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Waste Incinerators

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2021

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

Madam Deputy Speaker, may I extend my thanks to you and Mr Speaker for granting this urgent personal debate on waste incineration? Before I get going, let me declare to the House that my family run and operate a plastic recycling business. There is much to cover in this debate, so in the short time that I have, I want specifically to talk about the Aire valley incinerator that is due to be constructed in my constituency.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

On 8 December last year, the Environment Agency made the decision to award an environmental permit for a waste incinerator to be built in Marley, right on the outskirts of Keighley. The scheme was originally awarded planning consent by our local authority, Bradford Council, back in early 2017. That decision was in spite of huge local opposition. That opposition was led for many years by the Aire Valley Against Incineration campaign team, which is an excellent group. I must at this early stage in the debate give particular credit and extend my personal thanks to Simon Shimbles and Ian Hammond, who are part of the campaign team and have been working closely with me throughout the many conversations I have had, so that we can collectively raise our concerns. Their passion, dedication and acute attention to detail has shone throughout all our discussions.

This is a campaign team that has seen, over the last six years or so, its following and the involvement from local residents grow to over 6,000 people. The team has worked tirelessly over many years. In my view, since forming, they have represented the views of the many residents in Riddlesden, East Morton, Long Lee, Thwaites Brow, Keighley and our wider community far better on this subject than our local district council.

As I have indicated, I stand here in the full knowledge that the green light has been granted for the Aire valley incinerator to operate, so I want to pick up on some of the huge concerns that I and many others still have, and address some of the flawed decision making and disastrous decisions that have been adopted throughout the planning application and the environmental permit stages.

This is an incinerator that is to be built at the bottom of a valley in close proximity to schools, residential care homes, playing fields, people’s homes—spaces where children grow up and play. Yet despite that, and a huge number of other factors which I will go into, both the Environment Agency and Bradford Council, as the local planning authority, have deemed the construction and operation of the incinerator to be suitable and fit for our environment.

This has been a long-running issue. The environmental permit for the incinerator was granted last December, but the campaign against the project began way back in 2013. In October of that year, the very first planning application for the incinerator was made to Bradford Council. Four years and three applications later, the Labour-run and controlled Bradford Council granted planning permission. However, throughout this whole period, many residents, including my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), questioned time and again whether the planning applications were scrutinised by Bradford Council in enough detail.

I only entered this place in 2019. I have therefore taken the time to look back at Labour-run Bradford Council’s report, which was produced by its assistant director for planning for a planning committee that met in February 2017. The report included a recommendation to grant planning permission. I have a copy of that report here and it makes worrying reading. It concludes that there are no community safety implications. Bradford Council’s air quality officer registered no objection. The Environment Agency registered no objection at the planning stage, commenting that

“We…have established that there are no show stoppers or serious concerns relating to the location of the proposed development”,

despite it being in close proximity to many homes and situated in the bottom of a valley.

I am facing a very similar situation in the Delves Lane area of my constituency at the moment, where I have just heard that the local authority, Durham County Council, has done a deal with a local developer to not put forward planning permission until after the local elections. Is not that exactly the sort of issue that we are facing with these proposals when they come forward: shady backroom deals, often dragged out for longer in order to avoid democratic scrutiny? My hon. Friend has rightly highlighted the issue he faces in his constituency.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. To be quite honest, I am not surprised and I find that an absolute disgrace to hear. We are talking about incinerators being developed right next to people’s homes, in close proximity to schools, care homes, and where people will be growing up and wanting to thrive in a sustainable environment. I am sorry to hear that he is experiencing a similar situation with Durham County Council.

The planning committee report made comments that concluded that planning permission should be granted. I quote another worrying statement:

“The proposal addresses the waste needs of Bradford community in proximity to the waste arisings.”

Given that Keighley is situated on the periphery of Bradford district, that is factually incorrect. So I say to Labour-run Bradford Council: Keighley will not be treated as your dumping ground.

The report goes on:

“The proposal enhances the environment and”—

wait for it, Madam Deputy Speaker—

“promotes recycling.”

That is complete and utter nonsense. How on earth can burning waste be classed by Bradford Council as enhancing the quality of the environment, when it is known that particulate matter such as sulphates, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride and black carbon enter the atmosphere from such a process? I can only conclude that the council must be taking us in Keighley for fools. And then to go on to say that the incinerator, which burns waste, promotes recycling—that goes beyond taking the biscuit.

