Waste Incineration: Permit Variation — [Clive Efford in the Chair]

Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 1st December 2022.

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Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 1:30 pm, 1st December 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered permit variation processes for waste incineration facilities.

It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I thank the Chairman of Ways and Means for selecting today’s debate, especially because doing so involved a change to the Order Paper at short notice. I appreciate the opportunity to bring this matter to Westminster Hall today. I also thank the Minister for attending; it is great to see her back in her place. She will have heard much of what I am about to say when she was in her role previously, not just in my speeches in Westminster Hall but in our many conversations. I am grateful that she is willing to listen to me talk on the topic once again.

It will come as no surprise to colleagues that the topic of my speech is the Beddington incinerator in my Carshalton and Wallington constituency. The facility can currently process over 300,000 tonnes of non-hazardous residual waste a year. The waste is imported from four south London boroughs and further afield, as well as coming from my own borough, the London Borough of Sutton. Since the site completed commissioning in 2019, it has been bedevilled by problems, and to this day my constituents suffer because of a number of issues regarding the site.

The first issue is that the incinerator is statistically the No. 1 polluter in the London Borough of Sutton. Emissions limits have been breached on literally hundreds of occasions, with more than 20 incidents relating to carbon dioxide and 40 incidents relating to volatile organic compounds, plus many more invalid reports. The promised Beddington Farmlands restoration project has been delayed again and again, and protected ground-nesting birds have been killed by predators because of failures to keep water levels from dropping. Local roads have been damaged, congested and polluted by regular waste vehicle movements. The rise in nitrogen dioxide from gas canisters and recreational drug taking has caused multiple explosions at the facility, which have risked the safety of the workers and pushed emissions up with every occurrence. In addition, recycling rates have fallen by over 6% in the London Borough of Sutton alone. I will delve into all those problems, and more, later.

We were regularly reassured by the Lib Dem-run council—I note that not a single Liberal Democrat Member has turned up to the debate—that, following sign-off, the operator would not submit any future variations. Well, surprise, surprise: barely three years since the site was first developed, Viridor has indeed submitted an application to the Environment Agency to vary its environmental permit to enable enhanced operations at the Beddington site. In layman’s terms, that means that it wants to burn more waste at Beddington. That will mean more vehicle movements, which will mean more emissions, and more problems for my Carshalton and Wallington constituents.

The application for the variation was submitted way back in January, but the Environment Agency has only in recent weeks launched the public consultation on it. Over the past 11 months, I have had various conversations with Viridor, the council, councillors, community groups and residents about the proposals. During that period, it has become clear that the application is totally inappropriate. Given that this is a live application undergoing consultation, the Minister is limited in what she can say, but I want to make some points. What sparked the need for the debate was not the content of the application and the proposals alone, as serious as those issues are; in addition, I have found that there is extremely limited community engagement and influence over the processes for determining these applications. I hope that we can discuss that in more detail.

The regulation of incinerators in England is split between the Environment Agency and local authorities, with the EA regulating incinerators with a capacity greater than 3 tonnes per hour for non-hazardous waste and 10 tonnes per day for hazardous waste. That has been the case for the Beddington incinerator in my constituency. Incinerators below those levels are regulated by local authorities.

The environmental permit sets conditions that limit the discharge to air, water and soil of specified substances. The regulations require public consultation on some permit applications, but do not prescribe the methods of consultation. That can cause inconsistencies in the level of engagement that communities are offered around the country. Once an operator has an environmental permit, changes in the operation of the facility may require it to apply to vary the permit. It must apply to the regulator to vary the permit conditions when proposing a change that would mean that a permit condition can no longer be complied with. The Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016 require the Environment Agency to consult on any new application or applications involving a substantial change.

Despite potentially significant cumulative impacts on communities following permit variation, there is no mechanism for local authorities to directly influence the determination. Unlike for initial applications for incinerators or other comparable major planning, environmental or licensing proposals or changes to conditions, communities are essentially frozen out of the decision-making process for permit variations for incinerators.

The Beddington site was first given the green light by Lib Dem-run Sutton Council back in 2013. The environmental permit allowed for the processing of up to 302,500 tonnes of waste per annum. The variation was granted in December 2020 to allow for the processing of up to 347,422 tonnes of waste per annum, based on the increase in availability, but Viridor is now looking to increase capacity to 382,286 tonnes per annum. That is a 26% increase in waste at the site since it was originally approved at the application stage.

In the past 12 months, slightly over 65,000 vehicle movements have been made to the incinerator. The draft proposed variations would increase projected vehicle movements to up to 76,000 per year. That is a 17% increase. Despite those shocking figures and the significant impact the variation will have on the community, there is a noticeable lack of discussion about the cumulative impacts of permit variations.

Paragraph 47 of the Government’s planning practice guidance for waste highlights the importance of the cumulative impacts of intensifying existing waste management sites and the need to engage with communities:

“The waste planning authority should not assume that because a particular area has hosted, or hosts, waste disposal facilities, that it is appropriate to add to these or extend their life. It is important to consider the cumulative effect of previous waste disposal facilities on a community’s wellbeing. Impacts on environmental quality, social cohesion and inclusion and economic potential may all be relevant. Engagement with the local communities affected by previous waste disposal decisions will help in these considerations.”

Despite that, the increase in traffic generated by intensifying incineration at the Beddington site cannot be taken into account by the Environment Agency when determining whether the application is appropriate. Its website states that residents are not allowed to talk about vehicle movements and the impact their emissions will have when the application is determined because it is a planning matter. The irony will not be lost on Carshalton and Wallington residents that one of the Lib Dems’ arguments for building the incinerator in the first place was that it would reduce the number of vehicle movements needed on the site.

