26 November 2012

WHIASU Guest Post: Revisiting health impact assessment guidance in Wales

Guest post by Liz Green, Principal HIA Development Officer, Wales HIA Support Unit/Public Health Wales


On 1st November 2012, the Wales Health Impact Assessment Support Unit (WHIASU) published new health impact assessment Guidance.  HIA: A Practical Guide replaced the original HIA Guide published in 2004 ‘Improving Health and Reducing Inequalities:  A Practical Guide to HIA’.  There were a number of reasons that the Unit (and Welsh Government) wanted and needed to not only revise the first edition but substantially add to it and enhance its ability to inform, influence and support a wide range of citizens, communities and organisations in the practice of health impact assessment in Wales (and beyond).

It is over 10 years since the establishment of a dedicated HIA Unit in Wales.  WHIASU embodies the partnership of a public health organisation (Public Health Wales) with the academic, social science based research expertise of Cardiff University and recognises the importance of developing the process in practice whilst researching its impact, influence and its important role in developing a broad health and wellbeing consciousness.  Since 2001, much has changed - including the increasing number of political drivers and policies which advocate for the use of HIA and a consideration of ‘Health in All Policies’ and the restructuring of public health in Wales.  It was an appropriate time to reflect on and revisit the guidance, amend and update it.

Although not a statutory requirement in Wales, HIA is now recommended as best practice as a method of considering health and wellbeing in a wide range of sectors – including traditionally ‘non health’ domains such as transport, waste and land use planning and regeneration. It has also been a mandatory requirement for all open cast mining developments since 2009.   Therefore, the Unit needed to provide easily accessible, relevant information, advice and links to resources an for not only the increasing number of communities, policy makers, practitioners and organisations who are subsequently interested in HIA but to also provide a modern, theoretical and practical document for the increasing number of private consultants commissioned to undertake HIA’s in Wales.  WHIASU has become increasingly called upon to provide guidance, advice and some support to these paid private consultants of HIA’s - but as a publicly funded resource it is neither within our remit nor with limited capacity could we fulfil this role in a sustainable way – and the new guide has been developed to partly address this.

The publication of a new guide is also a response to the knowledge and expertise accumulated from the rapid increase in the number of HIA’s that have been conducted in Wales.  Since 2004, over 100 HIA’s of differing levels, scale and scope have been completed.  Each one has contributed to the practice and development of HIA and given us insight into the process and new and more appropriate tools and resources to support it have been developed.  New screening tools, checklists and methods of working and participation have been created and this knowledge has been condensed into ‘HIA: A Practical Guide’.  The information contained within it is accessible but also provides some more advanced context and resources (within a reasonably short document).  These include topics that WHIASU is frequently requested to advise on - such as commissioning HIA’s, citizen involvement in and community led HIA’s and the quantification of impacts.  This is in recognition of the ever increasing number of policy makers and practitioners in Wales who have been involved in and contributed to HIA’s, and who need to build on that basic knowledge and develop it further.  For example, the Unit is regularly asked to quality assure HIA’s that have been completed and by providing context and tools for consultants, local public health teams and communities in tandem with some advice, it has allowed the Unit to focus on other aspects of training, development and research work.

Research has been a core element of WHIASU’s role in developing capacity and improving the practice of HIA in Wales and this learning has also shaped the new guide.  Many of WHIASU’s academic papers and reports have drawn on the experiences of HIA’s undertaken at different levels, reflecting different concerns, and involving combinations of different sectors.  Research is also important in informing individual HIAs and the findings from these reports have sometimes had wider influence and impact.  For instance,  the Margam Opencast Mining HIA  not only influenced a local planning decision  but it also triggered planning guidance for the use of participatory HIA as part of all opencast applications in Wales.  Other papers by the Unit focus on community and citizen involvement in HIA as a way of developing ‘civic intelligence’ and creating ‘new knowledge spaces’ for health improvement.  WHIASU also recognises the need to provide useful and timely resources to inform decisions in a rapidly changing social and economic environment and stand alone working papers and guidance documents that that Unit has produced includes a report on the impact of the economic downturn in Wales, an overview of public participation in HIA, and best practice reports on opencast mining and waste technologies.

Finally, although the Unit has the WHIASU website and regularly shares published reports, work and research – much of it is still invisible.  The guide has been an excellent way of disseminating some of this tacit knowledge.