HC Deb 14 November 2000 vol 356 cc168-75WH

12 noon

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

I am delighted to be debating this important subject today. It is the first opportunity that any hon. Member has had to put Ministers on the spot over their proposals for incineration plants since the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs launched its inquiry in the summer. On 23 October 2000, the Environment Sub-Committee published "Delivering Sustainable Waste Management", a valuable body of evidence showing that the Government have adopted the wrong strategy for taking waste management forward in this country.

I raise the subject in respect of Surrey, where there are some outstanding planning applications. The process will continue for months, but decisions will start to be taken soon. There has been a lack of proper guidance, and questions are being raised about the way in which the Government are planning waste management. Those issues are being raised at every level, and we need clear answers now because we cannot afford to wait any longer.

Almost 10,000 letters have been written to Surrey county council about a proposed incinerator plant in Guildford and 7,000 letters have been received by the Environment Agency on the same proposal. There is a very high level of public concern in the constituency that I represent and in other parts of Surrey, such as Capel and Redhill, where similar incinerators have been proposed by other operators. The Government's plans have generated a lot of heat, but today the heat is on the Minister and we want him to give some clear answers.

Incineration is a flawed policy. For many years in this country we enjoyed the luxury of landfill and we are almost the largest users of landfill strategy among the advanced countries. A major advantage of that has been that the cost of dealing with waste in this country has been low. However, a huge disadvantage is that it is not a sustainable policy as landfill sites are used up.

At this point, the Government could respond in two ways. They could look forward to see what other countries are planning for the next 10 or 20 years and examine their strategies for dealing with waste, or they could copy what other countries have done when they have moved beyond landfill. It is increasingly clear that the Government have decided to follow the next stage in the historic progression from landfill sites to incineration. The public relations benefit is that incineration with an energy content has a green tinge but, unfortunately, it also has a health warning attached and the implications for the places where the plants are built have generated much local concern.

It is worth recalling some of the evidence that the Select Committee has received during the few months in which it has been considering the matter. As Friends of the Earth said in its submission: High recycling rates in other countries show that we could easily meet EU targets for diverting biodegradable municipal waste through recycling and composting. and citizens are angry at our failure to match these achievements. From the other end of the spectrum, the Road Haulage Association said: We consider the current average size of energy-from-waste plant as inimical to both waste reduction and to the development of a sustainable market for recyclables. Plants of a throughput of 200,000 tonnes per annum or above— the size that is being considered in Guildford— require long-term contracts guaranteeing the amount of waste going through. It also said: As such they limit, and possibly preclude, the development of alternatives, particularly when new opportunities appear. Therefore, not only is the Government's strategy a tired failure as far as other countries are concerned—in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, no new incinerator plants have been built during the last five years—but incinerators may pre-empt our advance to the more positive strategies of recycling waste and, equally importantly, increasing the pressure on producers to limit the amount of waste that their products generate by cutting down on packaging and rethinking the way in which they bring their products to the market.

Today, I seek a general statement of principles from the Minister. I understand that he cannot deal with specific planning applications such as the one in Guildford, but in the light of my experience as a constituency Member of Parliament and the points raised by the example of my constituency, many of the flaws in the Government's policy will become apparent.

One problem is the Government's announcement of the principle of proximity. The Government would not propose to build a giant smokestack in the middle of a historic county town such as Guildford, which today depends on high-technology and service businesses, were it not for the single argument—which is repeated time and again—that that would deal with the waste where it is produced. That is the proximity principle.

However, the plant that has been proposed for Guildford and other such sites would require six times the waste that is generated locally. Building on the proximity principle would mean drawing in a great deal of waste from other areas, which would be contrary to the proximity principle.

What is the proximity principle? I have received a letter from the chief executive of Guildford borough council, which has lodged serious objections to the local proposal. It says: Planning Policy Guidance No. 10, issued by the Government in 1999, deals with the proximity principle in one line as follows:- Waste should generally be managed as near as possible to its place of production because transporting waste itself has an environmental impact. It is vital to both planning authorities and local people that the Government define the proximity principle more precisely. For example, is the proximity principle so important to the Government that building incinerators in urban areas overrides other normal planning considerations? Does it make sense to build a plant that will dominate the skyline of our county town with a chimney that is higher than Guildford cathedral? Should we permit the building of a plant that is the same height as the Clock Tower that houses Big Ben, given that, according to the planning criteria for any other development of the site, such an intrusion would be unacceptable in any terms to any right-thinking planning authority? I therefore hope that we receive clearer guidance on the proximity principle from the Government.

