HC Deb 15 November 2001 vol 374 cc972-4
7. Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

What her policy is on the siting of landfill sites. [13069]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

Any new landfill site must comply with the location requirements of the EC landfill directive. It must also be in accordance with the development plan for the area unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

Judy Mallaber

A waste recycling group has submitted an application to develop a landfill site for household waste at Marehay, Ripley, in my constituency, claiming that it is the only possible new site in Derbyshire for Derbyshire's waste. There are 194 houses within 250 m of the site, and a new 300-home housing development is next to that. Does my right hon. Friend find it acceptable for waste to be dumped so close to people's homes, particularly when the stream of waste vehicles will have to go along unsuitable roads to the site, past a school and a major local tourist attraction, the Denby pottery visitors centre?

Mr. Meacher

I understand the concern that many local populations have about the siting of new landfill sites. Any landfill site requires planning permission from the local planning authority. There must be a full opportunity for local people to express their views and to have those taken into account. There must be a waste management licence or pollution prevention control permit provided by the Environment Agency. In this case, I would expect that the application for authorisation would be published and that there would be public meetings in the surrounding area to give people an opportunity to comment. Also, I would expect that any draft authorisations would be subject to consultation. We are concerned about the health implications of landfill sites nearby and the small areas health statistical unit has been looking at the health impacts near landfill sites. We have just commissioned three further pieces of research to examine that relationship more closely.

Sue Doughty (Guildford)

I support the move away from landfill sites, but we are faced with a large number of proposals for incineration. What plans does the Minister have to put in place a moratorium on all these proposals to allow other activities such as waste minimisation and waste reduction to take place, and to ensure that incineration takes third place in the waste cycle?

Mr. Meacher

The Government published their waste management strategy in the middle of last year and we have made it clear that we have a hierarchy, in which the first priority—as the hon. Lady said—is waste minimisation. The best thing is not to create waste in the first place. The second priority is recycling, reuse and recovery of any waste that is created. Only then will we consider incineration or landfill. The landfill directive, which becomes operational in July next year, will require a massive switch away from landfill to alternative forms of disposal. The Government have made it absolutely clear—with statutory targets for local authorities, a considerable increase in funding for local authorities and the waste resources action programme to provide markets for recyclers—that our chosen preference is unquestionably recycling.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

In connection with the research that the Department is undertaking on the possible health risks associated with landfill, could I ask my right hon. Friend how that research will distinguish between the potential risks that exist in the sites and are associated with the industrial activity that often took place before the site was used for landfill and the effect of landfill itself? Is he aware of the local health survey that is being undertaken around the landfill site in my constituency? Could that information be fed into the general research that is going on? How soon does he think it will be before we get the results of the research that he is commissioning?

Mr. Meacher

The small areas health statistical unit has investigated the matter and has found a slightly increased statistical risk of birth defects in babies born to women living within 2 km of landfill sites. This is worrying. However, let me make it absolutely clear that this type of study does not and cannot prove causation. In other words, as my hon. Friend has indicated, there may well be other factors that can explain that association. That is why we have commissioned three further pieces of research. They will report as quickly as they can within the next couple of years so that we can see just what role, if any, landfill sites play in the results that we have found.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

Like other hon. Members, I think that the Minister is due for promotion to the shadow Cabinet. [Interruption.] Wait for the punchline. I think that he is due for promotion to the shadow Cabinet before the real Cabinet because there is a bijou problemette in promoting him. The Minister has made a lot of the Government's policy on landfill sites, with the important claim that there should be recycling. Will he explain how, at present, Britain recycles only 6 per cent. of our household waste, compared with 24 per cent. in the United States, 18 per cent. in Germany, 28 per cent. in the Netherlands and 42 per cent. in Switzerland? He hopes that 45 per cent. of our household waste will be recovered by 2010. Many of us think that that is an ambitious target. I understand that recoverable household waste will include incineration. We understand that the Government are considering an additional 165 incinerators. If he is not to go ahead with any more landfill sites, could he explain whether he has yet decided where those 165 incinerators are to be placed?

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman is not quite right with his figures. He said that only 6 per cent. of household waste in this country is recycled. That was the figure in 1997, at the end of 18 years of Conservative government. The figure is nearly twice that level now. We expect that, within the next five years, it will be doubled again. Once the momentum in the increase in recycling has been established—through the setting down of statutory targets, the provision of adequate finance and the increased markets for recycling through the WRAP organisation that we have set up—I believe that we can meet these ambitious targets.

On incinerators, let me make it absolutely clear—I hope for the final time—that the Government do not have any figure in their back pocket about the number of incinerators that might be needed. I have said repeatedly that there are 11 incinerators operating in the UK at present. If we can achieve the requirements under the landfill directive without any increase in incineration at all, I would be delighted. However, I believe that it will be necessary to have some small increase in incineration if we are to achieve those targets. But we insist that this should be small-scale, and preferably in conjunction with combined heat and power.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Unusually, I agree with the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who suggested that my right hon. Friend the Minister should be in the Cabinet, as that would enable us to put the environment at the heart of Government.

In respect of landfill sites, my right hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of planning decisions. Can he give a progress report on the work that he has been able to do with the Environment Agency to ensure that golf courses are not using loopholes in planning legislation inadvertently to set up landfill sites when developing golf courses? In my constituency, at Bagnall and Goldenhill, we have real fears that we will end up with waste disposal sites when what we have at the moment are golf courses.

Mr. Meacher

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her generous remarks, but I recall that when Mr. Nigel Lawson's position was described as "unassailable", he was gone three weeks later. I wonder whether calls for promotion are not a premonition of being sacked.

On the point made by my hon. Friend, there is a serious issue about exemption from waste management licensing. There is no doubt that many sites currently in use were never intended to be used and are thus not covered by existing legislation. We have undertaken a stringent review of the criteria whereby exemption from waste management licensing can be secured, and I hope to make a statement on that shortly.