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Draft National Policy Statement for Waste Water

Volume 726: debated on Tuesday 5 April 2011

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Draft National Policy Statement for Waste Water.

My Lords, the Planning Act 2008 enables a Secretary of State to designate a national policy statement which sets out the national policies which drive the need for particular types of development. National policy statements are the key documents used by the Infrastructure Planning Commission and its successor, the Major Infrastructure Planning Unit, to determine or make recommendations on applications for development consent.

The draft National Policy Statement for Waste Water is based on advice provided by the Environment Agency and reviewed by Ofwat as part of the Environment Agency’s national environment programme. It sets out the policy framework for new infrastructure based on current statutory requirements and environmental considerations. We have worked closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the waste water national policy statement is fit for purpose and consistent with other national policy statements.

Waste water infrastructure is necessary as, without suitable treatment, the waste water we produce every day would damage the water environment and create problems for public health, water resources and wildlife. Proper collection, treatment and discharge of waste water and correct disposal of the resulting sludge help to protect and improve water quality in the United Kingdom.

The draft national policy statement has been subject to an appraisal of sustainability and a habitats regulations assessment. The appraisal of sustainability is required by the Planning Act and helps to ensure that national policy statements and the Government’s assessment of sites take account of environmental, social and economic considerations, and contribute to sustainable development. The habitats regulations assessment considers whether the national policy statement is likely to have an adverse impact on particular habitats which are protected under European law.

The draft waste water national policy statement details two projects of national significance; these are the sewage treatment works scheme at Deephams in north-east London and the Thames Tunnel, which is a sewage collection and transfer scheme. The justification for both these developments and the alternatives considered are fully explained in the national policy statement.

Consultation on the national policy statement ended on 22 February this year. Officials are currently considering responses and they are discussing the results with policy-makers and stakeholders. The report on the draft national policy statement from the Select Committee in another place has been published today. This provides some useful recommendations, which offer some degree of support to the policy framework in the national policy statement. We will consider carefully the report and the issues raised by your Lordships in this debate, taking due account of them when revising the national policy statement prior to designation. However, this is not the last opportunity for people to have their say. Developers must consult communities before submitting an application to the Infrastructure Planning Commission, and people will have the chance to provide input at application stage. This consultation has provided people with a chance to shape the guidance that the Infrastructure Planning Commission will use to inform its decisions.

We are not here to debate how the schemes detailed in the national policy statement may be delivered. Our purpose is to discuss whether the draft national policy statement fulfils its requirements under the Planning Act 2008 and is therefore fit for purpose. The draft national policy statement is critical in bringing forward infrastructure developments and ensuring that the right framework is used in the consideration of development consents. I strongly believe that the draft waste water national policy statement provides robust justification for the new infrastructure proposed. I welcome today’s debate and look forward to responding to the points raised by noble Lords. I beg to move.

My Lords, as everybody else seems to be hesitating, I shall just make a couple of comments. I thank my noble friend the Minister for his introduction to this debate. First, it is interesting that the documents and the draft statement include and spend time on two particular projects: Deephams and the Thames Tunnel project, both of which are most important to waste water issues in the capital and need to move forward quickly. I should like to hear from the Minister whether there are other schemes. How often are such schemes likely to come up? I think that the cut-off point is a project serving around 500,000 people, but I would be interested to know how frequently the department sees such projects as being likely to come along.

I should also like to understand, through this statement and in being able to get on with these projects, whether the infraction proceedings by the commission, which I think have already started, will be met. Will the commission then see the actions being taken as sufficient at least to stall those proceedings, so that UK taxpayers do not have to pay any fines for contravention of the urban waste water directive? I was particularly interested to see on page 3 of the document, in paragraph 112, that the Thames Tunnel project, important though it is to the capital, does not meet the thresholds contained in the Planning Act. If that were laid down in primary legislation, I do not, therefore, understand how the Government could remove the matter from local planning issues and put it to the current planning commission. Under what powers are the Government able to do that?

