SY39/2009 Public participation
in the environmental permit processes
at regional level
Aino Inkinen, 2009
The Finnish Environment 39/2009, Environment protection, 68 p. Finnish Environment Institute. URN:ISBN:978-952-11- 3609-2. ISBN 978-952-11- 3609-2 (PDF). The publication is available only on the internet.
This report is a part of a wider research program titled Effective Environmental Management: law, public participation and environmental decision making (EMLE). EMLE is an innovative exploration of the nature, impact and effectiveness of public participation in environmental decision-making. The research program is founded by the Finnish Academy, the Finnish Ministry of Environment and the Finnish Environment Institute.
The aim of this report is to explore the nature of public participation in environmental permit processes on the regional level in Finland. This process involves environmental permit authorities, permit applicants and (potentially) a broad spectrum of participants, and the research was designed to include all of these parties. Both quantitative and qualitative approaches were utilized in the research, including a statistical survey of judicial review of environmental permit decisions, interviews with members of the administrative courts involved in judicial review, interviews with environmental permit officers from each of the 13 environment centres and 3 environmental permit authorities as well as case studies covering 10 environmental permit processes from application to permit decision from 3 regions in Finland.
The key findings of the study were that participation in the environmental permit process at regional level is both understood and experienced in a different way by the different parties to the process, and that this disparity can limit the effectiveness or, more importantly perhaps from a participant point of view, the perceived effectiveness of participation in the permit process. Overall, participation in the permit process was relatively low, with the exception of a few conflict-laden cases. The potential for being involved and affecting the permit process and outcome is not fully exploited by individuals and groups entitled to participate, and in certain cases participation is dominated by a few ‘super-activists’ who limit the heterogeneity in participatory input wanted by permit administrators. All permit officers considered public participation to be important because public participation enables better informed decisions to be made, and goes some way in building mutual acceptance between the parties involved.
Nonetheless, permit applicants tended to have a rather negative opinion of participation and its impacts on the permit process and resulting decision, although this varied with the size of the applicant and the proposed activity with larger organisations showing less enthusiasm for public participation. Participants themselves were often disappointed in the permit outcomes and when their expectations of what could be achieved were not fully realised, often as a result of the legal framework that the permit process is bounded by. Despite this, most participants trusted that permit officers were competent to make environmentally and legally sound permit decisions.
Several strong themes arose in the study that could prove fruitful for further research. Communication in the process was deemed by all parties to be crucial for a good process, although it was also often cited as being insufficient or somehow lacking. The channels and forms of contact that foster or inhibit communication between parties should be examined further, as well as the scope for developing this aspect of the permit process in future administrative changes. The participatory process as an instrument of learning was also discussed, although learning was not among the research questions and was not addressed specifically in the research. Learning as an outcome of participation, and a means to mitigate conflict could be explored further. Finally, the question of assessing the effectiveness of participation remains somewhat unresolved, demanding deeper examination of associated theory.
As a result of the broadness of this study, no concrete conclusions are drawn in this report. However, this report is referred to in a number of more focused articles which attempt to address at least some of the themes arising in discussion of the research results, and therefore should be seen as a part of the full output arising from this research project.
Researcher Aino Inkinen