I beg to move,
That this House has considered waste incineration facilities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. Here we are again, talking about what for some of us in the Chamber seems to be our favourite subject lately. We have had similar debates, including one held just last month—I spoke in it, and other hon. Members present attended—but I wanted a much longer debate, to give everyone who wants to speak the opportunity to do so. The issue is particularly relevant for me due to a planning application for a waste incineration gasification facility in my constituency at Hillthorn Park—the appeal process against it is due to start a week today.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate her on securing this debate. She mentioned the appeal process. Constituents who contacted me about this debate are concerned that the voice of the local community is heard throughout the planning process. Does she agree that that is essential for large projects such as this?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to the 10,800 of my constituents who have been in touch with me. They signed a petition, and they certainly want their voice to be heard.
I wholeheartedly oppose this planning application, and I will come to the reasons why shortly. Before I do, I thank hon. Members present who will be expressing their opposition—I assume it will all be opposition—to waste incineration facilities.
On Saturday, I held a public meeting about my local planning application, to give constituents an opportunity to express their opinions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) said. It was well attended, despite the short notice—I arranged it only the week before—and people came from across the community and the political spectrum, with Labour, Lib Dem and Green councillors and activists in attendance. As this debate shows, this is a cross-party issue, and I am pleased to see colleagues from all parts of the House.
As I said at the public meeting on Saturday, which was attended by more than 100 people, no one in that room was in favour of a gasification plant being built in our area. In my 15 years of being an MP, no other issue has galvanised so many people and brought them together against something in the way this issue has. It really is a community movement, with campaign groups such as No Monster Incinerator in Washington or Washington and Wearside Against Gasification leading the way to oppose the application by informing local residents and getting signatures on petitions. As I mentioned, 10,800 people have so far signed a petition in opposition, which I presented to Parliament last month.
I thank the hon. Lady for organising that meeting and the debate today. To pick up on what she said, does she recognise the expertise in highly technical matters that has been built up in communities by the groups she mentioned? They scrutinise legislation and regulations closely. In my constituency, the Docks Incinerator Action Group has drilled down into the detail and caused real problems to the proposers of a development.
That is an important point. I will come on to someone without whom I and most of the campaigners would not have been able to launch such a strong and informed appeal against this decision, making a world of difference.
I am so proud to represent and work with people who show such determination and community spirit. Like them, I oppose the planning application and will be speaking at the appeal process, which begins next week. I also thank the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network and Shlomo Dowen, in particular, for his work and support on this campaign. We could not have got this far without his expertise—a point the right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) touched on.
As the shadow Minister for public health, it would be remiss of me not to point out the public health implications of gasification and incineration, which need to be taken into account. In the planning application in my constituency, we still do not know what technology will be used, even though the application has reached this stage. We know that the technology has never been used in the UK before, although we are told that it has been used in Japan, a country with very different safety standards and regulations from the UK.
The lack of information and transparency from the planning applicant does little to allay the fears of my constituents and me. On Saturday, constituents told me that young families were moving away from the area because of the fear of carcinogenics, diseases and birth defects. My constituents should not have to live in fear of being test subjects for something such as that.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. In my constituency, an incinerator is due to be built near our local primary school and a number of local houses in Torry. Does she share my concerns about the potential public health impact on residents and the children at that school?
I absolutely do. In our previous debate, I spoke about how nine primary schools in my constituency, as well as many thousands of homes, are within a one-mile radius of this development. That is unacceptable, so I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Also, a technology that has never been used in the UK before is not welcome in Washington and Sunderland Wes—or, probably, in any of our constituencies.
Surely a technology that is expected to release millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide during the anticipated lifetime of the gasification facility should not be backed by the Government. Indeed, that is a direct contradiction of the Government’s policies on climate change and waste processing. For every one tonne of plastic incinerated, approximately two tonnes of CO2 are released into the atmosphere, therefore contributing to climate change, whereas, perversely, one tonne of plastic in landfill releases zero CO2, so incineration cannot be and is not the solution we seek—it has to be more recycling.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on an important issue. She just mentioned recycling. Does she agree that much more needs to be done to encourage more recycling so that we do not have, or reduce, the need to rely on incineration or landfill?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. More recycling has to be the solution; it will never be landfill, and certainly not incineration. How does the Minister expect to meet the Government’s climate target of being carbon neutral by 2050 if planning applications for waste incineration continue to go ahead?
A recent study by Waste and Resources Action Programme Cymru found that 75% of commercial and industrial waste sent to incineration or landfill in Wales is recyclable. With recycling rates flatlining, will the Government consider introducing a tax on incineration, as promised in 2018, to address climate harm and encourage recycling rates? There is a precedent, as that is what the landfill tax aimed to do. Surely it is counter- productive to have a landfill tax to deter burying plastic, which causes no CO2, but not to have an incineration tax for incinerating plastic, which causes masses of CO2.
Another issue that neighbouring MPs and constituents might not yet have fully realised exists is that, due to the prevailing winds, the people to the east of our proposed site, in Sunderland and South Shields, may also find themselves harmed by the plant. I hope that this debate will help to alert a bigger audience across the wider area to the impending threat that is being discussed just a few miles from them.
Sunderland City Council is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030—a target that will be totally scuppered if the planning application for Hillthorn Park is approved. The problem is the emissions from not just the plant but the 110 HGVs that will work around the clock to ship waste to it.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. Does she agree that the issue is not just the incinerators but all the traffic that comes with them to transport the waste? That adds to pressure on local roads, which is concerning because of CO2 emissions.
Absolutely. Residents raised that point on Saturday—especially those living around the proposed site, who will be bothered by the congestion, extra fumes and mess from those heavy goods vehicles. The HGVs are supposed to be strapped and covered, but every day stuff flies off the lorries that go to the other waste recycling plants in my constituency.
In 2017 I attended the planning exhibition for this plant. I was told that living next to it would be 40 times safer than living next to a major road. I find that dubious, to say the least, but surely, in time, with greater numbers of greener vehicles, that would not be such a defence, even if it was true. We should be going forwards, not backwards, so that argument cannot be valid. Local roads in Washington are already congested, with the added problem of HGVs parking up alongside roads and drivers leaving their litter—perhaps I will have a full debate on that issue another day. That shows how problematic some nearby businesses already are to the people of Washington and Sunderland West—they are not all the best of neighbours.
A constituent told me on Saturday that he could not have his windows open or sit in the garden on some days because the noise and pollution from nearby roads was overbearing—that is without the extra 110 HGVs per day. Constituents have raised similar issues over the years about the smell and vermin from nearby waste processing sites such as Teal Farm. The last thing we need is another contributor to the problem.