However, I certainly welcome this statement. Waste water is an important issue. With continued flooding and development, it will be an even more important issue for the future. It is good to see that the Government have a comprehensive strategy for this, to ensure that decisions can be made in the proper way.

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt. Perhaps noble Lords are not aware that there is a speakers list. Having said that, I am sure that if the Grand Committee—

My Lords, that is an amusing correction: to find myself up in the right place and being corrected for it. I would like to follow on a little from what my noble friend Lord Teverson has said to my noble friend the Minister.

The question here is the definition of an infrastructure project. I wonder whether, in his response, the Minister could give us some inkling as to why the national infrastructure policy is defined as covering projects affecting a population of more than 500,000. Why is it not some other figure? I ask this question with deliberate intent, because we will be putting major projects through a somewhat simplified but none the less well-defined planning process that will work much more rapidly. Whatever its future legal status may be as a result of coming legislation, we think that this process will work more rapidly than the normal planning system.

I suspect that I could make a good case for suggesting that the threshold of 500,000 people affected should be reduced to 250,000 people. This would bring a much greater number of schemes within the scope of this policy statement. It would, therefore, make accessible to the provision of those schemes an accelerated planning process, which would facilitate improvements to water quality across a wider field.

That figure, to me, is the critical figure in this report; all the rest of it, you might say, is procedure. However, we are dealing with how you define a national policy statement. I accept that there is always a difficulty with that sort of definition and the judging of nationally significant projects, particularly in the field of electric lines and so on, given that they affect a large number of people. However, I am not sure that you could always say that a particular electric line, which would come within the scope of the national policy statement for power generation and transmission, would always affect more than 500,000 people. I strongly suspect that many of those schemes would impact on a much smaller number of people, but, none the less, they are part of the national policy statement structure.

I would be grateful if the Minister would take away with him the thought that that figure should be considered a bit more. I sincerely ask him to consider whether it would be practical to put in a lower figure to facilitate the accelerated planning process that would then come forward to help major schemes. A scheme that affects 250,000 people is still a major scheme.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the draft national policy statement on waste water and for outlining the Government’s approach to it. As he said, we are dealing with something that is very important; this is essential for public health and for a clean environment, as it is expressed on the Defra website. When we consider that much of our infrastructure for waste water, and for our water supply generally, was established in the 19th century, we remember its importance in tackling some of the prevalent diseases in our urban populations at that time, such as typhoid and cholera. We are therefore dealing with something that is of vital interest to us all.

It is important that we meet our European and international obligations. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, mentioned the importance of meeting our EU obligations, whether that is under the urban waste water treatment directive, the water framework directive, the habitats directive, and so on. He also mentioned the danger of infraction proceedings, and I echo his question to the Minister about that.

These issues are important with regard to climate change. A couple of weeks ago, on the Floor of the House, we had an interesting debate on a report on agriculture and climate change, in which a number of Members took part. We must think here about the possible greater pressure on the waste water system from greater climate variability, the possibility of more intense rainfall and so on, as well as the pressures as a result of urbanisation and population growth. These are important issues, and given that this is a draft statement, I hope that we will have the opportunity to come back to this in due course.

In responding for the Official Opposition, we are happy to endorse the broad approach to these issues taken by the Government, which seems similar to that taken by the previous Government. However, there are a number of questions and concerns about particular aspects, and I will raise some of those this afternoon.

First, I must express a certain amount of frustration, because I do not feel that I am as well prepared for this as I would have liked, partly because the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of the House of Commons produced its report on the draft national policy statement only today. I have had a chance to read the report, but I have not had a chance to read the mountain of evidence submitted to the committee that would have been relevant to the debate today. With hindsight, the timing of this debate would have been better if we could have had it a couple of weeks hence, perhaps after the Easter Recess, rather than at this time. It has certainly been frustrating not being able to read all the evidence that was given to the House of Commons EFRA Committee.

I also found it quite difficult to get hold of the appraisal of sustainability. It was not in the Printed Paper Office. I tried to get it via the Defra website. I know the Minister has heard me complain mildly about the information on the website. Every time I tried to get the appraisal of sustainability, I was informed:

“Our website is changing and links will have changed … Our old website remains available for some time”.

