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Waste Water Treatment Works: Odour Nuisance

Volume 658: debated on Tuesday 23 April 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered odour nuisance from waste water treatment works.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I recognise that it could be the source of some humour to be discussing a somewhat malodorous whiff or a pungent, noxious odour in the air—that is not a reference to this place, obviously—but I have received a number of complaints from residents in my constituency of Great Grimsby, particularly in the West Marsh ward. Frankly, their lives are being blighted, on an irregular basis, by repeated unfortunate smells coming from the Pyewipe sewage treatment plant a few hundred yards from their homes.

I want to talk about some of the issues that my constituents have raised with me, and some of the general problems relating to standards and enforcement in the water treatment industry, which I am sure affect Members from across the House, particularly if they have water treatment works in their constituencies.

None of us would want to experience the smell originating from sewage treatment plants, even for a short period. I was knocking on doors in the area only about two or three weeks ago, and the smell was overpowering. People did not want to open their doors, not because I was knocking on them—it is completely the opposite when I knock on their doors—but because of the smell. People are completely fed up with it. It was so noticeable and present that I thought I had perhaps stepped in something unpleasant, but that was not the case. Perhaps, I thought, it might be because of the increasingly warm weather, and it might be coming from the river that runs alongside the area—a very pretty river, now that the Environment Agency has cleared up that space—but it was not coming from there either. The only place it could have been coming from was the water treatment works.

Council environmental health officers are obliged to investigate complaints of nuisance smells and take action if they adjudge them to be a statutory nuisance. However, in recent years, there has been an increase in reports of odours from Anglian Water-managed Pyewipe sewage treatment centre. Records that Anglian has shared with me show that there were no reports of odour between 2014 and 2017, which I find remarkable; fewer than 10 reports in 2017; fewer than 15 in 2018; and fewer than five in 2019. Given that we are only coming towards the end of April, that is quite a significant number. That leads me to question whether the reporting mechanism for local residents is well known. I suspect that one of the reasons why there were no complaints between 2014 and 2017 is that people were not aware of how they could make complaints.

Nuisance smells affect residents’ ability to open their windows on hot days, enjoy their gardens and walk along the River Haven. They make them feel uncomfortable about inviting friends or family to visit their homes. Ultimately, they make our streets and communities far less open and enjoyable, as people choose to stay inside to avoid the odour, try to mask it with air fresheners or avoid the area altogether and go elsewhere. It is not right that my constituents are forced to put up with putrid odours in their homes, which can have a negative effect on their lives. We should take that seriously. I remember talking to two constituents, one of whom had been undergoing some form of cancer treatment. They wanted to make sure their home was properly ventilated, but it became impossible to open their windows, and they were incredibly frustrated about that.

Water companies and environmental health departments must make it a key aim to ensure that water plants do not create nuisance smells, and that any reports of a smell emanating from one of their plants is dealt with in a serious and timely manner. Unfortunately, the experience of one of my constituents suggests that that is far from the reality for those suffering from nuisance smells in our area.

After corresponding with representatives of Anglian Water and visiting the site, my constituent sent a spreadsheet to Anglian Water in July 2018 that recorded all the times he had experienced a bad smell. Anglian’s figures say that there were fewer than 15 odour reports in 2018, but I am fairly sure my constituent had more than 15 entries on his spreadsheet. I am not sure how that recording is done, but I will take it up with Anglian Water.

My constituent sent Anglian the spreadsheet in July 2018, having done what it requested him to do, but he attended one of my surgeries in January to seek my help in getting a reply because he had received absolutely nothing from the company—certainly nothing looking like any kind of solution. That is why he found himself visiting his MP to try to resolve the situation. People come to see their MPs as a last resort when they have been unable to get any kind of resolution through the normal channels. For an issue like this, the normal channels should be easily accessible, not surrounded by a kind of wall of bureaucracy that makes it impossible for individuals to get answers to simple, straightforward and genuine questions.

After my office chased Anglian Water for nearly a month, it finally replied to my constituent’s concerns last month—eight months after his original complaint. That is wholly unacceptable.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Depending on the wind direction, the issue could also affect my constituency. She referred to West Marsh ward but, as she will acknowledge, if the wind is blowing in the right direction, Freshney ward or—over the border in my constituency—Wolds ward could equally be affected.

