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Waste and Recycling (Spelthorne)

– in the House of Commons at 9:58 pm on 5th September 2011.

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

Photo of Kwasi Kwarteng Kwasi Kwarteng Conservative, Spelthorne 10:13 pm, 5th September 2011

I am especially pleased to address this matter under your direction, Mr Speaker, as it is very important for my constituents. The issue that the debate will focus on is localism—the localism philosophy, as it were—and more specifically the question of the extent to which county councils in a two-tier system should be allowed to overrule the will of borough councils and a significant degree of popular opinion within a particular borough.

As many Members will know, I am the Member of Parliament for a borough: the borough of Spelthorne. It is coterminous with the parliamentary constituency, which is a rare thing in our House of Commons. I am therefore very grateful to the Minister for making time to respond to some of the issues I wish to raise. I hope he can elucidate some of the Government’s ideas about localism, with particular regard to waste disposal and recycling policy.

A waste and recycling centre is to be built in the south-east of my constituency, in the midst of two densely populated residential areas: Upper Halliford and Charlton village. More than 41,000 people live within a two-mile radius of the proposed site. Many issues have been raised in the debate, with those on one side of it saying that the technology is essential. However, it is my job as the Member of Parliament to articulate some of the concerns that many of my constituents have about the proposed facility.

A community recycling centre and a waste transfer facility already occupy part of the site, on which waste has been managed since the late 1940s. The new development, planned by SITA, would involve the construction of an additional anaerobic digestion plant to dispose of Surrey’s food waste. Most worryingly to many constituents, it would impose on the constituency a gasification chamber for the treatment of household waste. This would triple the size of the existing 4.5 hectare facility and would, most people agree, consume what is left of the adjoining green belt.

People across the constituency and across the political divide have expressed considerable dismay at this proposal, and a great deal of community spirit and co-operation has been shown in opposition to it. People have put aside political allegiances and have come together to oppose the county council’s proposal. A dedicated group of residents from in and around Charlton and Halliford have set up “Spelthorne against the Eco Park”, and I am very interested in their arguments and wish to ventilate some of their concerns. Many other people from residents associations in neighbouring towns such as Sunbury, Shepperton and Kempton have campaigned against these developments.

Spelthorne borough council, which is in charge of Spelthorne, has responded to people’s concerns, as opposed to Surrey county council, which is one tier above it. The borough council voted unanimously to reject SITA’s plans on 26 January. In response to the vote, Surrey county council chose to ignore a large measure of residential opinion and went ahead and approved the planning application. It peddled a story that this development is the best waste solution for Surrey. Other people object to this, and I want to raise some of those objections on the Floor of the House, which is where they should be heard.

Indeed, Surrey county council insists that the gasification chamber would facilitate treatment of waste in a more sustainable and eco-friendly way than the mere landfill site that currently exists. But it is difficult to see how this change to gasification would be an improvement, given that gasifiers simply burn black bag waste without first separating the recyclables. This move would not improve Surrey’s waste disposal facilities. There are severe and important concerns about the fact that it could be dangerous and could endanger the people who live near the gasification site.

Owing to the volatile nature of the gases used, the very process of gasification is risky. The Sterecycle explosion in Rotherham reminds everyone why gasifiers and facilities that produce modern electricity from waste plants are, as a rule, located in places away from populations. As people are well aware, and as I have said earlier in this speech, this proposed development would be located right in the heart of a highly densely populated area. People contend that the proposal to locate a large chemical process plant—that is what this would mean—in a public community recycling centre the development is putting residents’ lives at risk. If it is not putting their lives at risk, it is certainly potentially dangerous, given the possibility of explosion.

In isolated locations with severe transport problems, where waste cannot be moved with much ease, gasification might be the best, if not the only, solution. That is the case, for example, in the Austrian valleys, where gasifiers were pioneered. I know that our winter weather has been more severe in recent years than in the past and that we are facing alpine conditions almost every year, but to suggest that the Thames valley is, in any way, like the Austrian Alps in terms of weather severity stretches the definition of “a simile” too far. I am sure that everyone would agree that the Thames valley is not like the Carpathian mountains. The Thames valley benefits from a good transport network and far more environmentally friendly and sustainable waste solutions could be used there—in particular, integrated energy recovery from waste schemes. We do not have to go down this gasifier route. That is the borough council’s argument and it enjoys a lot of support in my constituency.

Why would anyone want to build this gasifier and put it in the middle of a highly densely populated area? There is a simple reason; it boils down to money. The Government are offering generous financial subsidies in the form of renewables obligation certificates for electricity recovered by gasification. That was instigated under the previous Government in 2003 to support small community projects in relatively isolated locations, such as those I have described. It was never envisaged for the south-east, Thames valley area, to which it is being sought to apply. In my constituency, such an approach is inappropriate. The Sustainable Development Commission has recommended that only high-efficiency energy from waste plants should typically receive Government support.

