HC Deb 13 March 1998 vol 308 cc924-30

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

3.12 pm
Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I have chosen the right day for my Adjournment debate, which addresses the countryside and waste. We have had quite a Friday.

I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight an important issue for the countryside in my constituency. I remind the House that the countryside north of Sheffield is particularly beautiful, with large numbers of streams, fields, upland areas, ancient ways, footpaths and dry stone walls. It is used by large numbers of walkers and others for their leisure interests. The area is important both for its agriculture and for the people who live in my constituency.

The livestock farmers in that part of the countryside are having an extremely difficult time following the Government's mismanagement of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis in the past few years. The fall in milk prices from 25p a litre to 18p a litre has also had a serious effect.

The difficulties being faced by the farmers contrast with the position of the largest landowner-farmer, who spreads his land with paper pulp waste on a monopoly contract that he has had for many years with the local paper mill. The proceeds have enabled him to buy up farms around my constituency at an accelerating rate as they come on to the market.

Like many people in the constituency, I am concerned that, in this upland countryside area, it seems that the only way to make a living is to use the land as a vast waste disposal site. The paper comes from the Fort James paper mill at Oughtibridge, which is a long-established plant in the constituency. It is engaged in recycling, and produces 40,000 tonnes of paper tissue from 55,000 tonnes of recycled material. In the process, it produces 45,000 tonnes of a grey, soggy paper pulp mass, which is made up of 15,000 tonnes of solids and 40,000 tonnes of water. For years, that substance has been spread over the neighbouring farmland and uplands.

There is nothing wrong in principle with paper waste being used as an organic substance in composting schemes or spread on the land for the benefit of agriculture and the land itself. Where land is acidic, the elements of chalk in the paper pulp waste can have a beneficial effect. However, the waste disposal operation in my constituency has shortcomings that the Government should address. I hope that this debate will help to strengthen the guidelines that the Government are considering.

As the waste substance is spread, it is visually obtrusive. Its greyish-bluish colour is clearly noticeable when it is spread on green fields. The difficulty is that, when it is spread in large quantities, so that it is several inches deep, it coagulates into grey lumps around the edges, and remains like that for several weeks and possibly months, before the grass grows through.

The process leads to the presence of heavy lorries on the narrow country lanes in the area. There is significant change, and even damage, to the ecology and biodiversity of the upland areas. When I first went to live there, there were many skylarks, lapwings, harebells in the autumn, and a wide variety of other wild flowers and birds. That is no longer the case. There has been a significant loss of grassy semi-moorland uplands. Many stone walls and gateposts have been destroyed or removed to enable the operation to take place.

The concerns go further. Not enough is known about the long-term effect of such intensive treatment on the soil. I am not sure whether sufficient research has been carried out into the long-term effects of traces of chemicals from the ink or other elements that might be in the paper pulp waste and might affect the quality of the grassland for grazing. I am concerned about whether enough is known about the content of the water element, which is substantial, and its effect on groundwater reserves in the area.

One of my constituents described how the process has affected her. Her house is at the back of fields that have been spread with the grey substance. She described how it has seeped on to her garden, and how her asthma has been exacerbated, because the substance remains dry and powdery for many weeks without being ploughed in. Nothing grew for months on the land at the back of her house. Since the walls, hedges and trees dividing the four fields were uprooted when the paper waste was spread, the whole aspect of the landscape has changed dramatically. There were hares and many birds in the area, but she says that they are no longer to be seen.

I am pleased that this debate has been welcomed by the local branch of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Peak District national park, the local authorities, the Sheffield Wildlife Trust and, perhaps most importantly, many local conservation groups. We are grateful for the meeting we had with the Minister and her officials earlier this morning. We hope that, as a result of the debate, our concerns will be incorporated in the forthcoming consultation paper on the wider effect of waste spreading. We look forward to reading that document when it is published.

The current legal framework for this type of waste disposal is contained in the waste licensing system established under the European Community framework directive on waste, which, in article 11, exempts from waste regulation and planning control waste spreading that is deemed "agricultural improvement". I believe that those words are defined insufficiently. First, the term "improvement", as applied to the countryside in my constituency, is clearly uncertain and totally inadequate. Secondly, the onus must be on the operator to show, without question, that his purpose is agricultural rather than waste disposal. If the purpose is actually waste disposal, it opens the operation to landfill tax and other issues.

Moreover, the requirements subsequently set out in section 7 of schedule 3 of the regulations must be more specific. Although they mention the rate of spread, that should be spelled out in terms of, first, tonnage per acre or hectare; secondly, the depth of spread and the frequency with which it is advisable to spread to that depth in a particular area; and, thirdly, the manner and the time within which waste should be ploughed into the soil. If those specifications are made more detailed, more detailed recording will be required on the part of the paper industry and the operators to ensure that the regulators—in this case, the Environment Agency—are aware of exactly what is proposed, where, how much and when.

