Draft Landfill (England and Wales) Regulations 2002

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Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): I am surprised at the Conservative spokesman's condemnation of landfill—the use of landfill expanded dramatically under the last Conservative Government because it was the cheapest form of disposal. That policy may have been cheap, but it did not put waste out of sight or out of mind, as those of us who still have landfill sites or incinerators in our constituencies can testify. It is true, however, that proposals for new landfill sites or incinerators are increasingly being contested by the public, who realise now, even if they did not previously, that those options are not cheap for the environment, and that landfill sites may ultimately have costly side effects.

My colleagues and I welcome the instrument because it aims to ensure clear separation of different types of landfill site, and that clear and rigorous conditions are applied to those different types of site. We would, however, like to ask the Minister what action will be taken to achieve a substantial reduction in the number of operational landfill sites. We are concerned that the final compliance date is 2009. The explanatory memorandum says:

    ''The Regulations apply the requirements of the Landfill Directive to all new landfill sites from July 2001 whilst existing sites will have until 2009 at the latest to comply with all the requirements of the Directive.''

A vigorous waste management strategy would ensure that mixed sites, old sites, and poor-quality sites that could not reasonably be improved would be closed down sooner rather than later. We would like an indication of what the Government intend to do on that issue. We are also concerned that the instrument should not be applied in a way that encourages diversion into incineration. We want a strategy aimed at waste minimisation—although we appreciate that that will take time. That strategy must include—as the EU requires—fewer landfill sites, and minimal incineration.

There is rather too much involuntary or wilful incineration taking place outside the designated incineration sites. Astonishingly, Home Office figures show that 81,000 vehicles are set alight in the street every year. The cost of dealing with those vehicles approaches £400 million per year. Part and parcel of our waste problem is that we need to find mechanisms to ensure that all waste goes through authorised channels. People should be prevented from fly tipping or self-incineration, which lead to more environmental damage than regulated landfill sites. That is why we need the rule.

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I am well aware of the quality of the new sites compared with the older sites. If we must have landfill sites, the newer sites are much more impressive in terms of the measures that are being taken to protect the environment. The instrument will ensure that ultimately we have only the better sites and that sites that do not meet the standards are phased out quickly.

I have, perhaps, rather too many landfill sites in my constituency. That brings me to the issue of Scotland. The Conservative spokesman referred to the possibility of waste spilling over into Scotland. From a practical point of view, trucking large quantities of waste into Scotland is not necessarily a sensible economic solution. Although I have not discussed this specific point with the Minister for Environment and Rural Development in Scotland, I had a meeting with him last night and I am satisfied that Scotland is also trying to tighten up its regulations on the same basis, in parallel.

It is right that the instrument should oblige operators to refuse to accept materials that do not meet the requirements. Operators have told me of significant attempts to sneak forbidden material into landfill sites. We need to ensure that the quality of the operators and their vigilance is such that they are prepared to take responsibility. It is important that they know that the obligation is on them. Presumably the Minister will assure me that if operators fail to take responsibility, they will face the penalties and will not be able to pass the buck to those who have ''deceived them''. It is a real problem. Landfill site managers have told me that on more than one occasion they have found things hidden under more innocuous material.

My final point relates both to targets and to the role of the landfill levy in ensuring that we can deal with the directive and use it as a building block in a strategy to reduce waste across the piece. The Minister knows that the Liberal Democrats are not enthusiastic about Entrust: we are not entirely sure how it operates, where its money comes from or to whom it is accountable. We would like more money to go into waste reduction. Worthy as the restoration of church spires may be from the point of view of heritage, it seems a misappropriation of resources, given the scale of the waste reduction problem.

The Minister will be aware that targets are necessary, but they are not in themselves adequate. In the House on Friday, we tried without success to impose targets on the Minister. I suppose that I am refreshed by his honesty in saying that he does not want a target that he is going to miss. Unfortunately, the European Union has imposed targets on him in other areas, where he does not have the same powers of discretion, and those targets are being missed.

