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Consett Energy from Waste Plant

Volume 710: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)

I reflect the comments of other hon. Members who have spoken in saying that it puts everything into perspective at every level to speak in the same Chamber to which President Zelensky has just spoken.

After many attempts in the Adjournment debate ballot, I am glad to have secured this important debate, which concerns a local waste to energy facility—a topic that is close to my constituents’ hearts. The planning permission for it to be built in Consett in my constituency was soundly rejected by Durham county councillors last year after thousands of local residents objected to the proposed plant on the Hownsgill industrial estate in the Delves Lane area. That movement was spearheaded by the unwavering hard work of a huge number of local people. I particularly thank my local Delves Lane councillors, Michelle Walton and Angela Sterling, whose campaign I backed from the start. It was a real community effort, however, and thousands of people were involved in pushing objections and leading lots of local groups.

Although I acknowledge that Members of Parliament have no specific powers with regard to local planning permissions and council decisions, I have none the less been blown away by the huge outpouring from local people—mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandparents, residents—who have coalesced around an issue that they see as important for our local community. That has been incredible to see, and it has marked another occasion where hundreds of local people have come together and made me incredibly proud to be the Member of Parliament for North West Durham.

Sadly, this debate is not about celebrating a hard-fought win, but occurs in the shadow of a potential appeal that is being prepared against Durham County Council’s decision to reject the building of the plant. As a result of the reignition of the local debate against the backdrop of the potential appeal, I decided to conduct a survey of my constituents’ views last week. In just a couple of days, I received hundreds and hundreds of responses. A pattern has emerged, which I can summarise: they say that no means no when it comes to the proposed Consett incinerator, they want their views to be listened to, and they do not want the result of local democratic action by the council to be overturned by those who seek to ignore them.

I will read a couple of comments that constituents posted in response to my survey. One constituent explained that

“the planning committee made their views clear, as did the people of Consett and this decision needs to be respected.”

Another constituent explained that the plant will cause

“noise…next to houses, schools, health facilities, clean air”

and is right between major residential areas of the town. Another constituent put it even more concisely and confirmed that the Consett incinerator

“has no place in our town and we do not want it here. ”

Well over 95% of people who responded to the surveys and work that I have conducted are implacably opposed to the plant.

After synthesising all those views and asking people what we should do instead, it is clear that my constituents are behind the general drift of Government policy. The Government believe in reduce, reuse, recycle—that is the priority that we are driving—not blight and burn, which is clearly what is being proposed.

The Government have also done a great job in recent years in highlighting the environmental agenda. We led COP26 in Glasgow by really driving through—not just for Britain but internationally—a desire to see emissions reduced and to help protect the environment. Over 100 countries have now committed to ending deforestation. We have seen a big shift from carbon-intensive power generation and an end to new coal financing. Two hundred countries agreed to the pact to keep 1.5° alive, along with cutting methane emissions by 30%.

It is particularly interesting to look at how far we have come. Britain has led the world in trying to reduce our carbon emissions, and recently that shift has been even more stark. When the UK took over the leadership of COP a couple of years ago, only about 30% of the world was covered by the new targets, but that figure is now about 90%. This Government have also been keen to really push forward sensible environmental changes, with things such as animal welfare legislation—for example, the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, which I have supported in this House.

That does not mean that we should jump to a position of wanting immediately to ban all incineration. There is a case for it in a limited number of circumstances, particularly given the need for certain medical waste and things like that to be incinerated. However, the Government are driving for a two-thirds reduction in the amount of waste sent to incineration and to landfill by 2030, so why start to create new facilities? It does not even look as though this will be a long-term solution for the communities I represent, or perhaps even for the developers. Instead, we need to be concentrating on using less and less each year.

As you can see, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Government have demonstrated their commitment to the environment and so have my constituents. Everybody is in agreement —my constituents and the Government—about the unattractiveness of incinerators and, actually, the increasing lack of need for them as we push forward with our agenda.

