Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. And now you feel you have got to do something rather more yourselves and perhaps encourage individual local authorities?
  (Cllr Twitchen) Yes.

  21. You have mentioned forthcoming Directives coming into force and one of them is the End of Life Vehicles Directive, which I think comes into force on 1 April, just under a month's time. Could you just tell us what liaison the LGA has had with DEFRA or other Government departments on the implications of that Directive for local authorities?
  (Cllr Twitchen) The only implication as far as I am aware for local authorities per se is for abandoned cars. If the effects create more cars abandoned they then are litter and obstruct the highway and have to be collected by local authorities, we have to try to trace the owner and dispose of them appropriately. If the ELV creates an increase in abandoned cars then that will be an increase in workload for local authorities. What has created the current increase in abandoned cars is the crash in the secondhand metal prices and the increased cost of disposing of tyres. It is not directly something that impinges on us. We do not have to take responsibility for waste cars if no-one else will, whereas we do have to take responsibility for waste fridges if no-one else will. Before the trade used to take them back and there was a mechanism for disposal. When that collapses we are where the buck stops in terms of household waste but it is not quite the same for cars.

  22. The Landfill Directives?
  (Cllr Twitchen) We are already well up to speed on the Landfill Directives. We are very conscious, thanks to the Government's Waste Strategy, of the need to meet our Landfill Directive targets. I do not think there is a local authority in the country that landfills that does not have sleepless nights over those.

Mr Martlew

  23. You said it has been a catastrophe and you said it has been a fiasco.
  (Cllr Twitchen) Yes.

  24. Firstly, can I say that it was a blessing and not a catastrophe because as far as the environment is concerned every time you put a fridge into landfill you were actually polluting but now we have stopped that. That cannot be a catastrophe, but perhaps it was put very badly. I suspect the reason why we have not got the capacity to treat it in the way other countries have is that local authorities have not been searching for an alternative to landfill, landfill is too easy. To my own local authority, I think three years ago, I complained that they were not taking the gas out of fridges, it was not common practice that they all took gas out of fridges, it seemed very ad hoc and really you should have been ahead of the game. If that was the situation you would accept that really it was a catastrophe that you had been doing it for years.
  (Cllr Twitchen) When I said "catastrophe" I meant in terms of organisation. I absolutely agree with you on the environment, there is nothing between us on that, we should be doing these things properly and now we are going to be forced by the European legislation to do them properly. Germany introduced this process some years ago and there was nothing to stop us introducing it in this country nationwide if it had been a Government priority but patently it was not and I do not have any criticism of them for that. We are here where we are now and we have got an organisational catastrophe because people do not know what to do with their fridges and we have to constantly try to get across to them through the media that all they have to do is phone up the council and we will come and collect it. People are fly tipping them because they do not understand that all they have got to do is take it to a civic amenity site and we will take it away. The storage is a catastrophe because we cannot keep it hidden indefinitely. People are starting to see stored fridges. I flew into Stansted Airport the other day in daylight and I was appalled to see one or two small white fields of fridge storage in rural areas. That is the catastrophe really, that we were not set up with systems that could deal with things in the appropriate way in the way that they have in Germany because they introduced this legislation some time ago.

  25. We have just lived through foot and mouth and that was a catastrophe, this is a problem. Why were the local authorities not proactive before? Reading your evidence you say "if the Government tell us to do things we will do them". Why were you not doing it before then? Why were you not using good practice? Were the structures not right?
  (Cllr Twitchen) I have no answer to that. It has never occurred to me, it has never been put to me in all the weeks and months of discussions and interviews and everything else I have had that we should have taken this on board ourselves on our own initiative. Most local authorities are on very tight budgets, they have other priorities. They act within environmental best practice and regulation and some of them go beyond it, but to imagine that they could go beyond it to that extent when there was not the reprocessing capacity—How could I go to the taxpayers of Essex and say "I am not getting rid of household goods in the most economical way within the law, I am going to go above that and invent a law of my own that is brilliant for the environment but is going to cost you £20 a unit"?

  26. You are going to say you are going to do the least that you are supposed to by the law, that is the argument you just put there. When you found out about it what action did you take on a contingency plan? When it became apparent what contingency plan did you put in place to deal with it?
  (Cllr Twitchen) The only contingency plan available to us is to store them until there is reprocessing capacity available in this country. There is very, very limited capacity for burning, for incineration, of whole refrigerators. It is a very expensive process and there is a very limited amount, so it can only take a few people's. There is no reprocessing capacity in this country so we have no alternative but to store them. The take-back system that was operated by the retailers was abandoned by the retailers, they no longer wanted to have anything to do with it, and the buck stops with the local authorities, they are household waste and we have to take responsibility for it.

  27. Did the Local Government Association not ask the Government to wait to implement this regulation until we have the capacity?
  (Cllr Twitchen) We were told that was not an option.

  28. Did you ask?
  (Mr Fielding) In my letter I referred to earlier I recommended that we seek a derogation. I subsequently found out that would not have been possible because it was a regulation and not a Directive and I was advised that we could not seek a derogation. My initial response was on a purely practical basis that as a country we were not going to be able to meet these regulations. That was my view back in September because I could not think that practically as local authorities in the way we operate we were going to be able to let contracts or set up storage facilities in time. Actually we have done and that is all credit to my authority and every other authority that we have complied, albeit at a cost.