Missing targets is not cataclysmic. Targets are there to be hit, but it is better to aim seriously at targets, even if that aim does not succeed, than to have no targets and just pious intent. When we criticise and pressure the Minister over failed targets, it is to encourage him to make greater efforts to ensure that the necessary policies are put in place. In that spirit, I view the statutory instrument as part of a policy aimed at achieving a target as agreed by the landfill directive. The proposals in it are clear and unequivocal and, in

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that sense, necessary. I remain concerned that the timetable is too long and I should like more of the older sites to be phased out as quickly as possible. That might require a more vigorous waste-reduction strategy than the Government have yet shown us.

10.54 am

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): The regulations should be considered in the wider context of waste disposal policy. They are a considerable improvement on the current landfill regulations, but the public and Members of the House should not take them to mean that landfill disposal will be reduced or that there will be fewer landfill sites. Hon. Members who deal with landfill or waste disposal problems will still have those problems tomorrow, after we have approved the regulations. They are a small step in the right direction, in the overall context of waste minimisation and a waste reduction strategy, which hon. Members have already mentioned.

I welcome the fact that the regulations will, as it were, dispose of co-disposal. That is long overdue, and should happen even more quickly than the timetable set out in the regulations requires. However, we must live with the regulations that have been presented to us. My concerns about the practical workings of the regulations relate to location, public accountability and openness, and health. I should like the Minister to discuss the regulations as they relate to trying to overcome problems in those matters.

The Conservative Front-Bench spokesman said that the regulations were long overdue. Perhaps one reason for that lateness was that in December 2001 the Minister was considering a report from the National Assembly for Wales about the Nantygwyddon landfill site. The Purchon report was an independent report, commissioned by the Environment, Planning and Transport Committee of the National Assembly, about that dreadful landfill site. The lessons of Nantygwyddon set out in the report, and the recommendations that were made to the National Assembly, are highly relevant to the regulations. In several cases the regulations conform to the recommendations and requirements that the report set out, but one or two matters are outstanding. Those potential holes in the regulations may become problems if the regulations are not carefully policed and monitored by the Minister, to allow for subsequent tightening up.

The Nantygwyddon report identified the location of the refuse tip in the Rhondda as the primary issue. Hon. Members who try to summon up a vision of the Rhondda will think straight away of a deep, steep-sided valley and hills. They may think of coal tips, but there are virtually none left now. The central question arising in the Nantygwyddon report was why a landfill site had been placed on top of a hill above terraced houses so that the leachate and pollution could escape quickly, with the consequent risk to health. The author of the report, David Purchon, asked:

    ''How and why did a household refuse tip come to be placed on an inaccessible, bleak, windy, exceptionally wet mountain-top relatively close to and above terraces of houses situated on steep-sided narrow valley slopes?''

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The central question for people in Wales is whether that will happen again once the regulations are passed, or whether schedule 2 will prevent it. The way in which planning should encompass issues of the kind raised by the Nantygwyddon case is covered by schedule 2, but can we be sure about it?

My second question is about how any landfill site will be dealt with, from the point of view of the public—whether the issue is a planning process covered by the regulations or the fact that an existing landfill site has come within the ambit of the regulations. One of the central concerns raised by the Nantygwyddon site was that the Environment Agency did not respond to complaints. For example, its representatives did not agree to attend a public meeting, for fear of being criticised. It is ridiculous that a publicly accountable body should refuse to meet the public for that reason. Of course, the Agency was in the end even more heavily criticised in an independent report to the National Assembly.

Nantygwyddon was clearly in breach of its licensing conditions, which were set up by the Conservative Government in an attempt to privatise the municipal waste industry, and which, unfortunately, were inadequately enforced by the Environment Agency and by the then Labour-controlled Rhondda district council. The latter fact no doubt played no small part in Labour's losing control of the council to my party.

