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Environment: Sittingbourne and Sheppey

Volume 696: debated on Wednesday 9 June 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. I remind Members participating that they must remain here for the entire debate. I remind Members that they are visible at all times, especially to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks at Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room.

I call Gordon Henderson to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered environmental matters in Sittingbourne and Sheppey constituency.

First, may I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani? Let me begin by making it clear that I fully endorse the Government’s long-term commitment to be the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than that in which we inherited it. With that in mind, I want to highlight some of the local environmental issue causing concern in Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

My constituency has a unique and varied natural environment. On the Isle of Sheppey, we have the Elmley nature reserve, a thriving coastline and some fantastic habitats for birds, including marsh harriers and a variety of wading birds. On the mainland, the bustling town of Sittingbourne is surrounded by a mixture of rural and built-up villages, all with a character of their own, including Iwade, which has its own nature reserve, attracting an abundance of wildlife throughout the year. All this wonderful countryside provides us not only with an enviable environment, but with many challenges for local communities. I want to address a few of those challenges.

When people contact me with concerns about our local environment, those concerns fall into a number of categories. Two main concerns revolve around the scourge of fly-tipping and littering. The impact that both of these thoughtless acts have on our local environment is huge. Not only is the discarded rubbish unsightly; it can be harmful to both humans and animals. I believe we need harsher punishments for people who are caught littering, with local authorities given more powers to clamp down on the offenders, as well as the resources needed to enforce those powers. However, fines are not the only answer. We also need to educate people about the antisocial nature of littering, most of which is caused by adults, who then set a bad example to their children. Those children pick up bad habits learned from their parents, which is why I set up the Litter Angels charity in Sittingbourne and Sheppey over a decade ago. Its sole purpose is to educate children about the harm associated with litter, and I am pleased to say that the charity has now extended the project into a number of other constituencies in Kent.

I turn to fly-tipping, which is littering on a larger scale. It is becoming a huge problem in Kent, including in my constituency. It places a financial burden on local landowners and farmers, who are seeing an increasing number of incidents in which lorry loads of rubbish are dumped on their land. They then have to pay to have the rubbish removed and disposed of, costing them hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of pounds.

I believe there are a number of reasons for the rise in fly-tipping. Two important causes are, first, the decision taken some years ago by Swale Borough Council to charge for the removal from homes of large items of waste, and, secondly, Kent County Council’s policy of restricting commercial companies’ access to its waste sites. I said at the time that both decisions were short-sighted and would lead to an increase in fly-tipping, and I was right. I appreciate that both decisions were taken for financial reasons. In my view, however, any cost saving made by our local authorities has been more than offset by the cost of cleaning up council-owned sites where fly-tipping takes place.

I believe the situation could be improved very quickly by reinstating the free collection of bulk waste and the free disposal of commercial waste at household waste recycling centres. Although this is an issue for the local authorities to resolve, I hope that Ministers will consider making the free collection of bulk waste and the free disposal of commercial waste a statutory requirement, backed up with the resources needed to implement it.

There is another environmental problem that last year blighted the lives of a number of residents in and around Iwade, the village I mentioned earlier. It became apparent that land in an area called Raspberry Hill Lane was being used to process building waste. For weeks, my constituents were subjected to the foul smell of melting rubber and burning, in addition to the noise and dust associated with the process. One result of this incident, which I believe is still taking place today, is the misuse of U1 exemption.

I had got to one of the results of the incident, which I believe is still taking place today. It is the use of U1 exemptions to take waste from that site and dump it off the cliffs at the top of Warden Road on the Isle of Sheppey. I believe that the U1 waste exemption is a loophole that is open to abuse and should be closed.

According to the Government’s website, the U1 exemption allows for the use of suitable waste, rather than raw materials or items that are no longer waste, to be used in construction projects. For example, it would be in order, under the exemption rules, for crushed bricks, concrete, rocks and aggregate to be dumped to create a noise barrier around new development. Under the rules, it could then be topped off with soil and landscaped. It is also permitted to use road planings and rubble to build a track or path. Those are proper uses of the U1 exemption.

