Waste Disposal (Essex)

Petition – in the House of Commons at 11:34 pm on 12 December 2000.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree 11:35, 12 December 2000

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring before the House the important matter of waste disposal in Essex. I am pleased to see in their places my hon. Friends the Members for Castle Point (Mrs. Butler) and for Upminster (Mr. Darvill), and the hon. Members for Colchester (Mr. Russell), for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) and for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman).

This is the second time that I have brought the subject before the House. The other occasion was in early 1999, soon after the draft Essex and Southend-on-Sea waste plan was published.

In Essex, waste plans are rightly controversial and emotive. The plan was first published in November 1998. It identified a number of sites for large-scale waste management. Warning lights immediately came on because of the possibility that those sites might be earmarked for incineration plants. One of the sites was at Rivenhall airfield in my constituency.

Such a choice was singularly offensive as that site had been the subject of a major public inquiry in 1995, when an enormous project for waste disposal by way of landfill was proposed. The inspector took 17 days of evidence and came to the conclusion that it was not an appropriate site.

I shall quote from the inspector's report on the Rivenhall site, but much of it will apply to other sites across the county in which other hon. Members have an interest. In 1995, the inspector stated with regard to Rivenhall: I conclude there are visual, heritage, amenity, traffic and ecological objections to the proposals, all found in discord with the development plan. At that time, landfill was the danger; now it is incineration. In the hierarchy of waste—that has always interested me as an intellectual notion—incineration languishes near the bottom, among the serfs and villeins of former times, so to speak, together with landfill.

One might say that in many ways incineration is a greater threat to local communities than is landfill. Landfill has a life expectancy. Eventually a hole is no longer a hole because it is filled up. A very expensive capital project such as an incinerator would be expected by its owners to last as long as possible, to maximise profit. A landfill site is an eyesore and a nuisance to the neighbouring occupiers, but because of the height of the structure, an incinerator is a blot on the landscape. That would be particularly so at Rivenhall.

The site may not be at the forefront of the minds of those who do not come from Essex, but a number of hon. Members present do come from Essex. The incinerator would be placed at the top of the hill and would be seen for miles around—almost, one might say, as a monument to the folly of those who decided to locate such an installation there.

Incineration has an insatiable appetite. It needs, by its nature, to draw in an endless supply of waste to a central point.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not waste from Essex that the incinerators would burn, but waste from London? Does he also agree that, if incinerators are as safe as we are told they are, there is no reason not to build them in London and so avoid the need to cart the rubbish down the Al2?

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree

I can find no point of disagreement with the hon. Gentleman. Furthermore, incineration works on the principle of maximising contracts. We have seen in other parts of the country minimum standards and minimum amounts imposed on contracting local authorities. If they fail to meet those targets for waste—as I believed happened in Cleveland—they suffer financial penalties.

The existence of an incinerator multiplies traffic movements, and therein lies one of the strongest arguments against incineration as a major way forward in waste disposal. The inspector's report on the site of Rivenhall did not give the go-ahead, but stipulated as a caveat that there should be an assessment of the highway and traffic consequences of siting such an installation at Rivenhall.

It is not possible for me to state how many additional traffic movements would be created by such an installation at Rivenhall, but it has been estimated that as many as 50 heavy lorry movements per day would bring waste to the site. Those lorries would come along the unreconstructed section of the Al20—not the part that is proposed to become a dual carriageway, which runs west of Braintree, but the part that runs east of Braintree towards Colchester, which is a two-way highway already overburdened with traffic. The lorries would run through the village of Bradwell, which is already under pressure from continual flows of traffic, way in excess of the capacity originally envisaged for that stretch of road.

