HC Deb 26 March 1999 vol 328 cc703-10

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

2.31 pm
Mr. David Lock (Wyre Forest)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise an issue that may seem, to some, to be a load of rubbish. However, rubbish—or how we dispose of it—is a major challenge facing public authorities up and down the country. The central problem, which the Government must take considerable credit for tackling, is that we cannot simply carry on putting rubbish into holes in the ground with an "out of sight, out of mind" approach. There must be, and are, better ways of disposing of the waste produced by an advanced industrialised society at the end of the 20th century.

In an impressive document entitled "Less Waste, More Value", the Government have set out a framework defining a hierarchy of ways of disposing of waste, which I applaud. At the top of that hierarchy is recycling. The target set by the previous Government was for 25 per cent. of household rubbish to be recycled by 2000. There is a long way to go, because only 7.5 per cent. of household waste was recycled in 1996–97. Incineration—obtaining energy or, even better, combined heat and power from waste—is next in the waste hierarchy. I want to focus on the planning and delivery of incineration projects.

I shall raise three specific topics on which I would welcome a response from the Minister. First, most new incinerators will be built under the private finance initiative process. That raises the difficult issue of the compatibility of open and informed public debate about the best way to dispose of waste and the secrecy imposed by the commercial constraints of the PFI process.

Secondly, how are we to deal with legitimate public concerns about dioxin emissions from incinerators? Thirdly, sensitivity is needed in selecting the right location for municipal waste incinerators, to meet the needs of local residents who are affected by traffic generated by the plants.

I hope that this is an appropriate time to have the debate because, in answer to a parliamentary question from the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton), the Minister said: Government guidance on the location of incinerators is included in Planning Policy Guidance note 23 'Planning and Pollution Control'. This will be updated soon when Planning Policy Guidance note 10 'Planning and Waste Management' is published."—[Official Report, 1 February 1999; Vol. 324, c. 471.] I am aware that "soon" is a term of art for the civil servant; it does not mean quite the same thing when the Tea Room staff tell me that one of their delicious bacon sandwiches will arrive "soon". The word is designed to give maximum flexibility to Ministers, but I hope that the Minister can give me a little more guidance on the likely time scale for the publication of the revised PPG10.

The first substantive issue on which I invite the Minister to respond is the effect of the PFI process. Paragraph 3.3.5 of "Less Waste, More Value" deals with incinerators and rightly recognises the need for full public involvement in the planning and design of projects".

That is right and is to be applauded. However, modern incinerator plants that meet today's rigorous environmental standards are expensive and long-term projects. Although the disposal of waste is a function of public authorities, the size of those projects means that they can be developed only by private companies through the PFI route.

I have no Luddite or fixed objections to the PFI, which can bring great benefits to the taxpayer, but PFI projects differ from public procurement projects in a number of key ways. I am grateful for the information from the House of Commons Library, which has advised me that contracts with local authorities for new incinerators typically seek a guaranteed supply of waste over a 25 to 30-year cycle to justify the investment of the private capital needed to build a new incineration plant.

Worcestershire has recently taken on a PFI project for a 25-year waste management contract. It is a total waste management system, which includes recycling, incineration and a vast reduction in the amount of waste that is dumped. I strongly welcome both the concept and the means by which it is delivered. A contract has now been signed with the Spanish company, Fosca, which appears from my dealings with it to be an entirely responsible and experienced contractor. However, as a result of the commercial confidentiality inherent in the PFI process, there has been virtually no informed public debate on the merits of that scheme. The details have seeped out and the local authority has quashed every request for information or a public debate on the ground that it would breach commercial confidentiality.

My constituents, some of whom may have to live in the shadow of an incinerator constructed to serve the whole county's needs, rightly wanted a debate on the merits of incineration and the appropriate location for an incinerator. They could not have one, as the issue was decided under a veil of secrecy and commercial confidentiality. Even some local councillors did not know what was going on. The contract, which spans some 25 years, has now been signed by the county council. We are all signed up to a waste management package, including an incinerator.

A public education exercise has now begun and a planning application will be submitted. However, that can be considered only on limited planning grounds. Pollution control issues will be dealt with by the Environment Agency, but those will be limited to technical issues.

There is no opportunity in that process for local people—even local councillors—to have their say on the overall strategy. The demands of commercial confidence in the PFI process come into direct conflict with the openness that the Government rightly require from public authorities in "Less Waste, More Value".

I do not expect a complete answer to this problem today, but I hope that the Minister accepts that there is a serious problem of open government in the PFI procurement process and will agree to consider it in detail and come back to me in writing.

