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Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S4M-00853, in the name of Michael McMahon, on waste management. In the light of the possibility of sub judice matters being mentioned, I advise members that although I am content to allow references to be made to general concerns about the planning process in relation to incinerators. There are active legal proceedings in the Dovesdale and Carnbroe cases, so they should avoid straying into matters that could be considered sub judice. I call Michael McMahon to speak to and move the motion.
Although, as all colleagues did, I came into politics to make life better for those whom I represent, I confess that—unlike for a good number of fellow members of the Scottish Parliament—environmental issues were not my most prominent consideration when I first entered this place. To be honest, they are still not the most important issues for me; nevertheless, over the years I have come to realise that we generally spend too much time doing things that undermine our ability to enjoy our tenure of this rather beautiful country. Although it did not occupy much of my initial thinking, I am now firmly of the view that creating waste is both a consequence and a symptom of living unwisely.
To date, too much thinking has been directed at accommodating our excesses, and we rarely consider curtailing our use of the resources that we have. For many years, rubbish was seen as a health issue and a problem to be dealt with; then it began to be seen as a resource and something of value. That is why it is important for us to have an effective, deliverable and clear zero waste management strategy. To meet the target, all our local authorities need to become zero waste local authorities. Some have done a good job of waste minimisation, but we cannot ignore the warning from Audit Scotland which, in its report from 2010 that is cited in the motion, concluded:
“Collectively, councils’ plans are not sufficient to meet landfill and recycling targets beyond 2010.”
Although councils such as North Lanarkshire Council easily exceeded their 2010 target, the average was simply not good enough and there is little prospect of future overall targets being met, according to Audit Scotland.
There remains a reluctance to spend even the amount that councils previously spent on burying the stuff to find more productive uses for the stuff that we throw away. Where a job was done well, it owed more to the enthusiasm and passion of environmentally and socially aware officials and stakeholders, who forced local authorities to think about the long-term consequences of throwing stuff into holes in the ground. Reducing environmental stress means not only reducing the amount of waste that we generate, but changing the way we think about our use of resources.
The Scottish Government’s zero waste strategy should therefore be a good launch pad, but we need more than a launch pad; nothing less than changing the culture of waste will suffice. No one should claim that that will be easy, but to those who argue that culture shift is too difficult and that we should do only what is easily achievable, we must respond by saying that we should at least expect it to be the overarching goal that underpins our activities.
If we are genuinely committed to zero waste strategies, we must commit to what is necessary to achieve zero waste. The waste management hierarchy is an accepted guide for prioritising waste management practices with the objective of achieving optimal environmental outcomes. It sets out the preferred order of waste management practices from most to least preferred. The waste management hierarchy must be one of the guiding principles of the zero waste strategy, and I am pleased that the Government recognises that green pecking order.
Reuse requires less energy than recycling, although factors such as the consumer desire for newness can conspire against reuse. There are many ways in which clothes, books and other materials are currently reused, even through the use of new technologies such as eBay. It is already part of our society and there are precedents on which we can build. Reduction also requires less energy, by designing out waste before it is created. We must also recycle and recover, but it would certainly be best to avoid waste. That is the ultimate zero waste challenge—the highest point on the hierarchy. To address zero waste effectively, there needs to be a move beyond recycling to the largely uncharted territory of the higher end of the hierarchy.
To get to that point, we must also plan. When a local authority is asked to deliver on waste management targets, it is vital that the planning framework, based on which it makes decisions, is as clear as it can be. Local authorities that respond to the concerns of local communities cannot be left to carry the can for decisions that are made—against the wishes of local people—when their decisions are overturned by ministers.
I welcome the fact that, from previous answers to me and others, Aileen Campbell is committed to recycling, to reusing and to preventing waste, and has conceded that production of energy from waste is a part of that. However, the former Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism, Jim Mather—in recognising that energy from the waste process has a role to play—stated that current regulatory measures prevent the building of large-scale energy-from-waste plants. Tell that to the communities that are now lined up to oppose exactly such facilities in their areas.
Regarding one energy-from-waste proposal, a current cabinet secretary even had the brass neck to state publicly—and to tell local campaigners—that his party
“opposed this application since day one” despite his Scottish National Party Government having since endorsed the proposal. It must also be a huge disappointment to Stewart Maxwell that his Government has approved so many incinerators since he asked for, and received, a promise from Mr Mather that an incoming SNP Government would continue to oppose such plants.
Perhaps Michael McMahon did not read the full question and answer exchange with Mr Mather when he was minister. We were talking about a particular plant in my area—a large-scale waste incinerator. Perhaps Michael McMahon should check the definition of large-scale incineration. That plant is more than 1 million tonnes, which is quite a different scale from the one he is talking about.
A plant of 1 million tonnes might be of a different scale from the ones that we are talking about, but people on the Government side of the chamber campaigned against what Mr Mather said would be introduced. That is the point that I am making.
Perhaps the member will acknowledge another example in my constituency, where an application for an incinerator handling 300,000 tonnes a year—well over twice what is required locally—was rejected by the local authority but then approved by Scottish ministers. Perhaps he can ask the minister to explain to my constituents how that is not consenting to large-scale incineration.
I agree, because that is the level at which Jim Mather said incinerators would be unacceptable. However, they are being approved by this Government against the promises that were made to members who asked for that commitment from ministers in the previous Government.
It is not acceptable in any circumstances that there is a lack of clarity, but certainly not when it involves the planning process that local authorities have to apply and that businesses have to work to, and when it leaves local communities exploited for political ends when they need honest representation from their elected members.
I concur, therefore, with Christina McKelvie, who asked the Minister for Local Government and Planning to agree that the creation of national guidance on dealing with planning applications for waste incinerators and waste-to-energy plants would help local planning authorities that are facing decisions about proposed developments, and the communities that would be affected by them.
The minister has so far refused that request, but I make it again today and ask the Scottish Government to consider my request that the development of such guidance be sought so that no waste-to-energy project is approved unless it meets strict environmental justice tests.
There are many issues that will legitimately divide politicians. However, I am sure that the chamber will unite in agreeing that any politician who cynically sided with local campaigners in order to gain their support at the ballot box, then reneged on the promises that were made and, indeed, failed to deliver on those promises when subsequently promoted to the ministerial office that could affect those outcomes, would be open to ridicule and reproach.
