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Waste Management Sites (Fires)

Volume 585: debated on Wednesday 3 September 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak today.

The issue I want to raise is that of fires at waste management sites. This is a problem that literally stinks to high heaven. Fires at waste management sites can have a far-reaching impact, way beyond a 999 call and a few hours’ attendance by the local fire crew and their appliance. They can come with a very hefty financial cost. They often demand a multi-agency response and, worryingly, the resulting fall-out can blight communities.

Today, I want to tell you about a fire at the waste management site in the village of Nantyglo, in my constituency that burned for 10 days in January 2013. A small mountain of waste—more than 200 tonnes worth—caught aflame. The smoke billowing from the fire made the lives of the residents in the nearby streets a misery. It clogged the air, seeped into washing hanging on the line, and filled homes and cars with a noxious smell. One of the neighbours with asthma and emphysema could not go out of the house at all for the whole time of the fire. Such waste sites store everything from plastic containers and solvent-based paints to oily rags and aerosol cans, and the burning of chemicals trapped people in their own home. The resident with respiratory illnesses loves the area and keeps her home clean and tidy, but now she feels that she will have to move out if there is a prospect of future fires. That is not right.

When home for the long weekend, I caught sight of a big smoke cloud over Nantyglo from my kitchen window, and it was held there for 10 days by the many rainclouds above. The air was acrid, and clearly, the matter needed urgent attention.

After trying to understand who was co-ordinating matters, I got stuck in and called a multi-agency meeting to try and take things forward. Everybody eventually pulled together. Natural Resources Wales had stationed a staff member by the site to oversee and co-ordinate. The fire service went back and forth to keep a lid on the still smouldering fire and Public Health Wales set in place air quality measuring kit. It was a very small, enclosed site, but fair do’s, Blaenau Gwent council helped a lot by making available some nearby land to shift hundreds of tonnes of waste on to. That enabled the eventual control of the fire. Months later, the bill for the operation was estimated to reach £70,000. That is just one example of the damage and demands on public services, as well as the insurance industry, that such fires can cause, and it is one of many.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the subject, as there was a fire lasting six months in a pile of carpet waste in my constituency. He mentioned insurance and cost. In the case of my constituency, the operating firm is in liquidation. Ought there not to be some system of insurance or bonds that ensures that if there is nobody left to pay, there is some money in the bank to deal with the terrible consequences that our constituents have to face?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very powerful point, not least because I understand that some bits of the insurance sector are pulling out of this industry because the premiums are not covering their costs.

The incident in Nantyglo is, it seems, one of many. A total of 600 fires occurred at waste management sites in England between 2012 and 2013, with 61 additional fires occurring in Wales. Despite waste management sites being monitored and requiring licences, we are getting nearly one fire a day across England and Wales.

While I was putting this speech together, firefighters in Swindon were hoping finally to get on top of a waste site fire that has been burning away for a month. There, 3,000 tonnes of waste have had to be moved so that firefighters can tackle the fire effectively. The bill for the entire operation is expected to be in the region of £400,000, with concerns that it may be the taxpayer who shoulders the burden of that cost.

I wanted to understand the financial impact of these fires fully, so I logged freedom of information requests with fire services up and down the country. I asked how many fires they have dealt with and the cost of dealing with them. It became immediately apparent that there is not a standardised scale for costing these measures. Each service had its own way of categorising such fires, and their cost analysis varied from a few hundred pounds to several thousand.

If we want to tackle this problem in the future, we need an agreed nationwide system, perhaps developed with the National Audit Office, that is transparent, credible and allows regions to share data and better understand the costs of these sorts of fires. The responses from South Wales fire and rescue service and Merseyside fire and rescue service were the most interesting, as their costs were significantly higher than the other services. Merseyside fire and rescue service identified 18 incidents, with single incidents costing, on average, £48,000. South Wales fire and rescue service identified the estimated cost of attending seven calls as £344,000, which is an average cost of £49,000 a fire.

