HC Deb 19 July 2000 vol 354 cc95-104WH

1 pm

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

I am glad to have secured, through Madam Speaker's office, the opportunity to introduce a debate on an application being made in my constituency for the dumping of toxic waste into part of the worked-out areas of the famous Winsford rock salt mine in Cheshire. On 18 May and 6 July, I asked the Leader of the House to make time on the Floor of the House for a debate on the Government's "Waste Strategy 2000 for England and Wales", which was, interestingly, published a week after my first request. However, although it is such a critical issue for the country, a debate in Government time was rebuffed on both occasions. Therefore, I am doubly glad to have the opportunity to raise issues relating to that application, which is of deep concern to a vast number of my constituents.

Those constituents are here in force today, in the form of RAMP—Residents Against Mine Pollution. I pay tribute to them for their energy and tenacity in highlighting the issues for the local residents of north Winsford and the villages most directly affected, Moulton and Davenham, and the representatives of local newspapers and the regional and national media, who are all taking a keen interest. I welcome to the debate my neighbouring Cheshire Members, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) and the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell). The proposed waste disposal site would extend under their constituencies, as well as mine, traversing the constituency borders, the River Dane and Cheshire Ring canal in a subterranean manner. In advance of what I hope will be a helpful response from the Government in fully acknowledging and acting upon the concerns that I shall outline, I also thank the Minister in what I know is, for him, a week full of adjournment debates.

The site is unique, as it is the only dedicated rock salt mine in Britain. The rock salt is mined 560 ft below the surface of the Cheshire plain for use in de-icing on roads the length and breadth of the country. Anyone who has been down the mine, as I was with representatives of the applicants last November, cannot fail to be impressed by the extent and scale of the caverns. Some 110 miles of underground roadways, around 75 ft wide and 23 ft high, have been created at Winsford since mining began over 150 years ago. They are being added to each year as rock salt extraction continues. The temperature in the mines is a constant 12 to 13 deg C throughout the year, regardless of climate above ground. Humidity remains steady at 70 per cent.

It is a combination of those conditions, the vast size of the caverns and the fact that every part of the worked-out area underground remains open and accessible, that makes the mine available for other uses. For example, the underground environment has prompted a leading chemical firm and a major pharmaceuticals manufacturer to use one area as a document storage facility. Because radio waves are unable to penetrate so far underground, an international computer company has found the mine an ideal place in which to test electronic equipment. In the area, in addition to farmed grassland and a network of busy roadways, lie the villages of Moulton and Davenham and the northern part of the town of Winsford, which has by far the largest population density in my constituency, numbering nearly 30,000 out of a constituency population of approximately 90,000 people.

The applicant is Minosus Ltd., a joint venture between Namsco (UK) Ltd. and SARP Industries SA. Namsco is the parent of Salt Union Ltd., the mine operator, and is itself part of the United States-based IMC Global Inc. SARP is a European waste management company and a subsidiary of France-based Vivendi, which was formerly known as Compagnie Generale Des Eaux. I have maintained an open dialogue with the applicants and met them again yesterday evening. They have sought to discharge their consultation obligations in a professional manner, which has also characterised the approach that they have taken to the presentation of their application.

The application was submitted on 1 April 1999—I do not draw any jovial conclusions from that date, Mr. Deputy Speaker, especially as it is also my birthday—and seeks consent for the disposal of industrial waste in a specified 75 hectare area of the mine. That waste includes fly ash resulting from flue gas cleaning at municipal incinerators, slag from smelting operations and the output from waste solidification plants. It is submitted that the facility could reach its anticipated 100,000 tonnes-a-year capacity about five years after the start of the operation. That operation would be based at the mine's No. 4 shaft in Jack lane, near Winsford, now a cul-de-sac since the opening of the bypass. All deliveries, offloading, sampling and mine access will be concentrated there. It is a commercial application aimed to take toxic waste from Cheshire and the north-west. However, the issues raised reach far beyond north-west England.

As it has become better known and understood, the application has engaged widespread interest and has caused monumental anxiety and a vast range of fears and concerns among local people. My predecessor, Sir Alastair Goodlad, registered his objection to the proposals, and I became aware of the issue on my first day as a candidate in the Eddisbury by-election campaign last year. Having met with RAMP, and having studied the wide-ranging and complex issues, I called for a full, public, independent inquiry in the early days of my campaign. That call was subsequently made by the Labour and Liberal candidates in that campaign.