It is noticeable that the evidence that the Department gave to the inquiry did not include a single paragraph on the proximity principle. The Department dealt with its waste strategy, but not with that principle. As the local pressure group, Guildford anti-incinerator network, pointed out, we in Surrey import a great deal of waste to landfill sites, so the proximity principle is being applied inequitably. It does not apply to landfill, where we suffer, but apparently it will be applied to incineration, where we might have other alternatives on our doorstep.

Another problem with the proximity principle is that it is unenforceable. Once the plant is built, it is not planning but commercial pressures that will dictate where the waste comes from. Energy-from-waste plants need a continuous feed of waste. If the plant had to warm up and cool down between the periods when it is dealing with waste, the efficiency and commercial viability of the plant would be immediately drawn into question. I hope that the Minister will frame his answer on the proximity principle in the context of the damage that those plants could do to the local environment and the local economy.

The Energy from Waste Association, which represents those who build and run the incinerators, has pointed out that the Government's plan for 75 incinerators throughout the country is a hopeless over-estimate. According to the association, the figures for growth in incineration demonstrate that claims…that the strategy will lead to a flood of new EFW plants in the UK, are misplaced. Over the next 10 years, the industry predicts that some 15 new plants will be needed—very much in line with the numbers planned by developer companies before the strategy was published. Therefore, before the Government announced their plan for 75 incinerator plants throughout the country, the industry was planning to build only 15 plants. It is time for the Government to take another look at those projections, and recognise that an incineration strategy that establishes a few plants in places where they will do least damage is better than the proliferation of speculative developments that we are witnessing in Surrey and other parts of the country.

Will the Minister please make it clear whether his Department intends to stick by the principle that each county should deal with its own waste? Surrey is one of the smallest counties, and over half our area is covered by the green belt. It is proving impossible to find a site for an incineration plant that is acceptable to the local community and makes commercial sense. Local people—be they in Guildford, Cape' or Redhill—are up in arms, and rightly so. On the other hand, just a few miles across the Surrey border in Colnbrook, which is near Heathrow airport, permission has already been granted for a new, far bigger incineration plant that can process 400,000 tonnes a year. Grundon, the project developer and owner of the site, has made it clear that it is keen to take Surrey's residual incineration requirement. Would that be acceptable to the Minister? If we were to decide to transfer part of the operation to an incineration plant located a few miles outside our county, would our new waste strategy grant, which is worth £100 million, remain secure?

I should not leave this issue without raising the health concerns that, in many ways, have sparked the most resistance in the country as a whole. It is quite something for Labour Back Benchers such as the hon. Member for Castle Point (Mrs. Butler), who is a member of the Environment Sub-Committee, to accuse Whitehall of secretive behaviour and a cover-up in respect of the health risk. It is worrying to note that departmental officials did not disclose correspondence with the Environment Agency that suggested that the risk from cancer-causing dioxins may be far greater than was first thought. In June, when I raised that issue in the House with the Minister for the Environment, I was assured that there was no health risk. However, evidence that has since been submitted to his Department suggests that there are very real concerns. That is why the Conservative party has made it clear that we would impose a moratorium on new incinerators until all the health concerns have been investigated thoroughly and openly.

Only a couple of weeks ago, a headline in The Observer said that "Toxic fumes from refuse ovens could kill 9,000". The accompanying report pointed out that, based on the Government's own figures, the proposed new incinerators could produce 17,000 tonnes of nitrous oxides each year. Moreover, according to a recent report by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, 50 tonnes of nitrous oxides would, on average, lead to one death. Over a period of 25 years, that would amount to nearly 9,000 deaths.

I do not know whether those estimates are true, but they are causing my constituents immense concern. So is the revelation that, according to the latest evidence, existing incinerator plants double the risk of cancer in children who live within three miles of sites that were built and operated in the past 25 years. There is a democratic deficiency, because the Environment Agency, not the local authority, judges the health issue. The local authority, within its planning remit, cannot take that into account.

