Siting, planning and operating waste facilities in most areas is guaranteed to generate community concern. Health, the local environment and quality of life are issues that come up time and again when communities speak out.

Planning processes for siting or extending waste facilities can become a battleground. Communities can feel marginalised and unheard as waste planners, regulators and operators are perceived to rush through what is seen as the best waste-management option.

The two approaches that tend to be used are community consultation and public relations strategies. However, no two communities are identical, and so any form of mechanical community consultation and public relations are almost bound to fail. These don’t address the key difficulties of diverse communities or understand that what works for one community may not for another.

Authorities are better equipped to focus on the hard technical facts, and so often fail to address the complexities of individual areas. The soft value issues about fairness, transparency and trust that communities raise during waste facility siting and planning processes are often left unanswered. One increasingly popular way to solve this problem is to carry out a Health Impact Assessment (HIA).

HIA is the key systematic approach to identifying and assessing the health and

wellbeing impacts of all types of development. Its aim is to minimise the negative and maximise the positive health effects of proposed developments on nearby communities.

It has roots in Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and works with an explicitly stated value framework that emphasises democracy, equity, sustainability and the ethical use of evidence. It therefore uses a range of evidence sources including public health,

epidemiology and toxicology as well as public and other stakeholders’ perceptions

and experiences.

HIA builds on environmental impact assessment methodology and extends it by involving all key stakeholders in the actual assessment process. In this way the hard scientific facts are addressed alongside the soft values and perceived concerns. By airing and taking account of the key perspectives, concerns and conflicts that emerge during the planning process, HIA provides a forum for information and analysis to communities, planners and decision-makers. What’s more, this is all done in a way that is timely, relevant and highly credible.

HIA argues that the scientific and technical aspects of assessment are just one part of the process. The other, equally important part is to engage and create a dialogue with all key stakeholders. Information dissemination and discussion is vital, and so it’s important to build relationships in which an atmosphere of trust can flourish.

This dialogue and relationship building does not stop with the impact assessment but carries on beyond it to ensure that community concerns are allayed over the short and long terms.

National, regional and local waste policy documents are increasingly emphasising the need to consider community concerns and the perceived negative impacts of waste facilities. So, for waste operators to create a more positive and consensual planning process, they need to be more proactive in tackling the health, wellbeing and quality of life concerns of local communities.

HIA identifies, assesses and alleviates the actual and perceived health impacts of waste facilities through a process that works to build trust and co-operation. HIA can therefore help to make waste facilities good neighbours, and as we all know, good neighbours become good friends.

  • Salim Vohra is the Principal Health Impact Assessor at Peter Brett Associates

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