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Environment Agency: Enforcement Action

Volume 641: debated on Monday 14 May 2018

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

This is my first end of day Adjournment debate in a very long time; however, I am glad to have secured it as it gives me the chance to raise an ongoing issue in my constituency that has been a source of great consternation to me and many of the residents of Teal Farm and the areas adjacent to the Pattinson Road waste processing sites cluster, which I will refer to collectively as Teal Farm, as that is quite a mouthful.

For more than two years now, or perhaps even longer, residents and local councillors—especially Councillor Tony Taylor, who has been vigilant and tenacious on this matter—have raised concerns about the activity going on in Teal Farm, especially on the industrial estates that neighbour the residential area. It has been going on for so long that I have been applying for this debate for months now, and my former researcher, Daniel Tye, who helped me prepare this speech, moved on months ago. I wish that the issue had as well, but alas it has not. That is what brings me here.

Let me give some context. Washington new town was built in the 1960s as one of a few new towns across the country to help with overcrowding and population growth in local urban areas. In Washington’s case, that means the neighbouring cities of Sunderland, Durham and Newcastle. Part of the planning was meant to allow it to be a town with residential estates and industrial estates that were side by side but did not interfere with each other’s daily lives. Although the planning was meant to reduce interference between the two, that has become more of a problem as the town has grown and more residents have moved into the area, making the luxury of quiet residential living more difficult than when the town was first founded in the 1960s.

Sadly, the situation in Teal Farm in Washington is a microcosm of that situation; the original idea of residential and industrial being in close proximity but not bothering each other has been thrown out of the window. That has led to tensions between residents and businesses alike, which have extended to organisations such as the local council and the regional branch of the Environment Agency. Unfortunately and annoyingly for the residents of Teal Farm, there seem to be endless cases of problems arising, and local residents have kept me abreast of all the issues through the residents association and the dedicated team of local councillors.

As I just set out, the reason I am speaking today is to document this officially on the record and to prise out of the Minister what more can be done to address the issues of industrial mismanagement that has blighted the lives of many of my constituents in Washington, especially when it comes to environmental issues.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this issue forward; these are always very important debates. Does she agree that it is essential that fines given by the Environment Agency should fit the crime, that legislation should also reflect that, and that the council and the Government need to act accordingly?

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am pleased with his intervention, and I will come on to fines later, as that is the crux of what I am proposing.

To help the Minister understand fully the scale of the problems that my constituents have faced, I want to read a few excerpts from some emails I have received over the years. I assure him that he will find them both troubling and enlightening about the situation that has been ongoing for some time. First, in 2016 I received an email in which a constituent described the following situation:

“Last week when it was exceptionally warm, I left the windows open in the dining room and sitting room to allow some air circulation for my dog, the scene I returned to was unbelievable. Every single room in my house was inundated with flies. To say that there were upwards of 50 flies in my house would be a conservative estimate, and yes, you read that correctly, I said upwards of 50.”

This constituent went on to say:

“I have lived in Teal Farm Village for three summers now and for three summers this pantomime has repeated itself”.

In a follow-up email, after issues were raised with local agencies, the exasperated constituent wrote:

“Nothing is done to prevent a recurrence, nothing is done to compensate those of us who cannot eat, sit, play or venture into our gardens or onto our balconies or even dare to leave windows open when we are in or out of the house. How about those of us who are woken during the night by smells that have to be experienced to be believed.”

However, not just flies and other vermin but the activity of businesses operating in the industrial park are blighting the lives of my constituents. In an email I had passed to me from March of last year, a constituent documented that he witnessed

“several vehicles over the last week, some from Niramax and two others from their contractors, leaving Monument Park and travelling along Pattinson Road to the A1231—then travelling down the slip road towards the A19. All of the lorries were netted but litter was streaming out of the covered areas onto the road behind them.

Pattinson Road is again awash with litter as is the A1231 slip road from the roundabout—this slip road has not been litter picked since the middle of last year at which time it had not been done for over a year.”