It is time for a new approach, placing more emphasis on recycling. There should be a recycling target of more than 50 per cent.—it has been achieved by many American states and by many countries in Europe—rather than 25 per cent. That would completely remove the need to build new plants. It is time for the Government to rethink and to restore the confidence of my constituents and people throughout the country who believe that speculative developments, sponsored by the Government's programme and subsidies, threaten their local community.

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

The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) has raised an important issue. We still have a long way to go before the public take recycling as seriously as they should. The hon. Gentleman and I probably agree that we cannot keep digging deep holes in the ground and filling them up because, apart from the environmental effects of landfill, we are running out of holes.

Guildford in particular and Surrey in general have a relatively good record of recycling, but even there, there is a long way to go. There are some problems with the public perception of the issue, and it is the job of responsible politicians not to whip up misunderstanding or to seek cheap votes but to help to confront the public with stark choices.

I was told a while ago about a survey conducted in Guildford, in which several options for the disposal of waste were suggested on a questionnaire that was put through people's doors. One suggestion was to export more waste—it did not say to where, but presumably it was to anywhere but Guildford. That option, unsurprisingly, attracted the highest response. That is not realistic and the hon. Gentleman is not proposing that option, but, as I said, it is the job of responsible politicians to help to confront such issues responsibly.

No one is forcing Guildford to build an incinerator in the town centre or anywhere else; how waste is disposed of is a matter for local decision. The Government have set out targets, which we insist must be met. If, as the hon. Gentleman said, there are alternatives, it is for the local authority to adopt them and for people like the hon. Gentleman to make the relevant suggestions, which we would welcome. There should be a serious debate on the issue, but much of what the hon. Gentleman said should be said to his local authority, not to the Government.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Mullin

I will in a moment.

The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the Government have plans for 75 incinerators is false; we have set no figure on the number of incinerators that will be necessary. As I shall explain if I have time, we recognise that incineration has a part to play in waste strategy, but it is utterly false to suggest that we have a big programme for incinerators.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether it was the Government's policy that waste should not be transported across boundaries. That is not our policy; we recognise that waste can be transported across boundaries, but we aim for regional self-sufficiency.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Will the Minister confirm that the grant of £100 million to help Surrey to develop a new strategy would not be jeopardised because, regarding our incineration plans, we came up with an alternative solution to burning within the county boundaries?

Mr. Mullin

As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, I cannot talk about particular applications in Surrey because they may eventually be referred to my Department, so I cannot get too involved in the detail of particular schemes. I can repeat that we are not forcing any authority to set up lots of incinerators. There are alternatives and we are anxious that they are pursued; the Government will provide incentives to ensure that they are.

The tone of the hon. Gentleman's speech and his mock indignation come ill from a member of a party which, when in government for many years, was—to put it mildly—lethargic in its approach to recycling. The present Government are considerably more energetic in that respect. We recognise the difficult issues that must be faced: they cannot be dodged and we shall not dodge them.

As you are aware, Mr. Maxton, in May this year we published the national waste strategy, setting out the Government's policy for sustainable waste management in the next 20 years. The strategy identifies the need for a giant change in the way that we think about and manage our waste. It will mean curbing the growth in waste and learning to recognise waste as a resource. The Government are committed to dramatic increases in recycling and composting. We shall also need to recover energy from waste where doing so represents the best practical environmental option. Care must, however, be taken to ensure that any plans for incineration do not crowd out recycling. That was the hon. Gentleman's argument.

For the first time ever, the Government are setting statutory targets for household waste recycling and composting. They will require councils, on average, to double recycling by 2003–04 and triple it by 2005–06. We have set even higher targets for 2010 and 2015 and we shall keep them under review, raising them if practicable.

A key driver behind these goals is the European landfill directive, which will require substantial changes to the way in which we manage our waste. At present, the United Kingdom landfills more than 80 per cent. of its biodegradable municipal waste. The directive will require substantial reductions in the amount of waste sent to landfill. If waste continues to grow at the current rate, by 2020 we would need to divert 33 million tonnes of waste from landfill each year. Recycling and composting alone will not deliver the rates of diversion necessary to meet the targets in the landfill directive. We must all face up to that reality.

Any increase in incineration should be part of an integrated, sustainable system of waste management. Authorities in the incineration industry need to plan to ensure that expansion in securing energy from waste does not crowd out recycling. Contracts should allow flexibility and ensure that incineration does not compete with recycling. Incinerator operators should always maximise the environmental benefits of their facilities by including combined heat and power.