Following Bradford Council’s planning approval, the applicant, Endless Energy, applied to the Environment Agency for an environmental permit, triggering a two-stage consultation process, with the second consultation taking place just last year. The Environment Agency promoted that it was “minded to approve” the permit—again, all this despite the valid concerns that had been raised by residents, the Aire Valley Against Incineration campaign team, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley and myself.

If that was not bad enough, the Environment Agency decided to hold its supposedly open and transparent consultation right in the middle of a pandemic—a consultation, I might add, that took place wholly online, denying my residents with no digital connectivity or internet access the ability to contribute. That consultation contained over 50 documents for the general public to review, yet, due to the pandemic, those documents were not made publicly available in local libraries or community spaces as one would typically expect. I raised my concerns, and admittedly extra time was granted by the Environment Agency for the consultation, but the stark reality is that members of the public from my constituency and beyond were given an inadequate chance to properly scrutinise the proposals and properly comment on the concerns regarding air quality that they had originally raised.

I want to provide some clear examples of the Environment Agency’s failings to be open and transparent throughout this process. The campaign team experienced significant delays in respect of freedom of information requests. Under the terms of the FOI regulations, the Environment Agency is required to reply within 20 working days. The worst example experienced by the campaign team was a delay of four months. That is completely unacceptable. It resulted in a lost opportunity to carry out proper scrutiny of the applicant’s information.

Here is a second example: there were missing documents that were not made available to the public at the start of the second consultation. Copies of all five of the EA’s notices sent to the applicant were omitted, meaning that the public could see only the answers from the applicant and not the questions that the Environment Agency asked. Those missing documents were made available only when I and the campaign team asked for them.

To be frank, that is shoddy work from a regulatory body, and I cannot express my frustration and anger enough. I am exceptionally pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who I know cares deeply about ensuring that our regulatory bodies do their job properly, is listening and is able to take on board the challenges that we have faced. My constituents deserve much better

The potential impact on people’s health of the incineration process cannot be ignored. In a 10-page submission that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley and I jointly submitted to the Environment Agency, we raised the following concerns: issues with the inadequate and unfair consultation process itself; concerns about noise and odour pollution; and concerns about the fact that the incinerator is built at the bottom of a valley, the resultant challenges of the topography, and the public health implications of emissions as a result of temperature or cloud inversions.

We also raised concerns that pollution modelling used unreliable data. I will give an example. The Environment Agency used data from the Bingley weather station. The Bingley weather station is located 262 metres above sea level, whereas the proposed Aire valley incinerator is situated roughly 85 metres above sea level. That discrepancy in evaluation means that the estimated dispersal of emissions from the incinerator is based on information from a weather station in a significantly raised position, where wind speeds behave much differently from those experienced at the bottom of the Aire valley.

We raised concerns about the proposed monitoring of emissions and any enforcement action that is likely to follow. We raised issues with the stack height. The incinerator is proposed to have a stack height—a chimney height—of only 60 metres, yet other comparable incinerators have stacks far higher, where emissions are better dispersed.

I could continue—the list goes on—but perhaps the most significant of our concerns is the impact the incinerator will have on human health via air quality. The Minister will be aware that, back in 2018 and 2019, Public Health England funded a study to examine emissions of particulate matter from incinerators and their impact on human health. The study found that, while emissions of particulate matter from waste incinerators are low and often make a small contribution to ambient background levels, they make a contribution nevertheless. Of course, there are many variables and influencing factors, such as the stack height, the surrounding topography, the feedstock, the microclimate—again, the list goes on.

Residents are rightly concerned—I share their concerns—about the impact on air quality, not just from the incinerator itself but from the increased traffic flows bringing waste to the site. Unbelievably, in questioning the decision making for the award of the environmental permit, I was told by the Environment Agency that it could consider only the emissions from the incinerator itself, not those from the increased traffic flow from the heavy vehicles that will bring the waste to the site, because that was a planning matter, which Labour-run Bradford Council had already considered and deemed to be acceptable.

It is my strong view that my constituents have been let down: failed by our Labour-run local authority, which claims to have its residents’ best interests at heart, but also let down by the Environment Agency, a regulatory body that, in my view, carried out a half-hearted attempt through its consultation process. May I use this opportunity to urge my hon. Friend the Minister to do all in her power to take a close look at the Environment Agency’s involvement, to hold it to account and to ensure that it fulfils its statutory duty and that its involvement in such consultations takes place in a proper manner?

