Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I wish to raise a matter that is of great concern to my constituents in Gateshead, East and also to constituents in neighbouring constituencies, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) who is listening to the debate. It concerns the approval that was given recently by the previous Secretary of State for the Environment, who is now the Secretary of State for the Home Department, for the building of a clinical waste incinerator in Wardley in my constituency.
I should make it clear from the outset that what has particularly angered my constituents is the fact that the Secretary of State overruled the recommendations of his own inspector, who after a long, detailed and full public inquiry recommended that the proposed incinerator should not be allowed to go ahead. Astonishingly, the Secretary of State for the Environment decided that he knew better than his own inspector and went ahead and recommended approval of the project—a decision that has outraged public opinion not only in Gateshead, East but, I believe, throughout the north-east of England.
While giving the background to the debate, I ought to point out that there are many reasons why public opinion in Gateshead, East is opposed to the building of any incinerator. First, and perhaps most emotively, a previous incinerator in the town was linked with the emergence during the 1980s of a child leukaemia cancer cluster, based on the Gateshead area. There were between 10 and 20 times the number of cases of childhood leukaemia than one would expect in an area with a population the size of Gateshead.
Secondly, there have been other sources of pollution in the Gateshead area, which have led to people being very worried indeed about the possibility of this incinerator being built. Another incinerator gave rise to problems in the past. There were also other sources of pollution, such as the Monkton coke works in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow, and the coal crushing plant at Wardley, which is very close to the site of the proposed incinerator.
The people of Gateshead, East were looking forward to a cleaner, brighter future. The last thing they wanted was yet another source of pollution to be planted on their doorstep in the way that is threatened with this incinerator.
There is a third reason why the siting of this incinerator causes such worry to my constituents: that the health of people in Gateshead is already, on average, worse than the health of our citizens nationally. If the Minister has had time to look at the annual report of the Gateshead public health inspector, he will see, for example, that perinatal mortality rates in Gateshead are significantly higher than the national average. There is also a lower life expectancy for most categories of people in the constituency.
For all those reasons, the latest incinerator proposal has caused widespread public alarm. Indeed, about 16,000 people registered their opposition to this incinerator—a staggering figure.
The Gateshead metropolitan borough council, in tune with its residents, refused planning permission. That is why the matter then went to the Department of the Environment and the Secretary of State. I salute the efforts of the local council, the council leader, Councillor George Gill, and the local councillors who represent the wards most immediately affected by the proposal.
Both I, my parliamentary colleagues, the Member of the European Parliament for the area and the local newspapers, which have played an important role in this affair, have added their weight to the campaign against the incinerator. We find the Secretary of State's decision astonishing on several grounds.
First, it is astonishing that the Secretary of State should have decided in this case to overrule the recommendations of his inspector. I accept that that is unusual rather than unheard of. I have examined information that the Department sent me of cases where the Secretary of State has overruled the planning recommendations of inspectors. I have not found one example of a clinical waste incinerator being dealt with in that way. I am amazed that the Secretary of State should think that he has more technical expertise than his inspector, in having the confidence to overrule his inspector's recommendations in a full and detailed report.
We find the Secretary of State's decision astonishing, because he dismisses our fears about other forms of economic development being deterred by the existence of the incinerator. During the inquiry, the Food and Drink Federation stated:
The siting of a clinical waste incinerator at Follingsby Lane would render the proposed industrial site completely unsuitable for any operation in respect of food and drink, whether processing, distribution or storage, because of the perceived risks to the safety of food.
Anything that undermines confidence from the point of view of economic development is worrying in an area such as Gateshead, and in Tyneside generally. Throughout the 1980s, the northern region had the highest level of unemployment in mainland Britain. Tyneside's situation has been, and continues to be, very bad, particularly bearing in mind recent events at Swan Hunter. All such factors must be taken into account by the Minister.
We also feel that the Secretary of State has not examined the full situation, and has an incomplete grasp of the facts. In his reasons for overruling the inspector, the Secretary of State referred to the regional nature of the clinical waste incinerator. He went on to recognise that I had sent him a letter stating that the Northern regional health authority favoured a number of smaller incinerators rather than one big one. But to my astonishment, he said that, while that might be the case, it did not alter his opinion.
