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Landfill Sites: Odour

Volume 672: debated on Tuesday 25 February 2020

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered odour emanating from landfill sites.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, and welcome the Minister to her place. I am pleased to have secured this debate on the important matter of odour emanating from landfill sites, which is an issue of great concern to a number of my constituents, particularly in Silverdale, Knutton and Poolfields—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

The waste industry is one that most people would rather not think about, but that is not an option for people who live close to a landfill site, because of the impact that it can have on their lives. I am sure that other Members here will recognise some of the problems we face from experience in their own constituencies. It may come as a surprise to some that there was in fact a great deal of interest in the debate from other Members hoping to speak, but with it being only a 30-minute debate, unfortunately they will have to do so through interventions. It seems that the people of Newcastle-under-Lyme are not alone in their worries. I will give other Members the chance to put on the record their constituents’ concerns, and I will share a few comments from Members who cannot be here today.

I commend the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for the incredible amount of work going on to reduce waste going to landfill. The Government are working hard to minimise waste and to promote recycling and resource efficiency. We are moving towards a circular economy in England, and I acknowledge that, as we actively encourage individuals and companies to recycle more and produce less waste, in time we will become less reliant on landfill. Nevertheless, for the time being, landfill sites remain an important part of waste management in this country.

In my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme, odour is not a new issue. It has been a problem for a number of years and causes a great deal of anxiety and stress for those affected. We have one landfill site in my constituency, the Walley’s Quarry landfill in Silverdale. Problems arising from the site have been reported on and off for many years, but my constituents complain of the odour increasing during the last 12 months.

I will expand on the history of the site in a moment, but there is an important point that I highlight first: we must take into account the character of an area when considering the issue of odour. In the countryside, for example, it is perfectly reasonable to expect a certain amount of odour from farming activities or similar. However, this landfill is not located in the countryside; it is in a built-up area, with residential properties within around 100 metres of the site boundary in multiple directions. True, some of these properties were approved and built in more recent years, and no doubt some will say that the principle of caveat emptor should apply in those circumstances, even if the odour issues have been getting worse. However, a number of longer standing properties belonging to people who have lived in their village and community all their lives are also badly affected, and it is in that context that the debate and the concern of my constituents should be understood.

The landfill has been in operation since 2007 and has planning permission for the tipping of non-hazardous waste until 2026, after which it will be capped with inert material. A number of improvements and technological advancements have been made to the landfill over the past few years, and I recognise that the operator, RED Industries, complies with the law as it stands, which requires it to use the best available technology to minimise emissions and odour. However, despite these best efforts, there remains a persistent odour issue affecting residents in neighbouring communities.

As the name suggests, Walley’s Quarry is a former clay extraction quarry that was converted to landfill use. The local borough and county council objected to the original application in 1997 but were overruled by the then Secretary of State, John Prescott. Local campaigners have since raised this issue over a number of years, including the former county and borough councillor for the area, Alderman Derrick Huckfield, who convened many meetings with affected parties, his residents and the Environment Agency. More recently, local residents Graham Eagles and Steve Meakin established a local “Stop the Stink” group and Facebook page, and in around a fortnight secured 2,400 signatures on a petition that they set up. I have not been able to verify each and every signature, but I believe that this response and the response that I had on the doorsteps during the election campaign and on my own Facebook page are an accurate expression of the strength of feeling in these communities.

There is also a liaison committee for the landfill, which brings together the operator, the local community and the local council, which has been ably chaired by my council leader, Simon Tagg. However, the feeling among residents and many committee members is that it is too often just a talking shop. RED Industries attends the meetings and has supported a number of local projects with its communities fund. However, it has been unwilling to concede that the site does in fact smell, in spite of the Environment Agency’s findings, which I will come to shortly. This has understandably led to an element of mistrust on the part of those affected.

