Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)
I am very pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate on the Blaydon Quarry landfill site. It is a matter of great concern to my constituents in the communities surrounding the site.
My constituency has had more than its fair share of landfill sites, both in the past and more recently; there are landfill sites on either side of the main road from the town of Blaydon out to the west, so complaints about them are a constant. In 2016, there was a major incident at one of them, Path Head, when for months a heavy, sulphurous smell hung over large parts of Ryton, causing intense concern about the impact on health and seriously affecting residents’ ability to enjoy a normal life. Thankfully, that site has now closed and is being restored, but it has left an enduring concern about the effect that landfill sites have on our communities. In particular, it has had an effect on the established former mining community of Stargate and Crookhill, within just a few hundred yards of the site, which have had to endure odours and other problems throughout its life, but it also affects the Stella area. It is in that context that this debate and the concern of my constituents must be understood.
I turn to the subject of tonight’s debate. Blaydon Quarry is a landfill site in the west of my constituency. It is located in the village of Greenside, but is surrounded by the communities of Greenside, Winlaton, Barlow, Stargate, Ryton, Blaydon Burn and Blaydon itself. It is very close to each of those communities, and each has felt the impact of the site over many years. Over the years, there have been a number of different site operators—Premier Waste, Niramax, Octagon Green Solutions—each bringing its own problems. The site is now owned by a company called Recyclogical, but following the refusal of a transfer of the environmental permit to it last year, Octagon Green Solutions remains as the permit holder and site operator—an issue to which I intend to return later.
Over the period that my predecessor, Dave Anderson, was the Member of Parliament for Blaydon, and while I was a local councillor, residents have consistently—perhaps I should say, persistently—complained about the Blaydon Quarry landfill site, so this is by no means a new issue, but it is a very current one.
I spoke to the hon. Lady beforehand to seek her permission to intervene. As her case is very similar to ones I have had in my constituency of Strangford, I wanted to make a short intervention. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is essential that quarry landfill sites are held to the highest standards when it comes to neighbourhood issues? A little common sense and perhaps a little money as well from quarries in due season would go a long way in ensuring good neighbour relations and, subsequently, result in fewer complaints. In the council I served on, Ards Borough Council—it is now Ards and North Down Borough Council—there were some issues, and we were able to have those issues addressed. Does the hon. Lady agree that people have a right to live in peace at night and without offensive smells, no matter what their postcode is?
I agree, of course, with the hon. Gentleman’s last statement, but I disagree with some of his earlier comments, because I think the time is now ripe for us to go beyond monitoring, controlling or whatever. We need a totally different approach to landfill for the benefit of our communities.
As I was saying, over the period that my predecessor was in post and I was councillor, there were persistent complaints about the site, so it is by no means a new issue, but it is a very current one. Most recently, about two months ago, as they have done on many previous occasions, many residents contacted me about a bad smell in the air. I call it a smell, because calling it an odour, as the official documents do, is far too polite. In fact, residents did not need to contact me about it, as I could most definitely smell it myself when I was at home. The smell was persistent and very unpleasant. Some people reported the smell to the Environment Agency’s incident hotline, and many more complained to me, to councillors and to neighbours.
I raised the issue with the Environment Agency team, who were responsive, as always. Residents were very pleased to hear in mid-February that the site had been stopped from receiving waste for a period of up to two weeks while the operators fixed the problem of the smells from uncovered waste that were affecting our communities. The required action was taken and the tip reopened for waste, but problems continue.
That was just one of the latest incidents at the site that have blighted our communities over several years and, frankly, our communities have had enough. They have had enough of bad smells, enough of heavy vehicles on our country lanes, enough of litter from the site and trucks being scattered in our fields, and enough of dust from the site. They have had enough of the site and want to see it closed, and so do I. That will come as no surprise to the site owner or operator as I have made my views clear in the site liaison meetings, when we have had them—they are often very heated—and elsewhere.
In early 2015, during a period of high winds and despite advice from the Environment Agency, there was a huge escape of litter from the site, with litter sprayed around the hedges, in fields and in trees. Our usually green and pleasant area was festooned with rubbish. It was, frankly, disgusting and not easy to clear, and still today the tatter of plastic bags can be seen in trees and bushes around the periphery of the site. It created a huge outcry, with residents protesting, angry at this littering of their local environment. It was environmental vandalism of the highest order. No lay person could fail to see the devastating nature of this rubbish escape. Astonishingly, after consideration by the Environment Agency legal team, we were told that it was not possible to prosecute that breach, even though the scale of the devastation was clear to local residents.
Over the years, there have been other issues too. The Winlaton Action Group was set up by local residents after many people found dust settling on their cars and became extremely concerned about the impact that this and other issues at the site were having on their health. That remains a concern for local people, particularly in the context of the major problem that I mentioned earlier at the Path Head site causing really bad smells over a long period.
Another issue is the height to which rubbish is being tipped. I met some residents recently in Stargate, Ryton, who showed me photographs of an uninterrupted view past the landfill site over to a neighbouring village. When we lifted up our eyes from the photograph, all we could see was a mound of rubbish with a digger on top. The Environment Agency has been out to check the height and I understand that some action is being taken, but the tip has changed our local landscape.