Those numbers were generated using the economic cost of fire reports from the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Welsh Government. These reports not only look at response costs, but the money needed to repair the damage afterwards and protect against the cost of fires in the future. For instance, the 2006 Welsh report includes property damage, loss of business, injuries and insurance costs in that financial bundle. Indeed, as I mentioned, insurance companies have been pulling out of the sector all year, citing the amount of losses not stacking up with the premiums taken.

I believe that those higher figures give us a more accurate cost of the impact of waste fires. That would mean that in two years, waste management fires in Wales and England—this is just my back-of-an-envelope figure; I am not an econometrician—will have cost the economy approximately £32 million.

What needs to be done to solve the problem? It is clearly a problem for the communities who have to suffer the consequences and it is a problem for our economy, but I am also concerned by the breakdown of those fires. In response to parliamentary questions, the Minister told me that 595 of the fires in England were at private sites compared with just five at local authority sites and that one in every 18 private sites suffered a fire compared with one in 110 local authority-run sites. It is a similar story in Wales, with only three of the 61 fires being at local authority sites.

This is a big industry and it is fairly complex, I know, but it is important to understand whether the two types of site are doing similar work or are subject to the same regulations and standards. How are they monitored? Why are there such good records for publicly organised sites compared with private ones? It would be interesting if the Minister could tell us more.

In addition, looking through the lists of fires supplied by Natural Resources Wales and the Environment Agency, we see that there are countless instances of fires occurring multiple times in the same location. A quick glance through the 61 entries in the NRW records alone is illuminating. There were three reports for one Port Talbot site in just three weeks. There were three incidents at a Dowlais Top site in Merthyr in five months. If a small number of sites are responsible for a large percentage of fires, action needs to be taken.

My concerns are mirrored by those of the Fire Futures Forum, which attempted to tackle these problems last November. Chaired by the Chief Fire Officers Association, it was a round-table event aimed at understanding the issues that arise from waste management fires. The forum put forward three points that I believe should be looked at seriously by the Minister—I do understand that this is a cross-departmental issue. First, it recognised the need to share good practice across the industry. That was particularly relevant for larger waste management operators guiding small and medium-sized businesses and not only helping to reduce the incidence of fires, but lessening their impact when they do happen. Although private companies could undertake that course of action themselves, regulatory authorities could play a part in helping the sector to deliver good practice throughout the industry.

Secondly, the forum wanted a clampdown on rogue traders. Bad operators need to be identified and action taken accordingly. It suggested that licensing process could be tightened up and a national database of waste management operators and sites established. I wholeheartedly support that point. The bad neighbours who run these sites and blight their local communities need the strongest possible oversight.

Legislation is potentially required to support the work of the Environment Agency in case it needs further powers, and I would be interested in what it has to say about that possibility. We also need a single agency to take responsibility for pulling together all the others for concerted action when fires do occur. We may also need to look at planning for locations of waste management facilities, waste permits, and appropriate advice and guidance on suitable risk-management processes.

This is a big issue, affecting many communities across England and Wales. I expect that the same is also true in Scotland and Northern Ireland—so across the UK. Fires at waste management sites cost public services, the industry and its insurers an arm and a leg. They make everyday life intolerable for residents close to a fire and can badly affect the health of some. However, there is a clear agenda that could help with this issue, so I hope that the Minister will try to answer some of the points that I have made and will agree an action plan that gets a good grip of it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing the debate on reducing fires at waste management sites. I am delighted to see in their places other hon. Members who have concerns in that regard, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who has raised the issue with me on previous occasions and will continue to do so until he is satisfied, as I am sure the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent will. Given the fire at the A. Lewis Waste Paper Collections Ltd site in Nantyglo in his constituency in January 2013, to which he referred, the subject is of understandable concern to his constituents, but it is also a concern to many people in the United Kingdom.