My constituents and I know that the Environment Agency is a little toothless in tackling the problems that waste processing sites cause. We are rightly concerned that any issues arising from this gasification plant will bring just more of the same. If the planning application is approved, my constituents fear that their houses will suddenly become worthless; because of all the concerns I have mentioned, no one would want to buy a house next door to a plant such as this.
It is not known yet who will use the energy generated from the gasification plant. It was thought that Nissan, which is almost next door to the site, would use it—a pipe from the plant to Nissan was visible on the plans when I saw them—but, as far as I am aware, no such agreement has been made. Sunderland City Council is keen to work with Nissan to negotiate a safer and affordable means of generating energy, so there really is no need for this plant at all with regard to Nissan. I should make it clear that the Sunderland City Council planning team rejected the plant and is making a strong defence against it. We are all united against it, from politicians to the council, residents and everyone else.
The chair of the Teal Farm Residents Association wrote to me recently. He said:
“Over the years, the environment and landscape of this region has suffered greatly and we are just starting to move on from the effects of all of that not just environmentally but also the health and well-being of the community.
The region now boasts some old and new landmarks which we are justly proud of, from Penshaw monument to the Spire bridge.
We don’t want an ecological eyesore to become the new ‘landmark’ which tells visitors they’ve reached Sunderland and we don’t want the health and welfare of residents to be jeopardised by having this proposal inflicted upon them. This is a proposal which is unwanted and unnecessary.”
It is exactly that: unwanted and unnecessary.
There are no benefits to be reaped from this planning application. There would not even be huge numbers of jobs created, as only 35 new full-time jobs are being offered. But the jobs pale in comparison to the public health concerns and climate change challenges. I hope I have made it clear, even in these brief comments, that the gasification plant at Hillthorn Park in Washington must be opposed, and I will continue to do just that.
Order. A significant number of Members wish to speak. I will not impose a formal time limit, because I do not want anyone to win an extra minute of injury time, but if colleagues could confine themselves to six minutes, we should manage to accommodate everybody. I call Caroline Nokes.
Thank you, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this important debate. Her parting shot was that her constituents do not want an ecological eyesore as their new landmark, and my constituents feel exactly the same way about the proposals to build a giant incinerator between the villages of Longparish and Barton Stacey. Only two weeks have passed since we last debated this subject, and it is right that we should do so again, because the Minister did not have time to respond. It is imperative that she should have the opportunity to give a fuller answer than she had time to do last time.
I regret to have to rehearse the issue we face in Romsey and Southampton North, where American conglomerate Wheelabrator seeks to build a massive, industrial-scale incinerator the size of Battersea power station in the Hampshire countryside. Billed by the applicants as a green waste-to-energy scheme, locally there are serious doubts that a proposal such as this can ever be green. So enormous is the development that it is to be determined by the Secretary of State—it is classified as a nationally significant infrastructure project—rather than by the local waste and minerals authority, Hampshire County Council or the local borough council, Test Valley Borough Council. I commend both those councils for being resolute in their opposition to it.
I will not rehearse the many good planning reasons why the scheme should be refused, but there are serious questions about whether it will ever generate the amount of power required to achieve the level of a national infrastructure project. On its website, Wheelabrator proudly proclaims that the scheme will have an energy generating capacity of up to 65 MW, but in public consultations with residents, the company has acknowledged that that is entirely dependent upon the calorific value of the feedstock. We know we have to get better at removing plastics from the waste stream, and those plastics have some of the highest calorific values when burned. I commend the steps the Government have taken so far, but much more can and must be done.
I visited a packaging manufacturer in my constituency with the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)—we look terribly attractive wearing blue hairnets. The company’s managing director kept making the point that they wanted to use high-quality recycled plastics in their packaging, but it was too difficult to get hold of them. They used a percentage of recycled, but it was easier and cheaper to get fresh plastics than to extract plastics from the waste stream. They wanted Government action to ensure that the plastics that we all know are in the waste stream can be redirected into businesses such as theirs.
It is critical that we redouble efforts to ensure that anything that can be reused and recycled is extracted from the waste stream, whether metal or plastic. At Barton Stacey Primary School, the children have embraced the message we heard a few weeks ago in another room in Parliament, when a giant Womble urged us to repair, re-use, recycle and reduce. We have to keep striving to reduce the amount of material going into the waste stream.
Two weeks ago, I raised the issue of an incineration tax. I do not recall whether the Minister responded to that point, but I fear she did not, so perhaps she can today. Before I came to this place, I was a borough councillor in Test Valley. I always said I represented the ward with the most landfill sites—existing, former and proposed. Landfill is subject to a tax, and it is absolutely right that the next step up the waste hierarchy should be similarly taxed. The Budget statement of October 2018 included a reference to the consideration of an incineration tax. The time for consideration has passed.
Turning to emissions—I recognise that I only have a minute left—we all recognise that the EU relatively recently tightened regulations governing permitted levels of emissions from incinerators, but is the Minister content that being within permitted levels is good enough? Where is the aspiration and ambition? Surely, at a time when we are seeking to improve air quality, we should be looking to reduce the levels of emissions that are allowed. I have lost count of the number of times over the last three and a half years that we have been told that leaving the EU will provide us with opportunities. Surely, this is one area in which we can go further and faster than would otherwise have been allowed. We must do more and not slip back into the lazy argument that development will be allowed only within current regulations.
When it comes to monitoring emissions, the Environment Agency technique has been to sample test. The new BAT—best available techniques—measurements appear to require continuous monitoring. Certainly, should the abomination in my constituency go ahead, local people will demand continuous monitoring of key pollutants and an assurance that the EA will hold companies’ feet to the fire—apologies for the pun—to ensure that they abide by those standards.
The World Health Organisation indicates that there is no such thing as a safe level of particulate matter in our air, and that is echoed on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website. The particulate plume from the proposed incinerator in my constituency would cover the primary schools of Barton Stacey, Longparish, Wherwell and Stockbridge, and many other primary schools in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Steve Brine) and for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse).
We have declared a climate emergency. We have bold ambitions, through the Environment Bill, to make radical strides forward in creating a cleaner and greener environment for ourselves, our children and generations to come. We cannot do that if we keep pumping pollutants into our atmosphere. I urge the Minister, who I believe genuinely cares about these issues, to ensure that she has as tight a grip as possible on our future waste strategy so we simply do not keep doing that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate. We were here two weeks ago to debate this issue, and it is very important that we raise it.
For too long, waste incineration has been labelled as energy from waste and seen as part of the circular economy and a green way of disposing of our municipal waste. Councils have been struggling with their budgets, and they look into anything that saves money. Bath and North East Somerset Council has just agreed a big contract for a waste incinerator. I have raised concerns about that, and I am still arguing with the council about whether it is actually a green solution. We have been looking at ways of diverting waste from landfill because it creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas, but burning waste creates very high carbon emissions, too. That must get into the public domain so that people who make decisions know what they are doing.
