Differences in Environmental Legislation Across the UK


The UK has a commendable record for protecting the environment from damage and for working constructively with engineers and contractors to mitigate the effects of necessary operations. However, this picture is complicated by the fact that there are significant differences of approach between England and Wales and Scotland.

The Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2011 (as amended) look after working on or near water in Scotland, while on the rest of the UK mainland, the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016 pertain. Moreover, in England and Wales, for engineering purposes, works on or near a main river will be completed under an exemption, a standard rule permit, or bespoke permit.

However, any engineering works that has the potential to obstruct flow in an ordinary water course requires consent from a flood defence consenting authority. An ordinary water course is defined as every river, stream, ditch, drain, sluice, sewer (other than a public sewer) and passage through which water flows and which does not form part of a main river.

In Scotland, work on any surface water on a 1:50,000 scale map requires either registration, a simple licence or a complex licence. If the water is not on the scale map, then contractors don’t need to contact the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), but they have to follow the General Binding Rules.

Regarding pollution, Scotland and the Controlled Activities Regulations refers to a pollution control regime where activities are controlled by General Binding Rules, Registrations, Simple Licences and Complex Licences. Meanwhile, in England and Wales the Environmental Permitting Regulations are again relevant, but your activity may be authorised by a Regulatory Position Statement, an Exemption, a Standard Rules Permit or a Bespoke Permit.

Furthermore, the protected species are looked after by the Wildlife and Countryside Act throughout the whole of the UK. However, through various acts, it is implemented differently.

A breach of the regulations can have ramifications for companies far beyond the penalties imposed by the regulatory agencies. No working contractor can know the ins and outs of all compliance requirements and that is why it is imperative to seek professional advice at the earliest stage in any proposed project, large or small.


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BDC 309 : Oct 2023