It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.
This debate is about issues that have caused considerable concern and distress to a number of my constituents, and relates to a waste recycling site in Eccles that was run by White Recycling Ltd until January this year, when the firm went into liquidation. The way in which the site has been operated and the persistent failure of the operator to comply with regulations have had a significant effect on my constituents who live near the site. I want to discuss the weakness of the response of the Environment Agency, which has failed on numerous occasions to provide the swift and robust response required to address the environmental problems caused by the operation of the site. I also want to question whether the existing regulation and monitoring regime is robust enough to deal with the many failures to comply with regulations at the site. Does the Minister believe that the Environment Agency’s powers need strengthening to make them sufficient to the task of regulating this and other similar waste recycling sites?
I will begin by discussing how the running of the site has affected my constituents. Residents have experienced problems with the site for several years. Indeed, local ward councillors David Jolley and John Mullen have been bringing the problems reported by local residents to the attention of the relevant agencies since 2008, including problems with dust, flies, odour and vermin. Old food waste was held in stacks and not disposed of correctly. The site was found to be accepting excess quantities of waste, which exacerbated many of the problems. Infestations of flies caused serious problems during hot weather over a number of summers, particularly the past two. A constituent who contacted me last year told me that they were unable to open their windows in warmer weather because they wanted to avoid swarms of flies coming in. It is totally unacceptable that people living around the site had to endure such conditions, year after year and summer after summer.
In addition to the unhygienic conditions and the possible associated health risks, residents experienced disruptions from the site in other ways. There were reports of heavy goods vehicles entering and exiting the site with no covering, so that the waste materials being carried were blown out of the vehicles, littering the surrounding roads. The site also caused unnecessary noise issues by operating outside of its specified hours—for example, it was operating from 7 am on a Saturday morning, instead of 8 am. Basic regulations restricting the height of waste stacks were often ignored, with stacks becoming dangerously high and at risk of falling over the fences at the site. On at least one occasion, the stacks of waste did collapse and fall through the fence, polluting a brook that runs next to the site.
[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]
The site has also had two fires in the past two years. In April 2013, 20 firefighters had to be called to the site after a shredding machine caught fire. In October 2014, a large amount of waste in a skip caught fire. It took fire crews six days to get the most recent fire under control, and it generated a large amount of smoke that affected people living in nearby streets. Indeed, I understand that the waste stacks still give off steam and smoke four months later, which is a further concern for local residents. At the time of the fire, Public Health England had to issue a health warning advising people to stay indoors. White Recycling had two fires at the site in Eccles, and in January 2014 there was another at a site that the firm ran in Burnley, which reportedly required the attendance of five fire engines to bring under control.
On 3 September 2014, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) led a debate in this Chamber on the issue of fires at waste management sites in which he said:
“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.”—[Official Report, 3 September 2014; Vol. 585, c. 137WH.]
He also explored the cost to the fire service of dealing with fires at waste management sites, citing a figure of £49,000 per fire. The annual cost of managing fires at waste management sites could therefore amount to £14.5 million in England and a further £1.5 million in Wales.
My hon. Friend cited answers to parliamentary questions that reveal that, of the 600 fires at sites in England, 595 were at private sites, compared with just five at local authority sites. One in every 18 private sites suffered a fire, compared with just one in every 110 local authority-run sites. It is a similar story in Wales, where only three out of 61 fires have been at local authority-run sites—a similar proportion. It appears that fires are much more likely to occur at privately run waste management sites than at local authority-run sites, even though both are subject to the same regulations and standards. That tells us something about how those privately run sites are being operated and points to a failure of regulation that could be costing the fire services of England and Wales some £16 million a year.
On 16 January, SalfordOnline reported that the Environment Agency had suspended White Recycling’s waste permit, meaning that the firm could no longer take new waste into the site. In my view, that action was too little, too late; the reported licence suspension actually coincided with the day that the firm called in liquidators. I trust that the Minister agrees with me that it is unacceptable for any business to fail to comply with regulations on so many occasions, particularly when there is such an impact on the lives of those living close to the site operated by that business. The Environment Agency has failed to respond to complaints with the urgency and robustness that is required in the face of the numerous environmental and health concerns I have mentioned.
