Richard Greenhous, chief of staff at the OEP, discussed waste at this week’s annual LARAC conference in Birmingham.
Mr Greenhous was also pressed by delegates to speak to the government over delays over the consistency regulations.
In his presentation, Mr Greenhous explained that the OEP was a new public body whose role is to protect and improve the environment by holding government and public authorities to account. Its remit covers England, Northern Ireland and reserved matters.
Based in Worcester with almost 60 staff, the OEP is currently preparing a new three-year plan which will start in the new year. Waste is likely to be included.
Waste matters will also feature in the OEP’s work on Northern Ireland, because “it is a big issue over there,” Mr Greenhaus said.
To date, the OEP’s main scrutiny work has related to wastewater, as it is investigating the secretary of state, the Environment Agency and Ofwat over the topic of sewer outfalls.
During the presentation, Mr Greenhous listed four of the OEP’s strategic objectives which “aim to make a difference”:
- Sustained environmental improvement
- Better environmental law, better implemented
- Improved compliance with environmental law
- Organisational excellence and influence
In terms of actions, he said: “We expect to target our enforcement action where we can make the most unique difference. However, we hope also to reach agreements and issue advice without the need to take action.”
Outlining the complaints procedure, Mr Greenhous said that for a complaint to reach the OEP, it must relate to an alleged failure to comply with environmental law.
He said: “We have had 24 complaints to date which meet criteria, and most are about local authorities or the Environment Agency. These complaints range from concerns about nature conservation through to pollution.”
Mr Greenhous revealed that 4% of complaints related to local authority waste and resource cases. This would equate to just one complaint which met the criteria to be under active scrutiny.
However, Mr Greenhous indicated that the OEP had received approximately double this number of complaints. These others are still under assessment to see whether they merit formal OEP examination.
For a complaint to be examined, the OEP “had to know that it is serious”. Sometimes, he said, it might issue an information notice to get the information needed to help it decide whether to proceed.
Court action, said Mr Greenhous, is something that can happen, but “it is a last resort”. Nevertheless, he warned that, “where we think something is going to cause serious harm, we can have rapid action and go down the judicial route.”
Referencing local authorities, he said: “We may ask local authorities to provide information to us on environmental law and you may wish to bring matters to our attention.”
Delegates pressed Mr Greenhous during questions on the topic of consistency proposals and how they had been delayed, causing uncertainty.
An anonymous poll question asked: “Can you kick the government over delays in introducing consistency regulations? Local authorities need clarity.”
The OEP official said he would note the question. “I can take that back to the OEP to consider as we produce our monitoring report.” LARAC chair Cathy Cook said the question was “metaphorical”, rather that condoning any actual kicking.
Mr Greenhous also commented on the government’s progress on the 25-year environment plan. “We think the government’s ambitions are high but progress slow on the 25-year environment plan, which is the first environmental improvement plan and will be refreshed in 2023.”