HC Deb 31 January 2000 vol 343 cc879-86

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

10.15 pm
Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

I want to raise a matter of considerable importance to my constituents and those of other Members in East Sussex, namely the present state of the East Sussex-Brighton and Hove draft waste disposal plan, and perhaps more importantly for the purpose of the debate, the Government's strategy, which has led the councils to their present position.

This country throws away 105 million tonnes of waste each year: 70 million tonnes from industry, 20 million tonnes from households and 15 million tonnes from offices. The situation is getting worse year by year. In 1994, the UK packaging industry predicted that packaging waste would increase by 10 per cent. by 2000. That is contrary to what is happening in the Netherlands, which planned a decrease of 10 per cent. between 1986 and 2000. Does the Minister know what has happened concerning the prediction by the UK packaging industry?

The amount of waste arising each year is still increasing by 3 per cent., certainly in East Sussex. That puts tremendous strain on the Government's strategy and on the waste disposal authorities that have to deal with waste at the rough end.

The Government are facing a pincer movement. On the one hand, an EU directive requires a maximum of 35 per cent. of household waste to be landfilled by 2016. The present figure is 80 to 85 per cent. Does that figure apply only to biodegradable waste collected by local authorities? I ask because the directive says that waste from households plus other waste which because of its natures or composition is similar to waste from households is included in that figure. That makes a difference, and it is important to quantify what percentage of waste is equivalent to that produced by households and whether the Government are including that in the figure of 35 per cent. That half of the pincer movement rightly requires a substantial decrease in the amount of waste that is landfilled.

The second half of the pincer movement—which is a beneficial manoeuvre—is the Government's recycling target. I understand that the target is to recycle 25 per cent. of waste by 2005, so it does not take a mathematician to work out that there is a large gap. The only realistic way to fill that gap in the short term is to incinerate waste. Are the Government actively choosing incineration, or have they been left with that option because there is no alternative way to deal with waste?

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Does my hon. Friend agree that his point about the landfill of domestic waste is crucial, particularly for authorities such as North Yorkshire county council, which has a major problem with its Harewood Whin site? That site, which is just outside York, is coming to completion, but the council has applied for a major extension to take in another 15 to 20 acres of greenfield land on which to dump rubbish. Without a clear statement of policy from the Government, it will be difficult to do that.

Mr. Baker

I share my hon. Friend's concern, and I am sure that the Minister will address the question of landfill in his reply.

Landfills in the Sussex area are described as "restoration of chalk downland", which is a euphemism that I shall not employ. The landfill site that is about a mile from my house—I am declaring a sort of interest—is responsible for a substantial amount of groundwater pollution, as recognised by the Environment Agency. I understand that landfills nationwide are responsible for a third of all groundwater pollution. They produce methane in large quantities, which is a bad greenhouse gas. Every day in East Sussex and Brighton and Hove, 700 tonnes of rubbish is landfilled, and that quantity is increasing by 3 per cent. a year. Clearly that needs to be dealt with.

When the Minister responds, will he explain the Government's position on incineration, which is euphemistically called energy from waste? The term "incineration" is not liked now and there is a preference to call it something else.

Do the Government accept that incineration is inevitable? If so, are they happy that that is the position? At present, there are only a handful of incinerators throughout the country, and the projections that I have seen suggest that there will be 130 or more in the coming years. Yet it is accepted, as it is by Ministers, that there is a problem in public perception terms at least with the possible health implications of incinerators. They emit dioxin and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury. Standards have been tightened recently but, for example, the standards in the Netherlands are 10 times higher than the new ones that have been introduced in the UK. Incineration plants still produce toxic ash—particularly fly ash and bottom ash—that has to go to a landfill site.

Is the Minister happy that incineration plants can be operated safely, and are the present standards ones that he is happy to accept? Can he give an assurance to communities that will be faced with incineration plants, whether in East Sussex or elsewhere, that he is confident that there are no health implications? Do the Government have a guideline distance for the siting of an incinerator from nearby domestic properties? Is a certain distance employed, or is it safe in the Government's view to have an incinerator next to someone's house? That is a genuine question. I do not know what the Government's view is on the safety of incinerators in those terms.

Incinerators can add to global warming, and in comparison with recycling materials, there is a considerable deficit in terms of the Government's attempts to meet the Kyoto targets. According to Friends of the Earth, recycling would save 4.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year when compared with energy-from-waste plants. Friends of the Earth tells me that that is equivalent to 12 per cent. of all vehicle mileage in the United Kingdom, even allowing for displacement. That is energy that need not necessarily be created as a consequence.