Since being elected on 22 July last year—almost a year ago to the day—by far the greatest number of the thousands of letters, faxes and e-mails that I have received have been from local people objecting to the Minosus application. Not one—apart from my correspondence with the applicant, naturally—was infavour. I have brought my files to this Chamber, and they include exchanges with the Minister. A host of public meetings have taken place, and the issue raised most frequently by constituents in my weekly surgeries has been the application and their objections to it.

One of the two local newspapers, the Winsford Chronicle, has mounted a stop the dump campaign, which has been backed by the Vale Royal environment network, whose president is the hon. Member for Tatton. I was recently presented with a petition of 1,400 signatures, which was gathered in response to a tear-off slip in that newspaper. I shall refrain from handing it to the Minister now, as I have requested a meeting with the Secretary of State so that I may lead a delegation of my constituents to press him to call the application in and establish a full public inquiry. I have yet to receive confirmation of his willingness to meet me and an offer of a date, but I live in great hope that the Secretary of State will accede soon to such a crucial component of our democratic process.

Before I set out the reasons for the concern and what it is that my constituents so fear and distrust, I shall quickly outline the progress of the application so far. Following Minosus' submission of a planning application, and the accompanying environmental statement to Cheshire county council in April last year, Minosus submitted a site licence application to the Environment Agency in October 1999. After requesting a more detailed list of the types of waste that were proposed to be brought to Minosus for disposal, the Environment Agency reported. In May 2000 the Cheshire county council environmental planning and operations sub-committee decided, on a majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat county councillors—who are politically indistinguishable on Cheshire county council as they operate a formal pact—that it was minded to grant planning permission. Conservative councillors voted against granting permission. The documents were sent to officials in the Government office for the north west on the grounds that the proposals were considered to be a departure from the adopted Vale Royal borough plan, because the area is one of significant local environmental value and because the proposed surface development is contrary to the employment policies in the adopted and emerging local plans, and to the new natural environment policy in the emerging local plan.

Sadly, that was the first time that the all-party approach had been breached. Primarily, it had been on the pusillanimous grounds that the county council would have faced substantial costs. One might well ask those councillors, "What price representation in our democracy?" All of that was admitted by the Liberal Democrat deputy leader of the council in a letter to the Winsford Chronicle on 21 June. In fairness to the applicant, Minosus never publicly stated that it would have pursued any such action against the council. The council apparently did not ask Minosus. In my meeting with Minosus yesterday I was assured that it had never indicated or manifested any such intention privately, let alone publicly. We are therefore bound to ask why the Labour and Liberal Democrat county councillors were so craven when their primary duty is to represent the people who elected them. I find it impossible to believe that their postbags have contained a series of representations from local people supporting the application. It was my contention, and still is, that the county council should have deferred the decision until a full and conclusive debate had taken place on the Government's national waste strategy. The application could therefore have been put in a proper context.

Furthermore, the ruling Labour and Liberal Democrat group had the cheek to spin, as reported in the press—I beg the Minister's forgiveness, but those in the Labour party are the spinning tops of politics—that, being mindful of local residents' concerns, they had called for a public inquiry. They did no such thing, more is the pity. It was a cop-out by the ruling Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition on the county council.

In June, the Government office for the north west indicated that it had a number of questions—not surprisingly, given the scale and complexity of short and long-term implications of the application—and required more time than the standard initial three weeks before reporting to the Secretary of State, and, to quote the letter of 11 July from the Minister for Housing and Planning, to provide the Secretary of State with an opportunity to consider whether it should be called in for his own determination. Although the application is a county matter, the planning committee on the local borough council, Vale Royal, discussed the application on 11 April. To its credit, it resolved that Cheshire county council be told That in view of the significant public concern…the application be referred to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions for a public inquiry so that the following issues can receive full and open consideration: Access to the site…The impact of the proposed new surface buildings on the character and appearance of the open countryside…The long term implications of the underground storage of the proposed waste material.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his initiative in securing the debate on a matter which is important not only to his constituents, but to mine, especially those living in Middlewich, where the major part of the proposed subterranean waste disposal facility would lie. Is he aware that my constituents and I support him in his call for a full independent inquiry for the reasons that he has given? Also, does he know of the concerns of residents from the surrounding area? He has access and egress to the site at Davenham in his constituency, but rural roads already have tremendous local traffic problems. That issue ought to be considered thoroughly.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

That was a very long intervention. I do not like such things.

