HC Deb 27 October 1999 vol 336 cc989-97 1.30 pm
Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne)

I am pleased to have secured this debate today. I understand that this is the first time that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), has responded to an Adjournment debate since his elevation to high office, which I am sure we all celebrate. I know that my hon. Friend is keen to ensure that justice is done and, importantly, is seen to be done.

Sadly, I fear that, in this case, the demands of clearing up Cornwall's rubbish have ridden roughshod over my constituents' needs. The county of Cornwall has run out of landfill sites and my constituents are expected to pay the price.

One case that I shall bring to the Minister's attention concerns a company set up by a local authority that has persistently sought planning permission to extend a landfill site. The case suggests that the relationship between the company and the council is too cosy and that councillors are putting expediency before local needs. The councillors say that there is no alternative, but that is rubbish.

Much of my speech will reflect the anger and distress that my constituents feel about high-profile and much-opposed proposals for landfill sites in the area. I hope that their voices will be heard and that they will not be, literally, dumped upon by local authorities in Cornwall, which have a history of failure and questionable practice.

Two landfill developments are proposed for my constituency. The first, by Cornwall Environmental Services, CES, proposes to extend an existing site at United Downs that borders the villages of Carharrack, Gwennap and St. Day. The company has submitted repeated applications, which the local community has fought for nearly a decade. The latest application is a modified version of an application that was rejected last year following an intense campaign and is currently the subject of an appeal. The second development is the proposal for a landfill site at Carnsew quarry by the village of Mabe. Each proposal has prompted vociferous and informed local opposition and each has highlighted an alarming and unimaginative continuation of landfill as the primary method of waste management in Cornwall.

Furthermore, the way in which Cornwall county council has dealt with the applications raises questions about its methods of decision making. A shady and conspiratorial impression has been created that is undermining local people's faith in some of those elected to represent them on the councils that are responsible for the decisions. In the interests of brevity, I will not detail all the reasons why I have asked the Secretary of State to call in the proposal at United Downs, but I take this opportunity to repeat that request and to state that, if and when it is granted, I will make the same plea about the proposal at Carnsew quarry.

The objections fall into three familiar categories: the potential threats to the environment and to health and a seeming ignorance of local conditions. When considering the previous application at United Mines, the waste planning authority—Cornwall county council—ruled that health risks were not deemed legitimate reasons for refusing planning permission. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that that is an unbelievable assertion and I shall be interested to hear my hon. Friend's views on the matter. It is hard to believe that health considerations are not deemed important enough to merit attention in this sensitive area and, if necessary, to cause the refusal of the applications.

Many local people live in properties close to the borders of the proposed site and the extension. One constituent at United Downs lives a mere 10 m from the site—for those who still struggle with metric measurements, that is less than the length of one cricket pitch. Given the recent suggestions of a link between birth defects and landfill sites, I defy anyone to say that he or she would not be worried, nay terrified, about the prospect of waste being dumped so close to his or her home.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

My hon. Friend refers to the Dolk report of last summer, which revealed that, on the basis of a good deal of epidemiological evidence, there is cause for concern. Does my hon. Friend share my pleasure that the Government have asked Imperial college to review the matter in more detail? Does she agree that Cornwall county council and other planning authorities should stay their hand until hard evidence is produced? It is a real cause for concern.

Ms Atherton

I agree with my hon. Friend, who has one of the best track records in the House for campaigning on the issue of landfill sites. I congratulate him on his good work.

A proposal for a council directive from the European Commission states that there should be a minimum distance of 500 m between dwellings and site boundaries. Given such guidelines, a distance of 10 m cannot fail to cause more than a little anxiety.

There are major environmental objections to the proposed United Downs site. A 1998 study conducted by Cornwall county council of an area only 200 m from the site states that it is home to protected breeds of butterflies and reptiles and provides possible homes for birds, badgers and protected species of bats. The applicant, CES, has not conducted a survey to assess the existence of, or the threat to, birds, bats or badgers. A request by a local parish council to initiate such a study was refused by the landowner. In addition, to my knowledge, there has been no detailed land instability study of the site. That is especially important in the light of the fact that, when walking in this area of Cornwall, one is never quite sure how many mine shafts are under one's feet.

Water pollution has caused the most alarm at Carnsew quarry. It is feared that landfill material may pollute the water table by seeping through "fractuated" granite rock and into a local reservoir that serves the nearby town of Falmouth. An alleged contravention of water resources legislation at the quarry is currently the subject of a prosecution by the Environment Agency and further contamination would significantly harm the local environment. Incredibly, the application states that the quarry will continue blasting while the landfill site is in operation—which, I suggest, might threaten the stability of that site.

