Making an impact - 25 years of EIA

12th June 2011


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The environmental impact assessment Directive is 25 years old. Lucie Ponting reports on its influence and what now needs to change.

More than 10,000 infrastructure projects in the UK have been subject to an environmental impact assessment (EIA) since the process became a legal requirement for certain developments in the late 1980s.

Initially, UK policymakers expected “a couple of dozen” assessments a year, which is a far cry from current estimates putting the annual figure for the past decade at more like 500–600.

EIA is a systematic way of ensuring a project’s significant environmental implications are considered before it goes ahead. Each assessment involves a series of steps that help to identify and predict associated environmental effects, and then avoid or reduce these through various mitigation measures.

The UK system is based on a 1985 European Directive (85/337/EEC) – and its three subsequent amendments. The Directive is implemented via more than 20 sets of EIA Regulations that apply to development consent regimes in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Over the past two decades, legislative amendments, legal decisions and changes in practice have driven EIA forward to the point where it is now increasingly embedded at the design stage of developments.

A 2009 EU review of the effectiveness of the Directive concluded that the current process takes into account environmental considerations “as early as possible in the decision-making process”, and by involving the public, “ensures more transparency in environmental decision making and, consequently, social acceptance”.

In the UK, a 2010 survey by IEMA found that more than two-thirds of respondents felt the Directive “always or often” contributes to effective protection of the environment and quality of life.

Yet, despite these largely positive verdicts, and significant incremental improvements in EIA practice since the early 1990s, some bottlenecks and weaknesses remain. Most practitioners agree the legislative framework is fundamentally robust and fit-for-purpose. But they also want to see improvements in key areas such as scoping, communication with stakeholders and mitigation.

Changing times

The most important change over the past 20 or so years, according to Topsy Rudd of Cascade Consulting, is a move to mitigate impacts through design.

“Initially,” she explains, “mitigation was an ‘add-on’ at the end to try to mitigate impacts. Now, it’s definitely been brought further up into the design phase, so a lot of impacts are designed out.”

The main reason for this, she argues, is because EIA teams now get more involved with the developer’s design team. “Designs are tending to improve as a result of that,” she says.

Another key change has been increased professionalism in EIA practice. In the early years, people from a range of disciplines and backgrounds came into the field and carried out the first assessments.

“Now, EIA is very much becoming a profession itself,” says Ross Marshall, head of the Environment Agency’s National Environmental Assessment Service, “and the type of people moving into it are coming through a more technical and professional route, often with a postgraduate qualification in EIA and environmental risk management.”

Alongside this, there has been greater standardisation in EIA practice. “What has changed is that there’s a greater general awareness among consultants of the approaches, techniques and methods of assessment,” says Iain Bell, regional director for environment at consultancy AECOM. “There’s also a greater understanding of the expectations.”

The highways sector, for example, early on created a standard for everyone to follow. And other sectors, without such a strong government lead, have also developed their own common methods.

Too much information?

Bell believes greater standardisation has been accelerated by several things, including a fear of legal challenge, legal precedents that have altered practice, and practitioners generally getting better at what they do. “The key driver behind all these things is people trying to get consent,” he says.

To illustrate the extent to which things have moved on, Marshall points to a couple of very early Scottish Environmental Statements (ESs).

“One for an asbestos landfill site in 1988 was just five pages long, with two of these devoted to maps, and focused purely on health and safety,” he says. “Another 60-page ES for a waste incinerator, also in the late 1980s, didn’t ever actually mention the word environment.”

The content of ESs – which are the documents used to communicate the EIA’s results to decision makers and other stakeholders – is laid down in the legislation. But in line with a trend to more detailed and lengthier assessments, documents are regularly more than 500 pages.

“ESs have definitely got heftier,” says Bell, “which is at least in part a consequence of greater standardisation and the desire to avoid legal challenge.”

The danger of this increased bulk is that the statement sometimes misses the key fundamentals, which are to communicate, get to the point, and focus on the mitigation.

Results from an online survey by IEMA show one-quarter of respondents believe the current length of ESs reduces their value to all audiences, even those with specialist environmental knowledge. This situation is worse in relation to less technical audiences, with nearly two-thirds (66.5%) believing the current length reduces the value of EIA to local communities.

Alistair Billington, technical director at consultants ERM, picks up the issue of better communication. “With the EIA process now pretty much mature, there’s now an opportunity to make the outputs of EIA a bit more user friendly, and that’s where I think the focus for the future should be,” he says.

“Rather than it just being tomes of documentation, we need to find different and more efficient ways of communicating with decision makers and the public. At the moment, the emphasis with major infrastructure projects is around consultation. And obviously, for that you need to have a really good understanding of who the audience is and what you’re trying to tell it.

“Some audiences are happy to take away a written leaflet or report. But others would benefit from a more practical or visual approach, perhaps through a DVD or interactive workshop, in order to understand and grasp the breadth of issues.”

Scope creep

One way of reining in overly long ESs might be to use scoping more effectively. “Scoping is supposed to be a tool for identifying the most important issues,” says Bell. “But some local authorities have tended to be too cautious and include every issue, rather than using scoping to get to the heart of the matter more quickly.”

Cascade’s Rudd agrees that scoping could be done more effectively to concentrate on the issues that really matter and avoid the “do everything to cover our back” syndrome.

“Scoping takes a lot of time and often results in more topics being scoped in than out,” she explains. “Stakeholders often think that a topic should be assessed, but without considering whether it’s actually significant or not. Sometimes they don’t have enough time to think about it, so they scope in defensively in order to cover everything.”