The second issue that I wish to raise is the inter-relationship between site location for incinerators and emissions. It is a planning issue and I hope that it will be addressed in the new PPG10. Anyone living near an incinerator is entitled to be concerned about emissions, particularly dioxins. Those waste products from certain chemical processes are extremely persistent in the environment and, in February 1997, the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer classified them as a known carcinogen.

Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution, which is now part of the Environment Agency, produced a report in August 1995, which stated: Municipal solid waste incinerators built in the late 1960s and early 1970s have been the dominant source of dioxins in recent years contributing an estimated 70 per cent. to total UK emissions.

I have no doubt that the authorities at the time considered—against the objections of environmentalists—that the incinerators constructed in the 1960s and 1970s were safe. We now know that, by modern standards, they were not. Only half a generation ago, parents and environmentalists were right and the so-called "experts" were wrong.

New levels of emissions required under the European Union's hazardous waste incineration directives are now tightly controlled. The British Government set their own level for dioxins, but there is still room for improvement. I am grateful to the Library for confirming that, for example, the level set in the Netherlands for dioxin emissions is 10 times stricter than the level set in Britain.

To be fair to the 1995 inspectors' report, it suggests that new regulations on incinerators will cut emission levels, but dioxins will still be released; and that incineration will still represent 10 per cent. of dioxin emissions in the United Kingdom.

Targets and limits are all very well, but no industrial process is 100 per cent. guaranteed. In a parliamentary answer last year, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment accepted that two plants had breached dioxin levels set by the Environment Agency. That comes on top of dioxin hotspots in Hampshire, which the Environment Agency has concluded are caused by four local incinerators. Although it is accepted that, of themselves, those hotspots could not be a direct risk to human health, none the less, I am sure that they will be of concern to local residents.

There is legitimate public concern about the operation of incinerators. I contend that, if public confidence in this method of waste disposal is to be increased, it is highly inappropriate to locate incinerators in the immediate vicinity of residencies or schools. Some industrial processes can operate perfectly satisfactorily near people's homes, but I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to accept, and to make it clear in the planning guidance that is shortly to be published, that municipal waste incinerators are not among them.

The third issue that I invite the Minister to consider is transport. Waste incineration to recover energy or power and heat from waste is a green issue. The waste is mainly transported to incinerators by lorries, and the ash is taken away in the same manner. Ash occupies only about 40 to 50 per cent. of the space that compacted dumped waste would occupy. However, for a large incinerator, that is still many hundreds of 40-tonne lorry loads going in and out of a plant each day. It would be ironic and counter-productive if this green measure were to make the lives of local residents an environmental misery due to the noise, congestion and pollution caused by lorries coming to and going from the site.

Paragraph 5.5 of planning policy guidance 23 states that planning decisions must ensure that waste is recovered or disposed of without harming the environment and in particular without endangering human health or causing a nuisance through noise, or adversely affecting the countryside or places of special interest. I invite the Minister to reflect on the fact that there is a slight problem. Under the regulations, people who live in the countryside are being afforded greater protection than those who live in urban areas. Surely the rights of people in towns not to suffer unacceptable levels of congestion and inconvenience are just as valid as the rights of those who live in the countryside.

On incinerators, paragraph 5.17 of PPG23 states: Planning authorities will need to take into account visual impact, noise, storage facilities, traffic considerations and transport requirements (both in relation to the waste input and the removal of any residues). The location of the incinerators will be a balance between the source of the waste to be incinerated and the place of disposal of the residues, in order to minimise the transport requirements of such developments. I urge the Minister to emphasise and highlight those recommendations in the planning guidance to be issued, and to reflect on one particular matter.

Could the Minister ensure that proper account is taken of the cumulative effect of waste transport and other transport using access roads to a site before any local authority can properly consider a planning application for an incinerator? Could he formulate the guidance so that it cannot be an answer to a transport planning objection that lorries already use an access road, or that it carries some industrial traffic, so more lorries cannot make any difference?

Some level of traffic is acceptable on access roads, but there is a point at which greater levels of traffic, especially on roads that pass by people's houses, would add to congestion and pollution and environmental degradation of the area. Incineration can only be justified as a green measure. Local authorities should be directed to approve planning applications only if the total effect on road congestion and pollution of the application is justified, taking account of the existing traffic on the road, that which is reasonably anticipated from the growth of industrial development in the area, and that related to the incineration plant.

I do not oppose all incinerators, and I accept that, for waste that cannot be recycled, they have a place; but they raise complex issues that must be dealt with in a sensitive manner. A residual concern is that the local authority that has a duty to dispose of the waste is often the same authority that must consider an application for planning permission for an incinerator to discharge that duty. It may also be the same authority that is party to a private finance initiative agreement with the applicant for planning permission, and the same authority that may incur financial loss, to be paid for by council tax payers, if planning permission is refused and the project is delayed. It may also be the authority that will prevent the level of that loss from being disposed to the public, or even other councillors, owing to the commercial confidentiality requirement in the PFI contract. The current procedure is not designed to build public confidence.