In the end, I did not manage to get the appraisal of sustainability at all, although I have read some of what it contains via other sources.

The Minister also mentioned the consultation, which ended on 22 February, and the fact that the department is currently considering the responses raised in the consultation. Again, given the timing of this debate, it would have been good to have greater feedback from the Government about what issues the consultation had raised and how the Government propose to deal with them. However, since this is a draft statement, I hope there will be an opportunity to come back to some of these issues in due course.

In its report, the House of Commons committee said that it felt that the consultation process on the NPS could have been given a higher profile. It was disappointed that the rate and number of responses were not as great as it would have liked. I noted that Defra organised various drop-in events in relation to the consultation; I saw the dates of 31 January and 1 February. Both events were held in London. Could the Minister give us some report on how those events went? Were they simply about the draft national policy statement itself or, because they were in London, were they more specifically related to the two London projects, which are also dealt with in the NPS document?

A more fundamental point about the consultation that the department held was made in the report of the EFRA Committee in the other place. It said it felt that in some ways the consultation could not perhaps affect the outcome of the NPS. The point that relates to that in the EFRA Committee report is in paragraphs 67 and 68, which say that in two areas the NPS seems already to have adopted a hard and fast position. The report states:

“For example, the draft NPS states that it must be designated if the UK is to meet its obligations under”,

EU directives. Secondly,

“the draft NPS appears to offer a fait accompli in regard to the Thames Tunnel, citing it the ‘preferred infrastructure solution’”.

The committee therefore recommends:

“Defra should clarify in its response to this Report how it has taken into account responses to all aspects of its draft NPS consultation in order to fulfil the Government’s requirement that formal consultation should take place at a stage when there is scope to influence the policy outcome”.

I would be interested in the Minister’s reaction to that if that is possible today. I appreciate that the Government, too, have only just been confronted with the committee’s report. Therefore, I am trying not to be unreasonable in my expectations. Presumably, however, these are issues to which the Government have given some thought.

Another thing that was raised by the EFRA Committee, and which I was also keen to raise, was the format of the NPS document itself. I was puzzled when I first looked at it. Half seemed to be a generic document, relating to the general principles governing such projects, and the other half related to two specific projects, both in London. The EFRA Committee has made a recommendation that the format be different; it would prefer a generic document, with back-up information relating to specific projects that could be contained in an annexe. The committee’s report makes the fair point that there is a lot to do with the two specific projects that does not relate to the overall objectives in the generic document, and that has little to do with it but a lot to do with very specific locational issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, raised another issue that the committee was concerned about—that, under the Planning Act 2008, waste water transfer schemes are not included. Given their importance, the committee suggests that the Government should rectify that and amend the 2008 Act. I wonder whether the Minister is in a position to comment on that.

I have some sympathy with another point that the committee made—that, even in the generic section of the NPS rather than the section that deals with the two London schemes, there is a danger of falling between two stools, and that the section is neither a succinct checklist for decision-makers nor a fully descriptive resource. Given the wide-ranging nature of the issue and the fact that so many organisations and other initiatives are involved, I totally accept that it is difficult to cover everything. However, the committee made the fair point that there needs to be clearer signposting and cross-referencing in the generic part of the report, to give people more comprehensive information or at least to tell them where such information can be found.

The committee also feels that the Government should give more details about the possible alternatives to these big infrastructure schemes, particularly through the sustainable drainage systems approach, which has the most wonderful acronym—SuDS. The use of SuDS and how they might mitigate some of the problems that we are dealing with is important, and it would be useful it the Minister had any comment on that part of the EFRA Committee report or the alternatives to such major schemes generally.

The overall feeling is that the London schemes are necessary but that they raise problems in connection with particular sites and in some of the details. My understanding is that the Thames Tunnel was originally costed at £2 billion and is set to rise to £3.6 billion. Could the reasons for that be forthcoming?