This constituent then went on to say:

“The trees alongside the road have plastic streaming out in the wind dropped from lorries, and the verges are an absolute disgrace. It is no wonder fly tipping is on the increase as litter attracts litter”.

Another very alarming and worrying situation that occurred in October of last year, which was raised with me by Councillor Tony Taylor, involved a badly loaded HGV and an incident when a washing machine fell off the back of a van while it was whizzing down the A1231. The Environment Agency said that it was not going to investigate any further as insufficient evidence had been brought to its attention. Someone could have been seriously injured or killed—there could have been a pile-up—if this washing machine had fallen into the path of another vehicle, yet the case did not warrant any further investigation from the enforcement agency that should have been looking into it with urgency.

As I am sure the Minister can appreciate, these are stressful circumstances for my constituents to live in every day, all because of companies that fail to adhere to their responsibility to be good neighbours and keep our local area litter-free, as well as the fact that agencies such as the Environment Agency fail to penalise and fine the offending businesses.

There has been plenty of documentation of visits and activity regarding these issues at the industrial park, including a visit by residents, councillors, council officers and a member of my office who saw run-down premises inviting in flies, smells and vermin and in which they could thrive.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the Environment Agency is a toothless tiger, but does she agree that this is not just about the agency but about the fact that it does not work with other Government agencies, such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, to crack down on illegal activity—not just dumping, but avoidance of landfill tax and other taxes that should be going to the Exchequer?

Yes, I agree with my right hon. Friend, and that is not an issue that I had planned to cover in my speech, so I am pleased that he has raised it. I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench heard him.

This issue has gone on for many, many years with many, many complaints and investigations, resulting in significant resources being directed at addressing the problems by the Environment Agency, by my office and by the numerous councillors who have to deal with them week in, week out, trying to take up the cases on behalf of constituents. The Environment Agency has been into my office with a team at least twice, and once into the council offices, and has stressed the amount of resources it is putting in to deal with this one small area in the larger north-east, but the issues returned after breaches occurred and, in no uncertain terms, that has infuriated my constituents—and, I must add, me. It cannot continue.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that the Environment Agency has additional powers and that the polluters—the people causing the problem—should pay for the time and resources put into resolving these problems? My constituency had a similar problem with litter a couple of years ago, and it devastated our area. The signs are still there. It is really important to local people.

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I remember the case she mentions in her constituency of Blaydon. In certain areas, such as driving along the A1231, people can see the plastic still in the trees. We now know that local councils do not have the resources to be picking up constantly after these companies, as they did years ago. It is therefore up to these businesses to be more responsible, and if that means that the Environment Agency has to fine them to make them pay for picking up the litter, so be it.

As I have said, I have convened several meetings with the Environment Agency, which is supposed to deal with these problems, and I have repeatedly been told that it does not have the powers or the authority to do anything other than the bare minimum that it has done. To me, it just seems as though these companies get a slap on the wrist. One constituent, Mr Morgan, has described this sorry saga as

“a badly written Groundhog Day movie sequel”,

and I have to admit that I agree with him. The repeated incidents that have been reported and the breaching of operating permits, with the lack of any apparent enforcement action for so long, have left many constituents and me feeling frustrated and disappointed. I am not blaming the Environment Agency, which is acting within its remit and in accordance with what it is allowed to do under the current law. That is what has brought me to the Floor of the House to plead with the Minister, and I have some solutions about what might be done.

I am very interested in what my hon. Friend is saying about wanting more powers, but the Environment Agency already has powers—for example, to enforce the storage of waste at waste transfer stations. In my experience, it is very reluctant to use such powers, or if it does, it gives a slap on the wrist, as she suggests, rather than real enforcement action in conjunction with HMRC and local councils, which would be far more effective in bringing these rogue operators to book.