Surely he should have checked on precisely what the situation was in relation to the Northern regional health authority, rather than simply look at a press clipping that I sent to him. He should have conducted a thorough investigation, involving the Northern regional health authority and the region as a whole, in the context of clinical waste. He would then have been in a better position to reach a full decision. It seems from an examination of that part of the Secretary of State's report that he has not acted reasonably—a point that I hope will be taken on board in any appeal that may be launched against the decision. It is an aspect which worries us greatly.
We accept that incineration is necessary, but the building of what is supposed to be a regional facility should be approved only after a proper regional assessment and a democratic decision has been taken in the region. It is depressing to think that the Secretary of State has ignored the advice of the Select Committee that looked into the whole issue of the disposal of toxic and clinical waste. It said that a proper regional strategy should be worked out for each region before decisions were made.
The only reason why the site in Gateshead has been chosen is that the company that wants to build the facility owns the site. That cannot be a sufficient reason to allow such a proposal to go ahead, and I hope that the Minister will address that point in his reply tonight.
When a similar incinerator was to be built in Alberta in Canada, there was a full democratic process, at the end of which local authorities in parts of the state expressed a desire to house the incinerator. The area chosen was away from high-density population.
The Minister may say that Canada has vast open spaces that we in the north-east of England do not have. Even so, the Alberta example was reinforced by the chair of the European Parliament Environment Committee, who said in evidence that he thought that such a facility should be sited in a wooded area away from high-density human and animal population, and distant from arable land. There are such sites in the north-east, and we believe that the Secretary of State for the Environment and his colleagues have done nothing to try to identify suitable sites that would have the support of the general public.
We are worried that the Secretary of State seems to be glib about the emissions from this incinerating facility. We want Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution to adopt the highest standards possible in such an area, but we are worried that, despite supposedly strict controls, emission problems are only discovered afterwards, as with the Bolsover incinerator. The television programme "World in Action" did an exposé on the problems in Bolsover and brought them to the attention of the public. Only after that were tighter controls put in place. Given the history of incineration, I am sure that the Minister will understand how concerned we are in Gateshead about the possibility of dangerous emissions being released into a densely populated area.
We are outraged that the Secretary of State has failed to understand the extent of public hostility to the scheme. The Government say that they are a listening Government, but they have failed to listen to 16,000 people in the Gateshead area, never mind the Members of Parliament, the Member of the European Parliament, the council, residents associations and the local press. They have turned a deaf ear to all who have objected to the scheme. Is it any wonder that people in Gateshead feel bitter as a result?
One of our local newspapers, the Evening Chronicle, said:
The Government ruling seems to turn logic on its head and now we have a Government Minister flying in the face of
a planning inspector's decision in a move which has stunned many people on Tyneside. Would the Environment Secretary have come to the same controversial conclusion if the incinerator plan had been in a Tory area in the south of England?
The Minister will not be surprised that people have reacted in that way.
People are also suspicious of the fact that the Government seem to have more in common with the privatised management of Northumbrian Water than with the people of Gateshead. We believe that the Government should be listening to the people and not to vested interests which might want to build a facility simply because they own the land.
For all those reasons, we feel strongly that the Department of the Environment should look again at this issue and, perhaps at the end of an appeal process, decide that the people have right on their side and that their case should be supported.
I believe that the Department of the Environment should commit itself to undertaking a study of incineration and how it should be dealt with in the north of England. It should then embark on a genuine consultation procedure to carry the people with it, rather than work against them. I implore the Minister to think again about this highly damaging and possibly dangerous proposal and realise that what has happened so far has caused public outrage, not only in Gateshead, East but throughout the north-east of England.
I congratulate and support my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin) on the fight that she has put up for her constituents. This incinerator is on the border of her constituency and my constituency at Wardley. The people in that area have already had to live with the pollution emitted by the Monkton coking works, and now that the coking works has closed, they have emissions from this incinerator thrust upon them.
The previous Secretary of State for the Environment, now the Home Secretary, made this decision. He decided to ignore Gateshead council and South Tyneside council who objected to the planning permission, and he decided to ignore his own inspector and the people in the area. It is disgraceful that, in spite of all the objections, the Government continue to go along with this plan.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) is here; he has a particular interest because of Gateshead authority and because the proposed incinerator would be close to his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) is also present because of his interest in the region's problems.
I implore the Minister to ask the new Secretary of State for the Environment to reconsider the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East made. We were promised consultation, and an inquiry, and were told that an area examination of incinerators would be conducted before a decision was made. I implore the Minister to take this back to the new Secretary of State and let him reconsider this planning permission.