I believe that we should not send waste to incinerators. Every tonne of municipal waste that is incinerated releases between 0.7 tonnes and 1.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Recovering energy from waste produces more carbon emissions than burning gas. As was mentioned, incinerators need a blend of waste materials, including plastics, to have the calorific value to create enough heat. Incineration is just a cheaper option than landfill for getting rid of municipal waste. The result is that we become a lot less active in avoiding, reducing and recycling. The order of the waste hierarchy is: avoid, reuse, recycle, incineration and then landfill. Incineration is only one step above the landfill solution.
The more incineration plants are built in this country, the less likely we are to achieve our target, because local authorities need to fill incinerators with waste for them to function. I have been a councillor and tried to ensure that people recycle more. It costs a lot of human resources to go around and ensure that households—particularly hard-to-reach households—recycle in a particular way, and it costs councils money. It is no wonder that cash-strapped local authorities are looking at cheaper options, but incineration is not the right option. The real way to reduce carbon emissions is to recycle more or, indeed, to find compostable materials. I had a meeting yesterday with an interesting company that is looking into compostable plastics, but those are not the plastics that an incinerator needs. We need to look at actual green solutions, not at incineration.
I recognise that 10 years ago, energy from waste seemed like a way to get to a low-carbon economy. When our target was to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, it was an option, but everything has changed since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. We now know that we have to get to net zero by 2050. The last 20% of emissions are crucial, and they are very difficult to get out of the atmosphere. For that reason, low-carbon solutions are no longer an option. We have no time to invest in low-carbon technologies; we need to put all our efforts into net zero solutions. I believe that incentives and disincentives are the way forward. I also support the idea of an incineration tax. The landfill tax has made a massive difference in diverting waste from landfill; an incineration tax would ensure that we do not just divert all our waste to incinerators.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this important debate.
Research shows that the PM2.5 emitted by incinerators can penetrate deep into our lungs and impair lung function. The taskforce for lung health has stated that
“exposure to PM2.5 can cause illnesses like asthma, COPD, coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer”.
I therefore echo the concerns of colleagues that incinerators may put the health of local residents at risk.
Unfortunately, however, that is only half the story in my constituency. As I mentioned in my maiden speech, the UK’s leading university for sport, Loughborough University, sits at the heart of my constituency and is home to a variety of world-class sport programmes. As its reputation for sporting excellence has grown and it has gained international recognition, the university has invested heavily in its sports infrastructure so it can continue to attract and train the best athletes from around the world. The university also plays host to international Olympic and Paralympic teams, which come to take advantage of its unique facilities. The university is a jewel in the crown of the United Kingdom.
I understand that the average resting human breathes approximately 5 to 6 litres of air per minute. However, a typical endurance athlete may breathe around 150 litres a minute, and some world-class athletes may breathe 300 litres a minute. That increased ventilation means that elite athletes are far more susceptible to respiratory problems such as asthma. Colleagues will therefore be shocked to learn that planning permission has been granted for an incinerator to be built in proximity to the university and its sport facilities. It is simply unacceptable for people who breathe up to 60 times more air per minute than the general public do, and who are more susceptible to respiratory problems, to be put at risk in that way.
The World Health Organisation’s air quality guideline values are based on general ambient air concentrations and do not take into account the impact of physical activity, exercise, sports participation, or elite athlete training or competition. More research therefore needs to be undertaken into the impact of incinerators on those who participate in sporting activities.
I am also concerned about the impact of incinerators on the environment and the Government’s commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The Government’s own statistics show that in 2017, 4% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions were from waste management. Although I appreciate that some may consider that a small amount, if we are to achieve the target that we have set, we must work to reduce emissions from all sources. I agree with the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on that.
The Government have published a policy paper on how we can preserve material resources by minimising waste, promoting resource efficiency and moving towards a circular economy in England. As we are actively encouraging individuals and companies to recycle more and produce less waste, in time we will become less reliant on incinerators, and there will not be enough waste to keep existing incinerators open, let alone justify building new ones. Leicestershire is already a top-performing waste disposal authority with respect to recycling and composting, so there is clearly not enough commercial and industrial residual waste locally to keep the new incinerator in my constituency going. Therefore, waste will inevitably be brought in from afar by road, leading to increased vehicle emissions around the M1 and A512, and creating further pollution in our area.
It is clear that a moratorium should be placed on the building of new incinerators. That moratorium should be extended to those that have been granted planning permission but not yet built, such as the one in my constituency, because they are a barrier to reducing emissions and achieving a circular economy. More research also needs to be undertaken to better understand their impact on people with higher activity levels.
I really appreciate you calling me to speak, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this timely debate.
Edmonton has one of London’s three major waste incineration facilities. The incinerator serves the North London Waste Authority and the seven north London boroughs of Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Waltham Forest. The current facility, which is over 45 years old, is reaching the end of its life, and a decision has been reached to replace it with a new energy recovery facility, which it is claimed will supply both heat and power. Last year, construction of the north London heat and power project began. Many of my constituents are incredibly concerned about the decision and what it will mean for their health and their children’s future.
I argue for an immediate pause and review of the construction of the new facility for three main reasons. First, there is growing evidence that the new incinerator poses a major health risk. Across London, our children already face a toxic air pollution crisis, and residents in Edmonton are at the centre of it, not least because of the constant traffic on the North Circular. According to King’s College London and the international clean air summit, high pollution days in London lead to an extra 87 cardiac arrests, 144 strokes, and 74 children and 33 adults being treated in hospitals for asthma attacks. That is why we must listen to the evidence on waste incineration.
Zero Waste Europe recently released an in-depth study on a waste incineration plant in the Netherlands, revealing how even state-of-the-art incinerators emit dangerous pollutants far beyond EU toxic emissions limits. The study found, for example, that eggs laid by chickens in people’s backyards within a 2 km radius showed dioxin and furan contamination exceeding the limits for safe consumption. We know that, as a result, the developing lungs of children can be irreparably damaged and have their function restricted, making illnesses such as asthma and respiratory disease worse.
It is thought that the new incinerator in Edmonton will produce more than 700,000 tonnes of CO2 every year. Research shows that particulates such as those currently emitted at the Edmonton incinerator cause the loss of an area the size of two large eggs in the lungs of every child. There is no filter on the planet that can capture those particles, which are free to lodge themselves deep in our lungs and other organs and cause permanent damage.