Then there are the large lorries that transport waste from other parts of the country to Blaydon. It is not even our rubbish that is being tipped at the site—it comes from all over. Our waste goes to an energy from waste site under the South Tyne and Wear Waste Management Partnership. Not only is it inefficient for trucks to transport rubbish for miles and miles, but it is a hazard on the narrow roads immediately surrounding the site, creating mud and dust for other road users.
The Environment Agency, with whom I meet frequently, has sent me a list of enforcement actions taken since 2012—I am sure that the Minister will have a copy. It shows that there have been a number of formal interventions as well as the usual monitoring and advice that takes place.
In December 2014, an enforcement notice was served under regulation 36 of the environmental permitting regulations requiring actions following an escape of litter from the site. That ensured that any escaped litter was collected and that the site-specific litter management plan was revised. In March 2015, another enforcement notice was served under regulation 36 requiring actions following a further escape of litter from the site. That ensured that the further escaped litter was collected and that the site-specific litter management plan was again revised. Additional control measures were installed on the site.
In February 2016, a regulation 36 enforcement notice was served requiring the progression of engineering works to manage landfill gas. This notice ensured additional gas extraction wells were installed within a recently completed area on the site. In July 2017, a regulation 36 enforcement notice was served requiring improvements to the leachate management system on site. This notice ensured that more leachate was removed from the site, rather than just being recirculated around the site. In January and February 2018, two further regulation 36 enforcement notices were served, requiring the implementation of additional engineering works to manage landfill gas. These notices were served following odour issues identified from landfill gas emissions. The notices required the installation of additional gas extraction and further areas of capping.
In February 2019, a regulation 37 suspension notice was served, preventing waste inputs while remedial works were carried out. The notice was served following complaints of odour from the site. The odour complaints were linked to an area of waste not properly tipped or covered. The notice required that this area of waste be re-profiled and covered appropriately. The notice was served on 19 February. The work was completed and the notice lifted on 26 February. As we can see, there is a whole series of issues concerning smells, leachate and litter, on top of the day-to-day concerns residents have raised and continue to raise through liaison meetings and meetings with the Environment Agency.
Of course, it is not just the Environment Agency that is concerned with regulating the site. Gateshead Council also has a part to play through planning enforcement. There is quite a catalogue here, too. In May 2018, there was a report to the planning committee which summarised the outstanding issues, including: restoration of some completed areas; ecological provisions, including nesting for sand martins; and, perhaps most importantly, proposals for the drainage scheme on site. As late as last week, the council issued the company with a letter refusing to discharge all but one of the planning issues that had been raised. All that came after a stop notice was issued by the council in April 2018 requiring the removal of caravans from the site. The caravans were removed, but really they should never have been there in the first place.
On top of that, we have a very real concern that the split between the operator holding the environmental permit and the land owner, who appears to be actually working the site, represents a real danger for the effective running of the site. There have now been three applications for the transfer of the environmental permit and none has been granted. That has to raise real questions about the sustainability of the current arrangements and people are quite understandably concerned that this exposes our communities to further risks, as clearly the current operator, having sold the site itself, wishes to give up the permit.
My constituents and I are well and truly fed up with the impact the landfill site is having on our environment and our lives. We just cannot understand why repeated breaches on planning and environmental grounds cannot lead to the landfill site being closed, safely, once and for all, and the site restored. I should say that in my experience, staff at both the Environment Agency and Gateshead Council have been very good and helpful in pursuing the issues we raise, but we have had enough and believe that the site should be closed forthwith.
So what am I asking the Minister for? First, to strengthen the law covering landfill and waste sites to ensure that, where there are recurring problems, communities do not have to continue to endure the problems arising from landfill sites. We need much stronger powers for the Environment Agency to act to really protect our environment and to deal with landfill operators that fail to meet their duties as good neighbours.
Secondly, I ask the Minister to work with her colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to strengthen planning enforcement, but moreover to ensure that no landfill sites should be allowed so very near to where people live, as is the case in Blaydon. There are families living immediately around the perimeter of the site who, over the years, have suffered from incidents directly affecting their properties, as have the villages and the people who live in communities just that little bit further out. Living next to a landfill site is never going to be pleasant and we must tighten up planning to ensure that this can never happen again.
Thirdly, I ask the Minister to take practical and legislative steps to end the use of landfill sites by strengthening environmental legislation and reducing waste to landfill. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly for my community, I ask her to work with me, my constituents and statutory bodies to see that the Blaydon quarry landfill site, like the neighbouring Path Head quarry site, is closed safely and restored, to bring an end to the years of misery my constituents have had to endure.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this debate. She has spoken with eloquence and passion in representing her constituents here today. She referred to some of the work that was undertaken by her predecessor, Dave Anderson, who was also very proactive on the subject. She is right to ask why it is taking years to sort the situation out. If she does not mind, I will set out a few ways in which action has been taken and is still proactively under way, as I think she is aware.
