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Waste Incineration: Regulation

Volume 658: debated on Tuesday 9 April 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the regulation of the incineration of waste.

It is particularly pleasing to open this short debate this morning for three reasons. First, it is good to talk about anything other than Brexit. Secondly, it is good to have a fellow Yorkshireman in the Chair and as Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which is looking at the Government’s waste strategy in a short inquiry. Thirdly—I hope we can reach some consensus across the Chamber—this debate is inspired by two rising stars. I am glad to see one of them, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), in his place. He is the first ever shadow Minister for Waste and Recycling combined. The second, who not in his place as he has other business today, is the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. When I pointed out at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions recently that new incinerators could divert waste that might otherwise be recycled, he said I had a good point. That is perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me during questions. I am particularly glad for those three reasons.

I wish to put three propositions to the Chamber. First, there is a case for a moratorium on incineration. We have quite enough incinerators to deal with residual waste at the moment. Secondly, the Environment Agency should be more robust in its approach in enforcing the waste hierarchy. Thirdly, the Treasury should continue to look—as it has be doing publicly in recent months—at whether a tax on incineration should mirror the landfill tax.

I acknowledge at the beginning that there are many Members in the Chamber today and I will happily take interventions. There is an organisation called the UK Without Incineration Network that is to be commended on the quality of the information it provides. Indeed, in reporting on an industry conference, an industry paper said that if Paul Davidson, who is a strong lobbyist for incinerators,

“wanted technical and other details”

about individual incinerators,

“he went to the website of implacable opponents UKWIN.”

Mr Davidson was reported as saying

“It’s a great website. It’s a disgrace that that is the best source of information.”

When I form my first Administration, the organisation’s chief co-ordinator, Shlomo Dowen, will be the first person I will recommend for a peerage.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. There is no doubt it will be lively. He has just hit the nail on the head. When incinerator operators apply for licences from the Environment Agency, a lot of bureaucratic and complicated paperwork goes with that that prevents local residents from scrutinising some of these applications. Does he agree with me that more needs to be done to unpick that information to make it more accountable and transparent for local residents?

I agree. Many residents feel that the Environment Agency’s job seems to be to try and do everything possible to nod through the application rather than rigorously interrogate it. Indeed, as I pointed out in my opening remarks, the Environment Agency has responsibilities under the Waste Regulations (England and Wales) 2011, passed by the coalition, to enforce the waste hierarchy, which puts reuse and recycling at the top. It fails to do this.

In my constituency of Swansea East, in the very pleasant community of Llansamlet, Biffa is currently attempting to get permission to build one of those incinerators and 2,500 members of the local community have come together to object. Does my hon. Friend agree that placing such a facility in the middle of a community is detrimental to its health, schools and homes and that we should be looking at other ways of disposing of our waste?

I am quite shocked by that application, but it mirrors an application in the centre of Keighley, to which I will refer in my closing remarks.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene in this brilliant debate. I agree with his propositions, particularly on the waste hierarchy and the likelihood that incinerators will reduce both the amount that we recycle and our attempts to reduce waste in the first place. Does he agree that there is a risk, through so-called gasification, that we may have incineration by another means, and that it is absolutely right that applications should be considered—if they are to be considered at all—only if they are away from centres of population, on the precautionary principle?

I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman on the precautionary principle. However one defines incineration, it is true that the more of it there is in a local authority, the less recycling there is.

Some 7,000 constituents in Carnbroe rejected this for 11 years, and the council fully backs the community. The Scottish Government keep overturning that decision, however, and keep coming back. Will anyone listen to the communities who actually have to live with the incinerators?

My hon. Friend makes a point and in a moment I will briefly set out the case for a moratorium on new incinerators, which I think is definitely needed.

At the moment, my constituents are very worried about proposals for a new incinerator the size of Battersea power station in the Hampshire downs countryside, which is a rural location, not an urban one. It would be in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), whom it is good to see in her place. Given that incineration is not recycling and the proposals would lead to countless lorry movements just to feed the machine, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be good to hear from the Minister about where the Government see incineration in the hierarchy of waste management in England today?

I, like the hon. Gentleman, am looking forward to the Minister’s remarks. As I said, I do not think that the Environmental Agency has done nearly enough to enforce that waste hierarchy, to which all parties are committed.

My hon. Friend knows that I have a long-term interest in the sector. Indeed, he can check the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—I have always been interested in energy from waste. He should be very cautious about calling it “incineration”. Energy from waste is at its best—looking at Sheffield or the new power plant in Leeds—when, for most of the town or city, it not only feeds into the electricity supply, but is a large contributor to it. On the other hand, if the heat is retained and heats the whole of the centre of Sheffield, as it does, it is a very valuable part of the balance that we need. We can never recycle everything, and if we do not have that balance between good quality energy from waste, recycling and minimising throwing stuff in holes in the ground, we are lost. I would love that sort of facility in my constituency, where we have an old-fashioned incinerator, but all the heat goes out into the atmosphere.