The incinerator has been operational for barely three years, and this is the second permit variation application to land on the Environment Agency’s doorstep. If this one is approved, what is to say that there will not be another one and another one and another one years down the line? At what point does the intensification of the site and the cumulative impact that it has on the community at large warrant an entirely new permit or planning application?

Residents in Carshalton and Wallington did not vote to burn more waste, then a bit more a few years later, then a bit more a few years later. They did not vote to expand the incinerator’s reach, with waste brought to our area from another borough, then another and maybe another. They did not vote for more vehicle movements, potholes and exhaust fumes—they were originally told that vehicle numbers would fall. They did not vote for an increase in air pollution when they were told again and again that incineration is better than landfill. They did not vote for Beddington Lane, the road where the incinerator is located, to seem permanently to have roadworks, causing massive traffic displacement across the constituency. And now here we are at the precipice of another attempt to vary the incinerator’s permit, a decision that will be taken out of local hands.

Blame cannot be laid solely at the feet of the process or regulations that are being followed. Lib Dem-run Sutton Council birthed the incinerator into our borough and has been incubating it for years while turning a blind eye to scandal after scandal, betrayal after betrayal, until the grotesque expansion of the incinerator risks transforming Beddington into the dumping ground of south London. That was the Lib Dem vision for Carshalton and Wallington—one that never appeared in any election manifesto.

There needs to be a mechanism to ensure that communities have greater influence—more than just a single written consultation—over these processes and the determination of repeated major permit variations. Communities need to be able to hold regulators and those who make these decisions, whether that is the local authority or the Environment Agency, to account.

I have organised my own petition to oppose Viridor’s expansion plans and to call for them to be dropped. Already, almost 1,000 local people have signed the petition and said no to the expansion plans. I would hazard a guess that that is far more than will respond to the official consultation, because very few people are aware of it and there is no direct outreach engagement from Viridor or the Environment Agency. The application was submitted almost a year ago, but there has been hardly any promotion of the consultation. We are now firmly in the consultation period but, unfortunately, it falls in the middle of the Christmas period, when people will be distracted by other things.

Oddly, I am pleased about something. The Environment Agency has understood that the Beddington proposals are of high public interest, and it proposes to hold a second consultation once the current one has closed. However, there are other ways to improve engagement with the community, such as holding multiple public information events in residential areas, and a public hearing, which would allow stakeholders to provide evidence in support of their views directly to the body that will make the decision. Although not perfect, those activities would at least help community awareness and mitigate the feeling that the decision is being made by a faceless organisation far away from the local area.

Separate to the process of determination and consultation, there are other ways to mitigate issues with the content of permit variations. It is within the scope of the Environment Agency to assert conditions for permit variations. For example, a condition could be added to ensure the operator installs metal detectors and magnets to extract any recyclable or harmful metal materials before they are burnt.

I mentioned the scourge of nitrous oxide canisters, which can be purchased legally, in many circumstances to achieve a so-called legal high. I am sure other hon. Members will share their experience of seeing such canisters littered across the streets. They have to be disposed of, so they get into our waste stream and end up being incinerated. When they make contact with high heat, they explode, potentially causing damage to the plant, massive operational difficulties, and danger to the people who work at or live near the site.

Viridor has launched a public information campaign to make it clear that such canisters should not be put into residential bins. I support that campaign and welcome those efforts, and I hope we can send a message from the House today that we support efforts to ensure that gas canisters do not end up in bins. However, I would go a step further. Viridor is already using metal detectors and magnets to extract harmful metals at another site; the Environment Agency should stipulate the installation of similar technology in Beddington as a condition for the permit variation.

On a similar note, I find it appalling that we still do not understand how much recyclable waste is sent for incineration in this country. There need to be clear, measurable recycling targets that operators must adhere to. The proponents of incineration often point to recycling as a metric of their success and evidence that incineration is better than landfill. While the latter is certainly true—no one disputes that, and no one wants to see a return to waste being put into the ground; that is, of course, the worst of all options—the same cannot be said for the effect of incineration on recycling rates. As landfill sites have begun to close and be phased out, incineration has picked up much of the demand, nearly quadrupling in the past decade from 12% to 44% of our waste management capacity. However, recycling rates have barely moved in that time, from 37% to 43%—just a 6% increase.

That is not coincidental or unrelated. According to worrying research by the House of Commons Library, data from the 123 waste authorities shows a negative relationship between recycling and incineration. In other words, higher incineration means lower recycling, and vice versa. I saw that at first hand when I visited the incinerator in Beddington. Recyclable materials will always find their way into the wrong bin—of course they will—but there must be processes to filter them out.

I have also been informed of investigations from other areas of England where specific recycling bin bags have been sent to incineration. Indeed, a local group in my constituency, and in boroughs in south London, put tracking devices in bins and found that they ended up in the incineration room at the incinerator. They were not being recycled but shoved straight in to be burned. That is an absolute scandal. Research from Zero Waste Europe reveals that more than 90% of materials that end up in incineration plants or landfill could be recycled or composted. Ninety per cent! That is huge.

Even when waste is turned into energy, recycling is still the better option. It can save up to five times the energy produced by burning waste, which is not a renewable resource, creates toxic pollution, and potentially emits more carbon dioxide than some hydrocarbon-powered plants. In other words, incinerators need waste, whether it is recyclable or not, to have an effective business model. I do not think that we can call that recycling.