Because Rivenhall is described as an airport, one might imagine that it is an industrial site—indeed, it is ludicrously called a brownfield site. In fact, it is one of many airfields constructed throughout East Anglia during the second world war—many in my constituency—from which our pilots and our allies in the United States air force flew during the liberation of Europe. There were airfields at Earls Colne, Wethersfield, Andrews field at Saling and Rivenhall—all in my constituency. Only this morning, I was speaking to a close friend and constituent of mine, John Alston of Coggeshall, who remembers being on the airfield when thousands of service personnel were being entertained by Glen Miller and Bob Hope. That is the origin of the categorisation of Rivenhall as an industrial site, but it is fair to say that the residents of Rivenhall are not "In the Mood" to have a major incinerator on the site. To the naked eye, Rivenhall today is pastoral—it is farmland and woods crossed by pathways and quiet country lanes. Were a major waste disposal installation to be put there, those lanes would thunder with the sound of lorries carrying waste to the site.

As the hon. Member for Colchester says, a further problem is the importation of waste from London and Kent in particular. Each year, there are many thousands of vehicle movements from London and Kent bringing waste into the county of Essex. In one form or another, the importation of waste into Essex has been going on since Roman times. London has always tried to dump its surplus waste in our county, but if there is one thing that will act like a lamp to a moth, it will be large-scale waste disposal sites dotted across Essex.

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman Conservative, Billericay

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene in his Adjournment debate. He has the honour to represent a lovely part of Essex, at least for the time being. I share his concern about journey numbers, but is he objecting to them or to incinerators per se? Does he support the Government's position, which is that incinerators are inevitable as a last resort?

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree

I take the hon. Lady's point. My objection is that, by its nature, a large-scale incinerator will draw imported waste from other areas. Without that importation of waste, the incinerator is not a profitable operation. Without going into any other ground that might lead one to oppose incineration or not, incineration on a large scale is harmful to Essex because of the traffic movements that it generates within the county.

The Government's policy is manifold. There are aspects of it that are akin to the locality principle. That principle would say that Braintree district, Maldon district or Colchester should each deal with its own waste. I am sure that each one is capable of dealing with its own waste, and on that basis there would be no need for major waste disposal sites to be dotted across the county.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon and East Chelmsford

I support much of what the hon. Gentleman says. In a spirit of cross-party unity, if I say that I agree with many of the arguments that he has advanced in respect of Rivenhall, I hope that he will agree with me that Sandon in my constituency would be equally unsuitable as a possible site for an incinerator. We would prefer to see no incinerators in Essex.

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree

I can confirm that Members in the Braintree area take an internationalist view of these matters and are not sectional. Everything that I have said, save for the geographic aspects, applies equally to Sandon or any major site within the county, including Rivenhall.

The further argument against incineration on a major scale is that it detracts from the incentive to follow through recycling. Witham in my constituency and the district of West Mersea, which is close to Colchester, are both undergoing major recycling experiments. I am told that recycling of household waste has reached 50 per cent. in the Braintree district, and that the target is 60 per cent. in two years. If other districts within the county and elsewhere, especially in London and Kent, took that step, there would be no need for incinerators. If a county or a district such as Braintree is making progress with recycling, it seems hard that it should be penalised by having major waste disposal sites in the county or the district.

The plan has recently been adapted and modified by the county council. It gives us great hope that there will be a presumption against incineration until the targets for household waste recycling have been tested.

I bring these matters before the House because Braintree district and the county seek allies in arguing that we are acting in the interests of the public in promoting recycling. If major incineration sites were to be permitted within the county, that would undermine the thrust and purpose of the Government's policy and the policy of most hon. Members in the Chamber.

Photo of Mrs Christine Butler Mrs Christine Butler Labour, Castle Point 11:49, 12 December 2000

I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene in his Adjournment debate. There could be further clarification, and I should like to hear that the waste strategy for Essex contains a presumption against incineration without a caveat. That is the sure way of promoting more recycling with composting, waste minimisation and re-use. I know of nothing in the Government's strategy to the effect that incineration is an inevitable and absolute requirement on a waste disposal authority. That is a matter for the local waste disposal authority, and the buck should not be passed back. However, I welcome the waste strategy document that replaces the draft one because it is a move in that direction.

