Draft Landfill (England and Wales) Regulations 2002

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Malcolm Bruce: I am aware of the Maidstone initiative, which was extremely successful. One comment that was made was that it was the local authority that incurred the cost of taking cars away. The police and the fire brigade benefited from reduced crime and fewer car fires, and I am told that the Driver

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and Vehicle Licensing Agency benefited considerably from people rushing to pay taxes, because unpaid tax was a criterion for removing vehicles. Does the Minister plan to ensure that local authorities are not just empowered, but given a share in the benefits?

The Chairman: Order. I realise that it is difficult to draw a balance between legitimate debate on the regulations and automotive immolation. I am a little concerned that we are beginning to drift, but I am sure that the Minister will take that into account.

Mr. Meacher: I will indeed, Mr. Stevenson. Let me simply say that we are looking at the question of cost. It is part of the modernising agenda for local government that expenditure on tasks that local authorities are required to carry out will be funded. The end of life vehicles directive will be fully operative by 2007. However, for end-of-life vehicles beyond 2002, there is a question of who should bear the cost of their disposal. That matter is being discussed in this country, as it is elsewhere in Europe.

The final point made by the hon. Member for Gordon is interesting. I think that he misinterpreted my attitude to targets that will be missed. I agree entirely that making a serious attempt to meet a reasonable, testing target—yet failing to meet it—is much better than not setting a target and achieving a lesser outcome, even though there is no explicit failure. It is perfectly honourable to fail narrowly; it is not a serious deficiency of Government.

However, that is not what I said on Friday. I said that under the current doctrine of funding local authorities for their statutory targets—which I support—I cannot commit to targets for which there is not the money. That is why I tried to get the House to accept that there would be statutory targets and a time scale, but that they would based on the availability of funding—a matter that I cannot determine now. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Gordon on the importance of targets.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion raised a point about Nantygwyddon. I accept that the failures at that landfill have been serious. In the National Assembly's Purchon report—Mr. Purchon is an independent expert—several aspects were looked at. Landfill location may affect health. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the site is now closed. Strict requirements for the location of new landfill sites are set out in the landfill regulations. That probably answers his question of whether there could be another site as badly chosen as Nantygwyddon was: I do not believe that there could be. To ensure that all are well informed in the planning process, the agency will support those requirements with guidance.

The hon. Gentleman also questioned the Environment Agency's record. He noted that it had neither responded to complaints about Nantygwyddon, nor sent representatives to a public meeting. When I came into office, one of the first things that I said was that I wanted the Environment Agency's culture to change regarding such matters. The Environment Agency has to take some hard decisions. However, it is not acceptable to do so without full consultation, exposure to cross-

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questioning over the reasons for a decision and listening to what complainants feel: they may, of course, have some better suggestions that the agency ought to take on board.

I genuinely believe that the culture has changed and continues to do so; I am very keen that it should and shall investigate any case in which it does not. I repeatedly say to the chair of the Environment Agency—in whom I have great faith—that I expect him and all his senior officers to be fully available for the most difficult decisions, and to listen carefully to what the public believes should be done in each case.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about making information available—something that I am very keen on. When I set up the pollution inventory—about two years ago I think—I significantly extended the availability of information about discharges and emissions to air and water from all sites, including landfill. What the hon. Gentleman asked for should now be available. If it is not, I should be glad to know that from him.

The hon. Gentleman's last point was about the effects on health. That is an important matter, on which we must be lead by scientific research. It is a highly contentious issue, on which people have emotional feelings—understandably so. In EUROHAZCON—a European study published in 1998—a 33 per cent. higher rate of non-chromosomal anomalies among people living near hazardous waste sites was reported. As a result of those findings, the Government commissioned a programme of work on the health effects of landfill sites, including a much more extensive national study by the small area health statistics unit. That study was published in summer 2001, and showed that 80 per cent. of the population lived within 2 km of a landfill site, whether operational or closed. The study examined the rates of all birth defects—chromosomal and non-chromosomal—and found a 1 per cent. higher rate in populations living near landfill sites and a 7 per cent. higher rate in those living near hazardous waste sites.

