In conjunction with the Business Committee, the Speaker has given leave to Dr Steve Aiken to raise the matter of opposition to a waste incinerator from the residents of Hightown, Mallusk and South Antrim. The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes. I make Members aware that a maximum of one hour is available for the debate.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will endeavour not to use my full 15 minutes. I think that you will be glad to hear me say that.
I will begin the debate on the opposition in my constituency to the proposed Hightown incinerator. At the beginning of the debate, as a declaration of interest, I make clear my opposition to this waste and subsidy scheme. I also make a declaration of interest, in full disclosure, that, in my previous employment with the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, I represented companies that were working on waste incineration schemes in the United Kingdom, Europe and elsewhere. Therefore, I have some detailed information on how properly managed waste energy schemes should work. I also have a broad understanding of their business and economic cases.
I am not against incineration per se as part of waste management and how we deal with the residual plastic cycle. Indeed, it is a matter of some interest to Members that a waste energy plant already exists in Northern Ireland — one that is already making a significant impact on our security of supply issues and on reducing waste going to landfill. That plant in the Belfast harbour estate, with established grid connections and good transportation links, is helping to reduce energy costs to Spirit AeroSystems and is making a cutting-edge business even more competitive. We should all welcome that.
As reported by the BBC, the Full Circle Generation facility at Belfast harbour, along with its sister company, could process up to 80% of our household waste, and, with recycling rates increasing across Northern Ireland, that plant alone could deal with the majority of our household waste. A spokesman for the company said that, if the current recycling rates are maintained, it would, by 2025, even be running out of feedstock from black bin waste as recycling will have been such a success. That level of recycling should be seen as a matter of pride for Northern Ireland. Indeed, we will also have a legally binding requirement to recycle, which will help us get to our target of 65% of waste being recycled by 2035. We are well on track to achieve that requirement or even exceed it.
Bearing in mind that our recycling rates are increasing and that we already have incineration for waste for power, which has the spare capacity to deal with 80% of our black bin waste — potentially more — what could be the economic, environmental or societal case for the Hightown incinerator?
When I was first elected to the House, one of my first meetings was with representatives from Arc21 and its lobbying firm. I said at the time that I was willing to listen and that, as somebody who understood the waste for power process, I was persuadable. All the arguments around jobs, an incinerator signalling investment opportunities in Northern Ireland infrastructure, the need to secure energy supply and the consequent reduction in landfill were rehearsed by the company and its lobbyists.
There was a strong implication that I should get behind the scheme as it had full support in my council and beyond.
Knowing from my previous experience that the costs of building the plant for a £240 million project would be significant, I thought it appropriate to ask what business case the company proposed. I asked that, because such plants require a considerable subsidy to run. They are not self-financing. They require a fixed long-term energy price, a gate fee per metric ton of waste processed, which has to be lower than any landfill or recycling tax, and a minimum value per tonnage delivered to the plant. If that is not forthcoming, a compensation package has to be available for the operator and the operating authority over the lifetime of the plant to ensure continued viability.
Many Members will be aware that there has been a catalogue of complaints by public authorities across the United Kingdom, in Europe and beyond about the costs of those schemes. The schemes resort to PFIs or novel forms of funding, which have left many public authorities to cross-subsidise the schemes and, in some cases, have led to near-bankruptcy or worse. The stories of the public-good schemes in Copenhagen, Brighton, Baltimore and elsewhere that have gone bad are, unfortunately, the norm, even when the schemes have grid connections, agreed electricity prices and a contract agreement to pay for waste shortfalls.
Curiously, many of those projects' contracts have been limited to 25 years, because that is deemed to be the longest time possible for such an open-ended commitment to be made by ratepayers and regional taxpayers, and, in engineering terms, most power plants will need replacing or major refurbishment after a quarter of a century of operation. However, Arc21 seeks to tie Northern Ireland ratepayers to a contract for 35 years, which will potentially cost about £2 billion at 2020 prices, despite increasing waste recycling rates and environmental standards, and despite the fact that ample incineration capacity is already available. To be fair, a previous DUP Agriculture Minister had written to Arc21 to say that she would ask Executive colleagues to help to supply the delta between subsidy costs if there were a shortfall. That in 2016-17 such open-ended commitments were made, especially after the RHI debacle, which exposed the taxpayer to longer-term, open-ended commitments, should, I suppose, not come as any surprise to the Assembly.
