§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Goodlad.]10.14 pm
§ Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)
There are at present no toxic waste disposal plants in the north-east region, yet suddenly we are faced with at least three applications for planning approval to construct such sites. One of the proposed plants would be situated at Howden, in the middle of the Tyneside conurbation, surrounded by 1 million people. It is a joint venture by Northumbrian Water and the United States company ITC. That partnership is also putting forward a second, similar proposal for Teesside. The plan is to burn sewage and industrial waste together. It is described as economical. and much is made of the way in which it will consume sewage that is at present dumped by barge at the mouth of the Tyne. About 160,000 tonnes of sewage a year would be consumed, together with 83,000 tonnes of industrial waste. That is a lot of industrial muck to go to Howden which would contain a host of hazardous toxic substances.
It is proposed that that activity should take place in the heart of Tyneside, surrounded by 1 million people. The site would be unacceptably close to centres of population, in the middle of Tyneside with homes and schools nearby. The scheme is also in danger of damaging the regeneration of a wide swathe of Tyneside for which imaginative plans have been prepared by the urban development corporation. Those plans are not just about restoring derelict land; they are also intended to benefit existing adjoining communities. What a contrast that is with the proposals for a large toxic waste plant.
I am well aware of the prevalence of the attitude that has been described so well as NIMBY—not in my backyard. But here we are talking about a site in the backyards of close to 1 million people. It is utterly inappropriate for the purpose suggested and public opinion on Tyneside is wholly against the proposal. A petition was presented to me containing many thousands of names. I put a questionnaire through the door of every household in my constituency and, not surprisingly, only a handful of people replied saying that they were in favour of the scheme.
In its editorial, the Newcastle newspaper The Journal described the proposal as being geographically, socially and environmentally the wrong site. The chairman of the Tyne and Wear joint waste disposal committee has said that, in his judgment, the proposal is absolutely appalling and the site is totally unsuitable. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the plans were thrown out on environmental grounds by the urban development corporation as planning authority.
Just before Christmas an appeal was launched. It was a sad Christmas present for Tyneside. A lack of civic responsibility was shown by those who again put forward a proposal that had proved to be so offensive to the local comnunity and that caused such grave public concern. Who is the best judge of the issue? The Government believe that waste disposal matters should be decided by local opinion. Local opinion has spoken with a resounding voice against this proposal.
§ Ms. Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the same objections—the lack of 717 consultation, the lack of taking people's views into account and the worries about siting such a venture in the middle of a built-up urban area—also apply to the proposed clinical waste incinerator at Wardley, in Gateshead, on Tyneside in my constituency?
§ Mr. Trotter
It is astonishing that there are presently so many proposals for plants such as these in the urban areas of the north-east. They have suddenly appeared from nowhere. The problem is certainly a serious one for the urban areas of Tyneside and Teesside.
I refer my hon. Friend the Minister to the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the Blackpool conference. He said:When I make planning decisions, I will always start from the assumption that local communities have an instinctive understanding of what their areas need and how they can best develop. I want local authorities, local communities, to take as many of the decisions about their character and their future as possible.I commend those views in terms of the proposals for the north-east for toxic waste plants. Surely the best judge of the issue is the local community.
The chief executive of Northumbrian Water confirmed to me that there would be some PCBs—a particularly dangerous substance—in the industrial waste at Howden. He then tried to reassure me by saying that the incinerators would use the latest technology. Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that I did not find that reassuring. I was surprised to hear only this afternoon that Northumbrian Water is now not proposing to deal with PCBs there. It is surely no coincidence that that announcement should be made on the day on which I am raising the matter in this debate.
Let us look into the figures. There may be no intention to deal with PCBs at Howden, but 80,000 tonnes of toxic muck will still go to the site every year. Only part of the sewage would be burnt in the toxic waste plant. Two thirds of that which is at present dumped off the mouth of the Tyne would still have to be dumped either in the sea or on land. Many water authorities dispose of their sewage by landfill. Some have no access to the sea. This proposal would leave most of the sewage to be dealt with by other means. Clearly, other solutions are therefore possible.
Only some of the hazardous waste would be fed into the incinerator. Half the 80,000 tonnes would go nowhere near the furnace. It would be taken to Howden and after being chemically treated the 15,000 tonnes left as a residue would be taken away and, presumably, disposed of by landfill somewhere else.
From where are all these nasties to come? One of the arguments put forward in favour of the plant is that it could be used for the burning of waste which is now burnt at sea—an activity which will be prohibited in future. It is surely extraordinary to suggest that, once banned at sea, this activity should instead take place in the middle of our Tyneside community. That it can be put forward as an argument in favour of the scheme is an example of the crassness of some of those arguing in support of the Howden plant. It is perhaps illuminating as an example of how they appear to approach environmental issues.
From where is all the muck to come? Northumbrian Water cannot tell me. The authority cannot say that it will definitely come from within our region. It cannot give an assurance that it will not treat waste from other parts of 718 the country, although, to be fair, it has said that it has no plans to import waste from overseas. The authority cannot say that about waste brought into the region from elsewhere. Northumbrian Water has told me that if local companies did not use the facility, it would find it necessary to take toxic waste from other parts of the country. I suggest that, against that background, the proposal can only be described as somewhat speculative. I remind the House that the same partnership has a similar proposal for a further huge toxic waste plant on Teesside.