I say to my hon. Friend that I used to chair the last but one coalmine to close in this country; Hatfield Colliery, in Yorkshire. Incinerators actually emit more CO2 per megawatt-hour generated than any other fossil fuel source, including coal. On CO2 and global warming grounds alone, we must consider that.

I will go back to my remarks about whether we have enough incinerators. Only one independent analysis is widely respected: Eunomia’s. It is an environmental consultant with expertise in this area that has issued 12 reports, the last of which was published in July 2017. The analysis clearly demonstrates that operational incineration capacity has grown rapidly, from 6.3 million tonnes in 2009-10, to 13.5 million tonnes in 2017. Additional capacity is assessed to be 4.8 million tonnes.

I appreciate that many councils and local authorities are entering contracts relating to providers of incineration. In doing so, they are diverting waste that should be recycled, because of those contractual agreements. That is creating a big problem.

The hon. Gentleman hits the nail on the head. It creates a perverse incentive for local authorities which, on the one hand, have a duty to recycle, but on the other must fulfil a contract that they have entered into. That means that when Eunomia did the analysis it looked at a series of projections, assessing the capacity of the incinerators against the availability of the feedstock of waste. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), I would point out the assumed levels of recycling to which we are committed in Yorkshire in particular. We are committed to a recycling rate of 55% by 2025, 60% by 2030, and 65% by 2035. Eunomia and, indeed, the Government have accepted that we will have enough incineration capacity to meet the residual waste, given those recycling targets. Tom Murray, the deputy head of resources and waste policy at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said this year:

“Our evidence is suggesting that, when we meet recycling targets…recycling will leave no capacity gap”

with respect to incineration.

Just because my hon. Friend is a very good friend: I have only a few minutes left, so I can take a short intervention.

My hon. Friend knows that his local authority’s recycling is pathetic, as is mine. My challenge for him is, if energy from waste is stopped, what will we do with the non-recyclable plastics that are pouring into every town and city in the country?

The way I would help local authorities to recycle more would be to tax incinerators, just as landfill is taxed, to give them the money to increase recycling rates. That is being considered by the Treasury at the moment. The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury said recently that the Treasury

“would be willing to consider a future incineration tax once further infrastructure has been put in place to reduce…the amount of plastics that are incinerated, further improving the environment and reducing the amount of throwaway single-use plastics.”––[Official Report, Finance (No. 3) Public Bill Committee, 6 December 2018; c. 299.]

On the point about incinerator tax, does the hon. Gentleman agree that in situations where, as in my constituency, there is a proposal for a major incinerator yards outside the constituency boundary, and local people feel they have no ownership to enable them to affect the outcome, whether through their MP or councillors, it is particularly important that any tax that might come in should be shared broadly with neighbouring communities, and not just in the council area where the incinerator is?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There are precedents that can be looked at, such as the landfill tax. However, I hope that the Government—any Government—will rapidly bring the matter to a conclusion, to give certainty. Instead of just flirting with the idea of taxation it is now time to act on it.

If the House will indulge me, in my remaining couple of minutes I need to refer to the outstanding application in the Keighley area. I commend the work of Aire Valley Against Incineration, which has campaigned hard on the issue. There is planning permission. It is quite unusual to apply for planning permission and not to apply at the same stage for an environmental permit. I do not know whether the Minister would have a comment to make on that. The application for an environmental permit bears little resemblance to the original planning application. Fifty per cent. more waste is envisaged. There is planning permission for 100,000 tonnes, and an extra 48,000 tonnes is now being added. The layout of the buildings and chimney stack has changed. The nature of the waste that might be burned has changed. The planning committee was told that only residual waste in the form of refuse-derived fuel would be included. Now the Environment Agency is being told that the facility will accept residual, commercial and industrial waste of a similar nature to unsorted municipal solid waste.

There is therefore great concern in the community. We hope that the Environment Agency will do a rigorous job. There is even more concern because of the nature of the company involved—Endless Energy, which is not even a member of the trade association. It is based in the Isle of Man. It has two directors who have been named by the Environment Agency. One of them, Rajinder Singh Chatha, was the controlling force behind Oddbins, which has recently gone into administration. A tax tribunal recently found that he was

“intentionally misleading about some of the explicit lies that the tribunal has found were told to HMRC”.

It decided that he was not a fit and proper person to be allowed to sell or distribute duty suspended alcohol. He is not a fit and proper person to sell alcohol! Despite the pleadings of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) that this industry should be given a fair chance, these people are cowboys. Until recently cowboys were running Keighley Cougars, our proud rugby league team, but they have now gone. I will be writing to the chair of the Environment Agency to ask how it can possibly trust a man who the tax authorities say cannot be trusted.