I asked Arc21 what the business case was. I was told that I would be informed once planning approval had been given. I was surprised, to say the least, that a £240 million project did not have even an outline business case before planning approval was sought. Moreover, the company did not have a grid connection. Anyone with even a passing understanding of the Northern Ireland generating capacity auction knows that the market for supply is currently saturated. With new interconnections, increased peaking and demand-led units, unless someone is paid or legislated against to drop out of generating, there is no obvious market for the energy that could come from Hightown, even if the company had a grid connection.
I enquired what Arc21 planned to do about traffic amelioration around the site to reduce the already chronic infrastructure problems around Mallusk and Hightown. Members can imagine my further surprise and concern when I was informed that there were no plans to upgrade the roads from Sandyknowes roundabout as it would add too much to the cost of the project. Bear in mind that it was £0·25 billion project that was planned to last for at least 35 years. By that stage, the lack of detail and the assumptions behind the company's case astounded me.
None of it makes any sense unless, of course, the project is simply a subsidy-mining effort, akin not only to the RHI debacle but, in fact, to an "RHI2" scheme for which we will all have to pay. I then discovered that my concerns were widely felt throughout the community, and every political party, although not every political representative within those parties, was against the scheme.
I pay tribute to Colin Buick, Charlie Thompson and all of the local community involved in No-ARC21, who took the very courageous decision to challenge Arc21 and the Department for Infrastructure in the courts. Although the odds were stacked against them, they won.
The sorry tale of how their heroic actions for the community have been thwarted by officialdom will no doubt be told by others today.
Look at the timeline. Planning was applied for in March 2014. In 2015, the then SDLP Minister refused the project. During the interregnum after the Assembly fell in 2017, the Department for Infrastructure permanent secretary decided to approve it. The case was then judicially reviewed in the High Court in 2018, and the Department lost. Despite all of that, in 2019, Arc21 again attempted to achieve planning approval. Now, in 2021, we await due process to be gone through before the Minister, an MLA for our adjacent constituency, makes the decision.
I could say more on the environmental impacts of toxin release, the impact on the visual landscape of a 95-metre-high chimney dominating the Belfast hills, the increase in traffic on totally inadequate roads, the devastating impact on property values or just the purely ludicrous idea of putting a mechanical biological treatment (MBT) plant and energy-from-waste incinerator three quarters of the way up a mountain with no business plan. It is perhaps not coincidental that none of those plants has been approved in the UK over the past five years. I will leave it at that, however.
My questions to the Minister for Infrastructure are these: why are we continuing to inflict this environmental Ponzi scheme on the people of both my constituency and hers? Why are we, as an Assembly, continuing to authorise spending on exorbitant legal costs for a project that, by any proper analysis, is doomed to failure? Those are the key questions. It is well beyond time that the Hightown incinerator project is finally refused and that the people of my constituency and beyond are saved from that monumental and colossal failure.
I know that others from outside the constituency want to speak, but all the constituency MLAs will be called first, in party sequence. Up to five minutes will be allocated to each Member who speaks. If an MLA who is representing the constituency takes an intervention, that Member will get an extra minute. That is the procedure for this evening.
I commend my constituency colleague Dr Aiken on securing the debate. This is a matter on which we agree wholeheartedly; indeed, as the House will hear, there is a collective voice among those elected to this place to represent the people of Mallusk. The debate is very much an opportunity for us to represent the people of that area. It is their view that the waste monster is not needed and not wanted. I want to make that clear. I commend the work of the No-ARC21 campaign group under the capable and determined voice of Colin Buick. The group has very much put the issue on the agenda and expressed opposition in a constructive and coherent way, one that is not about NIMBYism but is based on fact and the overall well-being of our society.
