DoE reviews burdens on industry of air pollution rules

A review of the economic impacts of the local authority air pollution control system on industry has been commissioned by the Department of the Environment (DoE) and may lead to changes in controls on specific sectors, the National Society of Clean Air's annual conference was told in October. The DoE has also promised two consultation papers on local air quality management later this year.

The official perspective of the successes and problems of the local authority air pollution control system since it came into force in April 1991 under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 was outlined at the NSCA conference by Richard Mills, head of the DoE's Air Quality Division.

The DoE recently completed a detailed review of the operation of the controls among 25 local authorities (ENDS Report 222, pp 4-5 ). The broad conclusion, said Mr Mills, was that good progress was being made, with most authorities taking a "patient, flexible approach" in partnership with industry. The DoE will shortly meet a wide range of industry sectors to discover whether they concur with this verdict.

Deregulation, though, was a prominent theme of his paper. The implementation of the new controls has not been in the context envisaged - namely a severe recession - making it all the more essential to keep the regulatory burden on smaller businesses to a minimum. There was, he said, a "continuing need to avoid excessive regulation disproportionate to environmental benefit."

One environmental health officer detected "sinister undertones" and the "spectre of deregulation" haunting Mr Mills' presentation, whose response was not altogether reassuring. There were no plans for the "wholesale dismemberment" of the legislation, he said, and "looking at the issue in the broad" there was no reason for concern. What the DoE will be seeking are "gains in clarity and simplicity".

The first indication of the DoE's thinking will come later this autumn, when draft regulations amending the lists of processes prescribed for control under both the local authority system and integrated pollution control will be issued for consultation. The DoE's intention is to bring the regulations into force next spring. A first round of consultation on the amendments was initiated in March (ENDS Report 218, pp 28-29 ). More than 250 responses were received, and it will be no surprise if the draft rules propose more wide-ranging changes than did the earlier consultation paper.

The DoE has also commissioned consultants to examine the 78 guidance notes which lay down emission control requirements and upgrading deadlines for the various industrial processes subject to local authority control. The aim of the study, said Mr Mills, is to look at whether the marginal costs of pollution abatement are distributed evenly across industry as a whole.

Asked to clarify what this meant, he explained that it was important that particular sectors "should not bear a disproportionate cost of the burden of delivering environmental improvement." This was, he acknowledged, a difficult area in which perfect equity between sectors will not be easy to achieve - suggesting that hopes should not be raised too high within industry.

The results of the study are likely to be fed into the DoE's rolling programme of reviewing the 78 guidance notes. Three have been revised to date and the changes have generally been favourable to industry, with reduced emission monitoring requirements, less demanding compliance regimes and, in one case, an extension of the timetable for upgrading existing processes to new plant standards (see below).

The DoE is also looking to amend the system under which companies must pay an application fee and an annual "subsistence" fee once they receive an authorisation to cover local authorities' costs in operating the controls.

The DoE has taken on board criticisms that the present flat fees do not reflect the varying complexity of different processes and hence differences in the costs of authorising and policing them, and hopes to make amendments in time for next year's charges. However, Mr Mills was again careful not to raise industry's expectations too high. The charging system, he said, will not be amended so radically so that it becomes complicated to apply or prejudices the objective of recovering local authorities' costs.

Turning to three initiatives promised in last year's White Paper on the environment, Mr Mills said that Ministers remain keen to introduce economic instruments in the air pollution field. The White Paper promised a consultation paper by the end of 1992 on the use of "permit trading" to secure more cost-effective reductions in sulphur dioxide emissions. This has failed to materialise, but the DoE is still looking at the scope for tradable permits, he revealed.

On the air quality front, Mr Mills said it was "right and timely" to consider how far local authorities could play a role in implementing local air quality management strategies. Transport emissions in particular appear to be in the DoE's sights: they were, he said, "an area to which we must give increasing attention".

The DoE's first initiative in this field will be a consultation paper on the integration of local and central government air quality monitoring. This will be intended to provide an improved grasp of the scale of air quality problems and make better use of monitoring data for air quality management purposes.

A further consultation paper - due out by the end of the year - will examine the relationship between emission controls and air quality guidelines and standards.

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