Four lessons from the Rocky Hill case

By now everyone who is in one way or another involved in social impact assessments (SIA) would be aware of the Rocky Hill case, in which a proposed coal mine in New South Wales, Australia, was rejected in court largely on social impact grounds.

If you are ever so slightly interested in SIA practice, or are planning to commission an SIA, and have not yet read the judgement, do so. It is well worth a read.

I am not going to comment on the legal aspects of the decision, or the particularities of the specific proposed mine. Others are better placed to do that. However, I think this case is – in many ways – instructive of much current SIA practice. It provides important lessons for practitioners and companies who are doing SIA’s.

I think we can elicit four key lessons from this case.

First, it is important to consider what was not a focus of the judgement. The judge commented nothing, or very little, on the socio-economic profile section of the SIA report, or on impacts to social infrastructure and services (with the exception being road related impacts). Oftentimes these can take up a significant amount of your SIA consultants’ time, budget and words in the final report. Whilst this may provide important contextual information, and sometimes give a hint of how a change may be experienced, spending half your SIA time, space or budget on rehashing census data is a waste of time and money.

Lesson one: Don’t worry too much about the socio-economic profile or impacts to social infrastructure.

Second, the judgement primarily addressed the process of rating of social impacts. Ostensibly positive economic impacts were downgraded, and the ratings of more socially oriented, negative, impacts were revised up. In many SIA reports, the impact rating often comes across as a bit of a mystery, a black box. It is rarely entirely clear why a certain impact is conceptualised in a certain way, and why it has been given a certain rating. What is almost always missing is clarity on how affected people have been involved in the assessment. The rating of impacts is a key activity in the SIA, as it determines which impacts merit mitigation measures (or at least it is supposed to…). A good SIA can articulate how that process has been executed.

Lesson two: Be exceptionally clear about the impact rating process, and ensure you articulate how affected people have been involved.

Third, as noted above, the ratings of socially oriented impacts were virtually all revised up. The judge argued that some inherently social concepts such as sense of place, community character, community cohesion had been misunderstood in the SIA. These concepts may sound obscure and difficult to quantify, but they talk to peoples’ experience of a project-induced change, not just the ‘objective’, observable change. If your SIA does not engage well with these, it is likely missing something important.

The third lesson is: Don’t shy away from seemingly esoteric social concepts, even if they are difficult to quantify.

Finally, the judge criticised the proposed mitigation measures for not adequately addressing the impacts. Mitigation strategies are frequently the most neglected aspect of an SIA, they are often expressed in generic terms and rely on economically oriented actions. An economically oriented mitigation strategy may be fine if the nature of the impact is economic. But often it is not. Crafting adequate mitigation measures starts with an understanding of what the impact is.

The fourth and final lesson is: Ensure there is a logical and defensible connection between your proposed mitigation measure and the impact. Don’t just rely on social investment or economic measures.

I suspect all of these observations point to a fundamental tension in current SIA practice: do you see it as a step on a regulatory journey, or as an opportunity to engage inclusively and fairly with communities about change, including with those that oppose your project? Do you see it as a 'tick box' exercise or as one aspect of your social licence journey?

The Rocky Hill case provides us with lessons for how we make SIA’s that are robust, defensible and useful for both companies and communities. In the language of the IAIA19 conference, I think it provides a strong argument for a revolution in SIA practice.

What do you think? Are these the lessons you see? How do we make better SIA’s? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!