In Edmonton, the incinerator under construction is in close proximity to schools including Raynham Primary School, Meridian Angel Primary School, Wilbury Primary School, Eldon Primary School and the Latymer School. All the evidence suggests that, once it is completed, it will pour even greater amounts of pollution into my constituents’ bodies, with long-term public health consequences. All environmental and public health policy should be based on the precautionary principle that, where reasonable doubt exists over the safety of an initiative, it is paused or blocked until rigorous, independent evidence can be heard to inform a proper decision. That simple principle is why I ask the Government and Enfield Council to pause, review and consult on the decision.
Secondly, the new incinerator threatens to undermine and take resources away from London’s waste management strategy. The Mayor’s London environment strategy aims for 50% of waste to be recycled, up from the current rate of 33.1%. Enfield Council is rightly backing the push and has launched a new recycling arrangement across Edmonton. The vast majority of my constituents welcome the new recycling and reuse centre as a necessary addition to the Barrowell Green site. It will give the east side of the borough much easier access to recycling facilities, but if the Government or the council are serious about achieving these green strategies, we must back them with proper resources.
The new incinerator will have a vast capacity of 700,000 tonnes of waste per year, but if we deliver on London’s plan to increase recycling, it is hard to conceive why we could possibly need that much capacity. We all know that money is tight. In April, Enfield Council will make bin collections fortnightly in a bid to save £12 million, yet the projected cost for the rebuild of the incinerator is an astonishing £650 million, funded by a loan that will end up being repaid by council tax payers across the seven boroughs.
The London Mayor has been clear that central Government and local council support for incinerators is critically undermining the capital’s fight against air pollution. Speaking about a proposed incinerator in Bexley, he called on the Government not to grant permission for an unnecessary new incinerator and instead
“focus on boosting recycling rates, reducing the scourge of plastic waste and tackling our lethal air.”
That same principle applies to the new incinerator in Edmonton.
Thirdly, I know the Minister will not want to impose a new incinerator on local residents without properly engaging with what they have to say. Toxic air pollution is worsening and our health is at risk. London has signed up to increase and to resource recycling, our Mayor is against unnecessary incineration, our residents are against the incinerator, and the Government have just been elected on a platform of promising to listen to people and put decision-making power in local hands. I am confident that the Minister will want to keep that promise and avoid forcing a decision on local residents in Edmonton.
I conclude by inviting the Minister to come to Edmonton and chair a roundtable discussion with my constituents, Enfield Council and local environmental groups. I firmly believe my constituents must be at the heart of deciding what happens next. I hope the Minister will agree at least to listen to what they have to say and to the growing evidence against the new incinerator in Edmonton.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate so quickly after we last chatted about this issue. It is good to see so many familiar faces from the previous debate.
Members present at that debate will remember that I brought up the Beddington incinerator in my constituency, and I will give an overview of what it is like to live in the shadow of one of these things. I spoke about the harm it does to my constituents in Carshalton and Wallington and about my campaign to improve air quality monitoring near the site, both to prevent operators from regulating their emissions and to take into account the effect on local roads, congestion and air pollution of taking the waste from four London boroughs into that one site.
In this debate and the previous one, Members from all parties spoke of their concerns about what might happen to their constituents if incinerators are granted approval in their patches. I am sad to report that our previous debate was met—as I am sure this one will be—with scorn by my local Lib Dem-run council. Just to recount some of what has been said to me since the last debate, I have been told that we surely understand that there is no alternative to incineration; that Members attending these debates prefer landfill; that we do not recognise the benefits of district energy schemes—not the least of which is to lock residents into energy prices at least three times higher than the market average; and that none of us understand that incinerators are not nearly as bad as we have made out. That is the gist of the stories and labels that have been thrown at me since we last discussed this matter. However, I have not heard a single Member today—or ever—say that landfill is any better. None of us is saying that. Many have pointed out that incineration is considered only slightly better than landfill. In many cases, incinerators are worse—particularly when they burn plastics. That point has been powerfully made today.
Something the council should find sobering is the fact that the emissions figures for January 2020 have just been released, and they demonstrate how out of touch it has been on the issue over the years.
I absolutely agree. That is part of the reason I am campaigning for additional air quality monitoring near the Beddington site. I appreciate that incinerator operators are supposed to monitor their own emissions, and that the information is sent automatically to the Environment Agency. However, many of us are trying to make the point that it is not just a question of the incinerator itself: a lot more is going on—especially with the transport of waste to the site. That produces CO2, but it does not get taken into account in the emissions figures. That is why additional air quality monitoring and factually based evidence are important. I will move on to some facts, which the hon. Gentleman may find interesting.
Because of the consistency of breaches at the Beddington incinerator, the Environment Agency has increased the frequency of reporting from every half hour to every 10 minutes. The 10-minute maximum imposed by the Environment Agency is, I believe, 150 mg per cubic metre. On 26 January, the emissions from just one of the Beddington incinerator’s two chimneys were nearly five times that level, and consequently it was shut down for two days. The other chimney was even worse and exceeded emissions limits on 2, 14, 20 and 26 January. On 26 January the level was 10 times over the limit. To add insult to injury, the operators were still registering at least one invalid report almost every day of the month.
No one says that landfill is the alternative, or any better. However, we—both councils and the country—need to be much more ambitious about cleaning up our air. With advances in technology, there are more air quality-friendly options even in the energy recovery stage, which is only one better than landfill on the waste hierarchy—things such as mechanical and biological treatment. Of course, as we have all said, we need to look much further up the waste hierarchy as we look towards a greener future. That means boosting recycling rates and reuse wherever possible.
However, as in everything, prevention is key—saying no to unnecessary waste and cutting it out of the system altogether. We can do much more than follow the poor example set by the council in my area. None of us has the power to promise our constituents that we can stop incinerator proposals or get live incinerators decommissioned, but, representing an area where an incinerator is already operational, I will continue to hold the council to account for its failure and to do whatever I can to mitigate its effects. As I have said, that includes improving both air quality monitoring and traffic measures on the Beddington Lane and insisting on the rapid completion of the proposed Beddington Farmlands, which is supposed to act as a CO2 capture for the incinerator site.
My hope is that those Members facing the threat of incinerators in their constituencies will be able to use the Beddington example to convince local authorities and the Government, where necessary, that there are better alternatives and to deliver a much greener waste disposal programme in their areas, rather than just having to carry out mitigation.
I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), and congratulate her on setting the scene so well, as she did in her speech last week.
The thrust of the debate so far is how we get rid of waste in a way that meets the environmental standards we all want. It is clear that something must be done to address the disposal of waste. The first thing is for more people to realise that they should reuse and recycle or pass things on to others to use. The world cannot contain a continued throw-away mentality. I have seen such a change in my local area from the encouragement of recycling—not only kerbside recycling, but also at household recycling centres, where people are asked to categorise their waste. That encourages much more recycling and less landfill waste.
