Water sample screening database will be freely available worldwide

FOR-IDENT database contains over 8,000 substances

Sept 30th 2015

A preventative water screening project funded by the German government is being expanded to establish a worldwide strategy for preventative water sample analysis. The project is based on the FOR-IDENT database and is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

The FOR-IDENT database was completed in March 2015 and contains over 8,000 substances, together with their key chemical and physical characteristics. The database includes industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, pesticides and other substances from everyday products used by humans, and also lists degradation products found in the environment such as metabolites. The scientists working on the project are now planning to make the database freely available to the public via an open software platform that will include evaluation strategies. Scientists across the globe will be able to use the database and software tools for future analysis.

A report on the project in Water Briefing says chemical analysis shows that a single water sample can contain thousands of different types of molecules: “These substances stem from the surrounding environment, but are also introduced by humans in the form of industrial chemicals, pesticides, medications and household chemicals, as well as their respective degradation products. The amounts and composition of the molecules vary from region to region and from country to country, depending on the indigenous vegetation and the drugs, pesticides and chemicals approved for local use. The available options for quickly identifying unknown molecules in water have been limited in the past. However, the principle of preventative screening is essential when testing surface waters, which frequently serve as drinking water sources. A key goal is screening to prevent or at least quickly identify potential risks.”

Professor Thomas Letzel, Chair of Urban Water Systems Engineering at Technische Universität München, said: “Today, scientists can identify at most a few hundred of these thousands of molecules in routine analyses – and often only in specialised laboratories. Yet many labs already have the technology to carry out these analyses – even non-specialised control labs. The problem usually lies in the lack of strategic solutions for assessing the results.”

Using the FOR-IDENT database, screening laboratories will be able to identify unknown molecules faster. The technology deployed is referred to as non-target screening and generates molecular fingerprints that reflect the polarity and molecular mass of each identified molecule. “The properties stored in the database will now enable testers to identify a large number of previously unknown molecules, even in non-target screenings,” said Professor Letzel.

The scientists say they are aiming to extend the database to include locally approved and utilised chemicals in the respective locations. They are also planning to bundle and harmonise all internationally used evaluation strategies. An open software platform in which the different evaluation strategies are combined and linked will evolve over the project lifespan. The open-access approach will ensure that companies, authorities and scientific institutions will have long-term, free and unlimited access to the evaluation tools and databases. For more information, see the FOR-IDENT website.


“Solving business problems with environmental data”

Innovate UK publishes directory of feasibility studies

Sept 29th 2015

Innovate UK, the Government’s innovation agency, has published a directory showcasing the feasibility studies it funded in its 2014 ‘Solving business problems with environmental data’ competition, working in partnership with the Natural Environment Research Council. Innovate UK says that the Government has amassed a large amount of environmental data that could help businesses understand how they might be affected by environmental change and how to manage future risks. Data is routinely collected on subjects such as land cover, precipitation, farm performance, biodiversity, water flows, geological surveys and the marine environment.

The aim of the ‘Solving business problems with environmental data’ competition was to help companies develop innovative products and services that use all the environmental data collected by Government through its various agencies. Projects lasted up to 12 months with a value of up to £200,000. The competition funded 33 feasibility studies with a total of £4 million investment. The directory of the funded projects is available as a PDF from the GOV.UK website.

Flood Risk in Cumbria

Flood risk in Ulverston, flood risk to the Cumbria Line, and water resources in the Lake District

Sept 28th 2015

Flood Risk in Ulverston – Work begins on Town Beck Flood Alleviation Scheme

The Environment Agency is working in partnership with Cumbria County Council and Network Rail to reduce the risk of flooding to properties in the town of Ulverston on the north side of Morecambe Bay. The Agency reports that Ulverston has a history of flooding from various sources, most recently in 2009 and 2012 when Town Beck burst its banks and caused flooding through the town centre. The town is also at risk of flooding from Dragley Beck and from surface water and sea flooding during high tides.