This has been a very long-running issue. In the years I spent on Grimsby Council and North East Lincolnshire Council, it was almost an annual event. I sympathise with the hon. Lady’s constituents, and I fully support all actions that she is taking. I urge the Minister to lean on the responsible authorities.

I thank my constituency neighbour for raising that issue. He was a member of the local authority in its various guises for a number of years, so has vast experience of this issue. If it has been going on for this long, why has it not yet been resolved? The responses that Anglian Water sent recently to councillor colleagues responsible for the ward, Gemma Sheridan and Karl Wilson, have been dismissive to say the least, which is incredibly disappointing. This issue clearly comes up time and again. Why cannot Anglian get a grip and sort it out, to make the lives of people in the vicinity of its treatment works much more pleasant?

The reply that Anglian Water finally sent to my constituent said that, although the Pyewipe centre does produce odours, there are a lot of industrial sites around the area, and that he should report problems to the council’s environmental health team as they occur. To my mind, that is passing the buck. It is a significant and particular odour. It is not one of general industry, of the very well-known fish processing industry or of farming. However, when my office contacted North East Lincolnshire council’s environmental health department —as Anglian Water advised my constituent to do—we were told that an agreement had been made with Anglian Water that the company would be the first point of contact for odour-related complaints and that constituents should get in touch with it.

That means that my constituent was told by Anglian Water, the responsible body, to go to the local authority, which said, “No, no, no! We already have an agreement with Anglian Water. That’s where the complaint should be issued.” None of that excuses an eight-month delay when somebody lodges a formal complaint with an organisation, whether Anglian Water or a local authority. Frankly, residents do not care; they just want their concerns responded to.

That is far from being an isolated incident. Some streets of West Marsh are particularly negatively affected by the smells from the site. It has taken tireless work by local councillors Gemma Sheridan and Karl Wilson to chase and follow up residents’ concerns about the nuisance and get some kind of response from Anglian Water. After those concerns were raised, Anglian invited the councillors over. On that day, miraculously, there was no smell, no issue and no problem. If that can be done for the councillors’ visit, it can be done the rest of the time.

It is not good enough for my constituents to be passed from pillar to post when they try to report a problem that has a real effect on their lives and on their enjoyment of their communities. I understand the economic benefits for both parties of a first-instance reporting agreement between the local authority and Anglian Water, but that cannot come at the expense of constituents, who pay the cost of poor responsiveness and a lack of accountability and responsibility for sorting out the nuisance odour to which they are subjected.

In response, Anglian Water and North East Lincolnshire’s environmental health team have agreed to meet me at the start of next month to try and sort out some of the problems in the system—I am very grateful and thank them for that. The experience of my constituent, however, as well as the fact that my office and local councillors have had to get involved so that the council’s environmental health team and Anglian Water discuss the problem together, speaks to some fundamental problems with the governance of nuisance smells from sewage treatment centres and how that is allowed to function across country.

Although some level of casual, voluntary or first-response enforcement may be used efficiently within environmental protection enforcement against nuisance, it is no substitute for creating an accountable and fair system. Any system of that type needs checks and balances from the regulator to ensure that the companies operating them carry out the work up to a required standard and behave in a responsible manner. Clearly, that has not happened in the case of Pyewipe sewage treatment centre. The company should not take eight months to respond to a detailed complaint about odour nuisance, and nor should the council or Anglian Water simply pass the buck rather than work together to solve the problem.

What can the Government do to help take action against such companies, which have a responsibility to local communities? Perhaps the Government will consider issuing guidance to local councils that use private-public voluntary partnerships in the environmental sector about how they can effectively ensure that the agreements that they make with companies to comply by environmental standards are actually met. Will the Minister also examine how much such schemes can be divorced from the accountability of official local and national bodies, without having a negative impact on the communities that pay the cost for mismanagement?

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) raised the issue of strong winds. That is exactly the response that Anglian Water gave to one of the councillors when the issue was raised three weeks ago. It blamed the wind and the direction of the wind, rather than getting to the heart of the matter and using the technology that I know is out there to solve some of those problems.