I agree that we cannot continue to use landfill as we have done, but it must be acknowledged that there is still a need for an end destination for products that cannot be recycled—and the sea is not the place for them. We all know about the number of plastic articles in the sea; it is very obvious. By way of illustration, The Times today has a story about a whale with waste material wrapped around its body. Divers went down to cut that away from it. I am all for the end of single-use plastic and was heartened to read of a plant that might possibly be used as a plastic substitute that biodegrades. I am happy to see that some supermarkets are considering refill stations for cereal and even shampoos. However, while we can do much in that way, there still must be waste. Shipping it to other countries for disposal is not the answer. We cannot continue to use landfill as we do.
As the Minister knows, the matter is a devolved one for Northern Ireland. I want to refer to a project that has just been given approval by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency on behalf of councils. The key point for Northern Ireland, looking forward, is that landfill across Great Britain and Europe will be an option for only between 5% and 10% of waste by 2035, or 2025 in Scotland and Wales. That is the direction of travel, and for Northern Ireland to keep up we must build energy recovery infrastructure to process what is not recyclable.
I had a meeting to address the matter last Friday—it just happened to be then, with this debate happening today—to discuss proposals by arc21, where six local authorities come together. That body is attempting to design a programme to support and enhance recycling targets and waste issues. One of the projects deserves a closer look, and I met representatives to discuss it last week. The Becon consortium has developed plans to co-locate a mechanical biological treatment plant and an energy-from-waste plant using an incinerator with an energy recovery process at the Hightown quarry site on the Boghill Road, Mallusk. A visitor centre will be part of the project. A briefing I received on the proposed project states:
“This project represents a private sector major investment for Northern Ireland—approximately £240 million in development and construction alone. In the construction of the new waste facilities, local contractors will be used wherever possible, thereby maximising opportunities for employment and benefiting the wider local economy.”
Some 340 permanent direct and indirect jobs will be created, as well, when the plants are operational. The briefing says the project will provide a sustainable, long-term solution for the management of residual municipal waste in the arc21 area, assisting the six councils, including the one I represent, and where I live, to meet future climate change targets such as landfill diversion and increasing recycling. The briefing says it will increase arc21 constituent councils’ overall recycling rates by up to 10%, through the extraction of plastics, metals, aggregates and other valuable materials through the MBT. That could divert up to 250,000 tonnes of municipal waste from landfill per year and contribute to Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions targets through a reduction of approximately 57,500 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, relative to sending waste to landfill.
Obviously, air quality is a massive issue for us as well. Last week I asked a question in the House about the fact that two hours of exposure to diesel emissions leads to 24 hours of negative effects. The briefing I have been referring to states that the project it describes would enhance Northern Ireland’s security of supply and increase diversity of energy production by exporting 18 MW of electricity to the national grid—enough to power in excess of 30,000 homes annually and help Northern Ireland to become less reliant. The correct energy efficiency balance is needed to ensure that the air quality is right and ensure that waste materials are disposed of.
Thanks to the return of devolution, our local authority and Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly will, I am sure, consider every facet of that proposal, although I do not know what their deliberations will result in. I do know that it is important that we think outside the box on this issue and that we secure a better way of doing things. If that means that block grants are needed, let us sow into the lives of our children’s children and use our finance now to make a real difference to the country that we leave them.
I honestly believe that we must have a UK-wide strategy; while that is not the Minister’s responsibility, it is important that we have one. I look forward to her response. I believe that the end of the world will not come a second before the Lord ordains it, but I also believe that we have a duty to be good stewards of this wonderful world that has been granted to us. It is past time that we do what we can to be invested in our world and not simply to survive our time in it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I ought to declare my interests as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: my wife is employed at the Association for Decentralised Energy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on once again securing a debate on this topic. I am pleased that she has done so, because I had to miss the previous debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), and I feared I might miss out on this series of debates about waste processing. Many hon. Members and I return to this issue because of the adverse experiences of our constituents who live alongside waste processing facilities, and whose voices often get lost in the decision-making process.
It has been four months since I secured a debate in this place to highlight the experiences of people in Avonmouth in my constituency. Avonmouth is home to a significant number of waste processing plants, and in the past decade it has seen a hundredfold increase in the tonnage of waste passing through our local facilities. That is not just waste from Bristol or the greater Bristol region; it comes from London on trains every night. We are processing waste from across the country. That exponential growth has real consequences for local people, the most challenging of which has been an annual spike in the fly population during hot weather periods, especially when there are large quantities of bundles of waste stored on open land.
I have had to raise this issue frequently since my election, and it is all the more depressing because so little seems to change. The persistence of the problem has understandably intensified local people’s sense of powerlessness over a decision-making process that has concentrated this number of plants in the area, often without local consent. People are angry, and I share their anger, not least because it is clear where the system has been going wrong. In Avonmouth, as in Sunderland and other parts of the country, these plants have not arrived by accident.
Bristol City Council changed planning policies in good faith in 2011 to try to favour the circular economy approach to dealing with waste, as opposed to landfill. Its intention was not for Avonmouth to become a dumping ground for the nation’s rubbish, but when the city council opted to reject planning permissions for large-scale incinerators and other companies in Avonmouth, those decisions were just overturned by national planning authorities. The Mayor is trying to do his best in Bristol City Council. He has invested a significant amount in the recycling centre and in opening a brand-new reuse centre, where people can reuse white goods and other types of furniture instead of putting them into waste, but on this issue he seems to be unable to fix the problem.
As I have argued in the past, two main things must happen. First, the Environment Agency must be given a much broader range of powers to allow it to deal more quickly and effectively with minor and frequent breaches that do not immediately lead to the revocation of a licence. Secondly, the planning system must better reflect the clear human cost associated with the concentration of individual sites processing waste in a particular area. I have said before, and I say again, that I do not believe the cumulative impact of individual sites or their proximity is properly considered.
Avonmouth is a classic example of those issues. In my debate last year, I drew attention to a series of breaches by a company operating locally that had violated its permit more than a dozen times in the space of a year. It was eventually singled out by the Environment Agency, but a very high frequency of breaches had to occur before action could be taken. It should not take bad behaviour on that level to warrant enforcement action. Even when permits are revoked, the resulting appeals process is long, complicated and costly, imposing an obvious disincentive for the Environment Agency to deal with the individual breaches that collectively create such massive problems for local residents. The agency should have at its disposal a wider range of remedies, sanctions and fines that fall short of outright revocation.