I definitely agree with my right hon. Friend. That is why I felt the need to bring this debate to the House. I want to seek the Minister’s views on this matter, and find out what more he and his Department can do given the examples that I and other hon. Members have outlined.

I have been trying for many months to secure this debate. It is incredibly interesting that, since I let it be known publicly that I had applied for a parliamentary debate, I have finally seen some activity by the Environment Agency. [Interruption.] I know; it is rather curious. It seems that the threat of a parliamentary debate does wonders for getting things sorted—small wonders at least—but this should never be the case, and this matter should never have been escalated to the Floor of this Chamber.

As I have said, the Environment Agency has finally fined one of the major culprits in this on-going saga: Niramax Group Ltd received a fine of £26,000 in January. However, it is frustrating that the Environment Agency clearly made this out to be a victory for it and local residents, yet, as its own press release stated, the specific issue with Niramax had been going on since April 2015. That was nearly three years previously, so it is hardly a victory. It is safe to say that I was flabbergasted by this announcement and stunned that, after so many years of back and forth with the Environment Agency, it had finally pulled its finger out and done something constructive and punitively necessary to sort out the many breaches that have occurred for far too long.

However, in the words of one of my constituents, Mr Kirkland, following this announcement:

“Although the Environment Agency have brought a successful prosecution it has taken an unacceptable amount of time and done nothing but confirm the inadequate regulation of these and other waste operators in the area. There has been nothing done by the Environment Agency regarding the disgraceful and neglectful disregard of the littering laws by the same companies and the main road routes taken by their lorries are some of the worst roadside littering I have ever seen.”

He went on:

“They should be made to pay for our hundreds of phone calls and hours spent complaining to the Environment Agency and the council, and we must now have grave doubts as to the honesty of any such companies who will— we have no doubt—lie through their back teeth to keep their permits.”

As you can appreciate, Madam Deputy Speaker, my constituents feel that it is now time for regulatory change and for the enforcement powers of the Environment Agency to be bolstered so that such situations never happen again. My constituents have put up with this for far too long. I therefore want to know from the Minister what it plans to do to look into all the cases involving Teal Farm and to learn from the failures that my constituents have had to endure for far too long.

It is only right and fair that my constituents should be able to live a happy and comfortable life in their homes, not see their lives blighted incessantly by the failures and disregard of businesses operating in the area, and that when such episodes take place, they should have the fullest confidence that the agencies, which they pay for through their taxes, will do all they can to ensure that violations are dealt with swiftly and punitively, with on-the-spot fines for any breaches that occur.

I am therefore calling for increased powers for the Environment Agency, so it can actually do the job that it is there to do, and can issue on-the-spot fines to environmental offenders. After all, environmental litter officers can issue on-the-spot fines to the public for littering and dog fouling. Surely the problems that Environmental Agency officers deal with in regard to such companies are just as troublesome—perhaps even more so—and they should face the same penalty action. There should not be any disparity in our approach to litter louts—be they individuals or businesses.

I would like to gauge from the Minister what support there is in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for conducting a strategic review of charges and fines to businesses that breach environmental permits. It is important that penalties are commensurate with the type of business put under the microscope, but also that they take into consideration the scale of the incidents that occur, often on a regular basis, as I have outlined.

Alongside the idea of reviewing fines, I want to hear more from the Minister about the scope for time limits on business permits—perhaps three to five years—and about making them renewable only if businesses are fully compliant with their permit mandates and there have been no breaches at all during that time. One way for the Environment Agency to monitor any such breaches would be to have on-the-spot fines, which I have already mentioned, to penalise businesses immediately.

Another way would be to introduce a “penalties on your permit” system, not dissimilar to fixed penalty notices for motorists who are caught speeding, which could be used as part of the review of businesses’ environmental permits when they are up for renewal. Currently, when such a facility is up for sale, the licence the Environment Agency grants is automatically kept with the land and sold on by default. This is a very easy way for unscrupulous companies to obtain a licence. Does the Minister agree that that is wrong?

