To the outsider, environmental compliance is a complex and sometimes baffling world, with a wealth of specialist terms and impenetrable acronyms. One of the fixtures among this cast has been OPRA - or Operator Performance Risk Appraisal - the Environment Agency's system for assessing the risks posed by sites it regulates, and therefore also the basic subsistence charges it imposes on their operators.
This year the Agency has announced a review of its charging schemes to help meet a requirement from DEFRA to recover its costs of regulation. Changes to various schemes are being considered, but the most notable is that OPRA may be on its way out.
OPRA scores allow for some consideration of operator compliance, but the majority of the assessment is focused on the environmental risk posed by activities occurring on a site, the emissions from it, and its location. Most of these factors are determined at the start of permitting, so do not allow for a variation in fees even if an operator is performing well and minimising its impacts on the environment.
For example, if there are two food factories making the same product in a similar location, they will probably be paying the same charges. This will be the case even if one factory is improving its environmental performance and staying within all legislation, while the other has issues with complaints, breaching legal limits and failing to make improvements, requiring more intervention and time onsite from the Agency.
In future, the Agency is considering basing its charges on an assessment of an operator's wider performance - rather than just compliance - and the time and materials used in regulating it. Exemplary sites that go beyond their compliance obligations and can prove some degree of regulated self-assurance, such as certifying to ISO 14001, could expect light touch regulation and lower fees.
On the face of it, this appears a sensible move and one which EEF's members would welcome. But the proof as always will be in the details, which we expect later this year. What metrics will be used to assess performance and how much can we expect charges as a whole to change? How will the Agency communicate sites' new statuses to the public? What extra intervention will sites that do not score so well on performance despite some good intentions expect to receive - and pay for?
As ever, there is also frustration among some manufacturers at the gulf in approach - and charges - between Agency-regulated sites and local authority-regulated ones, and even between different local authorities. It would be good to see more consistency here in time.
At the moment awareness of the changes in train at the Environment Agency seems low, which is understandable given the unexpected election and recent purdah period. But we look forward to a fuller debate and some worked examples of the impacts manufacturers can expect as the Agency's plans become clearer.
A version of this blog first appeared on Business Green (www.businessgreen.com)