The minister has clearly not been listening and makes the point for me. The minister passes the buck to local authorities for issues that ultimately rest with her. Guidance is required for local authorities. She should stop blaming local authorities for decisions that she does not like.
The minister makes the point for me. We have asked her to review the guidance and the planning laws. She refuses to do that but continually campaigns and claims that she is on the side of communities when she will not lift a finger to help those communities. I am sure that, like the minister, members who speak after me and people who join us in the public gallery might know of an example or two.
What I do know is that Scottish Labour supports the ambition of a zero waste Scotland but has serious doubts about the Scottish Government’s ability to meet recycling and landfill targets. We believe that the lack of a coherent national approach to planning guidelines for waste developments has led to significant problems in a number of communities. In particular, local authorities need more clarity. That is why I have brought the debate.
That the Parliament supports the ambition of a Zero Waste Scotland and the waste hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle and recover; notes the need for an effective national framework to guide waste management strategy; further notes the Audit Scotland report, Protecting and improving Scotland’s environment, published in January 2010, which concluded that “collectively, councils’ plans are not sufficient to meet landfill and recycling targets beyond 2010”; notes the increasing number of waste incineration projects currently in the planning process across Scotland and that many of these projects are opposed by local communities and were opposed by a number of successful candidates during the recent election; believes that local authorities need more clarity on planning guidelines with regard to waste incineration developments, and further believes that no project involving biomass and waste-to-energy should be approved unless concerns such as environmental justice and the impact on wood supply have been thoroughly considered.
I welcome the opportunity to debate this important topic and thank Michael McMahon and his colleagues for giving Parliament this opportunity.
I listened carefully to Michael McMahon’s opening speech and I agree with many of his comments. However, I cannot agree with his assertion that we should scrap Scotland’s planning system and scrap the appeals process unless we reject every appeal that comes before us.
The debate addresses some of the challenges that our society faces on the road to zero waste Scotland—a destination that we all, I am pleased to say, appear to support.
I hope that we can all agree on at least one important point: it is no longer acceptable for Scotland to landfill 4.7 million tonnes of the 17 million tonnes of waste that we produce as a nation. We must reduce the amount of waste that we produce in the first place, and we must reuse and recycle as much waste as possible.
Michael McMahon pointed to the challenges that are outlined in the Audit Scotland report. I am grateful to him for highlighting the report, because I can now highlight that many of the points that it made have been overtaken. For example, Scotland has now achieved its landfill diversion targets, which were due to be met in 2013. That is good news for Scotland. It is also excellent news that many councils in Scotland are now approaching 50 per cent of waste being recycled in their areas.
However, we must extract maximum value and environmental benefit from the residual waste that we will be left with and which cannot be recycled. Scotland therefore requires to have the infrastructure in place in the coming years to treat the nation’s residual waste. There are different technologies for treating residual waste, of which energy from waste through incineration is but one option. This Government does not specify which technology should be used, as long as it meets appropriate standards and fulfils our policy aims.
I have an element of sympathy with the member’s comments. That is why more infrastructure needs to be built in Scotland.
I am acutely aware of the strong emotions and opinions that surround energy-from-waste facilities. They are not restricted to energy-from-waste plants; the location of recycling centres, waste-processing facilities and, of course, landfill sites all stir strong feelings in our communities.
On a very specific point, my understanding is that the Planning etc (Scotland) Act 2006 provides that there should be a fit and proper person test for anybody owning or running such a plant. However, it is also my understanding that, under the Electricity Act 1989, there is no fit and proper person test for somebody running such a plant. A large-scale plant, such as the one that has been proposed for the edge of Newton Mearns, comes under the Electricity Act 1989, because of the proposed output of electricity from the plant. Will the minister take up the issue of the lack of a fit and proper person test under the Electricity Act 1989?
The member raises an interesting point. Of course, the Electricity Act 1989 is reserved to the United Kingdom Government, although elements of it are devolved to the Scottish Government. I will certainly bring his concerns to the attention of the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who I am sure will be willing to write to the member with his views.
Our approach to tackling Scotland’s waste is set out in our zero waste plan. Simply put, we wish waste to be treated as a valued resource, rather than as something that is simply to be discarded. Achieving our zero waste agenda will require changes and improvements to the infrastructure for managing Scotland’s waste, not to mention the development of a reprocessing sector. We need to stop exporting materials that can be recycled and start recycling them here. I think that we can all agree on that. I want to be clear that the majority of infrastructure that we need will support improvements in recycling and collection. However, that does not mean that energy-from-waste plants or other types of residual-waste treatment facilities will not be needed.
We are heading towards a level of 70 per cent recycling with no more than 5 per cent of waste going to landfill in the longer term. Not all waste is suitable for thermal treatment. Therefore, the reality is that less than 10 per cent of Scotland’s total waste is ever likely to be processed in that way. The importance of avoiding overcapacity in infrastructure to treat residual or black-bag waste is clear. We do not need to look too far afield to see the consequences of infrastructure overcapacity. Other European countries have established large networks of energy-from-waste facilities. Scotland incinerates around 2.7 per cent of municipal waste, while Denmark, the Netherlands and France—which have good environmental credentials—incinerate 53.8 per cent, 32.9 per cent and 33.7 per cent, respectively. Those plants rely on a constant supply of waste, which can restrict the levels of recycling that can be achieved.
I apologise, but I have taken three interventions already.
I have no desire to see such levels of incineration in Scotland. That is why we have set some of the most ambitious recycling targets in Europe, including a target of recycling 70 per cent of all waste by 2025. It is why all new facilities must be highly efficient in producing heat and energy and why there is a presumption against large-scale facilities, and why this Administration is progressing legislation that will ensure that only materials that cannot be recycled are incinerated.
Of course, none of that will remove the need for difficult planning decisions—around not only waste infrastructure, but a variety of large-scale infrastructure—which is why local accountability and decision making are key to successful planning decisions, and why ministers get involved only when planning decisions are appealed or when there are matters of national significance.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and our local authorities are not knocking on our door and asking for planning decisions to be taken on a national basis—they want local accountability. That is what this Government supports and will continue to support.
