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.
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.
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.
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."