The approach is inappropriate is because this subsidy, like a lot of subsidies in general, has been applied in a blunderbuss fashion. No discrimination is applied; no particular sensitivity is shown to the location. As I have tried to stress, the location is of paramount importance. Of course a gasifier would make sense in a relatively isolated community, for example, in a mountainous region, where transferring waste is particularly difficult. My contention, and that of many of my constituents, is that it is simply inappropriate to build such a facility in the midst of a highly densely populated area.

Bearing in mind the size of the development site in question, the phenomenon of the subsidy being applied without any discrimination makes no sense. Gasification is simply a way in which SITA can obtain maximum profit. The company receives, I believe, a £100 bonus for every megawatt of electricity it generates through gasification on top of the £30 value to the grid. Without subsidies and that perverse Government incentive, construction of the gasification plant would, in the eyes of many people, make absolutely no financial sense because the generation of electricity through that means is far too low.

We have here the prospect of a gasifier being built in a densely populated area, largely for financial incentives. SITA, which is content to burn recyclables for profit, will maximise the Government’s environmental subsidies and would stand to gain while many people in the local community feel that they would lose out. I do not believe that that was the intention of the then Government when they proposed subsidies for gasification, but subsequent developments do not tally with current environmental policy or chime well with the Government’s stated, well-publicised and well-known localism agenda.

Only last year, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change promised that this Government would only

“support modern energy generation from waste where local communities want it and where it makes good environmental sense”—[Hansard, 1 July 2010; Vol. 512, c. 977.]

whereas his colleague, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has talked eloquently and consistently about devolving power to community groups and what might be termed the grass roots—the lowest level of the participatory democracy.

If the Government are to honour their commitment to localism and to do what they set out to do and what they preach, surely when a borough council advocates one idea and a county council advocates the diametric opposite the choice should be clear. Under the principles of localism that choice should be in favour of the borough council. The borough council has repeatedly articulated the arguments I have outlined today and many people believe that Surrey county council should have listened to its opposition to SITA and perhaps supported it. As everyone knows, the county council is at a higher level than the borough council so it seems unclear to me and many of my constituents where the localism agenda fits in. If the county council is to get its way, where does localism find its voice?

The proposal now sits on the desk of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. In the next few days, he will choose whether to refuse it, call it in for his determination or allow it. I hope this debate and some of the concerns that I have articulated on behalf of my constituents will be heeded and will have some tiny margin of influence on his decision. I hope that his decision will reflect some of the issues I have raised and perhaps, after he has looked at the debate and at some of the representations made by my constituents and by the borough I represent, he will determine that SITA’s application is wholly inappropriate.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 10:29 pm, 5th September 2011

I congratulate my hon. Friend Kwasi Kwarteng on securing the debate on a topic that I know is of concern to him and his constituents. It is a matter of real significance and he has done them a service in the way in which he has put their case and their concerns. As he has pointed out, this relates to a proposed waste and recycling centre in his constituency, which is within the metropolitan green belt. The current application is, as he said, for a facility to deal with 40,000 tonnes of food waste and 60,000 tonnes of household rubbish a year. In light of his careful opening of the facts, I need not repeat some of the factual detail of the application. It is worth saying that waste activities have taken place on the site since the 1940s. It is because the site lies within the metropolitan green belt that the authority has formally referred the application to the Secretary of State under 2009 consultation regulations regarding green belt development.

The fact that the proposal is before the Secretary of State for determination on whether call-in is appropriate means that I have to be careful in what I can say. The Secretary of State will take a decision not on the merits or otherwise of the application, but only on whether it is appropriate for him to call it in so that he can take a decision as opposed to leaving the decision to the local waste planning authority. As that is a quasi-judicial decision, I, as the Minister speaking on his behalf, have to be careful, as is normal in these cases, not to say anything in the debate that might prejudice or give the appearance of prejudicing that quasi-judicial decision on whether to call in the application. I hope, therefore that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I cannot go into some of the detail that he has set out in relation either to the application or to some of the arguments regarding the merits of various processes and technologies.

I can, however, help him and his constituents by explaining the call-in process. About 475,000 planning applications are made to local authorities every year and the Secretary of State has powers, under section 77 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, to require that applications be referred to him for determination rather than being determined by the local authority. In certain cases concerning green belt land, there is an automatic process of referral, as I have mentioned.

The current policy on how the Secretary of State should exercise the call-in power was set out by the then Minister, Richard Caborn, in June 1999. Examples were given of cases that may be called in, including those which, in the Secretary of State’s opinion, could have significant effects beyond their immediate locality; give rise to substantial regional or national controversy; appear to conflict with national policy on important matters; or raise significant architectural and urban design issues. Other possible call-in cases are those concerning the interests of national security or foreign Governments. That is the broad policy.