The consultation procedure has probably been better and more detailed in relation to the two London schemes than to the draft NPS. That is probably not surprising in a way, because the draft NPS deals largely with general principles, whereas the two London schemes affect specific neighbourhoods and large numbers of population. For that reason, it is not surprising that there is a great deal of consultation; I commend the consultation process that has taken place, which is not yet finished—I understand that a second stage will begin in the autumn. However, we have seen a considerable number of signatures; the Evening Standard reported last week that there were 10,000 signatures objecting to parts of the Thames Tunnel scheme. There have been some high-profile objectors, including Helen Mirren and David Bellamy objecting to parts of the Rotherhithe and Wapping sections of the tunnel, including the King’s Stairs Gardens. An important point was raised in relation to that park, which is that the objectors feel that there are alternative brownfield sites so there is no need for the use of any greenfield site. That is an important principle, which we are normally very keen on. If the Minister is able to comment on that, that would also be very useful. It is accepted that the main adverse effects of the schemes are likely to be restricted to the construction period, but I do not know if the Minister has information on concerns regarding the longer term effects of the two schemes that are included here.

On a completely separate issue, there is concern about the planning process, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, in terms of speed, efficiency and the provision of certainty for potential investors. That is an important aspect and although I realise that it is difficult to reconcile all these different demands, they are important elements that need to be considered. I note that the regulations on the transfer of private sewers to water companies have not yet been brought forward, even though the new system is supposed to be in force by October. Although that it is not dealt with specifically in the NPS, does the Minister have any information as to when these regulations are likely to be forthcoming and, if not, could he write to me to let me know?

My final question relates to another point that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, raised, which was the threshold for these schemes. Is this likely to be looked at again or, if not—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, also made this point—how frequent are such schemes likely to be in future? Is this likely to be limited to large urban areas? It is perhaps understandable that the first two are in London, the largest conurbation of all, but it would be useful to at least get some idea about the Government’s thinking on the scale of this.

I raise these questions not in opposition to the draft NPS on waste, but as a way of trying to echo some of the concerns expressed in another place about ways in which it could be improved and to make sure that, as this is a matter of such importance to the country as a whole, we will be able to come forward with the best possible system to meet our needs.

My Lords, a large number of questions have been raised and I will address as many as possible. I will start by echoing what the noble Baroness said about the importance of dealing with waste water, not only in terms of improving our water quality but in terms of health. One only has to walk down the Embankment—I forget where exactly it is—to see the memorial to that great Victorian engineer, Bazalgette, and to remember that the work of such engineers saved far more lives than any doctors have ever managed to do. For that, we should be grateful and we should also be grateful for the excellent work of those Victorian engineers and for how long what they made has lasted; however, improvements still have to be made in due course. I also echo what the noble Baroness said about how important these matters can be in terms of climate change.

I remind the noble Baroness that, at this stage, the NPS is only a draft. We have had the consultation, and the report that came out only today from the EFRA Select Committee in another place, and we are now having this debate. We are very grateful for the EFRA Committee’s report. It will be considered in due course and we will make an appropriate response. I have to say that it was purely fortuitous that it happened to come out today, the day on which the usual channels had scheduled this debate. However, that is a matter for the usual channels and, as we know, even Homer occasionally nods, and obviously the usual channels did not get it exactly right, but we may have other opportunities in due course.

The noble Baroness also had some complaints about our departmental website and its definitions of sustainability. I offer her, at some stage, a teach-in on the subject, in which officials will take her through the Defra website and thus I hope that we will make some progress in dealing with these matters and that that will assist the noble Baroness. However, as she is a former Minister—I cannot remember whether it was in Defra or one of its predecessors, MAFF—she will understand that one cannot get everything absolutely right, but I am sure that officials will be more than delighted to give her that training.

The noble Baroness reminded us that the Select Committee in another place would have liked a higher profile for the consultation which ended on 29 February. I have to say mea culpa, if not for myself then for one of my colleagues. We will try to ensure that an appropriate profile is given to such matters in the future.

