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Waste (Gloucestershire)

Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope—from the Back Benches this time. I am bringing to Westminster Hall today a debate on incineration in Gloucestershire and specifically at the edge of the city of Gloucester, adjacent to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew).

In, even. It is right on the border between our constituencies. In 2005, in the run-up to the county council elections, the Conservative party in Gloucestershire produced its manifesto. It said:

“We will: Oppose incinerators. Conservatives have already worked to stop incinerators being built in Gloucestershire and we will continue to do so.”

I am afraid that that is a lie. There is no other way of putting it, because the Conservatives have gone back on that promise to the people of Gloucestershire. It will be interesting to see what happens when they go back to the people of Gloucestershire in the county council elections in June of this year and try to square their promise with what they are doing now.

Conservatives have made a number of promises in recent times. One was not to build houses in suburban areas on the edge of the city of Gloucester. My hon. Friend and I fought a vociferous campaign that resulted in a planning application in relation to the Hunts Grove area of his constituency being called in, but it was pushed heavily by a councillor by the name of Stan Waddington, whom my hon. Friend knows well—he is a councillor on his patch—and unfortunately permission was obtained. That means that in the very location where the Tories now propose to build a 10-storey incinerator capable of burning 175,000 tonnes of waste a year, thousands and thousands of new homes will be built; they will be built directly in its shadow. The area of Quedgeley, Grange and Tuffley, which is in my constituency, will be directly adjacent to it as well.

It came as a bolt from the blue to us that the Tories were planning that, not least because a few days before their decision to purchase the Javelin Park site in Quedgeley for £7.4 million, they told me and the chairman of our local football club that there was no capital money available at all to help the local football club to return to Gloucester after losing its ground in the floods of two years ago. Then we found out, without any consultation at all, despite the fact that my hon. Friend and I had held a public meeting just a few weeks previously, that they were working to purchase that land and had been working on a big private finance initiative deal with my right hon. Friend the Minister’s Department to try to obtain funding for the incinerator.

I would like to put it to the Minister that the county council is clear that, in its view, that is not its responsibility; it is all the fault of her Department and the Government. I am sure that she will have some things to say about that in relation to local decision making. I would also like to put to her the question whether PFI moneys would have been available for other schemes if a bid had come to the Department that did not involve a large-scale incinerator capable of burning 175,000 tonnes of waste.

When sites and locations were considered, three of the sites were in or around my constituency. Two were in or around Quedgeley in the south of my constituency; another was in Hempsted. The whole idea and principle of putting such a facility, which burns 175,000 tonnes of waste, in proximity to such an urban area comes as a real surprise to me, but perhaps it should not, because overwhelmingly Gloucestershire county council is run by a small elite—a cohort that lives in the Cotswolds. Those people would never, ever countenance any development like this in their part of the county. In fact, they have gone out of their way to select a Tory prospective parliamentary candidate for my constituency, the city of Gloucester, who hails from the Cotswolds as well, who has been entirely compliant with them on these plans and who will not criticise them at all. Unfortunately, the illness of not asking any questions about this, which has been passed on to other members of the Tory party, has infected local councillors in Quedgeley and other parts of my constituency as well. They refuse to raise their heads above the parapet and say what they think, but at the same time they do not take on the Cotswold cavalry that is running Gloucestershire county council.

Why do I think that such a facility would be bad for my constituency, my constituents and Gloucestershire? First, it would need to burn waste 24/7; once one of these machines is started, it has to keep going. That is ultimately bad for the local carbon footprint. We calculate that by 2020 there will be about 100,000 tonnes of residual waste each year, so we would have to find another 75,000 tonnes of waste to keep the machine burning. That would involve importing waste, regionalising waste. The Tory party claims to be anti-regionalisation, but when it comes to rubbish, it wants to regionalise it and dump it on the doorstep of my constituency, bringing it in from Bristol, Birmingham and who knows how much further afield.

There are real local infrastructure problems as well. Junction 12 of the M5, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, just is not kitted out for this kind of waste to be driven in daily. The people of Bishop’s Cleeve, in the Tewkesbury constituency, are already up in arms and demonstrating because the resultant waste material will almost certainly end up in Bishop’s Cleeve. We think that this is a bad solution.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue, which affects one of our neighbouring counties and our hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). Will he add to the issues that need to be raised the question of the safety or otherwise of incinerator bottom ash? I have asked a number of questions about that and it appears that the Environment Agency is now changing its previous statements that all incinerator bottom ash is classified as non-hazardous; those statements seem no longer to be applicable. It also appears that the H14 ecotoxicity testing described in its waste manual is now a requirement. Would it not help if my right hon. Friend the Minister clarified whether that is now required and whether the results of such testing should be made public in regional registers, so that people can judge for themselves the hazardous nature of the material to which they might be exposed?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend; I am sure that the Minister will tackle that point. He makes the point that many Gloucestershire residents—it is not just the city of Gloucester or Stroud residents—are concerned about the issue, not least, as I said, residents of Bishop’s Cleeve, who were demonstrating as recently as last week.

