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Environmental news round up - 7 July 2023

Could swift bricks become mandatory on all new housing? 

That is the hope of many campaigners, and the matter is due to be debated in parliament next week (10 July).

In October 2022, a petition was launched to “Make swift bricks compulsory in new housing to help red-listed birds” and is now due to be debated after receiving over 100,000 signatures.

The hollow bricks for nesting birds can help to tackle our declining swift population and support other endangered roof-nesting species. Starlings, house martins and house sparrows are currently all on the red list, alongside swifts, for the most endangered British birds.

The Government had initially resisted the petition and said the decision of whether to mandate swift bricks on new housing should be made by local authorities. Some local authorities have done just this. In Brighton and Hove, a planning condition requiring new buildings include swift bricks is placed on all new relevant permissions. However, it has proved difficult for many local authorities to make such demands when local plans are so infrequently revised.

The hope of campaigners is that the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill can provide a national strategy to ensure the protection of our bird population. The Bill has seen a number of delays and is currently at the reporting stage in the House of Lords.

The Guardian have reported a number of Conservative MPs are now backing the campaign. Zac Goldsmith, who resigned as a minister last week and accused Rishi Sunak of being uninterested in the environment has said “This is such a simple step for government to take, costing virtually nothing but giving a meaningful boost to struggling species. I urge Michael Gove to take it.”

Is the government backtracking on onshore wind?

This controversy comes amid concern from some campaigners that the government might backtrack on plans that would allow more onshore wind farms in England. 

It seems the outcome of the consultation on onshore wind might not be as significant as hoped by many, with potentially only a minor relaxation of planning policy to allow for development of more onshore wind farms. This is described by critics as a political move in conflict with the fight for net zero.

Use of Variable Monetary Penalties by Environment Agency

On 23rd May Anglian Water one of the UK’s largest water companies became the first to be issued with a Variable Monetary Penalty (VMP) by the Environment Agency. The VMP in the sum of £150k (which is a civil sanction) was issued because of pollution caused to the River Til in 2018 by contractors for Anglian Water who were using a tanker jetter to unblock a sewer pipe. 

The use of the tanker jetter resulted in an increase in flow to the river causing a small rural water recycling centre to become overwhelmed which resulted in sewage discharging into the river. Whilst Anglian Water self-reported the incident to the Environment Agency and took action to clean it up the discharge affected 660 metres of the river and raised ammonia levels as well.

The Environment Agency criticised Anglian Water for failing to have an adequate written procedure setting out how to assess specific environmental risks and how to overcome them to prevent pollution from small sites such as this one. However the Environment Agency accepted there were no recordings of dead fish or invertebrates because of the discharge. This presumably is why a civil sanction was issued to Anglian Water and as opposed to the Environment Agency deciding to prosecute.

VMP’s have been an available civil sanction enforcement tool for the Environment Agency since January 2011 and its recent use of a VMP marks a notable deviation from its historical approach in relation to previous enforcement decisions. However the UK government has stated that it wants to strengthen the abilities of the Environment Agency to issue monetary penalties for not only water pollution offences but a wide range of environmental offences. It also wants to increase the current cap from £250k to £25 million or £250 million. The position in relation to VMP’s therefore will no doubt become clearer once the UK government publishes its response to the consultation which closed in May of this year.

Changes to the UK Emissions Trading Scheme (UK ETS)

In 2022, the UK Emissions Trading Scheme Authority consulted on proposals to develop the UK ETS. In this consultation, it was voiced that a significant change would be required in order to align UK ETS with the government's net zero goal.

The response to the consultation was published on 3 July 2023 and is available here.

In the response, the UK Emissions Trading Scheme Authority revealed several changes to UK ETS. Below we summarize the most relevant proposed changes:

Reduce the UK ETS cap for 2021-2030 by 30%

The cap will be reduced to 936 million allowances, which is a substantial reduction as the current cap includes 1365 million allowances. This significant reduction of allowances means that companies will need to rely more heavily on technologies that reduce their carbon footprint instead of buying emission allowances from the market, as these will become scarcer.

