Defra is undergoing root and branch reforms of environmental regulations and guidance with the aim of eliminating obsolete regulations and making the rest clearer, more focused and easier to implement. The reforms are part of the Government’s “Better Regulation” policy and “Red Tape Challenge”. John Barwise reports.


Reducing regulation is a key priority of the Coalition Government. There are two primary objectives.

  1. To eliminate the avoidable burdens of regulation and bureaucracy.

  2. To improve European regulation and reduce the burdens it imposes.

The Government intends to achieve these objectives by introducing a new decision-making structure to the way in which decisions on regulations are taken and by streamlining the way regulations are enforced.

A Better Regulation Executive (BRE), set up within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and supported by a Better Regulation Strategy Group (BRSG), will lead the reform agenda across the Government and the regulatory agencies. A Statement of New Regulations (SNR) is issued every six months to inform businesses of the changes to regulations. Changes are based on a “one-in, two-out” (OITO) rule, whereby regulations that result in a net direct cost to business must be offset by measures that deregulate business and provide savings to businesses of at least double that amount.

SNRs using the OITO rule require clearance from a new Reduction Regulation Committee (RRC). So far, the Government has issued six SNRs. In total, over 130 environmental regulations are to be “improved”, mainly through simplification and mergers, and a further 53 will be repealed because they are obsolete. Seventy other regulations will not be affected.


Defra’s Smarter Environmental Regulation Review (SERR) is a commitment from the Red Tape Challenge to make compliance with legal obligations more transparent and less burdensome, by reducing complexity, inconsistency and duplication. Defra is leading the SERR, supported by BIS and other government departments and regulatory agencies, who are collectively reviewing over 21,000 environment and human health regulations.

The following are the main components of the review.

  • To understand the current situation. This includes the state of legislation, guidance, data reporting and enforcement arrangements; how they are used (eg how easily they can be applied from a business perspective); and where any problems arise (eg particular complexity or inconsistency, ineffectiveness or unnecessary costs). The scale of problems will also be evaluated, including costs, benefits and opportunity costs.

  • Identify and assess options for improving the situation. This includes looking at options that can be implemented in the short term, such as making basic information about environmental obligations more accessible and tailored particularly to smaller businesses and data reporting arrangements less onerous. It also includes the development of principles and options for wider improvement over the longer term, eg focusing on legislation and compliance arrangements. This involves evaluation of the scale of costs and benefits, who would be affected, risks, practicalities and the timeframes over which options can optimally be implemented.

Defra’s cost benefit analysis suggests that making environmental guidance easier to follow could reduce the time spent by businesses by 80% and save the economy more than £1 billion over the next 10 years.

Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, said: “This is not about reducing the quality of environmental regulations. The same protection levels will stay. We want to make it easier for businesses to find and follow the law with a single version of straightforward guidance for each topic. Right now businesses are wading through too much complex information. We should be smart about the information we ask from businesses and how we collect it”.

An environmental regulation review, published by Defra in May 2013, found over 6000 environmental guidance documents relating to regulations, produced by the following government departments and authorities:

  • Defra

  • Environment Agency

  • Natural England

  • Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science (Cefas)

  • Rural Payments Agency (RPA)

  • Marine Management Organisation (MMO)

  • Food & Environment Research Agency (Fera)

  • Forestry Commission (FC)

  • Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat)

  • Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI)

  • Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC)

  • Health & Safety Executive (HSE)

  • Local authorities (sample selection)

  • Police (sample selection).

As might be expected, the Environment Agency has issued the most environmental guidance documents at 39%, followed by Natural England (27%) and Defra (11%). The FC and Fera produce a further 15% of environmental guidance documents and the others make up around 10%.

The regulation review identified five different types of environmental guidance documentation published by the various authorities and regulators.

  • Regulatory guidance — setting out what legal obligations exist. This includes statutory guidance and statutory codes of practice.

  • Good practice — presenting possible activities and processes to comply with the law in the most effective way, as well as voluntary options (which may go beyond legal requirements) and other effective ways of behaving in an environmentally responsible manner.