I will not give way to my hon. Friend for a third time, but I look forward to having a cup of tea with the chair of the all-party group for Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire, and restoring our friendship. In the meantime, I hope the Front-Bench speakers will be robust about this. Obviously the Opposition Front-Bench speaker cannot speak on this occasion, but there is a chance that we could reach agreement on incinerators, perhaps even before we reach agreement on Europe across the House.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) on securing this important debate. It has clearly attracted a lot of attention from Members across the House.

The hon. Gentleman has particular concerns about the growth of incineration and the potential for overcapacity, and the negative impact that that might have on the drive for increased recycling. In the waste hierarchy, incineration is only above landfill, and we want to ensure that we reduce, reuse and recycle. Whether that involves promoting resource efficiency and moving towards a circular economy, the actions taken will allow us to extract maximum value from resources, and recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of their lifespan. We set that out clearly in our resources and waste strategy, which also set higher recycling ambitions. Those include delivering a 65% municipal waste recycling rate by 2035, and a minimum 70% recycling rate for packaging waste by 2030.

Hon. Members will know about the increase in recycling rates between 2001 and 2017-18, and local authority recycling has more than tripled, increasing from 12% to more than 42%. Over the same period, waste sent to landfill has gone from 79% to 12.5%. Policies aimed at diverting waste away from landfill have meant that the volume of waste being treated at energy-from-waste plants has increased, but that growth must not hinder recycling ambitions. Even after delivering higher recycling levels, there will still be waste that we cannot recycle or reuse, either because it is contaminated or because there are no end markets for the material. Our overarching ambition is to manage that waste in a way that maximises its value as a resource, while minimising the environmental impact of its management.

We currently deal with such waste in three main ways: landfill, incineration with energy recovery, or export as refuse-derived fuel. Landfill is the least favoured option for waste. We have been clear in our strategy that we wish to reduce the level of municipal waste that is sent to landfill down to 10%—or less—by 2035.

I was about to answer the hon. Gentleman’s point so I will not give way. He has already contributed twice to the debate.

Energy from waste or incineration with energy recovery should not compete with greater waste prevention, reuse or recycling. England currently has enough capacity to treat around 36% of residual municipal waste, and the projected increase in recycling thanks to our resources and waste strategy measures will reduce the future level of residual waste treatment infrastructure that is required. However, energy from waste will continue to have an important role in diverting waste from landfill—that is the point that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) tried to make clear.

I will not. That is the best management option for most waste that cannot be reused or recycled, in terms of environmental impact and getting value from waste as a resource.

Energy-from-waste plants are regulated by the Environment Agency in England and must comply with the strict emission limits set by the industrial emissions directive. Every application for a new plant is assessed by the Environment Agency to ensure that it uses the best available techniques to minimise emissions, and that it will not have a significant effect on local air quality. The Environment Agency will not issue an environmental permit if the proposed plant will have a significant impact on the environment or harm human health. Once operational, energy-from-waste plants are closely regulated through a programme of regular inspections and audits carried out by the Environment Agency, which also carefully checks the results of the continuous air emissions monitoring that all plants must do.

Hon. Members should also note that Public Health England’s position remains that modern, well-managed incinerators operated in accordance with an environmental permit are not a significant risk to public health. The Government have been clear that we want to maximise the resource value of waste, including residual waste. That is why we are working to drive greater efficiency of energy from waste plants by encouraging the use of the heat those plants produce.

I am trying to respond to the hon. Member for Keighley, who brought this 30-minute debate. I am conscious that other people have made points, but I will deal with his points first. He specifically referred to the Aire Valley incinerator; I am aware of what is being proposed, and I understand that City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council has granted Endless Energy, formerly known as the Aire Valley Energy from Waste facility, planning permission to develop such a facility for the recovery of energy from non-hazardous waste, to be built on the site of the former gasworks east of Keighley. The proposed facility will use standard incineration technology to generate electricity.

Endless Energy has also applied to the Environment Agency for an environmental permit, which it will need to operate its facility. The agency is carrying out a full technical assessment of Endless Energy’s proposals to determine whether a permit can be issued. The Environment Agency has consulted the public as part of its determination and has received more than 2,000 responses. It also consults Public Health England and the local government director of public health on every energy from waste plant application that it receives, and takes their comments into account when deciding whether to issue a permit.

On a point of order, I have never been in a Westminster Hall debate where a Minister has refused to give way, even when she has mentioned the person who wants to intervene. I have never known a Minister fail to give way and just read her speech and ignore the fact that this is a debating Chamber.

