The challenges of post-decision monitoring in EIAs
By Caroline Dinnage, Graduate Environmental Planner
New Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations came into force in May this year. These regulations introduced mandatory monitoring requirements, whereby Environmental Statements and Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) must consider imposing proportionate monitoring of any significant adverse environmental effects of a proposal. This article is based on a separate research study that interviewed professionals within the EIA process on the challenges of implementing the new monitoring requirements.
What is post-decision monitoring? In general, it involves the recording of environmental effects during the construction and operation phases of a development. For example, air quality may be measured to verify compliance with permitted operating conditions and emission limit values. The data collected can be used to overcome the gap between a development’s plan and its implementation, facilitating the environmental design process beyond development consent and allowing mitigation to be adjusted if necessary. It can also address concerns of uncertainty with predictive techniques of environmental effects and provide a learning mechanism to aid predictive modelling for future effects, leading to more accurate impact predictions.
Despite the benefits of monitoring, it is a relatively under-used stage of environmental design, even within EIA projects. This is mainly due to the previous lack of legislative requirements. Now that the EIA regulations across the UK require monitoring, how will these be implemented effectively and what are the challenges that may emerge?
LPAs are responsible for deciding and ensuring monitoring takes place, where appropriate. They will need to carefully word planning conditions and/or planning obligations so the developer is primarily responsible for conducting monitoring, and ensure a development complies with the planning conditions. However, LPAs may not have the resources and/or specialist in-house knowledge to do so. If the wording of conditions is not carefully considered, the responsibility of monitoring may fall to the LPAs, putting a further strain on resources in LPAs and/or other governing bodies, such as the Environment Agency. Training and capacity building is essential to overcome this issue. This will cause an implication for developers as, along with responsibility, there are potentially high costs associated with implementing an environmental monitoring programme.
Currently, the planning system tends to be reactive rather than proactive. LPAs are often made aware of adverse environmental impacts by public complaints rather than by monitoring data. LPAs will need to review the monitoring data collected (again with limited resources this is likely to be difficult) and potentially enforce subsequent mitigation if developments are shown to exceed impact predictions. Often, sites benefitting from permission or completed developments are sold on, adding complexity when determining who is responsible for any further mitigation during the operation phase. These challenges need to be carefully considered to prevent monitoring becoming a tick box exercise, where collected data is not used to bring about environmental benefits.
Another challenge is proving causality between identified conditions and a particular scheme. Several different factors can influence the environment which makes monitoring an exact impact in ‘isolation’ complex. These factors need to be monitored over greater temporal and spatial scales to identify underlying trends, however, broader scale monitoring is not feasible for most projects and an individual developer cannot be solely responsible. Sector-wide and collaborative monitoring could be a seemly solution, allowing for responsibility and costs of monitoring to be shared, whilst encouraging the collation and analysis of data at different spatial and temporal scales. Unfortunately, as post-decision EIA monitoring practice is in its infancy in England, large scale collaboration is a remote prospect and comes with its own issues such as data ownership. Furthermore, EIA is project-focused making sector-wide collaboration challenging.
Where monitoring has taken place, the collected data is not easily accessible as it is not often published. It is necessary to ensure monitoring data is available to allow transparency for stakeholders and to identify if mitigation measures are effective. Guidance can encourage this, although there is a need for greater communication between environmental consultants, LPAs, statutory bodies and developers.
Future direction of post-decision monitoring
As monitoring practice becomes more established, the challenges defined above are likely to decrease. New and developing technologies, for example, the use of drones and satellite data, may reduce the costs of monitoring and increase spatial coverage of data. This could particularly assist in managing cumulative effects.
Initial improvements are likely to be slow as the EIA process takes a while to progress through each stage hence the difficulties of operational impact monitoring may not be confirmed for some time. The industry should be adaptive to learn from the experience of other jurisdictions with more established monitoring procedures. IEMA examine previous examples of monitoring to enable this area to develop effective practices.
Monitoring and the following management response can contribute to improvements in numerous aspects of EIA practice, benefiting all stakeholders involved within the EIA process. Developers are increasingly recognising that environmental effects of their developments influencing corporate reputation. Post-decision monitoring in EIA offers developers a platform to demonstrate that they act in an environmentally responsible manner and to confirm that their developments provide sound environmental protection.