One argument that the council is using, other than blaming the Government for its local decisions, is to say, “Well, what is the alternative?” If people ask around and study things, they find alternatives. There are alternatives out there. We work closely with Gloucestershire’s Friends of the Earth network. We have also been listening to what local residents have had to say. There are a number of things that Gloucestershire county council can do, rather than rushing to build this 10-storey beast that will burn 175,000 tonnes a year.

First, the six authorities in Gloucestershire could start working together coherently. In my part of the world, 36 per cent. of waste is currently recycled. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, the figure is 50-something per cent. However, if the six authorities worked together, there would not be, for example, an ability to collect and recycle green waste in my constituency but not in the constituency next door. There would not be an ability to recycle bottles with their tops on in Stroud, but not in Gloucester. Nor would it be the case that food waste could be collected in some parts of the county but not others. Quite simply, the authorities do not work together, so a single coherent strategy would help and no doubt boost recycling levels.

What levels of recycling should we be aiming for? The Netherlands is already at 65 per cent. The figure is 58 per cent. for Germany and 59 per cent. for Austria, but we do not have to go that far afield to find good examples of high levels of recycling. St. Arvans, in Monmouthshire, is a zero-waste project promoting waste separation and the kerbside collection of paper, glass, cans, foil, textiles—I will run out of fingers—plastics, Tetra Pak, cartons, green waste and food waste. Some 73 per cent. of waste is diverted from landfill in that part of Monmouthshire, and there is a 95 per cent. participation rate. Surely, instead of looking to lower levels of recycling in Gloucestershire and saying, “Well, we have this machine. We’ll just keep chugging along, widening our carbon footprint and bringing in waste from further afield to keep things ticking over,” we should look at the issue more imaginatively and work more closely with Gloucestershire Friends of the Earth.

For many reasons, the incinerator could be something of an eco-disaster. Kent county council’s environment spokesperson, Keith Ferrin, recently said that the council’s decision to build an incinerator was “stupid” with hindsight, adding:

“The people who thought they were being very clever and economical with people’s money ten years ago have produced a situation where the reverse is true, as KCC is now committed to a contract we can’t get out of.”

In Gloucestershire’s case, it would be a 25-year contract, so we would be committed to a programme that we could not get out of for 25 years and which ruled out any emerging technologies or local flexibility. Councillor Ferrin continued:

“What seemed a very wise decision a very long time ago is a very stupid one today…At the time, people were saying nationally that this was the only way ahead. But if you make a prediction for 10 years’ time, the only thing you can be certain of is that it will be the wrong decision.”

I would like our local authority to be more aware of some of the new, emerging technologies. Just this week, I was handed an article from The Birmingham Post, which talks about some of the new technologies that are coming on stream in Birmingham:

“Regular disposable nappies which take hundreds of years to rot on the nation’s landfill sites could soon be recycled at a new £12 million Birmingham-based facility—the first of its kind in the UK…they plan to turn up to 36,000 tonnes of Pampers, Huggies and adult incontinence products a year into plastic cladding and roof tiles.”

Surely, that must be the way forward. The article continues:

“Meanwhile, methane from the production process can be sold to the National Grid and turned into energy and anything left used for compost.”

We have been told a lot of half-truths in Gloucestershire. We have also been told some outright lies, and I read earlier from the Conservative council’s manifesto. Unfortunately, I sense a fear among local politicians, who will not speak up on the issue and who are keeping their heads down. It is time for them to speak up for the thousands of people in my constituency who fear for the quality of their lives and who fear what is happening to house prices because of a decision that will be made after the 2009 local elections, but which is hanging over their heads in the interim. People are also fed up with the council turning areas of my constituency such as Quedgeley into a dumping ground for all the county’s problems.

