There are few parts of planning and development that suffer more in the PR stakes than Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
Overly long documents, expensive, complicated and impenetrable regulations, and a legal minefield; it often looks on the outside like EIA, and to a lesser extent Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and Sustainability Appraisals (SA), are simply a roadblock for development.
However, despite the bad press, it is important to be reminded of some of the key benefits of environmental assessment.
At a very early stage in the process, it brings statutory and non-statutory stakeholders together to identify potential environmental impacts. The scoping stage gives the development team time to resolve issues and work with different stakeholders to solve conflicting issues. This time can prove invaluable for large-scale projects and front-load the consultation process.
Secondly, environmental assessment improves design. Rather than assessments being undertaken right before planning application stage, the EIA process necessitates work which can identify design changes and environmental improvements much earlier in the process, which saves time and protracted discussions later in the determination process.
Finally, it helps identify impacts and mitigation and monitoring measures at an early stage and in a co-ordinated way, which allows the development team to form a holistic strategy for the delivery of enhancements, off-site works and any relevant financial contributions.
All of this is not to say that some of the complaints are not fair. Environmental Statements continue to be bloated as relevant parties adopt a ‘belt and braces’ approach to scoping in topics, rather than focusing on the “main” or “significant” environmental effects, as required by the Planning Practice Guidance.
How this subsequently plays out in the coming months following the government’s White Paper is subject to much debate. It identifies that environmental assessment is complex and bureaucratic, and that there is the potential to simplify the process. However, how this sits alongside the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and the proposals set out in the Environment Bill will require careful thought to ensure that the key benefits of environmental assessment are not lost, whilst also ensuring shortcuts are not taken on actual assessment of environmental impacts.
There’s opportunity for change ahead, and certainly the potential for a rebrand in the eyes of the development industry, but hopefully not at the expense of an incredibly valuable assessment tool.