Fast-track to health risk?

David Green’s Greenwatch

PROPOSED changes to the way local authorities deal with contaminated land could speed up redevelopment plans but at an increased risk to human health.

The Environment Department (Defra) is currently consulting on plans which would reduce the administrative burden on councils by allowing them to ignore contamination on “low risk” sites and concentrate resources on higher risk sites.

Contaminated sites usually involve land where heavy industry has been operating.

According to Defra there is little direct evidence of serious heath impact from land contamination despite “clean up” costs averaging �100,000 per acre.

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However, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health is concerned that the proposed new guidance would reduce investigation efforts and make regulations more difficult.

Howard Price, CIEH chief executive, said: “Taken together, the changes appear to raise the bar on what is contaminated at the expense of health protection.”

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CIEH believes the real issue is the lack of scientifically based guidance on whether a site poses a significant possibility of harm.

In another move which may reduce environmental protection, the Government is aiming to reduce the freedom of local authorities to use surveillance by requiring them to seek the approval of a magistrate before conducting covert surveillance operations.

Under the Protection of Freedoms Bill such operations would only be permitted if the offence under investigation warranted a jail sentence of at least six months.

This would, as Colchester MP Bob Russell has pointed out, mean that no undercover operation could be conducted against those regularly responsible for offences such as anti-social noise because they do not carry custodial sentences.

Hidden cameras are successfully used by some councils to produce evidence against fly-tippers and people operating unlicensed waste dumps.

A small number of councils have on rare occasions used CCTV to try to enforce the smoking ban and anti-litter and dog fouling regulations and this has led to a public and media backlash over “Trivial” use of powers.

However, the number of covert surveillance operations by councils has fallen sharply over the last few years.

The latest report from the Surveillance Commissioner found that local authorities use their powers sparingly with half of them annually undertaking only five or fewer operations.

Sixteen per cent of councils did not use any such methods and 86% did not use an “undercover” officer.

So, in the case of both contaminated land and covert surveillance by councils, I do not think there is a need to tamper with existing legislation because the proposals will only serve to reduce environmental protection.

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