HC Deb 04 November 1993 vol 231 cc618-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjoum.—[Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]

9.57 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise an issue of great concern to my constituents in Letchworth. The issue also concerns the residents of Stotfold and Arlesey in Bedfordshire. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) has asked me to say that he supports the concerns which I will outline tonight. My right hon. Friend's constituents attended a recent meeting where between 500 and 600 people objected to a clinical waste incineration plant which is being proposed for Letchworth.

The Hertfordshire county council is presently considering the application for permission to build the clinical waste incinerator in Stotfold road close to a school and a housing estate. I have never known the people of Letchworth to be so united as they are in opposing the proposal.

I have lived in this constituency for many years, and the people of Letchworth are outraged at the idea. Letchworth was the world's first garden city. Conceived by Ebenezer Howard in 1903, it has gone on to become a milestone of town planning, with designated areas for each and every activity—shopping, housing, industrial development and agriculture, all in a leafy garden environment. That vision has now reached its final realisation, and there are 30,000 residents.

Because of this legacy, Letchworth has large areas of green belt comprising more than 50 per cent. of the town—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjornment of the House lapsed, without Question put,

Motion made, and Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]

Mr. Heald

Because of its legacy, Letchworth is seen by town planners the world over as a paradigm and it has been much imitated. To the people of Letchworth the green belt is a vital protective barrier for its heritage, a fact recognised by this House in the 1962 legislation that set up the Letchworth garden city corporation to be a guardian of Letchworth's heritage. Because of the supervisory role of the Department, I know that the Minister is aware of the work that the corporation has done over the years to protect Letchworth from the wrong sort of development. The corporation adamantly opposes the planning proposal that is before Hertfordshire county council.

Equally, North Hertfordshire district council has a long-standing policy of defending the green belt around Letchworth. It received the initial application; it rejected it, with the support of every civic group in the town.

Two public meetings have been packed to the doors. More than 1,000 people attended, a large petition was presented to the county council, and a petition to the House of Commons will be presented in due course.

I have received numerous letters which I have passed on to the Minister in which local people set out their concerns. By way of expressing their flavour, I would like to read out a letter sent me by two young people from Letchworth: Dear Mr. Heald, Darren and I have made up a rap because we want you to know how we feel about the incinerator. We don't want the incinerator anywhere near Letchworth.

  • This is a rap for Oliver Heald,
  • They're going to build an incinerator on the field,
  • On the field there are some trees
  • Houses and people, all of these
  • We want to keep our town nice and clean,
  • So don't bring an incinerator on this green.
  • You'll poison the trees so don't do it!
  • If you care about nature, don't build an incinerator."
I have also had letters from local doctors. This one was from one of the largest practices in Letchworth: We, the undersigned, being the partners and employees of this group practice, wish to inform you that we are all very strongly opposed to the proposal to build a waste disposal incinerator so close to Letchworth Garden City. We oppose this on environmental, health and historic grounds and we feel that this proposal should be immediately abandoned. I have had many other letters like it.

Why are the people of Letchworth so opposed to the incinerator? From the school and the housing estate next to the proposed scheme, there is a view across a green valley. That view will be interrupted by a 75 ft chimney and a large laundry building, and it is suggested that steam and other emissions will also cloud the view, thereby destroying part of the green belt barrier around the town.

Secondly, there will be increased traffic and noise. Residents are aware of the experience of Hillingdon, where a similar plant has caused an outcry resulting in a petition to, and a debate in, this House.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

In support of my hon. Friend, I have the misfortune to have a hospital incinerator in my constituency, which is operated by Clinical Energy. It is a most unsuitable activity for a residential area, which results in noise, a considerable increase in traffic caused by large lorries delivering clinical waste and my constituents being unable to sit in their gardens to enjoy quiet summer evenings. It also results in emissions that can lead to atmospheric pollution. All those matters should be of concern to Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. I have made numerous representations to HMIP on behalf of a group of my constituents who call themselves Residents Against Incinerator Nuisance, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows.