I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister whether the council could have bid for something other than an incinerator with PFI funding. I suspect that it could. We should take on board what Friends of the Earth is saying locally and increase the level of recycling to 80 per cent. by 2020 by having greater kerbside separation of waste and small local residual waste management facilities that match the scale, form and size of their surroundings to make them acceptable to local communities—facilities that handle between 5,000 and 35,000 tonnes per annum. If we do, we will achieve more flexible, local solutions, and there will be greater ownership of facilities by communities. Similarly, there will be more investment in composting and more anaerobic digestion. That has to be the way forward.

Finally, does my right hon. Friend agree that we should look at the way in which we audit our local authorities? Should we start looking at the pledges that they make in county council elections and at whether they fulfil those pledges? I repeat the words of the Tory party in 2005:

“We will: Oppose incinerators. Conservatives have already worked to stop incinerators being built in Gloucestershire and we will continue to do so.”

That is actually a worthless pledge.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) for giving me a few minutes, and I shall be brief so that my right hon. Friend the Minister has sufficient time to respond.

I want to make four quick points, beginning with an issue that I approach with some sadness. Stonehouse town council, which I know rather well, because I am still a member after 22 years, invited Councillor Stan Waddington, whom my hon. Friend mentioned, to a meeting on 22 December to explain the county’s policy on waste. We specifically asked him whether the county council had an option on the Javelin Park site, to which his answer was that it did not. By 31 December, the county council had bought the site. Never let it be said that the local authority in Gloucestershire cannot get things done quickly, because it negotiated the purchase of the site in nine days over Christmas. I only wish that local government was that effective in every other area and could deliver Government policies from time to time. Councillor Waddington should explain what he said to the town council and what was really going on.

My second question is directed to my right hon. Friend the Minister. Why did the site-specific designation become key to the way in which the PFI was delivered? Was that initiated by Gloucestershire, which was always looking to find a site, without saying what would go on it, or by officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who felt that it was appropriate to have a site before the PFI could be agreed and delivered? Without looking to the future, that is fairly obvious.

My third point relates to the waste inquiry to which I gave evidence. Misleading evidence about what came out of that inquiry has been widespread and disproportionate. The inquiry did not provide the basis for an argument in favour of incineration; it set out the collapse of the case that the seven authorities in Gloucestershire tried to put to it. Those authorities were fighting like ferrets in a sack after the first day, and I should know because I was there. That says something about the ineffectiveness of local government in Gloucestershire. Furthermore, when the inspector published his report, he suggested three sites, including Javelin Park, could be part of the answer if we were looking for a mechanical and biological treatment centre. However, he did not see such a centre as the answer to Gloucestershire’s waste problems, although that has been said.

Sadly, we have already seen the results of what has been going on. An interesting experiment has been going on in the Stanleys wards in my constituency, which has been composting food waste. The district council, which is Conservative run, has just announced that it intends to stop that experiment—it is certainly not introducing it across the district. That is entirely down to the fact that it is prejudging what will happen to that waste—that it will be taken to an incinerator and burned. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said, that is the very negation of the way in which we should collect and dispose of waste.

Lastly—I shall be very careful what I say—the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is looking at the issue of waste, as my right hon. Friend the Minister knows. Mary Newton from Gloucestershire Friends of the Earth, who has helped us greatly, has submitted a paper, which I advise everybody to read. It is fair to say, without going into details, that the days of incineration have largely gone. There are better alternatives, and different ways to do things, and I hope that that approach is what the Select Committee will propose; I cannot pre-empt its final report. An old technology is being foisted on some people in Gloucestershire, for all the wrong reasons. I hope that my right hon. Friend can help us, and get some sense put back into the county of Gloucestershire, because it is sadly lacking at the moment.

I am delighted to be here this afternoon, Mr. Pope, debating this subject, in which I know you take great interest. I look forward to visiting the wonderful constituency that you have the honour to represent, to see the Chic Sheds project, which is one I recommend to all Members of the House, for its maximisation of resource use.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) has provided an opportunity today to debate an important subject. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) has asked several questions about people’s concerns about regeneration. In particular, he has explored concerns about bottom ash. I cannot give him a detailed response to the question that he asked this afternoon, but I can offer to write to him with further details. I assure him that we need to find answers to some of the concerns in the public’s mind about the kind of technology in question, if we are to make progress in meeting the tough targets we have set ourselves—and, indeed, that the European Commission has set—for landfill reduction.

