Last reviewed 17 April 2020

What is environmental permitting? Does your organisation need a permit? Caroline Hand gives an overview of the environmental permitting regime.

The environmental permitting regime applies to businesses and organisations who are involved with any of the following activities:

  • manufacturing

  • power generation and other combustion processes

  • storage, treatment, use and disposal of waste, including scrap metal

  • discharges to surface water and groundwater

  • radioactive substances

  • activities using solvents (eg dry cleaning)

  • mining and extractive industries

  • flood risk activities.

Do I need an environmental permit?

The basic premise of environmental permitting is that any activity in the above categories must have an environmental permit in order to operate. It is an offence to operate these activities without a permit.

The environmental permit contains conditions: these are the requirements which the operation must meet in order to keep pollution and environmental harm to a minimum.

Permit conditions

Depending on the activity, the permit conditions will cover areas as diverse as:

  • abatement equipment such as scrubbers to prevent or mitigate air pollution

  • operating temperature of incinerators

  • efficiency of effluent treatment plant

  • limits on the concentration of contaminants in discharges to the environment

  • limitations on the amount of waste or dangerous substances to be stored on site

  • limitations on the scale of the activity

  • safe storage of chemicals or radioactive substances

  • measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions

  • noise abatement measures

  • monitoring requirements

  • environmental management systems.

When is a permit not required?

You don’t need an environmental permit to store waste produced by your own business activities on your own premises, even if it is hazardous waste. Beware, however, you can still be prosecuted under waste legislation if your waste causes damage to the environment or harm to human health, eg if it escapes and blows onto a neighbouring site or if your employees are exposed to hazardous substances.

This exemption extends to businesses such as building contractors operating a central depot where waste from several small sites is stored.

See Waste Management in England and Wales topic and Waste Management in Scotland and Northern Ireland topic for more detail.

… but be careful

If you go beyond merely storing your waste and start to treat it, you may need a permit. For example, you may need a permit for a large-scale composting unit or for plant to crush demolition waste. You will also need a permit (or exemption -— see below) if you collect waste produced by anyone else.

When can you get a permit exemption?

For many small scale operations, an environmental permit would be “using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”. While still subject to the Environmental Permitting regime, specified activities can register an exemption rather than applying for a permit.

The list of exemptions can be found in Schedule 3 to the Environmental Permitting Regulations, and can also be accessed via the GOV.UK website.

Most of the exemptions relate to small-scale waste activities, whether storage, treatment or use of waste. For example:

  • community recycling and composting projects

  • sorting of waste materials for recycling

  • using waste soil for landscaping

  • use of waste aggregate for construction.

Some water discharge and groundwater activities are exempt, eg the discharge of less than 5m3 a day of sewage effluent.

All the exemptions have conditions, mainly relating to the scale of the activity, eg the amount of waste which you can store on site at any one time. There may be a requirement that waste or hazardous materials are stored on hard standing or under cover.

Some of these exemptions are under review and are likely to be tightened up fairly soon. This is because they have been abused by waste criminals, or the activities are now viewed as more of a risk to the environment. See Q&A Changes to waste exemptions.

If your activity is listed as an exemption, all you need to do is register it with the regulator (the Environment Agency in England, Natural Resources Wales, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency or the Northern Ireland Environment Agency). Registration is free of charge. The regulators have taken a light-touch approach to regulating exempt activities, though you may still receive a visit from them to make sure that you are complying with the conditions.

Standard or bespoke permit?

There are two categories of environmental permit:

  • standard rules permits, for simpler activities

  • bespoke permits, for the most complex and potentially polluting operations.

Standard rules permits come with a set of ready-made conditions which the permit holder must comply with. You can find the list of standard rules permits at GOV.UK.

They cover:

  • keeping/transfer of waste

  • biological treatment of waste

  • metal recovery/scrap metal

  • materials recovery/recycling

  • recovery or use of waste on land

  • treatment to produce aggregate or construction materials

  • water discharge activities

  • groundwater activities

  • radioactive substance activities

  • mining waste operations

  • flood risk activities

  • onshore oil and gas exploration

It is cheaper to obtain a standard rules permit than a bespoke permit. A bespoke permit is specific to your operation, and will involve submitting a detailed application to the regulator.

Permits for air emissions only

Some smaller-scale industrial activities are classified as “Part B processes”. Their environmental permit only covers emissions to air. These activities are listed in Schedule 1 to the Environmental Permitting Regulations.

Some of these are regulated by the local authority rather than the environmental regulator.

If you have a Part B permit, this does not mean that you are not subject to controls over your trade effluent. Trade effluent discharges are regulated by your water services company: you will need a discharge consent in order to discharge effluent to sewer (see the Discharge to Sewer topic).

What is an integrated permit?

Larger manufacturing operations will require an integrated environmental permit which covers every aspect of their environmental impact: emissions to air, water and land as well as noise. An integrated permit will also consider how the site is managed, and will look at broader issues such as waste reduction, carbon footprint and resource efficiency. If you have an integrated environmental permit you will not need a separate discharge consent for your trade effluent.

How to apply for a permit

To contact the regulatory, determine the kind of permit you need and apply, go to:

  • in England and Wales, GOV.UK

  • in Scotland, SEPA

  • in Northern Ireland, NIEA.

National legislation

The same principles of permitting apply in all parts of the UK, but the regulations and terminology differ.

In England and Wales, the key statutory instrument is the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016. Trade effluent discharges from premises which do not have an integrated environmental permit are regulated under the Water Industry Act 1991.

In Scotland, the integrated/air pollution permit is known as a PPC (Pollution Prevention and Control) permit, issued by SEPA, under the Pollution Prevention and Control (Scotland) Regulations 2012. Discharges to water are regulated under the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2012.

For discharges to sewer in Scotland the relevant legislation is part of the Sewerage (Scotland) Act 1968 and in Northern Ireland it is part of the Water and Sewerage Services (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. The requirements of these sets of legislation are very similar.

In Northern Ireland, integrated permits and environmental permits are issued under the Pollution Prevention and Control Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2003.

For a more detailed account of the legislation, see the Environmental Permitting topic.