Councils are responsible for a huge range of services. While some services such as social care, planning or waste collection have a high profile, others are much less obvious, partly because they are preventative in nature and may only become more visible when something goes wrong.
This handbook provides an overview of council environmental health, trading standards and licensing services which collectively fall under the broad theme of public protection services, and are part of a spectrum of place-focused protective services ranging from environmental focused services, through public protection, to community safety. The handbook sits alongside related LGA handbooks on different areas of licensing and is intended to assist all councillors in understanding the key functions of these important but complex services and how they can be used to support a wide range of key council priorities. Additionally, it can be used by portfolio holders or other councillors to support understanding of what to look out for in scrutinising and leading these services within your council.
A long and proud history of protecting the public
Although perhaps less prominent now, public protection services were central to the development of the modern system of local government from the Victorian era onwards.
The Public Health Acts of 1848 and 1875 introduced and then mandated a local framework in which councils were responsible for key aspects of public health including tackling infectious diseases, the provision of clean water and drainage and dealing with refuse and other nuisances. Other laws passed in the 1870s banned the use of harmful substances in food and allowed councils to clear slums and build better homes. Collectively, these enshrined the role of local government in protecting the health of the population; this is still reflected in the motto of several English councils, Salus populi suprema lex, translated as “The health and welfare of the people should be the highest law”.
Similarly, trading standards services – under their formal name of Weights and Measures authorities – have a historic role which can be traced back to Acts of Parliament dealing with weights and measures over several hundred years. The development of modern trading standards services arose in the late 1960s when successive governments recognised the need to protect consumers from trading malpractice. This began with the Trade Descriptions Act, now largely replaced by the Consumer Rights Act, and was fundamental to the development of a comprehensive framework of protection measures around product safety, food and feed standards, package holidays and rogue traders.
Licensing, too, has a long history. Again, the 19th century saw the introduction of approaches that are still familiar today, albeit overseen at the time by Justices (and subsequently magistrates). Astonishingly, elements of law from that period still govern our taxi and private hire vehicle framework now, with the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 setting out the main provisions regulating Hackney Carriages, despite pre-dating the recognised invention of the modern motor car by around forty years!
More than 150 years on from those formative pieces of Victorian legislation, the core ethos of environmental health, trading standards and licensing services to protect the public remains as important as ever, and the services have a huge role to play in contributing to key council agendas such as safeguarding, economic growth and recovery, health protection and reducing health inequalities, climate change and net zero.
While some of these objectives are distinctly 21st century issues, it is perhaps more notable how similar the focus of some modern public protection work is to the work of its nineteenth century forbears, with infection control, good quality housing, consumer protection and preventing gambling and alcohol harm as relevant as ever. Just as the past 150 years of history shows us the huge benefits of effective public protection systems and services on overall population health and wellbeing, so present day challenges illustrate why this continues to be so important.
Public protection services in the twenty-first century
Due to their role in enforcing various regulations, environmental health, trading standards and licensing services are often referred to collectively as ‘regulatory services.’ This description is often perceived as a negative, with successive governments framing regulation as something to be cut back in order to reduce red tape and burdens on businesses. However, although regulation is a key part of these services’ toolbox, it is not an end in itself: regulations are ultimately focused on delivering a wide set of objectives that protect local people and research suggests that many voters are supportive of retaining them (view points 1 and 2 in the further information section). Tragically, the Grenfell Fire tragedy stands as a stark warning of the fatal consequences that can occur when there is insufficient regulatory oversight of issues that protect the safety and wellbeing of local communities.
Through their work, often although not exclusively with local businesses, public protection services protect different aspects of local life, including:
- local businesses and the economy
- people, in their different roles as local residents, consumers, tenants, employees/workers etc
- communities, as places where people live and work, and
- the environment, including animals.
Together, public protection services fulfil a huge range of statutory duties in several core areas:
Internally, this wide range of activities and the different ways in which public protection services can be structured can compound their general lack of visibility. In two-tier areas, environmental health and licensing sit in district councils with trading standards at county level, while environmental health services in both types of council are sometimes split between different teams (for example business facing and community/housing facing) and at border points may have a distinct port health function responsible for enforcing import controls. There are many variations on how the services are organised, but common linkages for regulatory services include other enforcement-based services (such as planning or enviro-crime), community safety and public health functions.
However public protection services are arranged, there is value in them working collaboratively within or across organisations, as joining the dots between different elements of them is key to optimising practise and maximising increasingly scarce resources. It also ensures that the services are best placed to contribute to a range of council priorities.