I am sorry, I have taken three interventions already. I will take the member’s intervention in my closing speech.
At each stage of the planning process, whether it involves a decision by a council, reporters or ministers, those who are responsible must give material consideration of public representations in national policies and guidelines. In the case of waste infrastructure, that means that all elected members must recognise the need to take responsibility for waste and must show support for the development of appropriate infrastructure to manage our waste.
However, when it comes to public concerns over the siting of incineration plants, we attach the highest importance to protecting and improving the health and wellbeing of our communities. For example, experts who have been engaged in a wide range of independent scientific and medical studies have examined the evidence around the impact on health of modern incinerators, and have concluded that the relative health impact that is associated with their operation is very low. We need to put all of that in context. I have been told by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency that a modern incinerator would have to run for 120 years to produce the amount of pollution that was produced by the millennium firework display in London.
SEPA and our other authorities have responsibility for regulating all the applications that are being received. They will continue to do so, taking into account local representations and the very fit-for-purpose national framework that is in place at the moment. I am clear that energy-from-waste technologies and other technologies are safe and sustainable and represent a valuable option for dealing with Scotland’s big problem of residual waste.
I move amendment S4M-00853.1, to leave out from the first “notes” to end and insert:
“and notes the importance of an effective national framework to guide waste management, represented by Scotland’s Zero Waste Plan.”
This is a timely debate, for there is little doubt that waste management is contentious, complicated and emotive—almost always because communities do not consider that their views are being taken into account.
The motion outlines the waste hierarchy that is important in achieving a zero waste Scotland, which focuses first on attempts to reduce waste. In that regard, the Westminster Government’s announcement today on sell-by dates is welcome and should be helpful. The hierarchy goes on to cover the reuse of waste, and then emphasises recycling and recovery.
For the benefit of the layperson and anyone else who is bemused by the different types of waste management systems, recovery means extracting other value—for example, creating energy. However, the hierarchy does not mention landfill as a means of disposing of waste, which would come a poor fifth in the pecking order.
To put the issue in perspective, householders are undoubtedly trying to do their bit, but are increasingly angered and frustrated because despite their supporting the zero waste objective by conscientiously concentrating on reusing or—if that is not possible—recycling their waste, the local authorities have not put in place the necessary services to facilitate that.
The minister and the cabinet secretary may be interested in a situation that has arisen in Central Scotland. The courageous communities of Greengairs and neighbouring communities in the north Airdrie community group in North Lanarkshire currently live with the largest-capacity landfill site in Europe, as well as four other recently completed landfills. Those communities have taken the reasonable and responsible positive action of supporting—and even, in some instances, suggesting—the establishment of recycling and reuse waste technologies in North Lanarkshire in order to avoid the need for an incinerator. However, despite the communities making those suggestions and taking part in the local plans, and despite the designation as a rural investment area—which should have precluded the presence of an incinerator—the Drumshangie incinerator, which will have the capacity to burn 300,000 tonnes of waste a year, was approved in May 2009. In effect, that ignores the hierarchy of waste management and the willingness of people to support the creation of reuse and recycling facilities in their communities. North Lanarkshire will now have a huge capacity not only for landfill, but for incineration.
In addition, two more applications for incinerators are pending in North Lanarkshire, the most recent in Harthill. With that number of applications currently on the go, it is difficult not to conclude that, rather than concentrating on need, people are making widespread speculative planning applications.
If all that was not enough, there is also an issue with incinerators in South Lanarkshire and, at the other end of my region, Forth Energy has applied to build a biomass plant in Grangemouth. I am reliably informed that biomass facilities often turn into incinerators.
It is therefore clear that the waste management priorities as outlined in the hierarchy are not being implemented, and that consequently, the people of North and South Lanarkshire, Falkirk and elsewhere in Scotland are not being rewarded for their perseverance and participation. Furthermore, given the strength of feeling against the use of landfill and incinerators, the communities that are involved are, more often than not, much better versed in the issues than are politicians, yet there is a definite lack of meaningful consultation of local residents.
To take the latest example, in Harthill the developer held the consultation on a weekday afternoon when it was clear that the vast majority of local residents could not attend, so—not surprisingly—only seven did. It is particularly frustrating that in councils such as North Lanarkshire, there appear to be startling inconsistencies on how incinerator planning applications are dealt with. In those circumstances, I suggest that the following should be considered as a priority: first, the Scottish Government should consider the reasons why local authorities do not have appropriate recycling facilities and ensure that the issue is addressed. In the meantime, a moratorium on large incinerators and biomass applications should be implemented—
I am in my last seconds.
Finally, the Scottish Government must consider the reform of subsidies for renewable energy operators in an effort to discourage speculative planning applications, which cause communities such anxiety.
The debate is vital, because how we deal with our waste will have consequences for our planet for generations to come. People recognise that. Masses of people across Scotland are engaged in disputes about safe waste disposal. In my constituency, a campaign against incineration has been run in the past few years. I have fully supported my constituents’ campaign from the start, because their research was thorough and their arguments were compelling. Recently, I spoke at a march and rally that was attended by hundreds of people, including many young people, who oppose incineration and call for environmental justice. I have raised the issue in Parliament in various ways and much of that is on the public record.
On health issues, I recently received from the Scottish Government a response that said:
“the evidence suggests that any potential damage to health of those living close to incinerators is likely to be very small, if detectable.”
That is not good enough. We can accept no level of threat to public health, particularly in Lanarkshire, where people are 44 per cent more likely than people anywhere else in the UK are to be admitted to hospital with a chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, which pollutants aggravate. Incinerators could have dire health consequences, which might become apparent only when it is far too late.
A leading campaigner—Maggie Proctor—summed up the problem of dealing with private companies at a packed public meeting in Coatbridge when she said:
“Their only risk is financial, they are asking us to risk so much more.”
Waste management is too important to leave to the private sector, whose prime motive is profit—not safety or the environment. To make their money, private companies depend on volumes of waste, which they will ship in from far afield to meet their business needs. Of course, the residue goes to landfill, which completely contradicts the Government’s zero waste plans. There is no doubt that continuing to incinerate waste will have a detrimental impact on our efforts to reduce, reuse, recycle and recover.