I do hope that the Minister will look into all of this carefully, and will respond with assurances that I can take back to the residents of Teal Farm. I want to bring my speech to a close, but I have one further point to add. It is pertinent as it relates to the application for a waste gasification plant in my constituency. If successful, this will lead to a huge increase in HGV traffic to and from waste processing plants, and I fear—given what I have set out today—that it will bring the inevitable litter and congestion. Having written to the Minister about the safety of this plant, I have received letters reminding me that the body ultimately responsible for monitoring the site’s safety is none other than—you’ve guessed it—the Environment Agency.

I hope that the Environment Agency will live up to its promises, and that I have given the Minister some food for thought about the solutions I and my residents in Teal Farm feel could be implemented. I know that Governments do not necessarily like new regulations, but on this issue I think hon. Members would say that I have—and I hope I have—made the case for them tonight.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on finally securing this debate. I know that she has raised the issue on a number of occasions, both on the Floor of the House and through parliamentary questions, and I am sorry it took her so long to get her debate. The Government do not control the scheduling of these debates, so I can assure her that that was not deliberate.

As the hon. Lady says, a well-functioning and regulated waste industry is essential to ensure that we use our resources efficiently and to minimise impacts on our environment and local communities. The Environment Agency, as she knows, is the lead enforcement agency within Government targeting those who do not comply with the regulatory framework or their permitting conditions.

As the hon. Lady pointed out, badly managed facilities can cause suffering to communities through odour, fires, and vermin or fly infestations, as in the case of her constituency. We therefore take this issue seriously, contrary to some of the points she made.

I will move on to the specifics of the hon. Lady’s case in the Sunderland area and particularly to the waste transfer sites that have caused a problem.

The Minister says that the Environment Agency is the main enforcement body, so why in the last few years has it not investigated the clear breaches we have asked about in parliamentary questions? For example, there have been a number of fires at waste transfer stations, which are clearly designed to avoid landfill tax and are linked to tax fraud. Why have the Environment Agency and HMRC not looked in detail at any of those?

I will describe some of the action that the Environment Agency has taken in the north-east on a number of issues, but I want first to say that I do understand the particular issue that the hon. Lady raised. In my constituency, I have a similar issue with a waste processing centre and waste transfer site located quite close to a residential area. There is a difficult tension, because it is on an industrial site, so on one level that area is designated for industrial use. When the planning went through, it was assumed that that would be okay. While my constituency experience means that I am familiar with the tensions these things can cause, I have to say that, in my personal experience as an MP, the Environment Agency has taken very serious action to try to deal with the problem.

I want to address some of the hon. Lady’s points about enforcement. The Environment Agency has taken clear action in the north-east in recent years. From the start of 2013 until the end of March 2018, it secured 126 prosecutions and 41 formal cautions in relation to waste offences. The agency has also made successful use of confiscation orders under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Orders to a value of nearly half a million pounds have been made. Moreover, since the summer of 2012, the agency has closed 372 illegal waste sites in the north-east. This equates to over one illegal waste site per week. It has also investigated 2,226 reports of illegal waste sites, which is over one per day.

There are also number of operations regarding serious and organised crime in the waste sector in the north-east. As Members will understand, I am somewhat limited as to what I can divulge about ongoing investigations, but I will say that these operations target organised criminals who use sophisticated methods to cheat the system and ultimately take money from the taxpayer.

I am going to carry on if the right hon. Gentleman will allow me.

It is well known that the criminal nature of the groups operating in the waste sector has changed over recent years. Groups are using highly sophisticated techniques to evade the agency. They act violently and threateningly to their legitimate competitors and agency staff, and often use their waste business to mask their involvement in other illegal activities, such firearms or drugs.

The agency therefore works closely with the National Crime Agency to map and detect the extent of serious and organised crime. The agency also undertakes proactive disruption and prevention work. For example, a successful landowner campaign was launched in 2017 in response to the widespread dumping of baled waste in empty buildings. Some 1,300 buildings that were possible targets of waste criminals were identified, and a host of organisations was then contacted.

