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Local Councils Risk Insights: Environmental Liability and Local Councils

Local councils have a wide range of responsibilities—all with the unifying purpose of ensuring local citizens have the accommodations and resources to be healthy, safe and successful. Specifically, promoting a clean, comfortable environment for residents is a crucial function within your council. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Act 1990 requires local councils and authorities to take practicable action against various environmental concerns within their area, such as managing waste properly and mitigating pollution (eg noise, air, water and light) problems. 

What’s more, your local council could suffer significant consequences if you fail to address your environmental responsibilities. Apart from destroyed land or property and ill or upset residents, ignoring environmental requirements could lead to costly regulatory fines, reputational downfall and a long list of liability concerns. Consider the following guidance to reduce your local council’s environmental liability exposure.

Managing Waste

  • Collecting rubbish—Local councils and authorities must arrange for the collection of household rubbish from residents on a routine basis. Typically, councils have a Waste Collection Authority (WCA) and Waste Disposal Authority (WDA) responsible for the collection and disposal of municipal waste.
  • Be sure that your WCA communicates a collection schedule with residents, including how often they plan to collect waste and what to do if a collection is missed.
  • Ensure all WCA and WDA employees are properly trained and qualified. Regularly monitor waste collection processes to promote timeliness and sanitary standards.
  • Require WDA employees to dispose of waste at licensed landfill sites only. Assess disposal methods to ensure proper health and safety standards and find ways to minimise adverse impacts on the environment. If possible, consider implementing a separate recycling collection service.
  • For more government information on waste collection and disposal, click here.
  • Removing litter and refuse—Local councils and authorities are responsible for keeping all ‘relevant’ land (ie open to the air on at least one side, under the council’s direct control and publicly accessible) and local highways in their area clear of litter and refuse. Councils usually have a litter authority in charge of maintaining these requirements.
  • Ensure your litter authority follows the code of practice on litter and refuse. This code explains how different types of land should be kept clear. For government guidance on creating an anti-littering campaign, click here.
  • Councils can issue various penalties to people responsible for littering. If someone drops litter on land or water that is accessible to the public, your authority can issue a fixed penalty notice. You can also issue public space protection orders for litter or refuse problems in public areas, such as the control of dogs (eg requiring dog owners to clean up after their dog’s waste). Lastly, your council can issue community protection notices to businesses that fail to clear litter from their premises.  
  • In order to safely clear litter and refuse from local highways, your authority must warn approaching traffic using signs or barriers while cleaning, and follow instructions from highway authorities regarding when cleaning can be done. If refuse is blocking the road, your council should either remove it immediately (if it is an immediate danger to road users) or issue the owner of the object with a notice to remove it within a set time (if it is not an immediate danger).
  • For more government guidance on litter and refuse management, click here.
  • Handling illegal dumpings—Illegally dumping liquid or solid waste on land or in water to avoid disposal costs—also known as fly-tipping—must be addressed, and waste must be disposed of by your local council if it occurs on relevant land.
  • In the case of small-scale fly-tipping incidents, your local council must handle investigation costs and treat the issue as a littering offence.
  • Contact the Environment Agency (EA) if the illegally dumped waste is more than 20 tonnes, more than 5 cubic metres of fibrous asbestos or 75 litres of potentially hazardous waste in drums or containers, or possibly linked to criminal activity.
  • Report any fly-tipping incidents that contain asbestos to the HSE.
  • For further government information on handling fly-tipping incidents, click here.