The Secretary of State also has the power under article 25 of the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2010 to issue a holding direction to the local authority instructing it not to grant permission on the application without his authorisation. That is to allow him sufficient time to give the issues raised his full consideration. My officials advise me that Surrey county council, which is the planning authority for this purpose, was issued with an article 25 direction on 2 August 2011. That is the background and context.

It is the Secretary of State’s policy, within the criteria I have outlined, to be very selective about calling in planning applications. I have already said that there are about 475,000 planning applications a year to local planning authorities, and it is worth noting that in 2010 only 13 cases were called in by the Planning Inspectorate for inquiries to be held. I hope that puts the matter into context.

My hon. Friend will be pleased to learn that the Secretary of State and the officials who advise him are currently considering the application and have received 20 individual representations to call the application in. Their assessment will consider whether the planning application itself or the issues raised by concerned parties, such as those who have written in and whose concerns have been articulated by my hon. Friend, justify the Secretary of State’s intervention based on the call-in policy that I have just set out. It will then be for Secretary of State or one of the Ministers in the Department acting on his behalf to determine whether or not to intervene in the matter. In doing that, the Secretary of State will have regard to the call-in policy and to national policy generally in relation to such matters.

I understand the concerns articulated by my hon. Friend. I am sure he will appreciate that applications for waste facilities are never popular, and almost invariably give rise to local objections, concerns and debate. Such facilities are an essential part of the infrastructure necessary to make our towns and cities function properly. They often provide a service beyond the immediate neighbourhood in which they are situated, so there is a balance involved.

As I know my hon. Friend is aware, policy responsibility for waste issues involves several parts of Government, but responsibility for the planning part of the process rests with my Department. It is understandable, therefore, that concerns are raised. The planning system plays a critical role in delivering the Government’s targets on waste in a sustainable way, and we are committed to replacing the previously adversarial system that we have had in planning with one in which communities work together as a norm.

The overall policy objective is to protect human health and the environment by producing less waste and by using it as a resource where possible. We remain committed to that. Equally, the Government remain committed to protecting the green belt and maintaining the key policy that inappropriate development should not be approved except in very special circumstances. In that balancing process, one must bear in mind that current national planning policy says that planning authorities should recognise that the locational needs of some types of waste management facilities, together with the wider environmental and economic benefits that I mentioned, are material considerations that should be given weight in determining whether proposals should be given planning permission.

Local authorities also have a national and a European duty to prepare and deliver waste management and planning strategies in a way that enables communities to take more responsibility for their waste. They also need to prepare and deliver planning strategies that protect the green belt, as well as being consistent with other planning policies. It is for local authorities to consider all national policies and local opinions and to produce plans which represent the best solution for their areas. It is important that in doing so, local authorities are required to consult communities fully when preparing their strategies.

As my hon. Friend said, his constituency is part of an area that has a two-tier system of local government. In all parts of the country where there is a two-tier system of county and district or borough councils, the county council is the waste planning authority, generally because the waste arising and its disposal tend to cover a wider area than that of individual local planning authorities represented by a district or borough council. The county council is required to consult the district council on the development of its strategic plans and on individual waste applications.

The Government recently published their plans for a new national planning policy framework, which is currently out for consultation and is due to close on 17 October. As my hon. Friend will have noticed, that draft framework does not contain specific waste policies, because national waste planning policy will be published alongside the national waste management plan for England, but local authorities preparing waste plans should have regard to policies in the framework. That includes the presumption in favour of sustainable development, which applies to waste provision, and the importance of ensuring that there is sufficient detail to justify the need for and location of waste facilities.

Local authorities are responsible for approving or rejecting planning applications in line with their local plans, taking into account any representations that they have received, and that is how localism fits into the issue: there is the context of national policy; within that, there are statutory responsibilities that fall, as appropriate, upon county, district or borough councils as the planning authorities for particular classes of application; and we are committed to giving local elected representatives greater responsibility to make decisions within the context of that structure. Where there are disagreements or two-tier areas, it is worth bearing in mind that the Localism Bill introduces a duty to co-operate, giving local planning authorities and public bodies a requirement to engage in constructive and active dialogue on such matters.

I hope that I have set out the context of the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. I assure him that I understand the strength of feeling on this and on many similar issues, and that, in deciding whether to call in the application, the Secretary of State and his officials will take into account the points that my hon. Friend and his constituents have made. We are committed to ensuring that delays in the process are kept to a minimum. I am therefore pleased to advise him that we aim to issue a decision on the matter as soon as possible, and he of course will be formally notified of the decision, once it is made, in the usual way.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.