The Environment Agency's refusal to enforce the regulations raises questions about the fact that it is now responsible for the enforcement in Wales of the regulations that are before us. Since the events that I have described, devolution has taken place and a strong, active branch of the Environment Agency has been set up. It is not devolved and is still an England and Wales body, but there is now an Environment Agency presence for Wales. However, the report recommended that the Assembly should press the United Kingdom Government—as I am doing on the Assembly's behalf, by pressing the Minister—to ensure the free availability of environmental information and not to allow commercial confidentiality to hold it back.

An example of what I have in mind can be seen if one visits a landfill site in Vienna. There will be a board displayed for the public outside the site, providing real-time information about leachates, pollutants and gases escaping from the site. There is constant monitoring and the public can see what is happening at all times. The regulations that are before the Committee will not result in the Environment Agency taking such action, but I want regulations to introduce such best practice. Will the regulations facilitate such openness and accountability in matters of environmental information? I hope that we do not end up with the status quo.

My third concern is about health, which is tangentially relevant. A Department of Health report published in August 2001 showed a small excess risk of birth defects associated with landfill sites. The source was a study of babies born to women living within 2 km of landfill sites. Members of the Committee may be surprised to know that 80 per cent. of the population of England and Wales live within 2 km of a landfill

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site. Many of those sites are now closed, but they still contain pollutants and many may not be properly sealed, so that further monitoring is required.

The regulations are a response to European Community landfill directives and law, and we should bear in mind that a central and useful premise of EC environmental law is the precautionary principle. I would like the Minister to deal with the health worries that are often mentioned in connection with landfill sites, to which that precautionary principle is relevant. It might be useful in the present context for local people to be allowed recourse to research done on their behalf, so that they could rely on an independent body of evidence. The Environment Agency has lost credibility over the landfill issue in Wales, because of the Nantygwyddon fiasco and the report published by the National Assembly.

If the Environment Agency intends to police the regulations in Wales, it will have to buck up its act and make considerable improvements to its way of dealing with the public. I dare say that that is true in England as well, and that there is a need for the Environment Agency to become more open and accountable in acting on others' behalf.

The regulations are being made, as the Front Bench spokesmen for the main Opposition parties have mentioned, against the background of an inadequate regime for waste minimisation. The Welsh targets for recycling and composting are more ambitious than the English targets, I am pleased to say, but they are still voluntary targets, as opposed to the legal targets or deadlines that apply in Sweden, for example. The Welsh target is that by 2003–04 we shall recycle or compost 15 per cent. of urban waste, and that by 2009–10 the percentage will rise to 40 per cent. However, those figures can be contrasted with what is happening in Daventry in Northamptonshire, which already expects to be able, in two years, to recycle 46 per cent. of its waste, or Edmonton in Canada, which has a population of nearly 1 million and has gone from 14 per cent. recycling to 70 per cent. in less than two years.

There are examples of better practice across the world, and we should try to import them. The regulations make improvements, particularly as regards coal dispersal, but it is worrying that they open the door to incineration. As long as there is a landfill tax but no tax on incineration of waste, there is a danger of a significant switch from landfill to incineration. Already two applications have been made for major incineration plants in Wales, in Wrexham and in the Crymlyn Burrows. I could discuss human health and what is acceptable to local populations, but those are wider issues.

If we started to treat our waste stream as a commodity rather than as rubbish, we could begin to make better use of it. Biodegradable waste could be composted. Tyres could be recycled—I saw an effective experimental recycling plant for tyres in Galicia not long ago. Recycling and composting

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schemes and reuse schemes also create local employment.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) said that landfill waste disposal was not a cheap option. That is becoming increasingly evident to the public, who will be upset if cheap options such as incineration are used instead. I hope for more recycling and treatment of waste as a reusable commodity, which would provide employment, rather than its being buried in big holes or sent up in smoke.

11.6 am

 
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