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Landfill Sites (Odorous Emissions)

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 9 March 2021

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to introduce a presumption against planning applications for new landfill sites liable to cause odorous emissions in built-up areas; to set limits for odorous emissions from landfill sites; to make provision for the payment of compensation by site operators to local residents when emissions exceed those limits; and for connected purposes.

Perhaps it would have been simpler for me to say, “That leave be given to bring in a Bill to stop the stink”, because this Bill is being introduced against the backdrop of a major ongoing environmental incident in my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme that is affecting thousands of residents. It has been really bad for months, but on 26 February it became intolerable. The problem, in essence, is that the landfill in my constituency—Walley’s quarry—is once again, frankly, stinking. I am told that the Environment Agency’s hotline for reporting was completely overwhelmed by complaints, with residents unable to get through. Extra staff were brought in to deal with the number of calls. The EA logged 1,300 odour complaints in that one weekend. For context, in a typical month, it would log 1,600 such complaints across the whole country.

Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council received more than 2,000 individual reports of odour over the same weekend. There were reports from Keele University and, most upsettingly, from the Royal Stoke University Hospital, which has many coronavirus and cancer patients, and a substantial maternity unit. The hospital complained to the borough council that the odour from the landfill had got into its ventilation systems, affecting hundreds of staff and patients. Residents also stated on social media that they had broken covid rules to get away from the smell and stay with relatives.

The weekend just past was nearly as bad. I went out and about conducting live odour reports in Newcastle on Saturday night, and I can tell everyone here that it was appalling. On that occasion, it was particularly to the south-east of the site on the Poolfields estate, but at other times it is communities such as Silverdale, Knutton, Cross Heath, Keele, Thistleberry, Clayton and the Westlands that bear the brunt of the odour. This landfill causes a great deal of anxiety and distress for those affected. It goes well beyond simple annoyance; it has a significant impact on people’s quality of life and, I fear, on their mental health.

Yesterday morning, I visited St Giles’ and St George’s Church of England Academy Primary School on Orme Road. Children had written to me, and the headteacher, Mrs Pointon, had written to the local paper. She has often arrived at school to an overwhelming odour in the building, and has had to empty the building of it before she can let the children in. I have had similar reports from many other schools, pre-schools and nurseries in the area. One resident reported on social media that their house sale fell through on 27 February as a result of the odour scaring away their buyers; another, whom I spoke to on Saturday night, had to cut their asking price by £30,000.

Problems arising from this site have been reported on and off for many years, since it began operating in 2007, but it has been striking how much worse the odour has been—in terms of intensity and the distance from the site from which it can be smelled—in the last 12 months, with a particular change since Christmas. Local campaigners have been raising this issue over a number of years, including Derrick Huckfield, who asked me about it at my selection meeting, and who has convened many meetings with affected parties, residents and the Environment Agency. More recently, local residents Graham Eagles and Steve Meakin established a local “Stop the Stink” group and Facebook page. We have seen protests outside the site instigated by local residents. Recently, another very active Facebook group calling for the landfill to be capped off has reached more than 6,000 local members in the three months since it was set up. There have also been more than 11,000 signatures on an online petition calling for the landfill site to be closed.

All that is representative of the strength of feeling that I have encountered as the MP. It is also comfortably the biggest issue that I receive correspondence about in my mailbox. Since Christmas, the number of emails I have been receiving has nearly overwhelmed my team of staff, such is the strength of feeling and the number of incidents.

The local council, under the leadership of Simon Tagg and Stephen Sweeney, is doing everything it can within the constraints of the law, but the responsible body for the landfill is the Environment Agency. I believe it needs to step up, win back the trust of my residents and start forcing a solution to this issue.

This crisis is tragic in the context of what should be a time of great optimism in Newcastle-under-Lyme. We will be doing a huge amount of good in Newcastle through more than £30 million of Government funds from the future high streets fund and the towns fund, but our odour catastrophe is threatening to overshadow all that—it is literally casting a cloud. Who would want to eat out on the high street when we get our hospitality reopened if there is an almighty stink in the air? We are getting levelling up in Newcastle, but we need capping off too.

Walley’s quarry landfill quite simply should never have been permitted to exist. It is a former quarry that was obviously converted to landfill use. At all local levels, the application for the landfill site was opposed due to the inappropriate nature of its location. It is in a built-up area surrounded by housing in several directions, but the councils were overruled by the Secretary of State at the time, John Prescott.