Another problem with incineration that concerns me is that the contracts that local authorities have to enter into are often for 25 to 30 years. In other words, they have to guarantee a waste-stream for the incinerators. If there is a shortfall because recycling efforts have been too successful, compensation payments must be made. For example, the contract signed by Cleveland county council before it was abolished in 1995, guaranteed 180,000 tonnes of waste per year for the incinerator. There was a shortfall the first year of 12,000 tonnes, and the county council was penalised to the tune of £147,000. In other words, because it recycled too much it had to pay a fine. Incineration capacity necessarily acts as a break on recycling and re-use efforts that are made by local authorities, which is of great concern. The assistant director of environmental services at Stockton borough council said: Essentially we are into waste maximisation. My second concern about incineration is the high capital cost. Pollution abatement equipment tends to make small incinerators unprofitable. That suggests that a huge amount of waste is needed to make them pay.

Thirdly, can incinerators be built quickly enough within the planning process? As the Minister will know, there is considerable opposition to incineration plants anywhere. There will be big fights locally, whether in East Sussex or elsewhere, in opposition to any incineration plant. It seems inconceivable that the Government's gap, which they want to fill with incineration, as I understand it, can be met within the planning process.

In my view, incineration is at best a bridge to a solution and not a solution in itself. I shall be happier tonight if the Minister tells me that he is not too comfortable with incineration and sees it only as a short-term step on the way to recycling and re-use, and waste minimisation as a long-term concept.

I suggest that the Government should set incineration capacity for each area at a maximum percentage of the present waste generated there. They should not allow incineration capacity to grow indefinitely and stifle recycling efforts. The Government should say, "This is as much as you can have. Any extra waste will have to be dealt with by recycling." That would offer some protection and some incentive for recycling.

The excellent Environment Minister, who won a green ribbon award last week, which I am happy to say was fully deserved, in a recent parliamentary answer described recycling rates as "pathetically low". Switzerland recycles 52 per cent. of its waste, the Netherlands 45 per cent., Austria 45 per cent., Norway 34 per cent., Sweden 33 per cent., England 8 per cent. and Scotland 6 per cent. That is very poor.

The Government must do more to encourage recycling. They should, for example, support the Newspaper and Magazine Recycling Bill, which would require 65 per cent. of papers and magazines collected to be recycled. The Government should find ways of using economic instruments to encourage recycling. The Treasury should cost in externalities and reform gross domestic product.

The Government should consider a tax on virgin materials, with a compensatory benefit for recycled materials to give incentives to local authorities and others. One possibility is a tax on primary aluminium producers, because of the massive environmental damage that they cause through the extraction of bauxite.

The Government should take account of the fact that there are no real incentives for waste disposal authorities—only for waste collection authorities—arising from recycling credits. The Government should give further incentives to local councils and issue guidance on simple matters such as the size of dustbins.

In my constituency there are two waste collection authorities—Lewes district council and Wealden district council. Wealden district council recycles far more per head of population, but the amount per head that goes to landfill is the same, because Wealden district council has wheelie bins and Lewes district council has traditional dustbins. The wheelie bins in Wealden get filled up to the top. The size of dustbins should be reduced. That is a simple thing to do, but from the parliamentary answer that I received, the evidence nationally shows that authorities with wheelie bins produce more waste per head of population. It would be simple for the Government to deal with the capacity of dustbins.

The Government need to reform standard spending assessments. I understand from the director of environment and transport for East Sussex county council that the waste allowance under the "other" bloc allocation is insufficient for East Sussex and every other local authority in the country. He does not know of one that does not spend more than the target set in the SSA.

There are various measures that the Government could adopt to produce extra incentives.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove)

Before the hon. Gentleman concludes his remarks, will he comment on the real issue that is enveloping local people in East Sussex and Brighton and Hove? The officers of both councils agreed a professional report. The councillors in Brighton and Hove approved the report, but the Liberal Democrats in East Sussex chose, for political reasons, to throw it out. Surely that should be the subject of our debate tonight.

Mr. Baker

It is important for the Government to set their strategy, but I am happy to associate myself with the members of East Sussex county council, both Liberal Democrat and Conservative, who rejected that plan.

It is important for the Government to get their strategy right nationally. The joint draft plan to which the hon. Gentleman referred included a range of unacceptable proposals, one of which was landraise in my constituency. That is the worst possible option in the waste hierarchy. It involves landraise in the lower Weald at Veals Farm, next to a development of mobile homes at Deanland, where many people have gone to retire—that is the proposal that the hon. Gentleman is presumably supporting in his intervention—and landraise between Firle and Selmeston in my constituency. Will the Minister tonight rule out landraise as an option for any authority?

