Using digital to improve community engagement on projects

Digital environmental impact assessments are increasingly important in helping developers to bring forward developments that respond directly to the needs of communities, says Sweco’s Rebecca McLean.

Since 2017, Sweco has been working to deliver the £118m Cross Tay Link Road project, which will connect the existing A9 route north of the city of Perth to A93 and A94, located north of Scone. The new infrastructure will alleviate congestion in the centres of Perth and Bridgend, as well as contributing to Perth and Kinross Council’s local development plan through facilitating further sustainable development. 

Significantly, this project was the first of its kind in Scotland to utilise a digital environmental impact assessment (EIA). The contribution that this innovation made in setting the new benchmark for best practice in planning cannot be underestimated.

EIAs play a crucial role in helping to inform key decision-makers and members of the public about potential physical, social, cultural and health consequences of any proposed development. The formal requirement for an EIA is set out in Schedules 1 and 2 of the Town and County Planning (EIA) Regulations 2017, which identifies criteria for numerous types of developments including large-scale projects such as power stations, housing developments and new roads. 

Historically, EIAs have taken the form of text-heavy, physical documents that are time-consuming for project teams to compile – but crucially, they are even more time consuming for local communities to read.  

In the case of Cross Tay Link, however, by digitalising the assessment on a live, interactive document that is accessible to all, as well as producing the standard hard copies, it has been possible to reach a far wider audience.

EIAs should be one of the simplest means for members of the public to fully understand the impact of a proposed development and should clearly demonstrate how the design has been informed through consultation. The birth of digital reporting, in particular the critical non-technical summary, means information can reach a far wider audience, who are then enabled to read and comment on plans from their smart phones. This in turn can help planners to ensure planning applications and developments are tailored to suit the needs of the community they will eventually serve.  

Contrary to the widely held belief that digital EIAs are identical to traditional EIA reports and simply hosted online, these digital assessments can be made fully interactive. With the capacity to host maps and videos, as well as photographs and CGIs, their immersive format makes them far easier to digest and understand.

This style of reporting is crucial for engaging the widest possible audience with planning applications. Trends show that older generations are much more likely to attend a traditional exhibition, but this risks the voices of younger generations remaining unheard. However, the option to access EIAs digitally allows people to leave comments and share their views online, capturing the opinions and feedback of a much more diverse range of citizens. 

Previously, digital EIAs have been reserved for high-impact projects such as HS2 and Crossrail. But the evidence clearly shows that to enable truly sustainable future development, the industry must begin to develop them as standard. Citizens and key stakeholders are empowered to access planning applications quickly and easily, creating the conditions for developers to bring forward projects that truly serve the needs of end users.

Rebecca McLean is an EIA technical director at Sweco.