A manager in a waste management company who recently met a group of waste regulators from the Environment Agency was amazed when they stood up while the discussion on the point at issue was still unfinished and told him they had to leave. When asked why, they said: "We're sorry, but we have to go and do some inspections."
The incident was a lesser consequence of the Agency's decision to make achievement of 75% of the inspection frequencies laid down in Government guidance the overriding priority of its waste regulators for the first quarter of 1998. If the letter sent anonymously by an Agency officer to Environment Minister Michael Meacher is anything to go by, regulators have been busy cooking the books to ensure that the target was met (see box ).
The inspection targets were originally set in 1988 in an effort to prompt more field enforcement work by the former 83 waste regulation authorities (WRAs) in England and Wales. The recommended frequencies range from eight per month for co-disposal landfills taking "special waste" to a quarterly visit to in-house waste storage facilities.
The response from WRAs - many of them hamstrung by lack of resources - was patchy. In 1994/95, the inspection frequencies achieved in England ranged from 16% to 126% of the targets - with a crude average of 64% across the country (ENDS Report 254, pp 13-14 ). The rate reportedly improved to around 70% the following year - immediately before the WRAs were absorbed into the Agency.
The inspection rate dropped to around 60% in the Agency's first year. Under pressure to do better, the Agency promised in its corporate plan last September to achieve an average of 75% across its eight regions in 1998/99, and better than 75% in each region next year.
The management direction for the 75% target to be pursued earlier than this in the final quarter of 1997/98 came shortly afterwards. With exquisitely sensitive timing, it was issued just after the "Next Steps" process - a comprehensive restructuring which provoked bitter controversy and considerable disaffection among many Agency staff - had been completed.
ENDS first heard reports that some regulators were driving by waste sites and recording this as an inspection late last year. Contacts in the waste industry have also expressed concern at the number of out-of-hours inspections lately being carried out by the Agency.
These reports lend some authenticity to the claims made in the anonymous letter to Mr Meacher. Not surprisingly, most officers contacted by ENDS in recent weeks said they had no direct knowledge of cheating on inspection records, although some had heard second-hand internal reports to that effect. Most also doubted whether the worst forms of cheating were widespread. But one officer told ENDS that he had heard directly from other waste regulators that the record was being massaged in the ways alleged.
Go-slow on enforcement
However, officers were generally clear that the rush to meet the inspection target has had adverse impacts on their work. According to one who holds an unusually temperate view of the way in which the waste function has been handled over the past two years, "some investigations have not been concluded or followed through as diligently as I would have liked. The investigations were mostly of more minor matters, but it's still worrying because they can escalate into more serious matters."
The officer concerned works in an area which has been more fortunate than most with the number of personnel working in waste regulation. Officers in regions where resources are thinner have told him that enforcement work has had to be dropped in favour of inspections.
The whole affair certainly poses pointed questions about the way the Agency is being run. One remarkable feature for an organisation ostensibly committed to quality control is that the target was set in the absence of a definition of what constitutes a good or adequate inspection.
The scope which this left for abuse has been compounded by the Agency's performance-related pay policy, under which area managers and more senior personnel stand to receive bonuses if their staff meet the inspection target.
Many officers have serious objections to this system, either regarding it as inappropriate in the public service, or questioning why managers should benefit from the activities of others, or both. Equally important, it rewards activity for its own sake - activity which, in this case, lacks proper quality control.
The realism of setting the 75% target at this stage is also open to question. This time last year, there were 120 vacancies in the waste function. On top of this, the Agency announced in September that it needed another 130 waste regulation posts if it was to meet its statutory responsibilities.
Recruitment appears to have proceeded slowly since then. One reason may be that the Agency is felt to offer unattractive conditions. A waste manager in the private sector told ENDS that his weighbridge operators are paid more than a recent graduate who joined the Agency at a salary below £10,000.
The quality of some of the latest intake was "embarrassing", he added. Agency officers have confirmed that the quality of inspections has suffered because new recruits have had to be put into the field without completing their training.
Senior officers voiced strong concerns about the 75% target last autumn and predicted accurately the problems it would cause. The Agency's top management chose to disregard these warnings, apparently because of a desire to demonstrate that the organisation was capable of meeting a target.
But the story does not end there. In March, Operations Director Archie Robertson - the originator of the 75% target - proposed that the inspection rate for this year should not be 75% after all, but 50%. This was another felicitously timed morale booster, coming as waste regulators in the field were working flat out to meet the original target.
The proposal was startling for other reasons. For one, it contradicts the target in the corporate plan, suggesting that Agency management regard this as a moveable feast.
