“I am a great believer in change,” says Professor James Curran, speaking ahead of the announcement he is due to stand down early next year. “I firmly believe civic life has to adapt – otherwise you’re dead in the water.”
Chief executive at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency since 2012, Curran is speaking from first-hand experience.
He joined SEPA in 1996, having been part of the Scottish Office team which designed it and much of his 30-year career in environmental science and regulation has been spent at the agency.
During that time the agency has fostered a worldwide reputation for its work – to the extent that its current efforts on tackling waste crime has seen it working alongside the international police organisation Interpol, but during his time as chief executive there have been great changes – and there are more to come.
He speaks to Holyrood from his temporary office in Stirling, the agency having already decanted from its previous offices in the city’s Erskine Court, and prior to its move within the next six months to a new energy-efficient and low-carbon HQ nearby, which will be shared with Scottish Natural Heritage.
“The last year has really been one of the most transformational since SEPA was created,” he says.
“It culminated in the Royal Assent of the Regulatory Reform Bill in March, which really does set a completely new way of working for the agency in the future.”
The Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Act gives SEPA new enforcement powers, including the power to issue fines between £500 and £40,000 in relation to environmental crime and substantial reforms to the country’s regulatory regime, simplifying the complex system of licensing requirements. The Act, says Curran, launches the agency “in a completely new direction”.
“It is all encompassing. It changes the nature of our business in almost every respect, in terms of the way we can license operators, allowing us to concentrate on the really high-risk harms to the environment.”
Curran says he was delighted with the way the Act has turned out. Work on a new vision for the regulator was started under the previous chief executive, Campbell Gemmell, who left for South Australia’s Environment Protection Authority, and the chairman, David Sigsworth.
He says the drive for change has not been to reduce costs, although this is something all public sector organisations are having to do. Instead, the aim has been to create a “flexible and fast-footed” organisation, which is not seen as old-fashioned and bureaucratic.
A total of 14 separate charging schemes are being pared down to just one or two, with licences that stretch across multiple pieces of environmental legislation.
“We are trying to look at this very much from the point of the customer. It if makes life easier for the customer, it then makes it easier for them to comply with the environmental conditions and therefore begin to take responsibility for protecting our environment.
“It is just one small element of quite deep cultural change that we’re on our way to, right across the agency, in the way we look at our business.”
SEPA’s aim is to help people become champions for the environment, seeing the business and economic benefits, and help drive the shift towards a circular economy – a model which Curran says is “perfect for Scotland’s economic model.”
This aim of helping people to better regulation, rather than slapping them with fines runs through much of what the agency is trying to do, but Curran stresses that for those simply unwilling to comply, “we will hit them hard.”
New waste regulations came into force in January this year, which include a duty of care throughout the waste management chain, including the businesses producing waste and the companies disposing of it.
One of the major challenges to waste management, and meeting the Scottish Government’s target of creating a zero-waste society, is illegal disposal of waste. Curran says the waste sector is heavily infiltrated by serious organised crime, not a problem unique to Scotland, which is why SEPA has been working with Interpol to tackle the issue.
He says: “We are pursuing the serious criminal end of the waste sector ruthlessly with a lot of intelligence and a lot of new tools.
“Not only is that criminal activity a serious risk to the environment, to community health, to people who are exposed to some of the potential damage of irresponsible management of waste; it is undermining the legitimate businesses because these criminals undercut the genuine legitimate parts of the market.”
He adds: “We will chase them down until we squeeze it out of the market place in Scotland.”
While regulations and SEPA’s role in enforcing them has changed, so too is the way it analyses the environment and gets the public involved.
The agency has set up Scotland’s Environment Web, working in partnership with a wide range of other organisations; a resource for people to find out all they need to know about Scotland’s environment, which has received European LIFE+ funding.
But a key element for Curran is the development of ‘citizen science’.
In addition to the agency’s own scientists, it wants to build up larger databanks of environmental information supplied by the public.
The idea has already been trialled with anglers, and has involved giving them the training and means to provide data on the rivers they use for fishing, but Curran says it will go far wider than that.
“It is something close to my heart,” he says. “Getting people the length and breadth of Scotland observing the environment and sending their information into us with the guarantee that we will look at that data and respond to it.
“We want to be more flexible and responsive and tackle the real environmental risks and harms in Scotland.”
He wants to see the approach used more widely, especially on aspects like air quality, where the agency does not have many regulatory powers, but wants to use its scientific expertise to aid those who do.
The ‘citizen science’ approach could be viewed as using amateurs to do a job previously carried out by professionals, but Curran says the thousands of people providing data will help augment the job the agency already does.
It commissioned a research report on where ‘citizen science’ could be deployed effectively and he said while SEPA’s ecologists were initially quite concerned about the quality of the data which would be produced, they are now “very enthusiastic” and see the broader value – allowing the experts to be used in a more targeted and focused way.
Curran was a member of the Independent Expert Scientific Panel which was set up by the Scottish Government to look at the potential for the use of shale oil and gas as an energy source in Scotland.
The report said there could be “positive economic impacts” and social and environmental impacts from extraction could be mitigated.
Curran was on the panel in a personal capacity not representing SEPA, but the agency has an important role in regulating any potential future industry that builds up around shale oil and gas.
He says the agency has already been very upfront and proactive, publishing its perspective on the potential regulation of the industry in Scotland on its website.
While he says there are some areas where regulations may potentially need tightening up, he adds: “Our view is that it’s another industry that we are perfectly capable of regulating.
“There are other issues about whether Scotland wants to decide democratically that it wants that kind of fossil fuel industry – that is no part of our debate – but if we are asked if it is an industry we can regulate, our general view is it is just another industry like the existing oil and gas industry that we are very used to regulating.”
It is just another area where the agency is poised to change and adapt. SEPA’s science team is currently pursuing grant funding from the Technology and Strategy Board, working with a small start-up Scottish company to develop a new laser monitoring technique to detect methane emissions.
If successful it would lead to a tool that could monitor methane during unconventional gas exploration, even distinguishing between methane released from in the rocks themselves, or from the biological sources – such as peat bogs.
Curran’s model for the environment and its role is simple: it is at the heart of everything – because a healthy environment leads to a healthier society, which leads to a healthier economy.
“The environment underpins everything,” he says. “It produces the ecosystem services that are essential to everything we do in life.”