QMark: Delivering EIA under lockdown
Craig Bosworth reflects on how ASH Design + Assessment has coped with the challenges of carrying out EIA during the COVID-19 pandemic
On 23 March 2020, the UK government initiated its national ‘Stay at Home’ lockdown measures as a mitigation strategy against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). For UK consultancies, including those of us working in the environmental industry, this has meant a shift from the standard office environment to home working, which has brought with it a number of challenges – particularly in delivering environmental impact assessment (EIA).
Home office challenges
Since the lockdown began, various articles and news pieces have outlined the current and growing issues experienced by those working from home . These tend to focus on physical health and mental wellbeing, with some of the more common adverse effects including:
- An increase in musculoskeletal complaints, mostly in the neck, back and shoulders
- Reduced physical exercise
- Worsening of diet and increased alcohol consumption
- An increase in anxiety and worries over health and job security
- For those with young families, maintaining an effective workspace and regularity of working hours.
A recent IEMA webinar published as part of the ‘Adapting to COVID-19’ series, discussed members’ personal and professional experiences of work during this period. The webinar covered some of the above issues, but also had some positive messages concerning increased family contact and time saved from the daily commute, as well as the general climate benefits from reduced traffic and industry. All told, working practices across the industry seem to have been affected to at least some degree.
ASH Design + Assessment Ltd, like other environmental consultancies, has worked to achieve project delivery deadlines that were put in place long before COVID-19 was a consideration. The completion of EIA reports and submission of applications during the first few weeks of lockdown, when much uncertainty prevailed, presented particular challenges and changes in addition to those noted above. These included:
- Technological challenges – the government requirement to ‘stay at home’ has required a switchover to full office remote working over a relatively short period. This has inevitably resulted in various technical challenges for all companies. However, our existing suite of teleconferencing software has proven invaluable in enabling a smoother transition from the ‘business as usual’ office environment for day-to-day communication. Facilities such as screen-sharing allow effective sharing and discussion of graphical information, and team video conferencing serves as a practical alternative to group meetings in the office. This has allowed for continued, effective coordination of EIA with project teams and clients.
- Hard copies of EIA reports – coordination with the usual printing service provider has been key in ensuring timely preparation and delivery of hard EIA report copies. With printers running on reduced staff and experiencing increased delivery times for their own stocks, orders have been carefully managed and timed to minimise delays to clients. Delivery of these hard copies also posed challenges, with offices shut and additional protective measures in place, such as ‘no contact’ delivery practices.
- Public viewing – with most public locations closed, it was not entirely clear how we would meet the regulatory requirements to allow public viewing of EIA reports. However, as of 24 April new legislation came into force in Scotland that removed the requirement for developers to ensure copies of EIA reports are available for inspection. This could pave the way for a quicker move to digital EIA, reducing the number of copies that are normally printed and thus resulting in lower costs and paper usage. IEMA recently published its Digital Impact Assessment Primer discussing the benefits, opportunities and challenges of a digital basis for EIA and similar environmental processes.
While the above issues can largely be resolved through implementation of digital processes, site surveys present different obstacles. Undertaking site survey work to deliver EIA is a challenge under lockdown, and should only be undertaken in accordance with government guidance and where it is safe to do so. Where these tests are met, the logistical challenge of getting to site, potentially requiring overnight accommodation and maintaining social distancing at all times, may render the survey unfeasible. In the short term, the main concerns relate to particular survey periods or windows being missed (for example in breeding bird surveys). In these circumstances, engagement with stakeholders and regulators is recommended so that they can advise on potential data gaps and identify solutions. Indeed, Scottish Natural Heritage has published interim advice on the factors to consider for survey work. In the longer term, it is anticipated that restrictions will be lifted to allow surveys to continue in some capacity, although logistical and social distancing considerations may remain for the foreseeable future.
All things considered, successful coordination and delivery of EIA during the lockdown has required forward planning and flexible working; however, effective usage of, and engagement with, digital tools and processes has proven invaluable for the heavily team-focused nature of EIA coordination.
While working under, and gradually adapting to, lockdown conditions, it has been more important than ever to keep in touch with colleagues and associates. This has helped to maintain effective working practices and mental wellbeing, staving off the sense of isolation. The necessity of adopting more digital working practices is also key, both in terms of the needs of the employee and the demands of projects. With uncertainty over how long safety measures may be required before the pandemic is lifted, remote working is set to become the new norm and we could see further regulatory and guidance changes to accommodate this in the coming weeks and months.
Craig Bosworth is a senior environmental consultant at ASH Design + Assessment
Image credit | iStock