Monday, April 18, 2011

The government puts all of the UK's environmental legislation under threat

Environmental groups are horrified by the coalition government's inclusion of every single one of the UK's 278 environmental laws in a list of legislation that it is offering for the axe, under its new, populist "Red Tape Challenge".

The list includes the Climate Change Act, laws protecting air and water quality, rights of way, national parks, animal safety and promoting energy efficiency, rules against flytipping, litter and environmental pollution.

The above website states that "Good regulation... protects consumers, employees and the environment, it helps build a more fair society and can even save lives."

It goes on then to add "But over the years, regulations – and the inspections and bureaucracy that go with them – have piled up and up. This has hurt business, doing real damage to our economy. And it’s done harm to our society too".

The crowdsourcing exercise is designed purely to make businesses think that the Governmnet is on their side. In reality, much of this legislation cannot be repealed - especially those of European origin like the EcoDesign Directive or the Waste Directive - without encountering severe penalties. The rationale for including them is to look at instances of ‘gold-plating’ – where the UK has gone beyond the minimum required by the EU legislation.

But even Lord Davidson himself stated in his report on the topic of gold-plating two years ago: “it is sometimes beneficial for the UK economy to set or maintain regulatory standards which exceed the minimum requirements of European legislation. The EU may not always set the most appropriate level of regulation. The decision to introduce or maintain higher standards or stricter regulatory regimes than is required by EU directives could bring benefits as well as costs”.

The Climate Change Act is a flagship piece of recent legislation - the first in the world to commit a government to emission reduction, and something which business has been calling for to provide the certainty necessary to inspire investment.

Last month, a campaign was launched by climate change sceptics to repeal the law - but it is not coming from business and is not popular - the only news on its website has been Tweeted just four times.

So why is the act also included? Margaret Ounsley, Head of Public Affairs at WWF-UK said: "Allowing precious and hard-won environmental laws to be repealed in this manner would be ridiculous. Frankly we credit the Government with more sense than to tear up incredibly important legislation such as the Climate Change Act in an attempt to appear consultative or dynamic."

And John Sauven, director of Greenpeace, added: "We don't yet know if this is cock-up or conspiracy. If it's a cock-up, David Cameron needs to come out and say the Climate Change Act, central to the push for a clean technology revolution, is safe from the axe. But if ministers are serious about scrapping it and other vital environmental regulations then we'll be looking at something akin to the worst excesses of the Bush-Cheney White House. When did clean air and green jobs become a burden?"

Adrian Wilkes, Executive Chairman, The Environmental Industries Commission, said, "BIS’ latest deregulatory threat is dangerously misguided and poses a potentially major threat to the UK’s environmental industry – bizarrely at a time when the Chancellor is promoting green job creation in his Plan for Growth".

The Red Tape Challenge website says that ministers and government officials will use the feedback they get "to help them cut the right regulations in the right way".

Every few weeks the laws relevant to different topics are up for feedback. Environmental laws affect multiple and various categories such as transport, waterways, energy, manufacturing and quarrying.

The Government has already axed the Eco-Driver Training bill, which would have trained drivers of large goods vehicles and passenger carrying vehicles to drive more cost-effectively, that was consulted upon by the previous administration.

An end to 'gold-plating'

The Department for Business, Industry and Skills (BIS) has also already begun (last December) an initiative to end the practice of going beyond the requirements of European Directives so that they "are not unfairly restricting British companies".

This initiative, however, is far from new - it was begun under the previous administration, in a review by Lord Neil Davidson QC who published his final report on 28 November 2006.

BIS has now adopted Guiding Principles for EU legislation to tackle what it calls 'regulatory creep'.

In the past, in the environmental arena, this exercise has been largely about avoiding duplication. For example, in the Waste Framework Directive it's possible for there to be exemptions made from the standard requirement to obtain a waste permit. Defra is consulting with the Environment Agency to update guidance on waste to make more effective use of the permit exemption provision. Inert waste was being controlled twice and this has been amended. The Environmental Permit Programme (EPP) has merged and streamlined the regulatory regimes for Waste Management Licensing (WML) and Pollution Prevention and Control (PPC), which means that a site now only needs to have a single environmental permit for these activities.

Sometimes, however, it is necessary to increase environmental protection.

Business leaders in Scotland agreed with Davidson's view that sometimes gold-plating is necessary. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce response said: "the gold plating of EU directives will not necessarily lead to increased business compliance costs; there is a need to simplify and streamline the nature of regulation; ensure implementation in the clearest and most efficient way".

Friends of the Earth has argued that the charge of gold-plating Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) was misplaced and believes the term itself is "unhelpful and inaccurate".

CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management) goes further, calling it "a pejorative term" which "implies that any environmental regulation that goes beyond the absolute minimum is an unnecessary burden and to be accepted only under extreme circumstances".

Instead CIWEM believes that the UK should be seeking to have "the best environmental regulation in Europe rather than the weakest, where this can be achieved at reasonable cost and particularly in cases where there is clear benefit-cost advantage."

The new red tape challenge exercise seems to be designed as an exercise in pandering to prejudices - it is hopefully not serious, since in practice not a huge amount can be changed.

Nevertheless it is clearly important for every business in the green sectors to tell the government that they need the laws to protect them as well as us and our environment.

What lunacy, and what a waste of time from the so-called "greenest government ever".

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