DEFRA and councils criticised over PPC

There is "no consensus" between councils and the Environment Department (DEFRA) on what constitutes best practice for regulating sites under the pollution prevention and control (PPC) regime, according to an official survey. The survey found considerable regional inconsistencies, with best practice being "far from widespread".

In late April, DEFRA published a review of councils' implementation of the local air pollution control (LAPC) and local authority integrated pollution prevention and control regimes (LA-IPPC).1Previous official surveys have only covered LAPC, and have criticised councils for the low level of inspections and lack of cost accounting (ENDS Report 347, p 11 ).

The latest survey, by consultants Atkins, sampled one quarter of the 407 local authorities with pollution control responsibilities using face-to-face and telephone interviews and questionnaires. The response rate was 86%.

Atkins was startled by the inconsistency uncovered in its survey: "The main surprise was the wide range of management practices and approaches to implementing a pollution control service employed by authorities." The consultants had expected to find some agreement on best practice. However, "responses showed that no such consensus, either amongst authorities or between authorities and DEFRA exists and that the implementation of identified best practice is far from widespread."

Launching the report, Environment Minister Lord Whitty said that councils' performance "clearly remains very patchy, which can neither be good for environmental protection nor for the efficient and effective use of resources." He added that DEFRA will take on board the comments about its own performance and will work with councils to produce an action plan.

Any embarrassment arising from the report is compounded by DEFRA's recent announcement that its awards scheme, launched last autumn to reward councils for "excellence and innovation in controlling local industrial pollution", has been cancelled because it received only four entries.2 The survey's main findings were:

  • Management and planning: The survey found that a significant number of councils do not use management tools which Atkins identifies as best practice. While 58% of councils have performance indicators and/or inspection plans, 24% have neither. Only 30% of councils use peer reviews as a way of sharing expertise and improving consistency.

    The survey also found that only 39% of councils are planning LAPC inspections using DEFRA's risk-assessment methodology introduced in April 2003. The scheme aims to focus councils' limited resources on sites which represent a higher risk to the environment, rather than applying a uniform inspection frequency regardless of risk (ENDS Report 328, p 43 ). A revised version of the tool has been published recently with only minor changes.3

  • Inspections: More than half of local authorities did not use an inspection proforma when visiting a site. Atkins says these enable a systematic approach to assessing a process and are best practice.

    Another finding of concern was councils' failure to identify unauthorised processes, especially waste oil burners. Atkins found that 42% ignored a letter from DEFRA asking councils to trace companies illegally burning waste oil.

  • Fees and charges: 40% of councils do not practice cost accounting, despite considerable pressure from DEFRA to introduce it. Because of this, only 47 of the 106 councils could provide financial data on LAPC and 12 on LA-IPPC. Atkins says the lack of data prevents it reaching firm conclusions about the adequacy of fees and charges set by DEFRA - and recommends that councils should introduce cost accounting "as a matter of urgency".

    Many councils are very concerned about the disparity between fees charged by the Agency and those set by DEFRA for LA-IPPC. Ken Eastwood, environmental protection manager at Barnsley Council and co-ordinator of a regional committee of councils involved in pollution control, said that councils were predicting an "enormous funding gap" over implementing LA-IPPC. Councils felt like the "poor cousins" of the Environment Agency, he said, even though they carry out similar work.

    For instance, Mr Eastwood says, a glass manufacturing plant regulated by the Agency because part of it uses halogens would be charged £10,230 for an application and £4,960 subsistence fee. A similar site regulated by a council because it does not use halogens would be charged £1,836 for the application and £1,055 subsistence.

    Moreover, councils are statutory consultees on applications made to the Agency and are expected by local people to be knowledgeable about Agency regulated sites: "Whilst local authorities are keen to fulfil these roles the lack of funding is a major concern and something that seems not to have been considered by DEFRA," Mr Eastwood said.

  • Relations with DEFRA: Atkins also asked councils about state of relations with DEFRA. Two-thirds gave critical replies - and others may have declined to comment because responses were not anonymous. Even so, Atkins says, "the strength of several on-record comments is an indication of how strained the relationship has become with some authorities."

    Many of the criticisms relate to delays in DEFRA's publication of guidance - an issue which has also irritated industry as well.

    Others complaints concern the quality of DEFRA's support for councils, such as in providing training on LA-IPPC requirements and in answering enquiries. One council suggested that DEFRA should provide a uniform cost accounting package for all councils. Atkins recommends that DEFRA should produce a memorandum of understanding on role and responsibilities.

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