Although there is overwhelming consensus in favour of diverting waste from landfill, support for incineration is rapidly diminishing around the world. Increasingly, it is seen as yesterday’s technology—old technology that is going out of fashion. In spite of that, Norfolk county council has opted for incineration to sort out Norfolk’s waste, in the face of massive public opposition, which I will come back to in a moment, and the opposition of the local borough council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk and all of Norfolk’s MPs.
In March 2011, the county council awarded a contract to Cory Wheelabrator to build a huge 268,000-tonne plant at Saddlebow, near King’s Lynn in my constituency. In spite of opposition from so many quarters, the council tried to give itself permission at a planning committee in June 2012. I am pleased, however, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government issued a holding notice and called in the application, for which I and Norfolk’s other MPs are grateful. The hearing before Norfolk county council’s planning committee was a total farce, and no one received a fair hearing. I am confident that at the public inquiry, though, we will be treated with great respect; I have every confidence in the inspector.
The Saddlebow site, which is to the west of King’s Lynn, is totally unsuitable for a county-wide facility. If we are to put such a facility in Norfolk, we should not put it in the far west of the county, not least because of the number of vehicle movements necessary along already stretched roads. Furthermore, the site is upwind of Norfolk’s third largest community—I will come back to the health risks—and of the internationally renowned Wash, famous for its shellfishery and as a breeding ground for many other species. It is upwind of numerous sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty, including Roydon common and the Dersingham bog on the Sandringham estate. It is also on a floodplain so, frankly, the county council could not have picked a more unsuitable site.
The figures in the contract signed by Norfolk county council with Cory Wheelabrator are huge, amounting to £596.9 million over 25 years. I understand that the runner-up was AmeyCespa, which had a bid total £46 million more favourable than Cory Wheelabrator’s. Norfolk county council must explain why it went for the more expensive solution. We must see some transparency and the evaluation results made public. Furthermore, why did it switch to Cory Wheelabrator at the last moment? The council also negotiated a £20 million penalty clause and an agreement to pay Cory Wheelabrator’s legal fees beyond a figure of £100,000, which I find staggering. The contract surely represents an abject and total failure by the county council to protect Norfolk’s hard-pressed council tax payers. As my colleagues are aware, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued private finance initiative waste credits about a year ago. At the time, our view was that those waste credits were not a good use of money and that DEFRA’s own criteria, which demand a broad public consensus, were not met. The contract, however, was signed, and the PFI credits signed off.
Palm Paper has a large paper-mill near the proposed site and, at the time of the planning application, Cory Wheelabrator claimed that it was in detailed, advanced and ongoing negotiations with the mill for the offtake of heat. That claim was repeated in DEFRA’s waste infrastructure delivery programme report that was issued in October 2011. The WIDP report is the transactor monthly report, which is more of a technical document, and one was published the other day—again, there was talk of links with Palm Paper and the offtake of heat. Palm Paper, however, has denied that talks were taking place or that they were at an advanced stage, so we need to know what was going on. What was happening? Can the county council and Cory Wheelabrator clarify things?
What do the public think of all this? During the consultation process I chaired some public meetings, and both sides of the argument were made vehemently and strongly. Nearly 2,000 people voted, having attended those meetings, and 99% voted against the incinerator. The borough council then carried out a borough-wide referendum covering all my constituency and most of the constituency of my hon. Friend Elizabeth Truss. It was run by King’s Lynn and West Norfolk borough council under Electoral Commission rules, and the result was remarkable—65,516 people voted no on a turnout of 61.3%, so a total of 92.68% voted no. Compared with the recent police and crime commissioner elections, when the turnout was around 12%, that must be one of the most decisive, if not the most decisive result in British electoral history.
Neither Norfolk county council nor Cory Wheelabrator took part in the referendum. They could have done, but they refused to do so on so-called legal grounds. They could have accepted the result and looked for a compromise, or at least held discussions, but they did not. Cory Wheelabrator’s advisers, PPS, an independent communications consultancy, said in a document at the time that,
“we need to suggest that our absence from the referendum undermines the moral value of it and that it carries no legal value in any event,”
That was cynical and shabby.