My hon. Friend has my strongest possible support in opposing that especial activity. The incineration of clinical waste should he carried out well away from residential areas.

Mr. Heald

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for setting that scene. I do not want my constituents to suffer that sort of nuisance, noise and health worry, and that is why I have brought the matter to the attention of the House.

It is fair to point out that, although the people who set up such clinical waste facilities are often the first to say that they are as safe as can be, they do not live next to such facilities and do not have the misery of being in their garden in summer while steam belches from a nearby chimney. The House should seriously consider the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) that there should be some scheme that keeps such facilities away from residential areas where there are schools and, in this case, also an educational farm.

There is also cause to worry because there is considerable uncertainty about the health implications of such facilities. The Royal Commission on Environmental Waste, under Sir John Houghton, reported in May: We believe it is right nevertheless to continue to maintain a cautious and questioning attitude towards the possibility of health effects from incineration plants If there is that need for a cautious and questioning attitude towards the possible health effects of such incineration plants, they should not be sited in areas near to housing estates or where young children go to school.

The Hillingdon plant to which my hon. Friend referred has not met the standards for emissions of dioxin set by the HMIP. That plant has been put forward in the planning application as the direct comparator—the reference site. When the royal commission considered the question, it admitted that it did not have a full understanding of the effects of highly toxic dioxin on humans. It recommended that, as further evidence on the toxicity of dioxin becomes available, its implications should be kept under continuing surveillance by the chief medical officers. In the light of that uncertainty, surely there should be a policy to site incineration plants away from housing areas.

My constituents and I are looking for three responses. We want the county council to reject the planning application. It has said that the green belt is not an overriding issue in the application. To the objectors and me that is an unsustainable argument. The idea of a green belt is to protect the heritage of towns such as Letchworth—a garden city or something special—and also to guard the countryside surrounding it. If the green belt is not an overriding issue in a town such as Letchworth—a town planning model that is copied the world over—how can it ever be an issue that will have overriding importance?

I see that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, who supports the objectors in Stotfold and Arlesey who have recently protested about the scheme, is in his place.

If the county council will not reject the scheme, the Secretary of State should call in the application so that there can be a full public inquiry to examine the issues that I have raised, and national issues. Those are issues such as: should the green belt be allowed to be breached in such circumstances; should incineration plants which deal with chemical waste and which give rise to uncertainties about health implications be built close to houses?

I ask the Minister to comment on the national situation in the context of clinical waste schemes and their future planning. We know that county councils are being encouraged to formulate waste plans, but they seem to be slow in doing it. Councillors seemed keen for Hertfordshire county council to decide that the green belt at Letchworth should not be an overriding consideration. One wonders what the county councillors were thinking at the time. Perhaps they were thinking, "It won't be in my part of Hertfordshire."

The strategic view must be that clinical waste incineration will be carried out away from houses and not in a green belt, and that it will be carried out safely. The Minister should comment on that and on current progress, so that other towns do not suffer the agony that Letchworth and villages close by are going through while waiting for the result of the application.

The people of Letchworth say a resounding no to this application. The people of the neighbouring villages say the same, and so do I. The application will be fought tooth and nail and will be resisted in every possible way. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and the county council will take that message on board.

10.11 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry)

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) has raised issues of understandable concern to his constituents over proposals for a clinical waste incinerator at Letchworth, and I welcome the opportunity to respond. I am sure that my comments will also interest my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, who is the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell). My right hon. and learned Friend has raised similar concerns on behalf of his constituents. As was evident from the interventions by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) these issues extend beyond Hertfordshire.

The proposal for a clinical waste incinerator at Letchworth is the subject of an application for planning permission which is currently before Hertfordshire county council. It has the responsibility for determining applications involving waste disposal matters, rather than district or borough councils which normally have responsibility for deciding all other applications for planning permission.