At the core of the issue is need: is the project needed? The answer to that is clear: it is not needed. Thankfully, we now live in a society in which recycling is the done thing. Recycling rates have increased to 55%, with the target of reaching 65% in 2035. I know that that is an issue that the AERA Minister has been keen to drive forward, with renewed focus on promoting recycling. The consequence of that trend is a substantial reduction in landfill. Rates have fallen to just over 20%, with a target of 10% by 2035. We need to use existing facilities, such as those in Belfast harbour, to manage the reducing amount of landfill that we produce. Having excess capacity will serve only to be counterproductive, reducing the onus on society to reuse and recycle. That is the outcome that none of us should desire if we really care about our environment.
This is an outdated project, outdated in the evidence of need and outdated in its very operation. Some of the proposed technology and processes date back to 2008. Things have moved on considerably since then. Arc21 proposes mechanical biological treatment alongside the incinerator, but that is now a process of the past. It represents neither best practice nor value for money.
In any scheme that requires such vast sums of public money, we must be absolutely certain that the benefit justifies the cost. To lumber hard-pressed households with a bill of around £2 billion over 35 years in gate fees to Arc21 to mechanically treat and incinerate their waste offers no such benefit in return. There are so many questions, relating to design, procurement and so on, about how we got to this stage that justifying the furtherance of the project is simply impossible.
The AERA Minister understands many of those points and has expressed his concerns about the proposal. I commend him for not bowing to the extensive campaign to progress the scheme. However, for the people living in the area, we need to bring the whole issue to a conclusion. My message to the AERA Minister and the Infrastructure Minister is to do just that. Refuse that planning proposal and find a new way forward on waste that is fit for 2021 and beyond.
Éirím i mo sheasamh chun cainte inniu chan mar Aire ach mar Chomhalta tofa don cheantar. I speak not as a Minister but alongside my colleagues as a constituency MLA. I am pleased to address the issue and thank Steve Aiken for securing the debate and putting a spotlight on this egregious issue. Gabhaim buíochas don Aire féin as ucht a haird a dhíriú ar an ábhar agus as a bheith anseo don díospóireacht tráthnóna.
I want to make three points. First, this is a highly controversial issue in South Antrim and neighbouring North Belfast. Since the outset of the project in 2014, popular opposition has grown. I echo the remarks of Steve Aiken and Pam Cameron by extending my appreciation to the No-ARC21 campaign group, which embarked upon and led a commendable community-led campaign of opposition to the proposal. The overwhelming view of local people is that they do not want the incinerator to be put on to the Belfast hills. That is the feeling of residents in Hollybrook, Mayfield, Alderley, Aylesbury, Blackrock, Dermont and Anna's Grove and of the farming families in the Belfast hills. They all feel the same. Last week, as I engaged with residents on their doorsteps — constituents in the immediate vicinity — the issue was raised. People asked where the incinerator situation was and what the outcome of the issue was going to be.
All of us — residents and I, as a local representative — fear for the health and well-being of the wider community and fear the ramifications that will flow from the proposal if it is approved. Real safety and environmental concerns apply to the impact on the natural ecosystem of the Belfast hills and the natural habitat of the surrounding countryside. It is notable that the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) has recorded significant concerns, including issues pertaining to visual impact. None of those fears has been allayed. Arc21 persists with that agenda. Worse still, seven years on, local people live with uncertainty about the project emerging, literally, in their backyards and back fields.
Secondly, as well as advocating for the interests of my constituents, I too harbour a deeper concern about the driving interests behind the project. It is the largest public-sector procurement project in the history of the region. No independent assessment of the business case has been considered. A lack of transparency has surrounded the procurement process. I am deeply concerned that aggressive commercial interests are driving the proposal, the only outcome of which is to give primacy to private profit over wider public good, with the cost to be carried by local ratepayers.
Finally, all the Sinn Féin MPs, alongside their SDLP and Alliance Party MP colleagues, have written to the Minister, asking to her refuse this application and urging the avoidance of a future costly error. Today, a LeasCheann Comhairle, agus a Aire, I make the same request on behalf of my local constituents. Impím ortsa, agus impím ar an Aire éisteacht le glór an phobail áitiúil. Minister, do not bow to the aggressive commercial interests behind this proposal. Listen to the people of South Antrim and North Belfast. Listen to our rural dwellers and the urban population of Hightown and Mallusk. Minister, finish your assessment of this application, alongside your officials, as is appropriate, and then refuse the planning application.
