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Landfill Sites: Odour — [Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Part of Special Educational Needs: Isle of Wight – in Westminster Hall at 4:15 pm on 25th February 2020.

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Photo of Aaron Bell Aaron Bell Conservative, Newcastle-under-Lyme 4:15 pm, 25th February 2020

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. In the case I am discussing, the operators do flare off the methane that has been produced and that will be an ongoing requirement for them after they start capping it off, but where the Environment Agency is not strong enough, we need to do more, as I will say in my requests to the Minister.

My hon. Friend Wendy Morton, who as a Minister cannot speak in this debate, told me of similar problems in her constituency. She relates that her residents have happily lived by a landfill site for many years, but in the last few months they have experienced a pungent eggy smell, which has at times engulfed their homes. They have experienced inertia on the part of the Environment Agency in effectively managing their concerns.

My hon. Friend Robert Largan discussed with me the landfill site in Arden Quarry in Birch Vale, which is a major concern for many of his constituents, even though the operator is working hard to reduce odours. My right hon. Friend Amanda Milling—a fellow Staffordshire MP, who as a member of the Cabinet also cannot speak in this debate, though she wanted to attend—has had similar problems in her constituency with landfills emitting odourous gases and she has worked hard to improve the situation for local residents. This is affecting constituents around the country and Members in all parts of the House.

Since being elected in December, I have held meetings with local campaigners, some of whom I mentioned earlier, the Environment Agency, and RED Industries Ltd, which runs the site. The Environment Agency is responsible for the regulation of the environmental permit for Walley’s Quarry landfill site, and it carried out an ambient air monitoring study between 15 January and 25 June 2019. The objective of the study was to identify the local sources of air pollution and to quantify the environmental impact of the emissions on the surrounding area and the local community. The most recent survey demonstrated that there was a continuous source of methane and hydrogen sulphide—the latter being the “rotten egg” smell that people find so distasteful—coming from the direction of the landfill, and it found that hydrogen sulphide concentrations occasionally exceeded odour limits, though not health limits, which are measured against WHO guidelines, as I mentioned earlier.

Further, I find it disappointing that the Environment Agency does not go so far as to say that the smell is coming from the landfill in its report. Rather, it says:

“Directional analysis showed that there was a continuous source of CH4 and H2S from the direction of Walleys Quarry landfill site and that a build-up of these compounds was seen under conditions of low wind speed and temperature and high pressure.”

It is disappointing that the agency that is supposed to be looking out for people cannot point the finger when it should.

What am I asking the Minister to do? First, it would be extremely helpful if the she or her departmental colleagues came to Newcastle-under-Lyme to see—or perhaps smell—the problem for themselves. I believe my residents and the operator would also welcome dialogue with the Department. The Environment Agency needs a stronger hand in dealing with operators. I think my constituents would agree with me when I say that at present the Environment Agency is a little bit toothless in dealing with issues as they arise. What is really needed is an empowered agency, able to properly hold operators accountable. Will the Minister consider giving the Environment Agency a broader range of powers to allow it to deal more quickly and effectively with minor and frequent breaches that do not necessarily lead to the revocation of a licence?

We also need to look at the role of local communities. Local communities have few options for remedy against a waste operator where the operator acts in compliance with its environmental permit and is not causing demonstrable adverse health effects. Odour is not something which can be measured objectively; quantifying and characterising odours is very challenging because each person’s sensitivity to odours varies. Further, reaching a judgment on whether odour constitutes a statutory nuisance can take time, especially if the occurrence is unpredictable and only apparent for short periods, or is dependent on particular weather patterns. Local communities know best how their lives are affected. Their needs should be considered throughout monitoring and investigation, so that their concerns are taken seriously.

More generally, the regulations governing odour are not fit for purpose. A site that smells may not be causing health issues, as judged by World Health Organisation criteria, but that is not to say that it should be allowed to smell. The example of Walley’s Quarry landfill site highlights that an operator may be compliant with its permit and planning permission, but that does not mean that it is not causing offence to its neighbours. As one of the richest and most developed countries in the world, we should aspire to higher standards than the bare minimum stipulations of WHO. I argue that the bar of statutory nuisance is too high. Will the Minister look again at whether that is the best measure to determine if a landfill site’s smell is at an acceptable level in view of its location? The level of odour in Silverdale is not fair to residents. It has a significant impact on their quality of life, even though it is at a legally permissible level. That needs to change.

I also argue that the practices of the Environment Agency fuel a lack of trust between communities and the agency. Communities want to feel that they have been listened to; they want to know that their concerns are being taken seriously, and that they can trust that effective monitoring is taking place when they express concerns. The persistence of the problem of odour in Newcastle-under-Lyme has understandably created a sense of powerlessness in the community, and residents do not feel that their concerns have been taken seriously enough by the Environment Agency. It took nearly six months for the findings of the monitoring exercise last year to be made public, which contributed to a regrettable sense of suspicion among some of my constituents. Will the Minister consider asking the agency to make the data from site monitoring more easily available to residents and the general public? If such data were made available publicly, live on a website or with a short delay for quality assurance, communities would be able to see directly for themselves that monitoring is taking place; they would be able to understand the levels of air pollution and odour being detected. That small change could go some way to help communities to feel less anxious, fitting in with the general agenda of the greater government transparency.

Finally, will the Minister work with her colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that no future landfill sites are allowed to be built so close to where people live, as is the case in Newcastle-under-Lyme? Living next to a landfill site will never be pleasant, and the Environment Agency acknowledges that no landfill site will ever be odour-free. To avoid problems in the duture, we should tighten up planning rules to ensure that landfill sites cannot be permitted within a certain distance of existing housing. I am grateful to the Minister for listening so attentively, and I look forward to her response.