Councils get their priorities straight
Local authorities are currently undergoing a shake-up of the way they deal with their environmental responsibilities. Rob Bell reports on the enforcement priority review
And they are faced with ever-tighter budgets, the clamour of government departments demanding action on their particular areas of concern, and more than 60 areas of statutory responsibility.
In recognition of this, Peter Rogers, chief executive of Westminster council, was appointed by government at the end of November last year to lead a review of local authority enforcement priorities, aimed at ensuring resources are used more efficiently.
Speaking at the time, Rogers said: "I believe [this review] will lead to real improvements for both those who are regulated and those who rely on regulation for protection. We in local government are the ones who make so many of the decisions that affect people's daily lives. And it is down to us to make sure that those decisions are fair, consistent and properly enforced.
"By working together to focus on five priorities, local authority achievements will be better recognised, regional variations will be diminished, and we can use resources more efficiently. This is good news for business, the public and local authorities."
Rogers achieved his goal in record time, and the recommendations that came out of his evidence-based analysis were accepted in full by government in this year's budget in March.
Crucially for environmental professionals, air quality made the top five national enforcement priorities, with contaminated land falling just outside the first tranche on the grounds it is more of a local concern, along with noise nuisance and local environmental quality. Noise mapping and statutory nuisance were the only to environmental protection duties to be defined as non-priorities.
Speaking after Chancellor Gordon Brown's Budget speech, in which he announced the government's acceptance of the review's recommendations, Rogers said: "For the first time, enforcement priorities have been based on the evidence of risk. For those of us in local government, who make day-to-day decisions about enforcement, these priorities will help us best protect the health of our citizens and businesses' prosperity.
Knowing what is expected
"A consistent approach to regulatory enforcement by local authorities will help us tackle the biggest risks nationally as well as helping those who are regulated know what is expected of them wherever they are."
And, while the future impacts of the review's recommendations are as yet difficult to quantify, the clear focus on environmental protection is good news for public health and the UK environment.
Rob Pilling, an independent expert and consultant on air quality issues, says: "It's good news that air quality was selected as a priority. Local authorities play a crucial role in managing air quality and protecting the health of the local population, and it's vital they continue to do so.
"Just as important is the cumulative effect of local action, which helps to deliver national improvements. Local authorities make an important contribution to monitoring and understanding air quality in the UK through their review and assessment work, and this needs to be maintained."
Pilling also praised the links in the report to the issue of climate change. And he expressed the hope this would help bring forward the much-needed co-ordinated approach to the two related problems. This was also highlighted in the recent Air Quality Expert Group report Air quality and climate change: a UK perspective.
"This is particularly relevant when it comes to the transport sector," he says.
"Recognising the co-benefits of action here is crucial, especially since climate action on transport lags behind other sectors. In fact, it's a shame the review was not more explicit in drawing this out."
Nick Clack, environmental protection team leader for the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services (Lacors), agrees. And he believes the review can only bring about positive change in the environmental field.
He says: "Having the five enforcement priorities should help to bring clarity to what is quite often a skewed debate about what areas are most important. In terms of environmental protection, air quality is an area where local government will now be able to go to central government and say 'we need funding for this'.
"And hopefully it will reduce some of the pressures on environmental protection from other areas where in the past it might have suffered because other departments have shouted louder.
"Also, it should focus both Defra's and the Department for Transport's attention on delivering their environmental targets, and give local authorities the tools to really influence air quality."
But the absence of noise nuisance - the subject of a majority of environment-related public complaints to many councils - from the top five has caused some concern.
The National Society for Clean Air (NSCA) says that, while it welcomes the prioritisation of air pollution in the review, it was "particularly disappointed that once again lower priorities were given to noise nuisance, and to noise mapping".
Acting CEO Philip Mulligan says: "Rogers reports that neighbour noise affects the quality of life of one in seven, noise enforcement is patchy, and that for 73% of people noisy neighbours are a great concern.
"So, it's disappointing that another opportunity has been missed to raise the profile of noise and integrate it into mainstream policy making. This is particularly the case now, when Defra is drafting a national noise strategy, identifying quiet urban areas, and working towards action plans to manage noise."
Tim Clarke, pollution control officer at Bristol City Council, confirms that noise complaints vastly outnumber those relating to industrial point-source pollution, but agrees with Rogers' evidence- and risk-based approach, saying: "With industrial pollution there are known and well understood health effects and heavy public demand that action be taken."
But the banishing of noise mapping to the non-priority list raised some concerns. Clarke says: "Mapping is a tool to help government and local authorities to control noise and improve local environmental quality. The maps' aim ought also to be to raise awareness about noise in general; particularly as transport noise, rather than neighbour nuisance-related complaints, is a problem people generally haven't complained about in the past."
Noise is perhaps the most neglected of major environmental issues in the UK. A European green paper from 1996 found that 80 million people in the smaller 15-state EU of the time were affected by noise. And that number will have significantly increased with expansion.
Clarke says: "Noise mapping should lead to greater public awareness. But as a non-priority it might fall by the wayside. It's hard to know at this stage.
"However, I understand the World Health Organisation is talking about publishing a report later in the year about the health effects of noise being far more severe and widespread than is known or understood, so that may bring it back up the ladder."
And as Nick Clack points out, defining "non-priorities" leads to more questions than answers for the councils on the front line of enforcement. "If the third tranche are non-priorities then there's a question about what that actually means," he says.
"There are a number in there that match what councils generally consider the least important areas. But they're still statutory duties, the councils still have to regulate them. And, for Lacors, that leaves a question hanging over those areas. Is the government going to define minimum standards? Or is that going to be left to the local authorities themselves?"
Councils and organisations such as Lacors, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and the NSCA are now in the process of analysing Rogers' findings to establish how best to move forward.
Clack says: "We're going through the review, and there may be a role for us in making sure Rogers' work is taken forward. But ultimately it's down to individual councils - as democratically elected bodies for their area - to take on it on board and make the decisions that are right for them."
Tim Clarke expresses the hope that, by defining set priorities, those areas of environmental protection further down the list will not suffer. But he says that, while it's still early days, and local authority budgets were set prior to the review's publication, Bristol will be looking closely at how it will impact on budget priorities for next year.
So, while it is as yet difficult to judge just how much of an impact Rogers' findings will have in practice, a shake-up of the way in which local authorities prioritise and enforce their statutory duties - be they environmental or not - is on the way.
Not everyone is happy with the national priorities as they now stand. But it looks certain that the review will be revisited and reassessed regularly, likely every three years. And, as Clarke says: "The most important thing is that it does flag up significant areas relating to environmental health, which will be useful in raising the profile of environmental protection."