Environmental permitting focuses on activities that entail risks of pollution to air, water or land; risks of flooding; and risks of adverse impacts on the drainage capacity of the land. It regulates these activities through permits that allow polluting activities only within certain conditions. It is an offence for any person/company to operate a permitted activity without a valid permit.
The framework for England and Wales and that which applies in Scotland and Northern Ireland are markedly different. While waste management licensing (WML) and pollution prevention and control (PPC) are still separate systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland, these have been subsumed into the environmental permitting regime in England and Wales.
The Pollution Prevention and Control Act 1999 provides the basic framework for England, Wales and Scotland.
England and Wales
Environmental permitting in England and Wales is articulated through:
The environmental permitting regime (EPR) in England and Wales aims to simplify permit applications , in particular through allowing single applications for several different activities on a site. It is a single, streamlined regulatory framework, which integrates the following:
• waste management licensing;
• pollution prevention and control;
• water discharge consenting;
• groundwater authorisations;
• radioactive substances regulation;
• power generation;
• manufacturing and other industrial activities;
• intensive pig and poultry farming;
• activities involving solvents; and
• operation of a landfill site.
Environmental permits are required for:
• the operation of 'installations' – industrial facilities, manufacturing, landfills, production of potentially harmful substances, including poultry farming, dry cleaners, and petrol stations
• waste and recycling operations, including mining waste operations and small waste incineration plants (SWIPs) as well as waste mobile plants
• a medium combustion plant or specified generator (including mobile medium combustion plants)
• mobile plants, for instance machines that are moved from site to site – including Part B mobile plants that cause emissions to air
• solvent emission activities
• water discharge activities to surface water
• indirect or direct discharge of pollutants to groundwater
• radioactive substances-related activities
• flood risk activities if work is carried out on or around: a main river and/or its flood plain, main river flood defences, and sea defences
The Environmental Permitting Regulations are structured by setting out core permitting obligations and then providing substantive and technical details relevant for different regulated polluting activities in the lengthy Schedules. The Schedules deal with large industrial installations, waste operations, landfill, water discharge activities, groundwater activities, large combustion plants, waste incineration, mining waste operations, and so on.
Different levels of controls are set, based on risk:
• exclusions – very low risk activities may be undertaken without a permit
• exemptions – no permit needed, free registration required. Exemptions from permitting requirements (on the grounds of risks being minimal), and relevant conditions, are set out under Schedules 2 and 3.
• standard permits – the simpler and cheaper form of permit, involving a regulated operator agreement to standard rules that have previous been determined for that sector in consultation with affected interests
• bespoke permits – typically delivered for higher risk, more complex or unique operations.
Integration with EU system
The Environmental Permitting Regulations implement the EU integrated pollution and prevention control (IPPC) regime (primarily now enacted under the EU Industrial Emissions Directive), transposing and linking requirements of 15 directives:
• the EU Asbestos Directive 87/217/EEC;
• the EU Stage I Petrol Vapour Recovery Directive (PVR I) 94/63/EC;
• the EU Basic Safety Standards Directive 96/29/Euratom;
• the EU Landfill Directive 1999/31/EC;
• the EU End-of-Life Vehicles (ELV) Directive 2000/53/EC;
• the EU Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC;
• the EU Mining Waste Directive 2006/21/EC;
• the EU Batteries and Accumulators Directive 2006/66/EC;
• the EU Groundwater Directive 2006/118/EC;
• the EU Waste Framework Directive 2008/98/EC;
• the EU Stage II Petrol Vapour Recovery Directive (PVR II) 2009/126/EC;
• the EU Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) 2010/75/EU;
• the EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive 2012/19/EU;
• the EU Energy Efficiency Directive 2012/27/EU; and
• the EU Medium Combustion Plant Directive 2015/2193/EU.
Integration under the 2016 Regulations goes further than envisaged by the EU IPPC, combining licensing of IPPC installations, waste management licensing (WML), discharge consenting, groundwater authorisation, and radioactive substances regulation.
Industrial Emissions Directive
The IED sets out general principles governing basic obligations for operators of installations (Article 11) – including requiring the application of best available techniques (BAT) –, as well as conditions for permit applications (Article 12). BAT are determined according to twelve criteria set out in Annex III of the IED, and are defined in BAT reference documents for specific activities. BAT conclusions set out the conclusions on best available techniques, their description, information to assess their applicability, the emission levels associated with the best available techniques, associated monitoring, associated consumption levels and, where appropriate, relevant site remediation measures.