Town Beck flows through Ulverston mainly through an underground watercourse and the flood alleviation scheme will involve repairs and refurbishment to the culvert of the watercourse, installing new floodgates, raising existing flood defence walls, and building a flood storage area in the natural floodplain with a flow control structure that will restrict high flood flows to ensure there is no increase to flood risk in South Ulverston. The Agency is also carrying out a structural inspection of the open section of the watercourse to determine whether the channel walls provide a suitable flood defence.

Construction work on the flood alleviation scheme began last month and is scheduled for completion by Autumn 2016. The Environment Agency says it has allowed a winter shut-down “as we expect that working within the tight confines of Town Beck will be challenging especially during wetter periods. Closing the site over the winter months will reduce disruption to the local community and reduce the safety risk to our contractors.” A website dedicated to the Ulverston Town Beck Flood Alleviation Scheme says that the £2.6 million scheme will reduce the risk of flooding to 290 residential and 74 commercial properties in the town.

Flood Risk to the Cumbria Line

Last year, Network Rail spent £2.3 million on repairs to sea defences on the coastal railway line from Carlisle to Barrow-in-Furness which has strategic importance for national infrastructure as it’s also the line to the nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield. In an article for the BBC News Magazine earlier this year, Nick Higham writes of the problems faced by railway lines that run close to the sea, many of which were built in Victorian times by entrepreneurs who tried to do things as cheaply as possible:

“The coastal railway line from Carlisle to Barrow-in-Furness is one of the most scenic in Britain. In places it runs at the foot of cliffs immediately above the water. That means it’s also one of the most vulnerable lines in the country, always at risk from the destructive power of the sea, or from rock falls, or from both.”

He says that, whilst the closure of the main line from Plymouth and Penzance made national news when a storm destroyed part of the sea wall at Dawlish, many similar incidents during the storms didn’t make the headlines. A month earlier, a storm also destroyed the Cumbria line at Flimby, just north of Workington: “It’s one of the most exposed stretches of the line, ” he writes. “The track here runs almost at sea level right along the back of the beach, divided from it only by a low earth bank. And on 3rd January last year, a few hundred metres south of Flimby station, the line ended up under water.” High tides combined with strong onshore winds washed away the earth bank and 200m of ballast underneath the track. The rails were left hanging unsupported in the air.

Yet, whilst the Plymouth to Penzance line took two months to reopen, the Cumbria line took just a week. Ian Joslin, the local Area Director for Network Rail, said: “We had to come and repair the sea defences which involved bringing in a significant amount of rock armour. We had wagons and lorries arriving around the clock for the first three or four days. And we also had to repair the integrity of the track, the bottom ballast, the actual sleepers and rail.” Ian Higham writes that several hundred people, including Network Rail staff and contractors, were involved in the work. “A quarry at Shap opened over the weekend to supply the rock armour, basically massive boulders dumped between the rails and the beach to dissipate the force of the waves. It was a big project which might have taken several months to plan in ordinary circumstances. On this occasion, it was put in place virtually overnight.”

Water Resources in the Lake District

Elsewhere in Cumbria, the Environment Agency is working with United Utilities on plans to manage water resources in West Cumbria. Jen Hall, a Project Manager at the Environment Agency, says that Ennerdale Water in the Lake District has been used as a source of drinking water for over 100 years and currently supplies water to 67,000 people. However, the lake level can drop quickly in a dry summer which often gives rise to a hosepipe ban: “The amount of water United Utilities takes from Ennerdale has gradually reduced over the last 20 years but is still too high. It causes damage to the environment and it is not resilient enough in periods of dry weather to ensure consistent supplies.”

United Utilities is planning to supply West Cumbria with water piped from Thirlmere reservoir in the centre of the Lake District and Jen Hall says “this will ensure a more resilient water supply for the area, enable growth, and help protect the environment by allowing the Environment Agency to revoke the environmentally damaging abstraction licence at Ennerdale. Finding an alternative source of water will bring real environmental benefits to this unique natural environment, and help protect the important species that live there.”