The second item was incineration. There was a proposal for an incineration plant at Newhaven, with all the health implications that that might have and the impact on business, which would affect the Newhaven economic partnership, and assisted area status. Businesses in my constituency say that if an incineration plant is built at Newhaven, that will affect the work undertaken by the Government office for the south east and others to boost Newhaven.

The alternative suggestion was a plant at Beddingham in the area of outstanding natural beauty, where there is a record of groundwater pollution. An incinerator was also proposed—goodness knows how high the chimney would be. There is already a landfill site there that will be filled to capacity in 2004. I hope that the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) is listening. He commented on the waste plan, which suggests that all the disposal facilities should be in East Sussex, while Brighton and Hove—a large generator of waste—should take none of the responsibility. However, Government planning policy guidance note 10 states: Waste should generally be managed as near as possible to its place of production, because transporting waste itself has an environmental impact. I hope that the Minister will confirm that tonight. If he does, he should acknowledge that the substantial amount of waste from Brighton and Hove should be disposed of there, and not shunted miles into East Sussex. Brighton and Hove—a great place that wants to be a city—should take responsibility for all aspects of its management. It should not simply dump its rubbish over the border in East Sussex.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments. The biggest problem that he experiences in East Sussex and that I encounter in West Sussex is a unitary authority that recycles less than 9 per cent. of its waste and looks to our respective counties to take care of its rubbish. When it proposes a site for an incinerator on the doorstep of my constituency, it refuses point blank to consult my constituents. Is not that disgraceful?

Mr. Baker

I agree. The Government have given private finance initiative credits of £49 million to the local authorities of East Sussex, and of Brighton and Hove for disposing of waste. I do not knock the Government for that. I query their strategy, but I readily acknowledge that they have provided those credits. However, what is the Government's position if East Sussex county council and Brighton and Hove fail to agree on a draft waste plan? Will the money still be available if there is no site-specific plan? Are the Government happy for the money to be used if it is simply left to individual developers to apply for sites?

I am sorry that we have no more time to debate such an important issue. Clearly, other hon. Members would like to speak. I hope that the Minister accepts that I have raised the matter in all sincerity because it is important for my constituents and others. I should be grateful for a clarification of the Government's strategy and an answer to my questions. We must have a sensible waste strategy in East Sussex; there is currently no such strategy.

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

The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) has raised an important issue, as he rightly says, and asked many questions. There will not be enough time to reply to them all, but I shall do my best.

The debate is particularly timely, given the recent endorsement of the joint application of East Sussex county council and Brighton and Hove council for private finance initiative credits to support the development of an integrated waste management scheme for the area.

In June last year, we published the draft national waste strategy "A Way With Waste", which set out Government policy for sustainable waste management for the next 20 years. The hon. Gentleman will find some of the answers to his questions in that document. Consultation on the draft strategy is now over, and the final version will be published later this year.

In "A Way With Waste", we identified the need for a fundamental change in the way we think about and manage our waste. That will mean curbing the growth in waste generation and learning to recognise waste as a resource. It will also require the adoption of an integrated approach to waste, covering generation, management and disposal. Within that integrated framework, we will need increased recycling, composting, and energy recovery from waste when that represents the best practicable environmental option. Not least, we must also undertake more work to develop stronger markets for recovered materials.

Our goals for waste are undoubtedly challenging, but we consider that, with the co-operation of all concerned, they are realistic and achievable. The hon. Gentleman referred to some of the key goals that we have set. They are: to reduce the amount of industrial and commercial waste sent to landfill to 85 per cent. of 1998 levels by 2005; to meet our existing targets of 40 per cent. of municipal waste to be recovered and 25 per cent. of household waste to be recycled or composted as soon as possible; to recover 45 per cent. of municipal waste by 2010—including recycling or composting 30 per cent. of household waste; and to recover two thirds of our municipal waste by 2015—at least half through recycling and composting.

A key force behind those goals is the European landfill directive, which will require substantial changes to be made to the way in which we manage our waste. At present, the UK landfills more than 80 per cent. of our biodegradable municipal waste, but the directive will require us to reduce that to 75 per cent. of the 1995 level by 2006, to 50 per cent. by 2009 and to 35 per cent. by 2016, although we have the option to extend those targets by four years. It refers to municipal, not household, waste. The goals of the waste strategy and the statutory targets of the landfill directive apply nationally, but clearly much will need to be done locally if we are to meet them. Local authorities in particular will have a key role to play, given their statutory responsibilities for waste collection, disposal and planning.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the financial burden that recycling and waste minimisation initiatives place on local authorities. We are aware that plans by authorities to invest in integrated waste management solutions will place an extra burden on their finances, and are actively seeking extra funding for local authority waste management as part of the 2000 spending review. He will not expect me to go into details at this stage for fear of upsetting my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