The developers at Carnsew have possibly done more than their counterparts at United Downs to appear willing to answer local residents' questions. However, their answers are not good enough for residents or for me. Further objections at United Downs concern the area's landscape and the lorries that will move to and from the site. The area is a unique and beautiful part of the county: a mix of countryside and striking examples of Cornwall's mining heritage. Some £8 million has been spent on reclaiming derelict land and on conservation initiatives in the area.

Work on the mines at United Downs has only just begun. The whole area is part of the Government's bid to make this part of Cornwall a world heritage site. Would we plan landfill at other world heritage sites such as the pyramids or the centre of Bath? I think not. I am glad to report that the bid is now with UNESCO and has the Government's support. It is sad that some in Cornwall apparently have so little regard for this unique heritage and plan instead to dump on it.

The fears about an increase in transport, especially heavy transport, are easy to justify in this landscape. Road is the only viable method of access, and I am sure that hon. Members can visualise with horror an increasing procession of HGVs winding through Cornish lanes, many of which are single track only and do not meet planning policy guidance issued by my hon. Friend's Department.

I applaud the Government's wish to make waste management strategy more sustainable and integrated by encouraging alternatives to road and by locating facilities appropriately—I just wish that that approach would be adopted in Cornwall. The parish councils and people from communities adjoining United Downs were under the impression that the current landfill would last for 10 years. People purchased their houses believing that there would come a time when the monster would stop. However, the company changed the ground rules every few years and people woke to find that yet another extension was planned and another fight had to be fought. The balance is always tipped in favour of the company: it can appeal if it does not like the decision, but the local community cannot.

My constituents have been told that the site will be active for another 10 years, which will consume more land, woodland and countryside. It seems that, after the planning applications are approved, everyone goes away and no one thinks about the problem until there is another application to extend the site. It is the lack of a renewable alternative strategy that has so infuriated my constituents and me.

A draft waste local plan is expected, but is on ice at present because a series of reports is being produced. One of those reports—commissioned by the county council—states how desirable it would be to have co-ordinated facilities that were sensibly located so as to ensure efficiency and minimal impact on the environment. I agree with that point, but unfortunately it is a little too late for my constituents. Such a strategy should have been in place many years ago.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Atherton

No. I regret that, as I have already given way once, I cannot do so again. I am anxious that there should be time to hear the Minister's speech.

That strategy void is the reason for only 5 per cent. of Cornwall's waste being recycled; that figure is lower than the national average and is the lowest in the south-west. There is an alternative. Having won objective 1 funding, we are now able to explore waste-to-energy programmes close to local transport links. That will be good for the economy and for the environment. I am aware that the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) is extremely keen on the Hayle proposal, which I certainly supported. Unfortunately, that thinking is taking some time to pervade minds within the halls of the county council—despite the fact that the people of the county highlighted the importance of the environment during our massive objective 1 consultation earlier this year.

Throughout the various processes, the relevant local authorities' lack of forward thinking has not helped them in their appeal to local people. Public consultation has been minimal, so nothing has been done to build public confidence. We all know that such confidence is the key to proposals such as these; that confidence does not exist at present.

This dismal situation is made all the worse by serious questions about procedure. The applicant for the United Downs proposals—CES—is an arm's length company, set up by the county council to organise waste management in Cornwall. The company was formed in the early 1990s without competitive tendering. Senior council officers and councillors sit on its management body. Throughout its existence, CES has fought long, protracted planning battles with the local community—sometimes, I understand, receiving funding from the county council itself.

I am most concerned about when county councillors decide issues for which they have a statutory responsibility. To put it simply, the council has a responsibility for waste, and few ideas other than landfill to solve the problem; and the council makes the decisions. "Arm's length" CES may be, but is it not time for clear guidelines on how such bodies should work, and be worked with, in those circumstances?

Of further alarm is the fact that such applications seem, when before the relevant committees, to provide an occasion for the use of "substitutes", giving an extremely dubious impression to the local community. Members of the county planning committee leave the committee and are replaced—often at the eleventh hour—by colleagues who vote in their stead. It is not hard to guess what conversations might go on behind the scenes. That impression will always cause alarm to those affected by proposals—especially on matters as sensitive as those that we are discussing.

There is little case law on substitutes and councils organise such matters largely as they want, using their standing orders. I find that most disturbing; a system must be introduced that is transparent enough to restore people's faith in those whom they elect. Anyone who has served on a planning committee will know that it takes some time to understand the complexity of the structure plans with which they work. How can a substitute understand all the complexities in only a short time? It has also been suggested to me that different councillors trade votes on different applications. I allege that that is unhealthy.

