South London energy recovery facility - a complex future baseline

28th January 2016

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


Brian Morgan

Emma Robinson, associate director at Terence O'Rourke, highlights the difficulty of assessing future impacts of a development

In July 2012 Terence O’Rourke (TOR) submitted a detailed planning application, including a comprehensive EIA for the South London Energy Recovery Facility (ERF) at Beddington Farmlands landfill site in the London Borough of Sutton (LBS) on behalf of Viridor. Under the landfill consent, the whole site was subject to restoration proposals which would have resulted in habitat creation, management of the site for nature conservation and some public access, subject to operational considerations regarding the aftercare of the landfill.

The council’s scoping opinion included a requirement that the landscape and visual assessment and natural heritage assessment within the environmental statement (ES) must compare the predicted impacts of the proposed ERF against the future baseline post-2023 after the site was restored, rather than against current conditions.

There are considerable difficulties in making meaningful predictions about what the baseline conditions at a future point will be. For example, which species will be present on the site and in what numbers; how many local residents will be using the site; and how the restored site will look from the surrounding area. Given that the future baseline cannot be accurately measured, any assessment includes a significant degree of speculation and professional judgement.

The standard approach is for an ES to include consideration of the implications of the proposals on a detailed, measurable and current baseline. The future baseline is then usually considered in very general descriptive terms, except for topics that can quantifiably be more accurately predicted, such as background air quality or traffic flow, where a more detailed analysis is possible.

With regard to the council’s scoping opinion, it was felt that an assessment of potential impacts purely against a future baseline (that could not be measured) as opposed to a detailed assessment against a measurable baseline, was not a robust approach.

Professional experience and best practice suggest that conclusions in an ES need to be factual and quantifiable in order to be considered robust for use in determining the planning application. While it was accepted than an element of impact assessment is based on professional judgement, it was considered that the likely highly subjective nature of detailed future baseline work could provide a weakness or point of challenge to the EIA.

In March 2012, TOR wrote to the London Borough of Sutton to highlight the difficulties in assessing future baselines beyond a basic descriptive consideration. We proposed assessing the ES against current conditions as required by the EIA regulations. We also proposed a more detailed assessment of the future baseline as required in the EIA scoping opinion, but in a separate document to the ES.

The ES submitted in July 2012 therefore included an assessment of the potential impacts of the proposals against a robust 2012 baseline, and a basic assessment of the future baseline as it would be once the site was restored. A separate document assessed the proposed development against the 2023 restored baseline, which was based purely on professional projections of what the future restored site was likely to be.

However, LBS subsequently issued a regulation 22 request for the transfer of the text and figures from the separate future baseline document to a dedicated chapter within the ES. A new chapter was prepared and submitted in February 2013 as an addendum to the July 2012 ES. The findings and conclusions of this chapter were exactly as reported in the original separate document and did not alter the conclusions of the original ES.

In the author’s view, it is likely that consideration of the acceptability of the proposal, which received permission in May 2013, was best gleaned from the findings of the original main ES which looked at the impact of the proposed development on a detailed, measurable and robust existing baseline, rather than the future baseline, which, while constructed as accurately as possible, was inevitably more speculative and imprecise.


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