It is important to ensure we have clear and strong environmental regulation and planning controls that work for the environment, for people and for business. Twice in her four questions, the hon. Lady asked about practical and legislative steps, including stronger powers for the Environment Agency. I am pleased to say that, during the next Session of Parliament, in the Environment Bill, we hope to introduce powers to tackle some of the issues that she raised. An ongoing policy, and a success of both the former Labour Government and this Government, is the gradual and significant reduction in the amount of waste that goes to landfill. That has largely been driven by the success of the landfill tax. We will continue to do more to try to increase recycling.
A well-functioning and regulated waste industry is essential for us. It enables us to maximise the efficient use of our resources and to minimise the impacts of waste on the environment. The Environment Agency is the regulator for the sector in England. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to an issue in his constituency, and he is right that neighbourhood relations are important for any waste operator. He will be aware that a different regulator applies. He mentioned strong community relations, which were made possible by the council on which he used to serve.
The Environment Agency issues environmental permits for waste operators and regulates against them. It particularly targets operators that do not comply with the regulatory framework and that, in turn, cause suffering to nearby communities. Environmental permits are issued for regulated activities carried out at sites. In the case of a permitted landfill facility, such as that located at Blaydon quarry, the permit will cover hazards and risks arising from the activities on the site of the landfill. The current permit has been in place since landfill activity recommenced in 2004. The permit allows for the deposit of up to 329,000 tonnes of non-hazardous waste within engineered cells on the site.
Environmental permits do not cover wider planning controls, and nor should they if we are to avoid unnecessary regulatory duplication. The site has planning permission to allow landfilling, and that was issued and is governed by Gateshead Council. I am conscious of the hon. Lady’s request to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about enforcement and location. We believe that councils already have the opportunity to do both those things. I recognise the challenges on historic sites where relocation is no longer necessarily possible.
In May 2012 the permit was transferred from the initial operator to Niramax Group Ltd. It was transferred again in May 2013 to Octagon Green Solutions Ltd, which continues to operate the site today. In 2017, two applications were made to transfer the permit, first to the landowner, Recyclogical Ltd, and secondly to a company called Midwest Solutions Ltd. A third transfer application was received in September 2018, again in relation to Midwest Solutions Ltd. All those applications have been refused, most recently just last week, because the Environment Agency has not been satisfied that the companies had sufficient competence to comply with the permit.
It is right that only properly competent people can hold a waste permit. In this instance, the Environment Agency was concerned that the applicants lacked the ability to comply with permits and to run a waste site effectively. That is in line with our work to tighten up the waste permitting and exemptions regime by raising the bar for people to operate in the sector.
Understandably, the hon. Lady read out a litany of non-compliance, which resulted in notices being served. Between 2014 and 2018, the Environment Agency served a series of enforcement notices for the identified issues on the Blaydon site. Those breaches included litter escaping from the site, for which additional control measures were installed, including the improved management of landfill gas and leachate. There were also additional engineering works following odour issues. In February 2019, it was found that odour issues were coming from an area of waste that was not properly tipped or covered, and a regulation 37 suspension notice was served to prevent waste input while remedial works were carried out. As the hon. Lady pointed out, that notice was served on 19 February, and the work was completed and the notice lifted on 26 February.
The hon. Lady is right to point out that there have been a number of breaches. By and large, the company—perhaps cleverly—has responded quite quickly to those breaches. However, we would of course rather that the breaches did not happen in the first place. A number of planning contraventions on the site are also being investigated by Gateshead Council. The Environment Agency and Gateshead Council work closely together on the site and have ongoing engagement with the local community, including through attending regular meetings. I encourage Gateshead Council to do more on planning enforcement in this regard.
The Environment Agency is concerned about the level of non-compliance with the permit. Following the issues that led it to serve a suspension notice in February, it is now investigating fully whether the operator is fit to continue to run the site, and is exploring its options regarding further sanctions. In addition to prosecution, further sanctions could include serving a permit revocation notice, which would prevent any further landfilling from taking place.
Let me turn to the wider policy context. After our consultation last year, from 7 April, all permitted waste sites will need to demonstrate technical competence through a scheme approved by the Government. This change will provide the regulator with the flexibility to use its full range of enforcement powers, such as enforcement or suspension notices, on all waste operation permits to ensure that the operators are technically competent. The Government recently announced a tougher approach to the regulation of environmental permits, including tightening up technical competence requirements and allowing the Environment Agency to take a wider range of criminal convictions—beyond environmental offences—into account when considering permit applications and variations.
Our resources and waste strategy commits us to the recommendations of the review into serious and organised criminality in the waste sector, which was completed last autumn by Lizzie Noel. We will continue to bear down on criminal activity in the waste sector and drive out of the sector the organisations that undercut legitimate businesses and make communities’ lives miserable. Let me be clear to the hon. Lady and the House that the Government and the Environment Agency take the regulation of the waste sector very seriously.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. I am very much alive to the challenges faced by residents in her constituency and beyond, as is the Environment Agency, and I will continue to work proactively with her and to bear down on those operating in a manner that causes pollution, ugliness and misery in the affected communities.
Question put and agreed to.