However, what is being done off the cliffs north of Sheppey is not a proper use. It is creating problems for residents who have to use the surrounding roads, and it harms the local coastal environment. That is the true danger of fly-tipping, which is a selfish act of throwing unwanted construction rubbish over a cliff. It appears that nothing can be done to stop those people, which is beyond belief. Apparently, because of the U1 exemption licence, the Environment Agency can do nothing. It does not seem to have the resources to monitor the terms of the licence to ensure that they are being observed. The problem could be solved by making the Environment Agency responsible for authorising, issuing, monitoring and enforcing the proper use of U1 exemption licences. I urge the Minister to look into this matter urgently.

While talking about the north Sheppey cliffs, I would like to highlight another ongoing problem: the plight of residents at Surf Crescent, in what is called the Eastchurch gap. The first anniversary recently passed of an incident that saw part of Surf Crescent fall into the sea, taking with it the home and possessions of a family, leaving them homeless. Many more of my constituents were moved out of their homes for their own safety, and they are concerned about their future in the homes that they have loved for so long.

The problem of the erosion of the north Sheppey cliffs is not new. I have raised the subject before, including in a Westminster Hall debate in December 2017. I will continue to raise the matter until something is done to save the properties that are under threat. Unusually, solving the problem is not about money. There are groups on the Isle of Sheppey that have put forward schemes to reinstate the cliffs, at no cost to the taxpayer. However, they come up against intransigence on the part of Natural England, which has stated publicly that it will oppose in principle any proposal to stop the erosion of the cliffs.

Natural England’s reason for its stance is that the cliff erosion is on part of the Sheppey coastline that has been designated a site of special scientific interest. Let me clarify what that means. The SSSI is in place not to protect land, which I could understand, but to protect the loss of land, which I find bizarre. I have asked in the past for SSSI designation to be lifted so that the homes of my constituents can be saved, but I was told it was an EU designation. We are no longer in the EU, so I urge the Minister to look again at the situation and see if the designation can now be lifted. If not, what other steps can be taken to protect my constituency?

Finally, I want to address another major issue that is having an impact on the local environment, which is housing. Kent has seen major housing development over the past couple of decades, which has seen too many of our green spaces concreted over. In addition, the increased population has put tremendous strain on our infrastructure. In many areas, the additional traffic created by those homes has harmed our environment, not least by worsening the already polluted air in our towns and cities.

My constituency in particular has taken more than its fair share of that increased housing, and its geography, demography and local environment have changed beyond all recognition. Sittingbourne and Sheppey has seen a tremendous increase in our population, without having the necessary infrastructure put in place to support those people. Now, we have overcrowded roads, over-subscribed schools and increased waiting times for health services because of a lack of doctors.

Under the current Government-imposed housing targets, my local authority, Swale Borough Council, is under immense pressure to build more houses, and there is mounting concern from local people about a number of proposed developments involving thousands more houses in our area. We are facing a proposed planning Bill that will increase further still the number of homes in Kent. No doubt Sittingbourne and Sheppey will be asked to take some of that total housing. More housing will mean more air pollution—[Inaudible.]

I am sorry—it is the technology, I am afraid. I will repeat what I was saying.

Now, we are facing planning Bill that will increase further still the number of homes in Kent. No doubt Sittingbourne and Sheppey will be asked to take some of that total housing. More housing will mean more air pollution and even fewer green spaces. That will be a disaster for our local environment, which is why I want to use my speech to forewarn the Government that I will be unable to support the planning Bill unless it protects my constituency from any more unsustainable housing growth.

I do not apologise for highlighting what might be considered parochial issues. It is right that we have priority areas set out in law, including air quality, water, biodiversity, resource efficiency and waste production—all those things are mentioned in the Environment Bill, which is now in the other place—but I hope Ministers recognise that those measures go only halfway towards solving the issues that real people face on the ground. My constituents want an assurance that the basics, such as protecting their local green spaces and agricultural land, solving the problems of littering and fly-tipping, cutting regularly the grass on the verges of trunk roads such as the A249, and managing ground and air pollution, will also be taken care of.

In an ever-changing world in which the Government talk about building back to improve lives and livelihoods, please do not ignore the plight of those whom I have highlighted. Let us use this chance to make lasting changes for those people.

Thank you so much, Ms Ghani. I do not think that I have had the pleasure of serving with you in the Chair—it is really very good to see you.

I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) for his impassioned speech and for standing up, as he always does, for his constituency. We have seen him in every way today: in vision, out of vision, on mic and off mic. It has been a pleasure to hear what he has to say, and I thank him for securing this debate on a topic that is important in particular for his constituents.

