New evidence of poor quality in environmental statements

The ecological impacts of major developments are frequently overlooked during environmental impact assessment, according to a systematic survey of environmental statements (ESs)1.

Environmental assessment has been required for major projects in the UK since 1988 under a series of regulations which implemented a 1985 EC Directive. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is preparing revisions to the regime to implement recent amendments to the Directive (ENDS Report 266, p 44 ). The changes will also provide an opportunity to address concerns over quality.

Previous studies of the quality of ESs found that, while things have improved since 1991, over half of recent statements failed to meet all the legal requirements (ENDS Report 256, pp 7-8 ). The new study, by Oxford Brookes University and the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, concentrated on ecological aspects.

The researchers analysed 179 ESs prepared between 1988 and 1993 - roughly a tenth of the total produced in that time. They were selected to represent the proportions of ESs produced for different developments: 20% roads, 18% waste management and 16% mineral extraction, with industrial and urban projects making up the remainder.

"In many cases the ecological information provided was so limited in quantity, or of such poor quality, that it was not possible to assess the ecological implications of proposed schemes," they concluded.

  • Ecological impacts: Potential ecological impacts were identified in 93% of ESs, and 65% of schemes were felt likely to cause possible habitat loss. But only 9% quantified the impacts and fewer estimated their duration.

  • Ecological surveys: Only 20% of ESs referred to surveys of fauna and 40% to surveys of flora. Less than a tenth contained any quantitative data.

    There was also evidence that development pressures were preventing surveys from taking place at an appropriate time. Only 37 of the 63 surveys for which a survey date was given were carried out between April and September - the period when representative results will be obtained for most species.

  • Mitigation: None of the ESs included any commitment to monitor the ecological impacts of the development, but most mentioned mitigative measures such as planting and landscaping schemes. Only 11% gave prescriptive details.

    The researchers note that planting schemes can be beneficial if they use native trees and take site details into account, but 98% of schemes failed to meet these criteria. "Little if any thought" was given to the long-term impacts of mitigation schemes. Some proposals set "almost impossible" objectives such as the creation of wet grassland.

  • Consultation: Less than half of the ESs stated that one of the statutory consultees - such as English Nature - had been consulted. A third of ESs appear to have been prepared without any consultation on ecological impacts.

    The researchers argue that a shortage of guidance for ecologists is a key problem and call for a series of habitat-based guidelines to be used in conjunction with existing guidelines such as those on baseline ecological assessment, published by the Institute of Environmental Assessment (IEA) in 1995.

    Karl Fuller, the IEA's Technical Manager, agrees that ecological assessments are often poor and that further guidance is needed. The IEA has established a working group to extend its own guidelines.

    "Where ecology is likely to be a problem, planners do need the advice of a professional ecologist," Mr Fuller told ENDS. "But some ecologists would like to do anything and everything," he cautioned.

    The new study supports the findings of a 1995 report for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) which found that most ESs failed to predict the ecological impacts of proposed developments clearly. An RSPB spokeswoman said: "The ecological component of ESs is generally weak, but there are examples of good practice which should be highlighted in guidance."

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