The very few steps taken by the Environment Agency to bring White Recycling into compliance with regulations at the Eccles site were not proportionate to the scale of the problems it was causing to local people. The agency also failed to require the company to make improvements within time limits acceptable to the local community.
For example, after a visit from the fire service in August 2013 a regulation 37 notice was served due to the risk of serious pollution from the site. Having accepted small improvements and having been provided with reassurances, the Environment Agency removed the suspension in December that year, claiming that its aim was for the site to be fully compliant with all permit conditions by summer 2014. So that is one year, from August 2013 to summer 2014, to become fully compliant after offences had been committed. It is not acceptable for a site causing such immediate problems to nearby residents to be given a whole year in which to improve performance when the permit conditions should have been met all along.
In 2014 I asked the Environment Agency to take swift and robust action to address the problems of excess waste, dust and flies—the same old problems that we had had for years. In reply, the agency agreed to allow the company 13 weeks further to sort out the problems. White Recycling had already had a year to come into compliance and when I complained it was given another 13 weeks. The agency said that that was because the financial situation of the operator had to be taken into account. Too often the Environment Agency seems to have used a light-touch approach to enforcement, failing to consider the impact that operations at such sites have on nearby communities.
In spite of the history of persistent non-compliance by the firm, White Recycling was able to challenge and overturn agency decisions. On 1 December 2014 local media reported that the agency had issued a revocation notice to shut down the site entirely. It was also reported that White Recycling successfully appealed the revocation decision on 30 December, less than three weeks before the company called in liquidators.
The issues raised by the case in my constituency raise significant concerns about the ability of the Environment Agency to carry out effective regulation. When I talked to agency staff recently, I was given a string of excuses such as, “We cannot monitor the site 24 hours a day,” and they also talked about cuts in staffing at the agency affecting what they could do.
When I raised the issues with the Secretary of State in August 2014, I received a response from the Minister present in the debate today, of which I want to remind him:
“I agree it is totally unacceptable for residents and businesses to be affected by fly infestation and dust from waste management activities”.
He also said:
“The Environment Agency has a duty to inspect waste management sites and has a wide range of enforcement powers. I have made it clear to the Environment Agency that it has my full support in taking a tougher approach against those who, by their actions or omissions, demonstrate a deliberate and often repeated disregard for the law and the environment”.
I have not seen the Environment Agency taking a tough approach against those who demonstrate a deliberate and often repeated disregard for the law and the environment, nor have I seen the agency using a wide range of enforcement powers against a firm that persistently evaded compliance with environmental regulations.
After the experience of the site in my constituency, I do not think that the existing regulatory framework addresses the problem of companies such as White Recycling that show such an apparent disregard for the community in which they operate. Will the Minister in his response tell me and the House what additional steps he will take to ensure that the Environment Agency acts much more swiftly to prevent such waste management operators that fail repeatedly to operate in compliance with regulations?
A similar point came up in a discussion earlier about health issues. A former Health Secretary said to the current Health Secretary that just because he sends out a note or a circular about how he would like something to operate, it does not mean that it happens. I appreciate the words of the Minister in the note that he sent to me, but he was clearly ignored. We need to bear that in mind. We need a much more robust way of ensuring that directions from Ministers are followed.
I firmly believe that more must be done to protect the health and quality of life of local people and, more generally, the environment. Sites such as the one in Eccles should not be permitted to operate in an area surrounded by houses. If they are, residents are left to suffer the unacceptable consequences. Furthermore, as I said, the Environment Agency clearly does not use
“the wide range of enforcement powers”
referred to by the Minister in his letter to me, nor does it adopt the “tougher approach” that he urged on it last year.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister three questions. First, does the Environment Agency need to apply different tests to the way in which it issues permits for waste management sites, so that the lives of residents are not blighted as the lives of my constituents have been? I have talked about my constituents contacting me and about letters being written, but even people I know have simply moved away and out of the area because they could not stand the continuing issues. The site has been a serious blight on people’s lives.
