Smaller firms show better environmental compliance

Council-regulated companies attracted significantly fewer enforcement notices or prosecutions last year, report from DEFRA shows

The number of enforcement notices served by English and Welsh local councils against regulated industrial operations fell by 27% in 2009/10, according to an environment department (DEFRA) report.

The councils also started only half as many new prosecutions as in 2008/09. Over the same period the number of regulated sites declined by only 1.5%.

In total, councils served 104 enforcement and prohibition notices across the 18,765 sites in England and Wales regulated under the environmental permitting regime.

One hundred were imposed on less-complex, ‘part B’ installations, down from 131 in 2008/09 (ENDS Report, January 2010). Part B installations, such as crematoria, printworks and dry cleaners, make up the bulk of all council-controlled installations.

The remaining four were served on more complex ‘part A2’ installations, down from 11 in 2008/09.

There are 381 part A2 installations, including foundries, glassworks and carcass renderers. Their more-polluting processes are subject to the EU integrated pollution prevention and control regime.

The most complex ‘A1’ installations, such as power stations, are regulated not by local authorities but by the Environment Agency.

Six industrial prosecutions were initiated by councils in 2009/10, half the number in the previous year. Four cases continued from previous years.

Five cases were concluded, netting a total of £26,000 in fines; the remainder had not been heard by the end of the financial year. The haul from 08/09 was £12,750 from five cases.

Three councils were markedly more active prosecutors than their 355 counterparts.

Leeds City Council, Newcastle under Lyme Borough Council and the London Borough of Newham all had two prosecutions either concluded or pending over the period.

The largest fine, of £10,000, was imposed on renderer John Knight (ABP) Ltd in June 2009, for two breaches of its environmental permit (ENDS Report. July 2009). Newham council had received 80 odour complaints caused by the open-air storage of animal by-products.

Leeds City Council prosecuted printers Team Impressions Ltd for operating without a permit. It was fined £6,000. Another Leeds firm, since dissolved, was fined £5,000 for not complying with permit conditions, but the council was unable to provide further details.

Ethos Recycling was fined £4,500 on 8 September 2009 for failing to comply with an information notice and operating an unpermitted cement batching plant, following a London Borough of Barking and Dagenham prosecution (ENDS Report, December 2009). Costs were £6,598.

Lastly, Canvey Dry Cleaners, of Canvey Island, Kent, was fined £500 on 11 January 2010 for exceeding solvent emissions limits in its permit.

There is no obvious explanation for the sharp decline in the number of legal proceedings started and notices imposed. The report, published late last year, offers no explanation.

The sharp reduction could be due to random variation. But councils could be receiving poorer intelligence as the number of inspections they undertake continues to decline. Average inspection rates have declined steadily since the 2003 introduction of risk-based regulation (ENDS Report, February 2003). Environment Agency inspections have taken a similar course (ENDS Report, May 2010).

Excluding reduced-fee activities, namely waste oil burners, service stations, dry cleaners and vehicle refinishers, part B inspection rates fell to 1.36 per installation in 2009/10 from 1.5 the previous year.

DEFRA and Welsh Assembly guidance requires high-risk installations to receive two full inspections and one ‘check’ inspection annually, with medium-risk plants having one of each. The required frequency for low-risk plants depends on their type.

But councils appear to be paying little heed to the guidance. For high-risk part B installations, 29% received fewer inspections than required, and 10% received too many. For the same group of plants, 40% received too few checks, and 16% too many.

Patterns for medium-risk plants were broadly similar. A2 inspections were also off-course.

Only 3.5% of all Part B installations have not yet been risk-assessed.

Nevertheless, the report shows that environmental risk among standard part B installations is continuing to decline. These exclude vehicle refinishers, mobile plant and reduced-fee activities.

The proportion deemed low-risk is now 68%, up from 59.3% in 2005/06. Those deemed to be medium-risk dropped from 36.3% that year to 28.6% in 2009/10. But at 3.4%, the proportion deemed high-risk has remained fairly stable.

The A2 inspection rate varied widely by industry: food industry sites received an average of 20 inspections, incinerators only 1.7.

The number of applications for part B processes and the number determined were both around 700, up a little on 2008/09.

But at 786, rather more were revoked, as businesses closed due to the recession. Many were service stations, continuing a long-standing trend that began before the economic downturn.

There were only eight A2 applications made in 2009/10, continuing another long-term decline.

Within four months of seeking a permit, 82% of part B applications had been decided upon. Due to their complexity, A2 applications took longer: 58% were decided within six months.