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Government sets out plans to simplify environmental regulation

Streamlining the relationship between the planning and environmental permitting regimes and a move toward self-regulation through third party assurance schemes are among simplifications to environmental law proposed by the Government.

A document (28-page / 429KB PDF) published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) sets out how it intends to implement the changes it identified as necessary in March over the next three years. The department intends to improve 132 of the 255 regulations reviewed as part of the 'Red Tape Challenge' regulatory reform programme and remove a further 55, as well as focus on "smarter implementation" of its remaining regulations.

However environmental and infrastructure consenting expert Gordon McCreath of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the "real interest" in the document was not in the "mainly out of date" regulations being abolished but in the proposals for improvement.

"The proposals for streamlining planning and environmental consenting and on streamlining environmental regulation and guidance generally are of particular note," he said. "The detail is to follow but some of these proposals have very real potential to lessen regulatory burdens for businesses."

The document sets out dates by which the Government plans to consult on and then implement any legislative changes. Early priorities include Smarter Environmental Regulation review, proposing the "significant rationalisation" of existing guidance in a bid to introduce "smarter regulation", with a further report on this element due later in the autumn.

Defra also intends to pilot 'Environmental Account Managers' for projects requiring consent from a number of different agencies, extending the ability to decide sequencing of planning and environmental permitting applications and examining the extent to which information common to planning and environmental permitting applications can be shared between the existing Planning Portal and the environmental permit application form. Any changes are planned to be introduced by April next year.

A particularly interesting development, said environmental law expert Simon Colvin of Pinsent Masons, was the new environmental permitting regulations which Defra proposes to introduce in 2014. The intention is to reduce regulatory burdens by allowing businesses a form of self-regulation through the use of membership of third party assurance schemes and an annual compliance statement by company directors.

"This has been the focus of a lot of discussion in recent years," he said. "It will be interesting to see Defra's detailed proposals."

Changes proposed for environmental regulator the Environment Agency (EA) include a review of its enforcement powers to promote a "common and consistent approach to enforcement across new and developing regimes", to take place in conjunction with Defra by December 2013. The EA will also look to reduce the burdens associated with data reporting, handling and storage both for itself and the businesses it regulates by allowing companies to use data portals to provide direct access to their environmental compliance data. The regulator will extend access to such portals to other companies in the landfill, metals recycling, chemical, combustion and food and drink sectors through voluntary standard agreements if current trials are successful.

Other changes set to be introduced include allowing businesses to use existing forms of evidence, such as invoices, to record the transfer of their waste rather than fill out a paper Waste Transfer Note by January 2014, reviewing producer responsibility regulations by January 2013 with a view to reducing administrative burdens and reviewing the impact of recent changes to the statutory guidance on clearing up contaminated land by next April. Defra also commits to further discussions with the European Commission on the impact of the EU's Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations and the current review of air quality legislation at a European level.

Environmental law expert Simon Colvin of Pinsent Masons said that the plan set out in the document was "hugely significant", as it "effectively sets out a large part of the Government's environmental legislative programme for the next three years". However he pointed out that change in some areas, particularly in those overseen by the European Union, would be "unlikely to happen quickly".

"The plan runs from 2012 to 2015 – the longstop date for the end of the current Parliament - however a number of the more significant proposals, such as those relating to air quality and noise, require discussion at an EU level," he said. "This will mean changes in these areas are unlikely to happen quickly. You also have to question whether there will be any accountability if proposals have not been implemented by a relevant deadline: the timescales should be taken with a pinch of salt."

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