I commend my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, which, as he has rightly said, has provoked a lot of interest from hon. Members. Does he agree that the issue is the threshold at which the Environment Agency can act, not only on landfill odour, but on biodigester odour, too? Residents near Kennel Farm in my constituency are experiencing problems with biodigester odour. As I understand it, the Environment Agency can act to revoke the permit only if the operation poses a risk to human health or the environment. Why on earth are residents’ needs not better taken into account?

I am sorry to hear that my right hon. Friend is having similar issues in her constituency. I agree that we should not be relying on World Health Organisation standards of danger to health as our minimum standard. We should take residents’ concerns much more seriously. I believe odour can cause significant mental health concerns for residents.

My constituents in Royal Wootton Bassett suffer badly from the Crapper & Sons Landfill Ltd site—the name, incidentally, is indicative—next to that great town. When I visited them last week, they told me that the rain has made the odour much worse. The site operators admit to the odour and are taking steps to put it right. The real way to put it right is by capping it off, which they are starting to do, and by reducing the amount we put into landfill. They are now bringing in innovative ways of recycling, reducing landfill, so that soon the people of Wootton Bassett will no longer suffer from the appalling smell, as they have for the past year or so.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know of that case, as my father-in-law lives nearby in the village of Purton. Capping the sites off, as will eventually happen at Walley’s Quarry, offers residents some hope in the end. I recognise that operators are employing better technology all the time, but that is no consolation to people enduring the smell now.

I asked my constituents to contribute their thoughts and I will quote from some of their emails. Some constituents report “retching” and feeling sick from the odour, with others describing feeling as though they can taste the smell and it is catching the back of their throat. One described the smell as

“a blight on our community.”

Many residents report that they can identify the smell further away, sometimes in the centre of Newcastle, which is bad for its nightlife and day activities, or further north in Wolstanston and Bradwell. Other constituents highlight that they feel unable to use their garden, to open their windows or to hang washing outside. Most worrying are the cases of those for whom the smell is persistent inside their homes. The odour is also worrying for those with existing breathing difficulties and conditions such as asthma. They believe it is making their health worse.

I myself smelt the tell-tale “rotten egg” odour at times during my canvassing and campaigning for the general election, though it was notable that residents on the same estate had vastly differing responses to the smell on the same day.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. In my constituency there is a landfill site—which I call a dump—that deals with about 60% of all waste in Northern Ireland. Even after such sites are closed off, if the gas is not flared off, methane leaks into the atmosphere and still causes a problem years after. We have no way of policing this. Minimum standards are employed by our Environment Agency, but we need to go way beyond that. We need to set higher standards and enforce them, so that operators abide by them. We do not currently see best practice.

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. In the case I am discussing, the operators do flare off the methane that has been produced and that will be an ongoing requirement for them after they start capping it off, but where the Environment Agency is not strong enough, we need to do more, as I will say in my requests to the Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), who as a Minister cannot speak in this debate, told me of similar problems in her constituency. She relates that her residents have happily lived by a landfill site for many years, but in the last few months they have experienced a pungent eggy smell, which has at times engulfed their homes. They have experienced inertia on the part of the Environment Agency in effectively managing their concerns.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) discussed with me the landfill site in Arden Quarry in Birch Vale, which is a major concern for many of his constituents, even though the operator is working hard to reduce odours. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling)—a fellow Staffordshire MP, who as a member of the Cabinet also cannot speak in this debate, though she wanted to attend—has had similar problems in her constituency with landfills emitting odorous gases and she has worked hard to improve the situation for local residents. This is affecting constituents around the country and Members in all parts of the House.

Since being elected in December, I have held meetings with local campaigners, some of whom I mentioned earlier, the Environment Agency, and RED Industries Ltd, which runs the site. The Environment Agency is responsible for the regulation of the environmental permit for Walley’s Quarry landfill site, and it carried out an ambient air monitoring study between 15 January and 25 June 2019. The objective of the study was to identify the local sources of air pollution and to quantify the environmental impact of the emissions on the surrounding area and the local community. The most recent survey demonstrated that there was a continuous source of methane and hydrogen sulphide—the latter being the “rotten egg” smell that people find so distasteful—coming from the direction of the landfill, and it found that hydrogen sulphide concentrations occasionally exceeded odour limits, though not health limits, which are measured against WHO guidelines, as I mentioned earlier.