My hon. Friend highlighted a number of a really important environmental issues, such as littering, fly-tipping, the illegal dumping of waste off the north Sheppey cliffs, the problem of cliff erosion in Sheppey, and the adverse environmental impacts, including pollution, of what he considers to be unsustainable housing developments. He covered a whole raft of subjects. He will be pleased to know—and I am sure he is aware—that our landmark Environment Bill, which is the first of its kind for 20 years, will really help to deliver, as I hope he feels, the future prosperous and sustainable environment that I believe we all want, including his constituents.

My hon. Friend referred to the Bill, which is currently progressing through Parliament. The legislation will deliver transformative benefits, including cleaner air for all, the restoration of habitats, increased biodiversity, a resource-efficient economy, and better management of our precious resources in this changing climate.

Climate change is creating many challenges, and the Government are tackling them head-on with a strategy to reach net zero by 2050. On the other side of that coin is nature adapting to the changing climate that we face, some impact of which is being felt off the coast of my hon. Friend’s constituency.

On the issue of waste, many of our constituents share my hon. Friend’s concern about litter and the people who choose to spoil the environment that we all share with rubbish. I understand his concerns, but I want to outline the things that we have done already to tackle the issue and the things that we are going to do, which I hope will reassure him. We have introduced new penalty notice powers for councils in respect of fly-tipping and littering from a vehicle so that if a passenger in a vehicle throws something out of the window, the driver will be responsible for that person’s littering. We have also raised on-the-spot fines for littering and given councils powers to stop, search and seize the vehicles of suspected fly-tippers. On conviction, those guilty of littering can already face a fine of up to £2,500, but we have committed to strengthening fly-tipping sentences.

We have provided funding worth almost £1 million to help councils purchase new litter bins. That might seem a small thing, but having the right bins in the right places makes a difference. I agree with my hon. Friend that education is really important. That is a key part of our litter strategy for England, and I thank him for the work that he does in this space, as does the Litter Angels charity in his constituency.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs continues to support “Keep it, Bin it”, the anti-littering campaign launched in 2018 with Keep Britain Tidy. It does so much good work to tackle littering. We would like to see more children and, indeed, everyone participating in national clean-up days such as the great British spring clean. I got involved with a team of people in Taunton last week. I am sure that you also get involved in those things, Ms Ghani, as I know does my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey. Those things do have an impact in our local areas.

The main way to tackle frequently littered items and fly-tipping is to reduce the amount of waste that we have in the first place. There are measures in the Environment Bill that really will make a difference to our waste. We have a big emphasis on reuse, repair and recycle, and we are introducing new measures, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, including the extended producer responsibility scheme, which will focus on plastic packaging initially, because that is our biggest littered item. It will make the people who manufacture and use such packaging ultimately responsible for its end of life. They will not want to see littered items if they are responsible for it.

We are also consulting on the deposit return scheme, which sets out an incentive to dispose of in-scope materials that can be returned, and we are working on consistent collections through our local authorities, so there is a raft of measures. Last year, I held a roundtable with the fast-food retailers, because they are responsible for a huge amount of our litter, to understand what actions they are already taking. In fairness, lots of them are taking action, but I made it very clear that further action from them is necessary.

I noted my hon. Friend’s concerns about the charges at household waste recycling centres for certain types of waste, and I hope he will be pleased to hear that we will review those services and the controlled waste regulations. Subject to consultation, we will amend them to ensure that they remain fit for purpose and that charges are fairly applied.

We are aware of the ongoing issues on the north coast of Sheppey, particularly the U1 exemptions that my hon. Friend referred to. The EA is currently investigating and working with Swale Borough Council, so we cannot discuss active and ongoing investigations. However, we have consulted on reforming that particular exemption—I hope that will give him some reassurance—as well as others of concern, and we hope to publish the Government’s response later this year, setting out our proposed reforms to the waste exemptions regime that he referred to.

We are developing proposals to reform the waste carrier, broker and dealer regime, and we intend to consult on that. Other key measures are being introduced through the Environment Bill, which include mandatory electronic waste tracking, so that we know what is in the waste system, who is dealing with it and where it is going. Once we have much better data, we will be able to crack down on a lot of fly-tipping, which my hon. Friend is rightly concerned about. Mindful of the problems of fly-tipping, we got an allocation in the 2020 Budget of £2 million to do some work and to support innovative solutions to tackle fly-tipping, and that is under way. In April 2021, we commissioned a research project to consider the drivers, deterrence and impact of fly-tipping, which will be completed by the end of the year. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that we are moving on with a lot of work in this space, because fly-tipping causes an enormous amount of upset and heartache. I have touched on the other measures we are taking to cut down the amount of waste in our society altogether.