As regards the noble Baroness’s question about the drop-in sessions on 31 January and 1 February, they were attended by quite a number of members of the public and boroughs, particularly the London boroughs. However, the events were about the NPS only, and site-specific issues will be covered later by the developers. We received some 43 responses, overall, to the whole consultation and those will be considered in due course.

The noble Baroness then discussed the comments of the EFRA Committee’s report on the format of the document—that half of it was generic and half specific to the two sites that we have been talking about. I have a sneaking feeling that, if we had made it totally generic and had not mentioned those two large sites, there would also have been complaints that we had not included them. It is always difficult to get the balance right on this. It is possible that the suggestion of moving them into some appendix would be appropriate, but I doubt it. We are certainly happy with what we have done but, again, I emphasise the fact that this is only a draft.

The noble Baroness then moved on to the specific London schemes and asked whether they were a fait accompli and definitely what we were going to do. She also raised questions about the costs and why they had increased. As she knows, there is a definite and established need for a solution to the sewage overflows. The report looked at the problems and found that a tunnel is the only solution—that was back in 2005 and nothing has changed since then. However, while the need for a tunnel is established, the route has yet to be finalised and that means that there may be a number of different routes and means of building tunnels. As she said, in terms of the objections, it is often during the construction phase that most of them will arise. Thames Water will be working on those options and is consulting widely. However, I can well understand that some people—the noble Baroness mentioned a number of celebrities who objected to it—have concerns because of the disruption at the construction phase. I have recently been down to Brighton, where I have seen another similar quite large project beginning to come to a conclusion, but that took some 14 years, I am told, in the planning process, because of all the objections and concerns from people from Brighton and all the towns along the coast to the east about how these matters were being dealt with. However, in the end, I think they will find that they have much cleaner seas and better water, and they will be grateful for what has happened, and I think the same will be true for what the Government are proposing.

I appreciate that the costs have gone up. Some of that is due to what I am told is referred to as an optimism bias. The original costs were produced in 2007, and we have moved on four years. The noble Baroness will be well aware of how costs can rise, particularly when the preferred route has changed and the original estimates did not include costs for that optimism bias.

I am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, agreed that we had included these two projects, because it is important to do so. He then asked whether other schemes would be appearing in due course and if so, how often they would appear. All I can say is that we do not think that any are likely to be considered in the next five years. Five years is, therefore, about as long as these sorts of policy statements should continue. We will respond to those matters in due course as other projects come on stream and as we develop new policy statements.

The noble Lord then talked, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, about the danger of infraction proceedings. I am pleased to say that I do not think that the United Kingdom Government have yet been fined at any stage for infraction of directives of one sort or another, but it is obviously a real risk. It is important to ensure that we are moving as fast as we can to do what we can to achieve the right objectives. The plans that we have made to ensure that the tunnel is built will mean that we are complying with the directive. I hope that the commission will take that into account in due course.

My noble friend Lord Teverson also asked why we included Thames Water when it does not meet the requirements in terms of size. My understanding was that although tunnels are not necessarily caught by the thresholds in the Act, which cover only water treatment works, it would be appropriate to include them on this occasion because of the large numbers of people affected. Noble Lords would have found it odd had we not included them.

This brings me to the last point I want to make, on the question asked by my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith about why our definition as to who is included only included those projects affecting above 500,000 people and not some figure below that. He suggested, possibly rightly, that one should lower the threshold to 250,000 people or some other figure. At the moment, 500,000 is the figure imposed by the Act. We might want to look at it again in due course. I give no guarantee to my noble friend, but it should always remain under review if appropriate and if we are finding these matters difficult. For the moment, we feel that 500,000 is about the right figure. It is the figure selected by the previous Government when they passed the 2008 Act.

I do not know whether I have dealt with every single question. If I have not, I certainly offer to write to noble Lords to deal with these matters. I emphasise what I said at the beginning: this is only a draft statement. We have had the report from the EFRA Committee. We are still considering the results of the consultation that closed in February. Before we produce the final statement, there are the parliamentary hoops that have to be gone through. We will consider all the points that have been made by noble Lords in the debate this afternoon.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 4.09 pm.