Further, I find it disappointing that the Environment Agency does not go so far as to say that the smell is coming from the landfill in its report. Rather, it says:

“Directional analysis showed that there was a continuous source of CH4 and H2S from the direction of Walleys Quarry landfill site and that a build-up of these compounds was seen under conditions of low wind speed and temperature and high pressure.”

It is disappointing that the agency that is supposed to be looking out for people cannot point the finger when it should.

What am I asking the Minister to do? First, it would be extremely helpful if the she or her departmental colleagues came to Newcastle-under-Lyme to see—or perhaps smell—the problem for themselves. I believe my residents and the operator would also welcome dialogue with the Department. The Environment Agency needs a stronger hand in dealing with operators. I think my constituents would agree with me when I say that at present the Environment Agency is a little bit toothless in dealing with issues as they arise. What is really needed is an empowered agency, able to properly hold operators accountable. Will the Minister consider giving the Environment Agency a broader range of powers to allow it to deal more quickly and effectively with minor and frequent breaches that do not necessarily lead to the revocation of a licence?

We also need to look at the role of local communities. Local communities have few options for remedy against a waste operator where the operator acts in compliance with its environmental permit and is not causing demonstrable adverse health effects. Odour is not something which can be measured objectively; quantifying and characterising odours is very challenging because each person’s sensitivity to odours varies. Further, reaching a judgment on whether odour constitutes a statutory nuisance can take time, especially if the occurrence is unpredictable and only apparent for short periods, or is dependent on particular weather patterns. Local communities know best how their lives are affected. Their needs should be considered throughout monitoring and investigation, so that their concerns are taken seriously.

More generally, the regulations governing odour are not fit for purpose. A site that smells may not be causing health issues, as judged by World Health Organisation criteria, but that is not to say that it should be allowed to smell. The example of Walley’s Quarry landfill site highlights that an operator may be compliant with its permit and planning permission, but that does not mean that it is not causing offence to its neighbours. As one of the richest and most developed countries in the world, we should aspire to higher standards than the bare minimum stipulations of WHO. I argue that the bar of statutory nuisance is too high. Will the Minister look again at whether that is the best measure to determine if a landfill site’s smell is at an acceptable level in view of its location? The level of odour in Silverdale is not fair to residents. It has a significant impact on their quality of life, even though it is at a legally permissible level. That needs to change.

I also argue that the practices of the Environment Agency fuel a lack of trust between communities and the agency. Communities want to feel that they have been listened to; they want to know that their concerns are being taken seriously, and that they can trust that effective monitoring is taking place when they express concerns. The persistence of the problem of odour in Newcastle-under-Lyme has understandably created a sense of powerlessness in the community, and residents do not feel that their concerns have been taken seriously enough by the Environment Agency. It took nearly six months for the findings of the monitoring exercise last year to be made public, which contributed to a regrettable sense of suspicion among some of my constituents. Will the Minister consider asking the agency to make the data from site monitoring more easily available to residents and the general public? If such data were made available publicly, live on a website or with a short delay for quality assurance, communities would be able to see directly for themselves that monitoring is taking place; they would be able to understand the levels of air pollution and odour being detected. That small change could go some way to help communities to feel less anxious, fitting in with the general agenda of the greater government transparency.