Stopping abstraction from Ennerdale will prevent damage to the habitat of the endangered freshwater mussel population in the River Ehen and will also boost the fish population once the weir at the lake is removed, allowing fish to return to the Upper Ehen after a century’s absence. Jen Hall says once the pipeline is in place, abstraction can also stop at other sites, “helping protect other beautiful parts of Cumbria.” But the United Utilities pipeline project is a huge scheme, she says, which crosses through some of Cumbria’s other protected areas, and the Agency is working with the water company to ensure other habitats aren’t damaged in the process.

The Thirlmere pipeline project will benefit homes and businesses as well as the environment, she adds, as properties in West Cumbria will be able to have a secure supply of water that may not have been possible previously. See the Environment Agency blog for the full story.


Photograph of Ulverston, Cumbria: ‘Looking down Brogden Street, towards the distant Hoad Hill Monument’ © Copyright Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Small sites and small builders could accelerate the delivery of new housing, says Planning Minister

Planning Minister faces questions on Local Plans, brownfield development, and zero-carbon housing

Sept 23rd 2015

Planning Minister Brandon Lewis was quizzed by the House of Commons Communities and Local Government (CLG) Select Committee this month over the planning proposals set out in the Treasury’s “productivity plan” which was launched in July.

Titled Fixing the Foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation, the plan set out an agenda for the lifetime of the current government “to reverse the UK’s long-term productivity problem and secure rising living standards and a better quality of life for our citizens.” The fifteen-point plan set out plans for long-term investment (covering business, skills, infrastructure and science) and a dynamic economy (covering planning and employment, financial services, competitive markets and international trade, and regional devolution).

The Treasury summarised the planning proposals as: “Planning freedoms; more houses to buy, including introducing a new zonal system to give automatic permission on suitable brownfield sites; taking tougher action to ensure that local authorities are making land available for housing; and working with the Mayor of London to bring forward proposals to remove the need for planning permission for upwards extensions for a limited number of storeys up to the height of the adjoining building.” (See the GOV.UK website for a full summary of Fixing the Foundations.)

The CLG Committee met with the Planning Minister Brandon Lewis as soon as the House returned to Parliament on the 7th September. The Minister was quizzed on a number of topics, including local plans, measures to promote brownfield development, the sale of council housing, the inclusion of housing elements in major infrastructure projects, the ending of the zero-carbon new housing commitment, and the sale of surplus public sector land. A full record of the meeting is available as a PDF from the Parliament website.

Local Plans

The Minister was asked what action the Government would take if local authorities did not have a local plan in place by the specified deadline of 2017. He said that 82% of local authorities had now published a local plan and 60% of local authorities had adopted their local plans, and he was optimistic that the remaining 18% would have a local plan by the deadline. He said the Government had no plans to make it a statutory duty for local authorities to have a local plan, but what measures it might take should the deadline be missed had yet to be decided.

Brownfield Development

Under new planning proposals, local authorities will be expected to keep a register of brownfield sites in their area. On granting automatic planning permission to build on such sites, the Minister was asked at what stage would issues such as flood risk assessments and environmental impact assessments be considered. The Minister said the detailed planning application would still look at those issues, as well as the question of design. He explained that granting planning consent in principle for brownfield sites was designed to give certainty to developers in relation to their finance, and would help small and medium-sized builders in particular. The Government’s aim, he said, “was to get the brownfield land that we already have and know about into the category of having 90% of it with planning permission before the end of this Parliament, and speeding up that process.”

The Minister was asked for more details of a £1 billion fund to help brownfield development, which had been mentioned on a previous meeting of the Committee. He was unable to give a date for further details but said “this is one of the things we are working through with the local authorities and partners at the moment and will form part of what we do with the brownfield land registry in the Housing Bill as well.” He offered the further clarification that the aim of the fund is to help make brownfield land more viable and available and therefore would help with contaminated land. The fund would be spread over several years and will be coming from the money the Government raises by selling off high-value council houses. Further details would emerge in the Housing Bill, which it expects to publish in October.

