The Environment Agency has made much progress since its creation in 1996 in providing more consistent and professional regulation of the waste industry in England and Wales and in improving standards in the industry, according to a report today from the National Audit Office. The Agency could, however, provide more effective and efficient regulation by better targeting of its inspections of licensed waste sites, and making greater use of its enforcement powers to deal with persistent offenders.
According to the report to Parliament by head of the NAO Sir John Bourn, the Agency could make better use of its resources by carrying out fewer but more comprehensive and in-depth inspections of waste operators and improving its detection of illegal waste activities, such as fly tipping. In 2001-02, the Agency planned to visit licensed sites 15 times on average. There is no evidence that this high frequency of inspections, covering all licensed sites, is needed to deliver effective regulation. Most reports of pollution from licensed waste sites relate to only a small proportion of sites: in 2000-01, such reports were recorded at only 12 per cent of licensed waste sites and nine sites accounted for 35 per cent of all reports of major or significant incidents that year.
The report points out that the Environment Agency has become increasingly active in prosecuting waste offences but needs to use its enforcement powers more effectively. In 2001-02 the Agency secured convictions in 466 cases (nearly double the number in 1996-97). Court fines totalled £1.4 million and the average fine increased from £1,132 per case in 1996-97 to over £3,000 in 2001-02. The Agency is particularly concerned, however, that the current level of fines can be small compared with the profits that operators can make from the illegal disposal of waste.
The NAO found that the Agency does not always escalate the enforcement action it can take where a licensed waste operator is guilty of multiple, but individually minor, breaches of its licence. Today’s report concludes that the Agency needs to deal more effectively with operators that persistently fail to comply with their licences. And it recommends that the Agency should say more clearly how it will respond to licence breaches; and take prompt enforcement action when a compliance failure is detected, especially where there is repeated disregard of the requirements of good waste management.
The NAO’s other findings include the following.
- The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recognises that controls over waste activities exempt from the requirement to be licensed (such as the spreading of waste on land and the remediation of contaminated land) need to be improved, but has taken too long to complete a review of these controls. The Agency has limited funds earmarked specifically for inspecting exempt sites and carried out fewer than 2,238 such inspections in 2001-02.
- The Agency has improved standards of waste licensing but needs to improve further on the time it takes to deal with licence applications. In 2001-02 only one fifth of new licences were issued within four months of application and one in seven took more than a year. Some delays are outside the Agency’s control, but the Agency is also seeking to simplify the application process.
- Taxpayers may end up paying for the management of abandoned waste sites because operators’ financial provisions are unavailable or insufficient. The Department is working closely with the Agency, the Department for Trade and Industry and the industry to ensure that the ‘polluter pays’.
- Evidence pointing towards an increase in fly tipping following the introduction of the Landfill Tax in 1996 is anecdotal and the Agency’s records do not show a clear trend. However, the Agency estimates that each year there are around 50,000 fly tipping incidents, costing local authorities some £50 million to £150 million to deal with.
Recommendations by the NAO include the Agency’s placing increased reliance on operators’ own management systems and controls where they are of a suitable standard; increasing incentives for companies to comply with their licences and waste legislation; improving the waste licensing system, for example, by using standard licences for low risk sites, and agreeing a system for monitoring fly-tipping nationally in conjunction with local authorities which is both economic and reliable.