QMark: Developing the realistic worst case

16th March 2017


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  • Business & Industry ,
  • Built environment ,
  • Planning ,
  • Management

Author

Marion Hall

Steve Pearce, associate environmental consultant at AECOM, outlines the role of an EIA coordinator in developing the realistic worst case for design and construction.

When a development is built, it is likely to differ from original plans submitted at the consenting stage. In reality, at the detailed design or construction stage, the client or their contractors will identify new, better and cheaper designs for the development, or more efficient ways to construct it.

It may prove to be impossible to construct the original design or to use the anticipated construction methods, for example ground conditions may not be as expected, or the presence of previously unrecorded utilities may be identified post consent and their diversion would result in prohibitive costs.

This might seem contrary to the purpose of schedule 4 of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) regulations, which requires project details to be reported in the environmental statement (ES); however for reasons of commercial and/or technical necessity, changes are likely on all major projects.

To deal with this from an assessment and consenting perspective, during the detailed design stage the project team is likely to be required by the decision maker to demonstrate that any changes to the design or construction methods do not exceed what was originally assessed, or as the lawyers would say, that there will be no ‘materially new or materially different significant effects’.

Effective EIA work will be of value during the post-planning stages rather than just informing the initial consenting process. The basis of the assessment used in the EIA can be vital in helping reduce the risk of reapplication and consequent impacts on the project programme and budget by ensuring that environmental effects reported in the ES will not be materially different if changes are made in the final scheme. In order to do this, EIA practitioners need to develop a realistic worst case for assessment.

It is becoming commonplace for Transport and Works Act conditions and Development Consent Order requirements to include a need for the local authority to approve any substantial changes to consented projects. Developers will be asked to show that no materially new or materially different significant environmental effects are likely.

If numerous post-consent changes are required, this presents a risk, as the fate of a project may rest with the local planning authority. This defeats the purpose of having a national infrastructure consenting regime to some extent.

The greater the certainty at the pre-application stage about how the project will eventually be constructed, the greater the confidence that it can be delivered on schedule and without the expense of additional consenting hurdles and mitigation.

This emphasises the importance of having information relevant both to the environmental assessment and design work at the early planning stages. It also stresses the value of early contractor involvement, either as project partners (or even as project leads) or on a consultancy basis, to help inform the design. Contractor input is invaluable in ensuring that what has been designed can be built, how sites will be accessed, what techniques and plant will be used, how long construction will take and whether phases of construction will be contiguous or will overlap.

While the pre-application stage can be a relatively high-level design stage, early contractor involvement will support the development of a robust, realistic worst case suitable for assessment. The critical role of the EIA coordinator is to be the counterbalance to the optimism of the applicant, the designers and even the contractor, typically by asking one key question: ‘Would you be happy to be held to that?’

When challenged with this question, which could relate to issues such as the programme, the number of heavy goods vehicles travelling to the site each day, or the method of piling, the result is usually agreement to a slightly more pessimistic case, and therefore a more robust EIA, which is less likely to need to be revisited post consent.

The benefits of this approach are in de-risking the post consent stages by minimising the potential for resubmission, the need to deploy costly techniques and mitigation, or the risk of potential delays. Sometimes pessimism is the best option.

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