I want to use the last few moments to talk about the role of incineration in general, and about the circular economy. The circular economy means prioritising, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and regarding waste as something that can be turned into a resource. Many of us in this place and beyond will be familiar with the waste hierarchy, which gives top priority to preventing waste in the first place and, when waste is created, gives preference to preparing it for reuse, then for recycling, then for recovery and last of all for disposal, whether to landfill or waste incineration. As the Minister will be well aware, I believe that all Government policy should be based on this hierarchy.

I am pleased to see the extensive work that has gone into the Environment Bill, led by my hon. Friend the Minister, and also into the Government’s resource and waste strategy. I was proud to sit on the Environment Bill Committee and see that piece of legislation work its way through this House. I look forward to getting involved in more of the debates as it comes back to this Chamber. It is my firm view that if we are serious about investing in our circular economic model, we must, as a country, incentivise reuse, recovery and recycling practices. Of course I appreciate that some waste simply cannot fall into those categories, but we must do all we can to discourage incineration and landfill practices as the preferred option.

That brings me on to the introduction of an incineration tax, which is something that I have raised in this place before, and I commend this option. Unlike incineration, landfill is already subject to a tax, and an incineration tax could work in a similar way. It would be a fiscal de-incentivisation to incineration and could lead to more innovation in other practices, such as recycling. Of course, an incineration tax is not new or radical. Other countries have already adopted it, including the Netherlands, Sweden and Austria.

We owe it to the next generation to ensure that the planet is left safe and in a much better place than we found it. However, building more incinerators such as the Aire valley incinerator, the one in my constituency, goes against everything we are trying to achieve. I know that many other colleagues from across the House are of the same view. I suspect that it will be a couple of years before the Aire valley incinerator is built and becomes operational, and I dread the date, but I wish to reassure all residents in my constituency that the campaign to stop it is by no means over. I will do all I can to ensure that their voice is heard, and to ensure that the operator, and those overseeing it—Labour-run Bradford Council and the Environment Agency—are watched like a hawk. I will ensure that their actions are scrutinised every step of the way.

It is so good, as ever, to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. My goodness, that was a fiery presentation—I am not joking—on a hot topic. I expect nothing less from my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), because he has spoken to me many times about this issue, and I know that he has very much wanted to bring it to our attention in the Chamber. He has certainly done that in respect of the proposal for an incinerator in the Aire valley in his constituency, which would deal with 148,000 tonnes of commercial, industrial and municipal waste and is expected to be operational in a few years’ time.

Before going into detail on the particular proposal, I start by saying that my views have not changed at all. I have spoken about this many times in other debates, as has my hon. Friend, and the Government’s attention remains firmly on exactly what he talked about towards the end of his eloquent speech. Our intention is to focus on reducing, recycling, reusing and, indeed, cutting down on all waste and moving to a circular economy. This is absolutely the direction of travel, and we have targets in place to enable us to do that now.

We have a raft of targets. We have a target to increase overall recycling rates to 65% by 2035. We have a target for zero avoidable waste by 2050. We have a target of 10% of waste or less going to landfill by 2035. There are a lot of measures in the Environment Bill that will move us in that direction. I have just been before the Environmental Audit Committee to talk about one of the packaging reforms, the deposit return scheme, which will contribute towards driving us in the direction of cutting waste. I am pleased to say that today we launched the consultation, which is a big moment in moving us in the right direction.

For clarity, I reiterate that it was the Labour-run City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council that granted planning permission back in 2017. The council sends 58.4% of its collected and managed waste for incineration, which is interesting.

I will now talk about the Aire valley permission, but I also want to set out the steps that the Environment Agency took following that planning permission to grant its permits. In September 2018, Endless Energy Ltd applied to the Environment Agency for an environmental permit to operate an energy-from-waste site on Aire Valley Road. The agency’s technical assessment of the application began shortly after receiving the application, and it held its first public consultation between 1 November and 13 December 2018. Some 2,000 comments were received during that consultation. The agency then consulted further on its draft decision between 8 June and 12 August 2020, and it received 1,600 comments.

I take the points that my hon. Friend made pretty vociferously that there were some documents missing in the first consultation—I will not beat about the bush on that. It was an admin error, and the EA duly reacted, put them in and extended the consultation. I think he will agree that that did happen.

