Keeping track of best practice

29th May 2012

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Chris Garratt discusses the increasingly significant role to be played by non-statutory bodies in defining best practice in environmental impact assessment (EIA)

It is not the role of the EIA practitioner to be an expert in each technical topic potentially covered by EIA, however, it is important that practitioners have adequate understanding to be able to critique technical assessments undertaken by the project team and ensure that the environmental statement is robust.

Critiquing technical work is normally accomplished through a combination of EIA experience, common sense and an understanding of the agreed best practice guidance for the industry sector.

Much of the best practice guidance in England was, until recently, contained in the government’s planning policy statements and guidance (PPS/PPG) practice guides. Following the publication of the national planning policy framework (NPPF) these PPSs/PPGs have been revoked, for the most part.

Much has been said about the introduction of the NPPF and the reduction of over 1,000 pages of guidance down to 59 (or 83 if you include the technical guidance).

However, although the accompanying technical guidance still covers flooding and minerals, most of the previous guidance no longer exists and the government has stated it will not reproduce guidance where this could be better provided by statutory and non-statutory bodies.

Considering the government’s approach to planning since getting into power, its stance on the production of guidance is not surprising, especially as the assessment of certain topics in EIA have been based on guidance produced by statutory and non-statutory bodies for many years. One example of this is the guidance on landscape and visual impact assessment produced by IEMA and the Landscape Institute, which is the generally accepted industry standard for landscape professionals.

However, in the age of the NPPF with non-statutory bodies gaining more control over their field, the question must be raised over how best practice is governed? With different groups producing different guidance documents, who decides which guidance is deemed best practice for a particular topic? And if your assessment is not in line with this guidance, does this mean your EIA not robust?

The best statements

An environmental statement produced in accordance with the review criteria of the IEMA EIA Quality Mark is considered best practice, but a regulatory compliant environmental statement does not have to meet all of these criteria to still be fit for purpose.

In terms of the EIA technical assessments and using ecological protected species as an example, the purpose of undertaking the impact assessment is to ensure compliance with relevant legislation - generally to avoid killing, injuring or disturbing protected species. However, the legislation does not specify the level of survey effort that is appropriate to determine the presence of the species.

In early 2012, several of the EIAs being managed by NJL were to include bat surveys, which would be undertaken in line with the best practice guidance produced by the Bat Conservation Trust (BCT).

The survey scope, timings and fees were agreed by the client and EIA programmes were established that took into account the bat survey season. However, in April 2012, the BCT published their revised guidance that significantly increased the level and duration of survey effort required to establish the presence of bats.

The publication of the revised guidance, raised the question of whether this meant that the scope of the agreed bat survey was no longer robust, even though it had been accepted as best practice a day earlier.

Ultimately, it is up to the local planning authority to decide whether the technical work undertaken as part of the EIA is appropriate for assessing the likely significant effects on the environment, but we are all aware of inconsistencies between local authority areas, whereby some are sticklers for best practice and others are not so strict.

Unfortunately for the government, which is trying to streamline the planning process, increasing the amount of influence non-statutory bodies have in determining what is considered best practice is only likely to increase the level of work and the subsequent costs and time required to undertake an EIA.

For the EIA practitioner, who needs to ensure the environmental statement is robust, as more technical guidance emerges it will be increasingly important to determine during the scoping stage what topics are to be assessed and what assessment methodologies are deemed appropriate by the local planning authority.

It will also be important to keep track of this emerging guidance to ensure that any new requirements, as well as the associated time and cost implications, are taken into account within both the assessment process and the project management of the EIA itself.

This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice.

Chris Garratt, AIEMA, is a senior consultant at NJL Consulting


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