Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1160 - 1179)



  1160. A direction, Mr Hurst. Have you not told them what to do?
  (Mr Hurst) Not in so many words. This is something on which the UK is well ahead over the rest of Europe.

  1161. That is nice, but what do we do?
  (Mr Hurst) The Environment Agency each year compiles information on 150 pollutants from the 2,000 sites they regulate. In a year or so that will go up to 7,000 sites. These are the main industrial sites in the country. That information is put together on their website and feeds into this document, which is the National Atmospheric Commission's Inventory which I would hope any enterprising school child would be able to find in the local library. There are ways we could think about to make this more publicly available, and we are thinking about them.

  1162. Like a one page letter saying to people "make sure this is available"?
  (Mr Meacher) We will follow that up. If we have not already said to local authorities that we expect them to make it prominently available and that there must be someone in the town hall to give accurate information in response to a telephone call, if that is not the case, we will make clear we expect it to be made the case.[6]

Mr Benn

  1163. Should that not be an obligation on the operator of the incinerator?
  (Mr Meacher) They, of course, have to provide the information. In a sense, that is already what we do. You could get the Environment Agency attending every incinerator and making its own calculation, but in the first instance you would be expecting the incinerator owner to provide the information which feeds into the pollution inventory (and that of course to be audited or checked by the Environment Agency) so they are already providing it.

  1164. In that case, if one of Mrs Dunwoody's constituents chose to approach the operator of the incinerator they ought to be able to get the information?
  (Mr Meacher) They ought to, but I would not guarantee that the operator would not actually say, "You'd better consult X or Y", and it is more difficult to get it from there, of course.

  1165. Can you tell us how much rendered material from cattle slaughtered as a result of BSE still remains to be disposed of, and can you give us any assurances that this will not be by means of incineration?
  (Mr Meacher) I have not got those figures in front of me. We will provide that by letter, if we may.

  1166. And the principle of disposing of remains by incineration?
  (Mr Meacher) Including that.


  1167. Colin Pickthall, West Lancashire, has been very concerned about this question. This question about reassuring people—I did think you had been warned that these issues might come up, but you cannot tell us any more about it?
  (Mr Meacher) I was certainly briefed on that and I have seen correspondence. This is a case of change of use from a vehicle dismantling plant to a bone meal incinerator.

  1168. BSE?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes. The general planning rules are that the change of use does not require planning permission. However, I agree that this is—

Mrs Dunwoody

  1169. A depot to this kind of incinerator is a bit of a change?
  (Mr Meacher) I entirely agree. I think the fairness of your remarks continues to strike me forcibly.

  1170. I am ever so glad I came today, and I shall write you a cheque as soon as I can!
  (Mr Meacher) It is subject to appeal. For that reason, given the quasi judicial role ministers have, I cannot take the matter further. I am well aware of the significance of this particular case.

Mr Blunt

  1171. In your draft Strategy "A Way with Waste" you said there would be 165 incineration facilities of capacity up to 200,000 tonnes per year needed to meet the aims of the Landfill Directive. When the Strategy itself came out that number had disappeared. How many new incinerators do you think will be built in order to pursue the aims of the Waste Strategy in the next 10 years?
  (Mr Meacher) The 166 figure was based on a worst possible scenario. Namely, that there would be a continued growth in arisings of about 3 per cent. a year and no decoupling of economic growth from creation of waste. Secondly, that recycling did not increase as we intended. Thirdly, that planning allowed any number of incinerators that were requested to be built. The reason we dropped it is because, frankly, none of those premises are remotely likely or, indeed, feasible. The number of incinerators will depend upon our success of waste minimisation. That is the other factor. It is not a question of recycling, or incineration, or landfill. The other option, of course, is waste minimisation, and that is very important. It is difficult to achieve but we have some riders in place to try and achieve it. That is the first one: waste minimisation; secondly, reducing the growth of arisings, and preferably making it negative per year; thirdly, the increase in recycling which I am absolutely sure we can achieve and will go even further than the initial targets; and of course planning decisions, which are a matter for local authorities. Against that, it is impossible to say what the number is. Let me take the opportunity of saying, whether it is 166, 177 which I have seen or 100 which I have seen, it is totally and utterly without foundation. There is no justification—government could not have a figure in its back pocket. We are not working to anything.

  1172. The DTI have a figure.
  (Mr Meacher) It was a DETR figure—166.

  1173. 165 I think the figure was. It is your figure in the draft Strategy on the basis of assumptions you have given us. I am not sure those assumptions are presented in the document in that way. The DTI are saying they assume that 25 per cent. of renewable energy will come from incineration, and that implies an incineration capacity of 20 million tonnes—which is 80 new incinerators with a capacity of 250,000 tonnes/year? Have we got joined up government here, or what?
  (Mr Meacher) These are all estimates, and they are all projections; they are not commitments. We have laid down a 10 per cent renewables obligation. The number of renewables is substantial. Wind power—the capacity for both onshore and offshore wind turbine electricity generation is very considerable in this country, as everyone knows who has stood on the east coast or Blackpool Pier; biomass energy crops, landfill gas, sewage gas and, above all, the whole question of solar power and photovoltaics. All of these are still in the initial stages of being worked through what is cost effective. I do not think one can say with any reliability of the proportion which might be required to be met by energy from waste, if anything at all. These are still just projections.

