The new Freedom of Access to Information on the Environment Regulations oblige the competent authority to look at the information it holds and identify that which falls within the definition of environmental information provided by the Regulations and, subject to exceptions, supply a copy of the information if so requested.
An additional but by no means lesser responsibility is to take "necessary" measures to ensure that environmental information is actively and systematically disseminated (with the focus being dissemination via electronic means), on an ongoing basis.
1 What do the regulations say?
(1) The competent authority shall take the necessary measures to ensure that environmental information is actively and systematically disseminated to the public, in particular by means of computer communication and, or electronic technology, where available.
(2) The information to be made available and disseminated shall be updated as appropriate.
2 How will it apply?
The requirement is laid upon the competent authority subject to the Regulations.
This obligation has two aspects; that the dissemination is active and systematic and that it is progressively updated. This requires the dissemination to be ongoing, with an active consideration of any new information to be included for dissemination. The words "actively" and "systematically" suggest therefore that authorities set in place a written policy for the consideration of any new environmental information it produces or obtains for inclusion within the active dissemination of information.
Regulation 10 (2) refers to information from Article 7 (2) of the Directive. In effect this means that as a minimum each authority subject to the Regulations will, (where it holds such information), be obliged to include the following:
(a) texts of international treaties, conventions or agreements, and of Community, national, regional or local legislation, on the environment or relating to it;
(b) policies, plans and programmes relating to the environment;
(c) progress reports on the implementation of the items referred to in (a) and (b) when prepared or held in electronic form by public authorities;
(d) the reports on the state of the environment ;
(e) data or summaries of data derived from the monitoring of activities affecting, or likely to affect, the environment;
(f) authorisations with a significant impact on the environment and environmental agreements or a reference to the place where such information can be requested or found in accordance with the provisions of these regulations;
(g) environmental impact studies and risk assessments concerning the state of the elements of the environment referred to in Article 2 or a reference to the place where the information can be requested or found in accordance with the provisions of these regulations;
3 Electronic Dissemination
Regulation 10 (1) states that the competent authority needs to:
(a) ensure that environmental information is actively and systematically disseminated to the public by electronic means where available;
There is therefore a need for the competent authority to consider making environmental information available via the World Wide Web.
There is no requirement to make information available via electronic means where it was collected or collated prior to 17th May, 2005 when the new legal provisions came into effect.
4 What is necessary?
The Regulations make no distinction so far as the obligations laid upon authorities caught within its remit. The only distinction which may apply will rest in regulation 10 (1), in the definition of the "necessary measures" which need to be taken in order to comply with the organisation of information for active and systematic dissemination. It may be the case that it would be unreasonable for a smaller authority to go to the same lengths as a larger authority in order to comply with this aspect of the legislation. Much would depend up the nature, activities and resources of the authority concerned.
In carrying out this function it should also be borne in mind that the requirement is only for the authority to take "necessary measures". Suggested factors which may have effect on this may include the nature of the information held, the size and nature of the organisation, the amount of work and cost required in re-organising the information and the organisation's actual functions as regards the environment. This is not, of course, an all inclusive list, merely suggested factors which authorities may like to consider when deciding what course to take.
Consideration should also be given to authorities' ability to disseminate information quickly, where it may have an impact upon the health and safety of individuals.
5 Good Practice Recommendations
A question arises as to what may be considered to be necessary measures towards compliance with this section in general. Certainly all organisations should take any steps necessary to conform to the environmental information regulations code of practice.
Beyond publishing the minimum requirements as listed above, the authority should, at the least, carry out an information audit so it is aware of the environmental information it holds, and they should then actively consider whether it is appropriate to include this information within their publication scheme as part of their duties under this section.