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So my question to the Minister is: should a county council undertake such a course when a Government consultation is under way and may produce results that are at odds with the course taken by the county council? In respect of both the council's own consultation, which was announced hard on the heels of a decision on possible locations for the site, and the Government's consultation, which was still taking place when that announcement was made, there would seem to me, as a layman, to be obvious prematurity in the council's decision to narrow the choice of sites down to two, including the Harper lane site.
That is not the only strange aspect of the process being followed by the county council, because in October 2008 the council submitted an outline business case to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that enabled it to obtain £115 million of private finance initiative credits. The Harper lane site was not the reference site for that bid, nor, as I understand it, was it in the plans of the four shortlisted bidders with an energy-from-waste proposal. Notwithstanding that, Harper lane emerged, out of the blue, as one of two shortlisted sites last July. In June of this year, if not before, the county council is set to announce its preferred bidder and site.
Up to that point, there will have been no opportunity for public consultation about the emergence of Harper lane as a site. Indeed, in the process that has been followed, the public could be said to have been kept in the dark because there is essentially no public information on why Harper lane was chosen as a second potential incinerator site. It does not fit with the stated criteria of Hertfordshire county council for a number of reasons, including the fact that the site is in the green belt and has poor main road access, being located close to a notorious traffic congestion blackspot.
There are also very serious environmental issues relating to the Harper lane site, which will become apparent in due course. Local people have had no opportunity to have their say on any of this. As a strong supporter of the Localism Bill and the localism principle, I am tempted to ask the Minister how this all fits in with the concept of localism. Of course, before a final decision on the location of the incinerator site can be taken, a separate planning process will have to be conducted by Hertfordshire county council and presumably local people will then have a say. That will come only after the county council has appointed a preferred bidder for the preferred site and presumably entered into some sort of legal relationship with the preferred bidder.
Doubtless, Hertfordshire county council will be scrupulous in observing the requirements of the planning process, but, to say the least, how can this appear fair to the lay observer and to interested local residents? Would not they be entitled to conclude that the process is flawed? Many residents all over Hertfordshire might want to ask whether there should be an incinerator at all and whether incineration is the most environmentally friendly process in all the circumstances. Certainly, the assumptions being made about incineration in this case seem to be unambitious when it comes to recycling and waste minimisation in both of which Hertfordshire has a good record. Let it be said that Hertfordshire is a green council with a very good record on recycling and is very good at stimulating environmental awareness. The recycling and composting rate for Hertfordshire is
in excess of the national rate and Hertfordshire is on course to achieve a rate of recycling 50% of all household waste by 2013 if not before.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Is it possible that if a number of people were unhappy with the application and objected to it through the planning application process, the planning authority could say no to it and that concerns could be addressed at that stage?
Mr Clappison: That is possible, but by that time Hertfordshire county council would already have a preferred bidder and might have entered into a legal relationship with it, so it would, in a way, be judging its own cause in the eyes of local people. There would then be a question of whether it could take that decision and be seen to be a disinterested party, which is very important to the planning process. That is a very strange process to follow.
Up to this point, even before we reach any of those considerations, there has been no opportunity for local people to have their say, no opportunity for full ventilation of the environmental issues at stake and no opportunity for the case against incineration to be put-the case in favour of more recycling and other environmentally friendly ways of dealing with waste. Neither, it seems, has there been any opportunity thus far for a consultation on a full environmental impact assessment. Local people are aware of a number of serious environmental concerns about the Harper lane site, including the fact that it will be on an inner groundwater source protection zone and the fact that it is a close neighbour of the Wildlife Trust's nature reserve of Broad Colney lakes and of Hounds Wood. In the eyes of many local people, the development would be highly damaging to the local environment and could hardly be more unsuitable on environmental traffic and local infrastructure grounds.
Local people have come together under the auspices of the Watling incinerator group, known as WING, to put the very compelling case against such a development, but should they not have already had the opportunity to put their case formally at an earlier stage to help shape decisions and to participate in genuine consultation, so that the process appears to be one in which people have had a chance to have their say? The process appears to be open to the many questions being asked about it.
Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) on introducing this important debate at this late hour. As he observed, the site in question is in my constituency, but it is on the edge and much of the traffic and other impacts will affect his constituency.
My poor old constituency is in the same corner of the county that only recently was under threat from a rail freight interchange. One of the arguments against that was that fact that lorries access the Harper lane site, the very part of the county that the county council said at the time was particularly heavily congested and unsuitable for having more traffic. That was a really strong argument. The half a lane of road available in the area is now one of the main rat runs to escape problems on the M25 and M1.
I visited the site in question about 18 months ago, or it might have been two years now-time is flying. I was aware then of an aspiration to have an incinerator on the site. It is already a gravel working site and there is recycling there. It is heavily utilised, and access for lorries is compromised. At that time, we were aware that there was concern, particularly because of the previous Government's landfill directives, about the great pressure on Hertfordshire to deal with its waste through a new incinerator.
