Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 299)

WEDNESDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2001

RT HON MARGARET BECKETT, MR JOHN ADAMS AND MR IAN PICKARD

  280. Just for my benefit—I am a new Member and I am not familiar with how long these processes take—what would that mean?
  (Margaret Beckett) We are talking months, not years.

  281. So by spring?
  (Margaret Beckett) Perhaps not quite so few months. Realistically we are hopeful that it will be by the summer.

Mr Best

  282. Would the Minister's department consider supporting those local authorities who want the power to ensure that the new developments that are taking place in housing, commerce and industry include sustainable drainage systems? I am thinking of the natural water supply, the run-off resources that would for example support the wildlife and other things which are dependent upon it. This last year, when we have had some severe flooding, we had some flooding in a place in my constituency which was 1200 feet above sea level on a hill. When I went there to have a look at it, I do not think the man meant to be joking but he said, "It only happens once a flood". What had happened was that the natural course of events had taken over. The rain had been that heavy that it had returned to its Ice Age run-offs. Those are the kinds of things which should be taken into consideration and local authorities have had some problems with those. Would you support them in trying to get that resolved?
  (Margaret Beckett) It is a mixture of course and the responsibility is directly with my department and officials, but also the Environment Agency in terms of the advice they give. Both as a department and also the Agency—and indeed the other agencies who deal more specifically with environmental issues and report to us—we do already have and are building up structures and links with DTLR to try to make sure there is a proper flow of information. Of course I have to say with a caveat here that there is a quasi-judicial process and procedure as far as DTLR is concerned and that means that decisions are for them, but obviously we are anxious to make sure that the right information is made available, that it is properly considered and assessed and so on. There are links, specific new links.

  283. You would be an ally, would you not?
  (Margaret Beckett) We are very much allies along with the Environment Agency and others in trying to make sure that we assess what are now increasingly the impacts of climate change on our own country and elsewhere and look at what impact that has on public policy. We are much too much in our infancy in doing that and it is clearly a very important part of the work that my department is doing.

Sue Doughty

  284. It has been very interesting, Minister, listening to some of these responses, in particular on waste and things like flooding. I have a number of questions about waste but, going back to some of the points you were making earlier about changes in departments, on the one hand we are hearing that it takes a while to bed things in but we are all doing things together, and on the other hand, as Members of Parliament looking at our constituencies we are still up against the same old problems with local authority boundaries coming in the middle. It rains in one local authority and runs down the hill in another local authority, and we get all these dreadful arguments between local authorities about who is going to sort out the flood or why the golf course is waterlogged when the water should be going into the hole that was dug. We seem to be losing knowledge instead of gaining knowledge. I would be interested in how much help the department can give, going through its own period of change, to recognise that local authorities are struggling sometimes with these results of climate change in terms of flooding and what they are going to do about it.
  (Margaret Beckett) We did write to all Members of Parliament when the House resumed in October making it plain that it was a combination of the work and of the investment of the Environment Agency and of my own department, and also of course with many local authorities, that the breaches in flood defences that have been created last year had been repaired. In very many cases not only had we overcome damage that had been done but they had been strengthened, and also a lot of work is being undertaken on planning and making preparations for further works, not all of which of course can be done on a timescale which can be completed instantly because sometimes we are talking about quite substantial further works. From that point of view we and the Environment Agency are engaged with various local authorities, as is DTLR itself. We do also have some co-operative structures for trying to manage the contingency of flooding to get the right flow of information and so on, and again all of that has been strengthened. It would be wrong of me not to imply that there are now no problems. Of course there are continuing problems for the reasons that we have been discussing.

  285. I hope then that as time goes by, and I appreciate that you prioritise the big areas where houses are going to go under water where people's homes are affected, and I have no problem with that, but it is lots of little things that are happening across the countryside as land is no longer able to absorb the amount of water. I hope that the little schemes will continue to be reported as well as the big schemes.
  (Margaret Beckett) I do not think there is any question about that. I am very mindful of that. The Committee may also recall—I am not sure how long ago it was but it does not seem to be so very long ago—that we were all being told that there was going to be a perpetual water shortage in the United Kingdom because the water table had now fallen so far that it could never recover. It does not seem like five minutes ago; I expect it is probably five years. It is certainly well within memory and so we do have to deal with the position in which we find ourselves, but what none of us can be sure of is that that position in precisely that form will be sustained.

