Protecting the country’s ecosystems is vital not just for wildlife or the health and wellbeing of the general population, but also for the economy.
Much of that responsibility rests on the shoulders of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), which as national regulator is responsible for ensuring eff orts are made to stop pollution to land, water and the air. But for chairman, David Sigsworth, far from being a detached organisation cracking the whip and forcing rule-breakers to fall in line, SEPA’s role is one of helping others to work together.
There have been major changes since 2008, the year Sigsworth was appointed, in terms of both the agency’s structure – it has closed some of its laboratories – and to the way environmental protection is regulated.
Speaking to Holyrood, the Edinburgh-based Yorkshireman, whose tenure was extended for another four years in 2011, said he hoped to see the agency become even more eff ective and “fl eet-of-foot” by 2015.
Prior to his appointment, he had 43 years’ experience in the utility sector and then the wider energy sector, starting out at Yorkshire Electricity before moving north of the border.
He was involved in the privatisation process while at the North Scotland hydro board, then became commercial director of the new Scottish Hydro Electric, merging with Southern Electric in 1998, and he was a board member of Scottish and Southern Energy – which became SSE – until 2005, and held various roles with responsibility for the company’s environmental issues – an area he was keen to stay involved with after retiring.
On his appointment, replacing Sir Ken Collins in the process, then Environment Minister Michael Russell, said Sigsworth’s experience in the regulated industry would be “particularly useful as SEPA prepares for the future.” But that role is only one of many he undertakes: he sits on the First Minister’s Scottish Energy Advisory Board; chairs the Fuel Poverty Forum; likewise, Dundee’s Sensation Science Centre; and holds a professorship at Dundee University – looking at how the university can help the city’s future role as a renewables hub.
Th ese intermingling roles perhaps refl ect his wish for SEPA to be “breaking down the walls of the silos”, working closely with other bodies such as Marine Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage, planning authorities and enterprise agencies, as well as directly with businesses, to help achieve bigger goals.
SEPA’s aim has been to work seamlessly and with as little disruption as possible with others, but still possessing the powers to intervene when necessary.
This is perhaps best shown in how the agency is approaching regulation. SEPA has been consulting on a new range of fines (of between £500 and £40,000) for breaches of environmental regulations, without the need to refer lengthy cases to the courts. Breaches of the regulations might range from dry cleaners failing to report the quantity of solvents used, to companies illegally burning waste or polluting rivers.
But the agency is adopting a diff erent approach to regulation – not just simply stepping in with fines.
Sigsworth said: “There’s a spectrum of compliance. It starts down at the worst end where you’ve got criminals who actually make a business of not complying and at the other end, you’ve got people who want to use the environment and its good protection and management as a means of showing how good their community or business is.
“In between, there are people who are just compliant, people who are confused, people who are finding out what they didn’t know – but they know they’re going to have to pull their socks up.
“The people who have set up not to comply are just two per cent. I don’t want to see a regulation system that’s based on that. I want it to help the other 98 per cent perform well and I want to make sure we’ve got big enough teeth to be able to deal with the other two per cent eff ectively. We have to ensure that the regulatory penalties that are available when those people just won’t comply actually do the job.”
It is all part of SEPA’s plan of Better Environmental Regulation, which should be fully implemented by 2015.
“We want to move away from what I would call regulation that is enforcement driven, to regulation that is achieved by helping people to comply,” he says.
“Much of our work was done through licences in the past, where we’ve looked at the risks involved in certain activities. We need to use different tools depending on how risky the activity, or operator, is.
“At the top end, you’d still need detailed licences, but I’d hope the licences would be more effective than they had been in the past in terms of simplicity and length and ease of implementation.”
2012 has been a busy year, with the agency facing protracted discussions with the Ministry of Defence over radioactivity at Dalgety Bay in Fife – resulting from radium paint-coated instrument panels from aircraft buried nearby in the 1950s.
The MoD finally agreed to conduct a 12-month investigation into the contamination – avoiding, for now, the need for SEPA to make it the first UK site to be legally designated as radioactive contaminated land.
“We believe our approach at Dalgety Bay was very proportionate to the need. We used our powers to make everybody aware that we had to understand and resolve the issues on that beach,” he says.