A broad focus of public protection
One of the key reasons for collaborative working between public protection services and other council services and external partners is that there is huge scope for public protection services to contribute to a wide range of agendas that extend beyond the primary objectives highlighted above.
Safeguarding and tackling crime
“When I trained as an environmental health officer we learnt about hygiene and science, not safeguarding. But being aware of safeguarding issues is now a core part of the job.”
The quote above, from an experienced environmental health officer, captures the way in which services such as environmental health, trading standards and licensing are key to ‘bigger picture’ issues such as safeguarding – for example tacking child criminal/sexual exploitation and modern slavery – or tackling organised crime. At their roots, these services have always been about protection – but it is now recognised how in working with businesses and communities to protect the integrity and safety of food, ensure the safety of taxis and private hire vehicles or tackle rogue traders, the services can also support cross-council and multi-agency work to disrupt abuse and tackle organised crime. This is particularly the case at a time when there is growing awareness of the importance of contextual safeguarding.
Environmental health, licensing and trading standards officers are out and about in communities visiting premises and engaging with businesses on a regular basis, so there is significant scope for them to observe and identify concerns that go beyond their immediate regulatory remits. For example, environmental health officers responsible for regulating private sector housing may spot signs of modern slavery such as overcrowding or locks outside doors during their inspections, while health and safety checks at hand car washes may reveal evidence of people living on site in poor conditions; licensing teams may recognise that complaints about a licensed premises regularly relate to children or young people who could be involved in potentially harmful behaviour or exploitation; while trading standards teams tackling the sale of illegal and counterfeit tobacco are contributing to the disruption of organised crime.
Increasingly, enforcement bodies such as the police, National Crime Agency and Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority have recognised the considerable value of involving councils in operations to target illegal activity; partly due to the intelligence they can provide, but also because of the powers and tools they have to enter a premises without a warrant. Multi-agency visits to premises in relation to food safety, health and safety, consumer protection or other legislation can offer a powerful tool in disrupting serious criminality and organised crime.
Partnership working to tackle modern slavery: Sedgemoor District Council and Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA)
The environmental health and housing teams at Sedgemoor District Council began receiving complaints from local residents about lots of waste being generated from one property and anti-social behaviour from the people living in it. In addition, several residents reported that vans were regularly arriving at the property and dropping off lots of people. This prompted the council to get in touch with the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority.
The council, police and the GLAA visited the property and found around fourteen people living inside who were all Romanian. There were clear modern slavery concerns but the people living in the property were unwilling to share information. However, due to the multiagency approach adopted, the council was able to issue a £37,000 fine as the property was operating as a house in multiple occupation (HMO) but did not have the correct fire safety measures in place. The GLAA was also able to serve a Labour Market Enforcement Undertaking (LMEU) which prevents the suspected perpetrator from supplying unlicensed labour into regulated sectors. Since these measures were taken, one individual has come forward and been referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).
Illicit tobacco and organised crime
Newcastle City Council’s trading standards team’s work to tackle illegal tobacco has highlighted links with local organised crime groups (OCG). A male who was a person of interest to the team in connection with illegal tobacco was subject to a warrant at his home address, and although no illegal tobacco was found there was £15,000 cash stored in the bedroom, and documents from HMRC relating to the seizure and detention of £25,000 in cash taken from him whilst trying to fly from Birmingham Airport. The cash was seized under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and after transferring the seized cash to a financial investigator within Northumbria Police’s Serious Organised Crime Team, the team received further intelligence connecting the male with an OCG operating out of Hartlepool linked to exploitation, trafficking and now illegal tobacco. Investigations are ongoing, but more intelligence is being received about his involvement with the OCG and their non-tobacco activities. Other intelligence suggests a number of individuals supplying counterfeit tobacco are linked to OCGs involved in drug supply, robbery and extortion.
In 2021, Oxfordshire Trading Standards became aware of a Facebook account advertising cigarettes for home delivery. The posts were primarily made within Romanian language Facebook groups in the area but had begun to expand into regular buying and selling groups. A test purchase was organised and counterfeit Marlboro cigarettes were purchased. As a result, in November 2021 Oxfordshire Trading Standards and Thames Valley Police executed a warrant on a residential address in Banbury, Oxfordshire. This resulted in over 680,000 illegal cigarettes being seized, one of the biggest single seizures made by a trading standards service. The majority of the haul were counterfeit with over 300,000 fake Rothmans cigarettes alone. One of the primary suspects immediately left the UK and has not returned. Another primary suspect is the subject of separate Metropolitan Police cash forfeiture proceedings as a result of a seizure of illegal tobacco and cash from the roadside during a routine check in London in May 2020. The same suspect has also been charged with the possession of an offensive weapon. The trading standards investigation is ongoing, but evidence suggests a complex connection between wholesalers and suppliers across multiple-regions and in Europe.