More remarkable still, the 75% target was the basis on which the Agency appealed successfully to Environment Ministers to maintain its grant-in-aid at a level high enough to enable it recruit an extra 130 waste regulators, and to authorise the 20% increase in charges levied on waste businesses for this year (ENDS Report 278, pp 37-38 ). Proposing a change of course so soon afterwards is hardly the best way for the Agency to endear itself to its sponsoring Department.
The policy acrobatics may make it difficult to discern, but underlying them is a genuine issue. Waste regulation is the only regime for which inspection frequencies have been set by the Government. As top waste businesses are increasingly pointing out, some of the resources devoted to inspections of well-run sites might be better used in catching rogue operators and policing activities exempt from licensing - such as spreading of industrial wastes on farmland and the large-scale disposal of demolition and other "inert" wastes on land.
Since last year, the Agency has been developing a methodology to determine the risks posed by individual waste management facilities. The idea is that the resulting ratings could be used to inform its inspection priorities. The scheme is based on the Operator and Pollution Risk Appraisal (OPRA) system originally developed for processes regulated under integrated pollution control (ENDS Report 274, p 15 ).
If experience under IPC is anything to go by, fairly extensive field trials will be needed before the methodology is ready for routine application. However, Mr Robertson is understood to be keen to apply it soon so that resources can be freed for other activities, such as promoting waste minimisation in industry.
On this, though, there is also significant dissent within the Agency. Many of the more experienced waste regulators want to stick with the 75% target or one close to it, and use the OPRA system to improve targetting of inspection work rather than help divert resources elsewhere - with a possible cut in the overall inspection rate being considered only in the longer term. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is believed to be sympathetic to this school of thought - no doubt concerned that stepping back so far from the targets set in 1988 would be awkward to justify politically.
Problems for LCA, waste survey
The stop-go policy on inspections poses the questions: what has the Agency achieved on the waste management front so far, and where is it falling down? And how is the waste function shaping up generally?
Progress on some of the bigger projects has been less than inspiring. A programme to develop life-cycle analysis techniques and tools to help determine the "best practicable environmental option" for different waste streams has suffered funding difficulties and continues to do so.
Another example is the long-promised national survey of industrial and commercial waste producers. The starting date for this project - of considerable importance in informing the Agency's advice to the Government on a national waste strategy and for monitoring progress against the strategy - has been put back repeatedly. The Agency told a parliamentary inquiry earlier this year that the survey will begin in late summer, but the project has yet to be authorised.
One of the main reasons for the Agency's establishment was to introduce national consistency in waste regulation practice. Some work on getting consistency on issues of relatively minor importance - such as guidelines on interpretation of the 1996 "special waste" regulations - has been completed. But the biggest job - getting a consistent approach to licensing and regulation of waste facilities - still has a long way to go.
The first building block was put in place on 29 April with the publication of a new library of licence conditions, a set of standard licence application forms, and a handbook containing guidelines on how licence applications are to be determined (ENDS Report 275, pp 35-36 ).
At its present stage of development, the library of licence conditions is far from providing a guarantee of national consistency. Many standards for waste facilities are left for inclusion in site working plans. Operators welcome this approach in principle as providing flexibility, but are concerned that it will allow regional inconsistency to continue.
Many of the model conditions are framed as broad objectives. For example, dust releases beyond the site perimeter are prohibited - but there is no definition of what would be an acceptable de minimis rate of dust escape. The onus will essentially fall on operators to justify proposals in this and other areas using a risk-based approach - but here the further difficulty is that the Agency has not defined what it regards as an acceptable level of risk.
These features of the package help to explain its muted reception in the waste industry. One manager commented: "The Agency's being rather too self-congratulatory, given the extent of what's been achieved. Until they produce national standards to go into the library, the regions will carry on doing what they've been doing."
Weakness at the centre
While a substantial amount of work is under way on guidelines intended to achieve consistent regulatory practices, the Agency has little to show from this two years into its existence. The upheaval of restructuring has been a contributory factor. But another reason is the way the waste function itself has been structured.
The waste function has a policy team of just ten people at the Agency's head office in Bristol - tiny in comparison with the water and industrial pollution regulation functions, which brought with them the sizeable central policy teams inherited from their national predecessor bodies. Another symbol of the importance apparently attached to the waste function is that, while the Agency has eight National Centres intended, in its words, to "provide a 'critical mass' of nationally and internationally recognised expertise in their field," there is no such centre for waste.
As a result, most of the burden of developing policy and guidance has fallen on the National Waste Group and its nine working groups. These are mostly chaired and staffed by regional and field officers who, not surprisingly, have many other matters to divert them from this work.
