Has the EA got Fire Prevention Plans right?

22 DECEMBER 2016

The Fire Prevention Plan is now an integral part of the Permitting process with new applications, variations and high risk sites all requiring a FPP that meets the rquirements of the GOV.UK Guidance. However, there has been much consternation amongst operators over the highly prescriptive assessment conducted by the EA's FPP panel which is the central body that all FPPs go through. A recent FPP Conference highlighted industry frustration at the 'one size fits all' approach by the Panel which has led to very few being accepted. Their response was that so long as the FPP deals with the three core requirements of fire prevention, extinguishing within 4 hours and measures that prevent the fire spreading, they will apply a site-proportionate approach if the Panel is given sufficient information to understand the nature of the site's operations and all the necessary requirements are considered with reasons given where the applicant considers them to be unnecessary.

An excellent article on the Eunomia blog highlighted many of the issues that applicants face and ways of ensuring that the EA will accept the plan. However, recent experience suggests that we still have a long way to go. A Schedule 5 (the EA's 'rejection letter') just received for a proposed site storing up to 50 tonnes of sorted waste a week in skips states that 'no reference is made to covering skips in warm weather'. One for a site receiving only scrap metal states that 'the use of sheet metal as fire walls would not be suitable'. The level of detail applied is phenomenal but seems to take no account of context. However, in itself, this could be understood and supported IF there was a way of reaching a proportionate position.

The EA states that each Permit application is entitled to one hour's free on site support. This should allow the operator to talk the FPP requirements through with the EA and for the officer to then support the passage of the FPP through to completion taking the context into account. However, the one hour starts when the officer leaves his or her office and finishes on return. Given the lack of local officers and that most sites are more than half an hour away from one, then you simply cannot get that visit. And when you get a Schedule 5, there is then no route to appeal. So you go through an endless game of ping pong until finally, they have what they want and the operator then can't afford to operate.

What is also intensely frustrating is that a site down the road doing exactly the same or something with a far higher risk but which is not deemed a high risk site needs none of this.

Something has to change. Allegedly in March, the FPP panel will be disbanded and it will be left to local officers to agree the FPP. Will this see more contextual flexibility or will it see inexperienced officers being unwilling to stray from the prescriptive line? Whilst absolutely there we support the concept of FPPs, they MUST be applied proportionately and they MUST be applied on a level playing field. Otherwise FPPs will gradually strangle both the waste industry and the EA through excessive bureaucracy and cost.