However, there is some good news, which could help us phase out incineration and should be considered before expanded or future incineration sites are approved. That is, of course, the deposit return scheme, which has seen recycling rates rocket in more than 40 countries and is due to be rolled out here in the UK.

The resources and waste strategy sets out the Government’s plans to reduce, reuse and recycle more than we do now. Their target is to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste throughout the life of the 25-year environment plan. The groundbreaking and world-leading Environment Act 2021 introduced powers to introduce a deposit return scheme for drinks containers. That will prevent billions more plastic bottles from going into landfill or being littered or incinerated. I believe that that will help to change consumer behaviours, with potential knock-on effects for other environmental activities, and will reduce the need for more incineration.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has consulted twice on introducing a deposit return scheme in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, most recently in 2021. I understand that Ministers anticipate a scheme being introduced in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in late 2024 at the earliest, subject to the outcome of the second consultation. I would be grateful for an update from the Minister, but that represents a realistic yet ambitious timetable to ensure that DEFRA implements a DRS that is as effective as possible in achieving the UK’s objective of boosting recycling levels. It will offer greater opportunities to collect higher-quality, uncontaminated materials in greater quantities, thus promoting a circular economy and reducing the need for incineration.

The UK Government plan to halve the amount of waste going to landfill or incineration in England by 2042. Proposals to expand existing sites, such as the one at Beddington, directly contravene that ambition. England currently has 15.6 million tonnes of operational incineration capacity. If consented capacity was built, that would grow to more than 28 million tonnes, while feedstock—the amount of waste to be burned—is expected to fall to around 13.4 million tonnes by 2042. That is less than the capacity we have now, and it would mean that we had 14.7 million tonnes of excess capacity in England—and that is without any of the further 3.7 million tonnes of capacity that is currently in the planning system being granted. Despite that, the Environment Agency is unable to take into account issues around national overcapacity when determining permit variations such as the one for Beddington.

Another cumulative impact of these proposals, which is being swept under the carpet, frankly, is on Carshalton and Wallington residents. I could speak all day, as I think I have demonstrated, about the Beddington incinerator and its continued impact on my constituents. However, I will wrap up my remarks to allow colleagues to speak and to hear what the Minister has to say.

I will just end by saying that Carshalton and Wallington has suffered as a result of continual failures by the Lib Dem council to hold the incinerator to account. The council forced it on residents in the first place and now it is doing nothing about it. Now, due to the processes that are in place, we are at risk of being on the receiving end of even more waste, more vehicle movements, more incineration and more emissions. There are alternatives to this and conditions that could mitigate the impact. I hope that the Minister can shed a little more light on the work that the Government are doing to phase out incineration and introduce other measures, such as the deposit return scheme.

Carshalton and Wallington residents must have a voice in this debate and they should have a say on whether their community—our community—takes on more of south London’s rubbish to burn. The motion states:

“That this House
has considered permit variation processes for waste incineration facilities.”

We need to consider the cumulative impacts of incineration and the impact of expanding incineration sites. The residents of Carshalton and Wallington have considered it, I have considered it, and I do not think that the process to vary environmental permits is working in the best interests of communities.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Conservative, Loughborough 1:51 pm, 1st December 2022

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate today under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn, and to precede, as I suspect I will, Robbie Moore, in our triple alliance on incineration. We have been here many a time.

Let me set out the background to explain why I am speaking in the debate. An incinerator is currently under construction in my constituency and I want to articulate the frustration at it being built at all and the seeming futility of objecting to its construction and further extension of use.

That an incinerator needs to be built at all is questionable, because we have overcapacity in incineration in the UK. Indeed, in my opinion the only reason incinerators were embraced at all was the EU directive to charge a tax per tonne of landfill going into the ground, rather than promoting and encouraging a reduction in the use of virgin materials and a focus on recycling, as well as a significant shift in culture and thinking about it. Instead, we are left with a legacy of burning to avoid landfill, rather than a change of behaviour and action. In my view, that is the real waste.

As things stand, our incinerator has not even been built but the operator is requesting a change in the permit to increase the amount of waste that can be dealt with on the site. In March 2022 the Government launched their consultation on emissions targets relating to the Environment Act 2021, stating that they were determined to leave our environment in a better state than they found it. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said:

“It included around 800 pages of evidence that were published following three years of developing the scientific and economic evidence. The consultation closed on 27th June. We received over 180,000 responses, which all needed to be analysed and carefully considered. In light of the volume of material and the significant public response we will not be able to publish targets by 31st October, as required by the Act. However, I would like to reassure this House and all interested parties that we will continue to work at pace in order to lay draft statutory instruments as soon as practicable.”—[Official Report, 28 October 2022; Vol. 721, c. 18WS.]

The Loughborough air quality protection group said in a submission to Leicestershire County Council’s cabinet on 25 October:

“Presumably, if the Cabinet is content for Leicestershire’s waste to be incinerated at Newhurst, Members will be making a conscious decision that this will contribute to the amount of PM2.5 breathed by the Community, including elite and endurance athletes, and they are prepared to live with the consequences.”

Fine particulate matter—PM2.5—has a complex impact on human health. Once inhaled, these elements and compounds may pass into the bloodstream, scarring blood vessels. Others may become lodged in the deepest part of the lungs. In fact, death due to PM2.5 is the third leading-cause of preventable deaths in Leicestershire, and approximately 88 deaths in 2018 can be attributed to it.