Small Builders

On measures that might bring about a faster delivery of new housing, the Minister said a focus on small sites and encouraging more small and medium-sized companies into building would accelerate the pace of development:

“I am personally particularly keen on making sure we do everything we can to encourage more small and medium-sized companies – not just sites – into building, because there has been something like a 75% drop-off in the number of small buildings. To put that in context, at its peak, something like 15,000 homes a year were built on small sites; it is now just under 3,000. Planning permissions themselves are going up; they hit just over 261,000, which is great. The system is delivering planning permissions. We want to make sure they are in as efficient and effective a time as possible, because one of the barriers to entry can be the cost and bureaucracy of the planning system, particularly for those small builders.”

He said that communities are much more accepting and positive about small-scale development. “This is one of the real challenges for large-scale development,” he said. He continued:

“I have a good example in my own constituency, where developers are developing out what will eventually be about 850 homes, but it is with one developer, which means that will take them the best part of 15 years. If that was broken up and had lots more smaller sites, it would be developed a lot more quickly, which would help our housing supply and help the local community, so I think those smaller sites are very, very important. Making sure the local authorities have that focus, are very clear about the importance of small sites and are giving good quality service to small developers is quite an important message to send out there as well.”

Zero-Carbon Housing

The Minister was asked about the ending of the zero-carbon new housing commitment. The new rules were due to be implemented in 2016. He was told that many businesses have invested heavily in the expectation that the new rules would be implemented and would now see their investment as a waste. The Minister’s response was that “going further now with zero-carbon homes would have added costs of something like £3,600 per unit to an average semi-detached house, and we just want to make sure that the industry has some breathing space.”

He also said that ending the zero-carbon commitment did not mean the Government was off-track for meeting the European Building Performance Directive by 2020. “We have to do a report every five years,” he said, “and our next report is due in 2017. We look for standards for buildings to be cost-optimal; that is why we keep them under review, and, if there is a change at that point, we will be expected, as a member state, to take appropriate action, but I am confident at the moment that the standards we have are strong.”

Some local authorities had started looking at Code Level 5 and Code Level 6, he said, which would have added £25,000 to £30,000 to the cost of a home. “We simply take the view that, at a time when we are trying to get more homes built and make them as affordable as possible, when the standards are there and building regulations give us the standards we want to see – with a review coming, which we will do for 2017 – it is not logical for us to be increasing the cost of building in this country.”

Public Sector Land

The Government has set a target for building 150,000 new houses on surplus public sector land. The Minister was asked whether the target was realistic. He agreed that the target was ambitious, and went on to explain how the target could be met and how the different departments of the Government fitted in with the plans. He also clarified that the target is not to actually build the 150,000 homes, but to release land on which 150,000 homes can be built.

Further Issues

Planning Minister Brandon Lewis made a second appearance before the CLG Committee on the 15th September, together with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Greg Clark. They faced questions on long-term issues facing the Department, such as the refugee crisis and its impact on local government. A number of other topics were also discussed. The ministers were asked for a progress report on the plans to revitalise town centres, questioned about permitted development rights and the impact on office space in London, and asked whether the Government’s plans to build starter homes for first-time buyers signalled a change of policy from building affordable homes to rent. On the latter point, Secretary of State Greg Clark said that the country needed to build more homes and that both starter homes and homes to rent were necessary. For further information on the meeting, see this PDF from the Parliament website.


Photo: Big Ben by Carlesmari via Wikimedia Commons, licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

“UK lags behind rest of the world in developing a circular economy”

Two All-Party Parliamentary Groups say lack of cooperation between Government and industry is stifling development of a ‘remanufacturing’ sector

Sept 22nd 2015

A conference held in London this month concluded that a transition to a more circular economy, in which waste is turned into new materials, is being stifled by a lack of cooperation between Government and industry. The conference was focused on the concept of ‘remanufacturing’ and was organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group and the All-Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group. It was a follow-up to a report on remanufacturing published by the two groups last December.