The situation is not the fault of the local council or environmental teams. When we talk about environmental enforcement, we cannot ignore the impact of the massive budget cuts experienced by councils across the country since 2010. I recognise that when councils have to choose between statutory duties such as adult social care, anti-social behaviour, homelessness, children’s social care and libraries, that comes at the expense of non-statutory functions, such as enforcement or, in this case, an environmental health team that is stretched across numerous responsibilities. That team makes sure that the air that we breathe is safe; deals with fly-tipping complaints and safety and hygiene standards in the food sector; and ensures that home and businesses do not contain major faults and hazards. That is a lot of responsibility and many duties for a small team of people.

Although there are a number of solutions, which I will raise with Anglian Water and the enforcement team when I meet them next week, can we look at what actually counts as a statutory nuisance? I understand that there has to be a certain frequency and level for something to be considered a nuisance, but a lower threshold might encourage companies to take their responsibilities more seriously. Can something be done to ensure that water companies are required to use the most up-to-date technology available to deal with these problems or, if they are going to blame the direction of the wind, to provide a barrier to prevent that smell spreading across a wider area?

Anglian Water’s response to me, which gave the figures for the complaints that the company had received, said:

“We recognise that these figures demonstrate there has been a recent increase in odour reported to Anglian Water at this time, with a particular spike during summer 2018. We are aware that the long, hot dry spell may have contributed to a temporary increase in odour on the site.”

I do not know whether others enjoyed the Easter weekend, but it was the hottest on record, and last year’s was the previous hottest Easter on record—there seems to be a pattern. A number of the people currently in Parliament Square would tell us time and again that we are likely to experience a pattern of increasingly lengthy dry spells. The whole of London has been brought to a standstill over the last two weeks by climate change protestors, which tells us that there is a steady increase in temperature. That means that there will be increasingly lengthy and hot dry spells. If that is the case, the problem will only get worse, and local residents will continue to suffer if Anglian Water does not take action.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes has dealt with or recognised the problem for the last 15 or 20 years—

Forty or 50? If so, the issue is longstanding and needs to be resolved before the weather plays an increasing role and the problem becomes uncontainable. I saw in my research ahead of the debate that if the problem remains unresolved, it will limit how people live their lives, down to not being able to open their windows, have visitors or rent out properties. If residents cannot sell their homes because the area becomes undesirable, that presumably leaves them in a position to seek some form of legal action or compensatory claim. That would be the worst of all worlds: I do not think that anybody wants that outcome.

I ask the Minister to point me in the right direction and suggest some pointers ahead of my meeting with Anglian Water and the local authority, for the sake of the West Marsh residents on whose lives the issue has a significant impact and to solve the problem once and for all.

It is always a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, in particular with comments such as that, which do not happen often—thank you very much. I am sure that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) also feels the benefit of your kind remarks.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She is a formidable spokesperson for her constituency and works hard in the main Chamber and here in Westminster Hall. It is good that she was able to secure this debate on the odour nuisance from waste water treatment works on behalf of the many constituents whom she represents. It is also good to hear the authoritative voice of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) who has, dare I say it, decades of experience. He does not look old enough for that, but he smells sweetly enough to represent those views.

I sympathise greatly with the residents of West Marsh. The issue is clearly unpleasant and, as the hon. Lady described, distressing. It significantly affects their quality of life, and I particularly appreciate the concerns expressed about the potential for the problem to become worse in the summer when residents need to be able to ventilate their homes. Both Members highlighted concern about the summer, so it is important that we get to grips with the problem as quickly as possible.

Statutory nuisance legislation provides the mechanism for communities to raise concerns of this nature with their local authority, requiring it to investigate and, where necessary, to take measures to resolve the issue. Section 79 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 places a duty on local authorities to inspect their areas from time to time to detect statutory nuisances, and to investigate complaints made by local residents about issues that could be a statutory nuisance. Smells from industry, trade or business premises, which include waste water treatment works, are among the statutory nuisances listed under the Act.