I will move on to coastal erosion, which is a very serious issue for residents in Sheppey, as was seen in the incident referred to by my hon. Friend. Flooding and coastal erosion can have devastating consequences for the people it impacts upon, whether in respect of their business, their home or their environment. In recognition of that, between 2021 and 2027, we are doubling our investment in flooding and coastal erosion funding to £5.2 billion. That will ensure that a further 336,000 properties are protected.

We see the sea levels rising, so we are inevitably getting further coastal erosion. We defend the coastline where it is sustainable and affordable to do so, and let it function naturally where that is not the case. Our national strategy for managing erosion and flooding stresses the importance of resilience and adaptation in the face of change. On this relatively undeveloped part of Sheppey, the long-term approach agreed with Swale Borough Council, the Environment Agency and Natural England in the shoreline management plan is to allow coastal processes to enhance the natural environment locally and elsewhere. On the Eastchurch coast, Natural England’s view is that any development or activity that restricts natural processes is likely to damage the features of the geological site of special scientific interest that my hon. Friend referred to—that is Sheppey cliffs or Minster cliffs, as it is also called.

Just for information, the SSSI designation is a UK protection. The designations were made under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981—it is not an EU designation. My hon. Friend did hold a debate about this issue with the previous Environment Minister. As a result, the whole issue was reviewed, but in 2017 Natural England advised against interfering with the natural processes and the features that they produce. Importantly, online proposals to manage erosion and landslip in this area have faced major funding challenges, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, with cheaper interventions in recent years proving ineffectual.

The Environment Agency is working with coastal authorities on a £1 million refresh of the shoreline management plan that I referred to. That will ensure that it is up to date, using the best evidence in its recommendations. It will focus attention on priority areas for investment and adaptation. Through this exercise, Natural England and the Environment Agency will continue to work closely with the South East Coastal Group and Swale Borough Council, as they work with local residents and businesses to develop local adaptation initiatives. I am sure my hon. Friend would be welcome to be involved in that. Those initiatives will enable us to reach the long-term goal of a naturally evolving coastline, with local communities, that is resilient, rather than vulnerable to change. There are many places around the coast that are facing similar challenges right now.

My hon. Friend is rightly passionate about the risks of erosion facing some parts of his constituency. He has raised this issue many times, in particular via a parliamentary question in January. At that time, the Environment Agency provided me with information showing that its Medway estuary and Swale flood and coastal risk management strategy has developed adaptation options to relocate or compensate affected properties. I would like to take this opportunity to clarify that the strategy recommends that the adaptation options to relocate or compensate affected properties should be considered, but does not provide for any developed options.

On the housing issues that my hon. Friend raised, we do, of course, have an existing national planning policy, and it is clear that local plans should take a strategic approach to maintaining and enhancing habitat networks, and identify opportunities for enhancing natural capital. One of the policies states that new developments should not contribute to unacceptable levels of air pollution, which my hon. Friend raised. The Environment Bill will require the Government to set targets on air quality, including on fine particulate matter, which is the most damaging to human health. That is a Government priority, and it will of course impact on choices made about where houses are delivered.

In addition, one of the objectives of the proposed planning reform is to protect and enhance the environment. The Government have made a clear commitment not to roll back on our high standards for environmental protection. Indeed, DEFRA is working very closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on these planning reforms and the “Planning for the future” White Paper. As my hon. Friend knows, they have received many responses.

We want to see more homes built, but it is possible to do that in an environmentally friendly way. The Environment Bill makes biodiversity net gain mandatory for every development granted planning permission, so every development will have to put back 10% more nature than was there when it started. That will make a big difference around the country to the amount of nature that we see in relation to our housing. I see that as a very positive measure, and I hope my hon. Friend agrees.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising all those really pertinent issues relating to his constituency. I hope that I have provided him with some reassurance about what we are doing, particularly on litter, fly-tipping and a number of the measures coming through in the Environment Bill. He talks about real people, and of course we are mindful of real people all the time, but we hope we are putting in place the right policies that will enable them to have a sustainable, green and prosperous future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.