My EIA Principles

Andrew Mitchell 

My EIA Principles

No.1 - Don't Fear It

First published on LinkedIn, April 2020, Andrew Mitchell


Environmental Impact Assessment is not something someone is making you “do” to your project. Okay, it might be that. But I encourage you to change your mindset if you think it is. Make EIA itself a part and parcel of making your project something great, and you will reap the rewards.

The first thing I’d say, then, is allow for it. Be ready for the true cost and time that might be needed, right from the off. You don’t know for certain it’s required, sure, but either you’ve covered your liabilities or you have more liquidity and time before submission than you thought. Neither is a bad outcome.

Ask the hard questions now. Informally with your experts, or formally through the EIA screening process. You might think you don’t want to know the answers but I promise you do. We can deal with just about anything once we know, but until then the building blocks of getting your project ready to submit won't be in place. At least, not in the right place.

There’s a tendency when planning projects, rightly, to want to be ready for the worst when it comes to all manner of variables, but that doesn't always seem to apply to EIA. Maybe some genuinely don't know what it is. But for some deep down perhaps we don't want the EIA answer because we don’t fully understand it, we know it’s regulated in law, we think we can't control it, we see it only as more cost and time, and we fear what it might mean for our project. So our natural optimism for - and belief in - our project lets us imagine it’s not needed and hope for the best, or worse hide our faces and hope no one notices.

In my experience the most costly and time-consuming EIA is the one that wasn’t planned for, that the client didn’t see coming, didn’t know about or didn’t want to face, didn’t ask early enough. By then our opportunities to minimise negative effects and enhance positive ones through design may be vastly reduced, the otherwise meticulously planned project programme and budget is thrown, everything becomes a rush, and complexity and costs inevitably go up.

With time you have options. And with options you have some control. The sooner you know if EIA is in the project plan the better you can prepare, and the more efficiently you can do what’s needed.

So to my second key message. Don’t panic if your project is screened as requiring EIA. Breathe. Think. You allowed for it (clever you, see above) and now with any uncertainty gone, the opportunity is in front of you to embrace what EIA can do for your project. Make it better, help you achieve the consent you need to move forward, and in some instances even reduce the cost of the project overall through planned rather than reactive (or even...dare I say...emergency) mitigation and monitoring.

I have, very recently, managed two projects that could genuinely have gone either way at EIA screening. Both required EIA as it turned out, and since the uncertainty about significance of environmental effects was genuine that’s entirely right and proper - the precautionary principle. We moved quickly to scoping, engaged proactively and with foresight, and we agreed a very limited scope (in one example covering only three technical topics). Then we carried it out efficiently, and our contribution to achieving planning permission was done.

Think of it this way. It’s not in my - or any EIA consultant’s - longer term interests to make it any more complicated or expensive than it needs to be. No one will ever ask me to help them if I do.

I really do believe it serves us all - developers to local authorities, architects to engineers and consultants - to do EIA well when it’s justified and necessary and it serves a clear purpose, and to avoid doing it unnecessarily when it’s not. That's what the Regulations intended. I will always work hard - and push our project teams to help me - to make the case for EIA not being required if the position is justifiable.

But I also won’t apologise for EIA when it’s needed.

There is a reason EIA exists - to provide information to inform a consent decision, to protect the environment and humans from the negative effects of inappropriate development, to enhance and maximise the positive benefits of good development, and to lead ultimately to better, more considered and well-designed projects.

That’s not something to apologise for.

No.2 - Scope Confidently

So your project needs an Environmental Impact Assessment. Either you were expecting it or you weren't. Assess the fallout if it wasn't in the plan, lick your wounds too for a bit if you need to, but very soon get ready to move. Like I said in my last piece, with time you have options, and with options you have some control.

Right now no one knows your project better than you do. No one is in a better position than you (by proxy I mean your team of experts) to explain exactly what you want permission to do, how it might affect the environment and humans, and whether the impacts are likely to be significant.

I want us to consider that phrase - likely to be significant - without the semantic analysis of what likely means or what significant means in context. Don't get me wrong...that's important too, and I hope those greater minds than mine who wrestle with it eventually win. But for our purposes here I want to consider what the EIA Directive, and by association the Regulations, intended. Simply, that if there's reason to think an impact is likely to be significant, or you don't know if it's likely to be significant, it needs to be scoped in and assessed. If something is not likely to be significant, explain why and justify it, and propose to scope it out. It really was meant to be that simple.

The elephant in the room, always, is the professional judgement that must inevitably play a part in coming to that view. Especially at scoping when, by definition, a full technical assessment hasn't been carried out. So to the extent that I can base it in evidence, my professional judgement might differ to yours. Presented with the same information (facts, evidence, anecdote or opinion) my experience might lead me to conclude differently to how your experience might lead you to conclude. That's okay.

It's more than okay actually. It's absolutely essential. Is it not the very reason we scope at all? I gather and present what relevant information I can, given the limitations of the stage I'm at, and come to my own view based upon it. Some fact, some opinion, some in between, but whatever. I show my working to those with an interest - usually different to mine - and our intellects collide to form a considered, reasoned, defensible position on what needs to be assessed and how, and what doesn't.

Collaborative scoping? I hear you scoff...

But humour me for now. Good scoping is about asking. It's about consulting. It's about putting forth what we know, admitting what we don't, confidently giving our point of view and asking for others - being open to the opinions we wanted to hear as much as to the ones we didn't. Everyone has a different world view, and this richness of experience is something we should thrive on. For me, it's the very lifeblood of robust and defensible assessment.

No one gets any value from effort spent unnecessarily assessing aspects that are clearly irrelevant. We don't, for example, assess turbine bird collision risk for a new city centre office building (I'm being facetious to make a point of course). But likewise, there isn't much value to be had from essentially undertaking the same level of assessment as you would if a topic was scoped into an EIA, just to prove it shouldn't be. Worse, collating and presenting data for its own sake.

Scoping isn't about laying low and trying to slip as much as we can through unnoticed. Nor are we meekly asking our merciful consenting masters for their permission (air quality assessment is too hard...please don't make me do it!). Regardless of what's come before, scoping is our opportunity to make the next decisive move. Say it how we see it, explain our point of view, be honest, be realistic, but never ever (ever) apologetic.

You're not going to get it 100% right (there's no such thing) and not everyone will always agree with everything you say (how boring would that be?). But you have to start somewhere. So start with your head high, chest out, confidently explain what's proposed, what the likely significant effects might be and how you'll assess them, what positive benefits you want to maximise and how you plan to do it, and go from there.

You might get lots of agreement. Great. Debates might rage like wildfire beyond the control of us mortals. Unlikely for the most part, but still fine. Chances are you'll end up assessing mostly what you expected, some of what you didn't, and the odd curveball along the way.

Just remember...right now, no one knows your project better than you do.

(c) Andrew Mitchell 2020