The hon. Members for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin) and for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) have raised issues of understandable concern to their constituents and I welcome the opportunity to respond. Some of the hon. Lady's comments were a little wide of the mark, and I shall deal with them in detail.
The debate brings together policy on waste, planning policies and the specific planning decision that is the cause of the hon. Lady's concern. May I deal with our policy on waste? We are a complex society. We produce much waste at home, at work and from industry. Some of the waste that we produce requires specialist treatment, such as waste from hospitals. Overall, our waste management policies seek, wherever possible, to ensure the reduction, re-use or recycling of household and commercial waste.
Large quantities of waste that we produce from our homes, businesses and industry are capable of being reused or recycled. We recognise, though, that, however successful we are in promoting recycling, we will not eradicate waste. What we will do is to reduce the proportion of waste that has to be disposed of. As a society, we shall continue to produce large quantities of waste, for which some form of final disposal, either landfill or incineration, will be the only economic and environmentally friendly option.
The vast bulk of waste for final disposal in this country goes to landfill. Some 150 million tonnes of household, commercial and industrial waste is generated each year, about 85 per cent. of which goes to the 3,000 or so licensed landfill sites throughout the country. Incineration currently accounts for about 4 per cent. of our controlled waste, which is dealt with at about 200 existing licensed incinerators around the country. Incinerators are used to deal with a variety of waste ranging from household waste and sewage sludge to chemical and, as in this instance, clinical waste.
I appreciate that plans to site a waste incineration plant can lead to considerable concerns among local residents. It is wholly understandable that local people should want to be reassured about the impact of such a plant on their neighbourhood. Alas, concerns about incineration plants are often founded more on perceptions of the less efficient operations of the past than on the high technology of the present, with extremely tight regulatory standards firmly endorsed by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution.
The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, an independent body of experts including many leading academics, recently published a report dealing with the incineration of waste and, because of public concerns about some older plants incinerating chemical wastes, it reviewed evidence about the possible health effects of such plants before they were either closed or modified.
The commission concluded that not one of the independent studies found any significant effects on people's health. It concluded that, although there are some uncertainties about some older plants, they are not relevant to the future use of incineration because emission levels in some older plants were far higher than will ever be allowed in the future. All the evidence shows that incinerators make only small contributions to national emissions of most pollutants. Far larger quantities of pollutants are emitted by industry and transport. I appreciate that there are concerns about incineration. The royal commission points out, however, that incineration is particularly suitable for disposal of clinical waste.
Landfill and incineration are both vital components of our nation's waste management strategy. The stringent standards introduced by the Environmental Protection Act 1990 will ensure that neither landfill nor incineration should lead to pollution of our environment or harm to our health. Clearly, in a complex society such as ours, contentious and controversial planning proposals are bound to arise from time to time. Planning decisions should not be arbitrary; they should be considered against objective criteria. Development plans provide the basis for such objective consideration.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is desirable to keep the concentrations of chlorofluorocarbons down, as these are extremely dangerous? That is what my hon. Friend was arguing about.
Two years ago, we amended the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to require planning decisions to accord with the development plan unless material considerations indicated otherwise. This has been widely welcomed as giving greater guidance and certainty for local authorities and local people. As I shall explain in a moment, they have to come up with a waste development plan.
A plan-led system can work effectively only if the development plans are both comprehensive and up-to-date. We expect most local authorities to have up-to-date local plans by 1996. Gateshead borough council is among those local authorities that we expect to adopt their development plans well before that date.
Provision for waste disposal facilities should also be planned at a strategic level. That is why waste regulation authorities are required, under the Environmental Protection Act, to draw up separate waste disposal plans which consider the need for waste facilities within their areas and the technical aspects of possible methods of treatment and disposal.
In metropolitan areas such as Gateshead, such waste disposal plans will need to be prepared jointly by the joint committee or authority which carries out the waste regulation function on behalf of the districts, so that the needs of the whole area can be considered. In this instance, that is the Tyne and Wear waste regulation authority. These arrangements, taken together, provide the local and strategic contexts within which planning decisions for waste facilities can be taken.
As we learn more about our environment and the balance that needs to be maintained between our activities and the earth's ecosystem, we recognise the need to maintain at the highest level the environmental and health standards to be achieved by our industries. This applies to the waste management industry as much as to any other industry. We are in the process of setting in place an enhanced waste management licensing system under the Environmental Protection Act. This will enable waste regulation authorities more effectively to control waste disposal operations, from the point at which they are no more than a gleam in the eye to the point at which they are no longer considered to have the potential to cause pollution or harm. We are determined that there shall be tough standards for landfill and tough standards for incineration.
