National Quality Mark Scheme (NQMS) embedding in Planning Policy
Gaining planning approval for a site can be a long and resource intensive process. With austerity measures biting at local council budgets, planning teams have often been disproportionately cut. This means good quality contaminated land reporting is a benefit to them as well as to the developer who is then likely to experience fewer unexpected issues which could slow down the project.
Under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) local council duties are made clear in Clause 178: Planning policies and decisions should ensure that:
A site is suitable for its proposed use taking account of ground conditions and any risks arising from land instability and contamination. This includes risks arising from natural hazards of former activities such as mining, and any proposals for mitigation including land remediation as well as potential impacts on the natural environment arising from that remediation);
After remediation, as a minimum, land should not be capable of being determined as contaminated land under Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990; and
Adequate site investigation information, prepared by a competent person, is available to inform these assessments.
The duties of the developer are made clear in Clause 179: Where a site is affected by contamination or land stability issues, responsibility for securing a safe development rests with the developer and/or landowner.
With the intention of supporting the creation of more reliable reporting the Land Forum has developed the National Quality Mark Scheme (NQMS),enabling Suitably Qualified Persons (SQPs) to be identified. It provides certification for reports that can be taken as a sign that an SQP/ competent person was responsible for the report, addressing the necessary site-specific issues.
The scheme was launched in January 2017 and has a steady, but relatively low, uptake to date. Whilst the Environment Agency has been broadly welcoming of the NQMS accreditation for reports supplied for groundwater protection, local authorities have been less specific. The key to the NQMS adoption is the clear signposting of the link between the NQMS requirement that reports are ‘prepared by a competent person’. A ‘competent person’ being defined within the planning guidance as a ‘person with a recognised relevant qualification, sufficient experience in dealing with the type(s) of pollution or land instability, and membership of a relevant professional organisation’.
There is progress in this direction, with 37 Authorities advocating the NQMS to developers in the spring  and has been rising as more Local Authorities review their policies. Additionally, with central planning policy documents updated in July to include a reference to the NQMS as a means of identifying a competent person, this should increase the profile of NQMS further.
The proof of NQMS acceptance within the development industry will be in the uptake of accreditation of land condition reports.