DEFRA has written to all local authorities in England to notify them that it will no longer be supporting the costs of investigating and remediating contaminated land under Part 2A through the Contaminated Land Capital Grants Scheme. The future for the statutory contaminated land regime now looks particularly uncertain.
DEFRA explains that the funding will be withdrawn, describing it as “a regrettable but necessary change of approach but one that reflects current circumstances including activities looking at departmental priorities and government spend”. It intends to offer up to £0.5m annually (subject to capital funding being available within DEFRA) for “absolute emergency cases and to meet the requirements of on-going remediation projects where these are considered to be the highest priority”.
Obviously local authority staff have reported their disappointment but there is little surprise at the announcement. EPUK members who are local authority staff note that whilst the grants available to them totalled £17.5M in 2009/10 these had reduced to £2m in 2013/14 making the competition for grant awards very intense indeed. This year applications from local authorities for the £2m available totalled £6.3M, so some will have been disappointed.
There was always an initial hurdle to be overcome before projects became eligible for funding. Capital grants were only granted to eligible projects that had demonstrated presence of contamination and receptors at the site was likely rather than reasonably possible. This conclusion needed to be supported by a Conceptual Site Model developed from a desk study and visual inspection/limited sampling. The local authority had to find funding for this initial phase before an application to DEFRA could be considered. In recent times even this modest outlay proved too much for some authorities.
EPUK fears that some ongoing schemes may not be completed. A funding gap may now arise where any of the ongoing funded projects discover contaminated ground that requires further funding for another phase of investigation or where funded investigation identifies a need for remedial works. Although a contingency of £200,000 was set aside this year this might not be sufficient to allow authorities to complete their inspections on more difficult or complex sites. It’s going to be hard to explain that to local communities on or around these sites.
So how will this leave local authority inspection strategies? Perhaps it will be a brave authority that decides to investigate a site now without knowing where funding for any subsequent remedial works might be acquired. However there has long been that uncertainty because there had never been any guarantee that an application to the Capital Grants Scheme would be successful, particularly in recent years where applications have exceeded available budgets. And that initial hurdle of meeting the funding eligibility criteria has been a problem, with local authority budgets cut to the point where even a few hundred pounds for soil sampling was hard to justify. Nevertheless inspections under the Part2a regime remain a statutory duty for local authorities.
With many authorities reporting a marked increase in planning –related activity, it is hoped that some sites will be addressed via the planning system, which in any case accounts for the majority of contaminated land activity in the UK.