The French are taking a great interest in major incinerator initiatives in Britain. They are talking avidly to waste disposal authorities, which is unwelcome to me and to those of my colleagues who are present tonight. We do not want waste disposal authorities to take that option too easily. The French are particularly concerned about a move against incineration in France. That is why some of the French-based companies are so interested in the United Kingdom. I hope that Essex county council will take note of that and go for extra composting and other facilities, develop the pilot schemes that it has introduced and that are proving so successful and remove the little caveat and go for a straightforward presumption against incineration throughout Essex. Suck it and see is what I say.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions 11:51, 12 December 2000

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) raised an important issue, as did his colleagues, and he did so eloquently. This is the third time since the Government took office that the subject of waste disposal in Essex has been debated in the House, and it is clearly a matter of great concern to his constituents and all the people of Essex. It is an issue that we are having to grapple with throughout the country, and some difficult decisions have to be taken.

I am aware that my hon. Friend is among many people in Essex who have reservations about the strategy set out in the emerging Essex and Southend waste local plan, as was reflected in the large number of objections made to the plan. I am also aware of the widely held view that the proposed strategy is weighted too heavily in favour of landfill sites and incineration. I know that there is a belief that intensive recycling would be sufficient to reach the targets for waste disposal that need to be achieved, and that a trial of intensive recycling is currently in place for a number of pilot areas, to which my hon. Friend referred. I agree about the need to ensure that the environmental benefits of recycling and composting are not overlooked and are given due weight by the waste planning authorities in the local plan.

As my hon. Friend said, traffic moving to and from landfill sites and incinerators can often cause congestion on unsuitable local roads and have an adverse impact on residential amenity. That is a further reason why the Government are anxious to encourage alternative methods of waste disposal that are less likely to create such problems. I entirely understand that people would rather not live near landfill sites, or an incinerator, but no matter what progress might be made in Essex and Southend on recycling and the local processing of waste, some landfill sites will still be required, certainly in the immediate future. It is therefore important that the waste plan provides guidance on where such facilities should be located, and it is right that the selection of such sites must, in the first instance, be a matter for consideration and debate at the local level.

Since the subject was last debated on 26 February 1999, the Essex and Southend waste local plan has been the subject of a lengthy public inquiry at which all objections were considered by an independent inspector. The inspector has since submitted his report to the waste planning authorities, which early next year will publish their response to the inspector's findings and their proposed modifications to the plan. The modifications will, of course, be open to objection.

My hon. Friend will know that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions has the power to intervene in the plan process at any stage up to the time that the plan is adopted. His quasi-judicial role means that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the merits of the Essex and Southend waste local plan, including the need for and choice of landfill sites. However, I assure my hon. Friend that we will examine the proposed modifications published by the waste planning authorities in the light of the inspector's recommendations, the Government's waste strategy and national policies on waste disposal.

On Thursday, I shall meet a delegation from the Consortium of Essex Waste Collection Authorities, so I will have an opportunity to hear its views at first hand. Meanwhile, I shall comment on the Government's general approach to waste, including incineration.

As hon. Members know, the new strategy was published in May. It identified the need for a fundamental change in the way in which we think about and manage our waste. That will mean curbing the growth in waste and learning to recognise waste as a resource. The Government are committed to dramatic increases in recycling and composting rates, which lie at the heart of developing a more sustainable system of waste management in this country. We will, though, also need to recover more energy from waste by incineration when that represents the best practical environmental option. However, I accept that care must be taken to ensure that any plans for incineration do not crowd out recycling.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

Will the Under-Secretary put on record the fact that incinerators, be they at Rivenhall or Stanway in my constituency, do not dispose simply of waste from Essex, but are required to dispose of waste from London and Kent? If incinerators are so safe, why not construct them at the point where the waste is generated? That is preferable to lorries trundling around the Essex countryside.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are plans for incinerators in London; indeed, some already exist there. If he is making the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree—that a lot of the waste disposed of in Essex comes from London—that is incontrovertible. I agree that that is not in line with the proximity principle, to which I shall refer shortly, if I have time. However, I am not willing to pretend—and neither should the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell)—that people in Essex do not create waste, and that they can dispose of it all by the method that is ideologically most suitable. A moment might come when incineration has to be contemplated even for disposing of waste in Essex. It cannot be ruled out, but I emphasise that it is primarily a matter for local decision.