If the Scottish Government cannot guarantee the safety of incineration, it should oppose the technology and put that opposition in Scottish planning policy. If the Government now supports incineration, it should not be left to the private sector to make private profit from it. However, before the election, the Government seemed to be against incineration. Jim Mather said:
“I reaffirm that the Scottish Government’s position remains that we do not support large-scale, inefficient energy-from-waste facilities.”—[Official Report, 10 March 2011; c 34244.]
He did not say what the scale was or that that position applies only in some areas.
North Lanarkshire Council is exceeding its waste targets. It recently refused planning permission for a pyrolysis incinerator but, when the company involved appealed, the Scottish Government referred the case to a reporter, who found in the applicant’s favour. So much for local decision making.
At the inquiry in February, I gave evidence on my constituents’ behalf. I will raise concerns about that process. On the opening day, we were told that the Scottish Government had changed annex B to the zero waste plan, which materially altered the proximity principle. The reporter therefore adjourned the inquiry, and we were all told to read the new version of annex B and change our precognitions. That was totally unacceptable. Those precognitions had to be submitted a week in advance, and any changes to policy on a Government whim should have been subject to a similar cut-off date. The goalposts were moved, to ordinary people’s detriment. The situation shows that the planning system is stacked in favour of big business, which has the resources to pay for top legal advice, and is against ordinary people who are trying to defend their communities. The Scottish Government must ensure affordable access to environmental justice, in line with its commitments under the Aarhus convention.
My constituents clearly say no to incineration. They are not daft—they know who is responsible, and they know that I will not stand by and allow my constituency to become Scotland’s dumping ground. We have suffered enough from our industrial past and we demand environmental justice now. MSPs who support that demand must support Labour’s motion tonight.
I know that the Labour Party does not oppose energy from waste per se, and I give it credit for that. I know that because when Aberdeen City Council—I declare my interest as a member of that council—discussed and decided on our waste strategy, which includes options for energy from waste, the strategy received the unanimous backing of all political parties that are represented on the council, which include Labour. Labour does not oppose the general principle of energy from waste.
I will broaden the focus of the debate, but perhaps narrow it in terms of geography. We have spoken about the waste hierarchy, but we are in danger of being caught between the two fixed positions of landfill and incineration. However, there are other ways in which to deal with waste. There are good examples of companies in my region that deal with waste creatively and add value to it. I know that the minister is keen on the approach of viewing waste as a resource. One of those companies is Keenan Recycling of Turriff, which for several years has been recycling food and garden waste into compost material. The company can process up to 100,000 tonnes every year and now operates the largest vertical composting unit in Europe. The recycled organics are used in products that benefit the end users, communities and the environment. The main products are compost, garden bark and, as I found out only recently, a specialist product for indoor and outdoor equestrian areas called Equishred.
There are also examples of small organisations in the north-east, such as the Pitscurry project, which is run by the Pitcaple Environmental Project, and Wood RecyclAbility at Udny. Both are small local enterprises with community benefits and which provide meaningful employment for adults with learning disabilities and minor physical disabilities. They involve taking delivery of uncontaminated wood pallets and turning them into garden furniture and other items. Michael McMahon spoke about the consumer demand for newness but, particularly in times of economic difficulties, there is a focus on, and genuine interest in, products that have been developed in a way that involves reuse. Those enterprises provide not just environmental value, but social value. We must consider that in thinking about how to deal with the waste hierarchy.
Another project that I want to highlight is The Box Room in Banchory, which is a community project that takes old furniture and either sells it on or passes it to good causes. I mention it because it launched the magpie project, which it runs in partnership with Aberdeenshire Council and which is a scheme that aims to divert waste from landfill. It involves intercepting reusable household objects and furniture that are brought to the household waste and recycling centre in Aberdeenshire and then selling them or passing them on to local good causes. All too often, we do not see that part of the process. We see things going to the waste recycling centre and assume automatically that they will either go to landfill or somewhere else, but there are often small social enterprises that can deal with them. If such enterprises do not exist in other areas, we need to consider how to encourage local authorities or entrepreneurs to consider taking that approach to diverting waste. The magpie project was so successful that it had to relocate to new premises after only seven weeks, such was the demand.
I do not dispute for one second that local concerns exist on waste incineration. We have heard them in the north-east, most recently in Peterhead, where an application caused a great deal of protest and was rejected by the local authority. However, we must be careful that we do not get into a situation in which we automatically rule out an approach to waste management that is based on particular examples. We have to be cautious in that regard. I urge members to consider the issue on a broad basis. There will always be local concerns, but we must have an eye on the bigger picture.
The Scottish Government’s zero waste plan was intended to lead to waste disposal being regulated in
“a better, more consistent way”, and to help clarify the existing waste management regulations, which were described as
“complicated and difficult to understand.”
The targets that are laid out in the zero waste plan are ambitious, and such ambition should be lauded, but we must ensure that, in the rush to meet the targets, we do not sacrifice long-term benefits for short-term gains.
The introduction to the zero waste plan states that it is underpinned by a determination to make
“best practical use of the approach in the waste management hierarchy: waste prevention, reuse, recycling and recovery.”
There are currently 20 proposals for waste incinerators in Scotland, many of which do not meet those criteria. For example, pyrolysis incinerators burn waste at high temperatures to extract energy from waste. That is one of the two least-favoured options in the waste hierarchy, as it undermines efforts to reduce, recycle, and reuse.
The zero waste plan states that, by 2025, no more than 25 per cent of municipal waste should be used for energy from waste, with the remaining 75 per cent recycled. In January 2010, Audit Scotland reported that councils were highly unlikely to meet the target and noted that, to have any chance of meeting it, councils would require additional composting and recycling centres—so, not more waste incinerators. However, Government reporters who were reviewing a recent case contradicted that by stating that an incinerator was “urgently” needed to work towards zero waste targets. That leaves us in something of a quandary, because the more incinerators we build, the less likely we are to meet our recycling targets.
The inconsistencies do not end there. According to the zero waste plan, waste management developments
“should be located in sites where potential impacts on the human, built and natural environment can be minimised.”
However, in certain recent cases, seemingly legitimate concerns about the potential impact of the development on the human, built and natural environment have been dismissed.
