It is a year ago to the day that we first assembled in this place as new Members. As my hon. Friend Sir David Amess said, it has been a pretty rotten year, but I would like to thank everybody in the House for all they have done to enable the House to continue in the way that it has. That includes you, Madam Deputy Speaker, Mr Speaker and all your teams, the Clerks, the Doorkeepers, the catering teams and, particularly, the audiovisual team, who have had to make so many efforts this year to enable us to continue. It would be remiss of me not to pay particular tribute to the staff of the Science and Technology Committee, on which I sit, who have done so much work at very short notice on the coronavirus pandemic this year.
It has been a very difficult year in Newcastle-under-Lyme. This morning, we learned that we remain in tier 3. We have made huge strides in Newcastle. Our rate was 470 a month ago, and it is down to 200 now. It is still too high, but I pay tribute to everyone for their hard work on that, particularly the staff at Royal Stoke University Hospital, who are under so much pressure. I hope that we will be able to get to tier 2 in the new year. I pay tribute to the Government for all they have done to support people economically through the pandemic, but I gently ask the Deputy Chief Whip to get a message to the Chancellor that we want to see even more help to get our high street and our hospitality industry back on their feet.
I would like to take this opportunity to speak about a matter of great importance to many of my constituents: Walley’s Quarry landfill in Silverdale in my constituency. It is a former clay extraction quarry that was converted to landfill use. It is not located in the countryside; it is in a built-up area. There are residential properties within around 100 metres of the site boundary in multiple directions. Lots of residents in the local area report being plagued by the pungent odour, even inside their homes. It is comfortably the biggest issue that I receive correspondence about in my mailbox day in, day out, particularly when the weather conditions are just right—or, as the residents would see it, just wrong. It was the most talked about local issue on the doorstep in the election campaign.
This landfill should never have been permitted. The Environment Agency, in the discussions I have had with it, has acknowledged that it is in a particularly unusual location. The local borough and county council objected to the original application in 1997, but they were overruled by the then Secretary of State, Lord Prescott, who is now in the other place. Perhaps this is symptomatic of how the red wall used to be taken for granted. With the constituency having a Labour majority of 17,000, perhaps he concluded that there was not much political danger in approving this manifestly inappropriate use of the quarry. Well, Labour does not have a majority of 17,000 any more.
The lockdowns in recent months have only thrown the issue into sharper relief. People working from home or confined to their houses because they have been shielding have been surrounded by bad smells, unable to enjoy their gardens during the hot weather in the summer or open their windows when they need to sleep at night. I raised this matter in Westminster Hall in February, and residents wrote to me about being unable to hang their washing outside for fear of the smell and feeling sick, gagging or more as a result of the odour. Newcastle cemetery is directly opposite the landfill, and, as you can imagine, this issue has ruined many funerals. Many people who come to visit their dearly departed loved ones find that the odour in the vicinity detracts from what should be a special moment.
I have tabled a number of written parliamentary questions about this to get more data and more information from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I got a response today from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow, who I thank for her engagement. It says:
“Although no landfill will ever be completely odour free, the level and type of odour arising from such operations should not be causing annoyance.”
Well, from the figures I have been given, it is clearly causing annoyance. In October, the Environment Agency received 992 reports of odour in the whole country, 225 of which—23%—were about Walley’s Quarry in my constituency. In September, the figure was 371, or 17%. That is clearly indicative of the annoyance that it is causing.
The smell has been much worse in recent weeks; I think it is to do with the atmospheric conditions, although it may be to do with the operations themselves. I have encountered the smell myself on a number of occasions. I have smelt it when coming out of my office on the high street of Newcastle, which is more than 2 miles away. It is obviously not good for the high street to have that odour, and it is clearly affecting the quality of life of a great many of my constituents. It is serious. It is unacceptable that we are asking people to put up with it. I am also struck by the fact that the guidance about Christmas bubbles says that people should have a well ventilated Christmas. Well, it is pretty much impossible for people in Silverdale, Knutton or Poolfields to have a well ventilated Christmas. Turkey and sprouts can cause bad smells, but not on the level of this landfill.
Earlier this week, residents were holding yet another protest outside the gates of the landfill site. That demonstrates the helplessness that people feel and the failure, in their view, of the Environment Agency to respond appropriately. It has shaken public confidence in our agencies and our government. Residents want action to be taken and they feel that they are being fobbed off.
I will mention a couple of aspects of the law in the time I have available. There is a 0 to 6 scale for measuring odour, which is entirely subjective. People are asked to ring in and say how bad it is—“Is it a two, a three, or a four?” This is exactly the same scale that the Environment Agency then uses when it sends people out into the area on odour tours to say how bad it is. Understandably, this does not engender public confidence. We need to do more scientific monitoring. Scientific monitoring exercises have been done, but we need to be monitoring hydrogen sulphide, which causes most of the problem, and the methane as well. It has got to the point where residents are purchasing their own monitoring equipment, which I find absolutely ridiculous. The Environment Agency needs to get into the 21st century and start using proper monitoring tools rather than a subjective scale, which undoubtedly causes a great deal of—