Public protection services can play an important role in tackling health inequalities and improving the health of their communities. The role of environmental health officers in regulating private rental sector housing, and tackling substandard accommodation which can harm health, is one obvious example. Trading standards’ work to tackle the supply of illicit, cheap tobacco that undermines anti-smoking efforts is another important aspect of this, as is similar work to tackle under-age sales. The role of licensing teams in regulating the sale of and consumption of goods and activities that have recognised health impacts – such as alcohol and gambling – also has a role to play in improving health outcomes in our communities. Government has also empowered councils to enforce specific anti-obesity measures such as the anticipated ban on promotions of unhealthy foods in store and online (recently delayed from October 2022 to 2023).
Environment and climate change
Environmental protection has always been a core component of environmental health services (for example through regulating industrial emissions), but collectively local public protection services have an important part to play in the drive towards net zero. Environmental health teams lead work on local air quality and have been integral to the development of council plans on this, while both environmental health and trading standards services have responsibilities relating to energy efficiency in domestic and non-domestic settings: schemes which have the potential to reduce costs for consumers and reduce environmental impacts where they can be prioritised.
Increasingly, the Government is also tasking local trading standards services with enforcing prohibitions on the sale of goods which are damaging to the environment, whether that is plastic straws, micro beads or harmful woods which damage the environment when burned. In general, trading standards have an important role in providing market surveillance and assurance about quality and standards as technological and property changes and changing consumer choices create new markets. Trading standards teams have already tackled scams relating to the green agenda. This work will only become more important as sustainability considerations become more embedded.
Business support and inclusive growth
Regulation is often perceived as something that is negative and stifles businesses, but through their work with businesses, regulatory/public protection services can play an important role in supporting businesses and promoting local economic growth, particularly in relation to Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) and start-up businesses. Public protection services account for a significant proportion of councils’ contacts with local businesses and are a source of advice and guidance as much as they are an enforcement body; for businesses which import and export goods, they can provide vital guidance and formal certification enabling transactions to take place. Feedback shows that businesses themselves generally welcome the support they receive from local regulators and are concerned about the impact on a level playing field of a reduction in local regulatory capacity. Public protection services can work with economic growth teams to play an important supporting role in local inclusive growth and regeneration strategies as part of the levelling up agenda.
Current issues in public protection services
After almost a decade of cuts that saw staffing capacity reduced and heads of service roles move down council management structures, public protection services were frontline and central to the Covid-19 pandemic response, displaying versatility and agility to rapidly respond to a range of different duties. Infection control is a core part of environmental health teams’ usual work, so these officers were involved in contract tracing and other infection control activity. Additionally, officers from licensing, trading standards and environmental health teams, in partnership with the police, led local work to enforce the Covid-19 regulations. Together, they ensured that infection rates were reduced.
However, while the pandemic showed the value of local public protection services, it also highlighted the capacity pressures they face after significant budget and staffing reductions, with Covid demands layered on top of existing pressures and the challenge of trying to stretch reduced resources across an ever-growing set of responsibilities. Detailed work by a Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) task and finish group looking at local regulatory services reported an ageing workforce shrinking due to retirement and retention issues, challenges in recruitment, with a limited pool of professional capacity available, and an increasing gap between filled and advertised posts, alongside difficulty in bringing in new officers through available routes such as apprenticeships, with a lack of funding for training posts.
Following the end of Covid-19 regulations, public protection services have been able to return to a business as usual pattern of activity, with an emphasis on tackling the most serious of backlogs that developed during the pandemic. There is evidence that pandemic-related trends increased workloads compared to pre-pandemic levels through factors such as a fall in general compliance standards in key areas (such as food safety or health and safety), an increase in noise/nuisance complaints associated with Covid-related changes to outdoor socialising/societal tolerance, and increased levels of anti-social behaviour being seen in the night-time economy and elsewhere.
Looking ahead, there are major concerns about the future pipeline of officers in environmental health and trading standards in particular, and the extent to which councils will be able to recruit the expertise needed to undertake specialist aspects of public protection work. A recent survey of council environmental health services found that four out of five councils reported using agency staff to deliver services, with 87 per cent doing so due to shortages in resources or delays in recruitment. Fifty-six per cent of councils reported vacancies that were left unfilled for six months or more. Similarly, the most recent trading standards workforce survey confirmed the ageing workforce profile (more than a third of trading standards officers have over 20 year’s post-qualification experience, with just 12 per cent of the workforce having less than five years’ experience) and found that there were only 50 trainee Trading Standard Officers (TSOs), with even fewer planned for the future.