I congratulate and commend my hon. Friend on his work in standing up for his constituents, which is the cornerstone of our democracy. Does he agree that whatever the whys and wherefores of the issue—some of the arguments are complex—localism often requires difficult and tough decisions from the locality, but democracy is ill served if, at any level of government, consultation takes place but its findings are ignored, particularly when they are as overwhelming as in this case? When difficult decisions require leadership, they should be done without consultation that is ignored.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s excellent support. My hon. Friend the Minister wrote to me about the Government’s planning policy and said, “Our policy is to put power into the hands of local communities to shape the plans and places where they live.” Does the Minister agree that it is wrong for any council, particularly a strategic tier council, to ride roughshod over local people when they have made their views so crystal clear?
I want to say a word or two about incineration. Is it efficient, does it encourage recycling and how green is it? First, it has low energy efficiency. It produces more CO2 than oil and gas, and even coal. On the plus side, it generates electricity, but in doing so the process of combustion creates new waste streams and new hazards. I will elaborate on that in a moment. Incineration now flies in the face of the whole philosophy championed in DEFRA’s 2011 waste review, which referred to “reduction, reuse and recycling”. Recycling crowds out the three R’s.
Norfolk’s current recycling rate is a pitiful 38%, one of the lowest in the country. The county council’s figures show that it will increase to 55.4% by 2020, which is still a very low rate. I suggest that incineration discourages recycling. The revolution that is taking place is about educating people, and encouraging young people and the older generation—people like my mother who had never recycled anything, but now separates her waste and follows the recycling rules. There is a recycling revolution.
Norfolk county council committed itself under the contract to supply 170,000 tonnes of waste to the incinerator. The beast will need feeding, and the council has a choice of either keeping recycling rates low, or importing waste from around the whole region, or perhaps both, which would be the worst of all worlds. A disincentive to recycle is built into incineration, which is why in the DEFRA waste hierarchy incineration is falling down the list. The whole world is turning way from incineration, including the EU and the US.
The Massachusetts state government’s waste master plan 2010-20 refers to “A Pathway to Zero Waste”, and calls
“for keeping the state’s current moratorium on new incinerators; expanding reuse, recycling and composting; ensuring greater producer responsibility for materials; and promoting recycling businesses and jobs.”
“on a per-ton basis, recycling sustains 10 times the number of jobs that burning does.”
That is a strong argument, and it is going on around the world.
Is incineration safe and healthy? Although the filters remove most of the larger particles, those under 10 microns are not filtered out. Those nano or microparticles escape into the atmosphere and can be blown on the wind for up to 15 miles. Even if industry removed the nanoparticles down to 2.5 microns, some would still escape, and they contain CO2 obviously, nitrogen oxides, mercury, lead and dioxins. An additional problem is that a significant percentage of the waste from the incineration process is left behind as toxic fly ash that must be treated and dealt with. There is an issue with that because the site is in a flood zone.
Many of those chemicals are both toxic and biocumulative, so they may have an impact on people’s health if they are subjected to them over a prolonged period. Many of the studies are only just reaching conclusions and producing results. The situation is evolving, and the lead-in time is often long and slow. However, a recent report from the British Society for Ecological Medicine is headed, “The Health Effects of Waste Incinerators” second edition, June 2008, and the authors are Dr Jeremy Thompson and Dr Honor Anthony.
They focus on people such as the very young and the very old who might have a pre-existing respiratory condition, and say that some of the dioxins, particularly PAHs—polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—may have an effect on people with pre-existing conditions. They say that
“it has been estimated that these increase the lung cancer risk by 7.8 times”,
which I find very, very worrying.
What does that mean? It means that if the incinerator is located upwind of King’s Lynn, it could have an impact on people’s health. We do not know for sure, but I suggest that on the precautionary principle alone, one would not put it in the proposed location. Furthermore, substances such as mercury and lead do not biodegrade. They remain in ecosystems and they can have a long-term impact on food chains through a build-up, for example, in farming, horticulture and shellfish. We would be mad to locate the facility upwind of a population centre and upwind of very valuable agriculture and horticulture. All I say to the county council is, have a look at the potential damage. Look at the precautionary principle, and do not put a blight on our homes, on our habitats, and on my constituency and those of my hon. Friends nearby. I have a vision of west Norfolk attracting new waves of dynamic IT and life science businesses, but all that could be put at risk by the project.
