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The University of Southampton
Geography and Environmental Science

Research project: Improving the environmental performance of business and industry

Currently Active: 

This EPSRC-funded project formed part of the Sustainable Urban Environment (SUE) Waste Consortium (GR/S79626/01). Its purpose was to: Determine and evaluate the level of compliance with environmental legislation in SMEs; Evaluate the impact and effectiveness of environmental legislation in SMEs; Evaluate and improve the environmental compliance control systems for SMEs.  

business waste
Business waste

There has been a great deal written about the difficulties faced by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) compared to larger businesses. SMEs face difficulties complying with environmental legislation, particularly because of the amount of complex law. This can result in the ‘environment’ being treated as less of a priority even though SMEs collectively have a significant environmental impact.

Over the past few years, the UK has been focused towards achieving ‘better regulation’. In particular, the so-called “Hampton Report” highlighted the need for more strategic thinking when it comes to developing regulation. Hampton suggested that regulators should use a risk-based model similar to that used by the England and Wales Environment Agency (EA). This view was shared by local authorities and other environmental regulators; however, there has been criticism from some commentators who suggest that certain legislation is not successfully enforced.

compliance audits for business
Compliance audits for businesses

The increased use of risk assessment by the EA has reduced the number of inspections resulting in more ‘pressure’ being put on remaining inspections as well as there being less opportunity to identify non-compliance. In addition, those businesses not included under direct regulatory regimes are unlikely to be audited for compliance against any environmental legislation; consequently a significant portion of all businesses go un-inspected and uncontrolled. Because of the number of SMEs, there needs to be an effective system of regulation that controls activities and targets those businesses that pose a risk to the environment, without unnecessarily over-burdening SMEs. It is clear that management of the environment will have to be done with less resource than before.

Detailed compliance audits were conducted with 44 SMEs from 5 different sectors from the north-west of England. Interviews were secured with SME management, site staff, regulators, Government policy officials and support organisations; in total 99 individuals were interviewed.


levels of compliance
Levels of compliance

The study indicated:

  • Low levels of compliance with the ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’ of the law.
  • Knowledge and understanding of environmental legislation was poor; no single SME, regulator or support organisation appreciated ‘environmental compliance’ as a whole.
  • Enforcement activity and surveillance of the SMEs audited was very low; this reflected nation enforcement figures.
  • The impact of environmental legislation on SMEs is overstated. The impact increased commensurate with ‘effort to comply’ and ‘enforcement action’.
  • There was evidence of direct and indirect environmental harm as a result of non-compliance.
  • Regulation can only be effective if it is complied with; measuring the link between the legislation and environmental protection must be accompanied by a clear understanding of compliance levels.


Simon Kemp (far left) & Ian Williams (far right)
CIWM Award Oct 2011

The study also produced an initial assessment methodology for SMEs, compliance performance indicators and recommendations to improve SME compliance controls.

Three of the research outputs from this project won the same prestigious prize in different years: the CIWM Waste Regulation Award for 2010, 2012/13 and 2014/15. This award is presented annually for the best paper on a Waste Regulation topic written or presented under the auspices of the Institution during the previous calendar year.


Associated research themes



Related research groups

Centre for Environmental Sciences
Waste Management

Key Publications

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