Row over training threatens timetable for waste licences

The difficulties facing the Department of the Environment (DoE) in introducing the new system of waste management licences next April have been compounded by a row over the qualifications which will be required of waste managers.

The need for the qualification scheme arises from section 74 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which provides that a waste management licence may not be granted where the management of a site will not be "in the hands of a technically competent person."

Section 34 also confers powers on the Secretary of State to prescribe the qualifications and experience required of a person before he can be deemed to be "technically competent", and in September 1990 the DoE commissioned the Waste Management Industry Training and Advisory Board (WAMITAB) to develop a qualification system which could be so prescribed.

WAMITAB has now completed its report, outlining three types of operator certificate. The basic Certificate of Technical Competence (COTC) would be achieved by on-the-job training under the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) scheme. It would be obtained by proving competence in various blocks, and could be upgraded and held for life by the site operator.

The complications arise in the transitional arrangements proposed for the scheme. The first is a provisional COTC for managers with less than five years' relevant experience. This would be valid for five years, during which the operator would be expected to qualify for a COTC. The second is a Certificate of Qualifying Experience (CQE) - or "grandfather rights" - for managers with over five years' relevant experience. This would be held for life.

Initially the DoE appeared to be happy with the idea of "grandfather rights". These would allow long-serving managers of waste sites to continue without any formal assessment of their competence.

But the DoE changed tack late last year, telling WAMITAB that its proposals for CQEs should be dropped. The U-turn was due to fears that they would lack public credibility. This view was widely expressed by environmentalists and many in the waste management industry in the early stages of WAMITAB's work. But the DoE's late conversion has thrown the prospects for waste licences into confusion.

WAMITAB decided to ignore the DoE's new line in its final report and continued to back the idea of "grandfather rights", arguing that the scheme was too near to completion to accommodate major changes. According to David Boyd of the National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors, "the DoE has now got to come up with its own alternative, or be prepared to eat humble pie."

The prospect that a workable scheme could be up and running in time for the new waste management licensing system to come into force next April, as originally envisaged, now look dim. Any scheme would need to be subject to public consultation and be fully accredited by the NVQ councils. Operators would then have to apply. WAMITAB estimates that there will be 2,000 provisional CTOC candidates and 3,500 CQE candidates, making for a heavy initial workload.

One possible way through for the DoE would be to place a time limit on "grandfather rights", making them similar to the provisional COTCs. This would allow experienced operators to continue in the short term without seeking qualifications. But this could merely push the peak accreditation workload further into the future.

Under section 74, technical competence is only one of three hurdles which an applicant for a licence must pass. He must also have made adequate financial provision to discharge his obligations under the licence, and must be free of all relevant convictions.

An official working group on the former issue had failed to make much headway by the time it reported late last year (ENDS Report 203, pp 16-17). The DoE has also acknowledged that it will not be able to resolve all the difficult technical questions surrounding the surrender of waste management licences within the next few months (ENDS Report 208, pp 32-3 ).

Precisely where it has got to should become clear later in the summer, when a public consultation exercise on the new licensing regime has been promised by the DoE. The official line remains that regulations to implement the new system will be brought into force in April 1993, "subject to the emerging timetable for the proposed environment agency."

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