A new report to be published today by the Confederation of British Industry claims that too many regulations aimed at protecting the environment are badly designed and poorly implemented.
"Firms are not trying to avoid their environmental responsibilities," said John Cridland, CBI deputy director-general. "They want to comply but they also want the government to help them do the right thing in a cost-effective way.
"Too much environmental regulation is badly designed and poorly implemented. We are not anti regulation or against rigorous enforcement but we make no apology for complaining about sloppy laws that are implemented poorly and enforced in an ill-considered fashion."
The report says the £4bn annual business cost of compliance compares well with other countries but the problems with design and enforcement mean it is higher than it should be.
The CBI criticises the UK Environment Agency for being insufficiently sensitive to the competitive environment in which business operates. It says enforcement is still inconsistent and not targeted on areas where there is most environmental risk.
The report says UK companies face a high number of inspections compared with countries such as the United States, France and Italy. It says there is a growing trend for the agency to charge firms enforcement fees, a pattern not replicated in other EU states.
The report goes on to criticise Defra's (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) track record on implementing EU legislation in a business-friendly fashion, as well as its ability to influence EU policies. It cites the example of the EU Landfill Directive, which from 16 July will lay down rules on the disposal of hazardous waste. There have been delays in key decisions on the directive and even now firms remain uncertain about the disposal and treatment waste.
The CBI argues that the UK's environmental performance is improving, with the OECD placing the country in the mid-range of developed nations. It points to cuts in carbon emissions and improvements in air and water quality.
However, some regulators believe that it is business that needs to get its act together. There is certainly a great deal of confusion within the manufacturing industry about the regulations - a recent LogicaCMG survey of attitudes to the upcoming EU Emissions Trading Scheme for example suggests that many companies are still not sufficiently prepared. only 51 per cent think that they will be ready on time.
The survey also found that levels of knowledge of the scheme were low for a regulatory change of such a scale. LogicaCMG found that only one third of companies across Europe were very well informed, slightly higher in Germany and Spain, and three out of every 10 companies admitted to being poorly informed. These levels indicate a significant lack of in-depth knowledge for a scheme with such far-reaching impact, just a few months away from its intended start date.
The EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) is one of the policies being introduced across Europe to tackle emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and combat the serious threat of climate change. The scheme comes into force on 1 January 2005. The environmental regulator has cautioned food and drink manufacturers that if they fail to comply with essential environmental legislation they risk hefty fines.
Nonetheless, the CBI plans to urge the government to deliver on pledges to implement more business-friendly enforcement of regulation.
"Defra's review of its sustainable development strategy gives us a great opportunity to take stock and find ways of using regulation more sensibly," said Cridland. "We want to work constructively with the Environment Agency and the government but they have got to start delivering on business concerns."