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Incinerators

Volume 517: debated on Tuesday 26 October 2010

I am pleased, Mr Dobbin, to address this subject under your chairmanship. It is a serious one for my constituents, and my focus today is on localism.

I appreciate the Minister making time to respond to the debate. I hope that he will clarify Government policy on incineration and say how it relates to empowering local communities to make decisions about their areas. I am delighted to see that he is to respond to the debate; he successfully held the same position in opposition for a number of years. I am particularly pleased that he visited Middlewich in my constituency when he was shadow Minister responsible for agriculture—I last raised this question with him then—so he knows the town of which I shall be speaking.

I hope that my contribution will be followed by one from my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Lorraine Fullbrook). An incinerator has been installed in her constituency, and I hope that what she says will serve to show what can happen to towns once an incinerator has been built.

I am holding a file 2 inches thick, which is full of correspondence from my constituents. They do not want an incinerator 500 metres from Middlewich town. I have received no letters of support for an incinerator there—not one. Most of the letters in this folder are individually written, including one from a seven-year-old boy who lives near where the planned incinerator would be built.

The local council refused planning permission for the incinerator earlier this year. Its decision is now being appealed. The final say lies with the Secretary of State, who will have to make a decision in the near future, so I understand that details of this case cannot be discussed by the Minister today. However, I believe that we should discuss the principles.

I hope that the Minister will agree that a local community should be able to decide on its identity. Middlewich is a friendly, small market town with a population of approximately 13,000, and it has tremendous community spirit. It has a rich past as a Roman settlement, and it is a former salt-mining community. It has a good selection of independent shops, pubs and cafés. The Trent and Mersey canal goes right through the town. The strong local community has worked hard to develop a vibrant tourist industry, including an annual boat and folk festival that attracts some 20,000 visitors.

Community life in Middlewich involves the whole community, as well as churches, schools and local organisations. For example, the British Legion and the rotary club, among others, will soon hold a weekend-long charity beer festival. Only two weeks ago, it seemed that the whole town had dressed up in period costume for a world war two event. The community of Middlewich remains strong in its ability to attract visitors, and it is a pleasant place to live, work and bring up a family.

Constituents have told me that more than 7,000 people signed a petition against the planned incinerator. That is more than half of the Middlewich population. I understand that no fewer than 3,300 letters of objection were sent to the council about the original planning application. When the planning committee refused the application earlier this year, hundreds of people from the Middlewich area attended at the civic hall. There was standing room only. I was glad to witness the fact that it was the unanimous decision of local councillors on the Cheshire East planning committee to reject the planning application.

In addition to the overwhelming desire of local people not to see the plan proceed, there are many other reasons why it was right that the planning application should have been rejected. The site is inappropriate. It is not identified as a preferred site in the Cheshire replacement waste local plan. At a public inquiry, only six sites in Cheshire were deemed suitable for thermal treatment, and Middlewich is not one of them. I understand that the nearest resident lives approximately 150 metres from the proposed site. As one resident has written, the site

“is too close to the town, schools, residential areas and farmland.”

Middlewich people work hard to make the town pleasant for visitors and residents, including through the various festivals that take place throughout the year, with people putting up bunting and flags and making their town attractive. All that would be dwarfed by the proposed construction of this enormous incinerator, which would have a smoke stack almost as tall as a football field is long. It would dominate the town and the surrounding countryside.

Traffic flow into and out of Middlewich is already bad. To feed the hunger of the planned incinerator, waste would have to be imported to the local area to be burned. That would affect local roads by increasing the already great congestion. The traffic flow through Middlewich is already heavy at daily peak times, and long tailbacks occur.

I am informed that the applicant’s estimate of the number of trips that would be generated if the incinerator was built is another 156 or so two-way movements of heavy vehicles along the A54 each day. However, as the source of the waste processed has not yet been fully identified—most of it, if not all, will come from outside Middlewich—any definitive statement by the applicant about the impact of traffic must be unsound. One thing is for sure: it would considerably exacerbate already serious daily traffic problems. Hon. Members may recall film footage of the traffic gridlock that occurred last winter during the severe bad weather; then, lorries had to travel through and to Middlewich for additional salt from the nearby British Salt depot.

Building an incinerator near Middlewich town centre would also be detrimental to employment. Far from the new development being a positive contribution to increased local employment, the plans could prove highly unfavourable to local employment prospects. The planned plant might create up to 50 jobs, but it could jeopardise many more. Future employers could be deterred from locating their premises in the vicinity of a waste incinerator for a variety of reasons. That applies particularly to the retail, food, leisure and service sectors.

