Neither judge, nor jury in LVIA

2nd January 2014

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Rachael Sparrow

Paul Nicholson from Mouchel discuss the role of professional judgement in landscape and visual impact assessment (LVIA)

The publication of the third edition of the Guidelines for landscape and visual impact assessment (GLVIA3) is a timely update of good practice for landscape professionals engaged in LVIA.

As public awareness of green infrastructure increases and in particular the potential impacts of renewable energies on landscape and visual amenity, so the quality of LVIA processes fall under greater intensive scrutiny. With this in mind, will GLVIA3, in advocating the role of professional judgement, help to deliver more robust, defendable outcomes?

Occupational objectivity

A recurring misconception is that professional judgement in LVIA is subjective, particularly in comparison to other environmental disciplines. As a landscape architect undertaking LVIA, I would argue that objectivity is at the core of professional judgement.

A great deal of evidence gathered in LVIA is factual and quantifiable. The distinct patterns of physical and cultural elements in a landscape can be objectively described, while many outcomes from the design process can be quantified; for instance the net loss or gain of linear hedgerow or woodland cover as a consequence of a development.

The measurement and evaluation of views potentially experienced by sensitive receptors can be exacting; composition of view, distance, aspect, and even earth curvature can affect the perception of views.

Yet there is inherently a human, emotive aspect to landscape and visual context that goes beyond the factual and which by nature is more open to subjective challenge. A “sense of place” or the perceived aesthetic merit of a view, for instance, which are less tangible to define. It is here that “objective insight” relies on experienced professional judgement to convey significance where there is no alternative measure.

Poor practice in LVIA is often a result of the failure to communicate these aspects clearly and objectively to the decision maker, the competent authority.

Raising the bar

In looking to raise the standard of the assessment process, GLVIA3 advocates a more descriptive based approach. It stands to reason that, where a great deal of factual and emotive evidence is distilled into a simple scale of predicted effects, our judgements should demand focused description.

The use of matrices remains a relevant and justifiable means of qualifying evidence, yet for LVIA it is a process that invariably benefits from moderation and application of judgement. Used in isolation, matrices can often tend to dictate decision-forming processes rather than guide them.

Good professional judgement in LVIA also relies on the flexibility to question and verify the outcomes of the evidence gathered through a moderation process. The involvement of a competent senior professional will encourage proportionality and consistency, in particular where more than one individual has contributed to the assessment process. This “step back” approach enables potentially significant issues to emerge through iterative dialogue, to inform the decision-making process.

Description-led professional judgements must, of course, rely on verifiable process to be justifiable and robust. Leading organisations have already set out detailed parameters for qualifying judgement. Scottish Natural Heritage’s prescriptive measures on photomontage for wind farm developments and English Heritage’s publication Seeing the history in the view are two such examples. Landscape professionals should seek to embrace such prescriptive resources as an aid to professional judgement, rather than as an encumbrance to it.

The role of professional judgement should not be confined to the reporting content of an environmental statement. The scoping, and judgement, process begins at project inception, in contributing to site or route selection processes, as well as identifying appropriate physical mitigation strategies for effects that cannot be avoided.

The value of continual scoping cannot be overstated and a lack of sufficient, iterative dialogue with the competent authority may reflect in the lower quality of some LVIA outputs, or even place the success of a development proposal at risk. The current proposed update of the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive would, if ratified, make scoping opinions obligatory and empower a competent authority to request additional mitigation measures. This would reinforce the value of appropriate dialogue and verifiable professional judgement.

The need for professional judgement is a sustained commitment. It requires an awareness and delivery of obligations to the scheme developer and to the competent authority; an understanding of what is “appropriate” to assess; objectivity in making judgement; and, ultimately, clarity of information to verify it.

As landscape professionals it is inevitable that the nature of our judgement will be brought into question. The guidance in GLVIA3 makes credible steps in encouraging the application of our judgement to be more relevant, robust and above all, defendable.

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


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