IEMA’s own research also identified weaknesses in EIA “screening”, the process by which consenting authorities decide which discretionary projects should be subject to assessment.

While practitioners largely agree that the existing regulatory framework for screening is effective, they argue that its practical application, via case-by-case assessment, requires more consistency.

IEMA members attending a series of workshops in both 2009 and 2010 particularly felt that local authority planning staff can lack competence or experience, and developers are often unable to get timely responses to screening requests. Evidence collected by the Institute suggests that, in the UK at least, ineffective screening is more likely to result in no EIA, rather than in an overzealous application of the process.

Follow-up

At the other end of the EIA process, some practitioners would like more follow-up to check whether what is contained in the ES actually happens after consent.

“We include measures to avoid, reduce, and remedy effects,” says AECOM’s Bell. “But we rarely have the opportunity to confirm these were implemented effectively, or that they were successful.”

He believes it is particularly important to start learning more about what has been effective, or not effective, in past projects, and to focus more closely on the successful implementation of mitigation.

“In most cases, local planning authorities (LPAs) don’t check that mitigation is implemented on the ground, so it’s largely left to the developer,” explains Rudd at Cascade. Marshall confirms the point about local authority checks.

He has experienced several projects in which authorities lacked the staff resources to follow up on the planning conditions for developments, including hospitals and wastewater treatment plants, and concentrated their resources solely on the application.

“There are lots of reasons why mitigation measures don’t happen,” says Rudd. “But often it’s because of a change of team. Once the developer has got consent, influence passes from the planning team to the construction team.

“In some cases, what the ES says is not explained clearly in documents that go to the contracting team, and they don’t always have motivation to implement all the mitigation measures, because it’s not checked or followed up properly.”

On the ground, LPAs could improve things by ensuring required mitigation is conditioned and monitored. For their part, EIA practitioners could help by ensuring mitigation is built into the design and construction process, or is carried forward into an environmental management plan (EMP) that the LPA can include in consent conditions.

“The most practical way to improve things,” says Rudd, “is to tie things up earlier in the design process and write a detailed EMP.”

Rules of the game

For Billington, one of the biggest ongoing stumbling blocks in the system is a lack of consistency and understanding of their role among statutory consultees, such as Natural England and the Environment Agency.

He would like to see the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) and possibly Defra giving more of a “top-down leadership steer” to the departments and organisations that sit under them about how to respond to legislative changes, evolution in practice and what case law is telling them.

The CLG already provides clear direction to chief planning officers when new legislation comes in, or there is a new legal decision. But non-decision-making bodies, who need to inform the decision makers, do not get the same steer.

“One of the results of this,” says Billington, “is that you can have 10 different officers in 10 different regions all interpreting things slightly differently.”

He acknowledges that there will always be local nuances, but adds that in terms of interpreting key issues, it should be possible for the EA, Natural England and Defra to have a “roughly consistent” view. “Given that we now have national strategies, we should have national-level approaches from the statutory agencies.”

When EIA was first introduced, it was one of only a limited number of assessment tools applicable to development proposals. Today, that picture is very different, and developers have a raft of assessments to deal with pre-application, including flood risk assessment, assessments linked to Habitats Regulations, ecological impact assessment, sustainability appraisal, health impact assessments, and energy statements.

“One that arises fairly frequently is the Habitats Regulations assessment,” says Rudd. “You have separate processes, under two different Directives, to undertake in parallel.”

She points to a “fairly big disconnect” with other documents too, such as sustainability statements and health impact assessments. “There is quite a lot of repetition in those various documents, but not really a central core to pull it all together.”

Rudd would also like better clarification of what needs doing in the ES, and what could be covered elsewhere in the planning application. “This is an area of some duplication,” she says, “because planning authorities quite often require a lot of work to be repeated.”

Conversely, some ESs omit information on the basis that it will be provided within other planning application documents.

Test of time

The UK is about to enter a period of major infrastructure renewal. In this context, EIA’s role in helping to determine the speed and pattern of development, as well as mitigating the effects on the environment, will be crucial.

“We’ve now reached a certain level of maturity, with most of the big questions answered, either through case law or evolution in practice,” says Billington. “If it goes wrong now,” he argues, “it is usually down to the behaviour of those involved, rather than the system itself.”

He usually tries to get people to view the process not as a series of hurdles, but as a positive delivery tool that provides a framework within which to deliver a project.

“The system is not there to stop a development happening,” he emphasises, “but to make sure it goes ahead in the best possible way.”

Bell puts it like this: “If it [the EIA framework] didn’t exist, you’d have to invent it. It’s one of those things that when you have it, people might find it slow and bureaucratic. But in fact there’s a reason why these things are as they are. There is a need for people to be consulted, and to review documents and provide comments.”

“You often still get people saying EIA delays the process because of all the conflict,” adds Marshall. “But the conflict would have been there anyway. I’ve always found a well-managed EIA with a structured, well-presented ES that is balanced, open and transparent has lowered conflict, because people can see the pros and cons, and the reasons behind it.”

Area’s for action

There are six key areas for action to improve EIA practice in the UK as defined by IEMA in it's special report, The state of EIA practice in the UK:

  • a focus on communicating the added-value generated by EIAs;
  • realising the efficiencies of effective EIA coordination;
  • developing new partnerships to enhance the EIA process;
  • listening, communicating and engaging effectively with communities;
  • practitioners actively working together to tackle the difficult issues in EIA; and
  • delivering environmental outcomes that work now and in the future.

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