Such community matters are not the only important factors, however; just as important are the principles of environmental safety and sustainability. Cheshire has a cluster of planned incinerators. Two are still to be determined; one is at Lostock in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I am a fellow Cheshire Member, and, as we all know, Cheshire is God’s own county.

Four proposed incinerators surround my constituency. They are at Weston Point, Ince Marshes, Lostock and Middlewich. I wonder how we are going to feed them. At the height of production, the Weston Point incinerator will produce only 20% of the power required by INEOS Chlor, and that waste will come from Manchester. For some reason, although that incinerator is located on Merseyside, most of the Merseyside waste will not go to that incinerator but will have to go over the water to Ince Marshes in Cheshire. I am concerned about the logistics of that. I am also worried about viability. If Merseyside’s and Manchester’s waste are accounted for, where will the other incinerators get their waste from?

I have met with campaign groups such as the Cheshire Anti Incinerator Network and the Halton Action Group Against the Incinerator, as well as the applicants, Brunner Mond and INEOS Chlor, which are excellent local employers and part of the rich industrial heritage of the area. I have also met officials from the Environment Agency. From those discussions, it is clear that the most significant impact on the local communities will be the increase in traffic as the plants draw in waste from Cheshire and beyond.

My hon. Friend makes my points for me. If the four planned incinerators in Cheshire go ahead, there will be over-provision. There is no need for a further facility at Middlewich. That was confirmed in the original planning refusal, which stated that there would be an over-provision of waste facilities. It undermines the sustainability principle, which is that waste should be disposed of at an appropriate nearby location and should not be transported long distances.

My constituents are also concerned about the environmental and health implications of multiple incinerators in relatively close proximity to one another. Until a better scientific understanding is gained and the public can be reassured about such implications, my constituents feel that the precautionary principle should be applied.

I do not want to go into the details of the incineration in Middlewich, but it is important to understand why we incinerate or combust. This country continues to put more waste into landfill than any other country in Europe, which is a disgrace. There is a large landfill tip in Warrington that causes as much distress for residents as incinerators—I prefer to call them combined heat and power plants. Of course it is wrong to put such things in the wrong place, and we should be cognisant of local planning considerations. We also need to understand that landfill is, environmentally, the worst of all options, and it cannot be right that we continue to have more landfill than any other country in Europe.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Indeed, that is why the Middlewich residents are so offended; in November 2007, approval was given for a new landfill site, which is to be positioned less than half a mile away from the proposed new incinerator.

Let me touch on a further problem relating to the Government’s climate change and energy policy. Even if one recognises that waste management needs to be properly framed within a national strategy, there is a good argument to say that the planned incinerator in my constituency would fall foul of important efficiency criteria in the EU waste framework directive of 2008. I am not always fond of the EU, but the directive highlights the importance of efficiency in incineration for the purposes of creating energy and heat. It requires that incinerators be labelled as “recovering” energy from waste only if they have a burn and energy creation efficiency of some 65%. If they do not reach that criterion, they are to be considered a disposal facility. In other words, they would be on a par with landfills.

I am reliably informed that the normal efficiency of incinerators in the UK is about 25%, and that the efficiency of the one in Middlewich, according to the company that wants to build it, would be, at best, 26%. It is interesting to note that one of the original reasons for refusing the initial application was that the applicant had not shown that it had made adequate provision for

“means of grid connection for the recovery and export of energy for the facility.”

Let us not delude ourselves: in the waste hierarchy, a low efficiency rating is on a par with landfill. That is not sustainable and should not be considered environmentally friendly. The Sustainable Development Commission has recommended that only high-efficiency energy from waste plants—namely energy from plants that produce a 65% return on burning waste—should receive Government support, and I agree with it.

Furthermore, the principle that the Government are promoting, whereby local communities should decide how best to deal with their own waste, does not seem to apply either to the process of appealing to the national level, or to the logic of the use of large-scale imported incineration. In reference to an application made by Covanta in the Mid Bedfordshire constituency, the Prime Minister recently said that it is right that

“decisions should be made locally. We want to make sure that all the latest technology for alternatives to incineration is considered, so that we can make sure that we are using the best ways to achieve a green approach.”—[Official Report, 30 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 851.]

There is clearly consensus on this issue in the coalition.

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said:

“We support modern energy generation from waste where local communities want it and where it makes good environmental sense.”——[Official Report, 1 July 2010; Vol. 512, c. 977.]

I emphasise the words

“where local communities want it”.

