Controversy grows over impact of deregulation on environment

The Government's deregulation drive is homing in on waste legislation and integrated pollution control. But with only a few weeks to go before existing laws are identified for repeal later this year, both sides of the waste management community have turned against the initiative - and some businesses are criticising the Government for missing the chance to create a "one-stop shop" by postponing the establishment of the Environment Agency.

The next crucial step will be on 20 July, when a seminar chaired by the Prime Minister will hear proposals for deregulation assembled by the Department of Trade and Industry's Deregulation Unit and seven business task forces reporting to the DTI. Corporate Affairs Minister Neil Hamilton said in June that he hoped the task forces will produce "hit lists" of legislation for repeal and simplification which are "radical and extensive".

After the Prime Minister's seminar, it is expected that Government Departments will be given a short time to say why laws identified for deregulation should not be included in a Bill to abolish red tape planned for the next parliamentary session.

Opinions differ on who is driving the initiative. Some observers believe that the task forces are leading the way, but other informed commentators believe they have come up with few concise proposals. What is clear, said one civil servant, is that the DTI is struggling with "an enormous rag-bag of whinges from business." This, and the fact that many business complaints concern regulatory practices rather than the law itself, are not making the DTI's task of identifying candidates for straightforward repeal or amendment any easier.

The preparations for the Prime Minister's seminar continued in June at meetings between DTI officials and industry hosted by the CBI and the Chemical Industries Association (CIA). Among the attendees at the latter were representatives of British Gas, ICI, Shell, Ciba Geigy, Lucas, BNFL, the Food and Drink Federation, the British Leather Confederation, and the National Farmers' Union.

The CBI seminar dealt with integrated pollution control (IPC) and local authority air pollution control. Radical proposals appear not to have emerged from the meeting. Concern focussed on issues such as "triviality" and "proportionality", with the regulators being accused of insisting on controlling aspects of industrial processes which have little environmental significance. It was also alleged that HM Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP) is not enforcing IPC consistently across the country.

However, ENDS has learned that the DTI's Deregulation Unit has also been expressing concern about the costs which will fall on industry when the time comes for processes subject to IPC to be upgraded. Changes to this aspect of the IPC regime would not require legislation, but amendments to HMIP's guidance notes.

Business gripes about waste regulation are more far-reaching. The CIA seminar heard complaints from firms about the paperwork required by the "duty of care", and the burdens imposed by the requirement that waste such as builders' rubble and off-specification products must be carried by registered carriers. There was also widespread pressure for recyclable materials to be excluded from the legal definition of "waste" and hence exempted from control altogether.

The Deregulation Unit was initially behind this latter suggestion, and was also interested in the case for repealing the rules on registration of waste carriers. But in both cases it has learned that insurmountable obstacles, including EC legislation and the Basel Convention on transfrontier traffic in waste, lie in the way.

However, the deregulatory pressure has already made its mark at the Department of the Environment. In the past two months it has proposed the repeal of the "special waste" regulations, in the face of opposition from both waste disposers and regulators (see pp 34-35 ), and is believed to be preparing a lengthier list of exemptions from the new waste management licensing system if and when this, after two recent postponements, is eventually introduced.

The new Environment Minister, Tim Yeo, expressed sympathy with the deregulation thrust in a speech to the annual conference of the Institute of Wastes Management (IWM) in Torbay on 15 June. "We must avoid rules and regulations that in practice can only be met by the larger operators," he said.

Those larger operators are becoming increasingly anxious about the deregulation drive. Many, including recent entrants such as Wessex Water and Severn Trent Water, have made major investments in improved facilities ahead of the introduction of the new licensing regime, but are now seeing a pay-back receding further into the future.

In a submission to the Deregulation Unit, the National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors has pointed out that "anything other than a strict, well enforced regulatory regime is unacceptable. Waste management is a service industry in which the customer - the producer of the waste - has little inherent interest in the quality of the service. What the producer requires is the removal of the waste promptly, at the lowest possible cost; there was, until the introduction of the duty of care, no reason to be concerned about what happened to the waste after collection."

Criticism of the Government's "mania" for deregulation was also voiced by the IWM's President, Colin Burford, at Torbay. "Nobody wants reams of paper or big brother watching over us," he said. But the "indefinite postponement of waste licensing regulations, the back-pedalling on introducing guidelines and regulations for properly trained, responsible employees in the industry, and the move to do away with regulations concerning the transportation of special wastes makes one wonder what sort of environment will be bequeathed to our children."

Ironically, the Government is also being taken to task by business for postponing the Bill to create an Environment Agency. According to a CBI source, "quite a few" member firms believe that creation of the Agency would have been a good deregulatory step by eliminating multiple regulation.

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