HL Deb 24 March 1993 vol 544 cc16-8WA
The Earl of Shrewsbury

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they expect to reach a decision on its consultative proposals for local authorities in England and Wales to set up statutory registers of contaminated uses of land under Section 143 of the Environmental Protection Act of 1990; and if he will make a statement.

Lord Strathclyde

My right honourable friends the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Wales have received a large number of comments on the consultative proposals we issued last July. I am placing in the Library a list of respondents.

Although there is widespread agreement that the problem of the contamination of land from past industrial activities is a serious one that needs to be addressed, there has also been substantial criticism of the proposals for the registers on three main grounds:

that since the proposed registers would be based on the criterion of use or former use by a limited range of potentially contaminating activities it would include a large number of sites that are not actually contaminated, while missing other sites that are actually contaminated by other former uses not on the prescribed list;

that since the register would record past potentially contaminative uses of land there would be no way of removing such sites from the register even if any contamination had been satisfactorily dealt with;

that when sites are identified as actually contaminated it remains unclear in some cases what action should be taken, what remediation measures should be carried out and by whom, which regulatory authorities should be involved, and, where the liability for the cost of remediation or compensation should fall.

We have given very careful consideration to all comments received. The Government remain determined to ensure that land contamination does not give rise to unacceptable risks to health and safety, to ground water and the environment generally, and also to ensure that vacant urban and industrial land can be put back into good use wherever practicable. The responses to our consultation paper showed that the proposed registers would have made this objective more difficult by reducing confidence in the value of sites placed on the register, thereby exacerbating blight without giving any clear indication on how such sites could be brought back into good condition and confidence restored.

We are therefore today withdrawing our proposals for establishing registers of contaminative uses of land, and announcing a new wide ranging review of the problems in this area. The review will be conducted by an inter-departmental group of officials under the chairmanship of my department and will seek contributions from interested parties. Its terms of reference will be as follows:

To review the powers and duties of public authorities which relate to the identification, assessment, and appropriate treatment or control of land that could cause pollution of the environment or harm human health, having regard to the need to minimise the costs which existing and new regulatory burdens place on the private sector; to consider the mechanisms for recovering authorities' costs in controlling or remedying pollution of such land sufficient to ensure its safety for health and the environment, and its return to beneficial use where practicable to consider the implications of these for the role of the environment agency; to report initially on any statutory changes needed in the short term and on the scope of any longer term studies that should be put in hand; and to undertake and report on those studies.

Meanwhile local authorities will still have their long-standing statutory powers to find and deal with actual pollution which is a source of danger and to decide planning issues about contamination. They will therefore continue to keep information about land for those purposes and to give informed answers to queries. The Government will continue to provide technical guidance to assist authorities in their tasks.