That is the principle to which we should adhere. Local people should decide about such matters. We can talk about national policies, but there is one overriding factor that distant decision-makers ignore at their peril: the people of Middlewich do not want the incinerator, and Middlewich is their home.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this very important debate on a subject that is exercising the mind of many of my constituents in Selby and Ainsty, and constituents from across the whole of North Yorkshire. Let me take this opportunity to remind my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) that there is only one county that can be called “God’s own”, and that is Yorkshire.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently announced that as part of the comprehensive spending review, it reviewed the amount of private finance initiative grant that the Government need to put into local government-funded waste-treatment infrastructure. It concluded that some projects will not go ahead. However, thousands of concerned North Yorkshire residents will be disappointed that the North Yorkshire and city of York waste PFI project at Allerton Park is one of the 11 projects that will retain its provisional allocation of PFI credits. Will the Minister be kind enough to let me know why the Allerton Park project is one of those schemes to escape the CSR axe and on what grounds the decisions on what scheme to keep or scrap were made? Furthermore, will the Minister tell me and my concerned constituents, thousands of whom have signed a petition against the proposal, whether he believes that North Yorkshire county council is using public money wisely by signing up the public purse to a 25 to 30-year PFI project, with an initial cost to the taxpayer of £65 million, especially during such straitened times?

Let me add my concerns to the debate about Allerton Park. The financial case for the proposal at Allerton Park is deeply flawed. The proposed incinerator will require 300,000 tonnes of waste a year, yet the household waste generated across North Yorkshire will not reach that level. That means that the incinerator will have to take commercial waste; there is nothing wrong with that, but it means that the risk will be with the local taxpayer, and the gain will be with the incinerator operators.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many local residents and I believe that the PFI project is flawed because it relies on forecasts of increasing waste volumes, low recycling and rising landfill tax over the next 25 to 30 years. To the best of my knowledge, the Minister’s Department does not know what the level of landfill tax is likely to be in five years’ time, let alone in 25 years’ time. North Yorkshire’s figures potentially overestimate domestic waste volumes and underestimate increases in recycling. The result is that the intended incinerator capacity is likely to be almost twice the necessary amount, so the project cost savings may very well not be realised, and that potentially means a bad deal for taxpayers.

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said about what happens after a waste site is built. I experienced such problems when I was a parliamentary candidate for Lancashire before the boundary changes. The Farington waste site was built in my constituency, which is now the Ribble Valley constituency. The cross-party South Ribble council unanimously voted the application down, but the Lancashire county council voted it through. The aftermath has been horrific. This is a massive waste site, which in some cases runs 18 metres from the ends of people’s gardens. It has devastated the local wildlife and their habitats, and it has added one extra lorry movement every two minutes past long-established residential areas. It is taking rubbish from all over Lancashire, and is in danger of making South Ribble the dustbin of Lancashire. Simply put, this waste site has devastated people’s lives. Those who voted for it to be built next to residential properties should hang their heads in shame.

For the second time today, I call the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Thank you, Mr Dobbin, and good afternoon to you.

I want to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing a debate on an issue that is important not only for her constituency but, as has been shown, for a number of my hon. Friends, whom I think have differing views about the issue of incinerators. However, it is a big issue and last week’s comprehensive spending review announcements obviously impact on it.

My hon. Friend is probably aware that, despite her kind words at the beginning, this issue is not part of my portfolio. However, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), is at a Council of Ministers meeting in Luxembourg. Therefore, responding to this debate falls to me, but I will pass on to him the detail of what my hon. Friend has said.

Before I get into specifics, I want to make a few points that I hope will calm some concerns, even if they are not necessarily exactly what my hon. Friends want to hear. First, I want to give some facts about waste incinerators. We appreciate that there are huge concerns about incinerators, including their effect on air quality, the natural environment and the health of communities in the vicinity. My hon. Friend referred to the proximity of residences to incinerators in her area.

However, I must emphasize that all modern waste incinerators are subject to extremely stringent pollution controls. They have to comply with the waste incineration directive, which sets strict emission limits for pollutants. As my hon. Friend knows, the Environment Agency must grant the necessary permits for an incinerator to operate if a facility is not compliant with that directive. In other words, such a facility would have to get a permit, and I understand that the permit for the proposed Middlewich incinerator has not yet been granted; in fact, the Environment Agency is still considering the application. All of that means that emissions from waste incinerators are probably more heavily regulated than emissions from coal, gas and other forms of power generation from combustion.

I also need to make it clear that studies have failed to establish any convincing link between the emissions from incinerators and adverse effects on public health. Only last year, the Health Protection Agency reviewed the existing evidence and concluded that any effect on people’s health from incinerator emissions is likely be so small as to be undetectable. The agency also affirmed that adverse health effects from modern, well-regulated waste incinerators do not pose a significant threat to public health.