I rise in support of the residents of Hightown and Mallusk and in total opposition to the proposed development of a waste incinerator facility by Arc21 at the site of the Hightown quarry. That is a position that I have held for some years. I will come to the reasons as to why I hold that position shortly, but, before I do, I want to reflect again, because I think that it was mentioned before, that, already, over 5,000 objections have been lodged against the current planning application. I remind Members that representatives for the area have stood together, politically united, and stood with the residents who are most impacted and concerned by this proposal in order to ensure that it is shown to be unnecessary and unwanted.
We urgently need a review of the current waste management structures in Northern Ireland, including an urgent review of existing residual waste capacity for landfill and incineration. My party has made it clear that we will oppose any new waste management infrastructure proposals prior to such a needed review. The Alliance Party's green new deal that was launched last month highlights the need to radically reduce emissions in waste management. Carbon emissions are a prime driver of climate change, which is why there has been a significant move away from coal-fired energy in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
In Northern Ireland, Kilroot power station is the only EU emissions trading system (EU ETS) electricity generator that continues to use coal as fuel. Kilroot will be converted to a gas-powered station in 2023, which will mean that the use of coal as fuel will be reduced to zero. A move towards energy-generating incinerators would mean producing more CO2. That is the reality. Figures for 2019, for example, show that, across the UK, the 48 incinerators emitted a total of 12·6 million tons of CO2. In comparison, the dwindling coal sector produced 11·7 million tons of CO2. There are serious concerns around the impacts of incineration emissions — concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter — and the associated health effects, which include respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. As mentioned before, there are as many issues for DAERA here as there are for the Department for Infrastructure, though I am grateful that the Infrastructure Minister is here with us, and I readily accept that there are probably limitations on what she can say to us at this stage.
In addition to the environmental impact that I mentioned and the associated health implications, I have serious concerns around the cost of the incineration contracts. We have seen reports from England of councils locked into expensive contracts and facing legal challenges when they try to leave those contracts. The Arc21 councils could be tied into contracts for up to 35 years. Estimated gate fees charged to councils would generate revenue streams north of £2·3 billion for the site's private operators. The proposal creates a perverse incentive for the local councils and/or the incinerator operator, which, on the one hand, will have a duty to recycle, but, on the other, must fulfil a contract that they have entered into and have committed to for many years.
In conclusion, I stand in support, as I said, of the residents of South Antrim. I robustly refute the need for an incinerator at the Mallusk site. I thank Dr Steve Aiken for bringing this topic, and I join South Antrim colleagues in paying tribute to those involved in the No-ARC21 opposition campaign, which has been both professional and thorough.
I declare an interest as a member of Antrim Borough Council, way back when this was first mooted, as one of the sponsors of the Arc21 project.
I am taken back to what Declan said, and I agree with him; it has been controversial. No one can take that away. Albeit I am coming with a different opinion on the proposal — I do support it — I agree with what Declan said about its controversial nature. That controversial application has been in the whole government system for too long. There is no doubt about that.
I listened to what Dr Aiken said about business cases. As a way forward and solution for councils, those matters were put in the hands of a single operator at that time. Arc21 came forward with a proposal. At the time, each and every council supported bringing forward that solution, based on the technology, as the way in which to deal with waste. Whilst I accept that it was many years ago, that was the proposal at the time, and it has not changed.
Obviously, personalities change, people get nervous, and so on and so forth. However, they made that decision in the full understanding that location was not part of the consideration; it was based on technology. All of a sudden, today, I am hearing that the technology is outdated, and all those other things. When the decision was made, it was made on the basis that there was a 35-year contract. That is not to take away from what Mr Aiken said about the business case and everything else.
