§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Kirkhope.]9.55 pm
§ Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)
I welcome to this debate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), who shares the concerns that I am about to express.
My last Adjournment debate in the House was on new major roads in my constituency; the one before that was on gravel pits; and today's debate is on rubbish dumps. The Department of the Environment may feel a little besieged by my Adjournment debates, but many of my constituents feel that their villages are under siege.
I need only spell out the broad lines of the proposed landfill site near Pitstone in my constituency to show why its inhabitants feel threatened. The proposal is to infill a disused quarry close to half a dozen villages in an area of outstanding natural beauty with 500,000 tonnes of rubbish annually for 20 or more years. In any sane planning system, the Minister would rise to interrupt me at this point to say that my constituents can put their minds at rest and he and I can go home and get some sleep, because such a proposal is a self-evident non-starter.
I understand that the Minister is a keen cyclist. He would sleep all the more soundly in the knowledge that an area of outstanding natural beauty in the Chilterns will not be spoilt but will remain available for his and other people's recreation.
Sadly, however improbable the proposal may sound, that threat is real. Castle Cement Ltd., which used to operate a cement plant on the site, has made a formal application. The villages liable to be affected in some way are Pitstone, Ivinghoe, Bulbourne, Aldbury, Marsworth and Cheddington. Others will doubtless be added to the list. If the proposal goes through, I advise the Minister not to go cycling in the country lanes thereabouts, because he might be run down by a container truck carrying rubbish from his constituency of Ealing.
My constituents' fears will be familiar to the Minister: smell; traffic on small rural roads; damage to wild life; scavenging seagulls and rats; alongside numerous other unwanted bonuses that landfill sites tend to attract. The possible long-term pollution of the water table with leachate is another risk.
I know that there are complicated arguments about those matters and that Castle Cement has planned measures to deal with them. I have inspected its exhibition and know that it is a responsible company. But with so much volume going in over such a long period—3 per cent. of all the waste in south-east England—who can give guarantees? Is our knowledge so great that we can be sure what will happen over 20 years or more?
What is true of water is also true of land. We are told that the tipping will be of non-toxic waste, and I take that as true, but the Royal Society of Chemistry said:There is no completely satisfactory definition of contaminated land. In simple terms all land that contains substances above their natural concentration could be said to be contaminated.Protest against the proposal has been widespread, intense and well informed. I start by giving the Minister an example from the Council for the Protection of Rural England. In its view:We do not accept that the risk inherent in the use of this site is acceptable. Landfill sites produce considerable quantities of 1044 leachate. While we accept that the quantities of leachate leaking into the underlying chalk"—it is chalk that we are talking about here—may be virtually nil under perfect conditions, however, a failure of the containment system would alter that situation. It is clear from the literature and the experience of landfill operators that leachate generation is likely to continue over a very long period, even up to 70"—
§ Its being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kirkhope]
§ Mr. Walden
I shall resume in the middle of the quotation, if I may:It is clear from the literature and the experience of landfill operators that leachate generation is likely to continue over a very long period, even up to 70 or 100 years. Such a lengthy time span could provide a considerable challenge to the integrity of the containment system.That is the view of the CPRE.
Next, let me quote from the view of the Dacorum Environmental Forum, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West will be familiar:The Quarry sides have been carefully contoured during excavation to leave a naturalistic outline, on the basis that restoration would eventually take place at the worked-out level. This was assumed from the outset when quarrying was first permitted here in 1947, when the company was advised by the distinguished landscape architect (Sir) Geoffrey Jellicoe. There is no need to fill the Quarry in order to restore the land, as the exposed chalk can quickly regenerate as downland with minimal assistance. Landfill should not be regarded as a means of restoration but as an activity to be considered on its own merits; Pitstone Hill 'restored' to its approximate original contours is not necessarily better than Pitstone Hill restored with different contours, especially if the means of achieving the original outline is unacceptable on other grounds.That seems to me an important and sophisticated rebuttal of what might otherwise be an obvious objection to the objectors—that filling in a quarry in the long term would be good for the environment.
