Latest Public Sector News

06.06.16

Councils ignoring soil contamination issues as Defra cuts funding

Responsibility for contaminated soil clean-up is increasingly falling on councils, despite cuts from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), a new report from the Environmental Audit Committee has found.

An estimated 325,000 sites in the UK, covering 300,000 hectares, are contaminated with substances including chemicals, heavy metals, tar, gases, asbestos and radioactive substances.

Part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (enacted in 2000) introduced the principle of ‘the polluter pays’, where companies are fined for pollution they cause.

However, Howard Price, of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, told the inquiry: “Some of this contamination goes back hundreds of years, most of it for the last couple of centuries. The polluters are long gone.”

In practice, therefore, between 2000 and 2013 83% of site remediations were conducted through the planning application system, meaning that councils ultimately paid. Just 9% were paid for under part 2A, and 8% were paid for by the current owner or occupier of the site.

However, Defra funding for soil remediation was cut from £17.5m in 2009-10, to £0.5m in 2014-15 and is due to be phased out altogether next year.

Rory Stewart, parliamentary under-secretary of state at Defra, told the committee that the funding was always meant to be a temporary measure to clear the backlog and “was not designed as a replacement” for local government funding.

However, the committee pointed out that the funding had been available since before 2000, suggesting it was not intended to be temporary.

The report quoted one anonymous representative of a local authority saying that the funding cut “has effectively closed any work that will be undertaken on Part 2A” and another one as saying “without government funding I can’t see many detailed inspections being carried out”.

Furthermore, Price told the committee that councils were already deliberately ignoring the problem, saying: “I have certainly heard of local authorities where staff have been told not to find contaminated land because of the cost consequences.”

The report found that 60% of local authorities submitted data on soil contamination in their area in the last survey in 2013, compared to 91% in 2007.

Stewart told the committee that the survey was “on a voluntary basis” and the response rate was “fine”, prompting further criticism of Stewart from the committee because the Environmental Protection Act states that the survey is a statutory requirement for local authorities.

The report warned that soil contamination is treated as a ‘Cinderella environmental issue’ despite the crucial role soil plays in agriculture, flood defence and reducing climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide.

There is also evidence that human populations in areas with high amounts of soil contamination suffer additional health problems.

The committee warned that the government is not on target to achieve its goal of clean soil by 2030.

The committee urged Defra to consider setting up a dedicated fund for part 2A investigations, provide annual reports on the state of contaminated land, and place soil protection at the heart of its upcoming 25-year plans on the environment and farming.

A Defra spokesperson said that current arrangements in the national planning policy framework set out adequate requirements for cleaning up contaminated land, and that the 25-year plan would contain a “comprehensive, long-term vision”.

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