Finally, and perhaps more pertinently in this debate, the zero waste plan states:
“Members of the public and community groups have an important role in the planning system and are encouraged to get involved in the development planning process and planning applications.”
In the past two years, local people have united in opposition to proposals to build incinerators in their areas. The groups have involved themselves from the start of the planning process and, where they have thought that they have been excluded, they have made great efforts to ensure that their voices are heard. Thousands of objections that have been lodged against waste management planning applications and many thoughtful and reasoned arguments that have been offered in support of those objections have effectively been discounted. The final recourse in such cases is to instigate costly legal proceedings.
That brings us to the equivocal position that the Scottish Government and Scottish National Party MSPs occupy. Although the Government is on record as being opposed to large-scale and inefficient energy-from-waste facilities, that did not prevent it from appointing reporters to review a local council’s decision to refuse planning permission for a pyrolysis plant, despite the fact that the Government retains complete discretion over which appeals it chooses to delegate. Some local SNP MSPs who were seeking re-election were vocal in their condemnation of local planning decisions about waste management facilities, only for post-electoral changes in their professional circumstances to cause them to become a great deal more circumspect. Rather than calling for Government interventions, they have ceded responsibility and neglected to represent their constituents.
The zero waste management policy was designed to iron out inconsistencies and contradictions in the current planning regulations, to make the process more transparent, to give local communities a voice and to ensure that waste management targets are met in the most efficient and environmentally friendly ways possible. It has not achieved those things. We need more than effective waste reduction targets; we need a realistic programme to achieve those targets and we need clear and concise planning regulations across local and national government, on which there has been wide consultation and which take into account the views of local people. We need to ensure that environmental justice is available to all and is not prohibitively expensive, as it currently is.
As we conduct this debate, it is obvious that waste incineration is an immediate concern for many members. It is also an immediate concern for many of my constituents. As the Presiding Officer said, there is an on-going judicial review process that concerns the planning decision in question, so I cannot discuss the specifics of the case. As a constituency member who works every day to respond to those concerns, that is obviously frustrating. From a selfish point of view, I would prefer the debate to take place at a time when I could speak more freely, but it would be churlish of me to complain, as I fully support the judicial review, which was fought for and won by an action group in my constituency. I certainly do not want to compromise it. This is an important debate that we need to have, regardless of the timing. It is a shame that, in Labour’s typical negative fashion, it is being used as a party-political stick to try to beat the Government with and, indeed, to attack individual members with. That is a shame, particularly as there is much on which we agree and on which we could work together across the parties.
There is enormous disquiet in many communities about the potential effects of waste incineration on their environments. In the part of my constituency that is affected, there is also considerable worry about the economic impact. It is hard to overstate the importance of agriculture and horticulture to the local community in the Clyde valley. The view of local farmers and market gardeners is that the area’s outstanding reputation for producing top-quality fresh produce could be seriously adversely affected by the presence of an incinerator in its midst. Images of the garden of Scotland and fumes from burning waste do not exactly go well together. My constituents are entirely justified in questioning the impact that emissions would have on their ability to sell their eggs, milk and fruit and vegetable produce to supermarkets and other retailers. Modern consumers demand quality and retailers respond. Producers are all too aware of how even a perception of impaired or tainted quality could be a hammer blow to their livelihoods. Those producers have a right to expect that the councillors and officials in their local authority would give at least as much priority to the environmental and economic health of the local area as to the desires of commercial companies to profit from incineration. I agree with other members on that, but perhaps I am straying into areas that could become sub judice.
I emphasise that I fully support the Scottish Government’s zero waste ambitions and agree that we need to move away from the use of landfill. I recognise that the Government has to strike a fine balance between competing environmental issues. I know, too, from my extensive correspondence with the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment that he is fully aware of the strong feelings of communities in my area.
The Scottish Government has undertaken to publish further planning guidance on waste management this autumn. In my extensive correspondence with the cabinet secretary, I have already asked for that guidance to pay particular attention to the issues surrounding incineration. I repeat that request today.
I can confirm that, in my experience, some local authorities are not handling the planning processes at all well and communities feel that their sincere concerns are being treated as an irrelevance. Strong, clear national guidance is badly needed to ensure that local authorities carry out their duties properly, especially given that we are likely to see more planning applications of this type throughout Scotland.
Given the concerns about incineration, the subject is an obvious candidate for an inquiry by a committee of this Parliament, which could listen to the concerns of action groups from throughout Scotland, such as the one in my constituency. Too often, such groups are not being listened to locally and this Parliament could ensure that their voices are heard.
I say to Mr McMahon that my constituents, my party, this Government and I are taking action—instead of having mealy-mouthed debates for the purpose of party-political point scoring.
We know from the whole nature of this debate that policy making does not stand still. The Planning etc (Scotland) Act 2006, which was introduced by the previous coalition Government, set up the appeals system, which came into effect during the time of the minority SNP Government. That system has taken some time to bed down. In cases in my constituency we have had to deal with an appeals process that was interrupted by an intervention by the Court of Session, and a new appeals process with regard to an incinerator in Invergordon.
The 2006 act deliberately took the decisions away from ministers and put them in the hands of officials. Whether that is the best way forward for planning has to be looked at carefully.
My next point is about things moving on. At the end of the previous session of Parliament, when debates were being had about the kind of incinerators that people have complained about, I asked questions pertaining to the nature of measurement that SEPA can achieve. It is likely that when some of the applications were made the particulates could not be measured very carefully. However, in a written answer from 18 March 2011, Roseanna Cunningham said:
“The Scottish Environment Protection Agency ... has recently enhanced its ability to measure ambient fine particulates. There are, however, some technical limitations in the methods available to measure low levels of fine particulate emissions in the stacks of incinerators.”—[Official Report, Written Answers, 18 March 2011; S3W-40283.]
That shows that the science is improving. It is not perfect yet, but it is one of the conditions for deciding whether incineration can take place safely. We will find ways to tighten that up in due course.
Guidelines that SEPA issued in 2009 make quite clear, in general terms, how thermal treatment will be dealt with. That is why local authorities have a fairly good idea about what they should be doing when such planning applications come forward.