Next, I shall quote yet another highly informed group of people—the Chiltern Society, whose views, as my right hon. Friend the Minister will agree when I have quoted them, cannot be regarded as amateur. I shall quote from the passage about gas and leachate:Intricate systems are proposed requiring methane flaring and pumping and storage construction adjacent to the B488, and to operate over a minimum of 20 and probably 50 years. The layout of the buildings compound is clumsy and the design of the buildings crude. These will be prominent in the view from the Ridgeway Path and Ivinghoe Hills and the proposed tree planting will do little to mitigate the effect. The vents of the gas extraction system will be discordant with the proposed contours and downland vegetation. It is not clear from documentation what form the vents will take or how high they will protrude from the ground, but they will be obtrusive. The sight, noise and smell of these operations, which cannot be screened from scarp slopes, will be intolerable. More fundamentally current geological opinion is that it is inevitable that a landfill such as that proposed will eventually contaminate/pollute the groundwater resource whether in 5, 10, 50 or more years from completion.Finally, but not least, I have an objection from the Dunstable and District Boat Club. I emphasise to the Minister that it is an area of outstanding natural beauty, which people like to visit. Local people like to boat there. There are canals, and other people like to come and enjoy that facility. The boat club was formed more than 30 years ago, based on the Grand Union canal at Pitstone, has a membership of 80 people and their families, and has always taken an interest in local matters. Its members come from Leighton Buzzard, Luton, Dunstable, Eaton Bray, 1045 Marsworth, Tring, Aylesbury, St. Albans and many other places. Here is another group of local people who are rightly and exceedingly concerned about what is proposed.
I have also had representations from the Beacon Villages Society, to the same broad effect. Perhaps the most heartfelt protest comes from Mrs. Cato, clerk to the parish council. She writes to tell me that the village has suffered the side effects of the cement works—dust, smell, traffic—for 50 years:For two and a half years Pitstone residents have experienced, many for the first time in their lives"—since the cement works were discontinued—a normal rural atmosphere. Pitstone parish council considers that the dumping of rubbish in this quarry would be a blight on the neighbourhood. Just imagine the feelings of those villagers: if someone is banging your head against a wall, the relief when they stop is considerable. If they then start again, the pain is all the greater.I hesitate to anticipate the Minister's speech, but naturally I am going to, anyway. I suspect that he will tell me that the proposals must go through the usual planning hoops, and I understand that, although I shall have more to say about it later. He may also tell me that the Environmental Protection Act 1990 did much to strengthen controls over the running of rubbish sites, and that the Government deserve credit for that.
The point, however, is that my constituents do not want 500,000 tonnes of rubbish on their doorsteps, however well managed the dumping may be. That brings me to my central point: a mass consumer society in one of the most densely populated countries in the world will always have problems with waste disposal. I understand that the Government are looking at possible ways of making incineration and recycling more attractive; but I greatly doubt whether anything will be done in time to save my constituents or the area of outstanding natural beauty in the Chiltern hills.
In this time of rethinking and of transition, as we look at new ways to minimise environmental damage, what must surely guide Government policy is a determination not to let new landfill sites which will blight people's lives for decades slip through the net. In particular, it should be a rule of thumb that no new landfill sites should be allowed close to inhabited areas. I proposed that in the environment debate of 1990, but it was not accepted.
Since then, the urgency has grown, as the Pitstone proposal shows. What future is there in shifting rubbish from one inhabited area and dumping it in another? We might as well leave it in the city centres and landfill the parks, because the area of outstanding natural beauty in the Chilterns is the local people's park, to which visitors are welcome. A massive dump there would scar not just the landscape but the villagers' lives for decades to come.
For 50 or more years, these people have put up with a cement works; now the people of Pitstone and the surrounding area have earned some environmental respite. For these and many other reasons, I ask the Minister to call in this application, for which request I know that I have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones).
§ 10.7 pm
§ The Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction (Sir George Young)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) on securing the debate, and on representing so vividly the wholly understandable fears of his constituents.
Waste management is of great concern to my Department. I also know that my hon. Friend's remarks are of great interest to our hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), whom I see in his place. Part of the proposed landfill site is in his constituency.
My hon. Friend began by describing the proposals that have been put to the Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire county councils as waste planning authorities. They include a railhead, a container handling area and haul road, and the restoration of about 125 acres of chalk quarry by landfilling, mainly with household waste.