Reference has been made to private operators. I take exception to the proposer of the Adjournment topic, because he cannot say, on the one hand, that the beneficiary is a private company, and then, on the other hand, suggest that we take it to another private company on the Belfast harbour estate, when that has not gone through a procurement process or anything else. To be fair to the current proposal, it has gone through a lengthy process. The company put its money where its mouth was, brought forward a proposal, went through the processes and put in an application.
Much has been made of the court case. The court did not refuse it on the basis of the technology, location or anything else, but on the basis that the permanent secretary did not have the legal power to make that decision. Therefore, when the case was heard in 2018, there could have been a positive outcome that was based on the expert advice of planning officials, environmental officials and everyone else who fed into the planning system.
I have also heard about the residents of Mallusk. Not all the residents of Mallusk are against it; many are in favour. Many are also in fear of the rumoured extension of Cottonmount landfill site. Why, when we have all those other solutions, would we need to extend Cottonmount? In the past few weeks, we have heard in the press of the hundreds of thousands of tons of waste that is, allegedly, being recycled, but is actually being put on a boat and shipped to the other side of the world, to America, to be incinerated. How does that feed into the debate about CO2, or does CO2 only matter when it is in Northern Ireland?
I am sure that Members are aware of residents' concerns about the stench at Mullaghglass landfill site. I would say that, if one went up around that area and canvassed those people, they would prefer to have an incinerator than to continue to smell methane gas and all the other toxins that come off the Mullaghglass site.
I suggest that the Minister makes a decision on the issue, ends that nonsense and gets us a solution. Indeed, the campaigners used another example of why it is not a good idea. A piece of research was done that followed recyclables in bins in the streets of London. These are the so-called recycling people. Where did the trackers track the waste? It was taken to an incinerator. That suggests to me that recycling is a fraud, it is a front, and it does not work. Why, if it is such a strong, valuable commodity, would it have finished at an incinerator as opposed to being recycled as a commodity, or, indeed, going on a boat to Europe? Forty per cent of our recyclables go across the world, where they are being found in hedges, on roads and in incinerators.
I suggest that we are fooling ourselves. There is a degree of protectionism. The incinerator would be in my constituency. I do not like the fact that it would be in my constituency. However, it is a solution to deal with waste rather than shipping it across the world.
I oppose the sentiment of the Adjournment topic.
I have listened to the debate closely. I have been involved with and have supported No-ARC21 for some years, and I was at the case that we are talking about. Just because the case centred on whether the permanent secretary had the right to make the decision does not mean that you can extrapolate from that that it could have been passed on other grounds. He took the decision when he should not have, and he took it against massive opposition. There were a number of meetings with him, including with my party, about it.
A lot of what I was going to say has been said, and I thank Steve Aiken for securing the debate.
I am only starting, and that is one of the points that I was going to make. That is not the only reason.
I thank No-ARC21 for learning and for being very forensic about how it went at the issue over that period. I was interested in the points that Steve Aiken made — some maybe from No-ARC21 but also some from his own experience — and how the factual accounts coincided. That is really what I am standing over. No-ARC21 was very forensic. It looked at all the evidence and convinced us, as party members, that this was the way to go, and it did not give up. At the point when anybody else would have given up — for instance, when the decision was made by the permanent secretary — it moved on from that.
This is a bit repetitive, but there have been serious concerns. One of the reasons why I am speaking is that I am from North Belfast and the edge of North Belfast going into South Antrim is the Hightown Road. One side is North Belfast, and the other side is South Antrim. The effects of the incinerator — whether it is to do with transport, roads, toxins in the air or the water supply, with surface water and all of that — apply not just to South Antrim, because you can pass through that; it involves the Belfast basin, and, of course, the first place that you hit there is North Belfast. It is worth saying that there are cross-party objections to this from representatives of the DUP — notwithstanding yourself, Trevor — and from Sinn Féin, the SDLP, UUP, Alliance and the Greens.
Recycling rates have been increased to 55%. Trevor said that that is a fraud, but saying that recycling and the idea of recycling is a fraud is a big statement to make. The evidence for it has been given time and time again. There are targets that bring it up to 65%, and, as Steve Aiken said, we are well on the way to reaching those. Landfill rates have fallen to just over 20%. That does not mean that there is not still landfill, but the rates are falling, and that is the main point. As Steve Aiken said, when you add in the site on the harbour, you find that it takes up a huge amount of that as well.