Finally, will the Minister work with her colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that no future landfill sites are allowed to be built so close to where people live, as is the case in Newcastle-under-Lyme? Living next to a landfill site will never be pleasant, and the Environment Agency acknowledges that no landfill site will ever be odour-free. To avoid problems in the future, we should tighten up planning rules to ensure that landfill sites cannot be permitted within a certain distance of existing housing. I am grateful to the Minister for listening so attentively, and I look forward to her response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher; I do not think I have had the pleasure of doing so before. I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) on bringing this debate to our attention. I know that his predecessor worked hard locally with the Environment Agency and other partners to try to identify a solution for the problems that he raises, and I commend him for standing up vociferously for his constituency. It is absolutely the right thing to do.

I appreciate concerns about material entering landfill, and I have stressed in many other recent debates on landfill and incineration—it seems to be flavour of the month—that the Government’s attention remains very firmly on reduce, reuse and recycle so that we can level up the country and move towards a much more circular economy with greater resource efficiency. My hon. Friend referred to that and acknowledged that we are moving in that direction. The measures set out in our ambitious resources and waste strategy and in our landmark Environment Bill, which will receive its Second Reading tomorrow in the Chamber, will minimise the amount of waste that reaches the lower levels of the waste hierarchy. That of course includes landfill, because that is right at the end of the chain.

Does the Minister agree that Crapper & Sons Landfill is a classic example of what she is talking about? Of the 280,000 tonnes that arrives on its site every year, only 95,000 tonnes goes into landfill. In other words, 185,000 tonnes is recycled onsite.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point; I thought he was going to make a negative intervention, but it was positive. The example he raises is the direction we are going in, and I commend the company on that figure. By reducing the quantity of waste through using it in other ways—recycling and all those things—we will end up with less going into landfill, and that is the intention.

The Environment Bill contains a whole range of measures, including a deposit return scheme and an extended producer responsibility scheme, and it will stipulate the much more consistent collection of waste, including food waste, by all our local authorities from the doorstep and from businesses. All those things will reduce waste.

Is the Minister not disappointed, as I am, that biodigesters, which should be part of the future of how we dispose of waste, are also part of the odour problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) has raised today? She has to act on that.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention, but I want to go on about landfill in particular, because we are desperately trying to reduce the amount going to landfill. The Environment Bill wants us to drive towards 65% municipal waste recycling by 2033, with no more than 10% going to landfill. I commend the people of the west midlands for assisting with that aim, because they only send 7.3% of their municipal waste to landfill. Aside from the issue being raised today, the west midlands is doing a good job.

Planning and deciding where landfill sites and waste facilities should go is very much a local decision. It is not a Government decision, but something to be talked about locally. If it is not considered a risk to the environment or to public health, it is very much for the local authorities to decide whether a site will be a statutory nuisance. It is for them to make these decisions when allocating sites.

I will move on to Walley’s Quarry landfill. Obviously, I sympathise with residents who have raised complaints about the odour. No landfill will ever be completely odour-free, but the level and type of odour arising from such operations should not cause offence. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that Walley’s Quarry landfill is operated under an environmental permit. Since 2005, it has been actively managed for municipal and industrial non-hazardous waste. Environmental permits of that type are regulated by the Environment Agency in England; to protect the environment and people, it sets the conditions for the permitted activities.

In response to odour complaints from my hon. Friend’s constituents, from July 2017 to February 2018 and again from January to June 2019, the Environment Agency undertook specialist continuous air quality monitoring, including for hydrogen sulphide: the typical rotten egg smell that we all remember from our chemistry lessons—I am sure you do, Sir Christopher. The monitoring undertaken in 2019 found emissions to be within all relevant health and air quality limits; hydrogen sulphide exceeded an odour limit above which complaints would be expected for just 1% of the monitoring period. Contrary to my hon. Friend’s information, the results of that monitoring are publicly available and were shared with Public Health England, which confirmed that the levels recorded were low and that it would not expect any long-term health consequences.

There was an initial monitoring period where odour limits were breached for 6% of the time. Residents feel that that measure is not an accurate reflection of what they are experiencing, and they feel that the public health measure is not the one we should be testing against. We should be testing the experience they are having and the effect that is having on their quality of life.