  • Informative guidance — providing additional information such as cost-benefit studies, position papers and information on specific environmental issues.

  • Supplementary guidance — providing further evidence that supports and/or relates to other pieces of guidance, such as an annex or a technical document.

  • Funding scheme requirements — related to a particular funding scheme and detailing what a business must do to qualify/comply, etc.

One of the key findings of the review is that each department and regulatory authority produces its own guidance documents, which are currently presented in different formats and styles with no over-arching structure, making it difficult for individual businesses to understand their compliance obligations.

Smarter guidance and data project

Rationalising environmental guidance and data reporting is the first stage in the SERR process.

The reforms are led by Defra and its regulators, including the Environment Agency and Natural England, but will also involve other government departments and local authorities with environmental regulatory responsibilities. Defra will also be working closely with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The topics that Defra is reviewing are prioritised in the following order.

  1. Wildlife protection (consultation completed).

  2. Waste management and control.

  3. Wildlife management and control.

  4. Land management.

  5. Marine management.

  6. Freshwater management.

  7. Horticultural plant health.

  8. Plant varieties and seeds.

  9. Bee health.

  10. Environmental permits.

  11. Access and landscape.

  12. General environmental rules (controlling local air emissions; noise and other nuisance issues; effluent; run-off; storing oil and managing chemicals).

  13. Sustainability and energy efficiency.

  14. Flood management and coastal change.

  15. Emergencies, pollution incidents and environmental hazards.

  16. Enforcement and sanctions.

  17. Water management.

  18. Chemicals and biotechnology.

  19. Development (includes environmental impact assessments, contaminated land and land use planning).

  20. Energy, carbon and other greenhouse gases.

For each guidance topic, Defra will carry out an analysis of the user needs for guidance and will consult with businesses and other stakeholders to assess what is currently used and needed in order to comply with environmental regulations. The plan is to produce “entry level” guidance that explains regulatory requirements with a follow up strategy to include more content if needed, depending on feedback from stakeholders.

As part of its Smarter Data analysis, Defra is also reviewing information that businesses currently submit to their regulators. Information obligations include both one-off information such as permit applications and ongoing requirements such as monitoring data. The plan is to ensure that the regulators only ask for information that is needed and used. Data is currently being reviewed for the following:

  • environmental permitting — bespoke permit applications for discharging of sewage effluent and pollution inventory reporting

  • waste management — national operator waste returns and transfrontier shipment notifications

  • water management — water abstraction licences and drought permits

  • farming — Woodland Grant Scheme claims and the Farm Business Survey

  • plant health — phytosanitary certification and pesticide sales data

  • emissions — Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation registration and National Emission Reduction Plan (NERP) energy reporting

  • hazardous industries and materials — Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) notifications and Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals (REACH) registration of change

  • landscape management, habitats and species — Tree felling licensing and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) applications

  • animal health — GB Poultry Register and movement documents for sheep, goat and deer.

A new Regulatory Evidence Network, managed by the Scientific Knowledge for Environmental Protection (SKEP), has been established to provide evidence to support new and better approaches to environmental governance and regulatory reform. SKEP brings together environmental policy makers, advisors and regulators, with academics, consultants, and other researchers who have an interest in better regulation.

The work on Smarter Guidance and Data has already started. Defra is currently reviewing over 500 comments relating to the wildlife protection topic and will publish its revised Smarter Guidance in due course. Plans to reform waste management guidance will be published before Christmas. Defra is inviting views on waste management guidance and all the other 19 topics listed above. For further information, contact Defra.

To ensure the SERR revisions are easy to access, Defra intends to place all Smarter Guidance and Data information on the Government’s central website in 2014. This will provide a direct route to legal obligations and consolidated versions of relevant technical guidance.

Look out for future reports on Smarter Guidance and Environmental Regulation amendments on Croner-I Environment and Sustainability as the revisions programme develops.

Last reviewed 11 March 2014