“At the moment we’re working with the MoD on an agreed programme that has clear outputs and milestones and I believe that that programme was agreed and developed through the diligence of SEPA maintaining pressure on those who were responsible, whoever they might be.”
SEPA is also Scotland’s flood warning authority and has a key role in putting a more co-ordinated and sustainable approach to managing flood risk.
In December last year, the agency published its National Flood Risk Assessment, which highlighted that one in 22 residential properties – and one in 13 non-residential – were at risk of flooding.
At the centre of its approach is the production of flood risk management strategies in conjunction with councils and Scottish Water. About 13,000 people have signed up to a new Floodline Warning Direct Service, offering free, live flood information to landlines and mobiles.
Like all other organisations, SEPA is having to think about environmental issues, like its own carbon footprint – but as a regulator, it needs to be seen to be ahead of the pack. This is why Sigsworth admits he is disappointed with one particular target – plans to cut emissions by 25 per cent over six years were not met.
“Six years ago, SEPA set for itself an ambitious CO2 reduction target, but this was at a time when a lot of European legislation was developing, and SEPA’s headcount was growing, which required additional buildings and new demands, and meant that in the early years those targets were not met.
“We’ve made tremendous strides in reducing emissions from our travel, particularly from our flights and now car usage and train usage. We’ve made substantial improvements, but our building stock is still the issue that’s holding us back and until we’ve managed to resolve the estate issues, we’re unlikely to be able to make serious progress against our new target of a 42 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020.”
Since 2008 there have already been big changes to the way the agency is set up. Then the global economic crisis was just beginning to bite and this had a knock-on effect on the agency’s income – which comes from government grant-in-aid and charging schemes for businesses. To make best use of its resources, SEPA decided to focus more on the “biggest harms”.
“We changed because we should, and because we could at that time, but the economic position gave us an added sense of urgency,” he says. “We knew government wanted to be more effective, but initially we were driven by our own vision of what SEPA could be.” The agency is now, he says, 25 per cent smaller which is leading to the closure of some of its facilities.
From a total of seven laboratories, there will eventually be just two. More than 350 staff will move to the Angus Smith Building at the Maxim business park at Eurocentral, North Lanarkshire. It will include a new first-class laboratory to complement SEPA’s new lab recently opened in Aberdeen.
He said: “Those two facilities that remain will be able to deal more effectively with our sampling and analysis needs.
“Our geographical footprint has not changed, and we are retaining a presence throughout the country.
“We’ve brought together some of our more capital-intensive activities, such as analytical facilities in science, but we’re still serving our communities as strongly as we ever were at a local level, but supported by better science and better facilities.”
There has been a change too in how the samples SEPA analyses are taken, with lower-risk areas being checked less frequently – but there’s an increase in the samples from places thought to be more at risk from pollution.
“Our argument was that if for many years you’ve been sampling six times a year or even more in an environment which has changed very little, and [we] asked ourselves how risky would it be to move to twice or maybe once a year,” he said. “This is a risk-based decision, but should we find that the level of risk is changing, we might well increase the monitoring frequency, because when things start changing we need to understand why.”
This change, he said, had reduced the number of samples taken, but made the work they were doing more focused and effective.
Sigsworth is also determined that SEPA is not seen to be hindering development.
“If you look at our job,” he says, “we’ve got to protect the environment and human health, that’s our first responsibility. We’ve got to protect people from the environment itself, but we also have to ensure that we’re using the environment effectively, because the environment is a sustainable resource as long as we don’t abuse it and it is able to renew and regenerate itself.
“If you look at what the Scottish Government is seeking from the environment at the moment, one key area is our future renewable energy resource, and we just want to make sure that the environmental impacts of developing those energy production facilities is considered in a way that allows us to retain the benefit from the services the ecosystem provides.
“Environment isn’t something that stands on its own. Environment, economy and human wellbeing, those three things are inextricably linked.
“Part of my interest is contributing to the sustainable economic growth that the Government wants – and that’s not by stopping things, it’s by making sure that things are done in a way that protects the sustainability of our ecosystem services. “Some people misunderstand our approach, and think we want to prevent development. Quite the opposite, in fact – we want to work as a partner to find ways to support, encourage and inform development which secures multiple benefits for the economy, for the environment, and for all the people of Scotland.”