The official line from the Agency is that policy and field work will gather momentum now that the dust has settled from the "Next Steps" reorganisation. But many waste regulators see things differently. The restructuring and events before it have left a legacy of anger, bitterness and low morale which seem set to hobble the organisation for a long way ahead.
Transferring to the Agency was always likely to be difficult for more senior officers who were certain to lose the autonomy and direct accountability to politicians they had enjoyed in the former WRAs. "Some have made it more difficult for themselves than they need have done," commented one ex-WRA officer. "They could have been more flexible."
That said, almost every ex-WRA officer contacted by ENDS felt that waste regulators have not had a fair deal since joining the Agency. That, in turn, they attribute to the lowly status accorded the waste function from the outset because it was widely perceived as a low-grade activity.
"They thought waste was just nothing," commented one county waste regulator who left the Agency recently in disillusion. "But if you think about all the scientific and technical skills it takes to regulate a landfill, it's actually far more complex than the end-of-pipe controls and wishy-washy discharge consent audits that the water people do."
The lowly status of the waste function is not only evident at the centre but reflected in the current positions of the chief officers in the former WRAs. Apart from ten or so from the English WRAs who left or were pushed out of the Agency, most have secured posts as heads of the 26 area licensing or enforcement teams or as regional waste managers. However, only one is believed to have been appointed as an Area Manager, and none as a Regional Manager.
Some more senior ex-WRA officers who were in charge of teams of a dozen or so have also suffered demotions, failing to secure posts as leaders of teams of four people. One such officer says he was told at his interview: "It's not your experience or technical skills that matter, it's your managerial qualities." Individuals with no background in field enforcement work - usually from the former National Rivers Authority - have often been appointed to team leader posts, even though they lack the experience to give their teams a lead.
This pattern is not universal, but it is very common - and has stirred up disaffection among waste regulators who believe that the emphasis on managerial qualities simply concealed patronage in appointments.
By many accounts, the effect has been disastrous - with some disenchanted waste regulators being positively vitriolic about the capabilities of managers at area and regional level. "The people who are your bosses don't know what you're doing," commented one. "They say all the right words, but they haven't been in proper management positions. They're crap, honestly - they couldn't manage to save their lives."
The discontent extends to the Next Steps restructuring - both the principle and the manner in which it was conducted. Most waste regulators feel that the function should have been kept separate instead of being merged with water quality regulation, at least for a period. They argue that this would have given it time to evolve into a cohesive national grouping with consistent national policies.
The merger of the waste and water functions was accompanied by a split in their licensing and enforcement activities, which are now carried out by separate teams. This has created its own problems, with recruitment to the licensing teams proving difficult in some areas because the conditions - especially subsidies for cars - are less attractive.
Waste businesses are feeling the consequences. One told ENDS that it had sent working plans for several of its sites to the Agency six months ago but has yet to receive any comments. A manager at the company also expressed concern that the separation of licensing and enforcement "can't be good - the effectiveness of the licensing teams will be weakened because they're losing direct contact with waste operations."
Troubles over pay and grading
But some of the harshest comments have been reserved for the conduct of the restructuring process itself. One official voiced the sentiments of many when he branded it "an exercise in incredibly duff management."
Many staff who applied for their new posts did so before job specifications had been prepared and terms and conditions finalised. Some were later placed in grades with lower salaries than they had been led to expect during their interviews.
According to one senior officer, there are also "significant differences between regions in gradings and pay levels for similar jobs. The Agency has consistent national criteria to determine people's gradings, but it's the way they've been applied that's caused the problem - and where there's inequality, there's unhappiness."
To complete this rosy picture, reports of severe pressure being imposed on junior staff and their immediate superiors to accept the new gradings are not uncommon. Allegations of bullying and intimidation in the Southern Region have been made in another anonymous note obtained by ENDS (see box ).
Discontent over the outcome of the Next Steps process was widespread, but early this year the unions representing Agency staff recommended acceptance of the pay and conditions negotiated with management over the previous year. The negotiations went to the brink after management rejected the unions' case that the Agency's broad-banded pay structure is inconsistent with the accepted principle of "equal pay for equal work". After a top-level intervention, it was agreed that the issue should be looked at by a sub-committee of management and union representatives which will report to the Board - the first time the unions have gained such access.
The legacy of this process is that hundreds of staff are expected to appeal against their job gradings. Another heated dispute with the unions took place earlier this year when the Agency's negotiators insisted on a "management-only" appeals mechanism. A joint mechanism was eventually agreed.
"The sad thing," said one ex-WRA officer, "is that a lot of waste regulators who saw a need for and supported the creation of the Agency have ended up badly disheartened - and there was absolutely no need for it." But perhaps the most damning indictment of the way the Agency is run is that all this has happened without its Board being informed or taking any noticeable interest.