Waste management policy, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, is largely a devolved matter. The Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales, to which he referred in relation to that incident, are responsible for policy and regulation of Welsh waste sites respectively. However, I am pleased to have the opportunity to explain what the Government and others are doing to address this important issue in England. We will return to some of the issues he raised, which are no doubt important across all jurisdictions in the United Kingdom.

The Government recognise that the public and the resource management industry have legitimate concerns about fires at waste management sites. The fires can involve large volumes of waste burning for prolonged periods. They cause unacceptable impacts on people, the environment and local infrastructure. Responding to waste fires places a huge strain on the resources not just of the fire and rescue service and the Environment Agency, but of the police, local authorities, the Health and Safety Executive and public health organisations. The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights the substantial cost of waste fires. The firefighting costs alone can be substantial, but as he pointed out, the costs range much more widely than that. For example, the cost to the London Fire Brigade of keeping safe just one waste site that has experienced repeated fires has been in the region of £650,000. I agree completely with him that those are unacceptable costs to the public purse. Repeated waste fires also have an impact on the insurance costs for the resource management sector as a whole—there is also an impact on the businesses of those who are following best practice.

When I came into this post last October, there was a long-running fire at the waste site near Berwick-upon-Tweed, and recurring fires at a waste site near Bromley in London. I met the then chair of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith of Finsbury, in December to stress the importance of early intervention to tackle waste crime and poor performance, which are often contributory factors in waste fires.

The Environment Agency set up a waste fires task and finish group last year to review actions needed to address the risk of fires at the waste sites that it regulates. As part of that work, the agency conducted a screening exercise to identify sites where there was an increased risk of a significant fire and/or sites that posed a significant hazard to people and the environment should a fire break out, so we are looking at risk and likely severity of impact. That screening exercise has identified 80 waste sites in England that would pose a very high risk of impact if a fire were to occur. The agency is taking action to reduce risks at those sites to acceptable levels, and I am seeking regular updates on progress.

The Environment Agency has identified a further 215 medium-risk waste sites. Local Environment Agency teams will prioritise appropriate action to reduce the risk at those sites in the same way as for the initial 80 high-risk sites. Last year, the agency also wrote to more than 7,000 waste operators to remind them of their regulatory obligations to control the risks and impacts of fires at their sites, and issued a technical guidance note setting out appropriate measures and performance standards for preventing waste fires. The agency guidance is endorsed by the Chief Fire Officers Association in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests, to get the benefit of that technical expertise across the sector.

The Chief Fire Officers Association brought the waste industry, the enforcing authorities and other stakeholders together in a forum last year, as the hon. Gentleman said, to develop a road map towards ensuring a sustained reduction in fires in waste facilities. One outcome of that forum has been the development by the resource management sector of new draft fire safety management guidance and best practice, to be published later this year, so the suggestion that he rightly makes has been taken forward, and I am pleased that he is adding his support. In fact, his securing of this debate provides renewed impetus and ensures that we keep pushing forward on that work.

The lessons learned document for the fire in my constituency contained, as one of the lessons, this:

“Review the merits of…mandatory insurance”,

meaning that proof of insurance would need to be produced when a permit is issued. That was referred to as something to be determined under the national action plan. Will it be considered in the discussions that my hon. Friend the Minister has described?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. That is one of the areas I have been discussing with the agency. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent raised concerns about the pressure on the insurance industry as a result of the situation. We need to look at all these issues in the round. Certainly that is an issue that we will continue to discuss and address to see whether it would be fruitful to put in some more work in that direction.

The Chief Fire Officers Association has been working closely with the Environment Agency. The organisations are in the process of signing a national memorandum, which will promote the co-operation and data-sharing that the hon. Gentleman is keen to see, and which will set out how local Environment Agency and fire and rescue teams will collaborate and carry out site visits to ensure effective fire prevention.