The EA also works with a range of partners through the Government Agency Intelligence Network. In Teesside, for example, it instigated a local group that includes the police, fire and rescue services, local authorities, HMRC, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, trading standards and UK Border Force. Following on from the positive results of that group, similar area-focused groups are being set up in the north-east.

In the north-east, the agency has a dedicated team of enforcement officers who lead on serious and significant cases of waste crime, and there is a host of resources to draw on for less significant cases. Agency officers use sophisticated surveillance equipment to detect waste crime. For example, officers have recently started wearing body cameras when visiting illegal waste sites.

The Government have ensured that enforcement is adequately resourced. An extra £30 million of funding, which was announced in the Budget in November, has been put into waste crime enforcement. That means that an additional £60 million has been committed to the agency for enforcement since 2014. The additional Budget funding will mean more boots on the ground, with over 80 extra enforcement staff across the country. The funding will aim to reduce the number of illegal waste sites, prevent illegal exports of waste and decrease waste being mis-described.

The hon. Lady made a specific point about additional powers for the Environment Agency. We are working to strengthen the agency’s powers in this area. As part of our continuing to ensure that the agency has the necessary powers and tools to enforce good compliance, we recently introduced regulations to strengthen its powers to tackle problem waste sites. They enable the agency to restrict access to a waste site by locking the gates or barring access, and to require that all waste is removed from a site, not just the illegally deposited waste. That is one example of how we have strengthened the law in this area.

We have conducted a consultation on strengthening the permitting regime. The consultation will tighten up the waste permitting and exemptions regime by raising the bar for people to operate in the sector. It also makes further proposals on fly-tipping. Subject to the outcome of the consultation, which was launched in January and ran for 10 weeks, we will seek to implement the changes later this year. This is an important step to ensure that only fully competent people are able to hold a waste permit. The process will crack down on criminals who choose to operate in the sector while acting under a veil of legitimacy. We strengthened the law on fly-tipping in 2016, introducing on-the-spot fine enforcement notices for people caught fly-tipping. One element of the current consultation is about strengthening that further so that even if we do not catch people in the act of fly-tipping, there will be an opportunity to levy a penalty notice against them when we are able to trace where the waste came from.

The Minister has plenty of time as we have until 10.30 pm, unless he has a pressing engagement—although what could be more pressing than talking about environmental issues in my constituency?

On that point, the Minister will appreciate that fly-tipping is very different from the issue I raised today. Waste is flying off the back of lorries, which are supposed to be netted, and on to the A1231. One of the problems for the Environment Agency is that that waste will have come from all over the place. Even if the EA or residents see it happening, the waste that they find may come from Joe Bloggs and somebody else. It could be traced back to the lorry and the company to which it belongs, and if an EA officer sees that take place, it should be enough for a spot fine. That was what I was calling for the Minister to bring forward.

I was going to return to that point later, but the type of fly-tipping we are attempting to tackle through the consultation is when a rogue collector of rubbish does not have a permit and then dumps it in a farmer’s field or in a gateway. That is slightly different from litter coming loose from a lorry. That would be an issue of permitting for those who transport waste to a particular site and the operators of those vehicles. It is not so much an on-the-spot fine or a penalty notice that is needed in that case as the power to suspend a licence to operate is incredibly powerful and, I think, the preferred tool. That is why, in the case of operators, we tend to use an improvement notice, an enforcement notice or an actual suspension since that does more damage to them than a penalty notice probably would.

Does the Minister understand that people in my Blaydon constituency, where two landfill sites have produced their own problems, including with litter, cannot see why the Environment Agency does not have the power to say, “Let’s close this site straightaway—it is not working properly. We need to resolve this issue”? It is absolutely crazy that rubbish is being transported across the country in huge lorries to my constituency when we do not dump our own waste there. The rubbish comes from all over the country. Does he not agree that we need to put right that absolutely crazy system?