Cabinet members at the council will also be aware of statements made by the Director of Public Health about the dangers of PM2.5. Waste incineration at Newhurst will produce PM2.5 emissions to air. Emissions of PM2.5 emitted at the flue are subject to limits specified in an environmental permit. Those emissions will be monitored and reported to the Environment Agency, which will take action if and when limits are exceeded. The levels of PM2.5 in the ambient air, especially downwind of the incinerator in Loughborough, will be monitored by the environmental protection team from Charnwood Borough Council.

The permitted annual mean levels of PM2.5 are currently set at 20 ug/m3, and will be reduced to an expected 10 ug/m3 when the Government next release targets. The comparative World Health Organisation level is 5 ug/m3. However, such levels of 2.5 in the air do not mean that it is safe for the community to breathe. The World Health Organisation states that,

“even the new limits should not be considered safe, as there appears to be no level at which pollutants stop causing damage”.

A further consideration is the location of Newhurst incinerator in relation to the Loughborough University campus, where elite and endurance athletes train and compete. Data recently collected by Charnwood Borough Council environmental protection team, using sophisticated monitoring equipment located between the incinerator site and the campus, show an annualised mean of PM2.5 of 11.5. That is even before the incinerator becomes operational.

In my own submission to the environmental targets consultation of May 2022, I stated that

“where we are lacking in research and data is the impact PM2.5 has on elite athletes. The University informs me that, while the average resting human breathes approximately 5 to 6 litres of air per minute, a typical endurance athlete may breathe around 150 litres a minute, and some world class athletes may breathe 300 litres a minute. This increased ventilation means that elite athletes are far more susceptible to respiratory problems such as asthma.

This is of particular concern in my constituency, given that the University is the UK’s leading university for sport, playing host to international, Olympic and Paralympic teams who come to take advantage of its unique facilities, some of which are located in the vicinity of the new incinerator. I would, therefore, argue that before setting an air quality target, more work needs to be done into the impact of PM2.5 on those with higher activity levels”.

The EU industrial emissions directive 2010 requires facilities within its scope to operate under a permit based on the use of best available techniques. BAT means

“the economically and technically viable techniques which are the best at preventing or minimising emissions and impacts on the environment as a whole.”

The Loughborough air quality protection group went on to say in its submission to the county council:

“Much of what is incinerated is not genuinely residual waste, but rather valuable material that could and should have been recycled or composted. Compositional analysis studies show that there are many instances where the majority (i.e. over 50%) of ‘waste’ collected at the kerbside could have been recycled or composted had it been put into the correct bin. And this does not even take account of the opportunities for Councils to extend the range of materials they accept for recycling at the kerbside.

When incinerators burn plastic they consume fossil fuel. The small amount of energy produced by incinerators is generated inefficiently and comes at a high climate cost. Difficult-to-recycle materials are increasingly being redesigned or phased out, meaning incinerators could become increasingly reliant upon burning recyclable and compostable material.”

Permits or not, extensions to permits or not, particulate matter targets set or not, we have too much capacity in the incinerator network right now, let alone with sites that are yet to come on stream, such as the one in Loughborough. I understand that Scotland undertook an independent review of the role of incineration in the waste hierarchy in Scotland, with a final report published in June 2022. The Scottish Government accepted all 12 recommendations, including a recommendation that no further planning permission for incineration facilities be granted. In March 2021, the Welsh Government placed a moratorium on new large-scale energy from waste plants, which came into effect immediately.

As I have done in debates before, I ask the Minister when there will be a moratorium for England—or are we to become the waste incineration site for the UK? When will there be targets for PM2.5 specifically, but for air quality in general, as stipulated in the Environment Act? Will that take into account the special nature of groups such as elite athletes? Will additional research be taken into air pollution and those with higher lung capacity? Could the BAT system be better defined regarding the emissions produced and what is technically possible—not just what is viable—and therefore focus on both climate and climate change rather than finance? What steps are being taken to encourage and incentivise businesses to reduce, repair and recycle more, both in their production processes and what they actually produce? What steps are being taken to make savvy choices in what individuals consume and how they dispose of the waste created? This is happening on our watch, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington mentioned, the fact that it falls between two stools—the Environment Agency and the planning process—needs to be addressed. Permits are not necessarily enough; we need to look at the issue on a wider scale.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley 2:02 pm, 1st December 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I thank my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn for securing this important debate, and it is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend Jane Hunt. They both gave excellent speeches on this really important issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington has an active incinerator in his constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough has one that is in development. I will talk about an incinerator that is not yet built, but which I certainly do not want to see built or to become operational. I note for the record that, although I am not involved, I have close family members who run and operate a plastic recycling business.

I will use the limited time available to talk specifically about waste incineration, touching on my concerns about how decisions on new incinerator applications are progressed, how environmental permits are awarded for waste incinerators and the future direction of waste incineration. The subject is of particular interest to me and many of my constituents and has been for many years because, going back as far as 2013, my constituents have constantly and consistently fought a battle to stop an incinerator from being built in Marley, on the outskirts of Keighley.