The agency then considered all the comments received during both the consultation stages, and the final decision document was produced and is publicly available. It describes how the EA considered the issues raised. The main concern, which my hon. Friend highlighted, was that the site is in a valley that regularly experiences temperature inversions, resulting in misty conditions and a perception that emissions from the process will be trapped in that mist.

The Environment Agency verified the modelling of air emissions provided by the applicant to ensure it included an appropriate variety of weather conditions, including temperature inversions in the valley. The agency also undertook its own detailed modelling of air emissions, and it is satisfied that the concerns are unfounded and the installation will not have a significant impact on air quality—the EA has to follow due process and do the modelling.

The EA has issued information to explain its decision making, as well as to explain how Endless Energy’s application was assessed and the factors taken into account. The agency’s decision document sets out the details and the reasons for proposing the conditions on the permit. As a result of this thorough process, the EA determined that the applicant provided sufficient information for it to be satisfied that the facility will not compromise air quality limits or standards and will meet the relevant environmental requirements for this type of facility. The Environment Agency therefore decided on 8 December 2020 to issue the permit to allow Endless Energy to operate the facility as described in the application and in the additional information provided.

It should be noted that the permit sets out the legally binding conditions that Endless Energy Ltd must follow to protect the air quality, the groundwater and the surface water, and to ensure the safe storage, management and disposal of waste. As with all energy from waste, the use of abatement systems is required to keep emissions and air pollutants within strict limits set down in legislation. That includes oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, metal smoke and dioxins.

The permit also include conditions to minimise the risk of accidents, noise, odour and so forth, and as part of its regulatory regime the EA carries out regular inspections. The facility will be subjected to those, but I assure my hon. Friend that I will hold the EA’s feet to the fire to ensure that those things are done and the due process is followed. It is essential that people feel that the due process is being followed and they are safe. I assure him that regular monitoring will be carried out. If the agency identifies that an energy-from-waste plant breaches any of its permit conditions, appropriate enforcement actions will be taken. That may be a warning, first of all, for a minor breach. Enforcement notices can be put in place or, indeed, a prosecution as and if necessary.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about the planning process. Of course, planning decisions are a matter for the local planning authority, which in this case is the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council. The national planning policy framework sets out the planning policies for England and how they should be applied, including consideration for such things as traffic and the build-up of transport issues. He rightly made his views about the planning situation very clear—I will not comment on it—as did my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), who made some similar comments about his own constituency.

We take air quality extremely seriously as a Government, and we are fully committed to reducing air pollution. The World Health Organisation has praised our UK clean air strategy as an example for the rest of the world to follow. Indeed, we are pouring £3.8 billion into cleaning up our air, and we have an enormous strategy of bringing in clean air zones across the country to keep people healthy, because this is a major health issue. Our landmark Environment Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley knows, is bringing through ambitious new air quality targets to help reduce the public health impacts.

I must point out that energy-from-waste plants in England are regulated, as I said, by the EA, and they must comply with the strict limits set down in legislation in terms of air quality. Public Health England’s position remains that modern, well run and regulated municipal waste incinerators do not have a significant impact on air quality. In addition, they must use what we call, technically, best available techniques—that is the kit and equipment that they have to put in to meet environmental standards and reinforce the levels of environmental protection. That is really important, and those techniques have recently been reviewed.

I reiterate my message at the beginning that, on a wider note, the Government are absolutely committed to cutting down waste. We will reduce, recycle and re-use. We are meeting all the targets that I outlined at the beginning. We are bringing through the measures that we need. What will happen is exactly what my hon. Friend suggests: there will be less waste. Producers will be responsible for all the waste and packaging that they put on the market. They will be responsible for its whole lifecycle and the full net costs. They will not want to have to pay for it to end up somewhere else, such as incineration, which is, bar landfill, right at the end of our waste hierarchy.

The ambition is to have less and less waste going to incineration. There will always be some that will have to go to the lower ends of the waste hierarchy, but the key is that the incinerators have to be safe, regulated, and well run. In a perfect world, not only would they generate energy from waste, but we would capture all the other heat that they create. They should be geared up for that in future.

The tax matter that my hon. Friend raised is really for Her Majesty’s Treasury. The 2018 Budget set out the Government’s long-term ambition to minimise the amount of waste going to incineration or landfill, but if the policies do not deliver that cut in waste the introduction of a tax on incineration will be considered. I think I will end there. It was a terrifically vociferous speech. He made his case unbelievably clearly, but hopefully the message that I am giving is that we are cutting down on waste, and we certainly take such things as air quality extremely seriously.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.