When you have overcapacity, you have, first of all, a financial issue where you are not making any money, as was pointed out, and the subsidies get bigger and bigger. People then try to fill that site, so they start looking for other things. You are talking about waste that is going from here, but what about the waste that will be brought here? If we have a capacity of over 300,000 tons per annum and are nowhere near putting that in, we will get the waste from many other places.
I do not think so; this is an Adjournment debate. That was a good try.
I thank the Minister for being here, but I accept that there is only a certain amount that she can say. However, she is from North Belfast, so she will not be surprised by what I say. First, we want the Minister to know the facts about the incinerator. We want this to be based on facts about the building of this waste monster, and, when you look at the size of it, you see that it is a monster. We have not even dealt with the visual effects of it. We want her to know the damage that it is causing financially, which has been covered, and environmentally, which will be covered later. There will be health risks to thousands not just in that area, which is the point that I am making; it goes way beyond that area.
I thank the Member who secured a debate on this topic. I assure him and others, particularly Mr Clarke, that opposition to the project exists far beyond their constituency. When I took office as Environment Minister eight years ago, one of the first things to land on my desk was the Arc21 application. I approached it as I approached every application: with an open mind. I listened to arguments for and against, and, ultimately, I decided to refuse it. The refusal reasons cited were the irrefutable impact on local residents, which I will touch on further, and the lack of need. As Members have said, there is, if anything, much less need now. We have seen a huge increase in recycling and a reduction in the amount of waste being produced. We look at the capacity that exists elsewhere. Members mentioned the Full Circle Generation project at Bombardier. That needs to be maximised. I have had meetings recently with Fiberight, which is an American company that specialises in recycling. It has a very exciting and environmentally friendly project and is very interested in investing here.
We all recall the collapse of the Assembly. It was at that time that the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) decided that, basically, my decision was wrong. However, at that time, the Department did not even defend my decision because the then Minister, Chris Hazzard, had changed the Department's position from one of objection or opposition to one of neutrality. It is important to say that the position did not remain neutral; it became neutral. That enabled an approval to issue in the absence of Ministers.
I pay tribute to the local campaigners. They have been led brilliantly and bravely by Colin Buick and Charlie Thompson, who went to court and had that decision quashed. However, the celebrations have been short-lived, and here we go again, which is bound to have people asking what Arc21 is. It seems to be some sort of juggernaut that cannot or will not be stopped. It just keeps on coming. Councils seem to be petrified about the potential legal and financial ramifications of their withdrawal of support. Parties here that have, or have had, councillors on the board of Arc21 will have seen how hamstrung they are. The community is completely opposed, as are all parties. I sincerely hope that the AERA Minister listens to his MLAs, maybe with the exception of Mr Clarke, rather than his MPs on this issue. My SDLP colleagues Noreen McClelland, Heather Wilson and, going back, Alban Maginness have always sided with the campaigners. We agree with the campaign.
The application — the whole project — is environmentally unsound and economically illogical. I would love to know what the spend to date has been. I would describe it as a vanity project, but it may be a bit more sinister than that. The drive behind it is not to improve the environment; it is about generating cash, not just energy. Members will have received a detailed document that has been provided by No-ARC21. Although I do not have time to go through it verbatim, I will hit the headlines and summarise its concerns: lack of need; odour pollution; a redundant technology mix; health impact; undesirable location; visual impact; traffic impact; a failed procurement process; and a financial disaster in the making.
I commend the Infrastructure Minister for being here today. As the Minister responsible for planning, and the ultimate decision-maker, she will be limited in what she can say, but I am sure that she will give due regard to all information and carefully consider the way forward in light of her statutory duties. I would like to hear from the AERA Minister on the issue. I know that his early utterances on the project were that he was not convinced by the incinerator. I think that he described it as a waste monster. Has he been convinced yet, or can we see who is trying to convince him and how?
