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Environmental watchdogs 'lack skills' to enforce new guidelines

THE GOVERNMENT'S aim of building 60% of new developments on brownfield sites by 2010 is under threat, consultants and legal experts warned this week. They claimed environmental watchdogs lacked the skills and resources to police proposed legislation on contaminated land.

The warning follows publication of a consultation document - Contaminated Land: Implementation of Part IIa of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 - by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions last week.

The document proposes a greater role for local authorities and the Environment Agency in recording and monitoring contamination, giving location-specific advice to developers on remediation techniques and enforcing clean-up standards.

But environmental insurance specialist Certa's legal director Steven Sykes warned that both local authority and Agency staff were already overstretched.

'The crunch is going to be the enforcement,' he said. 'The bulk of regulation falls on local authorities. But environmental health officers already have their hands full. They will need additional resources to cope.'

Under the proposals the Government will make £50M available over three years 'to help local authorities develop inspection strategies, carry out site investigations and take forward enforcement action'. This is in addition to £45M already allocated to meet capital costs incurred through inspecting and remediating land.

But Sykes warned that division of the money between England's 450 authorities would leave little available for each to recruit new staff.

Arup environmental director Peter Braithwaite claimed problems with extra policing would be compounded by a shortage of skills in the sector.

'Local authorities and especially the Environment Agency need experts with experience,' he said. 'But there is a shortage of engineers who understand risk-based approaches to remediation even within contracting and consultancy.'

He added that until the DETR delivered a set of national decontamination guidelines, consultants, contractors and enforcers would be forced to set their own remediation standards. At the moment, safe levels of residual contamination are calculated according to US, Canadian or European guidelines. This can lead to significant variation between regions and from project to project.

Local Government Authority head of environmental health Christopher Fry said authorities were being 'expected to deal with the new work with existing resources'.

But Environment Agency land policy manager Phil Crowcroft claimed the new legislation would be brought in gradually, allowing it to develop new enforcement capabilities over time.

Responses to the consultation document are due in by 6 December and a final draft is scheduled to go before Parliament before Christmas. The new legislation is expected to be brought into force in April 2000.

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