I hear what the Minister says about the level of pollution from incinerators, which is correct and broadly in accordance with reports produced, inter alia, by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers on this subject. However, it is not true of landfill sites, which sometimes cover many hundreds of acres and are regulated to a much worse standard, creating a much more significant public health issue. This is not a plea for incinerators to be built in the wrong place—the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton are very valid—but we need to understand that we are not comparing incineration with recycling but with landfill, and that is not acceptable either.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. It is extremely important that we understand what we call the “hierarchy of waste disposal”.

As my hon. Friends know, this Government are determined to be a green Government, and part of that involves moving towards a zero-waste economy. That does not mean having absolutely no waste—of course, that is nonsensical—but that resources are fully valued, and we recognise that one person’s waste may be another person’s raw material.

We are moving closer to zero landfill, and incidentally, I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) that the landfill tax is £48 a tonne at the moment and will rise by £8 a tonne for the next four years. So we do know what landfill tax will be in 2015, although I grant that we do not know what it will be in 25 years’ time. Nevertheless, that point might be a little helpful.

We are carrying out a thorough review of waste policy, which we will publish next spring. I cannot pre-empt the findings, but recovery of energy from some waste through incineration and other technologies such as anaerobic digestion is extremely important. That process has a role to play as we move towards the zero-waste economy that I have talked about.

At one extreme of that zero-waste economy is precisely the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) referred to: getting rid of landfill. We cannot go on dumping material in the ground. Not only is it bad in all the ways he described; leaving waste as a legacy for the generations to come, who would have to dig it up, is a pretty impolite thing to do.

So we have a hierarchy of waste disposal, and the preferred option is obviously to prevent waste being created. The next most preferable options are reuse, recycling and recovery—either of the waste itself or energy from it. Landfill must be the very last resort and hopefully, it will be eliminated altogether. Clearly, that hierarchy can change for different individual waste types if it makes environmental sense. However, wherever possible we must set our face against landfill.

In other countries, such as Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, recycling and the use of energy from waste operate in co-existence. In the Netherlands, recycling rates are around 65%, with 33% of energy coming from waste. The figures are similar in Scandinavia.

The waste hierarchy will shortly become UK law through the revised waste framework directive, under which we will have legal targets to meet. The Climate Change Act 2008 sets new targets for carbon budgets, and waste cannot be excepted from that process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton concentrated on local issues and it is entirely right that she did so. However, before I turn to them I cannot stress too much the fact that we can recover energy from waste not only through incineration but through other technologies. Nevertheless, incineration is a proven way of getting energy from waste, although nobody should pretend that it is some sort of “silver bullet”.

My hon. Friends the Members for Selby and Ainsty and for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) raised the issue of the Allerton Park project. I am afraid that I cannot answer all their questions, but I will happily write to them about the details of that project or ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to do so. However, I point out that, as we said last week, we will publish the methodology through which the 11 remaining sites with projects were left in the private finance initiative allocation, and through which the others were taken out. I therefore think we will be able to answer most of my hon. Friends’ concerns about the Allerton Park project.

I turn to the issue of the community. Of course, this Government make great play of the importance of decentralisation. It is an absolute commitment and we want to implement it as much as and wherever we possibly can. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton recognised in her speech, I cannot comment on the particulars of the Middlewich application, which will go to a planning appeal and ultimately, because it is affected by Government policy, to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Nevertheless, the question of communities having their say and—if I understood my hon. Friend correctly—the planning authority’s rejecting the application unanimously are important issues that will have to be taken into account in the inquiry.

We want to ensure that where such applications are made, there is a proper, informed and vigorous debate within the local community, so that it can make the right choices. I fully understand that there is a great deal of public concern about this issue. Concern about incinerators is probably exceeded only by concern about the proposed siting of a Travellers’ camp next to people’s homes—and that might be a marginal difference.

It is important that I stress what I said earlier: that there are no public health issues related to having an incinerator in the vicinity. There may be other planning matters, and that is why I cannot comment on detailed planning issues, but we need to have these debates based on the facts. The fact is that all communities produce waste, and responsibility must be taken for dealing with all that waste in a way that best balances the needs of the community and the environment, while allowing those best placed to take such decisions to take them in as balanced and informed a way as possible, with as little red tape as possible.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton on securing this debate and on opening up what is an emotive and important issue for many local communities. I should have made it clear—although I think she is already well aware of this—that the PFI decisions made last week do not affect the Middlewich application because, as I understand it, it is not a PFI application so that aspect does not come into it. Nevertheless, I am sure that the my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will take note of what has been said today and will ensure that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is aware of all the facts when he makes his final decision, which will be based purely on the planning issues. As I have said, we are determined to be the greenest Government ever, which means that we must find a satisfactory alternative to landfill.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.