As a former Environment Minister, I was responsible for planning —
— and the environment, and I cannot recall a case for an incinerator being compelling at all then. It will be less so now.
We do not need or want this. Let us get it stopped, but experience tells us that it will require more than a planning refusal —
I have only a short time to speak and do not want to go over what has been said already. I agree with what Trevor Clarke said about our recycling figures and where waste ends up. We hear stories of our recycling being shipped off and being washed up on American beaches, for example. No consideration has been given to that.
When we look at recycling, we see that there is a wider message. It is reduce, reuse and recycle, but nowhere in the conversation do we talk about reducing our waste, and that is key. This incinerator will need to be fed constantly, so we could be continually asking people to keep consuming so that we can feed an incinerator that will keep polluting, and that is the answer.
Let us not forget that the incinerator is not part of a waste strategy, because, to the best of my knowledge, Northern Ireland does not even have a waste strategy. That is where the AERA Minister comes in. Northern Ireland has neither a waste strategy nor a clean air strategy, so we are poisoning, and we will put more pollutants into the air while we do not have those strategies.
The Department's figures already tell us that the level of ammonia — it is just one of the pollutants in our air — is a factor in up to 600 premature deaths in Northern Ireland year-on-year. That is just one pollutant, and we have no clean air strategy and no waste strategy. We then look at the planning system. We know that this incinerator has been in the planning system for eight years since a previous Environment Minister, Mark Durkan, said that he received the application on his desk.
What has happened in those eight years? It has been left to people and to residents to mobilise, lobby and take court cases in order to have themselves heard and have the application overturned. This is an issue not only for the Infrastructure Minister but for the AERA Minister. Minister, when you address us, will you let us know what conversations have been had? What has been taken into consideration when looking at the issue? Are we looking at a waste strategy? Are we looking at the "polluter pays" principle?
I receive emails from big fast-food outlets, which I will not name, telling me about their environmental credentials because they pick up the litter that they produce, which will go to an incinerator or be put on a recycling boat to be shipped overseas and washed up on a beach in the United States of America.
The place is a mess. The planning system is a mess. The onus that we put on people to do what we should be doing is a mess. The lack of strategies and legislation is an absolute mess. For all those reasons, the Greens will not support the incinerator until we have a strategy that puts people's health and well-being first.
Thanks to the Member for securing the debate. I absolutely support the campaign against the Hightown incinerator and Arc21 and for the incinerator not to be developed. I give my support once again to the No-ARC21 campaign, the residents, the environmentalists and everybody who has campaigned against the incinerator for many years.
Many years ago, when I was a councillor, I was on the Arc21 committee. I opposed the incinerator then, as I do now, alongside my councillor colleagues. I return to something that Mr Durkan said. The approach has been to make councillors petrified about a decision. My recollection is that significant pressure was put on me and many other councillors to go along with the decision or there would be massive ramifications for ratepayers and councils. That is not an open or democratic process. That is being strong-armed, to put it kindly.
The issue did not have a direct impact on my constituents, but it did have immediate implications for neighbouring constituencies. As far as I understand it, however, the company has expanded its needs case to include all of the North, so it will directly affect my constituents now, although it is worthwhile and important to be here regardless of that.
It seems to me and to many others that, at a time when recycling, as Members said, is thankfully on the up, it would be not only unwise but potentially environmentally destructive, leading to more emissions, to give the incinerator the go-ahead. Feeding the incinerator and producing waste to keep it functioning will be the order of the day, never mind the fact that, in order to address waste, as Clare Bailey mentioned, we need to tackle the source of the problem, which is production. We need to tackle the economic and political system under which we live, which is addicted to plastic and profit. That is how to stop it being shipped across to America or being burnt. I suspect that Mr Clarke probably does not agree with that approach.
Other people have already touched on the question of the technological mix of the incinerator. It was developed over 15 years ago and is not being built anywhere else in the UK. Parity of esteem, anybody? There are, of course, questions around finance and public money, as Members raised. The ratepayers will have to pay billions of pounds for it for over 30 years. Many people do not even know that Arc21 exists or what it even means. If there are billions for the incinerator, where is the money for green jobs, for home insulation, for reforestation etc? It is, indeed, a waste of money.
