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Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016

Volume 776: debated on Tuesday 22 November 2016

Motion to Approve

Moved by

My Lords, the draft 2016 regulations consolidate and update the rules that enable businesses to carry out a wide range of activities without harming the environment or human health.

As noble Lords know, businesses that manage potentially damaging activities—such as landfill sites, sewage treatment plants, disposal of waste electrical and electronic equipment and flood risk activities—require an environmental permit in order to operate. The environmental permitting regime, in place since 2007, sets out the rules for applying for and regulating permits and rationalises the previous regimes into a common framework. A key component is that it allows applicants to make one application and be issued with one permit for a single site, where previously they would have required several permits. It is designed to make the process of obtaining a permit more predictable for businesses while maintaining a strong level of environmental protection.

The Environment Agency is the regulator for activities involving waste operations and radioactive substances, while local authorities regulate, for example, solvent emission activities and certain types of installation and mobile plant. The regime contains different levels of control, based on risk: exclusions, which are very low-risk activities that may be undertaken without any permit; exemptions, which are lower-risk activities that may be undertaken after registering, which is free; standard rules permits, for specified activities; and bespoke permits, for unique or higher-risk activities.

The draft regulations consolidate the previous legislation, which has been the subject of 15 sets of amendments. The consolidation and updating of the legislation will make the rules more accessible and transparent, helping to reduce the administrative burden on businesses. The consolidation is primarily a tidying-up exercise done in the interests of good administration. The principles of environmental permitting, and in particular the strong protection of the environment, remain. Those who responded to the 2015 public consultation exercise welcomed the consolidation.

Although this is primarily a consolidation exercise, there are two areas of substantive change. The first concerns an exemption for the crushing of fluorescent lamps. This type of tube lighting is commonly found in large offices and other buildings such as hospitals. Many of these lamps contain mercury, which is considered hazardous to humans and the environment. The exemption for the crushing of these lamps is called exemption T17. It allows the use of specifically designed mobile crushing equipment to reduce the volume of waste lamps before they are collected. The mercury emissions are captured by the equipment and the crushed material is then transported to a permitted site later in the day. This provides lamp recyclers with an alternative to collecting and transporting lamps whole.

The draft regulations restrict the situations in which the T17 exemption can be used, reducing the quantity of lamps that can be crushed at a site. They also clarify the conditions for operation of the lamp-crushing equipment required by EU law, making it clear that impermeable surfaces and waterproof covering are required for areas where crushing is carried out.

This change prevents large-scale lamp-crushing operations being carried out without a permit, while allowing smaller-scale operations to continue under the exemption but with enhanced conditions. It strengthens the protection of human health and the environment and levels the playing field for competing businesses that use different approaches to the collection of lamps for recycling. It does so while maintaining flexibility in lamp-collection options for the recycling industry, thereby minimising the impact on collection costs for business. The consultation on this change was carried out at the start of this year and received a positive response.

As a result of this amendment, a permit will now be required in some cases where there was previously an exemption. However, at present we are aware of only one business that is considering applying for a permit, and note that it responded positively to the consultation proposal.

The second change concerns the rules on dredging. There was an error in an earlier amendment to the regulations which transferred flood-risk activities from the previous scheme which regulated those activities into the permitting regime. It concerns the rules for an exemption from the need to apply for a permit for dredging by the Canal & River Trust and other organisations with the statutory function to undertake dredging—called statutory undertakers—such as navigation authorities.

Unfortunately, the amending regulations made in April 2016 inadvertently brought those statutory undertakers into the scheme because of a typographical error. We want to rectify that. The amendment reinstates the position that existed under the previous scheme, where those organisations with a statutory function to undertake dredging did not have to apply for a permit.

Following the consultation on bringing flood-risk activities into the environmental permitting regime, it was made clear in the Government’s response of January 2016 that the intention was to replicate this exemption from the requirement for a permit. We are therefore putting this right.

The regulations will continue to ensure that the environment and human health are protected from harmful activities, while also making the law more accessible and thereby reducing burdens on business. For these reasons, I commend the regulations to the House.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his explanation of the new regulations. As he rightly pointed out, this is in effect a consolidation exercise. The original 2010 regulations have since been amended some 15 times, making it difficult for businesses, charities and voluntary bodies to navigate their way around the permit system. As he also pointed out, the permit system covers a very wide range of activities—including the handling of asbestos, the use of landfill, managing mining waste, the collection of waste electronic equipment, the protection of groundwater and the control of industrial emissions—so it is easy to understand how complex the system has become. The fact that the consolidated regulations cover nearly 300 pages is testament to that.

We therefore accept that this is primarily a tidying-up exercise that will make the legislation more accessible and restrict the need for multiple applications. As the noble Lord pointed out, two specific changes have been made. One is to add restrictions to the number of fluorescent lamps containing mercury that can be crushed without a permit and the other is to amend the flood defence permit system to enable organisations with a statutory function, such as the Canal & River Trust, to dredge without a permit, as had previously been the case. Both of these are sensible amendments and we are happy to support them.

We are content to support these consolidating regulations as far as they go. There is, of course, a wider debate to be had about the further steps necessary to reduce pollution, improve our air and water quality and embrace the circular economy, so that we design waste out of the system altogether, perhaps leading to fewer permits being needed. It will be interesting to hear at some point how the Government intend to deliver on their promise to leave the environment in better shape than they found it in these important areas of pollution and waste.

There is an increasingly pressing question about the future of the regulations in a post-EU world and the process that will ultimately take place to review them. Can the Minister update us on the department’s thinking in this regard and the extent to which all such pieces of legislation will be included in a great reform Bill? But I realise that I am straying slightly from the main point at issue today. I hope that the noble Lord can give us some responses, but I will reiterate that we support the regulations.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments and questions. Having seen the document, my heart sank at its many pages, but in fact the framework is 50 pages and there are a lot of schedules. It is inevitably complex, but we want to get it right. It is important that it is part of a tidying-up exercise. I have no doubt that your Lordships and the other place will be considering other elements of the environment and environmental permitting in the years ahead. The noble Baroness is absolutely right. We want—as would any Government—the environment to be left in a better condition than the one we find it in now. That is a laudable aim, and we are working to that end with not only proposals in the 25-year plan for the environment, but many other aspects which perhaps we will debate at other stages in proceedings in this House.

On the question of the United Kingdom leaving the EU and the subject of environmental permitting, the first thing to say is that, as the Prime Minister has said, while we remain a member of the EU, the Government will continue to implement and apply EU legislation. Of course, the outcome of the negotiations with the EU will determine what arrangements apply in relation to EU legislation in future, once we have left the EU. The Government’s intention is to repatriate all the environmental permitting regulations into British law, as the noble Baroness said, via the proposed great repeal Bill. The environmental permitting regime will, as I say, remain under regular review, with proposed amendments to the rules expected between now and when we leave the EU. I see this very much as an evolving situation as we seek to work on the environment.

As I hope I have outlined, these are part of a continuum of updating the rules on permitting and putting them into a single piece of legislation—indeed, making them easier to find and to understand. We have made some changes which I believe improve the rules on the crushing of florescent lamps, and which will help us to protect the environment better, and a change has been made to reinstate the position for the Canal & River Trust and others with a statutory responsibility for dredging. As the noble Baroness has acknowledged absolutely, it is important that they will be exempt from the requirement to hold a permit for dredging because that is precisely part of their remit.

We wish these regulations to be part of our intention to leave the environment in a better condition than the one that we found. I commend these regulations to the House.

Motion agreed.