The Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment has undertaken major research to assess the application and effectiveness of the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive in the UK. John Barwise reports on its findings.

Over the next 10 years, the UK will undergo a period of major infrastructure expansion and new development projects. Priorities include replacing ageing nuclear power plants, developing high-speed rail networks, building new roads, constructing new flood defences and offshore wind farms, and building energy-from-waste plants. Without exception, all of these large-scale projects will generate significant environmental impacts and have a direct effect on local communities who may or may not want them in their back yard.

The Environmental Impact Assessment Directive (EIA) (85/337/EEC) came into force in 1985 and has played a vital role in ensuring that the likely environmental effects of a new development are taken into account before the project is allowed to go ahead. The directive has been amended three times to strengthen its provisions, such as those related to the Aarhus Convention for public access to information and participation. In 2011, the original and amendments were codified into Directive 2011/92/EU in preparation for further substantive revisions to the EIA process currently under discussion.

Recent research by the European Commission indicates that over 16,000 environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are undertaken each year in the EU, of which an estimated 600 are carried out in the UK. While a high proportion of these are for major infrastructure and large development projects, the scope of the EIA Directive is such that many smaller projects must also be screened to ensure they do not have likely significant environmental impacts associated with their proposals.

Key principles

The key principles prescribed in the EIA Directive are as follows.

  • Projects likely to have significant effects on the environment by virtue of their nature, size or location must be subject to an EIA.

  • The EIA shall identify, describe and assess the direct and indirect effects of a project on:

    • human beings, fauna and flora

    • soil, water, air, climate and the landscape

    • material assets and the cultural heritage

    • the interaction between these factors.

  • The environmental information must be made publicly available. The public must be given the opportunity to express an opinion before development consent is granted.

The directive includes two lists of projects.

  • Annex 1 projects: Those that always require an EIA (14 types of project are listed, including refineries, nuclear power stations, railways and motorways).

  • Annex 2 projects: Those that may require an EIA if significant environmental effects are likely (26 types of project are listed, including food, textiles, wood and paper industries and industrial estate developments).

New developments whose proposed boundaries extend into environmentally sensitive areas (eg Ramsar Sites, Special Protection Areas and National Parks) must always be screened to determine whether or not an EIA is required.

The scope and role of an EIA

EIAs have raised the profile of the environmental consequences of different types of development by providing structured procedures for recognising, evaluating and mitigating impacts. But there is still some confusion about the scope of an EIA and the level of detail needed to meet planning requirements and satisfy stakeholders.

The Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) has undertaken major research involving its extensive network of members and EIA practitioners to assess the application and effectiveness of EIA in the UK. The general consensus is that EIA has a key role in delivering development projects that add economic value without compromising environmental quality or undermining social cohesion. However, there is concern about the proportionate application of EIA and the growing length of its outputs.

Proportionate assessments

A summary of the research findings is presented in IEMA’s special report, The State of Environmental Impact Assessment Practice in the UK. Josh Fothergill, Policy & Practice Lead for Impact Assessment at IEMA, led the research. He argues that “EIA practice should influence development proposals to ensure that they work for the developer, community and environment, in order to meet the objective of sustainable development. Practitioners must recognise that getting this right is essential to delivering proportionate assessments that generate improved environmental outcomes.“

The report provides guidance on best practice and where improvements need to be made in delivering effective and appropriate EIA in the UK. Part 2 of the report looks at the four key components of EIA practice: screening, scoping and engagement, assessment and the EIA’s outcomes and outputs. Each component outlines what works well and where improvements are needed. In particular, the report highlights the need to produce effective Environmental Statements and non-technical summaries, which allow wider access but which need to more accurately represent the EIA’s findings.

Part 3 of the report discusses the proposed EIA Directive revisions that are likely to be agreed by the European Parliament in 2014. This section highlights six key action areas where practitioners can improve EIA now.

  1. Communicating added value generated by EIA.

  2. Realising the efficiencies of effective EIA co-ordination.

  3. Developing new partnerships to enhance EIA activity.

  4. Listening, communicating and engaging effectively with communities.

  5. Exchanging knowledge and experience to tackle the difficult issues.

  6. Delivering environmental outcomes that work now and in the future.

EIA is an iterative process and recent developments in the screening process raise particular issues for organisations considering changing or extending their existing facilities. Under the revisions, where a development listed under Schedule 2 (Annex 2 in the directive) is changed or extended after the original development has gained consent, then the threshold applied is the full boundary of both the existing development and the proposed extension. This contrasts with the previous approach, which limited consideration of such thresholds to the change or extension on its own.

These changes have been implemented in England through the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011 (SI 2011 No. 1824). In Scotland, the relevant instrument is SSI 2011 No. 139, and in Northern Ireland it is NISR 2012/39. Wales has not yet implemented this change, but the case law behind it still applies.

Quality Mark scheme

To support its consensus-building approach to EIA, IEMA has launched a Quality Mark scheme, which provides an IEMA approval of quality EIA. The scheme (logo below) assesses quality across registered organisations’ EIA activities, including their management processes and approaches. Further details are available at www.iema.net/qmark.

The EIA Quality Mark is a voluntary scheme but has already attracted a high level of membership from developers and planning consultancies who are keen to demonstrate their commitment to quality EIA. Josh Fothergill says: “The EIA Quality Mark provides developers with confidence that the organisation co-ordinating their EIA is not only committed to high standards, but is willing to prove it via independent review of its Environmental Statements and staff development processes”.

Revised directive

The revised EIA Directive is expected to be adopted in 2014 and aims to harmonise approaches to EIA between Member States. It is also likely to include greater clarity on the links between EIA and other EU assessments such as the Habitats Directive and the Strategic Environmental Assessment. The scope of environmental topics will be broadened to include more on biodiversity, climate change, human health and land intake. There are also likely to be more safeguards in the system, such as monitoring requirements to assess the delivery of mitigation designed to reduce significant adverse effects.

The proposed changes to EIA will have a marked effect on the future of new infrastructure projects and new developments planned for the UK well into the 2020s. But for those businesses planning to extend their on-site operations, the recent regulatory changes could be just as significant.

Last reviewed 12 March 2013