One year on

Rob Bell talks to Scottish Environment Protection Agency chief exec Campbell Gemmell about his first year in the job and the future for environmental protection in Scotland

Having presided over the Scottish Environment Protection Agency as chief executive for a year, former director of planning Dr Campbell Gemmell is relaxed and positive about the direction the regulator is moving in.

He arrived in the post to find a Policy and Financial Management Review on his desk, and says he was fortunate that the agenda it set was the one SEPA needed to follow, and a course that sat well with his own ideas for the future.
Gemmell believes that cultural and organisational change is necessary for success, and for SEPA to guide Scottish business in the direction of sustainability. “I don’t think the organisation was as positive and open to interacting with business in the past,” he says. “Our people had a more conventional view – “the regulator is there to regulate business and that’s it”.

Under fire

SEPA has certainly come under fire for its regulatory style, perhaps most spectacularly from Scottish Engineering. The trade body’s chief executive compared SEPA to “a mosquito sucking the life-blood out of the Scottish economy and picking over its bones”, a comment that still makes Gemmell chuckle. “We have taken abuse from some sides,” he says. “But we listen and do our best. We have to be careful to communicate effectively but organisations like the CBI, IoD and Scottish Engineering do too.”

He complains of what he calls “fairly ritualistic grumbling that the environment is just a part of the bureaucratic red tape” from business groups, and complains that in Scotland they are failing to engage with SEPA to communicate to their members that there are real benefits to effective
environmental management.

Losing financial viability

“It would be good if the CBI and IoD were talking with us about how their members can improve their performance, because not only is it about compliance – it’s about making sure they’re as efficient as possible and that means reducing their waste management costs. It’s the filthy lucre, it matters,” he insists. “Why should they be losing financial viability by not managing their resources effectively?”
Gemmell says he would also like to see more involvement from the economic development bodies, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, in supporting businesses that are improving their performance. “It would be helpful to have them a bit more involved,” he says. “They are involved in VIBES [Vision in Business for the Environment of Scotland] with us and that’s great, but you get the feeling that there’s still a bit more we could all do, because ultimately we are interested in Scotland’s economic performance.”

This is a theme he returns to frequently – although with the definite proviso that business success must not come at the expense of Scotland’s environment. “The whisky industry, tourism and others have built their reputation on a high quality environment, but the problem is that more often or not they have not had to pay for that environment they’re benefiting from,” he says.

A balanced understanding

“We’re trying to get a balanced understanding in the business community of the fact that the environment doesn’t just stay good – and it doesn’t get better – without investment. That is a serious issue.”

It’s clear that Gemmell takes real pride in the country’s environment, and he talks of the need to communicate its value: “We need to talk to businesses about the fact that nearly 10-15% of Scottish GDP is delivered by the environment, so that’s a big underpinning of the economy.”

While stressing the importance of getting that message across, Gemmell says he remains aware of the fact that there are many constraints on industry, and that it is important that SEPA doesn’t alienate the business community by representing a disproportionate wedge of the regulation they face.

He uses the example of Scotland’s only large cement works. “We can’t regulate that one operator out of business and wouldn’t wish to do so,” he says. “Fish farming is another issue. We want the industry to be successful, but we want it to be compliant with the legislation.

“It is contributing to local communities and to the economy, but we will take hard action if things aren’t going well. We want to be supportive, we want to make sure that the partnerships that are in place are effective, and we want to make sure that they pay attention to the need for a good, clean environmentally responsible product.”

That said, there’s a lot more regulation on the way whether SEPA and the Scottish Executive like it or not, especially as European measures such as the Water Framework Directive and new hazardous waste disposal laws come into effect.

A big challenge

Gemmell is realistic about what they both mean: “The Water Framework Directive and everything that comes with it is a big challenge to Scotland,” he says. “It’s a big challenge because – again – our water is perceived as being clean and good quality. But you don’t keep it that way for free – it’s an expensive resource to maintain.
“And waste management is probably the single biggest challenge that businesses in Scotland face, because we’ve just got such a long way to go.”