Mr. O'Brien

I shall pass over that and thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. My constituents and I are most grateful for her support and that of her constituents. We share the grave concern about the traffic congestion issues that arise as a result of this application and many other such waste disposal facilities, a subject on which I might touch later.

As I was talking about the current climate of political objection, I should add that the relevant parish councils and Winsford town council have expressed objections and concerns. The application is now with the Secretary of State and the debate is timely.

I have looked in vain for guidance on the application in the Government's waste strategy. In essence, the strategy rightly asserts that we are all responsible for waste. It encourages a change in culture and practice to recycle and compost more, and to encourage industries to design out hazardous waste over time. It acknowledges the continuing need for landfill, but nowhere does it consider or tackle the subject of a deep mine waste management facility. That application is unique in this country. The only parallel, which is prayed in aid by the applicants, is German experience of the disposal of industrial waste in a salt mine in Heilbronn. However, all mines, by definition and geology, are unique. I advocate great caution to those who, without the exposure, rigour, independence and depth of examination of a public inquiry, say that something will be all right in Winsford if it is happening in Germany.

There is reasonable doubt about the application and reach of the landfill legislation in this country to a deep mine. It has not been tested because there is no precedent. Many of the protections regarding waste disposal, especially of special wastes, derive from that landfill legislation. Is special legislation required to cover waste disposal in a deep mine as opposed to surface landfill?

With the cessation by 2004 of co-disposal of domestic and hazardous waste required under the European Community landfill directive, the Winsford application is predicated on the need for sites exclusively for the disposal of special wastes. By that, I mean hazardous and difficult wastes such as fly ash, metal slag and dross, contaminated soils and resin wastes. Disposal of such material is a continuing need, as it cannot be recycled, treated or incinerated using today's technologies.

The list of Minosus that names permitted wastes is voluminous, coming to 10 pages in length. I am no expert, and cannot judge it, but I am informed that it includes poisons, carcinogenic neurotoxins, skin irritants, items that contain mercury in a toxic form and products that may emit vapours and hydrocarbon gases at standard temperatures and pressures. The proper forum for those wastes to be assessed and understood is a public inquiry, in which extensive evidence and a full range of qualified experts could assist all those involved, including, above all, the Secretary of State, with whom the buck ultimately stops.

The application is restricted to solid, non-flammable, non-explosive, non-volatile, non-reactive, suitably packaged wastes, and it is proposed to exclude waste that is radioactive, liquid, explosive, flammable, vaporising, fuming, biodegradable or odorous. That may be fine, but the control is a self-regulatory, sampling-only regime by Minosus of the lorry samples at the surface head of the mine shaft, with the test lab to be only initially independent of Minosus. That means that samples are no guarantee that a non-permitted waste could not slip through the net, which would mean that rejected wastes would have to be stored, albeit temporarily, at the surface before being transported back through the local area whence they came. Is that a fair safety hazard to impose on local residents? Does it amount to an "acceptable risk", to use the infamous words of the county engineer?

Although the industrial and commercial special wastes involved are intended to come from a local and wider north-western catchment area, is there not a risk that a Winsford deep mine waste dump could grow to become the national dumping ground? How can we be sure that we bind future generations, in a commercial operation that is close to deep water ports, international airports and the motorway network and, under future laws that we cannot predict, not to accept toxic wastes from other countries whose controls and integrity may not conform to our standards and procedures? The cost of transportation is no deterrent over time, as the value-to-weight ratio and fuel costs of the future cannot be predicted against the changing economics of the value of sites for dumping special wastes.

Why are my constituents so desperately worried? Why do they fear and distrust this application so palpably? I make no apology for listing their anxieties. Anxieties about matters above ground include the increase to 25 lorry deliveries, which will mean 50 lorry movements a day. That will increase noise levels, especially from exiting empty lorries with load-weight, high-pressure tyres moving along a narrow, unlit lane and on to the bypass via a junction with fast traffic. Residual dusts may be open to the atmosphere as a result of uncovered hoppers or flatbeds. Paragraph 9.23 of the draft regional planning guidance for the north-west, which was issued only on Monday, states: The traffic generated by waste management facilities have a significant effect on the highway network— as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned— in the vicinity of the site and for some distance away and it will be important to include an assessment of this likely impact when considering the facilities.

