In the context of sustained investment in infrastructure and other developments in the UK and the imponderable that is Brexit, the strategy notably describes how EIA has become disproportionate and the resultant environmental statements have become “cumbersome” over time. Tellingly, however, the strategy identifies that it is not so much the EIA tool itself that is the causal factor but more the “cumulative consequence of the way it has been used”.
By way of mitigation, the strategy rightly points to recent professional, industry and central government initiatives and policy changes in the UK since the EIA Directive (2014/52/EU) that have aimed to streamline EIAs. The fruits of these interventions still have to be seen and the strategy sounds a note of caution in terms of the likely efficacy of such measures if left to play out as they are.
Fundamentally, the strategy points at coordinated collaboration between all the key stakeholders as being the central ingredient in effecting the sea change necessary to bring about proportional EIAs. The strategy identifies four key themes for action as of greatest importance for achieving the goal:
- enhancing people to increase the skills, knowledge and confidence of all the relevant personnel and reduce reliance on a precautionary approach
- improving scoping to generate a consistently focused approach from the earliest stages of a project
- sharing responsibility in recognition that collaborative actions will enable proportionate assessment
- embracing innovation and digital in recognition of the role that this can play in modernising assessments and making them more efficient.
The energy expended thus far in encouraging efficiency in EIA should be roundly applauded and greeted with much optimism. However, the strategy reflects that changes will not happen quickly. Within that context, “What should the expectation be in terms of delivering proportionate EIA in the short to medium term, particularly in light of the immediate requirements of the new Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2017 in all its derivations?”
It should be clear from the outset that an underlying tenet of the 2017 EIA regulations is to streamline assessments. Indeed, the emphasis now placed on scoping lies central to this desire and the attempt to establish a focused EIA subsequently. However, various pressures and challenges that need addressing and overcoming will remain:
- additional burden from the updated EIA process: A potentially heavier scoping burden with additional or expanded assessment topics, including climate change, human health, biodiversity and the effect of major accidents, is likely to ‘bulk up’ the process if not managed carefully.
- the uncertainty of legal challenge: Challenges could be raised with respect to the ‘competency’ of experts and EIA practitioners; the scope agreed with the determining authority; new subject areas of assessment with no or newly established guidance or good practice; and the competency of the determining authority. Overall, history teaches that a precautious or defensive approach could result.
- developer and/or consultancy caution: Although certainly not true for all, historically, EIAs have been overly precautionary, often including assessments that could have been ‘scoped out’. The requirement to consider additional topics has the potential to compound that situation.
- the wide spectrum of determining authorities: With variable available resources and often-differing perceptions of what is an acceptable and competent assessment, achieving a consistent approach will be challenging.
- changing historical behaviours: The reasons for EIA growing disproportionate over time are well publicised within the strategy. In the short to medium term, this will likely remain the case.
These challenges are not exhaustive and represent potentially significant hurdles to achieving the goal of proportionate EIAs. The degree to which these hurdles can be overcome will largely come down to the extent to which the collaborative essence of the IEMA strategy and the four themes for action are adopted. Each key stakeholder will have their part to play, in particular:
- Developers will need to provide the information necessary to facilitate effective scoping, i.e., front loading; ensure transparent and proactive public dialogue and engagement; and engage early in the development process with determining authorities.
- EIA consultants and practitioners, in conjunction with IEMA, will need to lead the way in establishing a common approach; show willingness (along with the developer) to provide an informed and bold approach to scope out insignificant issues; and provide the necessary assurance of technical competency. Consultants will play a key role in facilitating appropriate collaboration between the project and the determining authorities.
- Determining authorities must individually seek to be proportionate in their advice and requirements, although consistency across all consenting bodies may not be a realistic goal. Being receptive to early engagement by applicants will be important. Ultimately, instilling confidence in the planning system, managing the expectations of all the stakeholders and working collaboratively with developers and consultants during scoping to refine the EIA will be key.
- Consultees will also need to be proportionate and, as with determining authorities, consistent with respect to requirements and/or expectations.
For the longer term, the strategy is a significant kick-start and foundation on which to progress towards effective and proportionate EIAs. The 2017 EIA regulations will likely contribute to this aspiration in the longer term but, in the short to medium term, they have the potential to compound the inflated form that EIA has taken in the UK.
The opportunity is now here, however, for all stakeholders to play an important role, both individually and in collaboration, in moving towards a proportionate approach to the EIA process.
For more information, please contact Mike Kelly +44 (0)141 418 0471).