Northumbrian Water stresses that this means of sewage disposal would minimise costs. I am sure that the people of Tyneside would willingly pay a little more to have the problem solved in other ways—to think otherwise would show an appalling lack of judgment. It is wholly wrong that such an issue should be decided on other than environmental grounds. Any extra cost of alternative solutions will have to be accepted.
There are some fundamental questions to be asked. What is the need for such massive toxic waste plants in the northern region? What is the scale of the existing problem? From where do the wastes come? What happens to them now? We do not know the answers. I do not know whether Northumbrian Water knows the answer, but certainly I do not. The information has not been made public.
There is great uncertainty, but what is sure is that Howden must be the wrong location for a massive toxic waste plant. There are only three or four toxic waste plants in the United Kingdom. None is in the north-east. The plans for at least three to be constructed in the north-east are astonishing. They envisage a massive increase in the United Kingdom's capacity to dispose of toxic waste. They will be among the largest such plants in Europe. It is hard to understand why the north-east should need so many such plants. I imagine that a great deal of money can be made from operating them. We must ensure that decisions are taken in the interests of the community on environmental grounds rather than for any economic reasons.
I understand that an appeal is now pending. I understand that therefore, in his reply tonight, my hon. Friend the Minister cannot comment on the arguments for or against the proposals. However, I urge him speedily to establish a public inquiry into all three applications. It is essential that the issues are aired publicly and fully. The water authority should have no fear of such an inquiry. It is only right that there should be a full examination of the issues involved.
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
Does my hon. Friend agreed that, in view of the applications on Tyneside and the four applications on Teesside, the time has come for the Government to decide a national strategy for the placing of toxic waste incinerators? As he rightly says, it is unacceptable for such establishments to be sited in major centres of population. We on Teesside are every bit as worried as the people of Tyneside about the prospect of such plants being sited in our community.
§ Mr. Trotter
My hon. Friend raises a most interesting point. I am very much in agreement with him. It must be right to have a national plan on an issue such as this. I hope that the Government will take that point on board.
I am, however, worried about the blight hanging over Tyneside as a result of this most unfortunate appeal. I do not believe that there will be a national policy within the 719 timescale that is necessary if we are to remove as soon as possible the blight caused to the major redevelopment schemes which are planned for next door. Nor must we forget the ongoing fears of the local community.
I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that there should be a linked inquiry so that all the applications in the north-east can be considered together. We may not obtain a national solution in the timescale that we seek, but perhaps we can at least obtain a regional solution. I hope that my hon. Friend will give serious consideration to that proposal.
I hope that the inquiry will be held as speedily as possible. As I said, it is harmful that in the meantime there should be a blight hanging over our community. If all three applications are considered together, at least we shall establish the genuine requirements of our region and the best way of solving the problems.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
Does not the hon. Gentleman fear that in some quarters a view is held that the north-east is a soft touch in these matters because the people are not aware of the environmental dangers? Does he agree that that view is entirely mistaken, as he highlighted by revealing the strength of feeling in north Tyneside? Does he accept that there is a great deal of support throughout the north-east region for the campaign being fought by north Tyneside on this issue?
§ Mr. Trotter
I agree entirely that the matter unites the community throughout Tyneside. I am sure that the same applies to Teesside. That reinforces my argument for a linked inquiry to consider the issue for the region as a whole.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that environmental issues will be paramount in considering the appeal. I am confident that, if that is the case, the decision of the local community on Tyneside, expressed by the urban development corporation in refusing permission, will be upheld. The plans for the plant will end up in the dustbin, as they deserve.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) on securing this debate on such an important topic. Waste disposal is a subject which some people find unattractive. That may be one reason why it has been neglected in past years. We do not make that mistake in the Environmental Protection Bill which is currently before the House. That Bill will contain major reforms to the present framework for control of waste management.
It will always be the case that waste disposal activities have a wide impact on our environment, and proposals for siting such facilities should be carefully considered. This is not the first time that my hon. Friend has raised the matter in Parliament and I pay tribute to him for his skill and persistence in ensuring that his constituents' anxieties are properly considered.
I know that the subject is of great interest to other hon. Members. The hon. Members for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) have already intervened. I am pleased also to see that my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) and for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) are attending the debate.
720 They have been active in promoting the interests of the north-east generally and have not been slow to draw the Department's attention to specific anxieties on this topic.
§ Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)
So that I, too, may get my name on the record, may I remind the Minister that my constituency is across the river from Tynemouth, and borders on the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) at Formby? I support the applications of the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) and of my hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
I am the first to recognise that the hon. Gentleman is a doughty fighter for the region and I apologise if I inadvertently overlooked his interest in the debate.
