Environment Agency temporarily suspends certain permitting services

Update 5th February 2021: On 3rd February the EA confirmed that the Definition of Waste Service will remain closed until at least April 2021. Operators will not be able to submit a request to the EA for an opinion on the waste status of their material until this service re-opens.

In September 2020, The Environment Agency decided to temporarily suspend some of its services in relation to permitting advice in order to deal with the permit application backlog which has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On 3rd February the EA confirmed that the Definition of Waste Service will remain closed until at least April 2021. Operators will not be able to submit a request to the EA for an opinion on the waste status of their material until this service re-opens. The closure of the service will be reviewed again in April, suggesting that the EA does not rule out further delays.

It is worth noting that the reason given for the suspension of the service in September 2020 was due to a redeployment of resources, presumably to allow the EA to deal with the permit application backlog. On 4th February, the day after it was announced that the suspension had been extended, the EA posted an update on the impact of COVID-19 on its services. In relation to its permitting services, the EA stated, ‘overall Permitting Service performance has continued to improve and stabilise since September and the amount of work in our queues is now at typical levels for our service.’

Our original article follows below.

Definition of Waste Service

Due to a redeployment of resources, the Environment Agency (EA) has announced that it is temporarily suspending the Definition of Waste service. This means that it will not be accepting new submissions or continuing with submissions where the assessment process hasn’t been started. At present, the Agency intends to carry on with its assessment of existing submissions, but it has warned that this situation may change.

Should this be the case, individual customers will be contacted. It is expected that the suspension will remain in place until the new year. The EA has advised that the service will not be able to answer general queries and these questions should instead be directed to local Agency officers. Area officers responsible for the regulation of a site ‘may be able to offer further advice on an ad hoc basis.'

The Agency’s devised IsItWaste tool remains available to support waste status self-assessment by businesses.

Pre-application permitting advice

The EA has also stated that it has temporarily withdrawn its free pre-application permitting advice due to the permit application backlog. The service enabled operators to complete and submit a pre-application advice form to request either free basic pre-application advice, or chargeable enhanced advice. The pre-application advice was introduced to ensure that operators could be confident that their applications would be correct upon first submission, thereby reducing the chances of having to re-submit. The Agency has confirmed that it will only be able to offer limited free pre-application services for permit applications in relation to heritage, nature conservation screening and intensive farming ammonia screening. This is expected to be the case until February 2021. Chargeable advice will also be affected by the changes and the Agency has indicated that it will only answer specific technical questions.

What is the impact of these changes?

There has been some debate amongst waste sector bodies as to whether these changes are warranted. Some believe that the move is understandable given the impact of COVID-19 and the growing permit application backlog. Permitting delays, which were already an issue prior to the pandemic, have been worsened by the crisis and the focus must be on reducing the amount of time operators are having to wait to receive their permits. Others fear that the withdrawal of pre-application advice will, far from solving the issue, exacerbate matters, particularly in complex cases where such advice is vital to ensuring applications are correct.

It has been suggested that the Environment Agency is likely to see an increase in the number of requests for information as a result of the move, which will further serve to delay the permitting process. It has also been noted that whilst the services offered by the EA have been reduced, application fees have not, leading people to question the fairness of the matter. Whilst the pandemic has undoubtedly had an impact on the sector and the Agency’s services, we agree that the withdrawal of pre-application advice will not resolve the issue. Permitting application delays were an issue prior to the pandemic. As some in the waste sector have argued, the queues have, in part, been caused by the undue scrutiny of applications, which does nothing to ensure operational compliance. The focus, it would seem, is in the wrong place. The Environment Agency has thus far been unequal to the task of dealing with the permitting delays.

The fact that a pre-existing problem has become an even greater issue in the wake of COVID-19 is not a surprise. However, it is manifestly unfair that operators are now being penalised due to the Agency’s inaction and are effectively paying for a lesser service. There has been talk that the Agency intends to hire external consultants to help deal with the issue. However, unless the way in which applications are assessed is examined and rethought, it seems unlikely that the matter will improve. It is the approach to applications which is problematic, and until this is resolved, permitting delays will continue to be an issue.

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