That is not the planning process at the present time—the planning process that Elaine Smith’s party put in place. Let us be clear: we are working in a framework that was created by a Government that was determined to take ministers out of the equation. The current Opposition wants to put ministers into the equation, to take responsibility, much like some campaigners do—
I am sorry—I do not have time.
The unintended consequences of that change are coming out in the debate. The most important issue for all of us to recognise is that speculative applications for thermal incineration will be affected directly by the control of materials that are allowed to be used in those thermal processes. I believe that, in many cases, such speculative applications will fall because they cannot meet the guidelines that the Government has put forward.
Much has been made of the Scottish Government meeting its 2010 European Union landfill directive target on the quantity of biodegradable municipal waste that it is permitted to send to landfill. I draw members’ attention to the fact that it was the Lib Dem Minister for Environment and Rural Development who increased the target recycling rate in Scotland from 7 per cent in 2001 to 25 per cent in 2006. The cabinet secretary’s predecessor established a good, strong foundation for where we are now.
I suspect that the Government will be aware of the key findings in Audit Scotland’s 2010 report, which is referenced in the motion. The report said that
“Collectively, councils’ plans are not sufficient to meet landfill and recycling targets beyond 2010” and that some councils are still significantly short of meeting their recycling and landfill objectives. Therefore, I was surprised that the SNP’s mooted zero waste bill failed to make an appearance in its legislative programme, particularly given that the EU can impose fines on member states. I am interested to hear more about how the Government plans to assist councils to meet those targets and to provide the additional waste management facilities that Audit Scotland states are necessary for the future.
In our manifesto, the Liberal Democrats were committed to establishing a network of anaerobic digestion facilities to process organic waste and divert it from landfill. Such new and innovative solutions will be required if local authorities are to fulfil the target of recycling or composting 70 per cent of municipal waste by 2025. Although the Government’s modest investment in that area last year is a welcome start, now is the time to explore the expansion of the use of anaerobic digesters and to be mindful of the benefits of such technology over and above the obvious landfill benefits, which include its ability to assist us to meet our renewable energy and emissions reduction targets.
I am aware that two waste incinerator disputes are on-going and sub judice, so I assure the Presiding Officer that I will take care with my words. I share the concerns of Michael McMahon, whose motion speaks of local authorities requiring
“more clarity on planning guidelines with regard to waste incineration developments”, but I point out that local area plans and local planning regulations are absolutely pointless if a local area planning committee contravenes its local area plan by approving applications on greenbelt land.
As we try carefully to engage in discussion of waste incinerators, I am reminded of the vocal opposition of one nationalist MSP to an application for such an incinerator in the run-up to the election. The member concerned will recall the disappointment and concern that she expressed in February, following the application’s success, and her comments that a council had ridden roughshod over its own policies. Since the election, the member has been silent. She is now the minister responsible for planning, and has stated that, because of her ministerial position, it would not be wise for her to comment further on the matter. I am afraid that, as parliamentarians, we have a duty to our constituents and cannot simply pick and choose when we wish to be active on certain issues. Constituents deserve better, and that minister should consider what is more important—a ministerial Volvo or her constituents.
I support the Labour motion.
I intend to put forward another view. Prior to the conversion of most council houses to gas fires, rubbish and waste were burned in householders’ fireplaces. Since the 1960s, the amount of waste that we produce has risen dramatically, and thousands of tonnes have gone to landfill. That must change.
We now have a policy of zero waste, and we have made tremendous progress on waste management. In 10 years, we have reduced the amount of waste that we send to landfill by more than a third. Waste is a resource that can be used as a catalyst to create products and to generate renewable energy, heat and fertiliser. It has also been suggested that Scotland’s waste policy could create more than 2,000 jobs.
We need a broad policy to tackle waste. We need companies to reduce their packaging. How much waste is produced because companies use too much packaging? We also need councils to increase their recycling rates and to have a common policy on recycling. Too many councils still have different collection policies: some collect glass and some do not; some collect cardboard and some do not. If somebody moves from one council area to another, they find that the councils tackle waste differently.
Energy from waste has a part to play, but it should be used only for material that cannot be recycled. In 2009, only 2.7 per cent of our waste was incinerated, and 4.7 million tonnes was landfilled. Local councils have a responsibility to listen to and react to their voters’ needs, especially when it comes to incineration projects. Incineration should be the last resort in tackling waste.
The Labour Party has made great play of how it has opposed incinerators. In North Lanarkshire, the Labour Party supported the Greengairs incinerator—I was there and I know that Labour pushed it. However, it now opposes the other incinerator, in Coatbridge in Elaine Smith’s constituency. I agree with that decision, because we have enough incineration in North Lanarkshire.
The Labour Party goes from one end to the other, as Margaret Mitchell knows. North Lanarkshire Council’s Labour-led planning and transport committee needs no clarity on planning guidelines in the area. If all councils fully embraced recycling of all items that they could recycle, we would not need to review planning guidelines, as most of the waste that would otherwise go to incineration could and would be recycled.
It is well known that the Scottish Government has a presumption against large-scale, inefficient energy generation from waste facilities. We have an effective national framework to guide waste management. It is quite simple: if a council reduces waste in its area, it will reduce the need for a local waste incineration project.
I note from today’s newspapers that there is a proposal to scrap sell-by dates. Those new rules would mean that food and drink would be labelled only with a best-before date or a use-by date. That would also reduce the tonnes of food that shops and customers throw out.
The late Robert Robinson might have called this the “Ask the Family” debate, with Michael McMahon and his daughter Siobhan both making speeches. I was refreshed by Mr McMahon’s speech, which chimed with my own view of the matter. Pragmatic realism, rather than some evangelical quest, brought him to wishing to see it addressed. I am always slightly alarmed by those who say they have come into politics, as he obviously has, to pass waste more efficiently—or to pass waste measures, in any event.
In my speech, I will concentrate on where mass waste incinerators sit in relation to waste policy and where public consultation fits in.
The term “mass waste incineration” is regularly used. The Government’s zero waste plan says that there is no need for mass waste incineration. The Institution of Civil Engineers, whose report said that waste infrastructure was just a grade C that required a lot of attention still, said under questioning that there was no room for mass waste incineration.
