Select Committee on Constitution Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 980-989)



Lord Elton

  980. My principal questions have been asked by Baroness Gould and Lord Lang, but following up on the hare started by Lord MacGregor, I think you mentioned that the ship-breakers actually had other permissions to get as well as yours and Lord MacGregor referred to the very large number of authorities which people do actually have to get permission from for certain activities. I am not too familiar, and probably should be, with the way regulatory impact assessments work but do you have any role in trying to simplify procedures and coordinate procedures for the people who are subject to these requirements?

  (Dr Leinster) Yes, we do and one of the main areas of our work just now is looking at new regulatory regimes coming in and also existing regulation. But if I could touch on the interface between planning and environmental licensing, they are separate just now. For waste licensing we cannot issue a waste licence unless there is an existing planning permission for that facility. In terms of some of our other regimes like pollution, prevention and control, we can issue a licence even if there is not a planning consent for that facility. What we would like to see is parallel tracking of those two processes because sometimes, especially on the public consultation and the public understanding of what is done within which, there is quite a bit of confusion. So we would like to see, as I say, parallel tracking of the licensing decisions and the locational planning decisions.

  981. Could I just ask what you mean by "parallel tracking". Do you mean you put in applications at the same time and hope that the stages go together?
  (Dr Leinster) Well, rather than hope you would actually coordinate. So we would agree with the planning officers within that local authority when we are going to consult, whether or not we could have joint public meetings, how we are going to make sure that the decisions come out together.

  982. Looking at this from the applicant's point of view, surely the planning authority has much wider interests and responsibilities than you do and therefore it would be sensible for your application to be made first as being the cheaper and the narrower before the applicant has to embark upon a process which would be absolutely nugatory if on the last day you both produced and one of you said yes and the other said no? Surely that would mean that parallel tracking would actually be contra to the applicant's interest?
  (Dr Leinster) I do not think so and I think the locational planning one is the one which should go first because the locational planning one is the one which has the wider interest and it is the one which, for example, would take into consideration aesthetic issues and transport, which we do not consider. So I think there is a lot of merit in taking it together so that all of the issues can be considered at the one time rather than what could happen is that people will say, "Well, no, we can't discuss that because that's for that group of people, for the Environment Agency to talk about," and when we go out on a consultation people start asking us questions which are really the role and responsibility of the planners.

  983. Are you consulting the interest groups of potential applicants in formulating this policy?
  (Dr Leinster) Yes, we are.

  984. May I ask one separate question. There is a splendid concept called BATNEEC, I understand, which is best available technology not entailing excessive cost. Who decides and how do they decide what constitutes excessive cost?
  (Dr Leinster) It is tricky. BATNEEC has in fact been overtaken now by BAT, which is best available techniques taking into account the economic affordability. BATNEEC was the UK derivation and now under pollution prevention and control, which is a European directive, we now have BAT.

  985. Is that a change in anything but nomenclature, the economic affordability?
  (Dr Leinster) No. It is exactly the same as not entailing excessive cost, yes. The process which is going on within that—and we have been very supportive of this process ever since the beginning—is that there is a European Union unit in Seville which has been established to write what are called BAT reference documents and these describe the best available techniques for particular industrial sectors and they are agreed and discussed on the European-wide basis. What happens is that a lot of research goes on. Industry is involved with it, government departments from all the Member States are involved in this process and you look at what the leading edge companies are doing, those companies which have been in the business a long time, what techniques they have in place to mitigate and control pollution. They then come up with what is called a European breath(?) note but it is a BAT reference document which describes for a particular sector the technologies which can be adopted. That takes into account the economics of it. There is also a number of horizontal documents being written and one of those is economic appraisal. How do you carry out a BAT reference? How do you carry out the economic appraisal of a facility? That is still really under discussion. What we then do in England and Wales is to take those reference documents and translate those into what we expect to see from different industrial sectors, so what we would expect to see from a municipal waste incinerator, from a textile works, from a chemical works and then the applicant, when they write in to us, demonstrates how they either meet the BAT as described in the reference document or how they are going to propose to meet it over a given period of time. We then incorporate that within our permit conditions.

  986. I am slightly awe-struck. May I ask one further question on this. Given that all the European countries are setting themselves targets for a reduction in the production of certain pollutants such as carbon and given that their targets appear to differ, how do you reconcile the differences within a common BAT regime?
  (Dr Leinster) BAT describes a range, it does not describe a prescribed number, and it is really technology-led. So one of the things in our appraisal that we do when we are issuing a permit is to look at the facility operating to BAT but then looking at what the impacts of the emissions from that facility will be on the receiving environment and making sure that the impacts on the receiving environment are within environmental quality standards. So you can have a level of variability depending on what the receiving environment is like as well.

  Lord Elton: I think this could go on for some time but that is it for now.


  987. I could not help thinking there is nothing like a simple acronym and that was nothing like a simple acronym! I am very conscious of time. Could I just put one final question. You heard the final question I put to the OFT because they are a non-ministerial department, whereas you are an executive non-departmental public body. Is that a status which creates no problems? Would there be an advantage in being a non-ministerial department?

  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) I have to confess when I came to the Environment Agency I immediately developed a deep longing to become a non-ministerial department but probably not for the most honourable of motives. I think on mature reflection, we did a bit of a review of this about a year ago and came to the conclusion that it was probably not the best status for us. I think, despite the lure of being your own boss and accountable direct to Parliament, in reality for something like the environment it can only be delivered through a huge range of government departments. I think we do need a minister at the Cabinet table batting on behalf of the environment, fully informed by the sort of advice and information that we can give him. We also had a purely practical problem and that was if we all became civil servants we would cost more and we cannot afford it. We would rather put the money into the environment than into our salaries and pension schemes.

  988. It is actually as a result of internal consideration that you have reached that conclusion, that the existing status is on balance appropriate?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) Yes. We would, however, like a shift in the dividing line between our role and our Government sponsor's role. Clearly Government is responsible for policy but we believe that perhaps the balance of work to implement policy ought to be shifted gently so that we had a bigger role in actually designing the regulatory instruments and the regulations that we act within. We believe that they would be more effective and more fit for purpose if they were informed by the experience of the practical regulator and the fact that we are very, very close to the industries that we regulate so we would have the ability to have a good conversation with them about what an effective risk-based, proportionate, transparent, fit for purpose regime would look like.

  989. So you would like to have a greater input?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) We would quite like to perhaps kick the ball off in the first instance. I think one of the problems at the moment is that government departments tend to design the regulations and ask for us to comment, by which time there is a certain kind of amour propre about what they contain. We would quite like to be in the position where perhaps jointly with our Government sponsors we were tasking the lawyers with the design so that we were in on the ground floor, as it were, of the design.

  Chairman: Yes. Thank you very much. I am very conscious of time and we are running over somewhat as a consequence of the division. Thank you very much for being with us this afternoon. That has been extremely helpful. Thank you for the paper you put in in advance, it has been most valuable.

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