  286. Returning to the waste problem, we seem to have a few things coming along particularly from Europe which on the face of it are quite good things, the Electrical Waste Directive, other directives that we have been getting and the Landfill Directive. We seem to be slightly slow in anticipating these things coming along, so that at the moment we have got problems about what we need to do with fridges. The usual routes by which fridges are disposed of are closing down but we do not necessarily have much coming down the pipeline. It is the same with abandoned cars. The large number of abandoned cars is quite a burden on local authorities now. I am very interested to see how we can anticipate the new European directives (which are probably well worth having) to make sure that as soon as they are imposed upon us we are in a position to do something about them and that local authorities are in a position to do something about them, as opposed to suddenly it is all change now and we do not know what to do.
  (Margaret Beckett) On abandoned cars of course we have recently produced a consultation document to try to substantially strengthen the regime for dealing with those. We await the outcome of that consultation. I take your point about many of these issues. With regard to fridges, the particular difficulty was that everybody knew that the directive was there and knew that it would have an impact and were geared up to deal with the impact as they thought it would be. We did then have a court case which gave an interpretation of the directive which was not that which had been anticipated. These things happen. It is unfortunate but they do happen and now we have to discuss how we handle the outcome of that particular interpretation of the directive itself. I share your view. I think this is perhaps a little unusual. On the whole we are very fortunate. Our Civil Service is very effective and very skilled at following what is happening in negotiations within the EU and what is in the pipeline and so on and trying to make sure that we are up to speed with it. There we are quite fortunate and obviously even the best laid plans from time to time do not go exactly as one would hope.

  287. I really would be happier if we had fewer of these incidents. I take your point that we are now responding but it is very worrying.
  (Margaret Beckett) I entirely agree.

  288. Looking at the approach to waste management, we seem to have had quite a number of reports over the years, in particular a very strong report from the Council For Sustainable Waste Management, which was delivered in March and which had a lot of good recommendations in it; the Environmental Services Association manifesto for achieving environmental sustainability; the Advisory Committee on Business and the Environment, their report in August; the PIU report in November. We seem to have a whole industry deciding what to do about waste on the one hand. We have lots of local authorities with their backs against the wall on waste on the other hand, and we have had the summit as well, and life seems to be constantly that the answer will be round the corner. Are we certain that when we get round the corner in spring or summer when the PIU makes its report we will be in a situation where we are going to get a strategy that is not only acceptable to the Government but is also acceptable to local authorities? I take your point about the debate on waste but also your point on the general public. We do need to engage the general public a lot more. I am very worried that some of these reports have had extremely good recommendations but we are still getting another report.
  (Margaret Beckett) I understand that, but that is in part, as I have said in answer to the first question on the issue, because I think things have rather ground to a halt in terms of the public debate. There was an encouraging climate of discussion and proposals and so on moving forward and then, for whatever reason (and we all understand the reasons for it), a sort of road block was erected and the debate and discussion and so on rather ground to a halt and we need to re-engage in that debate and to encourage the public to re-engage in that debate and to accept that there are no simple answers which will mean that we do not have to make some of these difficult choices, because we are creating a very considerable amount of waste and are likely to continue to do so if there are not successful ways found to minimise it.

  289. I understand the problem that we have about whether lower waste is achievable and it is quite interesting that those who have been claiming that it is achievable backtrack when you say "How?". It does seem to me though that we are still, both at central government and at local government level, in the "must burn or bury" mode, so that even if we call it energy from waste, although it is a very inefficient form of energy, we should be trying to get people to say that it can be a combination of composting, pyrolysis, gasification, all these up-coming things which we need, and looking at more and getting much more in the way of trials or studies of how it has been working in Europe or America where they have been using these techniques.
  (Margaret Beckett) I agree with that.

  Sue Doughty: It is a matter of urgency to a lot of local authorities. There are those around the table who are all sitting there with massive plans for incineration and waste strategies where they are going to be signing on the line some time this year possibly for a 30-year technology which people do not want and have made that very clear, but they know they will have to make some compromises if it is not going to be fast burn incineration, and they want those compromises available now. It is very urgent for a lot of people.

Mr Barker

  290. Is it not extraordinary though, on reflection, and I very much agree with the points that Mrs Doughty is making, that particularly so soon after a general election (and the Government has been in for four years) there should be this policy vacuum?
  (Margaret Beckett) There is not a policy vacuum. There was a White Paper.
  (Mr Adams) The Waste Strategy 2000 last year.
  (Margaret Beckett) There are strategy targets, very demanding targets, set for local authorities. There is not a policy vacuum but, as I say, we are beginning to get to the stage where we could have problems unless we move the debate forward, is that there is a sort of mood grown up that neither local authorities nor other participants, nor the public as a whole, want to come to grips with these issues and recognise that we have a lot more to do and that we have to build recycling plants and we may have to do a little more perhaps.

Chairman

  291. There seems to be a delivery blockage rather than a policy vacuum.
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes, that is a very good way of putting it. Thank you very much.