I will provide a bit of background. The Minister will be aware of the concerns that I raise, as I have raised them with not only her but her Department a few times before. The incinerator scheme was originally awarded planning consent by our local authority, Bradford Council, back in early 2017. The decision was made in spite of huge local opposition—opposition that has been fought for many years, and led by the Aire Valley Against Incineration campaign team, which is an excellent group. I give particular credit and extend my personal thanks to Simon Shimbles and Ian Hammond of the Aire Valley Against Incineration campaign team for working closely with me on this issue many times since I was elected as the Member of Parliament for Keighley. Their passion, dedication and acute attention to detail has shone throughout all our discussions. As I have pointed out before, it is a campaign organisation that, over the last six years or so, has seen its following—and involvement from local residents—grow to over 6,000 people, which shows the strength of feeling on the issue. It has worked tirelessly for many years, and since forming it has represented the views of the many residents living in Riddlesden, East Morton, Long Lee, Thwaites Brow, Keighley and our wider community far better on this subject than our own local authority, Labour-run Bradford Council. It is disappointing to see not one Labour Back-Bench Member or, indeed, any Back-Bench Member from the Liberal Democrats taking part in this important debate.

It is infuriating that the green light has been granted for the Aire valley incinerator to be built and to operate. I will pick up on some of the huge concerns that I and many others have, and address some of the flawed decision-making processes and disastrous decisions that have been adopted throughout the planning application and environmental permit stages. This is an incinerator that is set to be built at the bottom of a valley, in close proximity to schools, residential care homes, playing fields, people’s homes and spaces where children grow up and play. Despite that and many other factors that I will get into, both the Environment Agency and Labour-run Bradford Council as the local planning authority have deemed the construction and operation of the incinerator to be suitable and fit for our environment.

I have looked back at Bradford Council’s report, which its assistant director of planning produced for a planning committee that met in February 2017. The report concluded with a recommendation to grant planning permission, and it makes worrying reading because it concludes there are no community safety implications. Bradford Council’s air quality officer registered no objection, which is ironic because the council has just implemented a tax on hard-working people through our clean air zone tax, which impacts on many of my constituents who travel in and out of Bradford and want to use its businesses. Yet on the incinerator, to which it gave the green light, it registered no objection to the air quality implications, and the Environment Agency registered no objection at the planning stage. It commented:

“We have established that there are no show stoppers or serious concerns relating to the location of the proposed development”, despite its close proximity to many homes and being situated at the bottom of a valley, as I say, next to playing fields.

Bradford Council’s report goes on:

“The proposal enhances the quality of the environment, and promotes recycling.”

How on earth can burning waste be classed by Bradford Council as enhancing the quality of the environment when it is known that particulate matter such as sulphate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride and black carbon enter the atmosphere from such a process? I can only conclude that the council must be taking us in Keighley for fools. It goes on to say that an incinerator burning waste promotes recycling; that is ridiculous. My constituents deserve much better. Both Bradford Council’s planning decision and that of the Environment Agency in awarding the environmental permit have let all of us in Keighley and our wider area down. We have been let down by the process.

The potential impact on people’s health from the incineration process cannot be ignored. When the Environment Agency was doing a consultation on awarding the environmental permit, my hon. Friend Philip Davies and I both submitted a 10-page objection to the permit being awarded, raising concerns about the inadequate and unfair consultation process. In my view, it was a complete sham. We had concerns about noise and odour pollution, and the fact that the incinerator is to be built at the bottom of a valley, with the resultant challenges of the topography and the implications that emissions can have on public health as a result of temperature or cloud inversions.

The incinerator, as I have said, is to be built at the bottom of a valley. Residents live on either side. Going up the hill, schools are located. Travel down the Aire valley on a damp day and the cloud hangs low. The incinerator at the bottom will impact on air quality, and that is what I am concerned about.

I also raised concerns about the modelling of the pollution data that the Environment Agency used, because it was unreliable. I will give some examples. Data was collected by the Environment Agency from the Bingley weather station, which is located 262 metres above sea level, whereas the proposed Aire valley incinerator is to be built at roughly 85 metres above sea level. That discrepancy in elevation means that the estimated dispersion of emissions from the incinerator is based on information from a weather station at a significantly raised position where wind speeds behave much differently from those experienced at the bottom of the Aire valley. We also raised concerns about the proposed monitoring of emissions and any enforcement action that is likely to follow. There are also issues regarding stack height. The incinerator is proposed to have a stack height or chimney height of only 60 metres, yet other comparable incinerators have stack heights far higher, meaning emissions are better dispersed.

The list goes on, but perhaps the most significant of my concerns was about the incinerator’s impact on human health and air quality. It is clear that the incineration of waste creates a number of emissions. There is much concern about the impact of waste incineration on air quality and human health. The concerns relate predominantly to particulate matter, which is mainly composed of materials such as sulphate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride and black carbon.

The Minister will be aware that back in 2018 and 2019, Public Health England funded a study to examine the emissions of particulate matter from incineration and their impact on environmental health. Although the study found that the emissions from particulate matter from waste incinerations were low and made only a small contribution to ambient background levels, a contribution was noted nonetheless. There are many variable and influencing factors, such as stack height—meaning the chimney height—the surrounding topography, the feedstock, the microclimate and so on. We cannot simply look at reports and apply them as a blanket approach to every incinerator that is considered. Applications must be looked at individually.

Residents are, like me, quite rightly concerned about the air-quality impact of incineration, because of not just the incinerator itself but the increased traffic flows bringing waste to the site, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington mentioned. Unbelievably, when I questioned the decision making for the environmental permit that the Environment Agency has awarded, it told me that it could consider emissions only from the incinerator itself, not the emissions from the increased traffic flows, because that was a planning matter that Bradford Council had already given the green light to. It considered the emission levels released from the traffic flows to be acceptable. That is ironic, given the fact that the council has just imposed another tax on hard-working people across the whole of the Bradford district through the clean air zone tax. It is an absolute disgrace. We find ourselves in this completely, utterly ironic situation in Keighley and across the wider Bradford district.