For the first time, the Government will set statutory targets for household waste recycling and composting. Those will require councils on average to double recycling by 2003–04 and to triple it by 2005–06. We have set even higher targets for 2010 and 2015; we will keep them under review and raise them if that should prove practical. We have a lot of ground to make up because we have been somewhat complacent about waste in the past, and we must try to catch up with neighbouring countries, which have taken a more robust approach.

A key driver of those goals is the European landfill directive, which will require substantial changes to the way in which we manage our waste. In the United Kingdom, we currently landfill more than 80 per cent. of our biodegradable municipal waste. The directive will require substantial reductions in municipal waste sent to landfill. If waste production continues to grow at its current rate, it will mean diverting 33 million tonnes of waste from landfill each year by 2020.

The plain fact is that recycling and composting alone will not deliver the rates of diversion necessary to meet the targets in the landfill directive. Some incineration will have to occur; as I said earlier, the precise location and quantity are matters for local authorities. Any increase in incineration should be part of an integrated, sustainable system of waste management. Authorities and the incineration industry need to plan to ensure that expansion in energy from waste does not crowd out recycling.

I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree that we must not build incinerators that create insatiable appetites, attract waste from many miles away and generate their own reasons for existing. Contracts should allow flexibility and ensure that incineration does not compete with recycling. Incinerator operators should maximise the environmental benefits of their facilities by including combined heat and power where possible. Other countries elsewhere in Europe, most of which have far better records on dealing with waste than we do, also make widespread use of energy from waste by way of incineration.

The national planning guidance on the management of waste is in planning policy guidance note 10, which was published in September 1999. It is intended to assist planning authorities in the preparation of their local plans and the determination of planning applications for waste management facilities. It also provides specific advice on the criteria for the siting of those facilities. In particular, it states the Government's wish that waste management decisions should be based on four principles: the best practicable environmental option for each waste stream, regional self-sufficiency, the proximity principle and a waste hierarchy. The latter comprises, in descending order of merit, reduction; reuse; recovery, including recycling; composting and energy recovery; and disposal.

In the few remaining minutes, I should touch on the question of London's waste, which is a big problem for Essex. I am conscious of the fact that, because of Essex's proximity to London, about half its landfill waste comes from the capital. The planning guidance for London is based on the waste hierarchy and principles of sustainable development, but it will be replaced by a management strategy shortly to be produced by the Mayor. That will have to take account of the UK's international obligations, including the EC landfill directive, and the national waste strategy, which sets a target of 25 per cent. of London's waste being recycled by 2005.

A draft of the mayor's municipal waste management strategy is due to appear in the new year. There will then be a consultation period before the final strategy appears towards the end of next year. I emphasise that we expect there to be a progressive reduction in the amount of untreated waste exported by London for disposal as alternative waste management facilities are established in London. However, it is unlikely that London will achieve self-sufficiency in the short term and disposal to landfill sites outside the capital will therefore continue to play an important role. It is therefore important that neighbouring waste authorities such as Essex and Southend should recognise that there is a continuing need for some landfill sites outside London for treated waste.

I hope that I have said enough to show that the Government take the issue seriously. We are making substantial extra resources available over the next three years to help local authorities to meet challenging targets. I repeat that decisions about whether waste-to-energy facilities should be built, where they should be sited and what size they should be are matters, in the first instance, for local authorities, subject to the criteria that I have outlined.

I look forward to continuing the discussion with the delegation from Essex, which is coming to see me on Thursday. No doubt the issue will not go away, so I fully expect to meet hon. Members representing Essex constituencies here, at some unconscionable hour of the night, to discuss it again.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Twelve midnight.