What concerns me, like my hon. Friend, is the lack of transparency in the process. Whispers and rumours abound that we must not upset a Minister in another corner of Hertfordshire, or that some deal has been stitched up. If we are to give the lie to local people's worries, we need a transparent process that they can buy into and have a degree of faith in.
My hon. Friend mentioned a particularly important aquifer. The whole of Hertfordshire is characterised by chalk streams, aquifers with a potentially very big drain on them because of the sheer number of people living near them, and low rainfall. On top of that, not so long ago there was a big disaster at Buncefield, which has severely compromised another of our aquifers. That watercourse is still undergoing monitoring for the long-term impacts of PFOS-perfluorooctane sulfonate-as a result of the Buncefield disaster. We in Hertfordshire are extremely concerned that the environmental impact of anything else that goes on in our environmentally sensitive area must be taken into account.
Plenty of people in St Albans, and I know in my hon. Friend's constituency as well, say that the particulates coming from lorries travelling in and out of the Harper lane site, the potential compromising of an aquifer and the concern about pollution from lorries queuing through Park Street village and into Radlett will compromise an already congested area and add to the health concerns that residents already have. Those concerns were profoundly expressed when both of us were fighting the rail freight interchange.
We should ensure that the public do not have any hint that there is a stitched-up deal done behind closed doors. They should not have to have any worries about whether a different site has greater potential value to a council as housing development land, and whether the council will therefore sacrifice what it sees as a scrubby bit of green belt somewhere else.
The Harper lane site is important, and it already delivers a lot to Hertfordshire through recycling and gravel extraction. It gives a lot, and it does not need to give any more. It is grossly unfair to expect one corner of the county, on the edge of my hon. Friend's constituency and mine, to deliver so much more than others, without people having had any say about whether it is the best place to put an incinerator, if we are to have one at all.
I do not have a particular concern about incinerators per se. I used to have the waste portfolio when I was a district councillor, and I visited incinerator sites. They are very well run if they are well sited, but I do not believe that Harper lane is the site on which to put an incinerator. It is already a compromised site and a rat run, and it is heavily utilised by lorries. To have waste going into the area to be incinerated as well would be a blow too far and cause further concerns about aquifers.
I should like the Minister to address in his comments the potential for a delay in the scheme, should it come through, in the interests of localism and because of concerns about the environmental impact. Local people should not have to feel that it is another scheme being railroaded past them. They cheered when we had a change of Government, because they felt that it was the end of railroaded schemes. Now there is potential for a scheme that is seen to be a done deal.
Let us have transparency, localism and a fair say for the local community. Let us say that this is not the right site for a number of environmental reasons. We need to explore those reasons, not pay lip service to them in a dashed-through consultation, all in a bid to find a waste site to consume what will probably be waste from other areas, not just Hertfordshire. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere said, we do a pretty good job of recycling our waste in Hertfordshire. We do not need to import other people's rubbish.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) on securing a debate of such importance to his constituents. I also congratulate him and my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on the passion with which they spoke. As I am sure they are aware, this subject would normally come under the remit of my noble Friend Lord Henley, but I have none the less been very interested in the issues raised in this evening's debate. This Government have pledged to be the greenest ever. That is not an aspiration; it is an imperative. We have also pledged to devolve decision making as much as possible from the central to the local level. It is in the context of those two pledges that I welcome the chance to respond to this debate and the concerns that have been raised.
We need to rebuild our economy, and we need the new economy to be sustainable. It can be sustainable only if it is green, and a green economy is a zero-waste economy. That does not mean that there will be absolutely no waste-we are realistic-but it does mean that resources are fully valued, economically and environmentally. It also means that one person's waste is another person's resource. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere said, the Government are currently conducting a thorough review of our waste policy. We are due to report in the spring, so I shall not seek to pre-empt our findings today. Nevertheless, the recovery of energy from certain wastes has a role to play in moving us towards a zero-waste economy.
A green economy means generating renewable energy. We have tough targets for that, with 15% of energy required to be from renewable sources by 2020. We need an energy mix to meet our energy needs and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Recovering energy from waste is part of that. Waste can be a renewable source of energy, offsetting the fossil fuels that would otherwise have been burned and reducing methane emissions from landfills. That offers a net climate change benefit. I have not forgotten that this debate is about incinerators, but it is important to emphasise that recovering energy from waste can be achieved by using many
different technologies, of which incineration is only one. There is no silver bullet, but incineration is one of the many means available for meeting our renewable energy needs.
My hon. Friend has used this debate to raise his constituents' concerns, just as my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans raised her constituents' concerns so ably. The Watling incinerator group-a group of committed local people-is understandably worried about how incinerators might affect local air quality and the natural environment, and about the health of communities in the vicinity of the proposed incinerator. I must emphasise that all modern waste incinerators are subject to stringent pollution controls. Modern incinerators must comply with the waste incineration directive, which sets strict emission limits for pollutants. The Environment Agency will not grant the permits required for an incinerator to operate if a facility is not compliant with the directive.