The situation raises a much bigger issue: the process of how permits are awarded in the first place. My concern is that a cohesive, full-picture review is not taken into account when looking at the impact on air quality of the whole incineration process, which includes the emissions from traffic flow. That is one of the main issues I would like the Minister to note, and I am sure she will. The message from Keighley is that we do not want the incinerator. We will not be the dumping ground for Bradford’s waste. It is infuriating that because Bradford Council awarded planning consent in the first place, the development is likely to go ahead. As I have said many, many times on this issue, local voices should be heard much more loudly and clearly in any decision-making process for this type of development.

I wish to touch briefly on the importance of driving a circular economy. A circular economy means prioritising, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and regarding waste as something that can be turned into a resource. This contrasts with the linear “take, make, consume, then dispose or incinerate” model, which assumes that resources are abundant, available and cheap to dispose of.

We have many mechanisms and tools available. Unlike incineration, landfill is already subject to a tax. The Government should look at the benefits of bringing in an incineration tax. It would work in a similar way, in that it would be calculated with reference to the tonnage of waste sent to incinerators. If we have a landfill tax and bring in an incineration tax, that will work as a fiscal disincentive to incineration and lead to more innovation in other practices, such as recycling and reuse. Of course, an incineration tax is not something new or radical, having already been adopted by other countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Austria.

As a country, we must move towards a more circular economy, where reusing and recycling are the norms of public life. We owe it to the next generation to ensure that our planet is left in a much better state than when we found it in.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:15 pm, 1st December 2022

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak for Labour, which I do in place of my hon. Friend Ruth Jones, who is on a visit to the Senedd in Cardiff today in her role as a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee. I am afraid Members will have to bear with me.

I pay tribute to Elliot Colburn for securing this debate. The first time we debated together in this place was on this exact same subject, and his speech did seem familiar to me. I know that he and the other Members present have been doughty campaigners on this issue. It is vital that we discuss these matters for our environment and the preservation of our planet. Labour Members talk regularly about these topics, and I wish that all Members were as enthused about the subject as Labour Members and the other Members present.

Jane Hunt made some really important points about PM levels, air quality and public health. I have been to the campus at Loughborough University—in the past, before the hon. Lady was a Member—and seen the high level of sporting achievement there. However, air quality is important not only for elite athletes but for everybody.

My parliamentary neighbour, Robbie Moore, is not the only Member of Parliament for Keighley to have opposed the incinerator. His predecessor was also a doughty opponent; I worked with him on the issue. I have some unfortunate news for the hon. Gentleman: I will probably be visiting his constituency in future to campaign for his predecessor—that might not surprise him—because I want him to return to this place.

The hon. Member for Keighley made some excellent points about Environment Agency data. It is not only in this area that we have issues with EA data; there are also issues relating to water quality, which is another issue we have in common, with the River Wharfe and sewage. We have many common issues across the constituency boundary. We have all been unfortunate victims of the planning system and the unfortunate way it is constructed. We certainly need a significant change in that system, not just for incineration but in a number of areas.

We are here to discuss permit variation processes for waste incineration facilities. It is a very focused topic, but an important one. We heard a lot of focused information in the three contributions so far. We are elected to work in the interests of our people, and the collective task of tackling waste, improving recycling rates and taking the steps needed to protect our environment and preserve our planet is one that we must do together. That has always been the approach Labour has taken to legislation and policy development but, alas, Ministers have preferred dithering and delay to working with other parties constructively and effectively. I hope that will change, as I know the Minister is one to work together with all sides.

Incinerators emit large quantities of CO2, with roughly 1 tonne of CO2 released for each tonne of waste incinerated. About half of that CO2 derives from fossil sources such as plastic, meaning that England’s incinerators rely on fossil fuels for feedstock, as most plastics are derived from crude oil. Incineration capacity in England is currently around 17.2 million tonnes, comprising 14.6 million tonnes of built capacity and 2.6 million tonnes under construction. It was not that long ago that the waste industry was proposing a further 20 million tonnes of incineration capacity for England. Existing capacity already exceeds the quantity of genuinely residual combustible waste, as all three previous speakers have noted. We need to be careful about how we proceed, because the feedstock issue might overwhelm us.

The EA regulates incinerators with a capacity of greater than 3 tonnes per hour for non-hazardous waste and 10 tonnes per day for hazardous waste. Incinerators below this size are regulated by local authorities. It would be helpful for the Minister to share the number of incinerators located in areas where local authorities do the regulating and whether they have adequate resources. I suspect we all know the answer to that, given the cuts to local authorities over recent years.

Once an operator has an environmental permit, changes in the operation of the facility may require the operator to apply to vary the permit. The operator must apply to the regulator to vary the permit conditions when proposing a change would mean that a permit condition can no longer be complied with. Other changes—for example, a change in aim of the operator on the permit—might also require a variation application. From some almost-helpful Environment Agency guidance on permitting, we know that a variation application may include an increase to the extent of the site over which the regulated facility operates…Where this occurs, issues such as the protection of the land must be addressed.”

Will the Minister indicate whether she thinks that is working to plan?

The December 2018 resources and waste strategy for England was published under the then Prime Minister, Mrs May. In it, the Government stated:

“Incineration currently plays a significant role in waste management in the UK, and the Government expects this to continue.”

More recently, in October 2022, in response to a parliamentary question, the Government stated that they have

“no plans to introduce a moratorium on new incineration capacity in England.”

That is a cause of much concern for the Opposition and, I am sure, for everyone present. I urge Ministers to think harder and go further to find more sustainable ways of dealing with our waste crisis.