I hope that my hon. Friend and other Ministers in his Department, which influences various stages of the process, will consider those conflicts carefully before issuing further planning policy guidance on the development of incinerators.

2.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock) on securing the debate, and on taking the opportunity to raise a matter that is not "a load of rubbish", as he nicely put it at the beginning of his speech, but extremely important. He made a number of pertinent comments. It is refreshing to be able to reply to an Adjournment debate that has raised issues of real concern, rather than less significant matters.

My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot speak about any specific proposed facilities that may become subject to formal planning processes. I can, however, outline the general issues relating to planning policy in respect of incineration, and try to respond to the hon. Gentleman's questions about the PH and environmental protection.

In England, we produce about 122 million tonnes of ordinary, non-hazardous waste each year. The bulk of it comes from industry, but substantial amounts come from households and the commercial sector. Waste must be dealt with quickly, for amenity and health reasons, but simply disposing of it also means some loss of useful material. Two key principles of sustainable development are that good use should be made of waste to reduce as far as possible the demand on natural resources, and that the disposal that is undertaken should have the minimum environmental impact; but it is also important for the amounts of waste generated in the first place to be minimised.

Those matters were addressed in the Government's consultation document "Less Waste: More Value", issued last year. I appreciated my hon. Friend's welcome for that document. The issues will be considered in detail in the forthcoming new waste strategy for England and Wales. Parallel initiatives are under way in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

We need to reduce the amounts of waste, to reuse and recycle effectively and to recover value from as much as possible of the remainder. Even so, a residual proportion of wastes will still have to be dealt with by either landfill or incineration. Landfill takes up large areas of land, and may limit subsequent use of the land. In contrast, incineration can be undertaken on a smaller site, but is a long-term process. A balance needs to be drawn between the two approaches.

As my hon. Friend knows, a proposed new European landfill directive is now at an advanced stage. If adopted later this year, it will set exacting targets for a reduction in the amounts of waste dealt with by landfill. It will require biodegradable municipal waste going to landfill to be reduced to 75 per cent. of that produced in 1995 by 2006, to 50 per cent. by 2009 and to 25 per cent. by 2016. Those targets can be put back by up to four years by those member states, such as the UK, which, in 1995, put more than 80 per cent. of their collected municipal waste to landfill.

There will need to be a major and urgent change in the ways in which we deal with wastes to meet those exacting targets. Even if the best efforts are made to minimise waste and the maximum credible levels of recycling and composting are undertaken, there will still be a substantial amount of material for which incineration is the only credible option.

Incineration is a much more effective way in which to recover energy from waste than, for example, tapping gas from landfills. However, when power is generated, only about 30 to 50 per cent. of the input energy is converted into electricity. The remainder is dissipated as waste heat and through cooling systems. Imaginative combined heat and power schemes can utilise that additional heat to bring direct benefit to local communities. Although incinerator residues will, in general, be landfilled, as my hon. Friend recognised, the amount is much smaller than the amount involved in burying untreated waste.

Even so, waste management facilities can be unpopular with the general public. There has been substantial public opposition to many proposed waste incineration facilities. The concerns are often dominated by local traffic implications—to which my hon. Friend rightly drew attention—the fact that such facilities are generally permanent compared with landfills, and fears about emissions that are harmful to health, which he also raised. I shall take each of those concerns in turn, together with the other issue that he raised: the PFI.

In the interests of safety and to minimise nuisance, it is important that facilities are served by a good road network, have clear access and minimise lorry movements close to dwellings. Proposals for new sites may incorporate provisions for access improvements.

In addition, the Government's new integrated transport strategy "A New Deal for Transport: better for everyone" draws attention to the need for greater use of rail and river transport, fewer and shorter journeys where possible and less empty running. That applies as much to transportation of waste as to other movements of materials.

It is often necessary for large incinerators to have a protracted operational life because of the scale of the capital investment that is required. It is not possible to avoid that, but it means that particular care is needed in selecting potential sites, taking into account future provisions for development as well as current local issues. Subsequent management should also take heed of local people's concerns.

It is probably fair to say that the most important factor in public opposition relates to fears that incinerators will have harmful effects—if not now, possibly in future—if different materials are burnt in them. The performance of some incinerators in the past was poor in terms of the amount and types of emissions to the atmosphere. Following the introduction of stringent new pollution control standards under part I of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, all existing incinerators were either upgraded to meet exacting environmental standards or closed.