However, it’s not all bad news, and Gemmell is keen to highlight the fact that there are Scottish businesses that have come a long way along the path to effectively managing their environmental impacts. “We’ve had real successes in our waste minimisation work: people have been very engaged with us and with others to improve their performance and gain the significant business benefits. There are also lots of small groupings of companies working to identify efficiencies, savings and joint operational benefits. So there are people who are definitely making progress.”

Progress may be being made, but Gemmell is blunt about one thing: “There are too many businesses in Scotland that don’t yet take the environment as seriously as I think they should.” And there is also a note of frustration at the seeming inability on many companies to take a long term view on the realities of environmental regulation.

“There is a lot of legislation to deal with, but we need to have a balanced approach,” he days. “Some of it is between10 and 30 years old, so these are not new ideas. People should be thinking about the long term – and should have been thinking about the environment for a long time.

“The Environment Protection Act 1990 was a big piece of legislation that showed really strong signals of where we were going, and I’m not sure that many businesses have quite worked that out.”

Suffering the consequences

And these are the businesses that are suffering the consequences, across the UK. And where in England and Wales they have been increasingly finding themselves being dragged into the courts by Barbara Young’s Environment Agency inspectors, the legal peculiarities of Scotland’s Procurator Fiscal Service means that SEPA has no powers to prosecute environmental offenders.

In fact, Gemmell says he doesn’t want those kind of powers for SEPA, but he does welcome the formation of a specialist team of environmental prosecutors for Scotland, and says there will be a close working relationship to make sure the right cases come in front of the courts.

“We were very keen to make sure there was a really sound understanding within the Crown Office and the Prosecutor Fiscal service of what environmental law was about, because it wasn’t a priority to the service,” he says. “And I’m really pleased that they have recognised that this was such a priority and that we needed to deal with the problem of environmental offences.”

Environmental justice

He sees the team – which Lord Advocate Colin Boyd says is intended to “ensure the robust enforcement of environmental law” – as an extension of first minister Jack McConnell’s much repeated commitment to environmental justice.

“It’s something that the Scottish Executive has taken a really strong stand on, because if it doesn’t happen well, specific communities will be at a real disadvantage. We want to make sure that we play an environmental and social role.”
And the change within SEPA that Gemmell is driving forward is what he says is going to make that happen. For a start, he’s is willing to admit the regulator’s faults.
“We’ve been criticised in the past for consistency issues, and it is difficult to get consistency right,” he says. “But by having a national approach to regulation we can get that right. We need to make sure that the service we provide in Lerwick is as close as we can get it to the service we provide in Glasgow. We’ve paid attention to things like the Better Regulation Taskforce and we take consistency seriously.”

But it is going to take more than a new and improved SEPA to get Scotland on the track to real environmental success. “The public culture in Scotland and the rest of the UK, and market mechanisms still aren’t there,” Gemmell says. And as the authorities are finding across the United Kingdom, where the public may be enthusiastic about the environment, it remains unwilling to see the necessary recycling and other facilities built in ‘my backyard’.

Opportunities and constraints

“We have to deal with both the opportunities and the constraints of the planning system, which at the moment is evolving quite rapidly in quite difficult directions,” Gemmell says. “Third party appeal is a really positive democratic notion, but it also places real constraints on progress.

“The community scale projects that we think are relevant for parts of Scotland are meeting with a lot of resistance, but these are places where, at the moment, waste management means taking what people are producing locally and transporting it somewhere else so it can be dealt with.”

He uses the example of the Lerwick incinerator as a model for the way Scotland needs to be moving. “The Danes have been living with this for a generation, and I would love to see a more mature discussion about the real value of closing the loop on waste management to make sure that we are using resources effectively for everyone’s benefit, rather than perceiving it as a massive problem. Waste is a problem, but it won’t be less of a problem unless we take a very grownup and integrated view of it.”

A vital role to play

And this isn’t just a message for the Scottish public, Gemmell is convinced that business has a vital role to play. “We can’t afford to either overlook or underestimate the importance of the environment in Scotland,” he says. “Our infrastructure has to get better, our services have to get better, and we have to do it pretty quickly. I’d really like to see the business community strenuously and effectively playing a role in that particular area. Only they can do it – government has got smaller and local government is under lots of pressure – the private sector has to be a really strong part of the solution.

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