The plant to which Mr Maxwell referred—the one that is proposed for the south side of Newton Mearns—will take 1.5 million tonnes of waste, so it is clearly a mass waste incinerator, but is it formally defined as such? I was pleased when, in answer to a parliamentary question earlier this session, the Minister for Local Government and Planning eventually confirmed that the definition of a mass waste incinerator is one that processes 300,000 tonnes of waste. Given that there is to be no room for mass waste incinerators, I was quite surprised that 300,000-tonne incinerators are being approved. It is a concern that, despite there being no role for mass waste incinerators, they are being approved.
How very convenient. It is just like student fees: we get to the upper limit as quickly as we can.
Mr Lyle said that if waste is being processed efficiently in a community, there is no need for a mass waste incinerator in that community. East Renfrewshire has reduced its total waste from 50,000 tonnes to 35,000 tonnes per year, so I do not quite know why it needs a 1.5 million tonne waste incinerator, which is a big concern for local people.
If the largest lorries in Britain today were to be filled to capacity with all the waste that they can hold and taken in and out of that 1.5 million tonne plant 24 hours a day, it would mean a movement every 3.45 minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. As I have said before, the M77, which is the access road to the proposed plant, would look like the approach road to Heathrow airport, with a stack of heavy goods vehicles going all the way back and causing all manner of congestion. I do not think that many people are reassured by the promoters saying that they would target journeys so that they avoid the rush hours. How can that be done with a journey that starts at point X and ends at point Y?
I will be more direct in relation to Mr Maxwell’s point. Does the minister regard someone who has waste infringement convictions as a suitable person to be given the opportunity to take on a waste management plant?
I contradict one of the minister’s points. I thought that I heard him say that he does not think that the effects on health are going to be of much concern. In 2009, SEPA, Health Protection Scotland and NHS Scotland produced a report that said that the evidence was that the effect on public health of waste incineration was “inconsistent and inconclusive”. That is not a basis on which one can say with any great conviction that we can be certain that no potential effects on public health will follow.
We can all agree that the debate has been interesting and valuable. The issue of waste and how best to manage it is one that never fails to stimulate discussion in the chamber and throughout Scotland.
I was slightly confused at some points about whether the debate was about the future of Scotland’s environment or about the distress that the Labour Party is experiencing at losing some key constituencies in Lanarkshire. Of course, those issues are linked, because the election of SNP MSPs is good for Scotland’s environment.
I was struck by Jackson Carlaw’s opening comment that he agrees with the Labour Party on the issue. If I were in the Labour Party, I would be slightly concerned that the Conservative Party was agreeing with Labour’s environmental policy. I also note that he and some of his colleagues have criticised the attempts to roll out waste food collections across Scotland, which shows that, in relation to some of these issues, they are still stuck in the 1980s.
I have no doubt that companies will continue to pursue planning consents for a range of waste infrastructure across Scotland. I am also confident that our zero waste plan and the measures that will be introduced through the zero waste regulations will significantly reduce the volume and type of materials that can be disposed of through incineration. The feedstock will simply not be available to feed large-scale plants or an extensive network of incinerators across Scotland. Our zero waste plan is the right national strategy to deliver real and lasting change to how Scotland’s waste is managed.
I am going to be generous to Elaine Smith and address two of the points that she raised during the debate. First, she and other members mentioned private sector involvement. We cannot say that it is really important to deal with Scotland’s residual waste but then attack the role of the private sector in helping us to solve that problem. The resources and expertise must come from somewhere. Jim Hume said that he wants anaerobic digestion to be rolled out across Scotland, but he did not remark on the fact that Scotland’s budget has been cut by his own party at Westminster. That really takes the biscuit. We must start to realise that the private sector’s resources will be required if we are to deal with Scotland’s waste challenges and that that sector has a valuable role to play.
Elaine Smith and Jackson Carlaw raised the issue of the health implications of incinerators that may be built in Scotland. SEPA is responsible for regulating the waste industry, and before it considered issuing a permit for an incinerator, the operator would have to undertake health risk assessments and demonstrate that human health and the environment would be protected. Waste incinerators must also comply with stringent emissions standards and controls, which require plants to meet minimum burn temperatures and strict emissions limits.
Clearly, we all take very seriously potential increases in health risks. I can reassure Parliament that we are not resting on our laurels in that regard. The Government recognises that there is public concern on the issue, and we are reflecting more on what can be done to alleviate some of those concerns. For instance, I am examining whether more can be done to give the public easier access to real-time, continuous information on emissions from facilities through SEPA’s website. We are also considering other ways of communicating the issues to the public. However, we all have a responsibility in our own constituencies to keep things in perspective and ensure that information that we get from others is checked out properly and that the information that we give to constituents is accurate.
On clarity of information, can the cabinet secretary clarify for us that current planning law means that ministers can decide to accept local authority decisions and that, even if they then refer such decisions to reporters, right up until the decision letter is issued ministers could call it back and take their own decision? Unfortunately, in a recent case, the decision letter was issued just after the election, and not just before it.
In certain situations there are, of course, exceptional circumstances of national significance that mean that ministers cannot intervene. However, a very important part of the debate is what should be decided locally and what should be decided nationally. If ministers took into their remit decisions as part of a national decision-making process, Labour members would be the first to complain if ministers then said that one of Scotland’s incinerators was going to be based in a Labour member’s constituency. They would suddenly start to complain that there was not enough local input or local accountability. We must therefore stick with what local authorities, COSLA and—I believe—most if not all parties in the chamber support, which is that some decisions must be decided locally and within the planning framework because that is what is delivering at the moment.
The member will be aware that the Presiding Officer made it clear to Parliament that some applications that are causing contention around Scotland are subject to judicial review at present and cannot be referred to by ministers or others in the chamber. The member has just made a ridiculous accusation. Surely he is not suggesting that members of the Scottish Parliament should not stand up locally for their constituents and work with them on local issues. It is our democratic right to do that, and we should all stick to doing that. Perhaps if Labour Party members had done that a bit more, they would not have lost so many seats at the last election.
We all have a responsibility to deal with Scotland’s waste. I hope that the debate has been about that. I think that there is a lot of agreement across the chamber that we must deal with residual waste. We cannot just put it in a big hole in the ground, which is a waste of money and bad for the environment—and, of course, bad for our climate change targets. Let us all move forward together on the issue. Let us stick to our national framework, put the waste strategies in place and ensure that local decision-making continues to be seen as important.
