HC Deb 18 October 2001 vol 372 cc1288-90
4. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

If she will make a statement on the powers of the Environment Agency to regulate landfill sites. [4671]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

Waste disposal sites including landfills are regulated by the Environment Agency using powers in part II of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Waste Management Licensing Regulations 1994.

Dr. Starkey

In the first seven months of this year, my constituents in Bletchley were subjected to incredibly high levels of hydrogen sulphide emissions from the landfill at Shanks Waste Services Ltd. in Newton Longville. The Environment Agency has now required Shanks to bring the situation under control and the nuisance appears to have ceased. I believe that charges are being brought against Shanks for breaches of the licence conditions. However, there is great concern among my constituents that the Environment Agency did not detect the problems as they were building up and seemed to take action only once my constituents had suffered a very high level of nuisance and there was a potential health hazard. Will the Minister undertake to investigate whether the Environment Agency's failure was due to it having inadequate powers to undertake proper monitoring or due simply to inadequately exercised powers?

Mr. Meacher

I do not believe that the existing powers are inadequate, and I hear what my hon. Friend says about the exercise of those powers. The Environment Agency served four enforcement notices on Shanks, the landfill operator, in February for compliance by April.

The operator failed to comply on any count and, therefore, the agency suspended its licence on 1 May. As a result, the operator undertook some major improvements on the site, and the suspension has now been lifted, but the agency is still making, and will continue to make, weekly unannounced inspections of the site to assess compliance with the licence conditions and, as my hon. Friend said, it is also prosecuting the operator for breach of licence. I take the point, which she made, that the agency did not act fast enough. If she will give me the evidence, I will certainly pursue it.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Of course, we entirely support the Government's laudable aim of reducing landfill by increasing recycling, but in that context what does the Minister think about the activities of Liberal Democrat-controlled North Wiltshire district council, which recently announced that it will do away with the free collection of household goods for recycling and introduce a charge instead? To facilitate that, it has opened a recycling centre that is miles and miles away from anyone who wants to recycle. What does the Minister think about that?

Mr. Meacher

I always seek to be cautious in intruding local grief, but I am aware of the very real problem that the hon. Gentleman mentions because the Liberal-controlled council in Oldham has done exactly the same thing. Perhaps he and I can get together to monitor the effects that the rather curious and perverse charge may have. The charge is unwise and imprudent. It raises a small amount of money, but produces a very severe disincentive to recycle, which, I thought, we all wanted to encourage.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

I am disappointed about my right hon. Friend's answer because there seem to be major limitations in the Environment Agency's powers. For example, when a so-called golf course was being constructed in my area and lorry loads of topsoil were coming out of the site and hundreds of lorry loads of rubbish were going into it every day, the Environment Agency kept telling us that it could inspect the lorries, but could not inspect the apparent golf course. I hope that he realises that the Environment Agency is saying that it sometimes does not have the powers to do what it should.

Mr. Meacher

This is an unusual question session because I have to tell my hon. Friend that in Oldham we, too, have what he calls a so-called golf course, which has been used for the tipping of materials, and the residents have been concerned about their potentially hazardous nature. In fact, answers have been given and there have been assurances that the materials are not hazardous. The issue arises out of waste management licence exemptions, and I share the view that those exemptions have been granted too readily and that they need to be tightened up. If he will give me details of his case, that will certainly add to the dossier that will help me to take some action.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey)

Has the Minister had a chance to consult the Environment Agency about the prospect of having to dispose of up to 1 million old fridges each year because of Government incompetence? Are they now destined for landfill sites? When Ministers blithely signed up to EC regulation 2037 on products containing CFCs, did they simply overlook the fact that it is almost impossible to implement? The Department has now told local authorities that it will urgently review the situation. I should hope so—there has been a chance urgently to review the situation for the past four years. Is not "urgent review" Labour-speak for "haven't got a clue"? If not, what exactly are the Government's plans?

Mr. Meacher

I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is new to these matters, but I can assure him that, as he might well expect, when the issue was discussed in the Environment Council, the chlorofluorocarbon content of used fridges was exhaustively discussed. The issue of exports and effects on other countries was carefully examined. We are, of course, looking at the technology; in fact, a great deal of work has been done on the technology of removing CFCs from fridges and storing them safely. I hope that he does not take the view that fridges should continue to be landfilled.

Of course changes, reforms and improvements take place all the time but, in 20 years under the Conservative Government, fridges were just chucked into landfills. We do not think that that is proper; a more environmentally sensitive way of dealing with the problem is needed, and we are providing it.