The LGA has raised concerns with the Government about the future pipeline of professional expertise in public protection, and the extent to which the services would be able to respond to another pandemic in even five or ten years' time. Both individually and collectively, there is a need for councils to consider how they can ensure the future resilience of public protection services.
What should councillors be looking for and think about
This overview aims to encourage councillors to take a close interest in public protection services in their council, and how they are contributing to local and national priorities that go beyond the immediate demands of individual pieces of legislation. In particular, councillors might want to review the following issues.
Councils could consider the level of political oversight and engagement devoted to public protection services. Depending on how both services and cabinet portfolios or committee structures are arranged within individual councils, oversight could be split, or subsumed within a wider brief that in practice means there is less scope for focusing on public protection activities. Appointing a lead councillor with capacity to focus on public protection services or undertaking a scrutiny review of the services considering some of the issues highlighted in this report, are good options for increasing the level of political engagement.
A related point is understanding the activity that relevant teams are undertaking. Councillors may find it helpful to ask for a regular short summary of areas of work being led by different teams, to give them a clearer understanding of how services are protecting and supporting local residents and businesses. Councillors can also accompany officers on visits to see first-hand what some of the local challenges are, and how services are engaging with and supporting local residents and businesses, or attend conferences with their public protection managers to learn about key issues and how they apply to each council.
Identifying local priorities and balancing these with national objectives
Public protection services have two specific features that set them apart from other council services:
- Firstly, in many areas (such as food, health and safety, gambling licensing) they share a co-regulatory relationship with national bodies that also have delivery responsibilities for the relevant activity.
- Secondly, they are able to contribute to much broader objectives in the course of undertaking activities that may otherwise seem to have a relatively narrow focus (for example, in undertaking food or private sector housing inspection work, officers can as noted contribute to tackling modern slavery by knowing and acting on the risk signs when they see them).
Having national co-regulators with defined expectations of councils can create challenges; fundamentally, the LGA and others would like councils to have more flexibility to identify local priorities rather than follow national targets for food visits, for example. However, within the current system, councillors should be satisfied that they have reviewed local work plans and are satisfied local priorities have been identified, and that a balance between local priorities and national expectations can be achieved as far as possible given the capacity available. This comes back to the point above, in terms of the need for political and strategic oversight and understanding of public protection services, what they are delivering, and the agendas that they can support.
Joining up services and regional working
As with other council services, public protection services have the most impact, particularly on wider corporate objectives, when they collaborate with partners within their council and outside of them.
Close working between public protection services - internally...
Public protection services undertake a wide range of activities and can be structured in different ways in different councils. Some councils have brought all enforcement-based activities together into a single unit, while others may separate out housing/resident focused services from business facing services; and of course, in two tier areas, environmental health and licensing sit in districts and trading standards services in county councils. There is no right or wrong structure - what is key is that teams are sharing information and intelligence and making links to the right teams. In terms of the different public protection services within councils, this means sharing information about areas of focus and poor compliance that may be of interest to other services. It is recognised that businesses which are poorly performing in one area of regulation are more likely to be non-compliant in other areas too. Therefore, joining up information can help to effectively target activity and resources.
West Suffolk are in the early stages of implementing an approach intended to coordinate regulatory workforce resources and activity through intelligence led regulation, with shared local intelligence about hotspots enabling prioritisation of resources to those areas or issues.
The model recognises that enforcement takes place across numerous teams in the council and that bringing them closer through a more tactical approach to co-ordinated activity can facilitate the sharing of best regulatory practice and develop more efficient ways of working. The approach is framed by a council wide enforcement strategy that promotes both tactical intelligence and data sharing and resourcing across teams. A key part of the approach is monthly tactical tasking meetings where teams discuss workload and regulatory activity, enabling resources to be redistributed to meet service needs when required.
As the project develops further links will be made with the existing partnership meetings (notably police tasking) to see how the council can better integrate its wider regulatory activity across the system.
Similarly, councillors could explore how closely linked into neighbouring and regional councils their public protection services are, and what networks they are part of. At the simplest level, there is value for all services in understanding the issues other councils are working on and how they are approaching them, to promote consistency and help develop their own work. But at a more ambitious level, with services having shrunk significantly over the past decade and many councils no longer able to employ the full range of specialist officers they might once have done, there may be scope for informally or even formally sharing expertise across councils to help resources stretch further.
