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Investigation Board calls for planning reforms around major hazard sites

24 July 2008

The Major Incident Investigation Board (MIIB) into the Buncefield incident in 2005 has released its eighth report, which makes recommendations on land use planning around major hazard sites. The report, for non-nuclear sites, calls for planning system to be updated in order to get the balance right between the need for strategic facilities such as large scale oil storage sites and the need for off-site social and economic development.

Oil depot in Shore Street, Kirkwall illustrates the proximity of occupied buildings and a public road
Oil depot in Shore Street, Kirkwall illustrates the proximity of occupied buildings and a public road

Independent board chair, Lord Tony Newton commented: “We believe there are important benefits to be secured. A more cohesive system, greater collaboration between interested parties and more refined risk assessment tools can enable industry to provide the products we need while maintaining the levels of safety that everyone expects and avoiding the unnecessary blighting of development opportunities."

MIIB is asking for a wide-ranging review of the system for land-use planning around major hazard sites in Britain. The review is to look into the granting of consents to the site operators, as well as the planning consents for off-site developments. Critically, the MIIB is asking for the total population at risk to be considered for each new application; currently, the planning system does not consider the cumulative effect of developments on the so-called societal risk.

The MIIB endorses the fundamental principle that the local planning authority should be responsible for planning decisions but observes that the roles of HSE, the Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency should be more aligned. The planners should also align with the regulatory system for ensuring safety and environmental protection at major hazard sites.

The report suggests that the preferred system is one where the planning authority takes decisions that are informed by expert technical submissions on risks and control measures. These would include the emergency responders, with HSE being responsible for the standards of technical submissions, and for the standards of the controls to be achieved by the planning decision process.

The MIIB believes that the improvements called for in its previous reports, for example in reducing the risks of major incidents through better design and operation of fuel storage sites should be accounted for in the new system. Currently, the planning zones around flammable storage sites are not responsive to changes in risk levels although they are at other types of major hazard sites, such as chlorine manufacturing plants. The MIIB is calling for the system in Britain to be more consistent in the use of quantified risk assessment to inform planning decisions.

Taf Powell, the Buncefield Investigation Manager and a keynote speaker at this year’s HazardEx Conference said: “Buncefield represents a watershed for the planning system at major hazard sites in Britain as we identified in our initial report in July 2006. Land-use planning and societal risks have been particularly challenging and have taken some time to consider fully.

“The planning system needs overhauling to avoid unnecessary blight on off-site development whilst giving good assurance of safety and environmental protection relating to the site, Powell added. “The system should in future consider the total population at risk – societal risk – at each new development application. We should not continue to allow surrounding populations to increase without considering the consequences.

“Planning decisions should take account of our other recommendations for controlling the risks arising from major hazard sites. Understanding the risks involved is an important step in reaching decisions and we have made a particular effort in our report to cast some light on the aspects of risk assessment and societal risk.

“What we are proposing is a tool for flexible transparent decision making which we believe will assist in achieving more consistent outcomes around major hazard sites,” Powell concluded.

Summarising the report, Lord Newton explained that this report was the third to make recommendations for future action and that the subject matter had been the most difficult and technically challenging that the Board had so far addressed. It is also the longest of the recommendation reports published to date.

In our previous reports containing recommendations the direction of travel was always clear; the judgement call was about how far and how fast. With land use planning, the board has been conscious that it is also about balancing several disparate interests – strategic, economic, social, safety and environmental.

The understanding of the risks involved is an important step in reaching decisions and this has led us to address the very technical subject of risk assessment and try to shed some light on it. Land use planning and societal risk necessarily entail political judgements. The board is proposing is a tool for flexible, transparent decision making which we believe will assist in achieving more consistent outcomes for the system for land use planning around major hazard sites in the future.

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