As I say, I am trying to answer the points made by the hon. Member for Keighley, whose debate this is. He referred to a planning application, but he will be aware that it will not be a matter for the national Government in this instance to determine whether the changes to the planning application are appropriate. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) have a planning application that is under way as a nationally significant infrastructure project, I believe. They will be aware that again, I cannot comment specifically in that regard.

However, it is important that we recognise that one of the things we are doing in the resources and waste strategy is effectively removing this condition, which I believe is where the hon. Member for Keighley has a problem, of TEEP—technically, environmentally and economically practicable—exemptions, which allow exemptions based on technical, economic and environmental differences. Under the proposals that we have put out in the consultation, which we hope to include in the Environment Bill in the next Session of Parliament, there is a specific removal of that TEEP exemption on what councils will be required to collect for recycling. It will determine not how they collect it but what they collect.

Therefore, that situation will no longer arise; if the responses to the consultation agree with what the Government believe is the right policy to take forward, councils will no longer have the ability to simply say, “It is not economically viable for us to do this anymore.” That is quite a revolution in the resource and waste strategy.

Returning to the point about the Environment Agency’s being more robust, there are some challenges relating to how the EA can implement the TEEP exemptions with councils in its considerations. That is an important part of why we are pushing forward that proposal in our consultations, which I hope will be in the future Bill.

Order. We need a bit of order in this debate. The Minister has made it absolutely clear that she is not giving way to the hon. Members. Can we please get on with the debate? She has made that absolutely clear.

I am very conscious of the quality of people being considered. That is another reason why we are starting to make changes, which I hope the Environment Bill will strengthen, that will allow the Environment Agency to assess the different offences that people may have committed. At the moment, it is restricted specifically to issues surrounding waste. We are broadening that out.

I do not know how that would apply to the issue to which the hon. Member for Keighley referred about somebody not being licensed to sell alcohol. I do not know what that would mean with regard to offences, and whether such a condition would be introduced. I assure him that the industry is fed up of cowboys taking this on, but it is important that the district council and the Environment Agency have different roles in the assessment of energy-from-waste plants—one is about the planning, the other is about the environmental impact and keeping in line with the industrial emissions directive.

The hon. Member for Keighley has suggested an incineration tax previously. As he pointed out, tax policy is generally a matter for the Treasury. Although energy from waste can play an important role in reducing the amount of waste going to landfill, in the long term we want to maximise the amount of waste used for recycling. Again, wider policies are set out in our resources and waste strategy. Changes that we will introduce to the extent of producer responsibility will effectively incentivise the design of products that are much more straightforward to recycle.

That is an opportunity, but I am also aware that industry and the Environmental Services Association are concerned that, if we do not reach 65% in that time or do not make progress more quickly, there will be a lack of incineration. In effect, that will be a commercial decision for them to consider, but, as was mentioned earlier, we want to encourage the use of the heat that plants produce, and to work closely with industry to secure a substantial increase in the number of energy from waste plants that are formally recognised as achieving recovery status R1. We will ensure that all future EfW plants achieve recovery status.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) rightly talked about transparent information for residents. I am conscious that some environmental assessments are very technical. That is why we have the Environment Agency to make that judgment. However, there is still an opportunity for residents to table questions either directly to the developer or to the Environment Agency during its consideration.

I am just trying to get through all the different points. My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) rightly talked about the local community, but he should be aware that most such plants are dealt with through local planning. They tend to be in the local plan, so it is important that we challenge those different elements during the consideration.

I am conscious that two people want to intervene. I invite the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) to do so first.

That is really kind of the Minister. May I apologise for my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on behalf of us all?

He has gone, thankfully. The Minister will be aware that there has been an application for a gasification plant in my constituency. The key bone of contention is that no decision was made on what form of technology would be used before the application was put in. Does she agree that in order for people to campaign and scrutinise such applications properly, those making them should say up front what form of technology they will use?

That is an important consideration. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) mentioned pyrolysis or gasification. Different technologies will have different environmental impacts. There is starting to be a trend towards that, possibly because it is then easier to generate heat. However, I am not an expert in the individual technologies. It is worthy of consideration, but the hon. Lady’s constituents should be assured by the industrial emissions directive-tough regulations that are already in place, and will be carried over in the event of an EU exit.

I was going to invite the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) to intervene, but I had not realised that he had walked out of the debate. I am sure that he will write to me anyway. I will finish by saying that it really matters that we transition to better designed products, and make more of recycling, reducing and re-using the waste that we generate. The Government are introducing very strong parts of our resources and waste strategy, and I am confident that that will lead to better environmental outcomes. I want councils to use every lever possible, including the ACE UK recycling site in Halifax, which has offered, through Costa Coffee, to do a lot more recycling of coffee cups; it is the only place that recycles Tetra Paks. Overall, I believe that we are making good progress.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.