Part of the site lies within the metropolitan green belt and in the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. The county council has sent us a copy of the application and of the developers' environmental appraisal, as the EC regulations on environmental assessment demand. A dozen or so local residents have written to us, but I suspect that most of those who recently attended my hon. Friend's public meeting are evidently saving their fire for the parties directly concerned.
Of course, the Department of the Environment may be directly concerned at some future date. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West has already asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to confirm that he will call in the application for his own decision. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham has now reinforced that request by asking again for the application to be called in. I have taken on board all the points that my hon. Friend has made this evening, and will consider the case for intervention as we would any other. At this stage, I suspect that my hon. Friend knows that I cannot say anything more.
Waste is an emotive subject. None of us likes it and the Government would like to see less of it. We would prefer to see it reduced at source—for example, less packaging where it serves no useful purpose. Then we want to encourage different ways of re-using or recycling it. Safe disposal is the last option, not the first. The Government will continue to fund research, advice and pilot projects for cutting down the amount of waste that has to be disposed of. Businesses, the waste industry and individual households can all contribute.
In that sense, as my hon. Friend pointed out, we are all polluters, and many of the answers lie in our own hands. But initiatives to encourage reduction, re-use, recycling or energy recovery will never be able to deal with all our waste. There will continue to be a need for facilities for final disposal at landfill sites.
The Government's objective is to minimise pollution at such sites and prevent harm to the environment. Landfill is not inconsistent with sustainability if it is properly managed and controlled. Landfill sites have often been developed in the holes, or voids, as the technical term is, that are left by mineral workings. In the longer term, the restoration of old mineral workings can produce a pleasanter environment for everyone to enjoy.
In those cases where planning permission is given for landfill operations, the planning authority will often want to impose conditions or obligations. The phasing of tipping and restoration work, the hours of operation, the standards 1047 and specification for restoring the site can all be controlled. In that way, much can be done to reduce the impact on local people. Of course, landfill operations are also subject to legislation on the control of pollution. As my hon. Friend pointed out, we have fairly recently introduced an enhanced system of waste management licensing, which provides rigorous controls over pollution from landfill sites and other waste facilities.
But with all those safeguards, it remains the case, as my hon. Friend said, that landfill sites are not the most popular of neighbours. Where then should they go? The Government support the proximity principle, under which waste should be disposed of or otherwise managed close to the point where it is generated. That tends to create a more responsible and therefore sustainable approach to generating waste. It should also limit pollution from transport.
Where waste cannot be disposed of reasonably close to its source, the use of rail or water transport is desirable if it reduces the overall environmental impact and would be economically feasible.
§ Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that a railway siding leads into the site which, according to the application, it is not proposed to use? That seems strange.
§ Sir George Young
My hon. Friend is right to point out that close to the site there is a railway line, and I understand that part of the application is for a railhead. Those are the sort of relevant factors about which, in the first instance, Buckingham county council will want to make inquiries.
On the time scale, which may be of interest to my hon. Friends, the Department would usually begin to take a decision on that round about August or September. Much depends on whether the local planning authority takes the view that this is a departure from the structure plan and, if it is, whether it wishes to support it. That is the sort of dialogue that needs to take place in the short term before my Department takes a decision on whether to call it in.
On the question of proximity, there is no fixed definition, and it will vary according to the circumstances. But it should result in most of our waste being disposed of in the region where it is generated. Movement across regional boundaries is not prevented, and may make good sense in some areas, but each region should expect to provide sufficient facilities to treat or dispose of all its waste.
Suitable disposal sites in the south-east are not evenly spread. Availability in the London area is particularly limited, while some surrounding counties, of which Buckinghamshire is one, have geological conditions particularly suited to landfill. My Department's regional planning guidance recognises that those areas can be used to meet regional needs.
My hon. Friend referred to the prospect that waste from developed countries such as France and Germany might end up being landfilled in the United Kingdom. The Government hold firmly to the view, which I am sure my hon. Friend endorses, that countries that have or should be capable of acquiring the capacity to deal with their own waste should not send it to the UK for final disposal.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) indicated in his statement on 15 June, in future the presumption will be that waste should not be imported for final disposal in this country. That accords with 1048 Government policy of self-sufficiency in the final disposal of waste, and that principle is enshrined in the Basle convention and EC waste shipment regulations.