Now, as we move towards reaching our net zero targets, we are in the danger zone of relying on incineration and not making the kind of progress on recycling rates that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington alluded to in his remarks and on which the hon. Member for Keighley concluded his remarks. Millions throughout the country expect to see such progress.

An overreliance on incineration as a means of tackling waste will, in the end, serve no one. That overreliance means we will be prevented from moving up the waste hierarchy in dealing with waste generally. It will stop us looking at waste as a resource that can be recycled, reused and put back into our society and the economy, and thereby kept out of the ground or prevented from contributing to toxic air.

I will be grateful if the Minister, when responding to the debate, could outline what specific discussions she has had with the environment Ministers in the Welsh Government and Scottish Governments on tackling the overreliance on incineration and how waste can be tackled? With devolution respected and acknowledged, there needs to be some conformity in how we approach such an important issue.

Over the past two decades, the household waste recycling rate in England has increased significantly from just 11.2% to almost 50%. I am pleased that half of that time saw a Labour Government ambitiously push for a change of behaviour and real action on the green agenda. However, I must point out that England still falls short of the EU target of recycling a minimum of 50% of its household waste by 2020—which we were obviously signed up to in that period. Our departure from the European Union does not mean we should shift gear or slow down; we need to go further and faster.

As of 2018, Wales was the only nation in the UK to have reached that target, and in 2017 Wales recorded a recycling rate of 64%. I pay tribute to the Welsh Labour Government and in particular to the First Minister and the environment Minister, Lesley Griffiths. As the Minister knows, England is responsible for the overwhelming majority of waste from households in the United Kingdom. As such, it is vital that England, and therefore this Government, shows leadership and acts. Such action could have been delivered through the Environment Act. Indeed, on Report, Labour tabled a range of amendments on waste, but we were defeated by Government Members. I would say that was a wasted opportunity.

Evidently, we need to act, and act fast, on the processing and collection of waste. Indeed, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs resources and waste strategy monitoring report from August 2020 stated:

“The large amount of avoidable residual waste and avoidable residual plastic waste generated by household sources each year suggests there remains substantial opportunity for increased recycling.”

It is important to remember the role of local authorities, whether in Leeds, London or elsewhere around England. They are on the frontline when it comes to waste collection and recycling. I am sure colleagues will join me in urging the Minster to fight for propre resources for regional government and councils throughout England.

As the Minister will recall, until 31 December 2020 we were covered by the European waste incineration directive, among other pieces of waste-related legislation. How has she ensured that we have not lowered standards? Opposition Members have previously asked Ministers to confirm that the United Kingdom will maintain the EU definition of waste; is that still the case? If we are to change the definition, why?

We all know that incineration is inextricably linked to waste and recycling, which is why in the debate today we are discussing the issue in the round. Labour Members are committed to increasing recycling rates and improving the processes for doing so right across England. We recognise the importance of carrying people with us and the fact that if we do not have buy-in from the public, we are unlikely to make the sort of change and progress that our planet desperately needs to happen.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington for securing the debate. I look forward to working with him, other Members and the Government to preserve our planet and protect our environment. That is the only way in which we can put incineration behind us and move forward to a new world of an ambitious and effective circular economy.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:24 pm, 1st December 2022

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I thought this was going to be a short debate, but it has been very full, hasn’t it? We have had a great amount of detail and passion on the subject of incinerators, although I expected no less given that the Members present are vociferous spokespeople for their constituents on this issue and are always speaking up for them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn on securing the debate. This is one in a long line of debates he has secured on the proposed expansion of processing capacity at the Beddington energy recovery facility. He noted that there are no Liberal Democrat colleagues present to join in the debate and speak up on these issues, which he raised seriously for his constituents; indeed, no one is speaking up for the Liberal Democrat Sutton Council.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Environment Agency launched a consultation on 10 November to seek views on the operator’s proposals to extend the capacity of the Beddington incinerator, and the consultation is open until 23 December. I encourage him and his constituents to make their views known—I am sure he is already doing so. By holding the debate, he is clearly showing his intent, but there is due process and a correct way of taking part in the process.

Under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016, the Environment Agency is required to consult on any substantial change to environmental permits or to those considered a site of high public interest, which is what the Beddington incinerator is designated as. The Environment Agency has a legislative process to follow and, as my hon. Friend will know, I cannot comment directly on the merits of any such application while that consultation is ongoing. He suggested that there have been hundreds of breaches of permits; I believe that is not actually the case, but I would be happy to write to him to set out clearly what the situation is and to clarify the position about the breaches, if he is happy with that.

I thought I would provide an overview of the work my Department is doing to minimise residual waste, as well as the Government’s considerations on energy from waste, so that I can allay some of the concerns raised by hon. Members. All large energy-from-waste plants in England must comply with strict emission limits and they cannot operate without a permit issued by the Environment Agency. The EA will grant a permit or give permission to vary a permit only if it is satisfied that the plant would not give rise to any significant pollution of the environment or harm to human health. The UK Health Security Agency’s position is that modern, well run and regulated municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health. When the Environment Agency receives an application, it assesses it against the criteria required by the environmental permitting regulations and, for applications to vary an environmental permit, the Environment Agency is duty bound to issue a variation if the environmental impact remains acceptable and other relevant requirements are met.

I will touch on some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend Jane Hunt. She spoke about air quality in her constituency and how it relates to elite athletes and so forth. All energy-from-waste plants have to comply with strict emission limits, as she knows, under the environmental permitting regime. They cannot operate without one of those permits. As I have just said, the UK Health Security Agency’s position is that modern, well-run incinerators are not a significant public health risk.