Secondly, does the Environment Agency need tougher enforcement powers and a different approach to using powers to ensure compliance? Thirdly, my constituents having suffered from the operation of the site as described, what assurances can he offer them that the Environment Agency will require both that the hazards be removed from the site—I understand that there are now hazardous materials there—and that the site be cleared as speedily as possible?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on securing the debate. I also thank her for bringing these issues to my attention, via a letter last summer and in the Chamber today, so that we can discuss things in detail. What I said in the letter—I will return to some of those issues—about the situation being unacceptable is absolutely true.
The hon. Lady is quite right in her determination that her residents should not have to suffer nuisance and potential health risks, as well as environmental risks to the local area. I have huge sympathy for them, given what they have been through. It might seem sometimes that it is all very for a Minister to stand here and say that when people have experienced something like this, but I very much sympathise with them, because in this role I have had the opportunity to visit places where there are such issues.
As the hon. Lady said, she wrote to me last August to express her concerns about the impacts on residents, in particular from the flies, odour and dust generated by the site. I made it clear in my response, which she read out, that it is unacceptable for residents and businesses to be affected by such poor practice at a waste management site. Today she set out a history of the site, which dates back many years, but the agency heard about the issues raised more recently in July 2014. The action it took to follow up on that was as follows. On 12 August, the agency served a formal notice requiring White Recycling Ltd, the operator, to reduce the volume of waste on site and to control pests and vermin. Waste volumes continued to increase on the site and at the beginning of October there was a significant fire—which she mentioned—which resulted in the fire and rescue service being on site for a protracted incident lasting six days.
On 22 October last year, the agency served a suspension notice on the operator, with suspension taking effect from 28 October. On 3 November, an inspection was carried out and the amount of waste stored at the site was found to be compliant with the permit. The suspension notice was withdrawn, as the enforcement notice had been complied with. Nevertheless, given the history of repeated non-compliance and permit breaches on the site, the Environment Agency decided to revoke the site’s permit on 1 December. The revocation notice was subsequently appealed; as such, the company was able to continue to operate while awaiting the results of the appeal.
On 15 January, the agency undertook a joint inspection with the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service, which deemed the site to pose a significant risk of fire. The agency therefore served the company with a second suspension notice, which was effective from 6 o’clock that evening. That prevented the operator from accepting further waste at the site, but allowed it to remove waste in order to reduce the risk of fire. On 21 January, the operator, White Recycling Ltd, entered into administration.
The Environment Agency sometimes faces a difficult challenge of striking the right balance between encouraging businesses to comply and supporting growth while coming down firmly on those who flout the law or cause harm to local communities and the environment. In common with other regulators, the agency has a duty to give regard to the regulators’ code. The first principle of the code emphasises the need for regulators to carry out their activities in a way that supports those that they regulate to comply and to grow.
The Environment Agency took enforcement action against White Recycling Ltd to tackle the non-compliance. I accept that the hon. Lady might consider that the agency action was not speedy enough. As I said in my letter to her, I made it clear to the agency that it has my full support in taking a speedier and tougher approach against those who by their actions or omissions demonstrate a deliberate and often repeated disregard for the law and the environment. In the first oral questions to the Department after my appointment as Minister, I answered a question on a similar site in another part of the country and it became clear to me that we needed to examine and discuss this issue.
Persistent and entrenched poor performance at waste management sites causes nuisance to local communities, pollutes the environment and undermines the legitimate waste management sector, which is working hard to deliver a much better service. There is anecdotal evidence of a growing trend in such behaviour, and tackling it is a priority for Government and for the agency. I strongly support action by the agency to tackle these problems and I am pleased it is taking a tougher approach to regulation and enforcement at waste sites. Since September, it has increased its interventions to reduce the risk of serious fires. In that month, 76 high-risk sites were identified, 88% of which—including White Recycling—are now subject to enforcement action, including investigation for prosecution. The remaining 12% have improved and are now compliant.