I get my hon. Friend’s point, but the permit conditions require an Environment Agency officer to make a judgment about whether the odour is offensive. Enforcement action can be taken only when the odour is deemed to be offensive and the operator is not using all appropriate measures to control the odour.

The Environment Agency can make unannounced visits to the site to check what is going on. To date, it has not taken any enforcement action against the operator, as it considers the operator to be compliant with the permit conditions. For the odour to be deemed non-compliant, an Environment Agency officer would need to detect the odour and certify that the site operator had not taken steps to control it. As I said, it is up to the local environmental health practitioner to take action if it is deemed that the odour is a nuisance. If it is not a health issue or an environment issue under the Environment Agency criterion, it goes to the environment health practitioner—somebody based locally at the local council. That is how the issue is handled.

I understand that Newcastle-Under-Lyme Borough Council has undertaken its own investigations in response to its duty to investigate complaints that could constitute a statutory nuisance. It has stepped in, and the council’s environmental health investigations have concluded that while odours have been detected and are likely to cause annoyance, they do not meet the threshold for statutory nuisance abatement action to be taken. However, in response to local concerns—I am sure my hon. Friend has also raised these—the council has decided to establish a scrutiny inquiry to provide a structured and publicly accessible forum to hear residents’ concerns about how the site is managed and the Environment Agency’s monitoring. I welcome that approach and I would be interested to be kept informed as to what is found as a result of that scrutiny.

While the Environment Agency has found Walley’s Quarry landfill to be compliant with its permit conditions based on inspections and air quality monitoring, we must recognise that local residents are raising genuine concerns. The operator of Walley’s Quarry landfill has taken some action already, which I am sure my hon. Friend knows about. In 2019, it installed an additional 19 gas extraction wells to help extract the gas produced from the treatment, which has helped to reduce the odours. I am told that the wells have made a difference. Given my hon. Friend’s constituents’ concerns, the Environment Agency also attends a quarterly local liaison forum with representatives from Newcastle-Under-Lyme Borough Council and Staffordshire County Council, parish councils, the operator of the site and residents. I am sure my hon. Friend is welcome to go to those as well. They discuss all manner of things, including dust, seagulls, noise and traffic, so it sounds very proactive.

The Environment Agency also runs a citizens information page, which is constantly updated. The details of its air quality monitoring are on there and regularly updated for all to see. It also provides a monthly community newsletter. I think there is a great deal going on, although that is not to say that people do not have concerns. All waste management facilities are required to have a written management system designed to minimise the risk of pollution and reduce the impact on local communities and the environment. Those management systems cover all the topics that I have just mentioned—odour, flies, noise and dust management—so they should be pretty inclusive.

Other commitments in our resources and waste strategy, which I mentioned, include work to strengthen the requirement for those operating permitted waste sites to be technically competent, and far-reaching reforms to the ways in which waste is transported and tracked in the UK. That will improve our understanding of how waste is managed and provide better data on the composition and the destination of waste that could be repurposed or recycled, in order to be sure about what is going to landfill. Measures to enable those reforms and others are included in the aforementioned Environment Bill, which is progressing through the House. I urge my hon. Friend to take part in that tomorrow.

I fully sympathise with my hon. Friend’s constituents who have felt the need to raise their concerns about the odour. I am pleased that the Environment Agency and local partners are taking local action, and I hope that the introduction of additional gas wells demonstrates that the operator is trying to be proactive. I trust that Newcastle-Under-Lyme Borough Council’s upcoming scrutiny inquiry will prove useful. I would be pleased to be kept updated about that, if it throws up any interesting areas that have not been considered.

I reiterate that the Government are committed to reducing the impact of waste in the long term across the board, and for less to end up ultimately in landfill. That is our intention through the waste and resources strategy and the Environment Bill. I know that the Environment Agency is committed to working locally with partners and my hon. Friend. The door to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team is open should further advice be needed. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the matter to our attention.

Question put and agreed to.