The Government's expert advisory committee, the Committee on the Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, noted that the excess risk was small and could be accounted for by factors other than the landfill sites. The study did not, and could not, show a causal link between landfill sites and birth defects, but there is an association, which cannot be ignored. That is a serious matter requiring further research. That research is being undertaken, and we will publish all the new evidence as it becomes available. It would, however, be wrong to induce a sense of panic about the issue. The figures are quite varied, and there are technical questions involved, which I think it is unnecessary to go into now. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue the matter further, I will explore it with him in writing. If there is a connection between landfill sites and birth defects, the transmission mechanism needs to be determined, and at the moment there is only a hypothesis on that.

I dealt earlier with the question of tax on incineration and the possible shift to incineration. I

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do not believe that tightened landfill requirements will lead to a significant increase in incineration, first because planning requirements have to be met. Getting planning permission is very difficult, because the public atmosphere regarding incineration is unremittingly hostile. Secondly, I insist that the statutory recycling targets must be met. I am not saying that incinerators cannot be built, but that if an incinerator is built and the local authority fails to meet the recycling targets, it will be in lumber. Under guidance that we issued in September 2000, proposals for building an incinerator must demonstrate that that incinerator will not impinge on the current statutory recycling targets or foreclose on the possibilities of a later increase in recycling. Those criteria are tough, and I have been applying them rigorously in the applications made to me.

Mr. Simon Thomas: It is one of the curious aspects of devolution that the Minister is completely right in what he says regarding England, but not as correct regarding Wales. The regulations apply to both England and Wales, but recycling targets is a devolved matter and the link to incineration in Wales is slightly different. The incinerator at Crymlyn Burrows has been given planning authorisation, and authorisation from the Environment Agency, in a local authority area that has a very low recycling rate. Will the Minister ensure that monitoring of incineration plants by the Environment Agency is of the highest quality, and will he keep a weather eye open for developments elsewhere? I understand that he has a tight grip on things in England, but I hope that he will also keep an eye open for things that are happening in Wales.

Mr. Meacher: Devolution—which the hon. Gentleman was extremely keen to see promoted—has a number of consequences, one of which is that the devolved Administrations are responsible for their own affairs. They take decisions, and the UK Government cannot dictate to them—that is exactly what we mean by devolution. So it is strange that the hon. Gentleman is asking me to keep a weather eye on what happens in Wales. We share a great deal of information and I hope that there will be complete disclosure and freedom of information about what is

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going on. Ultimately, however, that is a matter for the National Assembly for Wales.

I meet the chairman of the Environment Agency at least four times a year on a regular bilateral basis. Many other meetings are held. The chairman clearly understands my instructions on the culture, openness, transparency and communication with the public required of the agency.

Malcolm Bruce: As regards devolution, I have absolute confidence in my Liberal Democrat colleague, the Minister for Environment and Rural Development in the Scottish Executive. My point is relevant—

The Chairman: I hope so.

Malcolm Bruce: Some local authorities appear to believe that they are not constrained by the considerations to which the Minister has referred and that they can operate incinerators and ignore recycling targets. What the Minister has said is important, but how is it that major authorities such as the City of Aberdeen council seem not to be aware of the constraints?

Mr. Meacher: I am surprised to hear that. There are no grounds for that. We are beginning to insist on monitored evidence of progress towards recycling targets. I issued guidance on—I think—20 September 2000 making clear exactly what I had said. Applications for any incineration plant, even if, as we would insist, it were small in size and provided combined heat and power, could be accepted only on the basis that recycling targets were being met and that any decision on incineration would not preclude future development of recycling. If there is any evidence that those criteria are not being adhered to, I should like to know about it. We have made the position clear, and I cannot say why any local authority would be unaware of it. All authorities should be aware of it.

I have answered all the important points raised in an interesting debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Landfill (England and Wales) Regulations 2002.

Committee rose at eighteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Stevenson, Mr. George (Chairman)
Ainger, Mr.
Bradley, Peter
Bruce, Malcolm
Clelland, Mr.
Doughty, Sue
Follett, Barbara
Liddell-Grainger, Mr.
Marshall, Mr. Jim
Meacher, Mr.
Pollard, Mr.
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey
Ruane, Chris
Sayeed, Mr.
Sheridan, Jim
Steinberg, Mr.
Swayne, Mr.
Thomas, Mr. Simon
Wood, Mr.

 
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