How did we end up where we are today? I looked through the County Durham plan from 2019, and there was an indication that this land was going to be designated for industrial use. However, the only stipulation imposed on its potential use as an incinerator was that there should be a “degree of restraint” against incineration. That is the only wording about it in that document, on page 256. So we have been left high and dry by a plan, while the rest of the country has moved on environmentally and local people have become implacably opposed. During that time, large numbers of new housing developments—with hundreds of new houses going up—have been proposed within half a mile of the site.

Today, I am calling on the developer to withdraw its appeal, and instead respect the decisions of the democratically elected councillors and of my constituents. There is almost total unanimity among my constituents about backing the Government’s plan to reuse, reduce and recycle, and we want to see as little as possible sent to our landfill or for incineration. Of course, there will always be a small need for incineration of things such as medical waste as part of a diverse package, but that should be in very limited circumstances.

The general direction the Government are taking is one of reducing waste year on year, and that is what my constituents want. Building more incineration facilities is antithetical to the Government’s broader narrative and their environmental aims. Those aims are strongly supported not only by my constituents but by people across the country, and I believe by those on all sides of the House. Although I understand that the Minister, like me, has no specific role in individual planning cases, and this is obviously a matter for continued debate between the council and the private firms, I do want to ask him to take a broader look at incineration and the Government’s approach to it. Will he also reflect on the views of my local councillors, supported by me, and of my constituents in his response to my debate tonight?

May I begin by echoing the opening comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) about the extraordinary address we received from President Zelensky earlier? That is one of the extraordinary moments I will take away from my time in this House, and we wish him and all the people of Ukraine the very best in their battle for freedom.

May I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and thank him for his contribution? My hon. Friend is a tireless campaigner for his constituents on this issue and so many others, from upgrading the A66 to Durham’s county of culture bid. I know he has been trying valiantly for a number of months to secure a debate on this issue, and I believe this could be 10th time lucky. That speaks to the importance of the matter to my hon. Friend and the local councillors he is championing, Michelle Watson and Angela Sterling for Delves Lane ward. It is abundantly clear that that there are strong views among some of his constituents about the merits of this proposed energy plant.

I should also say that Adjournment debates on such matters reflect how important it is that Members continue to hold the Government’s feet to the fire. Pressure from parliamentarians may not always be glamorous, but it is the cogs that make the wheels of Government and local government turn.

Without wishing to pour cold water over the entire debate, I must say from the outset that for propriety reasons I am unable to comment on the specifics of the proposal that is the subject of this debate. I know that an appeal against Durham County Council’s refusal of planning permission for the scheme has been lodged with the Planning Inspectorate, and there will now be a public inquiry into the proposal overseen by an independent planning inspector. It is also possible that if the appeal were recovered it would fall to myself or one of my ministerial colleagues in the Department to decide on the case. So for all those reasons I am afraid I must say that it is not appropriate for me to express any view as to the merits or otherwise of the specific scheme in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

However, given the subject matter of this debate it is worth my saying a bit about the principles that underpin and drive waste planning. The Government are clear that wherever possible waste should be reduced, if not fully prevented; but where prevention is not possible we must prioritise reuse and recycling over energy recovery or disposal to landfill. This sequential approach is at the heart of the Government waste policy, and that is reflected in planning policy requirements for plan making and decision making. In short, every paper bag, every glass bottle and every piece of scrap metal that is recycled is a small victory in our war against waste. That is one reason why the Government are committed to preserving material resources, promoting efficiency, and moving towards a greener, more circular economy.

Our resources and waste strategy sets out the Government’s bold ambition to properly manage residual waste in a way that maximises its value. It sets a clear target for 75% of packaging to be recycled by 2030, plus a 65% recycling rate for municipal solid waste. Crucially, this strategy also commits us to minimising any harm done to the environment as a result of managing waste.