Provision for the management of home-grown waste must be planned—it will not just happen. County councils are the waste regulation authorities as well as the waste planning authorities. In that role, they are required to draw up waste disposal plans under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Those plans cover the type, quantity and origin of waste to be disposed of in the plan area but they do not identify specific sites or criteria for new facilities.
That matter is for the land use planning system, which aims to secure the most efficient and effective use of land in the public interest. That system is led by the development plan. Those plans should provide the framework for the development and use of land in an area. They should reflect local choices but also take on board national and regional policies.
§ Mr. Walden
I referred to my previous Adjournment debates on roads and gravel pits in my constituency. Slightly to my surprise, the roads proposal was withdrawn. I presumed that a lot of strategic thinking had gone into it, but I discovered that one reason for that proposal being withdrawn was that those concerned wanted to do some strategic thinking. I was gratified by the withdrawal, but surprised to learn that strategic thinking came after the strategic decision.
More or less the same thing occurred in respect of a gravel pit project, which I was told was part of a necessary future plan drawn up by the council, county council, industry and Government. It was found that the future demand for gravel had been grossly overestimated, so the project did not proceed.
I have enormous confidence in my hon. Friend personally, but I am a little less confident in future planning on the grand scale—particularly having lived some of my life in communist countries. Has the Department of the Environment really thought through future demand for landfill sites? I heard my hon. Friend refer to Buckinghamshire as a rather favoured area for that sort of disposal.
§ Sir George Young
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's expression of confidence in my judgment. I am sure that there are people in Buckinghamshire county council who take the same objective approach. I tried to describe Government policy in general terms—it is to reduce the volume of waste generated using a whole range of measures. Ultimately, we rely on planning authorities—county councils, in this instance—to identify specific sites or criteria for new facilities. It is a land use planning matter, and those authorities are best placed to identify those parts of their counties that are best suited for that function.
The Department has an overall role, which my hon. Friend invited me to use, in calling in plans. That is an option, but by and large we prefer to let the planning system be run by local people. We have a devolved planning system, and the presumption is that it should work. There is a safety valve in the ability to call in projects if they raise matters of national or regional importance or are departures.
My Department will closely monitor between now and September the further inquiries made by the county 1049 council, whether it takes the view that the proposal is a departure, makes any request to the Department and other relevant factors.
There must be strong reasons for taking a planning decision away from the local authority. My hon. Friend spoke of his experiences under totalitarian regimes. One feature of such regimes is that they tend to be rather centralist, and we want to avoid that if possible.
I think that decisions of this kind should be made at local level, because in total they affect every aspect of local life. As I said, the Secretary of State's powers to call in applications for his own decision are used somewhat selectively, usually because a case raises issues of more than local importance.
My hon. Friend has made clear his view that new rubbish dumps—to use his phrase—should never be created near inhabited areas. Nearness to housing and other developments, and the impact on the quality of life of local people, are considerations that the planning authority may wish to take into account; but each case for new or extended waste disposal facilities should be considered on its merits within the development plan context.
It may be necessary for the planning authority to balance the shorter-term impact on local communities with any projected benefits. There are many factors to take into 1050 account, including the geology and hydro-geology of the site, how access would be gained, the nature of the landscape and the length of the project.
§ Mr. Walden
My right hon. Friend referred to the shorter term. When the subject arose at a local meeting, a rather excited participant responded to the information that the longer-term benefits would be seen after 20 years or more by saying that, in the longer term, we are all dead.
§ Sir George Young
I have read accounts of that lively public meeting, which my hon. Friend attended. I understand that representatives of the applicant considered it in their interests not to attend. Of course, we must balance the short to medium-term impact on local communities with any projected benefits.
There are no simple answers to the problem of coping with waste. The community as a whole needs these facilities, but individual communities do not want them close at hand. I am sure that my hon. Friend's constituents are already making their views known to Buckinghamshire county council. As I said at the beginning, we will keep in close touch with progress; we have noted what my hon. Friend said, we have the representations from my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West, and my Department stands ready to intervene if such a course is justified.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Ten o'clock