Mrs Main: That is why I said I had not set my face against incinerators. I have visited some incinerator sites and I am aware of exactly what the Minister says. However, it is the location of the sites and the access to them, along with the lorries and the pollution that they generate, that also need to be taken into consideration.
Studies have failed to establish any convincing link between emissions from incinerators and adverse effects on public health. In 2009, the Health Protection Agency reviewed the existing evidence on public health and incinerators. It concluded, on reviewing the existing evidence, that any effect on people's health from incinerator emissions was likely to be so small as to be undetectable. It affirmed that adverse health effects from modern, well-regulated waste incinerators did not pose a significant threat to public health.
This debate is also about communities, and we need to meet the challenges at local level. My hon. Friends will be aware that I am unable to comment on the specifics of this particular application, as it is currently subject to a competitive tender process, and it would therefore be inappropriate for me to comment. What I can say is that vigorous debate within a community is healthy, and necessary in order to ensure that the right choices are made in each community.
In these debates, we need to be alive to the facts that all communities produce waste and that responsibility must be taken for dealing with it in a way that best balances the needs of the community and the environment. Our aim is to allow those who are best placed to make decisions to take them in a balanced and informed way, with as little red tape as possible. A reformed planning system will be underpinned by the Localism Bill. This will create a less bureaucratic, more decentralised and more collaborative process and will help to build the big society by radically transforming the relationships between central Government, local government, communities and individuals.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere said, the Government are also undertaking a review of waste policy, which is looking at all aspects of policy development and delivery in England, including the possible role of energy from waste and related infrastructure needs. However, it has never been the intention that the review
should prohibit any particular type of technology or take any decisions that would have a direct impact on individual projects. The waste review will report in May this year. Hertfordshire county council will have to decide how this timetable impacts on the progress of its own plans, but I do not believe that its actions in any way undermine the waste review.
To put us on the road to a zero-waste economy, we need to manage all our waste according to the waste hierarchy. The hierarchy involves an environmental order of preference for the outcomes of waste. After the preferable options of preventing, reusing and recycling waste, there is recovery and, finally, landfill-the least desirable environmental outcome. The order of the hierarchy can be changed for individual waste types, if it can be proved that that makes environmental sense over the life-cycle of a product. Generally, however, the hierarchy works, and that means keeping waste out of landfill whenever possible. Gone are the days when we do not worry about putting waste in holes in the ground. We know that biodegradable waste rots in landfill, giving off methane, which is a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans made some very good points about the impact on water in aquifers. That is fundamental to our concerns about landfill.
Following the logic of the waste hierarchy, it is reasonable to ask whether, if we are burning waste, we need not recycle it. Worse, might we be providing incentives specifically not to reduce, reuse or recycle before recovering energy from waste? Those are valid concerns that the Government's waste review is setting out to address. But we know from other countries that recycling and energy from waste can co-exist. In the Netherlands, for
example, recycling rates are around 65%, alongside 33% energy from waste. The picture is similar in Denmark and Sweden.
We are doing this not only because it makes sense but because it is the law. The waste hierarchy will shortly become UK law through the revised waste framework directive. We have legal targets to keep waste out of landfill, and the Climate Change Act 2008 rightly sets tough targets for every sector of the economy to contribute to the UK-wide carbon budgets. The waste sector is no exception. All those obligations will help our drive towards growing a zero-waste, green economy.
I hope that my hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere and for St Albans will continue to make their case passionately on behalf of their constituents. They will find that they are able to engage in a process in which they will be listened to, and in which they will be part of the decision-making process. That is what this Government are about. We want them to be part of the process, rather than feeling that they are having these developments inflicted on them with no ability to say anything.
I congratulate my hon. Friends on the high quality of the debate and on the passion with which they have raised this issue. I hope that I have gone some way towards explaining why we are confident that incinerators do not pose a threat to public health, and why our policy on incinerators is part of, rather than in opposition to, our being the greenest Government ever. I hope I have been able to assure them that, as a Government, we are committed to giving power to communities such as those in their part of Hertfordshire.
That the draft Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2011, which was laid before this House on 24 January, be approved.
That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 11048/10 relating to a draft agreement, No. 11173/10, relating to a draft Council Decision on the signature of the agreement, and No. 11172/10, relating to a draft Council Decision on the conclusion of the agreement between the European Union and the United States of America on the processing and transfer of financial messaging data from the European Union to the United States for the purposes of the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program; agrees that the programme is an extremely important tool in the global counter-terrorism effort, providing valuable contributions to numerous high profile cases; and notes that the programme has achieved an appropriate balance between counter-terrorism and data protection.