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Don't let the lawyers bury green laws

Viewpoint - The Government needs to simplify environmental laws, writes Paul Reeves

ENVIRONMENTAL issues present both challenges and opportunities for construction companies of all sizes. We hear a lot about sustainability and you can bet we are going to hear a lot more. But everyone needs to wake up to the practical issues that fall out of the sustainability agenda. WEEE (waste electronic and electrical equipment) regulations, the tough new rules on hazardous waste and Part L of the Building Regulations, are the direct result of Government efforts to boost sustainable business activity.

There might be an award for whoever comes up with a better word for 'environment', but it's probably not 'green'. It has all sorts of political connotations, and to many managers it still conjures up well -meaning but tree hugging activity.

Yet the biggest and best names in contracting can see the brand value, and operational savings, that come from top-flight environmental performance. Even a small business that can sport some environmental know-how is likely to be better placed in the market.

When was the last time you came across a green 'cowboy' contractor? All sorts of clients have picked up on this when they ask their pre-tender questions.

Construction is under the spotlight as a sector that needs to design and procure to reduce environmental impacts, and do more with less. The Government will use the big sticks of taxes and the law to encourage a change in behaviour, but there are very nice carrots lying around. Consider Envirowise', the Governmentbacked scheme that offers construction businesses a free environmental 'health check' that shows how to save money, usually with 'no to low' payback time.

Too good to be true? Not this time ? improvements in resource, waste and energy use put cash straight on the bottom line and contacting Envirowise could be one of the best calls you make this month.

But one thing that is undermining the push towards sustainability is environmental legislation itself. It looks like it has been drawn up by lawyers, for lawyers, rather than the companies that need to implement it.

Waste in particular is presenting practical problems for companies who want to comply but can't make head or tail of it. Hint to the Government ? environmental law should be easy to understand, not hard, and right now it is tough going.

Having unleashed the hazardous waste regulations on us earlier this year, DEFRA has just embarked on a full-scale review of the 'duty of care' and waste carrier regimes. In theory, this is a chance to start fixing the problem but the precedents aren't good. The current system has small companies leafing through Annexes in the Hazardous Waste Regulations to see if they can store old light fittings.

And still on the subject of waste, the WEEE regulations are expected in 2006. They aim to prevent waste electronic and electrical equipment from going to landfill by boosting recovery rates. While the regulations won't affect all contractors, companies who make this sort of equipment or just put their badge on bought-in components will take on some of the cost of recovering waste electrical equipment. Contractors' costs are also set to rise as equipment suppliers charge installers so they can cover their recovery obligations under WEEE.

Companies will no doubt muddle through somehow, but we should all push for legislation in plain English.

Business, and the environment, deserve nothing less.