This strategy is by no means the total sum of our actions. We are continuing to innovate and find new solutions to old problems in waste management, moving us towards a circular economy. They include a deposit return scheme for drinks containers, extended producer responsibility for packaging, and consistent recycling collections for all homes and businesses, as well as the plastic packaging tax.

On the specifics of planning decisions, councils are guided by the national planning policy for waste, which tasks them with meeting the needs of their areas in managing waste. This includes the need to undertake early and meaningful engagement with residents so that plans reflect as far as possible a collective vision and a set of agreed priorities when planning for sustainable waste management.

The ultimate responsibility for waste planning does sit with councils, and while decisions that they take must be informed by consultation, those are nevertheless their decisions to make. That underscores the importance of community campaigning and the vital role that local MPs such as my hon. Friend and the councillors whom I mentioned have in mobilising constituents for or against all forms of new development, including incinerators and waste plants. It would be nothing short of political suicide for any council to run roughshod over a community that is overwhelmingly against a new facility. Equally, if a council is deliberately hampering a development, the construction of new homes or vital infrastructure, the electorate can communicate its displeasure about that at the next set of local elections.

As my hon. Friend will know, my Department is committed to increasing community engagement with planning applications, digitising much of the old analogue systems and allowing people to see what development is proposed in their area at the touch of a smartphone. That will not just drive up resident engagement but make it easier for communities to voice their opposition or approval for something being built on or near the place that they call home.

Without making any prejudicial comments on the specifics of this live application, I can say that energy from waste is a proven technology and is established as the most common thermal treatment for residual waste—the kind that cannot otherwise be prevented, reused or recycled. While energy from waste plays a vital role in stopping unnecessary waste from reaching landfill, the Government’s view is that it should not be competing with greater efforts by the public to prevent waste, to reuse or to recycle.

In 2019, the incineration of municipal solid waste in energy from waste facilities accounted for more than 6 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions, but, according to our best estimates, energy from waste—even in electricity-only mode—is still a better option for processing municipal waste than landfill in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. The Government also want to drive greater efficiency of energy from waste plants by encouraging better use of the heat that they produce in local developments. That brings the additional benefit of helping to reduce the carbon emissions that arise from heating our homes. As hon. Members will know, heat networks form a strategically important part of the Government’s plans to reduce carbon and cut heating bills for customers, both domestic and commercial.

When we discuss energy in waste, it is imperative to factor in the regulatory landscape. In October 2020, as part of the circular economy package, the Government legislated to include a permit condition for landfill and incineration operators. The permit meant that those operators cannot accept separately collected paper, metal, glass or plastic for landfill or incineration unless such items have gone through some form of treatment process first and unless there is no better environmental outcome. The condition came on top of existing permit measures that already prevent acceptance of material that is, to all intents and purposes, recyclable.

All energy from waste plants in England are regulated by the Environment Agency and must comply with robust emissions limits set in environmental legislation. As hon. Members might expect, the Environment Agency assesses the emissions from new energy generated by waste plants as part of its permitting process and consults the UK Health Security Agency on every application that it receives. Needless to say, the Environment Agency will never issue an environment permit if a proposed plant has a significant impact on the environment or if it may cause harm to human health.

I hope that, at this stage, my hon. Friend will understand why I need to refrain from touching on the specific circumstances of the matter that he raised, but I hope that my statement has given useful context and background to this important wider debate. I conclude by thanking him again for his thoughtful contribution, which has enriched this debate and provided plenty of food for thought for us in Government. It helps us to understand people’s strength of feeling on these individual applications. We are completely committed to reducing waste and supporting the development of the kind of circular economy that regenerates, recycles and reuses whenever possible. I thank him for bringing this issue to the attention of the House.

We come to the end of a truly historic and emotional day here at Westminster, with President Zelensky’s words still ringing in our ears and firmly in our hearts. We were privileged to hear President Zelensky’s address today and we stand with him and the very brave people of Ukraine.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.