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Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): My hon. Friend refers to the Dolk report of last summer, which revealed that, on the basis of a good deal of epidemiological evidence, there is cause for concern. Does my hon. Friend share my pleasure that the Government have asked Imperial college to review the matter in more detail? Does she agree that Cornwall county council and other planning authorities should stay their hand until hard evidence is produced? It is a real cause for concern.

Ms Atherton: I agree with my hon. Friend, who has one of the best track records in the House for campaigning on the issue of landfill sites. I congratulate him on his good work.

A proposal for a council directive from the European Commission states that there should be a minimum distance of 500 m between dwellings and site boundaries. Given such guidelines, a distance of 10 m cannot fail to cause more than a little anxiety.

There are major environmental objections to the proposed United Downs site. A 1998 study conducted by Cornwall county council of an area only 200 m from the site states that it is home to protected breeds of butterflies and reptiles and provides possible homes for birds, badgers and protected species of bats. The applicant, CES, has not conducted a survey to assess the existence of, or the threat to, birds, bats or badgers. A request by a local parish council to initiate such a study was refused by the landowner. In addition, to my knowledge, there has been no detailed land instability study of the site. That is especially important in the light of the fact that, when walking in this area of Cornwall, one is never quite sure how many mine shafts are under one's feet.

Water pollution has caused the most alarm at Carnsew quarry. It is feared that landfill material may pollute the water table by seeping through "fractuated" granite rock and into a local reservoir that serves the nearby town of Falmouth. An alleged contravention of water resources legislation at the quarry is currently the subject of a prosecution by the Environment Agency and further contamination would significantly harm the local environment. Incredibly, the application states that the quarry will continue blasting while the landfill site is in operation--which, I suggest, might threaten the stability of that site.

The developers at Carnsew have possibly done more than their counterparts at United Downs to appear willing to answer local residents' questions. However, their

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answers are not good enough for residents or for me. Further objections at United Downs concern the area's landscape and the lorries that will move to and from the site. The area is a unique and beautiful part of the county: a mix of countryside and striking examples of Cornwall's mining heritage. Some £8 million has been spent on reclaiming derelict land and on conservation initiatives in the area.

Work on the mines at United Downs has only just begun. The whole area is part of the Government's bid to make this part of Cornwall a world heritage site. Would we plan landfill at other world heritage sites such as the pyramids or the centre of Bath? I think not. I am glad to report that the bid is now with UNESCO and has the Government's support. It is sad that some in Cornwall apparently have so little regard for this unique heritage and plan instead to dump on it.

The fears about an increase in transport, especially heavy transport, are easy to justify in this landscape. Road is the only viable method of access, and I am sure that hon. Members can visualise with horror an increasing procession of HGVs winding through Cornish lanes, many of which are single track only and do not meet planning policy guidance issued by my hon. Friend's Department.

I applaud the Government's wish to make waste management strategy more sustainable and integrated by encouraging alternatives to road and by locating facilities appropriately--I just wish that that approach would be adopted in Cornwall. The parish councils and people from communities adjoining United Downs were under the impression that the current landfill would last for 10 years. People purchased their houses believing that there would come a time when the monster would stop. However, the company changed the ground rules every few years and people woke to find that yet another extension was planned and another fight had to be fought. The balance is always tipped in favour of the company: it can appeal if it does not like the decision, but the local community cannot.

My constituents have been told that the site will be active for another 10 years, which will consume more land, woodland and countryside. It seems that, after the planning applications are approved, everyone goes away and no one thinks about the problem until there is another application to extend the site. It is the lack of a renewable alternative strategy that has so infuriated my constituents and me.

A draft waste local plan is expected, but is on ice at present because a series of reports is being produced. One of those reports--commissioned by the county council--states how desirable it would be to have co-ordinated facilities that were sensibly located so as to ensure efficiency and minimal impact on the environment. I agree with that point, but unfortunately it is a little too late for my constituents. Such a strategy should have been in place many years ago.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Atherton: No. I regret that, as I have already given way once, I cannot do so again. I am anxious that there should be time to hear the Minister's speech.

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That strategy void is the reason for only 5 per cent. of Cornwall's waste being recycled; that figure is lower than the national average and is the lowest in the south-west. There is an alternative. Having won objective 1 funding, we are now able to explore waste-to-energy programmes close to local transport links. That will be good for the economy and for the environment. I am aware that the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) is extremely keen on the Hayle proposal, which I certainly supported. Unfortunately, that thinking is taking some time to pervade minds within the halls of the county council--despite the fact that the people of the county highlighted the importance of the environment during our massive objective 1 consultation earlier this year.

Throughout the various processes, the relevant local authorities' lack of forward thinking has not helped them in their appeal to local people. Public consultation has been minimal, so nothing has been done to build public confidence. We all know that such confidence is the key to proposals such as these; that confidence does not exist at present.

This dismal situation is made all the worse by serious questions about procedure. The applicant for the United Downs proposals--CES--is an arm's length company, set up by the county council to organise waste management in Cornwall. The company was formed in the early 1990s without competitive tendering. Senior council officers and councillors sit on its management body. Throughout its existence, CES has fought long, protracted planning battles with the local community--sometimes, I understand, receiving funding from the county council itself.

I am most concerned about when county councillors decide issues for which they have a statutory responsibility. To put it simply, the council has a responsibility for waste, and few ideas other than landfill to solve the problem; and the council makes the decisions. "Arm's length" CES may be, but is it not time for clear guidelines on how such bodies should work, and be worked with, in those circumstances?

Of further alarm is the fact that such applications seem, when before the relevant committees, to provide an occasion for the use of "substitutes", giving an extremely dubious impression to the local community. Members of the county planning committee leave the committee and are replaced--often at the eleventh hour--by colleagues who vote in their stead. It is not hard to guess what conversations might go on behind the scenes. That impression will always cause alarm to those affected by proposals--especially on matters as sensitive as those that we are discussing.

There is little case law on substitutes and councils organise such matters largely as they want, using their standing orders. I find that most disturbing; a system must be introduced that is transparent enough to restore people's faith in those whom they elect. Anyone who has served on a planning committee will know that it takes some time to understand the complexity of the structure plans with which they work. How can a substitute understand all the complexities in only a short time? It has also been suggested to me that different councillors trade votes on different applications. I allege that that is unhealthy.

In addition, there seems to be no small amount of inter-council power games. The two sites lie in different district councils, each of which is a statutory consultant

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in the planning process. At the time of the previous application at United Downs, both district councils voted against the proposals. However, on another occasion, Kerrier district council, whose administrative area includes Carnsew quarry, approved the plans for United Mines. It has been suggested that that was to get the problem off its patch. A more serious allegation is that it was a ploy, hatched by the various parties--an implied threat--to push Kerrier district council towards supporting the United Downs application.

I am sure that hon. Members will agree that that makes a mockery of local democracy, and leaves a very bad taste in the mouths of the people affected by those decisions. Obviously, those working at the United Downs site are keen to ensure that their work continues--as are waste hauliers, who currently face severe restrictions in coping with reduced access to United Downs. I want a comprehensive waste-to-energy programme that will provide employment for those affected.

I welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister on the various issues that I have raised. I hope that what I have recounted today will lead to a re-think on the way in which issues affecting so many people are handled by local authorities. This saga is one of inaction and, consequently, an ill-thought-out panicked reaction that leaves my constituents picking up the pieces--and messy pieces they are too.

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