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What is Social Impact Assessment and why does it matter?

Social Impact Assessment (SIA) is a process used to anticipate the social effects of a proposal before it is finalised or a decision is made. It can be used for small projects and for very large urban renewal projects – like Green Square or Redfern Waterloo. The aim is to foresee what social outcomes are likely and prevent negative outcomes, especially severe consequences, and to improve positive outcomes writes Alison Ziller in the South Sydney Herald of March 2012.

In both these ways, SIA is a precautionary process. Many people treat SIA as if it mainly deals with the second item on this list with a few compensations for the first. This approach seriously underestimates its usefulness.

In many ways SIA is as you might expect it to be – making sure unnecessary or unacceptable bad outcomes don’t happen and getting the best possible results. That is, doing the planning work well. Another way of saying all this is that SIA is an “anticipatory, precautionary and a due diligence process. And, it’s an assessment not a proof. After all, the event hasn’t happened yet.

SIA raises a number of difficult issues in practice. A large proposal (for example, renewal of the Ashmore Estate), might result in a huge list of foreseeable social outcomes. Tracking all these could mire an impact assessment in interminable and complex considerations. So most guidebooks recommend that an SIA deal with “likely issues that matter.” Thisraises the question as to what might matter, and to whom.

For any proposal there are usually numerous groups of people with interests in likely outcomes. Often these groups (for example, local residents, businesses, traditional owners, the local council) have specific interests to support or protect. Often members of some groups are very vocal in their support or opposition, while other groups don’t seem to have much to say.

A good SIA process makes strenuous efforts to canvas the interests of all affected groups, including the interests of groups inadequately represented in submissions or consultations. This is not just a case of offering different ways for people to take part. It also means that the assessor should be on the lookout for groups who are being left out. This might be because they are not in a good position to speak up (are disempowered for some reason, too young/not born yet, too busy, not well, not invited, have been misinformed, have been shouted down, bullied, etc.).

Social impact assessment is not just concerned with assessing the competing wants and concerns of different groups. Many social issues are matters of public interest, that is, they affect us all. For example, a widening gap between rich and poor has negative public health impacts (eg, on rates of heart disease) that affect the city as a whole. Public health is a well established matter of public interest.

Because SIA deals with matters that are in the public interest, it should always be a public document. Sometimes a group can only see its own interests and sometimes individuals confuse their personal interests with the public interest. Because conflicts of interest are often present in discussions about development proposals, best practice includes the following: The social impact assessment is prepared by an independent person and conflicts of interest are declared e.g. in the case of the SIA preparer, the number of recent jobs for this client; The principle of precaution is applied, that is, lack of definitive proof about likely negative outcomes is not used as a reason to disregard them; And the distributional equity of impacts is identified – that is who will gain and who will lose out if the proposal goes ahead, and the effect of these outcomes on social equity and other matters of public interest.

An SIA may include recommendations, including that a project not go ahead, or not go ahead in its current form, because of the adverse social impacts likely to result. There are particular difficulties in applying SIA to long-term, multi-stage developments. These developments go through many changes and the original social impact assessment needs regular revision. Keeping the SIA current and relevant can seem unnecessary to the people doing the development and tedious for interest groups faced with yet more revisions to review.

When these feelings (“it’s not necessary” or “it’s so tedious”) arise, it is important to remember that the public interest in health and wellbeing is at stake.

Alison Ziller is a Director of Australia Street Company.

Source: South Sydney Herald March 2012 - www.southsydneyherald.com.au