In many cases, fires at waste sites are linked to poor operator compliance. This week, I have written to waste industry representatives outlining a series of Government and Environment Agency proposals focused on waste crime and tackling poor performance at waste management sites. Those proposals, which were developed in part in response to calls by the industry for more robust enforcement action, include: increased agency intervention at poor-performing sites; a review of the powers for suspending or revoking environmental permits; increased regulatory fees paid by operators of poorly performing sites; greater agency scrutiny of newly permitted sites; and revisions to the systems for assessing operator competence, which is another crucial angle. We have talked about the financial risks, but a thorough assessment of operator competence is important in preparation for the opening of new sites and the entry of new businesses to the sector, because it is a technical matter. We want to see people acting in the sector, creating jobs and making better use of available resources as part of our move towards a circular economy, but we have to ensure that they are technically competent to do so. We also propose to ensure that environmental permits contain minimum standards for the storage of combustible materials. I have invited representatives of the resource industry and the profession to discuss how we and the agency can take our proposals forward, because the Government and the regulator cannot do that alone.

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the means of recording and reporting on fires at waste sites. Each local fire and rescue authority provides the Department for Communities and Local Government with information about all incidents that it attends, including fires at waste and recycling sites, through the incident reporting system, which covers England and Wales. The data gathered include details of the area of damage caused by the fire. The Environment Agency separately collects reports from the operators of permitted sites on the scale and nature of any environmental impacts associated with fires. Natural Resources Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency adopt a similar approach to recording fires at permitted sites in Wales and Scotland.

We will work with the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the data collected by the Environment Agency and the fire and rescue authorities are as consistent and robust as possible. I acknowledge that there have been some recent high-profile fires, although Environment Agency figures show that the total number of fires at regulated waste sites over the past 10 years has remained relatively constant at some 250 to 300 a year. Of course, constant is not as good as declining, so we want further progress. That sounds like a lot, but the majority are low-level fires—some of them are caused by electrical faults or equipment failure—that are put out quickly by operatives at the site without the need to call fire and rescue services. However, it is important for those to be recorded and form part of our information dataset.

Environment Agency statistics show that the number of serious or significant fires at waste sites during the past four years has been relatively stable at approximately 15 a year. The Environment Agency regulates more than 8,000 permitted sites that are involved in storing combustible waste. The 12 serious and significant fires that have occurred so far this year represent less than 0.2% of the sites that store combustible waste. We must not be complacent, however, and we must strive to prevent any such incidents from occurring. The waste and resource management sector, the regulators, the fire and rescue services and the Government are taking forward a range of actions to reduce serious waste fires. I welcome the positive and proactive approach that has been taken by all involved.

The hon. Gentleman made a valuable point when he mentioned the dissemination of best practice. The code of best practice and the memorandum of understanding to which I have referred show that the industry, the fire and rescue services and the environmental protection agencies are taking forward such best practice. The new proposals are designed to tackle rogue traders and poor performers who got into the industry without technical expertise, so I am pleased that he raised that. In many cases, the answer is extra investment in enforcement and early intervention to prevent outbreaks of fire, however small, and the most serious ones must be dealt with.

The hon. Gentleman asked about planning and permitting, and we will consider those as part of our review. If the evidence base supports changes to those regimes, we will look at making those changes. He asked questions about local authority-managed sites and private sector sites. Given the answers he received to his parliamentary questions and the terms in which he raised them, I understand why he has drawn attention to the matter. There are a range of facilities, however, and the local authority sites do not necessarily operate with the same materials or deal with the same volumes as other sites do, so it is difficult to draw conclusions from the points he has raised, but that was an interesting contribution to the debate.

As Minister with responsibility for resources management, I will continue to work with the Environment Agency and encourage it to review the effectiveness of its approach to the enforcement of waste controls, and to consider what more can be done to reduce the incidence of serious waste fires.

Owing to the earlier suspension for the Division, the next debate will end no later than 5.12 pm, so there is some extra time available for it.