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Orphan Sites: Hazardous Waste

Volume 832: debated on Monday 4 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to incentivise the clearance of hazardous waste from orphan sites.

My Lords, the Environment Agency has discretionary powers which it can use to remove hazardous waste from orphan sites where it poses a significant risk to the environment or human health. The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a landfill tax grant scheme at the last Spring Budget which will help local authorities cover the cost of landfill tax in land remediation projects. The grant scheme is currently under development.

It is not local authorities which own orphan schemes. There was a superb scheme brought in by the Government in 2018, but not renewed in 2019, that took away the landfill taxes so those orphan sites could be cleared. Some 80% of the cost of clearing them is landfill tax. Since then, the Government have had no revenue. Could we have some common sense and reintroduce what the Government rightly brought in, in the previous Parliament in 2018, which would work if it was given time?

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I know he has raised this in both Houses in relation to an area that he used to represent. We have a system in place where orphan sites are transferred to the Crown Estate, which finds a new beneficial owner, and from which the vast majority then get contaminant clearance. Working with local authorities, it has been successful, but I will work with the noble Lord to try to find the best possible system that works in most cases.

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend about a different type of hazardous waste; namely, fly-tipping on private land, which is the scourge of the countryside? Can he update the House on any government policy and on what the Environment Agency and local authorities can do against this dreadful rural crime?

My Lords, I once asked the then president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England what he thought the Government should do about fly- tipping and littering, and he said a shoot-to-kill policy. I think he was joking, but at times, I am sort of with him in spirit. The Government have provided more funds, increased the fines for fly-tipping and increased the ability of local authorities and the police to, for example, fine people for littering from a vehicle and to accept dashcam evidence. We are serious about trying to prevent this scourge. There is an organisation which now brings different groups of people together to assist landowners, who bear the brunt of fly-tipping, to minimise the chances of fly-tipping taking place in hotspots, but also provides them, through the local authority, with funding that will catch the criminals and take them to justice.

My Lords, the cost of cleaning up hazardous waste sites can be enormous—as in the case of the sheepskin factory in Glastonbury bought by the previous RDA, where sections of land had to be abandoned. Given the extreme shortage of housing, does the Minister agree that it would be more cost-efficient to clean up orphan hazardous waste sites for new homes rather than paying to clear up newly and deliberately nutrient-polluted waterways? Given his comments on water pollution in the past, can he please explain the volte-face on this issue?

I think the noble Baroness is conflating two very different issues. What we are talking about here is orphan waste sites where the owner has in most cases gone out of business and nobody, in effect, owns them. We need a mechanism whereby an owner is found and the contaminated waste is cleared. What she is referring to is a system that has failed to unlock much-needed new housing and which has been grossly misrepresented with respect to its impact on our waterways. I would be very happy to have a longer debate with the noble Baroness on that matter.

My Lords, it is quite complex cleaning up this sort of toxic waste, because you need a lot of good science to help you do it. I happen to know that several dozen scientists are outside this building at the moment. They are protesting about the Government not developing any new oil deposits, but they could perhaps also help with cleaning up this toxic waste.

Contaminated land is a very broad term. It relates to land that poses no risk to the environment or to public health right through to really toxic, unpleasant substances such as parts of fridges which, if burned, can release cyanide. It is rightly the job of the local authority, working with the Environment Agency, to make sure that, where there is a problem, it is cleared up. We have had a system in place since 2018 seeking to do that and, in certain circumstances, the Environment Agency can go in and do the work itself. It is important that we work with the best possible science and evidence, and that we take action where we need to do so.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us about another type of waste—radioactive waste—and how the geological disposal facility is moving ahead? Is it moving ahead as we hoped it would? What sort of timescales does it have?

The noble Lord is asking about an issue that is not in my knowledge. I will therefore write to him on the matter.

The Minister knows that the dumping of hazardous waste is on many occasions undertaken by organised crime gangs. Given that, how many successful prosecutions have there been over the last 12 months of individuals who have abandoned responsibility for hazardous waste sites?

The noble Baroness is right that organised crime is involved in this, as well as very low-level speculative crime, and it is important that we have measures in place to deal with that. In the financial year 2021-22 the Environment Agency brought 94 prosecutions against companies and individuals for waste-crime offences, resulting in total fines exceeding £6.2 million. In the three years since the Joint Unit for Waste Crime was launched, it has worked with 102 partner organisations and engaged in 175 multiagency days of action, and there have been 51 associated arrests.