Quality Mark: Integrating equality into environmental impact assessments
George Apostolides provides a practitioner’s view on the benefits of integrating EQIA into the EIA process
Since it received royal assent, the Equality Act (2010) has provided UK-based private and public sector businesses with a consolidated framework on how to engage with both equality and equal opportunity for the first time. Businesses have grappled with how best to integrate equality considerations into their environmental impact assessments (EIAs); work to achieve this has been particularly relevant to large transport infrastructure projects, as they have come to dominate the UK EIA sector in the last decade. Considering diversity and inclusion throughout the EIA process presents key opportunities for transport authorities to improve their projects and promote equality in all aspects of society. Engaging with equality and diversity helps everyone, not just vulnerable or seldom-heard sections of the population.
EQIA and the law
An Equality Impact Assessment (EQIA) is the most effective and common exercise used by scheme promoters to document their fulfilment of requirements set out in the Equality Act. Section 20 of this act outlines how decision-makers must make reasonable adjustments to remove disadvantage for people with protected characteristics (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sex) and makes it lawful to treat a person with a protected characteristic more favourably than others. An EQIA can help identify where such adjustments may be required. It can also help public authorities demonstrate that they are in accordance with the Public Sector Equality Duty, a framework that outlines the requirement for public bodies to give due regard to:
- Eliminating discrimination, harassment and victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Act
- Advancing equality of opportunity between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and people who do not share it
- Fostering good relations between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and those who do not share it.
Integrating EQIA thinking into the assessment process can provide practitioners with a more comprehensive understanding of the issues around any given project while also reducing potential legal and reputational risks. Embedding a simple and consistent strategy from project inception to completion can ensure buy-in and involvement from everyone working on the project, from technical leads to project managers. This strategy focuses on three areas: data collection, cross-topic working and stakeholder engagement.
Integrating EQIA into the baseline and data collection process has proved to enhance the accuracy and effectiveness of assessments. This involves having fresh perspectives on data sources that go beyond simple demographics; information can be collected from national think tanks or charities regarding, for example, the dementia service offerings in a particular locality, or open spaces that have disability provisions. This approach requires that EQIA practitioners are fully involved in scoping exercises and baseline profile creation, including specific geographic information system (GIS) liaison and support. The data required for the EQIA is therefore obtained at the earliest possible stage of the project and can be fully integrated into the baseline collection process of other EIA topics. A further advantage of this relationship is that it is mutually beneficial with traditional EQIA-focused data such as disabled access to community facilities, enriching the baseline of other topics, such as community and socio-economics.
Cross-topic working throughout the assessment process means regular collaboration with other technical teams. This is important because other technical disciplines are often unaware of the purpose or process of an EQIA. This can be a significant barrier to information sharing in large project teams, reducing the chances of an accurate EQIA. The formal management of information flows between technical teams, via learning sessions, workshops and having more ‘flexible’ teams, can aid this process as other consultants become more knowledgeable of the critical information required to complete an EQIA. Wider benefits to the project include having input from EQIA practitioners into options appraisal processes that inform design and mitigation, which reduces project risks. Cross-topic working is crucial to improving the awareness and consideration of equalities across projects, ensuring EQIA and EIA processes are synonymous rather than isolated silos.
Stakeholder engagement is a key part of an effective EQIA. It is imperative that engagement teams work hand-in-hand with EQIA practitioners to identify vulnerable populations and groups with protected characteristics. Championing a focus on equality in the planning and implementation of engagement strategies ensures that these groups are not omitted or excluded. It also offers wider benefits to the EIA with reduced risk of duplicated efforts, meaning time and cost savings for clients while also minimising engagement and consultation fatigue for affected parties. Harmonising these two areas also promotes innovation, as engagement specialists are required to develop new ideas for reaching seldom-heard groups.
The application of highly skilled experts implementing the approach outlined above has allowed for equality considerations to be integrated into all aspects of the assessment. This perspective avoids the pitfalls of traditionally sequential equalities analysis and consultants should strive to further the focus on equality in order to continue delivering exceptional work in this area.
George Apostolides is a consultant with the UK and Ireland Sustainability Services team at ERM, specialising in EQIA