Information and Advisory Note Number 42 Back to menu
1.1 The aim of this Information and Advisory Note is to introduce State of the
Environment Review and Reporting (SOERR) and to describe some of the key aspects
of the reporting process and outputs. SOERR is likely to have an increasing role
in the planning and management of the natural heritage at both the national,
local and even international level SNH staff may find themselves becoming
1.2 State of the Environment Reports (SOER) have been around since the mid 1980s, at scales from the global, national regional down to local levels (DoE, OECD, Canada). Increased interest by local authorities has recently been stimulated by Local Agenda 21. In Scotland examples to date are the SOERs published by the Scottish Wildlife and Countryside Link (1991), Falkirk District Council (1992), Fife Regional Council (1994) and Western Isles Island Council (1994/95). The Scottish Office publishes a biennial Environmental Statistics report. Scottish Natural Heritage has itself published an overview of the natural heritage of Scotland (SNH 1995).
2.1 SOERR is a process of analysing, reviewing, describing and presenting summary information It focuses on
2.2 It can extend to defining the type of action or responses required and the
setting of targets. Some SOERs have deliberately provided the bare facts,
leaving the interpretation and definition of action to others parties or
mechanisms outwith SOERR.
2.3 Usually the term SOER (or less frequently SOTER) is used to refer to the state of the environment report that is produced periodically. Increasingly the process of reviewing is seen to be as important as the final report itself Growing interest in stakeholder participation recognises the need to ensure commitment to, and broad ownership of, the outputs. The review and updating of SOERs enables comparisons to be made against previous information, existing baselines and targets, and thus to evaluate progress towards environmental objectives.
2.4 Many of the SOERs in the UK to date have been undertaken by local authorities, and are often referred to as an 'environmental audits' This may be confusing because of other local authority auditing initiatives (e.g. Green Charters and Policy Impact Assessments) The Local Government Management Board (LGMB 1991) defined SOERs as external environmental audits and the other forms of auditing as internal audits.
3.1 The overall aim has 3 elements:
3.2 This aim has a number of objectives:
4.1 The process of review and preparing SOERs is a valuable mechanism to:
4.2 The SOER report itself is a valuable tool for providing:
5.1 SOERs vary from documents in the form of statistical compendiums to reports
which provide full descriptive accounts and interpretation. SOERs are often
structured , in varying levels of detail, around a set of core themes (Table 1)
5.2 A balance is needed between achieving comprehensive coverage and reporting on matters that are significant Using information just because it is available may not be effective This scoping of information involves prioritisation based on relevance, interpretation and judgement. Good practice generally involves an incremental approach towards deeper and wider reporting coverage over time Success depends on the frequency and availability of monitoring information. New issues emerge which may require particular emphasis Some which were prominent may become less so.
5.3 The most effective SOERs use a more strategic framework within which to order themes The Pressure - State - Response (PSR) model developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency It was further refined by OECD and is now widely recognised as a tool for evaluating and reporting on environmental performance of policies and actions The PSR model assists in moving from a somewhat passive towards a more useful type of report, which is more likely improve decision making and action. The model is based on causality in broad terms:
5.4 Responses can be designed to affect
either the environmental states or pressures or
both It is usually more effective to alter
pressures. The most effective SOERs
highlight environmental potential, problems
and issues and also present a balance of
pressure, state and response information. An
overemphasis on state information would not
guide appropriate responses to the key
pressures. By including accounts of
responses aimed at protecting, conserving and enhancing the environment, the SOER enables readers to examine and evaluate the environmental performance of polices, decisions and actions.
Indicators have an important role to play in SOERR. They represent selected measurements on key aspects or dimensions of the environment A limited number are generally chosen to show how and why the environmental media and resources are changing. The use of indicators is made more effective if a suite is defined to cover state, pressure and response information, and if they are reported on against related targets, environmental standards or objectives. The nature, rate and direction of progress can be assessed. The use of indicators may reduce the amount of information gathering required. Care is required in selecting appropriate indicators fit for purpose. Also too few will not give the required overall impression of the state of the environment, too many will clutter the overview
SOERs have been variously produced by in-house staff, dedicated teams, contractors or a mixture of these options Different approaches have their own merits Good practice includes consultation on draft reports and indicator development. Best practice involves wider active participation of external parties and consensus building in the various stages of SOERR. There are many potential stakeholders with different roles to play and who will have an interest in SOERs They may wish to contribute through data provision, interpretation, exchange of views and concerns, and in influencing the scope and format of the SOER outputs. Engagement of stakeholders in the SOERR process, through fora workshops and other participative mechanisms, can lead to better understanding and to a common ownership of the SOER, or at least to show how the information being communicated relates to them. This wider approach involves significant effort and time to establish and maintain.
A guiding principle of SOERs is to use best available information. Adequate referencing should allow the user to trace data used and to assess data strengths and weaknesses. SOERs usually rely on the collation of information from a large number of sources. They do not depend on establishing a single, large, centralised database, although this expensive and complex approach has been adopted by some They can more usefully be prepared through access to dispersed data and information. It is generally more effective for the data custodians to provide summaries of their data and interpretation than for those collating the SOER material to attempt to do so. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have been used for SOERR for data integration, analysis and the presentation of distribution maps.
9.1 The main output usually consists of a report published periodically (1-5 years), although only a few have yet undertaken repeat reports (le OECD, Canada). There are a number of factors to be considered in frequency of reporting
9.2 Interim supplementary reports, based on particular themes or issues, have also been produced to allow new items to be reported Some reports have provided questionnaires to enable users to give feedback and raise issues that they feel should be covered in future reporting. Other publishing media for communicating information have been applied, including displays, videos, cassettes, interactive computer products for schools and public locations, and the development of Internet pages.
From the above, it should be apparent that SOERR has an important role in assisting everyone in working towards either sustainable development, environmental or natural heritage objectives SNH has a number of potential roles in relation to SOERR
Guidance has been published by LGMB (1991) and COSLA (1992) DoE and LGMB are currently producing further guidance, to be released imminently A project commissioned by the Countryside Commission, SNH and the Countryside Council for Wales has looked at producing guidance on the 'Local state of the environment reports and the treatment of countryside and conservation issues' (SNH in prep).
In order to maintain an overview of current best and good practice, the author of this Note would welcome information on any SOER activities or initiative in your area or of which you know
LGMB, 1991. Environmental auditing in local government. LGMB, Luton,
Scottish Natural Heritage, 1995. The natural heritage of Scotland' an overview. SNH, Battleby
Scottish Natural Heritage, (in prep). Local State of the Environment Reports: the treatment of countryside and conservation issues SNH, Environmental Audit Branch, Edinburgh
Scottish Office, 1993 The Scottish Environment - Statistics HMSO, Edinburgh.
Scottish Wildlife and Countryside Link (Dargie, T. & Briggs, D.J ,1991. State of the Scottish Environment 1991 SWCT, Perth
Environmental Audit and Appraisal Officer
Environmental Audit Branch
Research and Advisory Services Directorate
2 Anderson Place
EDINBURGH EH6 5NP
Tel: 0131-446 2455
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