Labour wanted the Parliament to have this debate because we think that the current situation is totally unsatisfactory and that the Scottish Government’s position on waste management facilities lacks clarity.
Across the country, people are up in arms at the plethora of large-scale incinerators. At the very least, they expect that the planning system will allow their concerns about health and transport impacts to be heard. However, there is a strong feeling that the Scottish Government is not listening. That frustration is reinforced by the fact that SNP candidates across the country campaigned against waste incinerator proposals at the election but have been silent on the issue since then.
No, thank you. I am not even into my first minute.
The truth is that the SNP put in place a system of decision making that is less transparent and tilts the balance of power towards the centre, which means that local authorities, developers and local communities do not have certainty. That is totally unacceptable.
Even more disappointing, we have been here before. In 2007, Scottish National Party candidates who are now ministers campaigned against the Beauly to Denny line, but when they were elected to Government, that Government green-lighted the project. This is not about members’ right to disagree with the Government; it is about consistency. On waste management, the SNP Government has presided over the changes that have led us to the unsatisfactory situation in which communities and businesses across the country now find themselves.
I welcome the chamber’s total support for the Government’s ambitions for a zero waste Scotland—the cabinet secretary should take heart from that. We also support the principles that underpin those ambitions in the waste hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle and recover. However, members of every party have expressed concern that the strategy is not yet being implemented.
The SNP put in place ambitious targets for delivering on its strategy and, again, there was support across the chamber for that move. However, what the Audit Scotland report made clear was not that every single local authority was not going to meet its targets but that, collectively, council plans were not in place. That is the problem. Why are those plans not in place? In the Lothians, there was joint planning between the authorities but one of the first acts of the minister in the previous parliamentary session was to dismantle the regional strategy that would have enabled them to put facilities in place. The regional strategy was simply dumped. At the time, we warned of the consequences. When that co-ordinated approach was taken away, the Government left the private sector to fill the vacuum, and that has led to the problems that we face today.
When, in the previous session, the proximity principle was introduced in new guidelines that the cabinet secretary issued, we thought that the idea of local facilities that were planned locally sounded good but questioned how it would work in practice. In fact, it did not give clarity to local authorities, which have to set out the development plans that provide certainty for infrastructure investment. That is what the planning system is about. It is also, crucially, about democratic accountability. Local people must be able to see the plans for their area.
I just point out to the member that the Scottish planning policy and zero waste plan provide a framework for waste treatment and that planning advice is forthcoming that will be peer reviewed and go out to consultation later this year.
As Elaine Smith pointed out, the problem is that the Government is changing the rules in the middle of decisions that are being taken now. Moreover, she made clear that the proximity principle was unceremoniously dumped earlier this year in the middle of a public inquiry. That cannot be right.
Not only that, but the Scottish Government has also quietly removed crucial planning rights and planning requirements on local authorities with regard to notification. SNP members supported the Planning etc (Scotland) Act 2006 but, quietly, the Scottish Government has removed the requirement for local authorities to report to the Scottish Government when they breach their local plans. The only categories left that require notification are developments in which the local planning authorities themselves have an interest; objections by Government agencies; and opencast coal and related minerals applications. The fact that there is now no trigger notification with regard to neighbouring local authorities or development plan breaches is part of the problem in waste management.
This is a centralising Government. Having dumped the regional planning framework for waste management and the proximity principle, the Scottish Government has removed the capacity for local authorities to make decisions on waste management proposals. Nobody wins. Local authorities know that the planning applications they refuse can be approved by Scottish ministers; indeed, that is what has happened with two major waste management schemes. Community campaigners know that, in the end, these decisions are made by Scottish ministers and there are no upfront safeguards, because this Government has been undermining them.
I say to Mark McDonald, who I thought made an excellent speech, that local authorities’ decisions about cumulative impact have not been taken on board. Indeed, a number of SNP back benchers highlighted points about cumulative impact and the impact on recycling programmes. It is clear that large-scale incinerators provide no incentive to drive up recycling rates; after all, in the long term, it is cheaper to burn rubbish instead of separating it out and finding markets in which the materials can be reused or recycled. The cabinet secretary acknowledged that very point in his opening speech. However, planning decisions are not being based on those needs and are not taking cumulative impact into account. The environmental costs need to be factored in. Large-scale projects mean large numbers of lorries travelling long distances, and environmental justice has to be part of the picture.
I was really disappointed that the cabinet secretary did not address our points about wood, biomass and waste-to-energy projects. Projects are not sustainable if wood is not available and has to be imported.
The Confederation of Forest Industries and RSPB Scotland have flagged up their concerns about the major expansion of large-scale biomass-to-energy projects. They highlight the fact that we already have a limited supply of wood and that the problem with projects of major and significant size is that they will damage United Kingdom jobs and have a counterproductive impact on our carbon emissions. That needs to be factored in. I was disappointed that the cabinet secretary did not specifically address that point and wants to take it out of our motion completely.
RSPB Scotland has also raised concerns about the impact on forests, not just in relation to how we use our wood in this country but in relation to habitats in exporting countries and rainforests. There is a wider responsibility here that is not being addressed, and I was disappointed that those issues did not even get a name check in the cabinet secretary’s speech.
At the local level, local authorities are left without clear guidance. Developers are not being given clarity, either. They spend thousands of pounds on planning inquiries and on making proposals. It is not in anyone’s interests not to take up the issue of need, not to address the issue of cumulative impact and not to give clear guidelines.
Throughout the country there are debates. I need only mention Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and the Lothians. We know that in all those places, SNP candidates were clear about their views before the election—
No. I am in my last 30 seconds. The cabinet secretary had two speeches and did not even have the courtesy to address the issues in our motion. He has merely gone for a delete-all-and-insert amendment. That is not good enough. He should stand up for his principles and debate the issues in the motion, but he has ignored them. I am disappointed that he has gutted the motion. No one disputes the need for a zero waste strategy in Scotland. The problem is that he is not delivering that. This is happening on his watch—it is his strategy and he has played around with the rules. That is why his strategy will not succeed.