Mr Clarke mentioned the Mullaghglass site in my constituency, which is causing massive issues for residents. There are complaints about the odour and nuisance and that it is possibly causing health issues. I repeat that Mr Clarke's Minister should act quickly to shut it down. The site for the Hightown Arc21 incinerator, if it is built on, will be right next to residential properties — it is 1 kilometre away — and will likely have issues similar to those that we are seeing at Mullaghglass. There are questions around farmland, air-quality impact, disturbance of drinking water and many other issues.
I appreciate that the Minister for Infrastructure may not be able to comment on this, but how absurd would it be if every single party in the House, bar one Member, were opposed to the application but it could still go ahead? That puts a focus on the massive problems and lack of democracy in our planning system. I hope that that is not the situation and that the Minister will deny the application planning permission. It is opposed not only by parties here but by thousands of people right across her constituency and across the North more generally.
I have listened carefully and with interest to all the comments made and issues raised by Members representing North Belfast, South Antrim and West Belfast, as well as former Environment Minister Mark Durkan and the leader of the Green Party. It is clear that the proposed development at Hightown is an important issue for Members and their constituents.
At the outset, however, I advise Members that, as Mr Blair, Mr Kelly and Mr Durkan rightly pointed out, my participation in and contribution to this debate may be somewhat limited in comparison with what is normally expected. That is because the debate is focused around a live planning application for the proposed incinerator, and I will be the Minister who ultimately takes the decision on the application. As such, in the interests of transparency, and so that no prejudice is caused to any party that is involved in the process by what I say in the Chamber, it would not be appropriate for me to make specific comments on the planning merits or otherwise of the application at this time.
I do, however, understand the frustrations —.
Thank you very much indeed for giving way, Minister, and for your remarks as well. This is an issue that we have heard a lot about from the Agriculture Minister as well. Could this not be seen as a cross-cutting issue and therefore an issue for the Northern Ireland Executive? Perhaps it is a decision that the Northern Ireland Executive, as well as you, should be pushing for in order to get a speedy resolution to where we are at at the moment?
I thank the Member for his intervention. He will be aware of the legislation enacted in this mandate that clarifies the roles, responsibilities and powers that I have as the Minister responsible for planning.
I return to the comments in the debate. I appreciate the frustration that Members have expressed on behalf of their constituents about the length of time that the application has been under process, and I assure them that I am keen to bring a resolution to that long-standing application for all involved. However, as a number of Members rightly identified, if a sound decision is to be reached, it is important that the planning process be completed correctly.
I am very aware of the large number of objections to the planning application and the opposition that exists locally. I fully appreciate the concerns that people have about such development. It is an important aspect of our planning system that everyone can have a say on proposals that may affect them. In considering representations and applications, due process must be followed by my Department.
One of the main issues associated with the proposal, which has been raised by several Members in the past and again here today, is the need for such a facility and whether we should focus on reducing waste and improving recycling rates rather than the incineration of waste. The question of the need for the facility is, as Mark Durkan highlighted, a matter for the applicant and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. In response to the question posed by the Green Party leader, Clare Bailey, I say that my Department has asked DAERA for an update on a statement of need.
Members will know that I have set out my priorities for the remainder of this mandate: to improve lives; to connect communities; to grow a balanced economy; and to tackle the climate emergency. In respect of the last named, I am committed to climate action, and promoting recycling is an important aspect in that regard. As previously mentioned, however, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on the particular merits of the planning application.
It is important to me, as Infrastructure Minister, that any planning decision taken is robust and sustainable and that it is taken in an open and transparent manner on its planning merits. That approach applies to this application as it does to any other. I will not come to any conclusions on the processing of the application until I have fully considered the report and the recommendation from my planning officials. It is important that I take an objective view of applications. It is also important that any decision be balanced, fair, impartial and robust in all the processes followed. In the meantime, I assure Members that my officials continue to process the application at pace and in line with the planning policy to a point where a recommendation can be made for my consideration.
Adjourned at 5.43 pm.