I have been informed by the Environment Agency that the operator at present provides the minimum of information: simply saying who he is and stating that a rough amount of paper pulp waste is to be distributed on various farms in the area at a frequency of about two or three years. That is nothing like enough detail. It does not allow the Environment Agency or the planning authority to monitor adequately, and where necessary to take samples of, the substance to ensure that operations are being conducted in accordance with the regulations.

I also urge the Minister to make it absolutely clear that it makes no difference to the requirements in the regulations whether the operator spreads on his or someone else's land. If the process is so beneficial to the land, I am surprised that other farms in the area do not desperately want the substance spread on their land. At present, the landowner spreads the waste on his own land.

In addition to those specific suggestions, I wish to make some general points. The first is about soil quality. Hon. Members may know that I spent many years in the former Parliament working on water quality and on how sustaining the water cycle makes quality water easily available to us all. After water, soil is probably the most important environmental element on our planet, because it provides us with food, whether it is grown or comes from the animals that graze on it. Future generations will need to focus on and monitor much more closely the quality of soil across all aspects of agriculture, including waste spreading, to make absolutely sure that the food we derive from soil is safe for consumption.

Secondly, it is important that the issues arising from waste spreading on land are given a national framework. Although I have raised this Adjournment debate in the context of a constituency issue, it is important that the guidelines are put in a national framework.

Thirdly, it is important that local people are consulted on all aspects of the environment that affect the countryside. I have mentioned the strength of the conservation groups in my constituency, and I pay tribute to how they keep a watching brief on the welfare of the countryside in their area. That needs to be recognised nationally and locally to ensure that local people have a say and are asked what the processes and operations mean to them, because they are the people who live cheek by jowl with those operations.

Finally, I urge that a partnership approach be taken to countryside issues. I am appalled that the Conservative party has treated the countryside in such a divisive way in the past few weeks. At every turn, on issues that could have brought people together, Conservative Members have attempted to be divisive. I do not approach this issue in a divisive way. Ultimately, responsibility for the country must be shared between Government and business, and between landowners and conservation groups. Unless we work together to protect our countryside, we shall never succeed in caring for it and maintaining its beauty and use for relaxation.

I am grateful for this debate, and I call on the Government to back a partnership approach to deal with the spreading of paper pulp waste.

3.27 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) on raising some important points about the recovery of waste by landspreading.

My hon. Friend focused on the spreading of waste paper sludge in the Bradfield area of her constituency. It is unfortunate, but I cannot comment on the incidents that we have heard about today, or on any other landspreading case. There is a good reason for that: my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role in deciding waste management licensing appeals. As a result, I cannot comment on any individual case that could become the subject of one of those appeals. However, there is much that I can say, and I hope that I can reassure her about the important issues that she has raised today.

My hon. Friend understandably focused on the disadvantages of landspreading, which I fully recognise. There is no doubt that the indiscriminate landspreading of wastes can sometimes cause environmental problems. For example, it can lead to soil damage, water pollution and problems with odour or visual impact. It is vital that we are aware of these risks, and that effective measures are taken to deal with them. I will say more about that in a moment.

We must not lose sight of the fact that there are also advantages to landspreading. Spreading of wastes on land can provide valuable nutrients—and so reduce the need for chemical fertilisers—improve soil condition and structure, and reduce the amount of waste which goes for disposal in landfill sites. Although Conservative Members have decided, after the last debate, that they are against recycling, we believe that recycling and the re-use of wastes where possible is a good thing, as long as it is done in a controlled way which does not affect either human or animal health.

Properly controlled landspreading can be a good way of getting an environmental benefit from wastes which would otherwise be disposed of. Using wastes to provide environmental benefit is a practice which, in the interests of sustainable development, it must be sensible to encourage. It is, of course, best not to produce waste at all. However, the production of waste is, unfortunately, a fact of life. Our first aim must therefore be to reduce the amount of waste that each of us produces. That also means reducing the amount of waste that industry produces.

After reduction comes re-use; that is, putting objects back into re-use so that they do not need to be disposed of as waste. Re-using bottles is a common example. When waste is produced and cannot be re-used, it is vital to recover value from it wherever we can. We are all familiar with waste recovery options, such as composting. The disposal of waste is the least attractive option.

Together, these options are known as the waste hierarchy. Our overall objective is to increase the proportion of waste which is dealt with by the options towards the top of the hierarchy. Whatever option is used to deal with waste, we must ensure that it is done to high standards, and that any risks of pollution or harm to human health are minimised.

No one would deny that, at the moment, we produce too much waste, and do not recover enough value from it. We must strive to reduce the amount of waste we produce, to increase the amount of waste we re-use or recover, and to reduce the amount which has to be disposed of.