The application has been made by Blue Circle Waste Management Ltd and it involves the erection of a 12 m high building with a 25 m chimney on land at Letchworth sewage works. I understand that the incinerator is intended to burn medical waste—including low-level radioactive waste, seized materials—such as drugs—and confidential waste, which is authorised through Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution.

I understand that Hertfordshire Liberal Democrat county council has requested further information from the applicants about the proposed incinerator, and more particularly about the potential environmental impact of this type of development in the location proposed. The applicants are now considering that request. The application is still at a comparatively early stage.

It might be helpful to explain the framework of land use that is provided by the town and country planning system. That aims to secure the most efficient and effective use of land in the public interest, and to ensure that service facilities such as roads, schools and sewers are built where they are needed.

Planning decisions on proposals to build land or to change its use are usually made by the local authorities. We believe that it is appropriate that decisions should normally be taken at the local level. It is therefore important that local authorities fulfil their responsibilities and take decisions on local planning matters, even if these may be difficult.

Such decisions should be rational and consistent. They must also be considered against the policies adopted by the authority after public consultation on its local plan. Section 54A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 introduced by the Planning and Compensation Act 1991 requires decisions to be in accordance with the development plan, unless material consideration indicate otherwise. Therefore, the development plan is, and will increasingly become, an important document.

Development plans set out the local planning authority's policies and the proposals for the development and use of land in its area. There is a cascade of planning policy guidance from national and regional guidance to the county structure plan and ultimately the district-wide local plan. Therefore, the development plan provides a clear guide to prospective applicants for planning permission to the kinds of development that will or will not be permitted during the plan period. Both county structure and district-wide local plans involve the public through consultation at all stages of the plan preparation process.

For most local plans, a public local inquiry is held to consider objections to the local planning authority's published proposals before an independent inspector appointed by, but not accountable to, the Secretary of State. The inspector reports to the local authority, and its published decisions based on this advice are subject to further public consultation. That ensures that the local plan has been prepared with full local participation and helps to give confidence to local people in the consistency of planning decisions.

I was particularly pleased to see that North Hertfordshire district council has recently adopted the latest alteration to its local plan and is already making good progress with a further revision to extend the plan period. In general circumstances, planning decisions are taken against the background of the local plan. However, as I said, decisions on waste disposal are taken strategically by the county council.

Provision for waste disposal facilities also need to be planned at a strategic level. My hon. Friend is right. If decisions are taken at a strategic level, there must be a strategic plan. Such decisions cannot be taken on an ad hoc basis, and that is why it is right for county councils to have a proper strategic waste plan, just as, where they have other responsibilities—for example, for minerals—it must be right that they have a comprehensive plan for those.

I urge every local authority that has responsibility for strategic waste plans to ensure that its plans are up to date. Waste regulation authorities are required, under the Environmental Protection Act, 1990 to draw up separate waste disposal plans which consider the need for waste facilities within their areas and the technical aspects of possible methods of treatment and disposal. Planning authorities are required to have regard to the waste disposal plan in drawing up development plans, so that they reflect the need for adequate and appropriate waste facilities. Again, it is important that there is an effective waste disposal plan. Without one to cover the whole county, it is difficult for the district authorities to have their development plans in place.

I appreciate that plans for waste incinerators can lead to concerns among local residents that it is understandable that they should seek assurances about safety and the impact of their neighbourhood. Therefore, I understand why that has prompted my hon. Friend's constituents to ask the Secretary of State for the Environment to call in the application for his own determination and hold a public inqury.

It might be helpful if I explain that the Secretary of State usually intervenes in the determination of planning applications very selectively. We continue to be very selective about calling in cases for our decision, and applications will in general be called in only if planning issues of more than local importance are involved. Such cases may include, for example, those that could have wide effects beyond their immediate locality and which give rise to substantial regional or national controversy.

The fact that a planning application is highly controversial locally is not of itself a justification for the Secretary of State to call it in. Parliament has charged local authorities with the responsibility for development control along with many other important administrative decisions. It must be right that, as far as possible, local authorities discharge the responsibility that has been given to them by Parliament.