Of course, we recognise that waste processing must happen, and we would rather that it be done in a way that is not landfill and that has wider circular economy implications. However, frameworks for granting permits and planning permissions need to work in tandem to consider the concentration of existing waste processing facilities locally, as well as their proximity to each other and to local residents. The local planning system must therefore work more intelligently and more compassionately, recognising that capacity considerations must be weighed against the wellbeing of the people who are most directly affected by the processes.
I am conscious that there has been quite a lot of change in Secretary of State and ministerial roles, although I am pleased to see the same Minister back again for this debate. I wrote to the previous Secretary of State, I have resent my letter to the current Secretary of State and no doubt I will need to resend it again next week, but I hope to get a response about how the Government can take action on this issue. The debate today shows that this is not an isolated problem in Avonmouth, but a problem right across the United Kingdom.
In my debate here in Westminster Hall last year, the Minister shared my concerns but seemed to suggest there was nothing further that the Government could really do at that time. I find that hard to believe. Will the Minister today set out what her Department plans to do about this issue, perhaps in the Environment Bill that is coming to the House soon, and whether, given the obvious national concern expressed here today, a wider review of waste processing in the UK is required?
I am pleased to be able to begin the summing up in this debate. I will try to be brief, because I think that the hon. Members who have spoken want the Minister to be given a significant amount of time to respond. It is quite clear from the number of hon. Members who have spoken, and from the unanimity with which they have spoken, that there is a major problem.
It struck me that anyone who seriously believes that Britain is a model of modern democracy in action should watch this debate. Something must have failed in this democracy for so many people, from so many different political standpoints, to have come here and said, “No, we can’t have this.” How did we get to a position where the planning framework, energy production regulation and all the rest of it are so out of touch with the real people for whose benefit the energy is supposed to be created? I will leave that question there, because it is a much bigger question than I can answer today.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate and on the way she introduced it, and I congratulate everybody else who has spoken, because there has been a remarkable degree of unanimity. It seems to me that there is a major problem here: if it is decided by the Government that energy from waste is an essential part of the United Kingdom’s energy production to meet the country’s needs, where are we going to build those facilities? If all the facilities that people are complaining about today were scrapped and planning applications were put in in 10 other constituencies around the UK, we would have 10 other MPs complaining, backed by 10 other sets of councils, and so on.
It is not good enough just to say, “They are a bunch of nimbys.” There are clearly concerns about the incineration of industrial and domestic waste that go well beyond the attitude of “not in my backyard”. I think it was the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) who commented that she had been assured that the danger to her constituents was less than it would be if they lived next to a major road. If I was a parent worried about my children living next to an incinerator, telling me that some other poor MP’s children or constituents were going to be made even sicker than mine would not be a particularly sensitive or sensible way to present the case.
I mentioned some of the steps that have been taken by the Scottish Government. I will list some of them and hope that the Minister will either confirm that these provisions are in place just now in England, or say whether there is any intention to introduce them. The Scottish Government are taking steps to try to get a balance between our obvious need for energy and the even more obvious desire to produce and distribute it in a way that does not affect people’s health.
For example, that the Scottish Government have already put a ban on the landfill or incineration of anything collected for recycling, because there have been so many scandals where companies would collect stuff that people had carefully separated out for recycling and then throw it into a hole in the ground because doing so was cheaper than recycling it. From 2025 there will be a ban in Scotland on any local authority sending biodegradable waste to landfill and, as I have mentioned, any new incinerators that are being planned now will be required to separate out plastics and metals before the stuff gets incinerated.
To my mind, those provisions do not go far enough. We should look to move quickly to a point where our energy supply does not rely on energy from waste at all, because it does not appear to me as though there is any way to indiscriminately burn waste material without creating an unacceptable health hazard to those who live close by. As has been pointed out, children and those who are more active tend to be the ones who suffer. I thought the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) spoke very well about the almost ridiculous fact that for people living near an incinerator, exercise might actually make them more ill, rather than helping them to get healthy.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister. First, we are covered at the moment by the European waste incineration directive. Can she give an absolute, unconditional guarantee that there will be no lessening of the standards contained in that directive once we have left the European Union? There will be pressure from big business to relax those standards, as there will be to relax a lot of other standards that are there to protect us.
Secondly, what assessment have the Government made of the amount of energy that we are likely to need to produce from waste to fill the gap in the United Kingdom’s energy needs? It is all very well for us to sit here and say, “I do not want this here or that there,” but if the Government’s energy planning has not provided for enough production to meet anticipated consumption, we have a problem. The power stations and incinerators will have to be built somewhere.
My final point, which has already been made by other hon. Members, is that if our energy supply depends on having waste to burn, we will have to keep producing waste. That is a bad thing. We should be reducing the amount of waste we produce. The fact that waste can be used to create energy does not make its production a good thing. We heard some good examples of that, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) listed some steps that have been taken in Northern Ireland. As a priority, we should reduce the amount of waste that we produce. If that meant that it was no longer economical to build an incinerator to burn waste because waste was no longer being produced, that would be a good thing.
Can the Minister tell us what assessment the Government have made of the amount of energy that is likely to be produced from waste in future? How does that fit with the United Kingdom’s ambition to become a zero-waste society?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate. As she said, it is our second debate on the matter in recent weeks, and it is one of a series of contributions from her on the question of waste incineration, particularly in relation to what she described as the “monster” incinerator that is planned for her area.
Other hon. Members used that phrase, as well as the words “giant” and “enormous”, today when they spoke about planned or active incinerators in their areas. As the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) said, we need to understand why, in an era of zero-carbon ambitions for our economy, the idea of granting permission for such enormous plants to deal with our waste is still being contemplated.
In general policy, we must recognise that the age of incinerators is over. A decade or two ago, perhaps we could have said that incineration was an improvement on the previous practice of landfill. Indeed, in this country incineration has increased in inverse proportion to the reduction in landfill over the last few years. However, as we move towards net zero, we are in danger of freezing in time our waste strategies by granting permission for large incinerators that capture waste streams over time. That will prevent us from moving up the waste hierarchy in dealing with our waste generally, and in looking at it as a resource to be recycled, reused and put back into the circular economy—rather than put in landfill or burned, usually for minimal energy recovery.
It is significant that only 16 of the country’s 44 incinerators are enabled for anything more than minimal energy recovery. They are enabled for combined heat and power, to capture the heat as well as the electricity that comes out of the process, but only half of them actually produce any heat and power. The vast majority of large incinerators do not produce much energy, and they certainly do not capture the heat that comes out of the plants.
On the other hand, they capture the waste stream over long periods of time. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) described that process in his area, with waste arriving from all over the country to feed the furnaces of the incinerators. From the description of the plans for the new north London waste incinerator given by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), I suspect that is also the case in her area. We are in danger of ossifying the process of waste disposal. Now is not the time to go down that route; it is the time to move rapidly up the waste hierarchy and think about different ways of disposing of waste.
