Keep EIA simple

18th November 2011


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IEMA

Philip Rowell and Martin Hendry, directors of Adams Hendry Consulting, argue that the value of environmental assessment is not as high as it could be in the development consent process.

It is been more than 25 years since the publication of European Directive 85/337/EEC which introduced environmental impact assessment (EIA). Sufficient time, you would have thought, for properly conducted EIAs to be a major influence on the way decisions are made about development. Not so, unfortunately.

As life and legislation gets more complex – the 2011 planning EIA Regulations, for example, are longer than their 1999 equivalent – we as EIA practitioners with clients on both sides of the consenting process, find that many participants are still unclear of what EIA is all about.

Regulators often don’t appreciate the requirements of the Directive and Regulations and are therefore not always able to spot a non-compliant environmental statement (ES). There is often little quality control and frequently poor work is accepted as the norm.

Lawyers, meanwhile, have mined a rich seam in procedural compliance, searching for errors in the way EIAs have been carried out and ESs have been processed. Sometimes they expose crevasse-like fissures in logic hidden under a blanket of suffocating prose.

If anyone is up to producing one, there is probably a market for a dictionary of EIA jargon or a guide to remaining sane while trying to unscramble the curious language invented by groups of specialists. Then there is the sheer volume of text, frequently arm-breaking and always mind-bending.

There is surely a case for insisting on a single volume ES, with appendices if necessary. Setting a maximum length for the single document (300 A3 pages is our first bid) and forbidding the burying of key caveats in the back of the appendices would also be sensible. Furthermore, regulators must also insist on an accurate definition of what the project is, because often you can be left wondering what has actually been assessed.

It is instructive to re-read the preamble to the EIA Directive. This highlights the principle of needing to “take effects on the environment into account at the earliest possible stage in all the technical planning and decision-making processes”.

EIA is therefore not simply about providing the decision maker with the necessary environmental information to be taken into account during the decision-making process; it can and should be used to promote sustainability.

Used constructively, the EIA process should identify development that:

  • meets a clear, justifiable and defined need – normally one backed by policy;
  • is located where there is no better alternative with fewer significant effects on the environment;
  • is designed, constructed and operated in such a way that there is no better alternative; and,
  • limits the environmental harm caused during its lifetime.

At a recent IEMA conference a common theme among delegates was that the value of EIA in the consenting process was not as high as it could be. This was partly because of the difficulty that decision makers, consultees and the general public have in analysing and understanding the information contained within an ES.

One of the issues identified in this regard was the increasing volume and complexity of material commonly submitted as part of an ES. While in some instances concerns over the ability of decision makers and consultees to effectively deal with the information provided in an ES are valid, it is important that as EIA practitioners we assist the process in considering carefully what we produce. How often, for example, do we remind ourselves of what the Directive and Regulations actually require to be included in an ES?
The preamble to the Directive sets out some fundamentals of assessment. It says that, among other things, relevant projects should be subject to “systematic assessment”. Dictionary definitions of “systematic” use words and phrases such as “methodical” and “use of order and planning”; essentially, something that is systematic ought to be easy to understand.

The Directive also requires that the environmental information presented in the ES and subsequently provided by consultees and the public is taken into consideration in the development consent process. Put simply, there is a danger that if the ES is difficult to understand the environmental information cannot be correctly taken into consideration.

With the government intent on simplifying planning, EIA practitioners need to look back to the 1980s and examine whether we are achieving the purposes of EIA as envisaged when the Directive first came into effect.


This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice. To discuss the themes raised by the article with other environmental professionals visit IEMA’s LinkedIn group.

Philip Rowell and Martin Hendry are directors of Adams Hendry Consulting

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