As I said, I have experienced such issues in my constituency, so I understand residents’ concerns. The Environment Agency has the power to issue improvement notices and enforcement notices, or to suspend a permit. It uses those powers and, indeed, has done so in some cases in the north-east, which I will come on to.

To conclude my point about the consultation, we are also tightening the waste exemption regime. That is about looking at some of the sites that currently have a derogation and are exempt from requiring a permit—there is particular concern about those that have tyres and the way in which some are handled. We are raising the bar for those who want to operate a permitted site. That includes the requirement for a demonstration of technical competence, for example, and we have even looked at the idea of sites needing to put a financial bond in place to allow for recovery if there is a problem. I therefore think I have demonstrated that, through the consultation—it was launched in January and we are currently analysing the results—we have taken steps to strengthen the law in the way for which the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West has asked.

I turn now to some of the specific points that the hon. Lady raised about her constituency of Washington and Sunderland West, where there are eight permitted waste sites. Although three have had permit breaches in the last five years due to problems with flies in particular, as she described, all the sites are currently performing well and are rated A or B on the Environment Agency’s performance scale—A is the top performance. When there were permit breaches, the agency took the relevant enforcement action. In one case, as she pointed out, there was a prosecution, following which there was a fine of £16,000 and an award of £10,000 in costs.

The most recent of these problems was the 2015 case at the former Niramax site, which the hon. Lady mentioned. That site is now owned by Veolia and is performing better. I stress that the agency and the waste companies concerned work closely to ensure that operators are kept in compliance with permits and to try to overcome problems. For example, in 2014, the agency initiated a permit variation across all eight of the sites permitted to accept waste that had the potential to give rise to fly infestations, which added a bespoke condition on pest management. Sunderland City Council also became involved with breaches relating to public amenity.

The Environment Agency works with other public bodies locally, such as the police and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, to monitor standards and performance relating to vehicles that transport waste in the local area. That is particularly important, given the hon. Lady’s concerns about waste that is supposed to be netted not being adequately secured to the load. In the most recent checks of over 200 vehicles that were inspected on site or observed on local roads, 12 were found to have minor regulatory issues relating to waste, and the DVSA dealt with two non-waste issues.

In conclusion, I recognise the important issues that the hon. Lady has raised. It is important to highlight that the Government have increased spending on enforcement in this area. I hope that I have reassured her both that we have changed the law recently—in the last two years—to strengthen regulations in this area and that we intend to do more. I have talked about the consultation, but we intend to strengthen the permitting requirements further. I also recognise that she has raised others issues, particularly around transport, and I will ensure that these are taken on board.

I will give way to the hon. Lady because I can see she is keen to make use of the time available.

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. I know he has given some assurances but, with the summer months approaching, I doubt that my constituents—they will be watching in large numbers, even though this debate has been held sooner than might have been thought, so they may be watching later—will be as reassured, given that they are the ones who are living with this day in, day out. As I have said, this has been going on for years. I know the Minister says that some of the new measures have come in within the last two years, but they really are not biting or perhaps having the effect he had hoped. I just wonder if he or his Department could keep an eye on this and perhaps revisit it. I will raise it again in questions, and if things are not progressing and companies are not adhering to the enforcement measures, further regulations might need to be looked at.

As part of our consideration around the consultation, I will ensure that an official in the Department takes note of this debate and considers some of the issues the hon. Lady has raised. As I said, we have specific proposals to raise the bar for those who want to operate a permitted site and with regard to the exemptions. If there is more we can do, working with the DVSA, to strengthen some of the standards for the transporting of waste material, we will certainly consider it.

We have had a very positive debate. It has been timely, given that our consultation recently closed, even if it was not as early as the hon. Lady would have liked. She has now had the opportunity to put her constituents’ concerns on record, and I hope I have reassured her about the action we are taking, although I also take on board her concern that it might not be enough.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.