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Driving opportunities and improving environmental outcomes

Josh Fothergill IEMA is a Chartered Environmentalist and Director of Fothergill Training & Consulting Ltd.

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been a key component of the UK planning systems since the late 1980’s. This is perhaps why in some parts it is seen as part of an ‘old guard’ of regulations that aim to protect the environment, rather than respond to current challenges and ambitions to drive improvement and deliver net gains for the environment and society.

Whatever view you have of existing EIA Regulations, I believe that the EIA process behind them is critical tool in helping engage developers in the complexity of modern societal and environmental challenges. At the core of EIA is a focus on significant environmental effects, not just those directly from a proposed development, but also combined with either the existing state of the environment or with other developments that are already consented. This broader consideration helps enable the cross-cutting innovative thinking needed to create effectively designed development that avoid harm and create opportunities for improvement. 

As such, a key aspect of effective EIA is that it encourages the developer’s team to adapt their thinking during the pre-application process. Instead of simply looking at the proposed development’s direct risks to single issues – noise, water, ecology – the EIA process requires consideration of inter-relationships. It is often in the consideration of these more complex interactions that we expose the real challenges facing a protected habitat or local community. By exposing such issues, we open up opportunities for engagement and partnership working that tends to drive improved ambition to deliver greater environmental and community outcomes.

Combining a multi-disciplinary approach with effective engagement in the planning process is not unique to EIA. However, it is not something inherent in carrying out the suite of other assessments that developments can require, such as Habitats Regulation Assessment (HRA), or Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG). The success of multi-disciplinary thinking across environmental issues is seen every day on EIA applications, with benefits for the developer both through early risks identification and, increasingly, by opening up opportunities to deliver improved environmental outcomes. The Hagshaw Energy Cluster’s development framework - to enable the expansion and repowering of renewable energy projects in that area - provided a great demonstration of the benefits of such thinking, engagement and partnership, when discussed at Scotland’s EIA Conference in September 2022.

To enable this key element of effective practice, however, planning officers, consultants, developers, statutory consultees and other parties need to have a firm understanding of the EIA process and regulations. Unfortunately, many practitioners interact with EIA infrequently and thus find they are lacking confidence in how to apply the procedures effectively, which often leads to a more precautionary approach. The consequence of a precautionary approach to the EIA basics means less time, budget and enthusiasm is available to enable opportunities and positive environmental outcomes.

Building such understanding and confidence in the regulations and procedures is why I find delivering EIA training to hundreds of people each year so rewarding, including through my role as the national training expert.

Check out the next Environmental Impact Assessment CPD training or browse complimentary topics in the CPD Masterclass Calendar.

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