Other anxieties relating to above ground matters include the erection of buildings in a designated open space near residential areas; the health and environmental risk arising from accidents; the storage of non-permitted wastes prior to return to sender, and the impact on house prices. There is already anecdotal evidence that blight has taken root as a result of the application.

Anxieties about below ground matters include the health and safety of mine workers; the risk of fire; the consequential environmental risk of land heave, water penetration and mine flooding, leading to contamination; accidents from transportation underground, and the cumulative build-up of particulate emissions.

Alternative uses are available in addition to those already identified, such as those that appeared in The Sunday Times last weekend for the treatment of asthma sufferers in the allergen-free atmosphere of such a mine, known as speleotherapy, which is being used in Romania and Austria today.

Especially when quality of life and genuine fears are involved, and given our responsibility as a generation for the generations that follow us, we have a duty to ensure that we subject risk to the utmost possible scrutiny. That is integral to our democratic system. I submit with all the force at my command that the only full, fair, transparent, open and democratically legitimate way to scrutinise an application for the unique use of a unique asset is an independent public inquiry with terms of reference to consider the application in the context of both local and national interests.

We are in uncharted territory. This is a pioneering proposal. It is a unique application for a unique site with unique characteristics that raises unique issues and anxieties. It would be an extremely courageous Secretary of State who approved such an application without the scrutiny of a public inquiry and bore the responsibility for the fact that, contrary to the Government's laudable aims in updating and demanding an overarching national waste strategy, approval at this stage would smack of a piecemeal, unintegrated approach. I take the Secretary of State at his word when he says that he wants an integrated approach to waste management. Only a public inquiry will provide the opportunity, information and judgment to enable the Secretary of State to assess the application in an integrated manner.

The planning process in this case has to date not proved up to the task of demonstrably satisfying the democratic principles demanded by the residents of Moulton, Davenham and north Winsford. The burden of proof must lie with the applicant.

It is not my task today to prejudge a public inquiry. I believe in the democratic process. However, in the absence of such an inquiry, I confirm my objection on behalf of my constituents to the application on the grounds of lack of due process in the absence of a public and independent inquiry, and on the basis of the anxieties that I share with my constituents about the nature of the application itself. As their elected Westminster representative, I urge the Government to prove to my constituents that the Government have their democratic rights and interests both at heart and as an over-riding priority by the Secretary of State calling in the application and establishing a full, public and independent inquiry.

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

We meet again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but for the last time today, I am sorry to say.

The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) raises an issue that is obviously a matter of great anxiety to his constituents. The application to which he refers also raises wider issues. Almost all plans for waste disposal are controversial. Everyone wants waste to be disposed of in someone else's back yard. It is a simple fact of life, which local and national politicians should try to deal with in a mature and responsible manner.

The general principle followed by all Governments is that it is desirable, as far as possible, for decisions to be taken locally by people who are accountable locally. A Conservative Government would face the same difficult decisions, on this and many other applications, as we do.

As the hon. Gentleman explained, the planning application submitted by Minosus Ltd. relates to proposals for the disposal of industrial waste at Winsford rock salt mine. The specific waste title is a matter for the Environment Agency when determining an application for the waste management licence, which is required in addition to planning permission. I understand that the applicant has entered into a legal agreement under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to provide that, should planning permission be granted, the facility will not be used for the deposit of radioactive waste.

In support of the planning application, the company also submitted an environmental statement. The main aim of the procedure is to ensure that the public and the local planning authority properly understand the predicted effects and the scope for reducing them. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that Cheshire county council has responsibility for the development and control of waste sites in the area, has examined the proposal closely and is minded to grant planning permission. The council believes, however, that the development is a departure from the provisions of the Vale Royal local plan and, in line with established procedures, it referred the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has to decide whether it would be appropriate to use his reserve powers to call in the application for his own determination. He is currently in the process of doing so.

The hon. Gentleman said that he hoped to take a delegation to my right hon. Friend to discuss the issue. The Secretary of State will take into account the representations that he and others have made in writing, and the powerful points that have been made in the debate today. It is unusual, however, for Secretaries of State to receive delegations at this stage in this sort of inquiry.

I appreciate the fact that the hon. Gentleman has several concerns about the proposal, particularly about the number of lorry movements, the geology of the area, the effects on residential amenities, the unique nature of the proposals and the catchment area on which the facility would draw. That broadly summarises the points in his speech. He will appreciate that I cannot comment on the merits of the proposals or on those specific issues, because the matter is currently before my Department. I can, however, make some comments that might be helpful.

