More effective screening?

21st November 2011


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Environmental impact assessment (EIA) practitioners could benefit from taking a step back from the details and focusing on the underlying question of significant effect, argues Turley Associates' Matthew Sheppard

IEMA’s special report on the state of EIA Practice in the UK included a wordle (see above), which reflects, in terms of size and placement, the number of times particular words were used during the workshops which fed into the research.

There are no prizes for guessing that EIA was the most commonly used word, however, “need” also featured highly and I suspect this is due to practitioners’ concern with screening.

We have all read articles on ineffective screening practices, on the fear of legal challenge and on the problems of not having the right bits of paper in the right place at the right time. Furthermore, while articles about new EIA cases are helpful, and certainly easier to digest than the full cases, they also breed a general fear of missing a technical or obscure legal point. We are constantly reminded about the legal pitfalls and their consequences.

Screening is very complicated and we are rightly concerned with getting it right. This can, however, leave us focusing on safer areas such as the detail of the method or process. The EIA Regulations and Circulars help us along this path, as do the ever-present case reports and refresher seminars. I have read many screening requests that quote parts of the Regulations and follow a clear process, but which don’t actually get down to the central question of whether a significant effect on the environment is likely.

Of course, if we are going to protect our clients and produce good quality, robust screening requests, knowing the detailed points is important. Following the right process is critical and addressing the findings of the latest ruling could be fundamental. But at the same time, we cannot lose sight of the truly important questions and we must try to answer them.

When addressing the question of whether a significant effect is likely, the key points I try to remember are not about Baker or Barker, but about judgement, rigour and balance.

The early cases heard in the European Court of Justice taught us a great deal about being sensible in our judgements. They encouraged us to think widely and practically about a project. They almost suggest that we ask ourselves how the average person on the street would define the project, along with its likely effects on the environment.

The use of judgement is critical in both defining the project and trying to understand the likely magnitude and significance of effects when we don’t have the benefit of a report that tells us what the effects are, whether they can be mitigated or how.
Rigour is straight forward to apply in EIA work. We have various methods and processes clearly outlined in guidelines from a variety of sources. However, we still need to make sure that we cover the ground. We should look at high-level sensitivity as defined by the Regulations, but also consider more localised concerns or issues.

Most importantly, we should apply rigour in setting out our thought processes and in justifying our judgements. This will help us, and the receiving officer, to provide the full reasons for the screening opinion. When we make any judgement, it is important to justify it by setting out the information and the logic sitting behind that view. That said, rigour will only work if good judgement also being applied.

Balance is the final key factor. EIA practitioners know the different processes and their pitfalls, and it can be easy to fall back on technical rigour. Balance is the thought process that helps us come to decide whether EIA is actually needed in a particular case. Balance informs our judgement and asks us if we are being reasonable and clear. Process, detail, research and experience all come together to assist with balanced decision making.

It may be we can reduce our concerns about screening by keeping it simple. At its most basic level any screening request or opinion should answer the core provision of the Directive. If a significant effect is likely, then EIA is needed. With the right judgements, rigour and a balanced viewpoint, this opinion should be easy to reach. Sometimes, we just need to remind ourselves to stop focusing on the details, step back and take a look at the bigger question.

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.

Matthew Sheppard is head of EIA at Turley Associates, E: [email protected]


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