My hon. Friend also touched on PM2.5. Obviously, a huge amount of evidence has and is being gathered to set the PM2.5 targets. DEFRA works with the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants and specialists in the Department of Health and Social Care—we have a joint unit on the issue—so that we take the best evidence on health issues. We are finalising the response to our targets consultation and working as quickly as we can to lay draft statutory instruments as soon as is practical, so my hon. Friend will know about those shortly. I want to allay her fears on that particular point.

All my hon. Friends touched on our resources and waste strategy. In the 2018 resources and waste strategy, we set out how we will preserve our stock of material resources by minimising waste, promoting resource efficiency and moving to a circular economy. That was outlined by my hon. Friend Robbie Moore. In addition, we have consulted on establishing a statutory target under the Environment Act 2021 to reduce residual waste arisings on a kilogram per capita basis by 50% by 2042, from 2019 levels.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Conservative, Loughborough

What the Minister is saying about increasing recycling to reduce the amount going to incineration is absolutely superb, but we are already over capacity before my incinerator is online and certainly before the incinerator in Keighley is online. Could we have a moratorium, so that we do not put those incinerators online while we assess what can be done otherwise?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That issue was also raised by the shadow Minister, Alex Sobel. DEFRA has no plans to introduce a moratorium on new energy-from-waste capacity in England, because we expect the market itself to assess the risks and determine the economic viability and deliverability of developing the new infrastructure. There is no financial advantage for the public sector or the market in delivering overcapacity in the energy-from-waste provision in England. Through the resources and waste strategy, we have committed to monitoring residual waste treatment capacity and we intend to publish a fresh analysis of that in due course.

The strategy is about reducing waste, reuse, recycling and so forth. The whole point is to reduce the amount of waste we get, and the strategy will play an important part in diverting residual waste that cannot be prevented, reused or recycled from landfill. Landfill is generally considered the least favourable method of managing waste; incineration comes above that. We are putting in place consistent collections, deposit return schemes and extended producer responsibility schemes, which all seek to reduce the amount of waste that we need.

In October 2020, we changed the law to introduce a permit condition for energy-from-waste operators that prohibited them from accepting separately collected paper, metal, glass and plastic, unless it had gone through some form of treatment process. We are at the point of setting up the new scheme where every single authority will have to have consistent collections, where they will separate such waste, and none is able to go into an incinerator. That is what I mean when I say that the market will determine the life of incinerators and whether we need future incinerators. Taken together, our policies will reduce the dependence on energy-from-waste plants. Even so, there will always be some residual waste and some energy-from-waste capacity will always be required.

I heard the passionate comments about Labour-run Bradford Council. It has made its own decision about whether it wants to rely on incineration; I urge that council to look much more at reuse and recycling, much as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley said. He was vociferous on that point. Waste operators need to consider what constitutes appropriate levels of treatment capacity, based on the availability of residual waste, in the context of our national policy measures for waste reduction. It is really important that any proposed developments do not result in overcapacity in energy from waste—I think that that is actually what my hon. Friend was saying—at local or national level.

Some interesting points were made about permitting and what was or was not taken into account. Of course, the Environment Agency’s principal legislation for regulating waste activities is the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016, which specifically preclude the EA from addressing nuisances and hazards arising from traffic. The issue of traffic was raised to a huge extent. The EA cannot include on environmental permits conditions that address the volume or emissions of traffic. As has been pointed out, vehicle movements are specifically covered by planning legislation, which falls under the remit of the local planning authority and must be considered at the planning stage. That is where the case has to be made to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington’s Liberal Democrat council or my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley’s Labour council, because it is they that have granted those permissions. That is an important point to remember.

In the resources and waste strategy, we are absolutely committed to monitoring residual waste treatment capacity. As I have said, we intend to publish a fresh analysis of that capacity in due course.

I thank everyone very much for raising their points. Some really serious points have been made in this debate. I believe that there is general consensus among all of us that we want to minimise waste and maximise the use of our resources. I know that the shadow Minister and I have a lot in common on this subject. I have set out the measures that my Department is already taking, which aim to minimise residual waste and maximise recycling. I have set out that although there will always be residual waste that requires managing, we do not want to see overcapacity in energy-from-waste treatment. On that note, I shall conclude.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 2:37 pm, 1st December 2022

First, I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) and for Keighley (Robbie Moore). The three of us have been here many times before, so I am grateful to see them here.

To pick up on a point that the Minister made in summarising the debate about emissions breaches at the Beddington site, I have the receipts, as they say. In 2020 alone, there were 184 incidents in which the carbon monoxide limit was breached and there were more than 700 invalid carbon monoxide reports, but I will happily write to the Minister with details of that.

I think it is clear, from listening to colleagues today, that the processes for making permit variations for incinerators are simply not fit for purpose when they do not include things like the cumulative effects—for example, in relation to traffic. In Beddington, residents were told that incineration would improve recycling. It does not. They were told that they would get a redeveloped Beddington Farmlands. That is missing. They were told that they would get a green energy provider. That has been a massive failure. They were told that it would improve traffic. That has gone up. They were told that it would improve air quality. There is no evidence of that. And they were told that capacity would not be increased in the future, but we are on increase No. 2.

Carshalton and Wallington residents deserve better—residents of any constituency deserve better—when this is forced upon them, so I encourage the Government to look again at the permitting system for incineration.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered permit variation processes for waste incineration facilities.

Sitting suspended.