To be a statutory nuisance, an issue must either unreasonably and substantially interfere with the use or enjoyment of a home or other premises, or injure or be likely to injure health. It is not essential for local authorities or environmental health practitioners to witness the nuisance themselves—that point was made by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby because, unfortunately, when they came to visit with the councillors, there was no smell—but they need to be satisfied that the statutory nuisance exists or is likely to occur or recur, as seems to be the case with the issue raised by the hon. Lady.

Any decision will take into account a number of factors, including the reasonableness of the activity, the time of day of the occurrence, and its duration and frequency. Local authorities and environmental health practitioners need to decide whether they have enough evidence to justify a view that statutory nuisance exists before they take enforcement action. It sounds as if many of the hon. Lady’s constituents are taking the right steps, and we must ensure that the information is being provided not just to the local authority but to Anglian Water—we will come on to that.

The decision as to whether a particular issue constitutes a statutory nuisance is normally made by the local environmental health practitioner on a case-by-case basis. Section 80 of the Act imposes a duty on local authorities to serve an abatement notice where they are satisfied that a nuisance exists, or is likely to occur or recur in that area. The notice may require whoever is responsible to stop the activity, or to limit it to certain times to avoid causing a nuisance, and may include specific actions to reduce the problem.

It is an offence not to comply with an abatement notice without reasonable excuse. Someone who does not comply with an abatement notice can be prosecuted and, on conviction, in the case of industrial, trade and business premises, fined an unlimited amount. If local residents experience an odour problem that they believe might constitute a statutory nuisance, I urge them to contact their local authority without delay, describing the nature of the odour and providing any other details that might be helpful.

If it should prove to be the case that the odour nuisance that is the focus of our attention now originates from the waste water treatment works, the hon. Lady should be assured that we have strong rules in place not only to protect and improve water quality in England through proper collection, treatment and discharge of waste water, but to prevent unacceptable odour. Certain activities at waste water treatment works are regulated via appropriate environmental permits, depending on the nature of their operations. Conditions attached to the permits include those regarding odour. In 2018, the Environment Agency received 21,600 reports of odour pollution—I am pleased to report that not all of them were in the constituency of the hon. Lady—which were investigated by the agency where it regulated the activity. The remaining cases were investigated by the relevant local authority.

I understand that a significant number of industrial premises in the West Marsh area have the potential to cause odour, including waste-management and fish-processing facilities, and it may therefore not be straightforward to establish the odour origination point, although the hon. Member for Great Grimsby seems to have a pretty good idea of that—she has been forthright in her view. The local authority, in this case North East Lincolnshire Council, is responsible for identifying the sources of the odour that is causing a nuisance in the local area, and for issuing an abatement notice where it concludes that a nuisance is occurring. The Environment Agency has been working with North East Lincolnshire Council and Anglian Water to support improved odour monitoring, including a joint site visit and training for the council staff. The agency has also worked to facilitate effective local communications between the two parties.

The hon. Lady made an important point about reporting mechanisms. Local residents with ongoing concerns about odours associated with the treatment works at Pyewipe operated by Anglian Water Services should contact the main number, 0345 714 5145, in the first instance. If necessary, they may then contact North East Lincolnshire Council to follow up. I trust that Anglian Water is listening to and following the debate. Eight-month delays are completely unacceptable in any public body. It is absolutely clear that any approaches to a complaint and follow-up action need to be transparent and easy to use. I hope, if nothing else comes out of the debate, that it will become clear where the first point of contract should be—Anglian Water.

While being odour-free in all circumstances may not be possible, nevertheless there are many options for abating odour nuisance. I therefore encourage the hon. Member for Great Grimsby to continue to work with the local authority and Anglian Water to establish the exact source of the odour and to ensure that action is taken to mitigate it. I understand that Anglian Water is happy to convene a meeting with the hon. Lady, the local authority and the Environment Agency to discuss the concerns that have been expressed and to identify a way forward. I am pleased to hear that that meeting has been arranged for 1 May. I also gather that there is a desire on all sides proactively to improve communications and to resolve the situation as far as possible in advance of the summer months. The timing is good.

It is not the role of Government to intervene in local nuisance cases of this kind, but I assure the hon. Lady that the local authority has all the powers necessary to tackle the problem. I hope that this debate and my words on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will assist her in her efforts to resolve the issue and to address the concerns of her constituents, whom she seeks to serve well with all her dedication.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.