What is the purpose of EIA?

15th March 2013

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With new legislation on the horizon Mouchel's Paul Reid reflects on the importance of remembering the ultimate aim of environmental impact assessment (EIA)

2014 is due to witness the adoption of a modified EIA Directive. The stated objectives behind this change in legislation are the establishment of consistency in the application of EIA across member states and the incorporation of environmental concerns which have come to the fore since the Directive was introduced in the mid 1980s. EU member states are likely be given two to three years to transpose the new Directive into UK legislation.

With these changes on the horizon, now is perhaps a good time to reflect on the ultimate purpose of the EIA Directive; how this may change, if at all; and put forward a plea for all parties with an interest in the development consent process to recognise and respect that purpose. Having been involved in many public inquiries since the arrival of the Directive and the subsequent EIA Regulations, a case for clarity is difficult to argue against.

The public inquiry forum, in my experience, demonstrates just how misunderstood EIA is. Misinterpretation of the purpose behind EIA, be it intentional or not, is frequently time consuming and costly.

Nobody wins other than the professionals contributing to the argument; professionals which, of course, include those of us providing environmental expertise to the leading players in the consent process – the promoter and the competent authority.

Despite the impression given by many environmental practitioners, government advisers, interest groups and members of the public, there is no environmental virtue in the existing Directive and Regulations, they simply impose a procedure that must be followed.

They do not require the competent authority to make a decision which is good for the environment, but one that is informed by an understanding of what significant effects are likely to occur, and what the promoter is proposing to do to address, if not redress, such effects.

There are many other statutory instruments and policies that require promoters and competent authorities to place due importance on the resources and relationships that constitute the form and status of our environment.

Many of those who spend time presenting evidence at public inquiry will be familiar with the accusation that the environmental statement they have helped compile is not worth the paper it is written on. Why? Because it does not include a sustainability appraisal, a traffic impact assessment or socio-economic assessment.

There is, of course, a place where these important concerns should be addressed to inform the development consent process. Their rightful home is in a sustainability appraisal, a traffic impact assessment and a socio-economic appraisal, not an environmental statement.

Why is it important that this should be the case? To ensure the purpose of EIA is not being confused. To ensure that the competent authority does not have to decide which parts of the information provided in the environmental statement constitute the environmental information which must be taken into account.

There may be reference to issues of sustainability in the environmental statement, but its objective is not to determine if a project is sustainable. The statement is there to provide information on what impacts might occur and if these are likely to have a significant effect on the environment.

The environmental statement will frequently, and correctly, include information regarding traffic which will inform the assessments relating to impacts on air quality and noise, for example. This does not constitute a traffic impact assessment, but an input to the description of the project.

Furthermore, many of the environmental impacts addressed in a statement will have clear implications for the populations considered to be environmental receptors. This does not, however, constitute a socio-economic appraisal.

The proposed changes to the Directive, while not seeking to change its fundamental purpose, heralds a step towards the better enforcement of environmental protection and the securing of conservation objectives.

The final Directive could, for instance, include an obligation to reconsider effects and what additional steps might be taken where it is concluded they are be likely to be significant.

There could also be a requirement to monitor the effectiveness of design and mitigation measures, and in the European Commission’s proposed amendments, there is recognition of the importance of issues related to biodiversity, climate change, disaster risks and use of natural resources.

Most importantly, the changes seek to secure a consistency of approach which has not been the case to date across member states.

It would be nice to think that this striving for consistency could be matched by those responsible for setting the scope of assessments; producing the information contained within them; and making the decisions as part of the EIA process, and that in the future we can be consistent by sticking to the real purpose behind EIA.

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

Paul Reid is a technical director at Mouchel.


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