However, a transition will take place to avoid a sudden drop in allowance supply between 2023 and 2024. During this transition, the UK Emissions Trading Scheme Authority will release 53.5 million additional allowances from the reserve pots to the market between 2024-2027

Inclusion of the domestic maritime sector and energy produced from waste in the scheme

The maritime sector is proposed to come into the scope of the UK ETS by 2026, but only large maritime vessels of 5,000 gross tonnage and above will be taken into consideration.

The energy from waste and waste incineration will come into the scope of the UK ETS by 2028.

According to the response, including additional sectors in the UK ETS and capping a greater proportion of UK emissions will further contribute to delivering net zero and UK carbon reduction targets at lowest cost for industry.

The details on the inclusion of these two regimes will be subject to further consultation.

Incorporation of Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR) technologies

GGRs are techniques that recapture already emitted greenhouse gases from the air and store or chemically convert them with some degree of permanence. More information on GGRs is available here.

The consultation response provided that engineered GGRs would be included in the UK ETS. This proposal is subject to further consultation; a robust monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) regime being in place; and the management of wider impacts.

Other New Legislation 

The Financial Services and Markets Act provides the environmental principles which need to be adhered to by the financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority. They both must: “contribute towards achieving compliance by the secretary of state with section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008 (UK net zero emissions target) and section 5 of the Environment Act 2021 (environmental targets) where each regulator considers the exercise of its functions to be relevant to the making of such a contribution”.

It is good to see the Environment Act 2021 showing its teeth in achieving compliance with targets.

As you can see above, changes to the emissions trading scheme have been introduced which are seen as a step change for the UK to meet its net zero targets.

It is, however, important to note that the consultation calls for evidence regarding the monitoring, reporting and verifying of agricultural and land use emissions effecting many clients and operators in those sectors.

Government Updates

Nutrient Mitigation - checking to see if you need environmental permissions

This is the latest EA guidance and follows on from Natural England’s guidance on preventing nutrient pollution, more broadly it is reported that “This is that, if protected sites are not in ‘favourable condition’ due to excess nutrients, projects and plans that affect the sites should only go ahead if they will not cause additional pollution.”

Planning applications have included proposals for how scheme will be nutrient neutral to prevent further deterioration of vulnerable sites.

Caution should be applied -  whilst you have created a new wetland area or other such scheme, you may need additional environmental permits, consents and licences to cover those works – for example if you are creating a new wetland area adjacent to a surface water course you may need to apply for an environmental permit for flood risk activities as well as an abstraction licence or you may need a bespoke environmental permit if you a have imported or are using a waste material.

You may also need a wildlife licence if the works will affect protected species and habitats.

Non-compliance with environmental legislation can lead to criminal prosecutions which carry unlimited fines. To avoid any confusion, you should seek advice at the earliest opportunity and twin track both the environmental consents and planning applications.

Changes to the U1 Exemptions Guidance

For clarity the U1 exemption allows for the re-use of waste in construction without the need for an environmental permit and is a well-used exemption in the development sector. The Environment Agency has updated its guidance as to what it recognises is covered by the exemption, this includes:

Types of activity you can carry out include:

  • using crushed bricks, concrete, rocks and aggregate to create a noise bund around a new development and then using soil to landscape the area
  • using road planings and rubble to build a track, path or bridleway
  • using woodchip to construct a track, path or bridleway
  • bringing in soil from somewhere else to use in landscaping at housing developments, or as part of another construction activity

Types of activity you cannot carry out include:

  • treating waste to make it suitable to use – see the section on ‘related exemptions’
  • using waste that is physically or chemically unsuitable
  • using more waste than you need – you must be able to justify the amount needed
  • using waste for landscaping or land reclamation if it is not integral to a construction activity (such as infilling a hollow) or if it is disproportionate in scale to the construction activity
  • registering or renewing this exemption at the same place for 3 years after the end of the first registration, other than for the purpose of repairing, altering, maintaining or improving existing work – ‘altering’ and ‘improving’ here means making relatively small but purposeful changes to the construction scheme
  • de-registering and then registering this exemption at the same place within a 3 year period
  • storing the waste for longer than 12 months before you use it.