  29. I think the Committee would find it very useful if we could have sight of that letter to know in what terms you put it to Ministers.
  (Mr Fielding) Yes.

Mr Mitchell

  30. To continue Eric's point, the least you could do under the law could also be described as the most you could afford. In other words, you were financially limited as to what you did in the treatment of fridges.
  (Cllr Twitchen) I think there are areas of local authority activity where society does rely on us to be innovative and to drive forward quality services. In some aspects of environmental provision that is done by many authorities, the Camden Boulevard Project, that kind of thing. I think in waste management there are so many changes and so many additional controls that we are having to meet that the idea that we could see beyond what needed to be done with fridges, and we would have had to have seen it years ago, we would have had to have a bulk supply of fridges, so a number of local authorities getting together to see the need for this legislation to attract a contract to put up a plant—they could not just put one for Essex, there would not be enough fridges to feed it—you are talking about a lot of organisation. It has not been suggested to me before but I cannot see that you could expect individual local authorities to see this one coming and to take action on their own account.

  31. I am sure that is right. Let us turn from the history of it to the mess of it. Michael Meacher told the House of Commons in a statement that the Government had applied for months, a year and a half, for clarification as to what was to happen to the fridges and the insulation which they were supposed to get rid of where practicable. They got an answer finally in June of last year. So the Government knew in June of last year that here was a major cock-up coming. When did they tell you?
  (Cllr Twitchen) October, I think.

  32. How did they tell you? Did they say "I am sorry, we have made a mess of this and you will have to cope with the consequences"?
  (Mr Fielding) The first formal correspondence to local authorities was on 11 October.

  33. So they are almost as slow as the Commission.
  (Cllr Twitchen) What precipitated the problem was that the retailers stopped their take-back scheme. That was really when it first hit us. We knew there was something going on and in October we started talking about it seriously, what are we going to do, what are the options, and we could not believe there were so few options. Then the retailers stopped their take-back scheme in December, some of them half way through November, because they could no longer get rid of them easily and cheaply and they did not want to get stuck with the costs so they just walked away. That was when it started to hit. Suddenly we were getting fridges upon fridges upon fridges for us to do something with. That was when we started getting the storage capacity in place. It was fairly chaotic actually.

  34. Effectively were they saying to you in October, and again in December, "there is a mess here, help us get out of it" or were they saying "there is a mess here, you cope with it"?
  (Mr Fielding) The letter I referred to brings local authorities' attention to the Ozone Depleting Substances Regulations.

  35. So it says "you get out of it"?
  (Mr Fielding) It does not go quite that far, I think.

  36. That is the onus of it.
  (Mr Fielding) We had already started action before then to try to identify storage through the discussions that were going on. That was the first formal correspondence. I also sit on an organisation called the National Association of Waste Disposal Officers and through my attendance at meetings I was feeding back to their membership the discussions that were going on with Government. I think most authorities in the country probably were aware that something was happening prior to that letter.

  Chairman: Talking about letters, Mr Fielding, when I asked you for your letter in the first instance, we would be very interested in seeing the reply to that as well as formal notification.

Mr Borrow

  37. Part of the reason for the inquiry in addition to how we dispose of fridges is what was the reason for the delay and was the misunderstanding there appears to be in terms of the regulations something that was reasonable for civil servants or Ministers to have. You said that as far as the LGA is concerned your notification came after June.
  (Cllr Twitchen) Well after June.

  38. The LGA did not have direct representation in Brussels to pick up the ongoing debate and discussion on this issue prior to 2001. As an association or as individual local authorities, were you alerted by any of the other players in this? In other words, were any of the manufacturers or the waste disposal companies who would have been paying closer attention perhaps because of the financial implications of this decision alerting the LGA or local authorities to the fact that there was a dispute or disagreement as to the interpretation of the draft regulations?
  (Cllr Twitchen) I do not remember the LGA being alerted. I do remember my own authority had a letter, I think it was around August time, I am not absolutely sure, from one of the big waste management companies talking about possible provision. There are 400 different local authorities in the country and I would imagine these things would be a bit regional, so some of them would have had letters from national organisations and some would not. It would have been a bit of a hotch-potch frankly. There was no concerted realisation that this was going to be such an enormous problem.

  39. In fact, as far as you are aware nobody in the waste disposal area of concern was aware of there being a problem until June 2001 when the Commission clarified its regulation that it was compulsory that as from 1 January this regulation applied rather than as soon as possible after 1 January 2002. So it was June 2001 when, if you like, both local authorities and those other organisations concerned with waste disposal of fridges actually became aware of the timescale and that something had to be done for the foam in fridges?
  (Cllr Twitchen) I think we could have been aware of it then had we been sufficiently tuned in but we were not aware of it until 11 October. Maybe we were at fault but if we had the resources to keep tabs on every piece of emerging legislation and regulation then we would need to be very much better resourced than we are. We were not aware of it, maybe we should have been. The implication from a lot of your questions is that we should have been but the fact is we were not until DEFRA included us in the discussions on 11 October and from that point everyone suddenly became aware. Within a month the retailers were starting to stop their take-back schemes, so within a month we actually had fridges.

  Mr Borrow: I think you may have misunderstood the thrust of where I am coming from. The thrust of where I am coming from is not whether the LGA should have known after June 2001, but before September 2001 it is whether there was anything you knew about that that indicated that the Government should have known that there was a problem prior to the situation being clarified in June 2001. I just wanted to be clear on that.

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