The Minister has talked about tougher responses and coming down firmly. I do not know whether he is going to come to this point—I do not want to labour it, but I want him to address it, as is it quite important—but I gave him an example in which the agency appeared to take a year to act following a non-compliance notice. When I complained—the complaint in which he was involved last year—it gave the company another 13 weeks, taking into account its financial situation. All of that seems to have been entirely concerned with letting the business carry on, and not at all concerned with the residents who suffered all that summer, the second in which they had a particular problem with flies. That is what is unacceptable.
I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns. It is clearly her firm view that action could have been taken more quickly. I understand that view and am pleased she has had the opportunity to express it today. As I have said, I have made it clear in my discussions with the agency that I want it to take action swiftly and to use all its powers to bear down on poor practice. That is also the strong wish of the industry—the legitimate operators that are concerned that they might lose business to those who have far poorer practices, with poorer safeguards for the local community and environment.
The agency recently launched a consultation on changes to its standard rules for environmental permits—the sorts of issues on which the hon. Lady is keen to see progress. The proposed changes include the introduction of a new requirement for a fire prevention plan for those sites with permits that are allowed to store combustible waste material. Additional amendments cover storage periods for combustible waste and clarification about the maximum amounts of waste that can be stored. The agency has closed 255 illegal waste sites during the first half of this financial year. It stopped 116 of the 225 new illegal waste sites found since 1 April in under 90 days, and agency action has resulted in 86 illegal waste sites being cleared, with waste totalling 133,310 cubic metres diverted into the legitimate industry.
We want to do more, however. We will consult shortly on strengthening further Environment Agency enforcement powers, including ensuring that the agency can physically prevent waste from coming on to sites that are in breach of their permits—again, the sort of matter on which the hon. Lady is keen to see progress. We will also seek views on further changes to strengthen the law, including a requirement for greater financial provision from operators of waste management sites through bonds, insurance or other mechanisms. That will reduce the opportunities for rogue operators to obtain permits. One concern has been that if we tackle an operator that then goes out of business and into administration, we are left with the clean-up costs. If there is some sort of financial arrangement providing a guarantee, the money can be used to remediate any problems.
I understand that that issue was touched on in the debate on 3 September led by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent. I believe that he expressed the view that insurance companies were pulling out of that market because the risk was substantial.
In the consultation there will be the opportunity to put forward options for that idea. The main focus is on giving the agency the tools that it needs to tackle poor performance.
The Environment Agency has a duty to inspect waste management sites and a wide range of enforcement powers, which the Government plan to expand. Entrenched and persistent poor performance by the rogues and chancers in the waste management industry is not acceptable to the public or the responsible and compliant waste management industry. That is why the Government are taking action in partnership with the agency.
The hon. Lady will rightly want to know when the particular site she has discussed will be returned to a condition that does not pose a continuing nuisance to the local community and the environment. Liquidators acting for White Recycling formally advised the Environment Agency that they disclaim all the company’s interest at the site, and the agency understands that the operator has disclaimed the permit, so the primary legal responsibility for the site now sits with the landowner, Peel. I understand that the agency has been in regular discussions with the landowner for over a year. It is meeting the landowner on Friday, along with the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service, to discuss the potential fire risk and will provide her with an update following the meeting.
The agency has confirmed to me that it will take all necessary action to ensure that there is no immediate danger to human health and the environment from the waste stored on the site and that it is considering all possible forms of enforcement action against the individuals responsible for White Recycling Ltd.
The agency is looking at all forms of enforcement action, which would include the sorts of things that the hon. Lady is considering.
I understand that the agency has been advising Peel of its responsibilities as a landowner; I trust that it will take steps to work with the various agencies to achieve satisfactory resolution of the situation.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising her concerns. She has rightly raised these issues in the interests of her constituents, and today’s debate has given me the opportunity to provide some reassurance that the Government take the matter seriously. I hope that she will look at the consultation; perhaps the constituents of hers who were affected might want to add their thoughts on the powers and changes proposed, to make sure that we have a well functioning, well regulated industry that takes account of local circumstances and that where poor performance is identified, it is dealt with swiftly.
Question put and agreed to.