Association of London Environmental Health Managers (ALEHM)
ALEHM emerged from the London Chief Environmental Health Officers’ groups and provides support to environmental health teams and officers in the 33 London Boroughs. It is funded by an annual subscription of £1,250 per member council, with activities divided into five broad areas:
Trading standards services have well established regional networks through which council teams work closely together. The regional networks also help to support the infrastructure through which £16 million a year of trading standards work is commissioned from local services via National Trading Standards, which helps to tackle major cross border and national trading standards issues.
Linking up with other services…
Beyond the immediate remit of public protection services, councillors can seek to understand the links that have been made between public protection and other council services that they can support, for example community safety (on a range of issues including modern slavery, organised crime, etc), children’s services (on contextual safeguarding), adult social care (on protecting vulnerable residents from scams) or public health (on a range of issues). In two-tier areas, this could involve understanding how environmental health services are linked into the local public health team and are supporting closer integration, and how environmental health/licensing services are joined up with trading standards teams in the county area, as well as supporting safeguarding agendas led by the county.
…and partner agencies
Finally, it will be helpful to understand how services have made links with partner agencies to support multi-agency working on different issues. The police and other law enforcement agencies (for example, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority) will be key partners for a range of community safety/crime issues, but other partners include fire and rescue services, and nationally the UK Health Security Agency, Food Standards Agency, Health and Safety Executive, Environment Agency and others.
Workforce profile and future risks
Finally, councillors should also consider their workforce profile and the likely associated risks to future delivery of public protection services. In common with other council professions, public protection services face the challenge of an ageing workforce and limited pipeline of new trained officers coming through. Councils in most parts of the country are already experiencing challenges in recruiting environmental health and trading standards officers, and this problem is likely to increase in years to come without investment in new staff.
With limited budgets, there are clearly real difficulties for councils in finding the resources needed to recruit and train new staff without impacting already stretched capacity in existing team structures. However, there is a need for councils to address this challenge and understand their own workforce and pipeline if they are to avoid significant difficulties in the future. Considering the scope for new apprentice roles in public protection services is one option open to councils on this issue.
North East Public Protection Partnership (NEPPP) /North East Trading Standards Association (NETSA)
A NEPP survey in 2021 indicated that councils in the northeast had six TSO vacancies that couldn’t be filled (equal to 10 per cent of officer resources in the region), despite multiple adverts which had sometimes attracted no applicants at all.
However, councils reported finding it challenging to train officers internally, mainly due to the supervisory time it takes from a qualified officer to ensure the officer undergoing training gets the experience and knowledge they need to qualify.
Another factor that precludes training is that training courses are often only offered at some distance from the North East, which incurs travel costs and travel time to attend, which increases the overall cost exponentially.
It was also identified that only four officers had been recruited from outside the region in the past four years – with officers otherwise moving between councils on what was seen as an officer merry go round. This has exacerbated the reluctance to train staff, for fear that they will simply move authority. An increasing use of market supplements for posts to try to attract new recruits has the potential to fuel the merry go round further.
With an ageing workforce (37 per cent of staff are over the age of 54), there is recognition that something needs to be done to ensure the future sustainability of the workforce. Having considered a range of options, the region has agreed to develop a coordinated regionalised approach to training new officers through a partly funded regional hub which will include:
- providing an officer responsible for organising training for apprentices recruited across the region
- using experienced officers across the region to deliver training where there is sufficient expertise and capacity
- buying in trainers where there is not sufficient capacity
- coordination of the practical experience trainees need to complete their training portfolios.
Nine out of the twelve NE councils have signed up, and training posts have been created through either changing existing posts or creating new ones. Trainees are due to take up post in September 2022, with an objective of 12 newly qualified TSOs by July 2025.
This document provides a snapshot and introduction to what are extensive and complex services. More detailed information is available from the following sources:
- A view from the Blue Wall: attitudes to environmental protections in the shifting Conservative Heartlands - Unchecked UK
- Op Ed: ‘Red wall’ swing voters support strong food regulations and standards - Unchecked UK
- Food Standards Agency - 2019/20 Enforcement Data - Food Hygiene and Food Safety
- What is environmental health? (Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH))
- Impacts and outcomes report (Association of Chief Trading Standards Officers (ACTSO))
- NTS annual report (National Trading Standards)
- How councils and HSE work together (Health and Safety Executive)
- How the FSA works with local authorities (Food Standards Agency)