Local authorities are democratically elected organisations, accountable to their electorate for their decisions. We consider that it would imply unnecessary central control if a large number of decisions on planning applications were taken by the Secretary of State rather than the local authority. The Secretary of State will therefore intervene only where there are compelling reasons to do so.

It may be helpful if I say that, during the past few years, the number of matters that have been called in by the Secretary of State for his own decision has averaged about 100 a year—about two a week. While the Secretary of State may have a role to play where applications are referred to him as a departure from the development plan, he will not intervene on planning applications simply because the local planning authority finds the decision difficult, complex or of local controversy. He will only exercise his reserve powers of intervention sparingly, where there are compelling and wider reasons to do so.

As far as the present application is concerned, I will of course keep in close touch with developments. It is only right that the county council should be given the opportunity to exercise its responsibility as planning authority and to consider all aspects of the scheme before the Secretary of State considers whether he should intervene. If, after considering all the information, the county council is minded to approve the application, it may refer it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State as a departure from the development plan. In those circumstances, as in all circumstances where cases are referred to us as a departure from the development plan, the Secretary of State will consider very carefully whether it is an application which would be appropriate for him to call in.

There are many reasons why an application might be a departure from the development plan. In this case, there may well be green belt considerations. Alternatively, should the county council refuse to grant permisssion, the applicants would have a right of appeal to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State against the decision.

In those circumstances, I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment in detail on the merits of the application or the issues involved, because to do so might prejudice any decision that might be taken by my right hon. Friend—for example, whether to call in the application at some period during the process. If the county council were to refuse it and it came before the Secretary of State on appeal, obviously it is important that his decision should in no way have been prejudiced earlier.

It may be helpful if I say a little about waste management, because, as we learn more about the environment and the balance that needs to be maintained between our activities and the earth's ecosystem, we recognise the need to maintain at the highest level the environmental and health standards to be achieved by our industries. That applies to the waste management industry as much as to any other industry.

Incineration standards are stringent, as are those for landfill. The new system of integrated pollution control introduced under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 covers larger incineration plants of all types. The incineration of specific types of waste, and all incinerators rated at 1 tonne an hour or more are controlled by HMIP. The integrated pollution control system also allows authorisations to be periodically reviewed to ensure that operators are incorporating technical advances in their pollution control system.

In the past, most hospital waste has been dealt with by incinerators located within the hospital grounds. With the closure of many old hospital incinerators, hospitals are having to consider the most appropriate means of disposal for the considerable quantities of clinical waste that are being produced and that is leading to further consideration being given to other methods of treatment, including autoclaving and microwaving, which are capable of rendering safe some types of infectious hospital waste.

For many types of hospital waste, however, incineration will remain the most appropriate disposal method. The high standards required for incinerators generally apply equally to incinerators burning clinical waste. All incinerators will be required to meet the stringent standards currently in force under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 which are rigorously enforced by HMIP.

Of course I heard the comments of my hon. Friend for Uxbridge and I will certainly ensure that HMIP investigates the concern he has raised this evening. It is obviously of vital importance that, if there is the statutory framework of the Environmental Protection Act and a regulatory body, HMIP, with responsibility for these matters, there is public confidence that the statutory framework and regulatory authority are delivering that which Parliament has entrusted them to deliver.

I am satisfied that, in addition to the planning process, adequate legislative safeguards are in place to ensure proper implementation and operation of this type of development under the Environmental Protection Act through the authorisation by HMIP.

I make those comments without prejudice to the particular application that is of concern to my hon. Friend. However, I consider it wholly proper that the proposals for a clinical waste incinerator at Letchworth should be fully considered by Hertfordshire county council. Parliament has given the responsibility of determining the application to Hertfordshire county council which must consider the application fully before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State decides whether he should call in the application.

My hon. Friend can assure his constituents that I will continue to monitor progress on this application very carefully and stand ready to intervene at the appropriate time should the need arise.

Question put and agreed to. Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Ten o'clock.