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Improving Sustainability Appraisal methodology – reducing choice to reduce trade-offs in decision making (BONDU16SF)

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  • Full or part time
    Dr A Bond
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Self-Funded PhD Students Only
    Self-Funded PhD Students Only

Project Description

Sustainability Appraisal (SA) in England involves the development of a framework as the basis for appraising the emerging spatial (land use) plan. This framework comprises sustainability objectives each associated with a number of indicators (up to 151: Bond and Morrison-Saunders 2011) which test whether the plan will meet the sustainability objectives; this simplification of the environment into indicators is called reductionism.

Cannon et al. (2009) refer to the simplicity paradox whereby decision complexity is increased through the introduction of too much information (overload) and too little (uncertainty). This leads to decision difficulties for decision makers (Sohl and Clagget 2013), and the inevitable introduction of trade-offs (given any draft plan will likely have both sustainability benefits and negative impacts) prevents the delivery of sustainable outcomes according Gibson (2013).

Retief et al., (2013) explored the psychology of trade-off decision-making and suggested three questions are key: when are trade-off decisions difficult? How do we react when faced with difficult trade-off decisions? How can we deal with difficult trade-off decisions? This research aims to answer these three key questions in the context of SA. The specific objectives are:
1) To map the trade-off decision points in SA
2) To categorise the difficulty of trade-off decision-making in SA.
3) To evaluate how configurations of draft plan policy options and sustainability indicators influence trade-off choices
4) To recommend how to address the simplicity paradox introduced through SA.

The research will help to develop a number of skills including:
• Research design
• Expert elicitation
• Stakeholder engagement
• Literature review and documentary analysis
• Interview techniques

Funding Notes

This PhD project is offered on a self-funding basis. It is open to applicants with funding or those applying to funding sources. Details of tuition fees can be found at

A bench fee is also payable on top of the tuition fee to cover specialist equipment or laboratory costs required for the research. The amount charged annually will vary considerably depending on the nature of the project and applicants should contact the primary supervisor for further information about the fee associated with the project.


i) Bond, A J and A Morrison-Saunders (2011), "Re-evaluating Sustainability Assessment: aligning the vision and the practice", Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 31(1), pages 1-7.
ii) Cannon, H M, D P Friesen, S J Lawrence and A H Feinstein (2009), "The simplicity paradox: Another look at complexity in design of simulations and experiential exercises", Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning, 36, pages 243-250.
iii) Gibson, R B (2013), "Avoiding sustainability trade-offs in environmental assessment", Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 31(1), pages 2-12.
iv) Retief, F., A. Morrison-Saunders, D. Geneletti and J. Pope (2013), 'Exploring the psychology of trade-off decision-making in environmental impact assessment', Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 31 (1), 13-23.
v) Sohl, T L and P R Claggett (2013), "Clarity versus complexity: Land-use modeling as a practical tool for decision-makers", Journal of Environmental Management, 129, pages 235-243.

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