Incineration standards are stringent, as are those for landfill. The new system of integrated pollution control introduced under the Environmental Protection Act covers larger incineration plants of all types. The incineration of specific types of waste and all incinerators rated at I tonne an hour or more are controlled by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution—HMIP.
Operators of incinerators are required to obtain, in addition to planning permission, an HMIP authorisation which lays down conditions for the operation of the plant, including limits on emissions. The conditions are designed to ensure the use of the best available techniques not entailing excessive cost, to prevent the release of prescribed substances, or, where 100 per cent. prevention is not practicable, to minimise any possible releases and render harmless any substances that might be released. Those incinerators that are much smaller and not controlled by HMIP are almost all controlled by local authorities.
District councils have broadly the same powers as the inspectorate. The waste regulation authorities are responsible for controlling other aspects of the incineration operation.
The usual means of disposing of waste from hospitals and other care premises has for many years been incinerators located within many of our hospitals. Substantial investment is needed to improve the performance of many of these incinerators to meet regulatory standards.
This is leading to further consideration being given to other methods of treatment, including autoclaving and microwaving, which are capable of rendering safe some types of infectious hospital waste. For many types of waste, however, incineration will remain the most appropriate disposal method. The high standards required for incinerators generally apply equally to incinerators burning clinical waste.
The National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 removed Crown immunity from all NHS hospitals from 1 April 1991. The operators of NHS incinerators have been given a limited period to determine whether it is cost effective to make the additional improvements needed to bring those incinerators up to acceptable standards.
We have issued statutory guidance to the effect that only in exceptional circumstances can this upgrading of existing plant be completed after 1 October 1995. In practice, many old hospital incinerators will not be upgraded to the full standards. They are being improved simply to meet basic and interim standards and will be closed by October 1995.
With the removal of Crown immunity and the closure of many old hospital incinerators, many hospitals are having to consider the most appropriate means of disposal for the considerable quantities of clinical waste that are produced. All these incinerators will be required to meet the stringent standards currently in force under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which are rigorously enforced by HMIP.
That leads me on to the specific planning application. As the hon. Lady has explained, my right hon. and learned Friend the then Secretary of State for the Environment announced on 25 May that he had decided to allow an appeal by Northumbrian Water plc for a clinical waste incinerator at the former Felling sewage treatment works at Wardley.
The appeal raised a number of complex issues relating to the planning and pollution control systems as a whole, as well as concerns about the environmental impact of the plant. My right hon. and learned Friend's decision was contrary to the recommendations of the inquiry inspector. The case is effectively still sub judice, being within the six-week statutory challenge period. The House will appreciate, therefore, that I am limited in what I am able to say about the specific decision.
The hon. Lady suggested that the clinical incinerator is not wanted by the Northern regional health authority. Let us be clear—if the Northern regional health authority would rather have a number of smaller incinerators instead of a single incinerator for clinical waste, that is a decision for the authority. It does not affect the Secretary of State's view that the appeal proposal is a possible solution to the disposal of clinical waste in the region, and the Secretary of State does not consider that it is premature for him to determine this appeal at the present time.
My right hon. and learned Friend the then Secretary of State explained his reasons for allowing the appeal in his decision letter. That decision letter is, of course, a public document. In that decision, it is made clear that the Secretary of State believes that the pollution control issues associated with this proposal are capable of being satisfactorily addressed through the authorisation process operated by HMIP.
The Secretary of State agreed with the inquiry inspector that, as an industrial development, the incinerator would not conflict with development plan policies for the area. He also considered it in the light of specific criteria in the plan for special industry, and concluded that it satisfied those criteria and was in accordance with the plan.
The permission sets out no fewer than 24 stringent planning conditions that will have to be met. I do not have time now to set them out but I shall ensure that a copy is placed in the Library.
The hon. Lady drew attention to evidence published in research studies in the late 1980s and presented to the inquiry which suggested that Gateshead was the centre of a cluster of childhood leukaemia. I understand this has been linked, anecdotally, to a number of operations—coke works, a municipal incinerator, a hospital incinerator and a power station—all of which have now closed. The evidence presented to the inquiry on leukaemia clusters was fully considered by the inspector and the Secretary of State before it was concluded that an appropriate plant could be built to meet the standards which would be required by HMIP.
Having received outline planning permission—