In addition, there seems to be no small amount of inter-council power games. The two sites lie in different district councils, each of which is a statutory consultant in the planning process. At the time of the previous application at United Downs, both district councils voted against the proposals. However, on another occasion, Kerrier district council, whose administrative area includes Carnsew quarry, approved the plans for United Mines. It has been suggested that that was to get the problem off its patch. A more serious allegation is that it was a ploy, hatched by the various parties—an implied threat—to push Kerrier district council towards supporting the United Downs application.

I am sure that hon. Members will agree that that makes a mockery of local democracy, and leaves a very bad taste in the mouths of the people affected by those decisions. Obviously, those working at the United Downs site are keen to ensure that their work continues—as are waste hauliers, who currently face severe restrictions in coping with reduced access to United Downs. I want a comprehensive waste-to-energy programme that will provide employment for those affected.

I welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister on the various issues that I have raised. I hope that what I have recounted today will lead to a re-think on the way in which issues affecting so many people are handled by local authorities. This saga is one of inaction and, consequently, an ill-thought-out panicked reaction that leaves my constituents picking up the pieces—and messy pieces they are too.

1.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on securing this debate on a topic of fundamental and increasing national importance and of particular concern in Cornwall. It is good to see so many Members who represent Cornish constituencies in the Chamber.

My hon. Friend made a robust speech in which she raised some serious issues. I shall attempt to address them in the short time available, but we might also need to correspond on some matters.

Before replying to my hon. Friend, I should inform the House that, on Monday, Cornwall county council issued planning permission for one of the proposals that she mentioned—the United Mines extension. That was unexpected. The Government office for the south-west understood that the council had not intended to issue permission before today's debate, without prior notice. I am disappointed that it has gone ahead without waiting for today's debate to take place.

The Government knew of the application. However, as far as we were aware, it did not raise issues that justified the Secretary of State calling it in for his determination. None the less, I was prepared to come to this debate with an open mind—ready to respond to any important new issues. Unexpectedly, the county council has now taken the application out of our hands by exercising its responsibility to make the decision.

Cornwall faces a common problem—especially in the south of England. Existing landfill sites, on which we are currently heavily reliant, are filling up quickly, and better alternatives are needed. In England, we currently landfill more than 80 per cent. of our municipal waste, and about half our industrial and commercial waste. That has been a favoured waste management option for rural and urban communities because of its low cost and the ready availability of old mines and quarries.

Before commenting on the problem in Cornwall, I shall make some points on the Government's draft waste strategy. Landfill is the least desirable means of managing waste; re-use of materials, recycling, composting and energy recovery from waste are usually preferable because landfill makes the least use of waste. We realise that landfill will continue to play a role in waste management in this country, but we must work together to reduce our traditional reliance on it. Those policies and aims are set out in the draft waste strategy, "A Way with Waste", which we published earlier this year.

My hon. Friend referred to the EC landfill directive. The Government are strongly committed to the safe management of waste facilities, including landfill sites. Waste management activities have been tightly regulated since a licensing system was introduced under the Control of Pollution Act 1974. That system was replaced by the waste management licensing system now in force under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The purpose of the licensing system is to ensure that waste is managed in ways that protect the environment and human health.

The controls will be reinforced by the introduction of the EC landfill directive, which was adopted earlier this year. It will bring in much more rigorous controls for landfill across the EU, most of which are similar to those already in place in this country, and other member states will be brought up to our high standards.

Planning policy guidance note 10 was published in September. It provides advice on how the planning system should contribute to sustainable development through the provision of the required waste management facilities and on how that provision is regulated under the statutory planning and waste management systems. It sets out the general policy context and the criteria for siting facilities and advises waste planning authorities on the factors to be considered in relation to the range of waste management options available. The guidance should help in the preparation of local waste plans and in the determination of planning applications. However, it does not suggest which waste management options might be appropriate to any particular set of circumstances. That will be a matter for individual local authorities, informed by the national waste strategy.

One of the key aims of PPG10 is to strengthen the regional role in planning for waste management: therefore, it proposes the establishment of regional technical advisory bodies in each region. Those are important because local authorities should not consider the needs of their own area in isolation—waste management solutions may sometimes cross local or regional boundaries. The regional technical advisory bodies will assemble data and provide advice to the regional planning bodies on suitable options and strategies for dealing with waste in each region.

PPG10 also draws attention to factors that may be material to the consideration of proposed waste management facilities. For example, landfill operations can deal with a wide range of wastes and fluctuating amounts for disposal, and can provide a relatively clean source of fuel—methane—for heat and power generation. Landfill may also be the only practical way of finally disposing of some materials, such as incineration residues and other inert materials that cannot be recycled or treated further. However, landfill does require large areas of land and, if degradable materials are involved, can lead to landfill gas and other hazards.

