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The use of legislation in environmental control

The use of legislation in environmental control



Legislation is an important instrument in the control of environmental hazards to health, and has been used from the earliest days of public health, for example in the control of water quality and sanitation in the 19th century, and in various forms of air quality legislation in the 20th century.  Legislation may take many forms, including regulation of emissions that may cause environmental pollution, taxation of environment- and health-damaging activities, and establishing the legal framework for trading schemes (e.g. for carbon emissions).  Other actions may rely on voluntary agreements.  Among major current legislative frameworks are those relating to environmental permitting, and those mandating environment and health impact assessments.


Key definitions and terms

Directive (of the European Union)

A type of legislation promulgated by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union that binds member countries to achieve stated objectives within a certain time limit, but allows the national authorities in each country to choose the choice of form and means to be used to meet those objectives.


A rule or order issued by a government department or administrative agency, usually under authority of statute, that enforces or amplifies enacted laws.

White paper

A detailed outline of a policy, which gives Parliament and outside organisations the opportunity to comment on future legislation. White papers often become the basis for a bill.


Historical perspective

Environmental legislation

Some of the greatest benefits to public health have been achieved as a result of environmental interventions.  Legislation has responded to the major environmental and public health concerns of the time and in notable cases has had a crucial influence in improving health.

Public Health Act (1848)

Local Boards of Health in England and Wales were created under The Public Health Act of 1848 in response to cholera epidemics.  Their responsibility was to improve the sanitary conditions of urban areas including through control of sewers, street cleaning, the provision of public lavatories, the supply of water and other measures.

Clean Air Act (1956)

The Clean Air Act of 1956 was enacted following long debate about the adverse effects of air pollution, which came to the fore with the London smog of December 1952 and the evidence of its adverse effect on health.  The Act aimed to control urban pollution by introducing smokeless zones. Power stations were also relocated away from urban areas.  These measures helped to reduce air pollution levels in cities.

Climate Change legislation

Among today's dominant environmental concerns is climate change, and important legislation has included:

  • The Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006[1], which aims to increase electricity microgeneration to help to cut carbon emissions and reduce fuel poverty;
  • The Climate Change Act 2008: to ensure that the net UK carbon account for all six Kyoto greenhouse gases for the year 2050 is at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline[2],[3]



Forms of environmental regulation

Regulation has a key role in controlling environmental pollution and the associated risks to human health.  Among its different forms are:

  • Direct regulation – which allows control of emissions or abstractions that may cause pollution.  Primarily based on use of licences/permits;
  • Environmental taxation – an alternative to conventional regulatory instruments aimed at influencing behaviour through pricing.  Examples include the Landfill Tax[4] and the Climate Change Levy[5];

Trading schemes

  • Trading Schemes – a new (and still somewhat controversial) regulatory instrument that can, in theory, provide an efficient mechanism for achieving environmental objectives because participants can chose how best to make the required improvements.  A scheme typically includes a system for distributing initial allowances and a method for trading them, with penalties for non-compliance within a specified period.  The UK already has a trading scheme for greenhouse gas emissions[6] and plans others (e.g. for biodegradable municipal waste, oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and sulphur dioxide from power stations, and water abstraction rights);
  • Negotiated or voluntary agreements – non-statutory mechanisms that are often preferred to conventional regulation where the parties can agree targets, often to avoid legislation. Examples include emission reduction agreements by the motor industry[7];
  • Education and advice – helping to meet objectives by raising awareness and encouraging participation among multiple groups.

Regulation, or threat of regulation, is a key element of environmental public health policy, which needs to be backed up by compliance-monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.

European Directives are the main driver in Europe for environmental legislation requiring member states to achieve specific environmental objectives.


Specific frameworks

Environmental permitting

Within Europe, pollution is controlled under EC directive, Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC)[8] and the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED)[9]. In England and Wales, this has been implemented through the Environmental Permitting Regulations (EPR)[10] 2010,which entails a risk-based approach to pollution control.

Environmental and health impact assessments

Environmental impacts are taken into account in the planning process in fulfilment of obligations under the 1988 European Directive on Environmental Impact Assessment (and amendments)[11].  This Directive was designed to ensure that environmental issues are addressed in policies and planning in a rigorous, scientific and transparent manner.  Such assessment is a requirement for certain types of developments.  The requirements of the Directive were transposed into English legislation by the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) (England and Wales) Regulations[12].

Health Impact Assessment (HIA - see also section 10) refers to the parallel methods used to assess the effect of a policy, programme or project on the health of a population[13].  It is intended to help decisions by predicting the health consequences if a proposal is implemented, a policy adopted or development in place. To tackle health inequalities, the EU ‘Health in all Policies’[14] aims to address health in all future legislation. The UK responded in its White Paper 'Choosing Health' 2004, where the Government gave a commitment to include health as a component in regulatory impact assessment (RIA)[15].



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                                    © Dr Paul Wilkinson 2009, Helen Crabbe and Rebecca Close 2016