I shall start by putting waste management in a wider environmental context. We produce large quantities of household, commercial and industrial waste, perhaps some 80 million to 100 million tonnes a year. Most of it goes to landfill, but we also rely on incineration for some disposal. Only a small proportion of that large total is toxic, perhaps about 2 million tonnes. Such special waste comes under the ambit of the Special Waste Regulations 1980 which ensure close monitoring of movement and disposal under a system of advance notification to waste disposal authorities. The final disposal outlets must be suitably licensed under the Control of Pollution Act 1974.
Only a limited number of landfill sites are suitable geologically for hazardous or special wastes. We also have only a limited number of high-temperature industrial waste incinerators. To my knowledge, there are four with a total annual capacity of about 80,000 tonnes, so there are substantial pressures of demand on those facilities.
Environmental trends will place additional and increasing burdens on existing facilities and hasten the search for alternatives. For example, Ministers agreed at the 1987 North sea conference that dumping harmful industrial waste at sea should cease and that there should be strict ceilings on the disposal of sewage sludge. Inevitably, such decisions place additional burdens on landfill sites and encourage those concerned with waste disposal to look more closely at alternatives, such as incineration.
It is fair to point out that the north-east region as a whole is a net exporter of waste to other parts of the United Kingdom. Both Cleveland and Tyne and Wear produce more hazardous waste than they can dispose of within their areas. That suggests that there is a demand for additional waste disposal facilities in the region.
Those dilemmas over disposal options for waste generally are highlighted in the Tyne and Wear waste disposal plan, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth will be familiar. The plan was drafted in 1986 to cover a 10 to 15-year period and the final stages of completion are now a matter for the Tyne and Wear authorities, acting through their joint committee on waste disposal. The draft plan notes the increasing public concern about hazardous waste disposal and the pressures arising from the loss of marine disposal outlets and tighter land-based incinerator standards. This could leave some hazardous waste without a viable means of disposal. The plan identifies the need for establishing alternative waste treatment facilities for hazardous waste and for monitoring the effects of these developments. It 721 acknowledges that, without more facilities, the pressure could lead to even greater amounts being exported from the region.
Difficult choices must be made. It is important that the disposal option in any particular case represents the best practical environmental option and that the standards set by the regulatory authorities are the ones that properly protect the environment and embody best domestic and European standards.
Against that background, I well understand that no one likes the prospect of having a waste disposal facility in their neighbourhood, whether it is a landfill site or a new incinerator. I appreciate fully the concerns that have been expressed by Opposition Members and by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth tonight.
A number of applications for waste incinerators have been made in the north-east in the past year and it is for the local planning authority, in the first instance, to determine those individual applications.
Two appeals relating to waste incinerators are now before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. One is from Ocean Environmental Management Ltd. in respect of its proposed incinerator at Seal Sands. The other is from Northumbrian Water with International Technology Europe Ltd. in respect of their proposed incinerator at East Howden in north Tyneside, which is the application that particularly concerns my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth. I understand that a further application by Northumbrian Water and International Technology Europe in respect of an incinerator at Portrack is currently being considered by the Teesside development corporation.
Hon. Members will appreciate that I cannot comment upon the appeals now before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth has put forward the proposition that the appeal cases should be looked at together. I think that can help my hon. Friend.
Although the proposed incinerators are some 40 miles apart, I recognise that there are common aspects involved. Both applicants have referred to the regional need for the facilities that they wish to develop and there is a significant overlap in the waste streams which both incinerators would deal with. Consequently, I am happy to be able to 722 tell my hon. Friend that it is indeed our intention that those cases should be examined at linked public inquiries. Dealing with them in this way would allow issues common to both, such as regional waste treatment capacity, movement of waste and environmental impact, to be dealt with at a plenary session attended by both inspectors and all the participants. All those issues have been raised this evening. Once those matters had been dealt with, the site specific and land use planning issues would be considered at separate, consecutive inquiries. The report of the plenary session and the separate inquiries would be considered together by the Secretary of State in making his decisions.
§ Mr. Trotter
On behalf of the north-east, I thank my hon. Friend for so readily accepting our proposal for a linked inquiry. I understand the considerable practical difficulties involved, but can he ensure that the utmost speed is shown in establishing that inquiry for the reasons that I outlined earlier?
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
Should any further appeal be made relating to proposals for similar kinds of installation in the region—one or two have been mentioned tonight—or if my right hon. Friend decides that a particular application should be called in for his decision, it would be possible to include them, too, in the linked inquiry procedure I have described.
In answer to my hon. Friend, he will appreciate that it will take some time to tackle the necessary arrangements to set up those inquiries. We shall press ahead as quickly as possible, and we hope to have the inquiries under way during the latter part of the year. A linked inquiry procedure means, of course, that the final outcome will be delayed until all the applications have been considered. Our aim is to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to make their views known. But I confirm our intention to follow the code of practice for those inquiries set out in annex 2 to the Government's response to the fifth report of the Select Committee on the Environment, 1985–86, which sets out ground rules for ensuring maximum public participation.
I shall be writing to hon. Members, to the planning authorities and to the applicants in the next few days setting out the arrangements in more detail.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o'clock.