Many factors influence the location of new waste management facilities. Landfill is commonly used in quarry restoration, but there may be opportunities for other sorts of waste management facilities at some quarried sites. All locations and the choice between different options will be for the waste planning authority to decide. Such decisions should be based primarily on a consideration of the best practicable environmental option for a particular type of waste involved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne suggested that the local authority had said that health risks were not deemed to be a reason for refusing an application. In fact, the position is slightly different from the one that she set out. It is true that where proper management of the site can eliminate the health risk—that is, where the health risk arises from the management of the site—that health risk is not a factor that must be taken into account when considering the application. It is a matter for the Environment Agency to investigate. However, if the location of the site makes it impossible to operate without health risks, that would be a planning ground to be taken into account.

My hon. Friend said that the EC landfill directive recommended that dwellings should be at least 500 m from a landfill site. Apparently, that provision was contained in an early draft, but was eliminated from later drafts. Therefore, the landfill directive makes no specific recommendation on distance. The proximity of dwellings is a factor to be taken into account by planning authorities, but there is no set distance to be observed.

My hon. Friends the Members for Falmouth and Camborne and for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) referred to a possible link between birth defects and landfill sites that accept hazardous waste. A study reported in The Lancet, which formed the basis of media reports, did not establish cause and effect, but concluded only that there was a need for further study. The Government have commissioned a small programme of research into the subject, the initial findings of which should be available next summer.

Planning policies for waste development in Cornwall will be set out in the Cornwall waste local plan. Cornwall county council published a draft plan for consultation in March 1998. The key issues in west Cornwall were: the main landfill facility, at United Mines near St. Day, which was projected to be filled in 2002; the suggestion that recycling rates could be raised from 6 per cent. to 15 per cent. during the period of the plan, which runs to 2011; and the creation of a waste-to-energy plant, which would create new waste management capacity, but which could not hope to be commissioned before 2005.

The draft plan identified a gap between the filling of United Mines' facility and the commissioning of a long-term replacement. The draft plan suggested overcoming that gap, either by transporting waste to east Cornwall or beyond, which would add to heavy traffic and would be contrary to the proximity principle, which states that waste should be disposed of as close as possible to its place of generation; or by finding additional landfill capacity in west Cornwall. The Government office for the south-west responded to the draft plan on the Secretary of State's behalf. The main points were that: the plan should embody national objectives for waste management set out in "Making Waste Work", now replaced by "A Way with Waste"; and, in particular, that it should reflect the proximity principle.

The plan seemed to treat landfill as a favoured option, rather than a last resort. The Government office suggested that, instead, the council should work towards the principles established in the national strategy, including reducing dependence on landfill. The plan should also outline the practical steps needed to put those principles into practice: for example, it did not state what mix of waste management methods was favoured for the long term, nor did it contain any specific development proposals or locational guidance.

Mr. Andrew George

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Mullin

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not doing so, but I have only three minutes left and I think that he will want to hear what I have to say about Cornwall.

It is important that the council confronts the issues quickly, especially as the plan showed that important choices will have to be implemented by about 2005. The plan should make those choices and propose the key investments to put them into practice. I understand that the county council intends to deposit its local waste plan formally in the spring. I also understand that the council now—perhaps belatedly—accepts that Cornwall's heavy dependence on landfill will have to change and that waste-to-energy technology will have to be developed. I welcome the county council's adoption of that forward-looking approach and I expect it to be reflected in the deposit draft of the local plan, both in the overall strategy and in the identification of actual sites. My officials will continue to work with the council, to encourage it positively to plan the necessary facilities.

Several planning applications related to the disposal of waste in Cornwall have come to my Department's attention in recent months. They include applications at Hernis farm landfill site for a weighbridge and recycling centre with a wood-burning unit; two applications by County Environmental Services Ltd. to extend the United Mines landfill site at St. Day, for which permission has just been issued; and an application by Aram Resources plc for the restoration of an existing quarry by landfill at Carnsew quarry near Mabe. I cannot comment on the merits of those proposals, since to do so could prejudice the Secretary of State's impartial role within the planning system. However, I can advise the House that the Hernis farm applications did not warrant our intervention. Local residents expressed concerns about the possibility of landfill development there in future, but any further proposals will have to be determined on their merits.

I have already said that permission for the United Mines extension has just been issued. We received several late representations asking that the application be called in by the Secretary of State. I should explain that the Government's policy is to leave planning decisions as far as possible in the hands of locally accountable planning authorities, so the Secretary of State is highly selective about calling in applications. In general, he will take that step only in cases where issues of more than local importance are raised, so only a small proportion of applications are called in each year. The Carnsew quarry application is in its early stages—

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.