Mitigating Pollution

  • Air pollution—The air that your residents breathe should be clean and safe. However, recent research revealed 40 per cent of Britain’s local authorities breached legal air quality limits in the last four years. The most prominent cause of air pollution results from excess emissions. Your council can help control emissions and promote clean air with the following actions:
  • Reduce transport-related emissions by promoting proper traffic management, encouraging the use of cleaner vehicles and making public transport more available. Be sure that residents have access to walking and cycling routes to reduce vehicle use as well.
  • When planning for public land developments or improvements, ensure that new or improved properties possess energy efficient technology and generate safe emission levels.
  • Your local council and the EA are responsible for granting permits to local organisations that could cause air pollution (eg organisations that work with burning fuel, metals, chemicals or waste). Specifically, your council is responsible for issuing Part B Environmental Permits and Small Waste Incineration Plan Environmental Permits to organisations that use generators, furnaces or boilers and meet additional fuel burning requirements.
  • Local organisations must possess chimneys that are tall enough to prevent smoke, grit, dust, gases or fume emissions from causing a pollution problem. Your council must require organisations to apply for chimney approval if their boiler’s fuel consumption exceeds either 45.4 kilograms of solid fuel an hour or 366.4 kilowatts of liquid gas fuel.
  • If the air quality falls below national standards, your local council must declare an Air Quality Management Area and make plans for pollution improvements. 
  • Water pollution—Whether it be drinking water, a public beach or public sewage, water pollution can result in serious ramifications for your local council. Control water pollutants with these tips:
  • Require your council’s water company to implement a monitoring process of the water supply to ensure illness, infection, disease-causing bacteria and pollution do not contaminate water. If contamination occurs, communicate with local authorities and inform the public. Under the Private Water Supplies Regulations, local councils act as the regulators for private water supplies and have a number of statutory duties.
  • Ensure that any local organisations that could produce contaminated water have a proper drainage system and possess the correct environmental permit(s) for their business operations. Any contaminated water that leaves an organisation’s premises must enter a foul drain or be removed by a registered waste carrier. Require all local organisations to implement water pollution controls (eg regular drain maintenance, correctly labelled manhole covers, effective oil separators and proper waste storage methods) and have an environmental management system in place.
  • Your local council is required to monitor seawater from public beaches between May and September and post water quality results on the beach, online or at your council office. You council is also responsible for responding to resident complaints regarding litter, oil pollution and dangerous items (eg chemicals or explosives) washed ashore. If a body of water is no longer safe for swimming, be sure to provide proper signage.
  • Noise pollution—Local councils must respond to complaints about noises that qualify as a ‘statutory nuisance’. This means that the noise (eg music, loud machinery, alarms or pets) either unreasonably interferes with the use or enjoyment of a home or premises, or injures one’s health (or is likely to injure health). If the noise qualifies as a statutory nuisance, your council can serve the offender (either an organisation or individual) with an abatement notice, which requires them to stop or restrict the noise. If the noise is above permitted levels from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. but doesn’t qualify as a statutory nuisance, your council can serve the offender a warning notice that requires them to reduce their noise level.
  • Light pollution—Light pollution can occur from artificial light nuisances such as security lights, lights from sports facilities, decorative lighting from buildings or landscapes, laser shows or light art. If your local council receives a complaint about an artificial light that qualifies as a statutory nuisance, you can serve the offender with an abatement notice that requires them to stop or restrict the light. 
  • Smell pollution—Smell pollution happens when nuisance smells arise from agricultural practices, sewage issues, poor extraction systems in commercial kitchens, slaughterhouses, paints and solvents, or unplanned spills. If your local council receives a complaint about a smell that qualifies as a statutory nuisance, you can serve the offender with an abatement notice that requires them to stop or restrict the smell. Keep in mind that the EA controls some smell nuisances with environmental permits. Communicate with the EA before issuing an abatement notice for a smell nuisance to a local facility that possesses an environmental permit.

General Best Practices

  • Conduct an environmental risk assessment—Identify key environmental features in your area that carry the greatest risks. Implement a routine inspection and maintenance programme for those features to ensure they follow proper health and safety standards. Keep detailed documentation of these practices.
  • Remove hazardous trees—Regularly assess public trees for signs of rotting or loose roots and branches. Establish a safe procedure for removal if deemed necessary.
  • Implement environmental policies and programmes—This includes preserving local nature areas, preventing the displacement of wildlife and promoting practices that decrease the degradation of local air, water and land.

More than anything, your local council needs robust cover, such as environmental liability insurance. For more information, contact Sirelark Risk Services today.

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The content of this Risk Insights is of general interest and is not intended to apply to specific circumstances. It does not purport to be a comprehensive analysis of all matters relevant to its subject matter. The content should not, therefore, be regarded as constituting legal advice and not be relied upon as such. In relation to any particular problem which they may have, readers are advised to seek specific advice. Further, the law may have changed since first publication and the reader is cautioned accordingly. © 2019 Zywave, Inc. All rights reserved.

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