The conference also concluded that the UK lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to developing a remanufacturing industry and moving to a circular economy. In an article written for edie.net, Luke Nicholls writes that, by contrast, the USA has become a world-leader in remanufacturing whilst other countries such as China, Japan and Germany are investing heavily in the sector and removing regulatory barriers or incorporating subsidies.

Co-author of the remanufacturing report, Caroline Spelman MP, said at the conference that Defra had taken on the report’s recommendations on developing a circular economy and passed them on to the European Commission. However, she also said that Defra needs to be the champion of the cause and push the Treasury into releasing money for the remanufacturing sector.

Director of the new Scottish Institute for Remanufacture (launched in October 2014), Dr Winifred Ijomah, said that more practical support from the Government is needed for the industry to achieve its full potential, citing funding and the development of a national centre for expertise as priorities. “We are lagging behind the rest of the world – not just in developed economies, but developing ones as well,” she said. “All of the major economies have identified product recovery as an enabler for future competitiveness. All of the major industrial regions have a national centre for expertise to forward their knowledge on product recovery including remanufacture, except for the UK.”

AkzoNobel is currently exploring remanufacturing opportunities within the paint industry. Its Global Sustainability Manager David Cornish spoke about regulatory barriers to the industry. He said: “The current remanufacturing regulations seem to be in place to stop bad folks doing bad things. Those of us, in whatever market, that are trying to turn waste into something new, see ourselves as good guys trying to do good things. Perhaps the single biggest thing that Government could do to help us bring about the transformation to a new remanufacturing model is to give us some help in making the rules work for us and not against us. The signals that come out of Government about remanufacturing at least need to be consistent.”

Luke Nicholls says that the conference took place on the same day that a new report from waste think tank RSA and resources firm SUEZ revealed that 1.6 million tonnes of bulky waste – 42% of which is furniture – is sent to landfill in the UK every year, despite over 50% of it being reusable. For more information on that report, see the RSA website.


Photograph: Waterbeach Waste Management Park, near Chittering, Cambridgeshire © Copyright Hugh Venables and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Government allocates £26 million for house builders to acquire brownfield land

An additional £10 million will help local authorities prepare brownfield sites

Sept 21st 2015

The UK Government has launched a £26 million fund for house builders “to demonstrate a range of high quality homes that will be available for first-time buyers.” In a press release, the DCLG (Department for Communities and Local Government) says “the fund will support architects, developers, councils, housing associations and small builders to build properties that will increase the quality of design as the Government delivers on its pledge to build 200,000 starter homes by 2020.”

The £26 million fund will be used to identify and purchase sites and prepare them in 2015 to 2016. The DCLG says “this will enable more of the properties to be started in 2016 to 2017 and 2017 to 2018. The majority of the sites will be underused brownfield land, currently not allocated for housing.” Revenue from the sales of the sites will go back to the Government.

In a further announcement, the DCLG says the Government has also made available up to £10 million for local authorities to prepare more brownfield land for the development of starter homes. “The £10 million grant funding will be open to councils to assist them in bringing forward brownfield sites that are currently underused or vacant. It will help them carry out preparation, clearance and infrastructure work to make them viable for starter homes.” Both funds are one-off funds “designed to accelerate the provision of starter homes.”

The starter homes will be offered exclusively to first-time buyers aged under 40 with a discount of 20% on market values. The Government has released a series of exemplar starter home designs “to encourage developers to push for excellence when building the properties.”

