Jon Reeds looks at DEFRA plans to introduce a single permitting regime for contaminated land
One of the problems with a really good idea is that, as soon as it receives acclaim, everyone wants to apply it all over the place. So it is with the single remediation permit for contaminated land. The Urban White Paper noted that the environmental controls on remediation are cumbersome and complex. The application of several controls to the activities on site – often sequentially rather than in parallel – impose a significant cost and a disincentive to proceed with remediation.
Land contamination is anathema to developers and financiers, and this is exacerbated by a complex and unevenly implemented regulatory system. The government judged this a significant hindrance to its strategy of urban renewal and a single permit was recommended in the paper.
The idea was taken up by DEFRA, which formed a working group to consider the issue, which reported favourably last autumn. It found:
- A lack of clarity on what type of remediation and standards are needed;
- A duplication of local authority and Environment Agency controls in some areas;
- Diverging regulatory objectives;
- The sequential application of controls; and
- Blight on sites where waste management licenses have applied.
The soil as waste issue
There have been complaints about the need to obtain waste licenses for soil that is being treated then returned to the same site and about the cost of mobile plant licenses. Although these are seen as less onerous than full waste controls, they can still cost up to £15,000 to obtain and £10,000/year to maintain.
But if anyone was hoping for removal of all the red tape surrounding waste control, they should not be too hopeful. European courts have been widening the scope of what is defined as waste, and controls cannot be evaded altogether.
“The Environment Agency considers that contaminants in the ground have been discarded and are therefore inside the definition of waste,” says DEFRA policy advisor Ged Duckworth. This underlines the need for a simpler single remediation permit. With this in mind, the working group recommended creation of a specific set of new regulations under the Pollution Prevention and Control Act to cover land remediation, together with detailed measures for improvement.
DEFRA was impressed and decided to subsume the proposal into a wider review of the current waste permitting arrangements for non-hazardous waste. A new body was set up to carry it forward. The single remediation permit will still play an important role, and the review team is currently deciding which permitting regimes it will replace.
“There’s some debate at the edges of the regime as to what applies where,” says Duckworth. “We’re hoping to develop a remediation permit which will have straighter edges.”
Wider license exemptions
The aim is to include all the activities on sites that the Agency regulates, although exactly what these constitute is still being decided. Candidates include waste management licenses (including mobile plant licenses), groundwater regulations, abstraction licenses and discharge consents. What won’t be included are local authority responsibilities such as planning permission, Environmental Protection Act 1990 Part IIA decisions and works notices.
The working group recommended wider waste license exemptions, allowing site owners or contractors, and license holders to provide the financial guarantees needed, applying mobile plant licenses to groundwater remediation, new charging levels, guidance and training.
New guidance, a regulatory impact assessment, and identifying exactly which regulatory regimes impact on remediation are areas Duckworth and his colleagues are currently focusing on.
Whether the remediation process will be speeded up will depend on individual circumstances and the quality of information applicants provide, but there are potential time and money savings for both sides.
“Whatever permit scheme we come up with will have to comply with EU directives and there will be an application process to go through,” points out Duckworth. “We can’t cut corners. Our objective is to prevent harm from these activities.”
The review group will consult later this year and report by January 2004 – at present it is believed a remediation permit could be introduced without primary legislation. Certainly the development industry hopes the plan gets implemented sooner rather than later.