As we made clear in "A Way With Waste", the Government propose first to try to reduce waste generation. If that is not practicable, we should seek to reuse waste. Failing that, we should recover value through recycling, composting or energy recovery. Only if none of those offer an appropriate solution should waste be disposed of by other means, which addresses the hon. Gentleman's point about landraise. Within that framework, we have also emphasised that recycling and composting should be considered before the recovery of energy from waste through incineration.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether it was inevitable that there should be some incineration. We believe that it is, although not necessarily the amount to which he referred. It is important that we have a rational debate, which we must not use to score cheap points—I am not suggesting that he did so—or as an excuse for NIMBYism. This is an important issue and we all have to take responsibility for the huge amounts of waste that we generate, although he will find that even Friends of the Earth acknowledges that some incineration will be necessary.

However, recycling and composting alone will not deliver the rates of diversion necessary to meet the targets in the landfill directive. Although we must aim for very substantial increases in recycling—indeed, we do aim for them—energy from waste will have an important role to play as part of an integrated, sustainable system of waste management. Countries elsewhere in Europe, some of which the hon. Gentleman cited, already achieve recycling rates far in advance of our own and make widespread use of energy from waste.

To East Sussex's credit, it actively sought more sustainable waste management options when faced with a lack of local landfill capacity. The fully integrated scheme, which has just been endorsed, should deliver high recycling and composting rates and high overall diversion rates by employing a mix of options, including energy from waste and recycling facilities.

I fully appreciate that local people may have concerns about the proposed development of energy from waste plant in East Sussex, but emissions from such plants are strictly regulated by the Environment Agency under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and we are confident that current environmental protection standards are sufficient to protect both the environment and public health. We also strongly support the forthcoming European directive on incineration, which will set even tighter emission standards that would apply to any plant developed as part of the East Sussex PFI scheme.

If fully integrated waste management systems utilising a range of options are to be implemented effectively, there will obviously be a corresponding need to identify sites for the development of the necessary facilities. The key instrument for that identification is the waste local plan, developed in consultation with local communities. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) said that there would be no consultation. There should be consultation: the planning system is there for that purpose.

Mr. Loughton

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Mullin

I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not. I have only a minute or two left.

In September last year my Department published planning policy guidance note 10, to which the hon. Member for Lewes referred. It is intended to assist planning authorities in the preparation of their waste local plans, and the determination of planning applications for waste management facilities. It also provides specific advice on the criteria for the siting of such facilities.

I understand that a consultation draft of the East Sussex and Brighton and Hove plan was published in 1998, but that the deposit draft of the plan has been delayed owing to the disagreements mentioned a moment ago. In particular, I believe that disputes have arisen over the sites identified for future facilities, including—perhaps especially—those identified for energy from waste plants.

As I am sure hon. Members will appreciate, it would not be appropriate for me to prejudice any subsequent intervention by the Secretary of State in the adoption of the plan by discussing the merits or otherwise of prospective sites. That should be a matter for local debate and consultation. The Secretary of State will scrutinise the plans once they have been placed on formal deposit, to ensure that they generally accord with Government policy on planning for waste management.

I was, however, disappointed to learn that the main obstacle to the plan's adoption appears to be a dispute between the two authorities. In "A Way with Waste", we made clear our belief that the integrated approach to waste management, which is crucial to the meeting of our goals, could succeed only through close collaboration and co-operation between local authorities. That is particularly true in areas with two tiers of local government such as East Sussex, where responsibilities for collections and disposal are split. If we fail to achieve the levels of co-operation needed to meet our goals, we are committed to re-examining the whole structure of local authority waste management responsibilities.

East Sussex and Brighton and Hove have already shown that they can work together in securing private finance initiative support for their integrated management scheme. I understand that they are also working on a joint municipal waste management strategy, which will set out policies and be an important instrument for building co-operation, owned and agreed by all authorities in the area. My Department will shortly issue further guidance to authorities on the development of such strategies. We are particularly keen for unitary authorities to work jointly with their neighbours.

Mr. Baker

Does the PFI credit money depend on agreement being reached and maintained between the two authorities?

Mr. Mullin

I will come to that later.

The joint PFI scheme and the municipal waste strategy are both positive steps. We will of course monitor the PFI project in the period leading to the contract signature. Any delays or departures from the approved plan, including any caused by differences between the partner local authorities, will obviously be investigated, and may require renewed approval, which could jeopardise the PFI credits. I hope that the authorities will now move swiftly to resolve their differences.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o' clock.

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