The hon. Member read my mind. I was about to say that I do not want to blame local authorities for the actions that they have taken over a time when they have had no money to deal with the issue. They have merely had exhortations from central Government, and there have been no resources to go alongside the actions that they are required to undertake. There is a temptation to try to resolve the problems in a local area by going into partnership with a waste company. That may produce a solution to the local waste disposal problems, but it will do so at the cost of a 20, 30 or even 40-year contract that will fix the future policy of that local authority or consortium of local authorities.
It is imperative to recognise that to move up the waste hierarchy nationally, we need the resources to get away from incineration. There are further exhortations on the matter in the waste strategy. We cannot simply say that local authorities must have separate arrangements for collecting all the waste food in their area; we need to ensure that local authorities have the resources to enable them to move up the waste hierarchy without being subject to the temptation of using large incinerators to solve their problems.
We are at a turning point. The future is net zero; it cannot be incineration. We have to move rapidly up the waste hierarchy, and there are challenges and obstacles to that ambition. There will be some residual waste, but, as hon. Members have mentioned this morning, the current definition of residual waste encompasses things that it should not. For example, only 9% of plastic film is recycled. Most of it is incinerated or goes into landfill. Recently, I asked questions about 47 containers of plastic waste that were exported to Malaysia, and that the Malaysians did not want. They sent the waste back and said that it had been illegally exported to Malaysia.
When we recycle, we think that the waste will go wherever it should go. However, those containers of plastic that went to Malaysia and are now sitting there, waiting to be returned, show us that there needs to be accountability in the process. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to know where recyclable waste ends up?
Absolutely. Part of moving up the waste hierarchy involves a proper and full accounting of what goes in and out at each stage of the process. I recently asked the Minister to assure me that the plastics that come back to the UK in those containers will be properly dealt with and will not just go into incineration or landfill. Other countries have started to bar us from using waste export as a route out of doing a proper job of recycling and moving up the waste hierarchy. We therefore need the next generation of resources to deal with that move up the waste hierarchy. We simply do not have enough plants in this country that can properly recycle all the different grades of plastic waste, and we do not have enough anaerobic digestion plants to deal with the putrescibles that will come out of the waste stream. The Government have a substantial responsibility to ensure that those facilities are available, so that we can move up the waste hierarchy as fast as we need to on our path towards a net zero economy.
I am sure that the Minister will have words to say on this, and I hope to hear from her plans to make real the Government’s rightful exhortations to move up the waste hierarchy. She will be delighted that, unlike last week, I will now cease my comments and give her plenty of time to tell us what the Government will do in the new era that we are moving into.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate. She raised particular concerns around the proposed incinerator at Hillthorn Park in her constituency. The debate has sparked heated interest; one might say it is something of a red-hot topic. I thank everyone who has taken part.
I make clear at the outset that waste and air quality are devolved matters, and stress, as I did on 28 January, that the Government’s intention is focused purely on reducing, reusing and recycling waste and on the whole idea of moving to a circular economy to achieve greater resource efficiency, as many hon. Friends and hon. Members have referred to. Measures that we are introducing will help us to do just that.
Evidence of the Government’s commitment to that aim can be seen in our landmark Environment Bill, introduced on 30 January, which, among other things, contains broad powers to establish deposit return schemes, such as those for drinks containers; provides for consistency in the materials collected from households, including food waste; and sets out services that businesses must take part in. I am pleased that the devolved Administrations joined us in the extended producer responsibility scheme, resource measures and eco-labelling. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned some of those.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) was clear that businesses making products such as plastic bottles want consistent waste recycling collections —as a Back Bencher, I met Coca-Cola, which reiterated that. People want more consistent collections. The Bill will help us drive towards an ambitious 65% municipal waste recycling rate by 2035 and a minimum 70% recycling rate for packaging waste by 2030.
I point out that it is a Labour-run council in Sunderland, where the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West comes from, and has been since 1974. In 2018-19, its household waste recycling rate was just 27.1%, compared with the national average for England of 43.5%, and its total waste incinerated was 71% of collected waste. It is telling that the hon. Member herself calls for a great deal more recycling and consistent collecting, rather than incineration, which is the direction her council has gone down.
Many other hon. Friends and hon. Members stressed that they would like to move in the direction that the Government are trying to move us, including my hon. Friends the Members for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), whom I welcome to her place, and for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn). Interestingly on that note, while the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) was strong in her case against incinerators, it was actually the Lib Dem-led Sutton Council that approved the Beddington incinerator that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington talked about, and a Lib Dem councillor who publicly campaigned against it was expelled from his own Lib Dem group. We need to get our messaging right about what we are calling for.
I really do not believe it is good to play the blame game here. Cash-strapped councils have looked at many areas for affordable alternatives to landfill, because it became very expensive. As a councillor from a deprived area, I know that recycling schemes and enforcing recycling are very human and resource-intensive. Councils need more money from central Government in order to get proper recycling schemes off the ground.
I must be clear that local waste planning authorities are responsible for identifying their waste management facility needs and for working out the best direction to take. The hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that the measures in the Environment Bill that will be placed on local authorities will all be costed and funded.
Even after delivering high recycling rates, there is still waste that cannot be recycled or reused because, for example, it is contaminated or there is no end-of-life market for that material. There are choices about how we manage that unavoidable residual waste, and in making those choices we obviously need to consider the long-term environmental impact and the value of the waste resource. Methane is a potential greenhouse gas, and if we landfill biodegradable waste, for example, which is a component of many mixed waste streams, we face the prospect of significant methane emissions and toxic leachates over many years.
The legacy of our reliance on landfill is responsible for around 75% of the carbon emissions from the waste sector. We do not wish that to continue, which is why, as in our resources and waste strategy, we want to reduce the level of municipal waste sent to landfill to 10% or less by 2035, which I think all hon. Friends and hon. Members suggested is a good idea. That is why we are actively exploring policy options to eliminate sending any biodegradable waste to landfill by 2030.
On taxing incinerators—I did not manage to get this point in last time, and I thank the shadow Minister for giving me a bit more time this time—if the wider policies set out in the resources and waste strategy do not deliver our waste ambitions, as laid out in the Environment Bill and the strategy, including higher recycling rates, the Government outlined in the 2018 Budget that we will consider introducing a tax on the incineration of waste, operating in conjunction with the landfill tax and taking account of the possible impact on local authorities.
No. Processes will be followed. So much of what is coming down the tracks, through the resources and waste strategy and the Environment Bill, should introduce a paradigm shift in the way we treat waste. The intention is that a tax may never need to be introduced, but one will have to watch the direction of travel and whether we are really cutting down on waste, because that is the intention before we ever have to introduce a tax.
