Little and large in the self-regulation game

The deregulatory current in the Government's thinking on the environment flows a little stronger. In April, an Environment Minister told the House of Lords that regulation is now the last resort after market mechanisms and voluntary action by business. The Drinking Water Inspectorate announced that it is ready to ease up on inspections of water companies with effective quality management systems. And a Government circular on the new waste management licensing system urged waste regulation authorities to have regard to the fact that waste management facilities - and especially waste recovery plants - "are a source of benefit to the environment and sustainable development", and hence that enforcement action should not be pursued when they commit technical breaches of their licence conditions.

But reality also struck back during April, in the shape of the drinking water contamination incident in Worcester and its neighbourhood (see pp 3-5 ). The contamination originated from a waste recovery plant owned by an individual who had previously left two large messes behind him for others to clear up. Not much sustainable development there. The wastes he was processing at the time originated from an unknown, but clearly not small, manufacturing business which had either not troubled to acquaint itself with his track record or failed to act on what it did find. Not much evidence of the duty of care working there. And a major business, Severn Trent Water, clearly has some explaining to do about how the polluting discharge passed through one of its sewage works and into a tributary of the Severn without any warning being given to downstream abstractors. Not much evidence of effective self-regulation there.

Severn Trent Water's performance is all the more striking because it is probably the most advanced in its industry in introducing quality and environmental management systems. Yet the incident has highlighted the inherent tensions between the functions of the water companies. As water suppliers, they themselves need uncontaminated water supplies. As sewerage undertakers, they both regulate potentially polluting trade effluent discharges, and make money by accepting those discharges into their sewers. If their management disciplines and personnel motivations fail to strike the right balance between these sometimes conflicting functions and deliver the wrong result for the environment and public health, the only alternative is effective external regulation. The Worcester incident could hardly have made that point more forcefully.

The Government has not escaped unscathed from the incident either. In 1984, after a serious drinking water contamination incident in the Dee catchment, a report prepared jointly by the then water authorities and civil servants recommended that a number of water pollution prevention powers enacted by Parliament ten years earlier should be brought into force as a matter of urgency. Ten years later and countless Government promises notwithstanding, those powers still lie dormant. This has been a shameful blot on the Government's record; but after the Worcester incident it is more likely to be perceived as gross negligence.

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