The general approach of the Secretary of State on the use of his call-in power is not to interfere with the jurisdiction of local planning authorities unless it is necessary to do so. Parliament has entrusted those authorities with the responsibility for day-to-day planning control in their areas, so it is right that they should generally be free to carry out their duties with the minimum of interference from the centre.

The Secretary of State's policy is to be selective about calling in planning applications. He will, in general, take that step only if planning issues of more than local importance are relevant. Each case will continue to be considered on its individual merits and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend will give his most careful consideration to all the issues raised by this application before deciding whether to exercise his call-in power and to hold a public inquiry. He will also have heard the points made today.

It may also be helpful if I explain some of the key principles of national planning policy on waste, against which planning applications for waste disposal facilities need to be considered. Guidance to planners taking waste management decisions is provided in planning policy guidance note 10. The strategy, which was published in May, highlights three important principles that must be taken into consideration with regard to waste planning applications.

The overarching principle is that of the "best practicable environmental option" which weighs the benefits and disbenefits of each individual case. All options have benefits and disbenefits. There are no perfect solutions in this tricky territory. The procedure establishes the most beneficial, or least damaging, environmental option, taking into account costs and long and short-term time scales. Secondly, the regional self-sufficiency principle advises that most waste should be treated or disposed of within the region in which it is produced. Thirdly, the proximity principle suggests that waste should generally be disposed of as near to its place of origin as possible. It serves as a means of raising awareness in local communities that the waste that they produce is a problem with which they must deal. That also helps to control the environmental impacts of transporting waste.

As I have already mentioned, in addition to the requirement for the applicant to obtain planning permission, there is an entirely separate requirement to obtain a waste management licence. The planning function and the waste management licensing function complement each other, rather than duplicating controls. There are, of course, stringent controls in place to ensure that waste is dealt with properly. Under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, it is unlawful to deposit, recover or dispose of waste without a waste management licence, contrary to the conditions of a licence exemption, or in a way that causes pollution of the environment or harm to human health. The Environment Agency is responsible for administering and enforcing the waste management system and has the power to take action against anyone who contravenes the controls, and the penalties are potentially severe.

I understand that an application for a licence was submitted to the agency last October and that it is currently under consideration. I am advised that the agency intends to carry out an extensive consultation process before reaching its decision. The agency is aware of the use of mines for this purpose in Germany and France, and will use that in its determination of the licence application. A waste management licence is granted with conditions that the agency considers necessary to prevent pollution of the environment and harm to human health, including provisions for safety monitoring, aftercare and restoration of the site. Conditions must also cover the types and quantities of waste to be disposed of at the site.

The licensing process enables the agency to give full consideration to safety issues and any potential pollution risks, to ensure that there is no pollution of the environment or harm to human health. In addition, under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, the agency must be satisfied that an applicant for a waste management licence is a "fit and proper person" before granting the licence. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot comment on these matters in detail, because of the Secretary of State's quasi-judicial role in relation to waste management licensing appeals.

Under the 1990 Act, the applicant or holder of a waste management licence has a right of appeal to the Secretary of State under certain circumstances. The details of that licence application are subject to proper consideration by the agency. With regard to concerns about whether waste would be imported from abroad, I should add that the current UK exports/imports plan allows imports for disposal by landfill only in exceptional circumstances.

I should also explain that the Government consider this form of disposal of waste to be, alongside landfill, at the bottom of the waste hierarchy, and such operations will be required to obtain a permit under the landfill directive, once it comes into force in 2001.

Mr. O'Brien

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Mullin

I can do so only at the expense of not concluding.

Mr. O'Brien

The most important point is to persuade the Secretary of State that this has more than local importance. The Minister was just touching on that and I wanted to reinforce the point.

Mr. Mullin

The landfill directive introduces additional requirements over and above existing waste management licensing controls. Those include ceasing to dispose of hazardous waste mixed with nonhazardous waste; a requirement to treat waste prior to disposal; and a ban on certain waste in landfill.

I appreciate that I could not deal with the matter in the detail that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents would like, but he in turn will appreciate the constraints on my Department, which has to act in a quasi-judicial role. I assure him, however, that his representations and those of other hon. Members will be taken seriously.