Sue Doughty

  292. Do you feel that there is any room for manoeuvre in the problem that we have all the time, and I think it is a local authority problem, that obviously it is a strategic approach as well where we do have that difference, as we were talking about earlier, between a collecting local authority and a disposing local authority, because if those two local authorities do not have a particularly strong relationship or if some of the borough councils are at odds with what the county council is trying to do, again it is very hard to get an integrated approach and draw out some of these holistic approaches which we all agree we need to be looking at?
  (Margaret Beckett) Part of what we need to consider is whether we have the right mix of incentives and penalties to encourage the right behaviour. I share entirely the view you expressed a little earlier that, whether it is on waste minimisation or waste handling, we need both to acquaint ourselves with the best of what is available in terms of innovation and new technology and we also need to be encouraging further steps on innovation and new technology.

  293. I have a further concern. I am sorry, I am getting very heavy on waste but there are those of us who sit with these problems on our doorsteps who are concerned at the moment. My further concern is about commercial waste because on the one hand we have a lot of influence about what is happening with municipal waste and then we have the problem of commercial waste. One of the issues we are looking at is where we are going about trying to integrate our approach on commercial waste, whether it is landfill or incinerator, in order to start reducing the amount of waste available because other initiatives are taken up and then just grab the whole commercial waste. To me there are all those streams as well.
  (Margaret Beckett) We could do a great deal better on industrial and commercial waste and it is not surprising that we should really because we are talking about costs to business. Again, one of the issues that people will look at is whether we have the mixture of incentives and penalties right in that respect. Right across the field of sustainable development, whether it is waste production or energy use or water use or whatever it is, we are looking both at whether there are economic means of encouraging the right behaviour and also at how we encourage and publicise the beneficial effects of better management and the spreading in this area, as in so many other areas, of best practice and bench marking and so on. There are some spectacular examples now in, for example, the use of water, the production of waste water and so on, or indeed in the use of energy, of massive savings relative to the size of the organisation that different companies and organisations have made. There is a very clear incentive there in the commercial and industrial sector. The thing to do is to make sure that everybody is very conscious of that in the same way that we try to do with a whole range of issues, and encourage people to drive for quality and high standards by bench marking themselves on the best practice.

  294. Landfill tax credits: I know you are looking at whether these instruments are the right ones and whether they are effective. The tax itself was due to be reviewed in 2004. How do you feel currently about the possibility of incinerator tax, landfill tax, landfill tax credits, that whole area of instruments about penalising bad behaviour and investing in good behaviour?
  (Margaret Beckett) You know from the pre-Budget Report that the Government as a whole is very mindful of the fact that there is a range of measures potentially available to penalise behaviour that we do not wish to see and to encourage behaviour that we do wish to see. Those measures continue to be kept under review.

Chairman

  295. Could I turn to energy briefly because energy efficiency is very much part of your responsibilities? Everyone seems to agree that the combined heat power industry is now in severe difficulties. The sort of difficulties they are having were extensively flagged up during the consultation period. What went wrong?
  (Margaret Beckett) That too is in the area where there is continued discussion. We hope in the new year, I think I am right in saying, to produce a further consultation document. There have been discussions with Ofgem. There is a working group I think you will find that is examining these issues now and we hope to come forward with some proposals and a consultation document around the turn of the year.

  296. Is this an example of what you were referring to earlier, Secretary of State, where you said it is easier to persuade government to move on than to admit to a mistake?
  (Margaret Beckett) No, I do not think so. In any case it is an important issue and we do recognise the need to address it.

  297. But it is huge. A recent Ofgem report showed that CHP output sold to the network had fallen by 60 per cent in the first three months of the NETA agreement and two major energy firms have announced that they are axing all further investment in CHP. This is dramatic stuff.
  (Margaret Beckett) I can only repeat what I have already said, that we have taken steps in the past to help encourage investment in CHP and there have been discussions with Ofgem. We will continue to have those discussions, particularly to discuss what is happening with smaller generators. Of course we are also awaiting the PIU's own energy review which has not quite been published yet but I anticipate will be in the not too distant future.

Mr Challen

  298. We had the Secretary of State for the Department of Trade and Industry here a couple of weeks ago on a similar question about NETA. Who has the most powerful voice? Is it the voice of reducing electricity prices through competition or is it the voice of investing in renewables and CHP and the other things which may have a premium attached to them? There seems to be a bit of a battle between these two policy objectives.
  (Margaret Beckett) There is a bit of creative tension if you like. I do not think I would say that there is a battle between them. The Government is committed as you know to increasing the use of renewables and is committed to innovation, and again if I can remind you, in the pre-Budget Report yesterday the Chancellor took some further steps on exactly these kinds of issues. I think it remains clear that the Government is indicating that it is keen to see the development of sustainable energy.

  299. There was £270 million mentioned in the pre-Budget Report—
  (Margaret Beckett) I do not remember the figure.


 
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