The Environment Agency agrees that the site is in a particularly unusual location, close to a number of long-established properties that surround the landfill, belonging to people who have lived in their villages and communities all their lives. Nevertheless, it seems apparent from consulting with other right hon. and hon. Members that there are plenty of other landfills in inappropriate locations around the country causing similar distress—indeed, outrage—to their communities. I have spoken to my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), for High Peak (Robert Largan), for North Wiltshire (James Gray), for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) and for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), and, on the other side of the House, the hon. Members for South Antrim (Paul Girvan), for Bristol North West (Darren Jones)—I see he is in his place—and for Blaydon (Liz Twist). The right hon. Member for Chorley (Sir Lindsay Hoyle) has also had a major issue with his landfill. He seems to have got it capped off a bit earlier, so perhaps I need to take some tips about tips from Mr Speaker.

Although the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs acknowledged that landfill should not routinely be causing annoyance, that is essentially impossible to avoid when a landfill is 100 metres from your home. That is a problem that my Bill attempts to tackle. My Bill would introduce a presumption against planning permission for a landfill within 500 metres of a built-up area to prevent the problems that we have seen in Newcastle-under-Lyme from happening elsewhere. Of course, I am aware that odour reaches far further than 500 metres. At the weekend, there were reports from Red Street, Bradwell and Halmer End in my constituency, which are more like 5,000 metres away, but a 500-metre presumption would rule out a lot of unsuitable sites, such as Walley’s.

Difficult decisions need to be made because clearly placing landfill sites in beauty spots or national parks will not be acceptable either. A major part of the national solution is for us to continue to use more sustainable materials and recycle more. The Government’s landmark Environment Bill has an ambitious resources and waste strategy, which can be summed up by an eco-friendly version of the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. The planning laws permitting new housing to be built in the vicinity of landfills also need to be looked at. We need houses for the future, but it seems counter- productive to be building them in areas with known air-quality issues.

The second major aspect of my Bill would be to introduce new tougher limits for odorous emissions from landfill sites, going beyond the current guidance. The Environment Agency, as the regulator for the site, is aware of the problem in my constituency and how it affects my constituents because it receives their complaints, but to date it has been unable to act much beyond air quality monitoring exercises in the area, despite the misery of thousands of surrounding residents, at times across my borough and into Stoke-on-Trent. That is because the Environment Agency uses the World Health Organisation’s limits for hydrogen sulphide as its criteria for enforcement action. That utterly fails to take account of the severe annoyance of odour at levels not considered harmful to physical health.

The WHO’s guidelines for human health are averaged over 24 hours and refer to 150 micrograms per cubic metre. Happily, nothing that high has been recorded in Newcastle-under-Lyme—in the last exercise, we reached a peak of 44.5—but the annoyance measure, which is averaged over 30 minutes, is only 7 micrograms per cubic metre. My Bill would reduce the annoyance test for hydrogen sulphide emissions to half that level, equipping the Environment Agency to take earlier action against sites causing that level of disturbance in their communities.

In a nation such as the UK, we should be aspiring to higher, better limits on odour than the bare minimum prescribed by the WHO. That change would go hand in hand with a new framework for compensation where the limit is exceeded. The point of this aspect of my Bill is not that residents want to be paid off. In my experience, most residents do not want compensation—they just want the stink to stop. This aspect of my Bill is intended to provide a clear incentive to operators to take all practical measures to reduce odour and to be good and responsible neighbours.

We also need to get into the 21st century and stop relying on a human sniff test, conducted on a nought to six scale, which always has an attendant delay while an EA operative gets to the site in question. Because the odour can be quite transient, they often miss the true scale of the problem. Odorous landfill sites should be ringed by a network of permanent hydrogen sulphide monitors that should be capable of providing real-time data to a web feed, a bit like a weather report, so that residents can feel confident that their experience is being recorded in real time against a standardised measure.

It seems clear to me that our communities need to have their voices heard much more loudly where landfills are causing persistent problems. My Bill would strengthen their rights and give the EA a much stronger hand in dealing with problems when they arise. Although the Bill, if passed, would not necessarily solve my constituents’ problem with Walley’s Quarry once and for all, it would prevent similar problems from occurring for other communities, a goal that I hope we can all agree is well worth pursuing.

I have had no indication that anyone intends to oppose this ten-minute rule Bill motion, and I see no one, so I intend to put the question.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Aaron Bell, Simon Baynes, Jack Brereton, Sir William Cash, Jo Gideon, James Gray, Jonathan Gullis, Robert Halfon, Darren Jones, Marco Longhi, Alexander Stafford and Liz Twist present the Bill.

Aaron Bell accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 269).