The proposed EIA Directive: a consultants view

1st February 2013

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Claire Steele gives an insight into how practitioners at SKM Enviros view the European Commission's suggested amendments to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive

The European Commission published its proposal for amendments to the EIA Directive in October 2012. As part of its response, IEMA has initiated a series of workshops for practitioners around the UK. To coincide with those workshops, this article provides initial thoughts from experienced EIA consultants that have been active practitioners since the original EIA Directive was enacted in 1985.

While the EIA Directive has been amended only three times, the EIA practice has changed significantly over the past three decades. The obvious difference is that it was previously not uncommon for the consultant involved to write an entire environmental statement (ES) in just 20 pages. Nowadays, as the discipline has matured and expectations of good EIA practice have risen, the quantity and quality of work required is much greater. The danger of this evolution is that the resulting documentation is now unnecessarily lengthy with substantive issues obscured by lack of focus, which blurs what EIA practice sought to make clear.

The commission has proposed merging the screening and scoping process, and while this may make things simpler practically and commercially, some concerns have arisen. For example, projects often do not fit seamlessly into the activities stated in Annex II, and the proposal may also make the environmental reporting at the scoping stage more onerous to developers in terms of the level of detail to be submitted.

The commission’s clarification on the content of formal scoping opinions, however, is seen as a positive amendment. Currently, the standard of screening and scoping opinions from planning authorities varies broadly, from being focused and constructive to those that fall back on uninformed or politically-influenced, global “catch all” requirements. However, the capacity for some planning authorities to meet the proposed requirements (and for larger numbers of projects) is likely to be an issue.

The proposed revision to timeframes for decision making and public consultation is an amendment that most EIA practitioners would appreciate. However, the timeframe will potentially only be shortened for decisions on planning permission, as the decisions on screening/scoping will, in effect, be longer than current practice in the UK. SKM’s consultants therefore consider the proposed three months timeframe to be too long at that early stage of the project, when the developer needs certainty on the level of EIA assessment required and the likely time to construction.

The commission’s proposal for mandatory reporting on alternatives in the ES comes as a welcome relief for many EIA consultants. The view of our practitioners is that consultants are often brought in too late to the process, after a specific development site has been selected and the opportunity to examine other options may have been lost. If this amendment is enacted, the greater clarity on planning authority requirements at the scoping stage may improve on the current grey area around expectations in the assessment of alternatives.

The suggested list of new topics to be covered in the ES was of interest, particularly in relation to climate change. While some may argue that these issues already covered in UK legislation, the broadened definitions could be useful for large projects in particular, where coverage of this important issue has been quite weak historically.

The proposed requirement to report on proposals for monitoring in the ES has thrown up some contrasting views. Typically EIA consultants are commissioned only to the point at which a planning application is approved. The detail of monitoring undertaken to satisfy planning conditions is often prepared through contractors with lesser expertise or concern for environmental protection.

There are advantages in defining these requirements in detail in the ES for consideration by the planning authority and their consultees. The main issue will continue to be in the effective implementation through an environmental management plan. That said, for disciplines such as ecology, noise, air quality and archaeology, agreement on monitoring requirements at the EIA stage is already commonplace.

Finally, the amendment relating to quality assurance was welcomed. Ultimately the success of the EIA process is dependent on the competency of the organisations and people involved. However, careful consideration is required as to whether accreditation should be required of the consultancy practice or the individual consultant.

While we await commission developments practitioners at SKM agree that, on balance, the proposed amendments should provide a net improvement for those who work in the EIA field. The lack of clarity on how such changes will be transposed into UK legislation, however, remains a key uncertainty.

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

Claire Steele is a consultant at SKM Enviros

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