The landspreading of waste which is of benefit to agriculture or ecological improvement is a recovery option. Although the recovery of waste may be environmentally beneficial, it also has the potential to cause pollution of the environment and, in some cases, harm to human health. It is therefore essential that controls are in place to ensure that waste recovery operations are carried out in a way which protects the environment and human health.

The framework directive on waste—which my hon. Friend mentioned—provides the basis for these controls. The directive requires, among other things, that businesses which recover or dispose of waste have to be licensed. This is done through the waste management licensing system in force under part II of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and related regulations. Under this licensing system, businesses carrying out waste disposal or recovery must have a waste management licence issued by the Environment Agency, must comply with the conditions of that licence, and must not cause environmental pollution or harm to human health.

The directive does allow member states discretion to provide exemptions from licensing. This discretion was used by the previous Government to provide a wide range of exemptions. These exemptions were provided with enthusiasm as part of the drive away from environmental controls and towards deregulation. That was too often the behaviour of the previous Government. One of the exemptions provided as part of this so-called deregulation exercise was to allow the landspreading of a long list of wastes. This list includes wastes such as blood and gut contents from abattoirs, and waste paper pulp.

Since the introduction of these exemptions in 1994, we have had the benefit of experience, and we have a new Government who are not obsessed with deregulation but are committed to protecting the environment and human health. Although the exemptions are subject to some conditions, experience suggests that past practice has not always been as rigorous as it might have been. In our view, it is necessary to strike a better balance between protecting the environment and human health, and encouraging the recovery of waste. We are not prepared to tolerate the abuse of exemptions as cheap disposal options—in other words, sham recovery. We need to provide the regulators with a better chance to act against those who are intent on abusing the system.

It is essential that waste is recovered or disposed of in ways that protect the environment and human health. For that reason, the controls on the landspreading of waste and the types of waste recovered in that way, must be based on sound science and the precautionary principle. With those objectives in sight, research into landspreading has been commissioned by my Department, the Environment Agency and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The research project is developing criteria that will determine whether landspreading of particular wastes is likely to benefit agriculture or result in ecological improvement. It is looking at the types and quantities of wastes that are suitable for landspreading. We expect the research project to be completed by the end of next month, and have given a commitment to review the current exemptions from licensing for waste recovery by landspreading on completion of that research project. We will fulfil that commitment, and will take into account the recommendations of the Environment Agency in doing so. With the agency, we will also publish good practice guidance reflecting the findings of the research.

Our proposals to revise the exemptions will be subject to a consultation exercise before being introduced. At this stage, I can give an indication of some of the issues I would like to see addressed in the review of the exemptions. For example, the present exemption conditions require that the person carrying out the landspreading pre-notifies the Environment Agency. However, there is no time limit on pre-notification. The agency must be given a better chance to act, to judge whether the landspreading is of benefit to agriculture, and to ensure that the environment and human health are protected.

The present exemption conditions do not make particular provision for landspreading in sensitive areas such as sites of special scientific interest or national parks. We need to consider what additional controls may be necessary in those areas. Clearly, biodiversity and habitat protection are important considerations in that respect.

The research project shows that about 1 million tonnes of paper sludge is being landspread each year, but I was surprised to find that the Environment Agency has no central records of when that is happening and where all that waste is going. That is because the previous Government did not want those records to be kept. We need to put that right.

We have made it clear that we expect the agency to be a fair but rigorous enforcer of environmental legislation, but, in order for it to fulfil that role, we must allow it to do its job. Protecting the environment and getting the regulatory balance right may mean the introduction of charges to allow the agency to fulfil its regulatory responsibilities.

Properly controlled landspreading of waste can contribute to sustainable development and bring environmental benefits. Where it is done properly, the landspreading of waste can improve the soil, be of benefit to agriculture and cut the amount of waste going to landfill. However, experience suggests that past practice has not been as rigorous as it might have been. It is necessary to strike a better balance between protecting the environment and human health, and encouraging the recovery of waste.

The controls on landspreading must be based on sound science and the precautionary principle. Research is under way to increase our knowledge of the science. We will review the landspreading controls on completion of the research project, and I have indicated some of the issues that I would like to be addressed. Clearly, my hon. Friend is invited to let us have her views once the consultation process has begun, as indeed are the representatives I met earlier from her constituency.

Our objective is to ensure that the landspreading of waste is of benefit to agriculture and is done in a way that protects the environment and human health, not compromises them. I want the controls to be rigorous, and I want to give the Environment Agency a better chance to act.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. Had she done so a couple of months from now, I might have been in a slightly better position to give her some sign of where the Government will go, but I hope that she will support the review and I look forward to seeing her responses to the consultation paper when it is issued.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Four o'clock.