  1174. Except you are saying that these planning applications are matters for local authorities, rather giving the impression if you can possibly get away with it that you are not going to take a role in the planning applications for major sites. The local authorities are now putting the waste strategies together now based on the financial support that has been given in the past to energy from waste. For example, in the county of Surrey the company that won the contract for the disposal of Surrey's waste has put in an incinerator on a Green Belt site because it had NFFO support on it to the value of about £2 million a year, which has clearly made that site more economic than perhaps other sites that are more suitable in planning and environmental terms. Let alone the fact that, of course, that gives a subsidy to the whole waste stream which then means there is an over-reliance on incineration capacity for economic reasons, and the fact they have got Surrey secured PFI for the building of these plants which then works against recycling and composting as waste management options.
  (Mr Meacher) I take that argument, but I would qualify it. Only 14 of the 88 contracts let under NFFO are live; in other words, have actually been built, and not all of these are mass burn incinerators. Of these 14, six have not received payment from the Fossil Fuel Levy since December 1998 when the contract for these projects ended, and there will be no new NFFO projects.

  1175. I understand that, but local authorities are finding that now, in terms of the subsidies that already exist in the system to support incineration. You are saying nothing will happen in the future, and my next question is whether there is a case for a tax on incineration rather than subsidy? You accept there is an issue now of government subsidy to incineration which undermines the other objectives of recycling and composting?
  (Mr Meacher) Can I make clear, in line with the Waste Strategy which we published in May, I did change the criteria on 22 September, so that all proposals on incineration must now demonstrate, if they are going to be approved, firstly, that all opportunities for recycling have been considered first,and that has to be demonstrated; secondly, that there is no barrier to the future development of recycling; and also that it should include combined heat and power wherever possible. It is the first two, of course, which are key. I am extremely well aware of the need not to crowd out recycling. I am determined to ensure that that applies. The point which I make here is, if we could meet the UK mandatory requirement under the Landfill Directive entirely through recycling no-one would be happier than me; but you have to look at the effects. At the moment, something like 25-28 million tonnes of household waste goes to landfill. If we continue with 3 per cent growth in those arisings, and we are trying to reduce it, then by 2020 that will have risen to something of the order of 52 million tonnes. By 2020, which is when the Landfill Directive becomes mandatory, no more than 11 million tonnes should be land-filled. Something of the order of 40 million tonnes has either got to be waste minimised, or recycled, or incinerated. If we could do the whole lot through waste minimisation and recycling, absolutely fine. The problem is, first of all, I do not believe we can. I think we can probably get near it, but we will not get the whole way. Secondly, there are issues of non-recyclates, such as chemical waste, clinical waste, contaminated materials; there is this whole contentious issue of BSE material. There will continue to be some role for incinerators.

  1176. Could we get on to the issue of tax on incinerators. If energy from waste simply replaces the ordinary mix of electricity generation it is actually a worse economic cost, on your own figures, than landfill. Surely there is a case for a tax on incineration?
  (Mr Meacher) The key point is the discharge emission standards from incinerators are hugely and totally changed. I really do think the public perception and our perception of incinerators should take that into account. There is the impression that incinerators are somehow thoroughly bad and wrong and ought to be taxed out of existence.

  1177. Is the external cost estimate you published in the Waste Strategy wrong? That is where I am taking the figures from and they are your figures.
  (Mr Meacher) They are based on the older generation of incinerators.

  1178. You are saying for new incinerators the figures would be different?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  1179. Even so, is there not a case for a tax on incineration, without having any idea of what these new figures will be?
  (Mr Meacher) I do not think that is justified on the grounds that I do think incineration, meeting the criteria which I have laid down, inevitably will have a role in a sustainable waste management programme. I think the figures will be vastly smaller than many people expect. A tax suggests that this is an undesirable, unwelcome, unneeded economic activity and I do not think it is justified to see incineration in that way. We need to be acutely aware of the health impacts. We need to provide updated new information of the health impact as it becomes available. We should keep the public fully involved in the discharge levels so that everyone knows what are those impacts but, subject to that, I think it would be wrong to impose taxes.

  Mr Blunt: The advice I am receiving is that the work done which led to the publication of your figures did not include a number of pollutants in the external cost estimate of the cost of incineration. There is clearly further work to be done.

  Chairman: I think we can pursue this through written questions.

6   Note by Witness: Local authorities and the Environment Agency are each required to hold copies of the public register entries for those processes in their area regulated by the Environment Agency under Integrated Pollution Control (and in future Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control). These entries will include monitoring data. Back

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