HMIP inspections 40% below par as complaints stay high

HM Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP) is carrying out only 60% of the inspections it believes are needed to achieve fully effective regulation, according to its Director Dr David Slater. For the first time, HMIP has accepted that the rising trend in complaints about processes under its control - confirmed in its latest quarterly report - may reflect a deterioration in industry's environmental performance.

An increase in the rate of "justifiable" public complaints made to HMIP first became apparent in 1992/3, when the complaint rate rose to its highest level since the 1970s (ENDS Report 224, pp 7-8 ). The trend continued in 1993/4 and the first quarter of 1994/5, although HMIP played down its significance (ENDS Report 236, pp 7-8 ).

HMIP has now reported a further increase in the number of incidents and processes subject to complaint during the second quarter of 1994/5, compared to the same period a year earlier. Reports of incidents increased by 23%, although fewer processes were involved than in the first quarter of the current year.

The latest quarterly report attributes the increase to the public's increased awareness of the environment and of HMIP's regulatory role. It also says that "evidence of pollution would have been more apparent this summer, especially with the hot airless July, and there may also have been increased industrial activity."

However, indirect evidence suggests that some incidents at least are revealing real problems. In the first six months of 1994/5, HMIP served 45 enforcement notices and two prohibition notices - many relating to quite serious incidents (ENDS Report 237, pp ) - compared to 43 and two, respectively, in the whole of 1993/4. Furthermore, the continued high level of complaints is surprising in that many historically troublesome minerals processes have been downgraded to local authority control.

When pressed, Dr Slater accepted that the complaints trend may reflect a real deterioration in industry's performance and also be an indicator of HMIP's performance in the field. HMIP is now examining the complaints data to filter out "a social trend towards less tolerance of industry," he said. But, he added, "I regard the increase in complaints as indirect evidence that we shouldn't go any lower in resources."

HMIP currently has 427 staff against a complement of 434.5. The latter figure has already been trimmed substantially as a result of the squeeze on public expenditure - and further cuts of at least 10% may be in the offing (ENDS Report 234, p 3 ).

HMIP is currently ahead of its target of 6,000 visits for 1994/5. In the first six months inspectors made 4,788 visits - and for the first time in several years, regulatory inspections dominated over application-related visits. Nevertheless, Dr Slater said that "we're probably only doing 60% of what we'd like to do" in terms of inspections, and suggested that any reduction would reduce HMIP's effectiveness and lead to an increase in incidents and enforcement action.

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