For Scotland and Ireland:
Environmental permits in Scotland and Northern Ireland are delivered under the pollution prevention and control (PPC) and the waste management licensing (WML) framework.
Pollution Prevention and Control
The PPC regime sets out pollution prevention legislation. It implements the EU Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) 2010/75/EU. The key statutory instruments establishing the PPC framework include the Pollution Prevention and Control Act 1999, and separate legislation for Scottish regulation and Northern Ireland.
In Scotland, SEPA is responsible for the PPC provisions specified under:
• the Pollution Prevention and Control (Scotland) Regulations 2012 (SSI 2012/360), and
• the Environmental Authorisations (Scotland) Regulations 2018 (SSI 2018/219), which introduce an integrated authorisations framework (IAF) for Scotland, bringing together the existing authorisation and enforcement regimes for water, waste, radioactive substances and pollution prevention and control. Technical provisions for radioactive substances are also specified, including to transpose key parts of the EU Basic Safety Standards Directive 2013/59/EURATOM.
The IAF sets up a system of regulations under general binding rules, notifications, registrations and permits, depending on pollution risks.
In Northern Ireland, the PPC regime is effected under:
• the Environmental Better Regulation Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, which creates an integrated environmental permitting regime;
• the Industrial Pollution Control (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 (SI 1997/2777);
• the Pollution Prevention and Control (Industrial Emissions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2013 (SR 2013/160); and
• the Offshore Combustion Installations (Pollution Prevention and Control) Regulations 2013 (SI 2013/971).
The Pollution Prevention and Control (Industrial Emissions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2013 (SR 2013/160) include a “fit and proper person” test to determine whether or not a person should be allowed to carry out waste management activities.
Waste Management Licensing
Waste management activities are covered under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Waste management licensing applies to those involved in management, processing or disposal of waste. Key legislation for Scotland and Northern Ireland includes:
• the Waste Management Licensing (Water Environment) (Scotland) Regulations 2006 (SSI 2006/128);
• the Waste Management Licensing (Scotland) Regulations 2011 (SSI 2011/228); and
• the Waste Management Licensing (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2003 (SR 2003/493).
Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH)
The Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) regime aims to limit or prevent harmful consequences from major accidents occurring in or around facilities with hazardous substances on site. Incidents or accidents on such sites, whether or not directly caused by the presence of hazardous substances, may result in uncontrolled releases and/or fires or explosions.
It is set up under:
• the Control of Major Accident Hazard Regulations 2015 (SI 2015/483), for England, Wales and Scotland; and
• the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 (SR 2015/325), for Northern Ireland.
• implement the majority of the EU Seveso III Directive 2012/18/EU on the control of major accident hazards involving dangerous substances; and
• align the COMAH system with the EU Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP) Regulation 2008 1272/2008/EC.
Businesses most at risk are those which store gases, manufacture and store explosives, or involve large warehouses or distribution facilities storing dangerous substances, such as agrochemicals, flammable liquids and propellants like aerosols. The COMAH Regulations apply mainly to the chemical and petrochemical industries, and fuel storage and distribution.
Dangerous/hazardous substances covered by the COMAH Regulations include:
• ammonium nitrate;
• halogens; and
• petroleum products.
The COMAH regime requires employers to:
• take all necessary measures to prevent major accidents involving dangerous substances; and
• limit consequences to people and the environment of any major accidents that do occur.
Industrial impacts don't stop at national borders; international treaties recognise the need for coordinated international action to limit harmful effects of industry and industrial accidents in particular.
The 1991 Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context establishes environmental impact assessment obligations onto its parties in relation to major projects that are likely to have a significant adverse environmental impact across boundaries. States should also notify and consult each other.
The 1992 Helsinki Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents, of which the UK is a party, was adopted in the wake of the Seveso disaster in 1976 and the 1986 Sandoz chemical spill in Basel. It aims to prevent industrial accidents and their transboundary effects, promoting cooperation between parties before, during and after an industrial accident.
The Kiev Protocol on Civil Liability for Damage and Compensation for Damage Caused by Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents on Transboundary Waters was adopted in 2003 but is not yet in force.
The 1998 Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, granting public rights to information and participation in environmental decision-making, as well as access to justice in environmental matters, is intended to enable a response to environmental challenges including pollution and environmental degradation.
Other treaties concerned with transboundary pollution to air in particular are detailed in the air quality guide.