Reflection

What are the Implications of NSW’s Updated Social Impact Assessment Guideline?

PhD candidate Gemma Viney reflects on the recent SEI panel on NSW’s Social Impact Assessment Guideline, highlighting three key takeaways for researchers, practitioners and, most crucially, communities.

Image by Ralph Gosch, via Shutterstock. ID 64091497

On November 19th, the Sydney Environment Institute held a panel to discuss the newly issued draft of the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment’s Social Impact Assessment guideline for State Significant projects (Guideline). Panellists included Dr Richard Parsons, the DPIE Social Impact Assessment (SIA) specialist and a lead author of the new guideline, joined by three academic experts in the field of Social Impact Assessment (SIA); SEI Senior Research Fellow Dr Rebecca Lawrence and Dr Alison Ziller and Dr Fiona Miller from the University of Macquarie.

Panellists welcomed the Guideline, and the fact that it would now be rolled out to all State Significant Projects. They provided suggestions for constructive improvements, as well as providing expert insight into what the more significant changes might mean for practitioners and communities moving forward. Of particular note was the considerable interest this event spurred amongst not only those who will have to follow or evaluate the new guideline, practitioners and researchers for example, but also those who will be most impacted by the change: communities. As such, this reflection will provide the key takeaways from the discussion as they relate to three central stakeholders – researchers, practitioners, and communities.

Researchers

The most substantial shift in this guideline is the expansion such that it now applies all State Significant Projects. This will result in a considerable increase in demand on the Department to assess individual SIAs, an already daunting task given the limited capacity DPIE has dedicated to SIA. What this means is the potential increased need for DPIE to engage SIA researchers and SIA experts to assist DPIE in peer reviewing SIAs submitted to DPIE. Dr Rebecca Lawrence emphasised that peer review of proponent SIAs was a vital step towards achieving best practice and balancing out the bias that proponent financed SIAs invariably have.

However, now that the Guideline is to apply to all State Significant developments, and not just resource developments (i.e. mines and quarries), there is a change in tone in the Guideline, which now emphasises benefits and the ‘transformational’ power of social impacts. But this is a tricky shift and as Lawrence noted:

‘Catastrophic” impacts have now been renamed “Transformational” impacts, in an attempt to make the language more neutral and incorporate the assessment of both positive and negative social impacts. But highly significant negative impacts that are at high risk of occurring  – for example the displacement of communities or the loss of property rights for Aboriginal people – cannot be called “transformational”. They are, as they were categorised in the 2017 Guideline and in the SIA literature, catastrophic.’

There is no doubt that positive social impacts should be highlighted in an SIA. But that does not mean that negative social impacts should be watered down by language that threatens to make invisible real and tangible adverse impacts on people and communities.

Practitioners

Dr Richard Parsons provided several insights from his wealth of experience with SIA, both at the Department and in his work as a researcher, the most compelling for practitioners being: The best SIAs are developed by practitioners who are driven by care, to SIA practice and to communities, and by a willingness to provide independent assessment regardless of institutional pressures. The important reminder within this is that SIA practitioners, regardless of how they are positioned, should remain committed to best representing an honest assessment of the benefits and impacts facing a community should a project be approved.

While this is in part a call to action for practitioners to embody best practice in their approach to SIA, it also functions as a reminder that practitioners should feel empowered to push for clarification on how the above can be achieved. Dr Alison Ziller drew attention to the Guideline’s emphasis on process, rather than merit. Ziller encouraged practitioners to seek clarification on the specificities that she had identified as missing from the guideline and the technical supplement. A clear example was the lack of clarity on the issue of ‘double counting’. When a proponent provides strategies attempting to mitigate social and environmental burdens placed on a community, those actions cannot and should not be counted amongst the purported benefits of a project. As such, when balancing the scales of positive and negative impacts from a project, practitioners need to be given the tools to appropriately provide an assessment of whether a development results in net social gain, and need to be empowered to make honest assessments of any projects that fail to achieve this.

Community

Lastly, panellists outlined how communities may be impacted by the updated Guideline. While the effects of the changes will be largely procedural, and concentrated on how proponents and the Department operate, it would be irresponsible to divorce the guiding principles for social impact from those who experience those same impacts firsthand. Dr Richard Parsons made clear that the purpose of an SIA is to best and most thoroughly identify the issues which matter to and are affecting communities in and around the impacted region, as well as making a particular effort to identify and engage with vulnerable and disenfranchised groups. The draft Guideline is explicit in the Department’s intent to apply core principles such as distributional equity and intergenerational justice more thoroughly to SIA practice. However, Dr Fiona Miller argued that communities ought to be given practical advice as to how that will be achieved. It was reiterated throughout the panel that there is little strength to best practice guidance without clear roadmaps as to how the Guideline should be implemented, and more importantly, how SIA should be monitored.

Furthermore, Dr Miller outlined several omissions she had identified that are explicitly tied to community experiences, not just locally but on a national and international scale. For example, the draft Guideline makes no reference to climate change. Proponents developing large scale resource extraction projects should be required to acknowledge and mitigate against a social baseline that recognises existing environmental extremes, and the cumulative impacts of the fossil fuel industry. Additionally, the Guideline recognises the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) people’s rights, and highlights the preservation of cultural sites and practices, however that is the extent of the acknowledgement of ATSI interests. In order to comprehensively prioritise ATSI peoples, the guideline must acknowledge the ongoing distributional inequity that Aboriginal communities face, and the necessity for self-determination in all considerations impacting their way of life.


Gemma Viney is a Research Assistant on the FASS 2018 Strategic Research Program Project developing the field of MultiSpecies Justice and is currently completing a PhD in the Department of Government and International relations. Gemma was an Honours Research Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute in 2017. She has a Bachelors degree in International and Global Studies from the University of Sydney, and a First-class Honours Degree in the Department of Government and International Relations. Gemma is the Research Lead on Anti-Mining Community Movements at the Sydney Environment Institute.

For more information on this, read Dr Rebecca Lawrence’s submission on the 2020 DPIE Social Impact Assessment Guideline, here.