I want to talk about the company itself, because Cory Wheelabrator is a partnership between Cory Environmental Ltd, which is a well-known, well-established UK company, and Wheelabrator Technologies, which is a subsidiary of the US credit company Waste Management Inc., or WMX Technologies. The parent company in America has a truly awful record of performance. There is absolutely no doubt about that. I have a long list of examples of where it has either been heavily fined or severely reprimanded. Most recently, Wheelabrator Technologies, which operates three waste incinerators in Massachusetts, agreed to pay a staggering $7.5 million sum to settle a state lawsuit. The alleged violations included emitting ash through holes in the plant’s roof and walls; failure to properly treat and dispose of ash; and dumping waste water in the surrounding wetlands.
Another payout, again in 2011, was $77,500, in agreement with the Maryland Department of the Environment to resolve violations of the state’s air pollution control laws in two separate incidents, both of which stemmed from a failure to control mercury emissions released from its south Baltimore incinerator. If we go back further, there are other examples—I have a long list, and I will quote two more. In 1991, the sheriff of Ventura county, California, issued a report describing 225 different criminal and civil actions over 13 years against WMI and subsidiaries. That, again, is a staggering figure. In 1992, a report in San Diego found that
“the company’s history requires extreme caution by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors or any other governmental entity contemplating any contractual or business relationship with Waste Management.”
It also stated that
“it is clear that Waste Management engages in practices designed to gain undue influence over government officials.”
I would also like to mention one other event, from 1996, when WMX was found guilty of cheating, fraud, misrepresentation, greed and other crimes in respect of hazardous waste. A federal judge ordered an award of damages of $76 million, plus punitive damages of $15 million. Among other things, the judge said:
“What is troubling about this case is that fraud, misrepresentation and dishonesty apparently became part of the operating culture of the Defendant corporation.”
The company has serious questions to answer. I also ask Cory Environmental Ltd whether it has carried out full due diligence. I also ask the Environment Agency whether it looked at Wheelabrator’s associated companies’ and parent companies’ records in America. Surely that would have some influence on the decision about whether it is a fit and proper company to be doing business in Norfolk, and furthermore, is this really a company that Norfolk’s council tax payers should be funding?
If there were no alternatives to incineration, I would be saying that perhaps we have to go along with it as the only solution available, but it is not the only solution available. Earlier, I mentioned the three R’s, the recycling revolution that is taking place that all of us want to encourage, and the change in culture across families and communities regarding people who want not only to recycle, but to add value to waste. A number of exciting technologies are now emerging, and one in particular involves anaerobic digestion plus plastics extrusion and manufacturing.
There is a company called Material Works, with which the borough council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk has signed a memorandum of understanding and a conditional contract to treat all of its 30,000 tonnes of waste. The company’s process entails, first of all, methane extraction from anaerobic digestion, and then adding fibres and digesters from the anaerobic digestion into an extrusion process, adding plastics and polymers, and ending up with a substance called Omnicite, from which plastic products such as fencing, pallets and roofing material can be manufactured. There is a conditional contract and a pilot plant is about to be opened. If it works, and there is a very strong chance that it will, given what has been proved on the continent, Norfolk county council’s waste strategy would be in complete tatters, because it would be losing out on a key waste management partner in the waste partnership, because if the waste is not obtained from west Norfolk, I do not see how the strategy could survive.
My approach—I want to make this clear to the Minister—is constructive and pragmatic. As I say, if there were no alternative to incineration, I would not be questioning the plant so vehemently, but I believe that there are cheaper, better, more modern and more exciting alternatives that would command public support. I have lived in Norfolk all my life, bar four years, and I spent all that time in west Norfolk, which has a truly remarkable environment. We have some world-class habitats, world-class biodiversity, and an amazing tourism industry. We have some really impressive light industry and IT companies. We have a great deal going for us, with a growing community and a great historic town, in King’s Lynn. We have some of the best farming in the country and a horticultural industry that is second to none. We have a shellfish industry in the Wash that is also incredibly important and a number of SSSIs and areas of outstanding beauty. We have a community that is very proud of itself, and what concerns me a great deal is that there could be a blight on this community, and the impact would be very significant. It would be an absolute scandal if all those things I have spoken of were put at risk.
