The Guardian is reporting that Defra is expected to publish fresh guidelines for building on contaminated land to make it easier for developers to get permission for putting up homes or schools on the sites.
However the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, the professional body for the industry, has said the new regulations would lead to fewer sites having to be treated before they are built on. That will result in “reducing costs, in particular for developers, but at the same time reducing the level of health protection offered … to users of the land,” says a briefing document from the institute.
The new rules would “water down” the current science-based risk assessments and rely on a new “qualitative” approach, despite Defra’s own consultation admitting “it is inherently difficult to prove causality and there are good science-based reasons to be concerned that some sites pose significant risks from long-term exposures,” it adds.
They stated in their consultation reponse
we do not think the proposed text is better; in its informal style it lacks the precision we would expect from a document having its legal status…We would make these criticisms even were the proposed Guidance significantly shorter but it is not.
There appears to be three major areas of contention, firstly a proposal to dismiss low risk sites early sd ‘not contaminated’ which the institute believes will result in underinvestigation and an incentive to withhold evidence. The second issue concerns the definition of ‘significant possibility of significant harm’ – the institute is still lobbying that
some national consensus on appropriate toxicological benchmarks for exposure to soil contaminants is still needed.
The third area of contention is whether to consider wider factors such as social, economic and environmental impacts of the remediation, and whether the benefits of remediation would outweigh the impacts on medium risk sites.
This is an approach not taken in other areas of societal risk – say for example you lived in a flood risk area, is that risk more acceptable if it is a low value area where house prices are more marginal? Similarly if you lived close to gas tanks is that risk more acceptable in a poor town?
The Guardian quotes Defra
Defra, however, denied the new rules would weaken protection of public health. It said: “We have made clear all along that our intention is to reduce the burden of regulation rather than the environmental outcomes they are designed to achieve. The current system for identifying and decontaminating brownfield sites is currently unclear and difficult to put into practice. We are therefore looking to simplify the guidance available – so we are protecting the environment, ensuring land is safe to be built on and removing unnecessary bureaucracy.”