As Members pointed out, incinerating has a carbon impact, but the evidence available is that the carbon impact of most mixed waste streams commonly sent to energy-from-waste plants is lower than if we sent it to landfill. Every day that passes brings new advances in carbon capture, and I am pleased to report that the Government will invest £800 million in this technology to deploy the first carbon capture clusters by the mid-2020s.The technology could potentially be applied to energy-from-waste plants to capture the carbon emissions from incinerating waste, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions even further. I point out, because the shadow Minister mentioned this issue, that all municipal waste incinerators are combined heat and power-enabled. Only nine deliver heat, but they all supply electricity.
The Government are clear that energy from waste should not compete with greater waste prevention, reuse or recycling. Currently, England has enough operational energy-from-waste capacity to treat about 38% of residual municipal waste, including a proportion of commercial and industrial waste. The majority of the 40 or so existing plants use conventional incineration with energy recovery, as that is tried and tested, but other technologies, such as pyrolysis and gasification, could achieve greater efficiencies, reducing environmental impact and delivering outputs beyond electricity generation. This is a changing space, and science is obviously benefiting the sector. Nevertheless, for the foreseeable future, conventional energy from waste will continue to have an important role in diverting waste from landfill, and it is the best option for most waste that cannot be reused or recycled.
I mentioned on 28 January that the Government are working to drive greater efficiency of energy-from-waste plants. That is largely through Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy initiatives and it includes encouraging use of the heat that the plants produce, in addition to the electricity generated. The Government have in place other, wider measures that help to draw waste away from landfill and incineration. There is an opportunity to deliver significant greenhouse gas savings by converting the wastes into transport fuel, for example. Through the renewable transport fuel obligation—that is quite a mouthful—the Government incentivise the use of organic waste such as cooking oil and food waste to produce renewable fuels. The Department for Transport is examining the potential to support innovative waste-to-fuel technologies that have the capacity to produce advanced fuels, including even jet fuel.
Many hon. Members touched on regulation. Energy-from-waste plants in England are regulated by the Environment Agency and must comply with the strict emission limits set down in legislation. That includes plants using gasification technology. Every application for a new plant is assessed by the agency to ensure that it will use 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 will harm human health.
Does the Minister agree that the cumulative impact of the number of these facilities in a geographical area must also be assessed and that there must not be just an assessment of the individual application when each application comes forward for consideration?
I obviously answered the debate earlier in the year about the incinerator in the hon. Gentleman’s area. He raises an important point. Certainly, local authorities are responsible for their own areas and should be looking to see how they can best deal with the waste in their areas.
Making decisions on planning applications is normally a matter for the local planning authority. They should be determined in accordance with the development plan unless other considerations indicate otherwise. Those would include, among other things, the assessment of the impact of the traffic generated, which has been mentioned. Indeed, when it comes to planning applications for waste management facilities of such a scale as the one that prompted this debate, there is a requirement to undergo an environmental impact assessment.
I am going to plough on, because I want to get some of the points across that I could not make last time.
As the planning application referred to by the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West is subject to an appeal, it is the role of the Planning Inspectorate to consider all the material planning considerations that are relevant to the case, and from all parties, including the local planning authority, the applicant and those who might have made representations on the application—and of course all those people who signed the petition. However, I note the request made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government for him to recover the appeal for his determination. As it is a live planning appeal, I am sure the hon. Member understands that it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.
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 considers the results of the continuous air emissions monitoring that all plants must do to meet the conditions of their environmental permit.
The hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) raised the issue of air quality in particular, but air quality is of course devolved to local authorities, and the Greater London Authority is responsible for what happens in London. However, energy-from-waste plants must report any breaches in respect of emissions to the EA within 24 hours, so there are strict controls.
Health issues were touched on in particular. As part of the permitting process, the Environment Agency consults Public Health England and the local director of public health on every energy-from-waste application that it receives and takes their comments into account when deciding whether to issue a permit. I must point out that our clean air strategy has been commended by the World Health Organisation, and there are aims in it to halve any harm caused to human health by air quality. We therefore have strict controls coming down the tracks, and local authorities are all becoming engaged with them. Hon. Members should note that Public Health England’s position remains that modern and well run and regulated municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health. That is what that body itself has said.
My hon. Friend appears to have only one page of her speech left, so I am sure we have plenty of time for her to read that out. I am conscious that she has made many comments about municipal waste facilities, but unfortunately the proposal in my constituency is not for a municipal one but for an entirely commercial one. Although I accept her reassurances about current standards and EA monitoring, does she think that that goes far enough?
Of course there is a place for commercial waste incinerators, which is what my right hon. Friend refers to. We have in place an entire system of structures, permits, and checks and balances, but it is essential that they are seen to function properly and that they are monitored closely and conducted in the right way.
To conclude, I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West for bringing forward this debate. This clearly is a heated issue, which has raised a lot of concerns, but I hope I have made it clear that harnessing energy from residual waste has its place as part of a wide, holistic waste management system. That will deliver value from waste as a resource. I wanted to be very clear, and I hope it has come out in what I have said, that the measures in the resources and waste strategy and the Environment Bill will enable a paradigm shift, in relation to reducing, reusing and recycling our waste, that should limit the amount that ever has to go to incineration and landfill. I hope that, from what I have said, hon. Members understand what is happening, the direction that the Government are absolutely committed to, and the move to a circular economy.
I thank the Minister for leaving me some time. This has been an excellent debate—the latest in an ongoing series. I have no doubt that, as the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, if it was not us here, it would be a different 10 MPs, but the message would be the same. I hope that Rolton Kilbride, the applicant for the proposed gasification plant in my constituency, has been listening—I am sure that it has—and that it withdraws its appeal. I live in hope.
The Minister mentioned the low rates of recycling in Sunderland, and I agree that they need to be much better, but that needs investment, as other hon. Members have said, and the hard truth is that the Government have cut Sunderland City Council’s budget by £350 million in the past 10 years, so perhaps the Minister can address investment to support councils to recycle more—I am sure they would.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) mentioned the Environment Agency—that is who the Minister said would monitor the plant in my area if it went ahead—and the number of breaches at his local plant being unacceptable. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) said that the Environment Agency needs more powers, and I agree, especially on powers to spot-fine and revoke permits—I have raised that in past debates—without needing to go through protracted legal processes in the courts.
The solution to all this has to lie in more and better recycling and looking to other countries that are doing so much better than we are, but we also have to look to ourselves and how we live and consume and to be more considerate consumers. We need to create less waste.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered waste incineration facilities.