The principle of enabling minerals planning authorities (MPAs) to recover the costs of monitoring compliance with planning conditions was settled in the 1998 comprehensive spending review.
Waste sites appear to have been brought into the frame because many quarries are restored by infilling with waste, but it is not clear as yet whether other types of waste disposal site - including those exempt from waste licensing - will be subject to the proposed cost recovery regime. Primary legislation would be needed to introduce this.
The DTLR's thinking on a charging scheme was informed by a study by consultants Arup Economic & Planning. Based largely on discussions with a sample of twelve MPAs "known to be undertaking a reasonable degree of monitoring", the research found wide variations in monitoring practices and costs.
Programmed visits to minerals sites were found to range between just one per year to a dozen or more. Costs of site visits ranged between £120 and £306, while the costs of monitoring a site over a year varied between £340 and £4,000.
Even the more proactive authorities felt that their inspection frequencies were at the "basic minimum". Others acknowledged that their inspection programmes were inadequate, but constrained by a lack of resources.
Arup's overall conclusion was that "existing monitoring practice is inadequate in that the MPAs do not always have the detailed knowledge to be able to be certain that all conditions on all permissions are fully complied" with.
The report recommends that a ratcheting-up of inspection frequencies should be set out in DTLR guidance, with MPAs advised to conduct an average of 2-6 monitoring visits per site per year, and with higher frequencies during sensitive stages of operation. This should be backed up with more professional standards among MPAs, using tools such as formal checklists of planning conditions during site visits, computer-based management systems and transparent systems of reporting.
Arup's own estimate of the cost of a site visit is £360. The report puts forward four main options for a cost recovery system - based on site working area, based on mineral output or waste input, a flat annual fee per site, or a rate per visit with the MPA deciding the inspection frequency in each case.
The consultants favoured the latter option because it would allow for a nationally set fee structure while enabling inspection frequencies to be tailored to operator performance and local conditions. The DTLR says it has yet to make up its mind on a preferred option, and has invited views on all four.
The prospect of cost-recovery charges has not gone down well throughout the minerals industry, and particularly the aggregates sector. Already sore about the aggregates tax which takes effect next April, some members of the sector told the DTLR during three meetings to discuss Arup's research that revenues from the tax should pay for monitoring.
Members of the Quarry Products Association (QPA), which represents aggregates businesses, also appear to have been the most vociferous in arguing at the meetings that firms certified to ISO14001 or EMAS should need no more than one inspection per year and receive a corresponding reduction in fees. Some also advocated rebates for companies achieving good compliance with planning conditions during a year.
Arup's report is clear that certification to ISO14001 or EMAS is "no substitute for MPA monitoring", in part because evidence of how certified companies actually perform against planning conditions is still limited.
There are also concerns among MPAs about variations in certification standards, and in the extent to which breaches of planning conditions are reported to MPAs by operators. Planners at the discussion meetings also argued for a minimum performance benchmark by certified companies before any abatement of fees was considered.
The DTLR takes a fairly neutral line on the issue, saying it is "keen to encourage" certification as a contribution to higher environmental standards, but commenting that "only a few sites" have been certified so far.
In fact, this perception may be out of date. The QPA says that more than 300 of the 800 or so sites operated by its members are now certified to ISO14001. The vast majority are among the big five operators - Tarmac, Hanson, Lafarge, RMC and Aggregate Industries - but some smaller operators have also been certified.
Even so, the questions remain - how much might MPA monitoring of certified sites be reduced, and what should be the reduction in fees? Arup notes that any fee reduction would be arbitrary, but suggests one of 10-50%. The QPA has argued for a 50% discount.
The DTLR is inviting comments on many other issues - including what should constitute a chargeable visit, whether "call-out" visits should attract fees, whether there should be a ceiling on chargeable visits, how revenues might be ring-fenced, and whether charges should reflect current or future best monitoring practice.
Arup was told that "Environment Agency staff tend to have less experience than the MPA's staff and to operate a system of 'technical compliance boxes' rather than understanding the complex nature of tipping as a means of site restoration."
Mineral operators also had very different perspectives of Agency and MPA officers. "The Agency are seen to be 'policing' compliance with a site licence, a feeling reinforced by their procedure of ticking relevant boxes on a form and leaving that, with actions required, at the end of a visit. Other issues raised were the frequent changes in staff and the relative lack of experience (and grey hairs) of the inspectors. One company summarised the view as the existence of an 'oppressive regime'."
MPAs were generally felt to be "more helpful, but not more lenient, in securing compliance," often doing so informally rather than by serving notices.