Shelf-Life of an Environmental Statement – In the UK the planning application for certain development projects needs to be supported by an environmental statement. This environmental statement describes the outcome of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) investigating the environmental effects that the development proposals would have.
The recent economic downturn has led to the postponement of many development projects. Many of those where in an advanced stage with regard to applying for planning consent. Now that the economic prospects have stabilised many of these projects have been picked up again. Some EIA development projects were postponed shortly before registering the application for planning consent and the environmental statement may already be in an advanced state. In these situations the developer faces a question about the validity of the environmental statement: is the information in the environmental statement still up to date and do the conclusions still reflect the most accurate prediction of the environmental impacts. Clearly in cases where the development proposals have changed significantly a new environmental impact assessment or at least a thorough review of the original environmental statement, may be required. But what if the proposal itself hasn’t changed. Would the environmental statement still be valid?
Preparing a robust environmental statement is based on an often lengthy environmental impact assessment. To understand the environmental impacts of a particular development project it is necessary to understand the characteristics of the development itself as well as the characteristics of the environment that the development where the development will be located. It is the interaction between the development and its environment that determines the environmental impact. A thorough study of the current environmental situation, the environmental baseline, is therefore an essential step in carrying out an environmental impact assessment.
The environmental baseline is not a static situation. Many environmental aspects can change and additional information may become available. The ecological baseline, for instance, can be very dynamic. An ecological survey carried out three or four years ago, may have concluded that no important species were present on the site. Since the survey date species may have migrated in. The baseline may also have changed because other development proposals did proceed and are now implemented potentially bringing new sensitive receptors in the vicinity of the development site.
Other environmental aspects are less sensitive to change over time. Archaeological reports, for instance are likely to remain unaffected. It is important to note that although the actual archaeological resource may remain unchanged, it may be that new general information about the area has emerged that affects the conclusions of the original archaeological impact assessment.
Finally, legislation, guidance and professional standards may have changed in the intervening period. This could also affect the conclusions of the environmental statement.
From the above it will be clear that an environmental statement that is based on two or three year old information is not necessarily valid any longer. A review by appropriate professionals should be the first step to take. They will have to re-examine the existing baseline information and consider any changes that may have occurred. If the conclusion is that no material changes to the baseline have occurred than no re-assessment would be required. All that needs to be done is update the baseline information within the environmental statement so that it reflects the re-examination.
Where material changes have occurred, a re-assessment is likely to be required. This does not mean that all the elements of the environmental impact assessment will have to be redone. The re-assessment only needs to focus on the aspect where the change occurred. It will be very rare that the baseline has changed so drastically that an entirely new environmental impact assessment is required.