Never the twain shall meet

The extent to which Government Departments actively seek to reconcile seemingly contradictory aspects of policy - assuming they spot them in the first place - should not be overestimated. Take as an example two documents - one on the UK's environmental industry (see pp 5-6 ), the other on contaminated land and liability policy (see pp 21-23 ) - published by the Government within a few days of each other in March.

The former report was launched amidst Ministerial claims that the trading performance of the UK's environmental industry is a "success story", contrary to what critics have been alleging. But a careful perusal of the document suggests otherwise. While there has been a recent improvement in the balance of trade in environmental goods and services, in several areas UK companies are finding it difficult to compete for contracts overseas because they have little to offer.

Contaminated land remediation is one of those areas, and the explanation is the classic one. The regulatory environment in the UK has encouraged cheap and cheerful solutions to land contamination problems. As a result, the incentive to develop innovative technologies has been minimal, and companies have lacked the opportunity to acquire experience in applying advanced clean-up solutions. The inability to offer sophisticated methods of land remediation has therefore left UK firms with a handicap when competing in overseas markets; and of paramount importance, as the report points out, they lack the proven track record which customers demand.

One might have thought that this issue deserved at least to be touched upon in a consultation paper mapping out the Government's ideas for future contaminated land and liability policy, but it is given not so much as a single word. The debate, it is all too evident, is being dominated by corporate lawyers, the property industry, financial institutions and the Treasury - the sort of alliance which is almost guaranteed to work against change. To the extent that the paper has a firm proposal about anything, it foresees little more than a rearrangement of the furniture. In doing so it fails comprehensively to address the problems which regulators routinely face in using the current legal framework to secure the clean-up of even actively polluting contaminated sites, or to suggest ways in which funding for remediation projects might be provided in the future.

There was a time in the late 1980s when the idea that a progressive environmental policy at home helped to stimulate the development of technology and capability for sale abroad appeared at last to be getting across in Whitehall. But of late the flawed presumption that money spent on cleaning up the environment vanishes into a black hole has been recovering its old territory. This is not to argue that a desire to improve the market prospects of the environmental technology business should be the prime consideration in determining the future direction of environmental policy - but it does deserve to be taken properly into account and that, for the moment, is not happening.

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