The Gloucestershire private finance initiative scheme is an instance in which the Government have made funding available through PFI credits. However, the choice of technology and the location are a local decision. Decisions on how to manage waste and meet targets are a matter for each authority, and rightly so. The Government do not generally have a preference for one energy-from-waste technology over another, with the exception of anaerobic digestion for treating food waste, and it is important that plans for all waste facilities should emerge from local waste strategies, so that all options for reuse, recycling and composting can be explored first. The technology choice needs to reflect local circumstances, which will vary, and it is the responsibility of local authorities to decide on the most appropriate solutions for their areas.

The Government are fully committed to managing waste in the most sustainable way, by preventing waste, and by recycling or composting as much of the unavoidable waste as possible. However, the country needs residual waste treatment infrastructure as well. There will always be some residual waste, even after the significant increases that we all want in waste prevention, reuse and recycling. Our preference is to manage that waste as far up the waste hierarchy as possible, with energy from waste ranking higher than landfill, which is the end of the line. Reducing our reliance on landfill is an essential part of the drive to tackle climate change. A combination of all the activities I have mentioned is essential to ensure that we meet our obligations under the EU landfill directive.

Generating renewable energy from residual waste has energy and carbon benefits, through avoiding greenhouse gas emissions from landfill and with energy from the biodegradable fraction of waste displacing fossil fuel-based power generation. Our aim is to maximise the generation of renewable energy recovered from unavoidable residual waste, as demonstrated in a range of measures in the Energy Act 2008 and set out in our forthcoming renewable energy strategy. All PFI projects, however, need to highlight their continued ambitions for waste minimisation and recycling, such as Gloucestershire’s aim of reaching 60 per cent. recycling by 2020.

That is another statistic that keeps getting regurgitated locally, in a way that is unfair, I think, to Government, because the local authority implies that the Government want only 60 per cent. as a target. There is nothing to prevent the local authority, if it chooses, from adopting a higher recycling level than 60 per cent. Is that not the case?

My hon. Friend is right; as I have said, the development of the local waste strategy is a matter for local authorities. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that other European countries manage high recycling rates alongside incineration, of the order of 40 to 50 per cent. However, my hon. Friend is right; there would be nothing to put a cap on that ambition, other than making sure that the strategies were coherent and the infrastructure was in place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester asked what other technologies Gloucestershire county council might have examined, to determine what technology to adopt. There are other technologies, such as anaerobic digestion, which I have already mentioned. Gasification is another; that is combined heat and power. Mechanical biological treatment is another. Those are generally smaller installations, but are none the less viable alternatives. Even then, however, we look for flexibility in the final contract, so that ambitions such as Gloucestershire’s are not capped by any new facility supported by PFI credits.

On the issue of Gloucestershire county council’s waste proposals, the authority submitted an application to DEFRA for PFI credits to deliver new waste management infrastructure. Support for the project was provisionally approved by the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), in August 2008. I was pleased to visit Stroud in October with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). We met farmers, but we also took the opportunity to look at the Javelin Park site. It is important to know that the project was considered by the Treasury-led cross-departmental project review group, which has provisionally approved it subject to certain conditions: those are the acquisition of a suitable site and making the project subject to PRG second-stage review during the later stages of procurement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud asked whether the project was predicated on procurement of the site. The remit we give local authorities is that any authority bidding for PFI credits in such circumstances must offer a site to the market. It is the authority’s decision which site to put to the market. However, may I clarify something? As part of the application process, all authorities must submit a plan based on a theoretical model that uses real figures and facts to demonstrate that the project is robust enough to proceed. That does not mean that the technology for the waste PFI project has been decided, but the plan is used to guide the procurement process, for the purpose of finding partners for a PFI project.

From what my right hon. Friend tells me, the authority is going through a process at the moment, but there would be nothing to stop it, or indeed another county council led by another political party—my own or any other—saying, “That is the path we were going along, but we have now changed our mind and will look at other alternatives.” They could, technically, put a stop to the whole incinerator plan, could they not?

That would obviously be entirely for a county council to decide. Gloucestershire county council could change direction, whatever political control it was under. I hesitate to take up my hon. Friend’s suggestion that we might want to hold political parties to account for what they say. I should love to do that, representing a Liverpool constituency. The Liberal Democrats, more than any party in the House, should give closer scrutiny to what they claim locally and what they deliver. However, I shall resist the temptation to go down that route.

To ensure fair competition and maximise value for money, the Government require an authority wishing to secure PFI credits for a waste project to be able to offer a suitable site to the market. However, Gloucestershire county council opted to purchase the Javelin Park site. That does not mean that the site for the waste PFI project has been decided. It could be built at Javelin Park or elsewhere, and it could be one of a number of different types of plant.