoping does not save resources nor does it save time. On the contrary, the process of focusing the scope of an EIA through discussion is often regarded as more time and resource consuming than opting for a broader scope.

Time and resources, however, are main concerns of consultants, who compete in the private sector to act on the developer’s behalf. Different interests between stakeholders may also imply different perspectives of effectiveness, particularly regarding the issue of weighing the cost of time invested in discussing the scope of an EIA versus the cost of carrying out an assessment. For many consultants the latter option is more cost efficient. Consequently they accept the fact that “substantive effectiveness” of scoping is reduced to achieve “transactive effectiveness” in terms of time and resource efficiency.

A continuous, flexible system

To address this gap between effective scoping in theory and in practice, there are two aims that the scoping system should ensure: continuity and flexibility.

There are cases where public engagement and stakeholder dialogue only play a minor role in a development’s planning application. In these cases the scoping stage is reduced to an exercise of confirming the content of an EIA rather than identifying and discussing potential impacts. Yet consultants see a benefit in this reduced exercise as a way of providing confidence regarding the contents to be covered in the assessment. The value of such a reduced scoping exercise should be acknowledged.

Any changes to the current EIA system should aim to achieve improved engagement and discussion for controversial schemes, as well as to maintain sufficient flexibility to ensure that there will be no additional, unnecessary administrative burden for less complex schemes. The option of a scaled scoping system with more requirements for controversial schemes and flexibility for smaller developments should be considered further.

Barriers, such as lack of information about the proposed development; a lack of knowledge among local planning authorities; and generic scoping advice, could be overcome by enforcing a more continuous approach to scoping.

Such an approach could also contribute to further reducing the risk of subsequent requests for further information, because later changes in the design or new information about the proposed development could be considered before the scoping process is concluded. Experts have demanded a more iterative scoping process for decades, but in practice it is rarely seen nor do the EIA Regulations provide for such an approach.

Despite the demand for a continuous approach, few clear suggestions have been made as to how to implement such a system effectively. IEMA’s proposal to incorporate the scoping report as terms of reference for the EIA may be regarded as an approach to an iterative process.

Any formalised, iterative scoping process would also have to provide sufficient flexibility to avoid unnecessary administrative burdens and enhance “substantive effectiveness” while ensuring “transactive effectiveness”. However, there is need to further develop these concepts.

Despite an apparent lack of “substantive effectiveness” in scoping, some elements of the scoping procedure are successfully achieved and valued by practitioners.

Scoping, as it is currently regulated and practiced, is a useful procedure to identify potential impacts and reduce the risk of significant effects being missed because statutory consultees, the local planning authority and other potential stakeholders are engaged at an early and reasonably informal stage in the project definition.

This article was submitted by WYG, a registrant on IEMA’s EIA Quality Mark scheme.

This article describes research that was undertaken with the support of PBA, as part of Eva Hansen’s MSc in Environmental Management and Assessment at Oxford Brookes University.


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