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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1180 - 1197)



Mr Blunt

  1180. Can I move on to the issue of planning which is directly linked to incineration. How do you reconcile the need for a major waste management facility with the principle of local accountability for planning decisions?
  (Mr Meacher) Perhaps with some difficulty. PPG No.10, which is Planning and Waste Management, is the relevant guidance that we give. Planning applications, as you imply, have to be decided in accordance with the local authority development plan. I think that is right. I do not think in the end there is an incompatibility. I do believe that some local authorities will come forward with proposals, but they do have to persuade their electorate. They do have to get popular consent for them and that is not easy. I do not think it is equally a matter that government should intervene in.

  1181. If the local authority were proposing to build an incinerator in the green belt against massive local opposition, would you regard that as a matter on which should be put to a planning inspector, particularly if the local authority itself felt distinctly uncomfortable as they were not only the planning authority but also the waste management authority?
  (Mr Meacher) Maybe you are referring to a specific case, in which case I do not wish to imply about a particular case. I would be surprised in general—very surprised—if an incinerator in a green belt were to be given approval; but there might be particular local circumstances which would justify that. I am not making comments about a case you may have in mind.

  1182. I am very happy with your answer. Could you see a role for shadow planning? Just following the example of Essex, whereby Essex County Council identified potential sites for an incinerator which drove a huge reaction, as I understand it, from the borough and district council saying, "We do not want these things here" and in the competition to make sure that they did not happen in Essex in people's back yards, it mobilised opinion to achieve very high levels of recycling, driving the local community forward. I wondered whether one could see a role for shadow planning saying that a waste incinerator would only be built if the local community did not achieve targets for landfill diversions through other means.
  (Mr Meacher) I do not think we can lay that down as a rule at the outset. This is a matter for local authority determination but I can see the beneficial result from the point of view of local inhabitants of being threatened, as they see it, with an incinerator and therefore having to achieve those high targets. Shadow planning in terms of planning to build an incinerator if you do not meet your recycling targets is reasonable, I think, quite apart from the impact on local perceptions. Some local authorities are taking on even more ambitious targets than the ones that we have set them, but they do actually have to have a fallback if they do not meet them, so I quite understand that and it may be perversely that there could be some benefit in it.

Mr Donohoe

  1183. I noticed earlier, when you were asked a direct question, you side stepped it. It was: would you have one of these incinerators in your own constituency?
  (Mr Meacher) I would not regard an application for an incinerator in my constituency any differently from elsewhere.

  1184. That is not answering the question, Minister. Would you have one of these incinerators in your constituency, because I would not.
  (Mr Meacher) When you say "would I have it", I may happen to be a minister but I cannot dictate where these things are located. If an application was made by an incinerator operator to have one in my constituency, I would expect that to be assessed on exactly the same basis as elsewhere. This is my very strong view with regard to all of these controversial applications, whether it is GM, whether it is nuclear, whether it is chemical plants or incinerators: there must be openness and transparency. There must be public discussion. There must be full disclosure of the documents. There must be an opportunity for the public either in written form but preferably at face to face meetings to give their reaction. I would also insist that the local authority takes that on board and explains its reaction to those objections and does not just brush them on one side. Subject to all of that, I think the procedure should go ahead as normal.

  1185. Are you happy with the DTI's decision to define incineration of waste as a form of renewable energy?
  (Mr Meacher) There has been much discussion about this issue and we have decided that energy from waste from incineration shall not be included in the 10 per cent renewables obligation. There is still the question about the conceptualisation of energy from waste and whether that is renewable.

Mrs Dunwoody

  1186. "Conceptualisation"?
  (Mr Meacher) I agree; "conceptualisation" was just my word.

Mr Donohoe

  1187. It is certainly just yours.
  (Mr Meacher) There are two sides to this, but I have a particular view which I have been expressing in government. I am not going to discuss it here, if you will permit me, until this matter is resolved, but there are issues about questions of subsidy in the form of exemption from the climate change levy. All of these matters are again being discussed within government.

  1188. If we minimise the municipal waste that there is—"arisings" they call it—and we successfully move into recycling, does not that have serious consequences for the DTI's policy on renewable energy?
  (Mr Meacher) I do not think so. We are at 2.8 per cent at the present time. We have hardly clearly yet begun to put in operation the whole range of renewables, particularly wind power. Denmark, for example, has just proposed 500 new wind turbines. I do not know how many we have in this country but it is a very small number. I have been told we have 40 times the potential of electricity generation for wind turbines compared to Germany and yet Germany has a far higher level of wind power generated electricity than we. There is a lot of potential in this country and I refuse to accept that at this stage you can say that, in order to meet the 10 per cent target, we either have to have in or not have in energy from waste. The range of other alternatives is sufficiently large and the potential for expanding them sufficiently great that you cannot make that assumption at this point.