The DCLG says the Government’s new Housing Bill and proposed national planning policy changes “will introduce a series of planning reforms that will ensure hundreds of thousands of starter homes will be built for aspiring young home owners. This will build on the work that local authorities are already carrying out through the local planning system with figures showing that the number of homes in locally led plans up by a quarter.” The measures include:

  • maximising the release of underused brownfield land to be used for starter homes
  • enabling communities to allocate land for the properties through their neighbourhood plans
  • bringing forward proposals to ensure every reasonably sized housing site includes a proportion of starter homes
  • promoting starter homes by bringing forward regulations that would exempt developers from levies that are sought when building homes, such as the Community Infrastructure Levy

According to the DCLG, figures show that before March 2012 the average number of homes planned by local authorities stood at 573 per year. “But radical reforms in the last Parliament put Local Plans and housing delivery at the heart of the planning system. This has helped expand the housing pipeline with those Local Plans published after the reforms containing on average 717 homes per year – a 25% increase.”

The DCLG says that, to date, 82% of local authorities (274) have published Local Plans and 64% (214) have adopted them – “in contrast, 33% (112) of councils had published and 17% (59) adopted Local Plans in May 2010. Councils have until 2017 to get Local Plans in place or the Government will work with their communities to write one for them.” For more information, see the DCLG press release.

The coalition government launched a number of initiatives to promote brownfield development – see our news item “UK Government makes further announcements on brownfield development”.


Photograph: Hardstanding at Lowestoft, Suffolk © Copyright Ashley Dace and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

EA plans to make ‘Flood and Coast 2016’ the authoritative event on flood and coastal risk management

Environment Agency Conference: ‘Risk, Resilience & Response in a Changing Climate’

Sept 18th 2015

The Environment Agency is convening a major conference on flood and coastal risk management, to be held at the Telford International Centre in February 2016. The Environment Agency says that the three-day event, titled Flood & Coast 2016, builds on the legacy of previous flood and coastal risk management (FCRM) events led by Defra and the Environment Agency which took place in Telford until 2010 and were considered to be the authoritative events on FCRM.

Working in partnership with ICE (the Institution of Civil Engineers) and CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management), the Environment Agency is planning a three-day programme of workshops, debates and panel sessions, tailored to topics selected by the Agency and an industry advisory panel, and says it will draw on the best of its partners’ resources to make this the authoritative FCRM event. The event will include an exhibition and the conference chair, Alison Baptiste, Director of Strategy and Investment at the Environment Agency, says she wants exhibitors to be able to share their products and services to support the delivery of flood and coastal risk management.

The main theme of the event is ‘Risk, Resilience & Response in a Changing Climate’ and under this main theme the Agency has selected four key topics for the conference:

  • People and Property
  • Community Resilience
  • Major Infrastructure and Asset Management
  • Global Perspectives

Alison Baptiste says that the following three aspects of the conference will make it even more relevant to its visitors and exhibitors than previous events:

  • The involvement of infrastructure partners, business and community groups who were largely missing from the previous events: “they are key partners when it comes to FCRM delivery.”
  • An innovative conference and exhibition format that will provide more opportunities to discuss and debate the issues facing the FCRM community today and in the future.
  • “Looking beyond our shores to learn from those responding to flood and coastal erosion risk overseas.”

In a message from the chair, Alison Baptiste says: “Everyone who is involved in flood and coastal erosion risk management, or who is affected by flooding or erosion, should be interested in Flood & Coast 2016. The key FCRM delivery partners attending will be local authorities, water companies, internal drainage boards and the Environment Agency. We also want to see the consultants and contractors who deliver a huge amount of the work on our behalf. Many of our framework contractors and consultants work all over the world, so they will be able to share this overseas expertise and fresh thinking.”

She continues: “Contributions from the major infrastructure providers, such as Highways England, Network Rail, as well as the ports and airports, will be an essential success factor for the event. Protection of their critical assets is a national priority. We also hope to hear from community groups – again so they can be part of the discussion to assist those involved in delivering flood and coastal risk management measures to really understand what is needed and therefore how best to provide it.”

The conference will be accompanied by ‘lunch and learns,’ product presentations, and networking opportunities on the exhibition floor. The dates for the conference are February 23-25. For more information, see the conference website: Flood & Coast 2016.