Size is everything: proportionate EIA in the spotlight

4th August 2016

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  • Built environment ,
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Scale is important, particularly when it comes to information: provide too little and the recipient is ill-prepared to make the right decisions; provide too much and the impact of instructions gets lost in the detail.

Environmental impact assessment (EIA) is a prime example of how professionals need to balance depth of detail with transparency and clarity to ensure the right outcome. Development decisions rely on access to in-depth and comprehensive detail, prepared by competent experts. However, in recent years EIA environmental statements have become increasingly lengthy and disproportionate to the scale of the project they will influence. This is adding cost and time to projects, and is working against the reputation of EIA as an essential, valuable and effective process.

IEMA’s summit on proportionate EIA sought to discuss and debate practice, and identify action to turn back the tide on ever-longer environmental statements. Or, as a tweet from one delegate defined it, ‘tame and civilise’ the EIA process.

Held at Arup’s central London conference suite, the summit attracted EIA professionals from the UK and Ireland, each seizing the opportunity to contribute to a solution.

Opening the event, Stephanie McGibbon, associate director at Arup and an IEMA Fellow, acknowledged the challenge of addressing how disproportionate the EIA process and environmental statements had become, simply because assessments were already regarded as one of the most difficult areas of environmental law. Richard Gwilliam, senior consents officer at National Grid, described some environmental statements as ‘obese’. He said the day was an opportunity to achieve a consensus on what proportionate EIA means.

Rufus Howard, director of renewables and marine development at consultancy Royal HaskoningDHV and chair of IEMA’s impact assessment network, referenced the institute’s 2011 State of EIA report as a first step in acknowledging the importance of more proportionate EIA. However, practice had moved on since its publication. He reiterated the value of proportionate EIA, giving examples from his experience.

The morning sessions provided an opportunity for delegates to debate the proportionality of EIA in more detail. The scoping session, chaired by IEMA’s EIA lead Josh Fothergill, reached a consensus that, when carried out correctly, impact assessment is a useful and powerful tool, helping to manage risk and support multi-discipline teams working on projects. Nonetheless, delegates acknowledged that EIA had become lengthy and suggested practical ways of streamlining the process. Introducing a mandatory word limit for environmental statements and learning from practice in countries where EIA is carried out very successfully, such as the Netherlands and Hong Kong, could help professionals in the UK to deliver more proportionate EIA and statements.

The debate continued into the afternoon sessions, with regulatory change, technology, data and innovation and relationships in the EIA value chain discussed. There was a stimulating discussion on how established and emerging technologies could help reduce the length of statements and increasing the value of EIA.

The theme of moving to innovative, interactive EIAs emerged as a point of interest. The suggestion that the profession should abandon static, ‘old fashioned’ and unsustainable paper environmental statements in favour of multi-media ones that combine photography, audio, video and live charts to convey recommendations received universal support. The use of drones to photograph coastal erosion and monitor noise, for example, was suggested as a cheap and effective method of gathering the evidence to articulate potential impacts instead of thousands of unnecessary words.

Tom Simpson, team leader at the communities and local government department, and Peter Nesbit, partner and advocate in the planning team at Eversheds, presented on opportunities to drive proportionate EIA through regulatory amendments. They proposed introducing ‘authority to act’ on proportionate EIA.

The day concluded with delegates backing the view that the best way to make EIA fit for the future and relevant to it would be in applying the right technologies. This would make the EIA process and environmental statements more accessible, effective, relevant, ‘alive with meaning’ and, most of all, proportionate, they said.

Personal perspectives

Environmental impact assessments are evolving. Expectations are growing, the breadth of the work is wider and stakeholders are more involved. The case for proportionate EIA has never been higher. But the challenges are significant. Increased complexity threatens practitioners’ capacity to translate information into insightful advice that informs a clear understanding of the issues, and that ultimately ensures that the right decisions are taken. As an industry we must respond collaboratively and share ideas to inform best practice. It is why the IEMA summit was critical, and why Arup was delighted to support it. Our own experience, supporting significant projects, such as HS2 and the Thames Tideway Tunnel points to two major opportunities – scoping and communication. Our success in achieving proportionate and robust assessments has come about through internal scoping interviews. Significant effects are thought through early and form the basis for informed discussion with technical stakeholders. This would dramatically reduce the risk of late surprises. Improving efficiency is important but we also need to improve how we communicate information. Can we use technology to bring to life a project before it is built, and while the design is evolving? At Arup, we are using inclusive technology, such as Soundlab, to reduce the risks and uncertainty for all stakeholders. We are heading in the right direction and Arup looks forward to working with the IEMA network to continue meaningful progress towards more proportionate assessments.

Stephanie McGibbon, associate director.

Proportionate environmental impact assessment is a topic I feel particularly passionate about. Lengthy technical studies and large documents required to report what was already known are often obscuring the focus on the key issues. For practitioners, disproportionate EIA is a common scenario challenging resources and often creates an onerous perception of assessments. Jacobs has long been working on this issue on individual projects. IEMA’s proportionate EIA summit was our opportunity to join hands across the profession, step back and help to collectively facilitate fundamental change. I see two keys to success: identify pressures towards disproportionate EIA and find ways to relieve them; and break the “traditions” of EIA practice and reporting, and find new, more effective approaches for proportionate reporting. The summit brought together many in the profession to begin working towards a common goal. We now have to keep that momentum going.

Dan Johnston, senior consultant.

As a promoter of major infrastructure projects National Grid is routinely involved in the commissioning, development and management of environmental impact assessments. Like many in the industry, as EIA has matured we have seen a growth in the scale, volume and coverage of our environmental statements. Although this growth has been gradual, recent alterations to infrastructure planning, in particular, have delivered a marked change in the size of our development consent application documents. The consequences of disproportionate EIA are well documented but for us long, verbose and inaccessible statements create a barrier to effective decision-making, not just for the competent authority but also ourselves – for example, in deciding how to most effectively deploy mitigation on our projects to minimise any adverse environmental effects. Sponsoring IEMA’s summit demonstrates our commitment to seeking consensus on what makes assessment proportionate and ultimately how it can be used to deliver more sustainable projects.

Richard Gwilliam, senior consents officer.

The summit was sponsored by Arup, Jacobs and National Grid. Thanks to Stephanie McGibbon FIEMA, Lisa Ashari GradIEMA, Sophia White GradIEMA and Michael Tomiak for their support in delivering the event.


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