  1189. If I can turn to the basics, the landfill tax has been hit at a level that is far too low, has it not, and what you really need to do is to virtually double it. That is what the people in industry tell me. Do you accept that as being the case, because the figures that you are announcing in terms of increasing levels up to 2004, a pound a year, are not going to impact on industry at all, are they? What you should be doing is going to your friends in the Treasury—I suppose they would be fairly receptive to this—and suggesting that they should double the tax year on year in order to meet the targets.
  (Mr Meacher) I understand the force of that question. The only way to answer it is to look and see what the impact is in reducing landfill compared to what you would expect with a 3 per cent growth of arisings. In the case of inactive material, there has been a reduction from about 10 million tonnes in 1996 to six million tonnes last year. It is operating in regard to inactive material. With regard to active material, I think there may be some force behind your question. We are going to have to review as to whether one pound increase up to 2004, which is what the government has stated up to now, is adequate. It is true that in other countries it is a level of tax on active waste which is up to or even more than twice the level we are contemplating, but we have to look at it in terms of impact.

Mrs Ellman

  1190. What is the maximum level of recycling attainable in the United Kingdom?
  (Mr Meacher) We are already committed to 25 per cent in the next five years. There is no reason why we should not do as well as other countries do. If other countries can get to the thirties, even the high thirties, even 40 per cent plus, I do not see why we should not either.

  1191. What has stopped you putting that as the target?
  (Mr Meacher) Nothing has stopped us except that to be over-ambitious on the basis of an exceedingly poor performance up to now would not look very credible. If we get to 25 per cent—or should I say when we get to 25 per cent—by 2005, I would certainly, on the basis of the momentum which has been generated, want to produce new figures which take us towards those high levels. At the moment, having achieved those quite ambitious targets by 2005, the figures we have published seem to be rather unambitious beyond that. I do not mind that on the basis that they can be reviewed upwards, once we know that we have generated the process that can deliver.

  1192. What needs to be done so that that process is generated? What needs to happen apart from the setting of targets?
  (Mr Meacher) All the things that we have put into place, as I have indicated: the extra funds, the statutory targets, the limits to landfill, including trading permits which is a means of trying to reduce amounts going to landfill. We have set up WRAP. We have put 30 million behind that. We have amended the landfill tax credit scheme in order to ensure that more goes to community recycling. We are issuing new indicative guidelines to ensure that more goes towards sustainable waste management. We are reviewing fundamentally the landfill tax credit scheme to see if there is more that could be done to meet the government's targets.

  1193. Are the funds sufficient? A number of local authorities have already complained that the net increase to them is very minimal or does not exist at all.
  (Mr Meacher) I do not quite see how they can make that assumption at this stage. I repeat that £1,127,000,000 is being allocated in the SSSAs, in the spending review 2000, over the next three years for environmental and cultural services.


  1194. That is making sculptures out of waste? Is that it?
  (Mr Meacher) It is a combination which I have not entirely understood and I think it is a miscellaneous item. It is true that not all of the money will go for environmental purposes, but I assume—and of course this is a local authority choice—that a significant and high proportion will. If the local authorities are prepared to use the money which is available, I do not think they can say it is inadequate. In the light of best management, in the light of the reports that we get from the waste resources action programme, this new private sector body that has been set up to give assistance to local authorities, if they have done everything that we have asked and they are still short of money in order to meet those targets, obviously we will review it, but I think in the first instance these are huge increases in funds and we want to see the benefits before we will consider more money.

Mrs Dunwoody

  1195. It is a weird category, is it not?
  (Mr Meacher) It is.

  1196. If anyone is looking at the cost of the Newick Theatre in Crewe which is live theatre, which they are hanging on to for grim death, and then they look at this other, much more vital service, who is going to take that decision in a way that is going to satisfy everybody?
  (Mr Meacher) It is the local authority, but—

  1197. Whose idea was that categorisation?
  (Mr Meacher) I have no idea. It is lost in the bureaucracy.

  Chairman: I had better rescue you at this point because I am sure that this meeting you are about to have might get COP6 back on the road. I am sure we would all be very concerned about that. We will probably want you to come back to finish the questions. Can I thank you very much for this morning?

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