Other European countries are already achieving recycling rates far in advance of our own, largely because they make widespread use of energy from waste. The problems mentioned by the hon. Gentleman have not materialised. The Netherlands and Switzerland both have an extremely good record, which we would be wise to emulate. They both incinerate to far greater levels than we do.

We are aware that plans by local authorities to increase recycling and composting rates and divert waste from landfill will place an extra burden on their finances. We announced in the spending review that major new funding would be made available to local authorities.

It is to Surrey's credit that, faced with a lack of local landfill capacity, it sought more sustainable waste management options instead of looking towards more distant landfill—with all the environmental impacts, particularly increased traffic movements, that that would entail. Increased traffic movements are an important factor. Under the statutory targets, Surrey will have to increase its recycling rate from 13 per cent. to 26 per cent. by 2003–04.

I fully understand local people's concerns about the proposed development of an energy-from-waste plant in Surrey. However, emissions from such plants are strictly regulated and we are confident that the current environmental protection standards are sufficient to protect the environment and public health. We also strongly support a forthcoming European directive on incineration, which will set even tighter emission standards.

Mr. St. Aubyn


Mr. Mullin

The hon. Gentleman wants me to get to the proximity principle. There is a chance that I will, but it diminishes if he intervenes on me.

The provisions of the European directive on incineration will update the environmental standards of existing directives in respect of advances in technology, and introduce water discharge controls for the first time. The hon. Gentleman quoted an article in The Observer. It is probably based on a report by environmental consultants called Entec, who suggested that the environmental benefits of new tighter standards would be that 51 deaths and 97 hospitalisations of people with an existing respiratory illness would be avoided. The hon. Gentleman should be aware, however, that Entec subsequently found a mathematical error in its calculations and the figures should not be 51 and 97, but six and seven respectively—a difference by a factor of about 12. Entec has corrected its mistake and we look forward to Greenpeace, The Observer, The Guardian and anyone else who printed the story acknowledging that mistake. I am not holding my breath on that.

The proximity principle advises that waste should generally be managed as near as possible to its place of production. That is because transporting waste has an environmental impact. Dealing with waste in this way is generally preferable to exporting it elsewhere although for certain waste, especially hazardous or toxic waste, transporting to specially designed facilities may be the best practical option. The proximity principle will apply to Surrey in the way that it applies to any other waste planning authority. PPG10, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, advises that the proximity principle is one of the principles-not the only one-of waste management that needs to be taken into account in identifying the combination of facilities and other waste management options that give the best balance between environmental, social and economic needs.

The proximity principle is not a statutory requirement and would not overrule other planning rules, but it would be a material planning consideration to be taken into account by a waste planning authority in deciding any planning applications for waste management facilities. Planning permission for a waste facility would not specify any distance from the facility within which all waste would have to be managed. Account would have to be taken of existing waste disposal authority contracts and the proximity of alternative waste facilities.

I suppose that if I could put the proximity principle in layman's terms that would be readily understandable both to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, it is that Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph readers cannot expect that their waste will be disposed of in the back yards of Sun and Mirror readers. We expect the people who produce the waste to take some responsibility for its disposal.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Would the Minister not acknowledge that higher-earning groups have the best track record of recycling waste? That has been shown across Europe and America. Would he not also acknowledge that in Surrey in particular we have imported a great deal of waste for landfill from London and other areas? Far from relying on others to deal with our waste, we have been dealing with theirs for years.

Mr. Mullin

I certainly will acknowledge that last point. The track record of councils across the country is variable. Some local authorities in relatively prosperous areas have a good track record, and some in areas that are not so prosperous have a bad track record. Nevertheless, I believe that my layman's approach to the proximity principle still holds.

I hope that my comments today will be of some use to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. Many of the points that he made are arguments that he needs to have with his local authority. He should not go round whipping up spurious indignation against the Government when his party, when in government, did little on this issue. I used the word "lethargic" a while ago. That is the gentlest way to put it.

Mr. John Maxton (in the Chair)

It may be for the convenience of hon. Members to remind them that because I am a temporary occupant of the Chair, I am addressed not as Mr. Deputy Speaker, but as Mr. Maxton.