All new facilities—I hope that this reassures my hon. Friend—are now required to meet very high environmental standards in terms of emissions and for all other aspects of operation, within authorisation that is issued by the appropriate regulatory authority, usually the Environment Agency. That authorisation sets out operational requirements. Those are enforced by the agency to ensure that facilities are designed, constructed and operated to the highest standards. Those controls remain in place to prevent any unauthorised materials from being incinerated at some future date.

Those tough domestic controls are now reinforced by an EU hazardous waste incineration directive and a proposed non-hazardous waste incineration directive. Modern incinerators need no longer be the "bad neighbour" developments of the past.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

Does the Minister agree that, from both a capital investment point of view and a transport point of view, there is perhaps a good case for having small local incinerators that are based in the community where the waste is generated?

Mr. Raynsford

I will come to that point. The location of incinerators and minimising the journeys that are needed to take material to be incinerated are important issues. In certain cases, small local incinerators may be appropriate. However, in others, greater size is necessary to make a venture economically viable, particularly when linked with a combined heat and power facility.

In my constituency of Greenwich, a large proportion of municipal waste is transported to the very near south-east London combined heat and power plant—which provides an effective facility for our part of south-east London, and demonstrates that a large incinerator can co-exist with local residential communities. There are, therefore, merits in such approaches.

Identifying appropriate locations for proposed facilities is a land use issue within the town and country planning controls exercised by the relevant waste planning authority. Waste local plans should contain criteria for assessing planning applications and, often, indications of general areas within which particular types of waste management facilities may be acceptable. However, the plans must be based on careful consideration of all the relevant social, economic and environmental issues.

Mr. Lock

I have heard all that my hon. Friend has said, and I entirely agree with him. However, does he agree that—taking all the considerations in the round—a site with good road access that is away from residential accommodation is more likely to build public confidence and be acceptable than a site adjacent to houses and schools?

Mr. Raynsford

I hear what my hon. Friend is saying. However, as I was saying, facilities such as the south-east London combined heat and power plant, for example, are, by their nature, in areas that are close to residential accommodation. Moreover, proximity to potential users is vital in searching for the most effective environmental solution in combined heat and power plants that involve heat recovery. Sometimes, it may well be appropriate—provided that the necessary safeguards are in place, and the community is confident that those safeguards are effective—to seek a location that is in a residential area, or in an area with other users who may benefit from the heat recovery process.

The planning system also involves the determination of planning applications. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest will be reassured by the fact that—when there are concerns that a local authority may be influenced by considerations other than the purely planning ones that should be the primary concern in assessing such matters—there are provisions for contentious cases to be called in for decision by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions after a public inquiry process. There is the option to consider a call-in request also when it is felt that issues of national significance should be taken into account. Applicants will, of course, have a right of appeal against a local authority planning refusal, a failure to determine the application or imposition of planning conditions that are thought to be unreasonable.

There has to be greater appreciation of the fact that there are strong environmental arguments for locating waste management facilities close to the areas where the waste arises. The "proximity principle" helps to ensure that problems are not simply exported to other regions. Local communities need to appreciate that the waste that they produce should, as far as possible, be dealt with locally, and that they will have to accept the necessary facilities. That will help to ensure that environmentally damaging bulk transportation of materials is kept to a minimum.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest rightly asked when the new planning policy guidance note 10 would be prepared. He also said that "soon" was a word enjoyed by civil servants. Although I am not able to give him the precise timing, I can assure him that Ministers are very conscious of the need to proceed on the matter and that we shall soon consider both the new guidance and the timing of its publication. I hope to be able to give my hon. Friend some good news on the matter in the reasonably near future.

I conclude with a few words about the private finance initiative, a point that my hon. Friend also raised. The Government are keen to ensure that commercial confidentiality is not used as an unnecessary excuse for withholding information about PFI or other contracts. The Department supports the Government's approach that a public sector body should withhold information on commercial confidentiality grounds only when disclosure would cause real harm to the legitimate commercial or legal interests of suppliers, contractors, the public sector client or any other relevant party.

A representative from my Department has written to the clerk of the council in Upper Arley parish in my hon. Friend's constituency stressing that our guidance note "Local Government and the Private Finance Initiative", published in September 1998, encourages local authorities to be as open as possible in the information made available on PFI contracts. In view of what my hon. Friend has said this afternoon, I undertake to look further into the case, and I shall write to him.

I hope that I have made it clear that the Government take the issue very seriously indeed and are seeking to find the best possible environmental option for dealing with waste, while at the same time reassuring local communities about issues that, perfectly understandably, have caused concern. As my hon. Friend recognises, it is not an easy issue; it must be approached with determination and with sensitivity to the conflicting environmental, social and economic issues. I believe that we are moving in the right direction and that the policies that we are promoting will help to ensure that in the years ahead we deal with the problems.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Three o 'clock.