Compliance in an evolving landscape

Aberdeen is a bustling, vibrant and ambitious city that is home to a wide variety of restaurants, entertainment venues and hotels.

The Aberdeen City Region Deal, valued at £826.2m over 10 years, is supporting regeneration projects across the city and Aberdeenshire, investing in a number of infrastructure projects that promise to revitalise the region and lay the groundwork for further regeneration.

However improving infrastructure is not without its difficulties. Companies involved in these large construction projects need to remain alert to the potential for pollution events and, for the most part, are diligent in their preventative steps to mitigate damage to the environment.

Any allegations of non-compliance with environmental controls will, of course, be investigated by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), which will move quickly when a suspected breach is reported.

Last year SEPA used a relatively new enforcement power (Enforcement Undertaking), which came into force in 2016, in respect of numerous silt pollution incidents affecting the rivers Dee and Don that had originated from the construction of the new Aberdeen bypass. That Enforcement Undertaking resulted in around £280,000 being paid by the contractor towards the communities affected by way of a penalty for the environmental impact of the pollution incidents.

These undertakings are a new tool for combatting environmental offences and can be used as an alternative to criminal prosecution in certain circumstances. These include requiring an organisation to accept responsibility for its actions and to take steps to make amends for harm caused.

Although there have only been five such undertakings accepted by SEPA so far it is expected the regulator will make greater use of these powers going forward. They are an alternative to the time and cost of a court prosecution and, instead, can result in more immediate environmental solutions, improved cooperation with SEPA and financial payments to local communities.

Environmental challenges are, of course, not confined to major redevelopment projects. In the past year, Environmental health officers (EHOs) have been visiting Aberdeen restaurants to ensure food hygiene standards are being maintained and that any breaches are promptly remedied.

Legislative compliance for the hospitality and leisure sector is also under the spotlight, given recent national news reports around failures in the labelling of food products and the need for proper reporting and labelling of allergens.

While EHOs seek initially to open dialogue with a target business to address non-compliance and improve standards on a voluntary basis, non-compliance can lead to hygiene improvement notices being served. In our experience, where a concern is raised, EHOs will look for the following to be in place:

  • a food safety management system that identifies relevant hazards and accurately reflects the practices and procedures of the business
  • measures to avoid cross-contamination of different food types
  • proper stock controls, ensuring high risk foods are correctly labelled with a use-by date
  • accurate provision of allergen information on foods

If a business fails to take action following the issue of a hygiene improvement notice, it can then face prosecution, as evidenced by the recent hospitality industry-related prosecutions that have made their way through Aberdeen Sheriff Court in the past year.

As growth in the Aberdeen economy gathers pace, criminal convictions stemming from EHO action, and SEPA demonstrating it will use of Enforcement Undertakings where it sees fit, should serve as timely reminders to businesses of all sizes of their obligations to keep pace with environmental control requirements and food standards regulations.

Kevin Clancy, senior associate, Shepherd and Wedderburn

Kevin Clancy, senior associate, Shepherd and Wedderburn