What I am saying to the Norfolk county council is, please think again. I know it has the penalty clause and that it has made commitments. I know that civil servants, officials and councillors, having made their mind up, do not like to change track, because they see it a sign of weakness. What I am saying is, why not sit down and talk to local MPs—talk to all of Norfolk’s MPs—and to the borough council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, and look for an alternative solution that could command public support? There is an opportunity to do that, and would that not be far better than slugging it out in a public inquiry at huge public expense? There is a better way to go, and I urge it on Norfolk county council and on Cory Wheelabrator.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Bellingham on securing this debate on a subject that is of such importance to his constituents. I am always in awe of him, particularly when he arrives here at the head of an army of men and women from Norfolk who have turned out, in numbers that any of us in this place would envy in an election, in support of the cause for which he argues so eloquently.
I know my hon. Friend will understand that with the application having been called in by the Secretary of State, which he was keen to see happen, it is now not possible for me to discuss the details of the application, for fear of prejudicing that process of inquiry and call-in. However, it may be helpful if I set out briefly the general national policy background for waste policy against which the decision will be made and talk a little how about the process of public inquiry will work, so that his constituents can understand how they can engage and ensure that their opinions are taken into account in that process.
My hon. Friend recognised, and indeed saluted, the Government’s commitment to a zero-waste economy. In preparing for this debate, I came across a phrase that I thought was horrific: the waste hierarchy. When we dig behind the phrase, however, we discover a very intelligent and simple concept, which is that the first priority should be to reduce our use of any material; the second priority, if we cannot reduce our use of the material, should be to reuse it; the third priority, if we cannot reduce our use of it or reuse it, should be to recycle it; if we cannot do any of those things, we should think about energy recovery from burning it; and only as the last resort should we consider disposing of it. My hon. Friend is right to point out that energy recovery comes way down the list. To the extent that it is possible to push stuff higher up, into one of the other categories of reduction, reuse or recycling, that is better.
The Government require every area to have a plan for waste management. I recognise that Norfolk county council has such a plan and congratulate the council on that, because that is the key basis for the decisions it makes. As a Government who genuinely would like to see as many local decisions as possible, we would prefer local authorities to make decisions on waste, as on other matters, for themselves, having put in place the right policies through a plan on which they have consulted widely with local people. Our default position therefore is that we would prefer a local authority in Norfolk to take this decision. Sometimes, however, issues are so controversial or their impact will be so widespread that the Secretary of State has the right to call in the decisions. To be clear, the criteria suggest that if an application might conflict with a national policy on an important matter, have a long-term impact on economic growth, have significant effects beyond the immediate locality, or give rise to substantial controversy, there is a case for the Secretary of State to call it in to make the decision at national level.
After my hon. Friend and all the other Norfolk MPs, plus others—a total of 20 MPs, I believe—and many other people suggested that the Secretary of State should call in the application, the Secretary of State took the decision to do so. What we now start on is the process of public inquiry by an inspector. Let me briefly set out how that will work.
I am indebted to the Minister for making those important points. On the point about Norfolk’s waste strategy, does he agree with me that it would be much better if Norfolk county council had got the full support of all the districts, including Norwich city council and King’s Lynn and West Norfolk borough council, to support incineration? Those other councils support the waste strategy in broad terms, but not incineration specifically, so there is a glaring fault in the waste strategy.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that it would be preferable to have that support. We do need to recognise—this is not unique to incineration—that certain facilities that are required in every area of the country will never be popular among their neighbours. This facility may well be one of them, but what is absolutely the case is that there needs to be a thorough process to gain an understanding of the answers to the following questions. Is this is the right facility? Is it the right technology? Is it a necessary facility? Is it of the right scale and, critically, is it in the right place? Is the operator, as my hon. Friend has asked, a fit and proper operator? All those questions will be explored—should be explored—by the county council in putting together its plans and will be explored, to the extent that they are planning issues, in the planning inquiry.
The timetable for the public inquiry procedure is designed to enable the application to proceed quickly and fairly. I understand that the inquiry will commence on