Previous SectionIndexHome Page

1.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on securing this debate on a topic of fundamental and increasing national importance and of particular concern in Cornwall. It is good to see so many Members who represent Cornish constituencies in the Chamber.

My hon. Friend made a robust speech in which she raised some serious issues. I shall attempt to address them in the short time available, but we might also need to correspond on some matters.

Before replying to my hon. Friend, I should inform the House that, on Monday, Cornwall county council issued planning permission for one of the proposals that she mentioned--the United Mines extension. That was unexpected. The Government office for the south-west understood that the council had not intended to issue permission before today's debate, without prior notice. I am disappointed that it has gone ahead without waiting for today's debate to take place.

The Government knew of the application. However, as far as we were aware, it did not raise issues that justified the Secretary of State calling it in for his determination. None the less, I was prepared to come to this debate with an open mind--ready to respond to any important new issues. Unexpectedly, the county council has now taken the application out of our hands by exercising its responsibility to make the decision.

Cornwall faces a common problem--especially in the south of England. Existing landfill sites, on which we are currently heavily reliant, are filling up quickly, and better alternatives are needed. In England, we currently landfill more than 80 per cent. of our municipal waste, and about half our industrial and commercial waste. That has been

27 Oct 1999 : Column 994

a favoured waste management option for rural and urban communities because of its low cost and the ready availability of old mines and quarries.

Before commenting on the problem in Cornwall, I shall make some points on the Government's draft waste strategy. Landfill is the least desirable means of managing waste; re-use of materials, recycling, composting and energy recovery from waste are usually preferable because landfill makes the least use of waste. We realise that landfill will continue to play a role in waste management in this country, but we must work together to reduce our traditional reliance on it. Those policies and aims are set out in the draft waste strategy, "A Way with Waste", which we published earlier this year.

My hon. Friend referred to the EC landfill directive. The Government are strongly committed to the safe management of waste facilities, including landfill sites. Waste management activities have been tightly regulated since a licensing system was introduced under the Control of Pollution Act 1974. That system was replaced by the waste management licensing system now in force under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The purpose of the licensing system is to ensure that waste is managed in ways that protect the environment and human health.

The controls will be reinforced by the introduction of the EC landfill directive, which was adopted earlier this year. It will bring in much more rigorous controls for landfill across the EU, most of which are similar to those already in place in this country, and other member states will be brought up to our high standards.

Planning policy guidance note 10 was published in September. It provides advice on how the planning system should contribute to sustainable development through the provision of the required waste management facilities and on how that provision is regulated under the statutory planning and waste management systems. It sets out the general policy context and the criteria for siting facilities and advises waste planning authorities on the factors to be considered in relation to the range of waste management options available. The guidance should help in the preparation of local waste plans and in the determination of planning applications. However, it does not suggest which waste management options might be appropriate to any particular set of circumstances. That will be a matter for individual local authorities, informed by the national waste strategy.

One of the key aims of PPG10 is to strengthen the regional role in planning for waste management: therefore, it proposes the establishment of regional technical advisory bodies in each region. Those are important because local authorities should not consider the needs of their own area in isolation--waste management solutions may sometimes cross local or regional boundaries. The regional technical advisory bodies will assemble data and provide advice to the regional planning bodies on suitable options and strategies for dealing with waste in each region.

PPG10 also draws attention to factors that may be material to the consideration of proposed waste management facilities. For example, landfill operations can deal with a wide range of wastes and fluctuating amounts for disposal, and can provide a relatively clean source of fuel--methane--for heat and power generation. Landfill may also be the only practical way of finally disposing of some materials, such as incineration residues

27 Oct 1999 : Column 995

and other inert materials that cannot be recycled or treated further. However, landfill does require large areas of land and, if degradable materials are involved, can lead to landfill gas and other hazards.

Many factors influence the location of new waste management facilities. Landfill is commonly used in quarry restoration, but there may be opportunities for other sorts of waste management facilities at some quarried sites. All locations and the choice between different options will be for the waste planning authority to decide. Such decisions should be based primarily on a consideration of the best practicable environmental option for a particular type of waste involved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne suggested that the local authority had said that health risks were not deemed to be a reason for refusing an application. In fact, the position is slightly different from the one that she set out. It is true that where proper management of the site can eliminate the health risk--that is, where the health risk arises from the management of the site--that health risk is not a factor that must be taken into account when considering the application. It is a matter for the Environment Agency to investigate. However, if the location of the site makes it impossible to operate without health risks, that would be a planning ground to be taken into account.

My hon. Friend said that the EC landfill directive recommended that dwellings should be at least 500 m from a landfill site. Apparently, that provision was contained in an early draft, but was eliminated from later drafts. Therefore, the landfill directive makes no specific recommendation on distance. The proximity of dwellings is a factor to be taken into account by planning authorities, but there is no set distance to be observed.

My hon. Friends the Members for Falmouth and Camborne and for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) referred to a possible link between birth defects and landfill sites that accept hazardous waste. A study reported in The Lancet, which formed the basis of media reports, did not establish cause and effect, but concluded only that there was a need for further study. The Government have commissioned a small programme of research into the subject, the initial findings of which should be available next summer.

Planning policies for waste development in Cornwall will be set out in the Cornwall waste local plan. Cornwall county council published a draft plan for consultation in March 1998. The key issues in west Cornwall were: the main landfill facility, at United Mines near St. Day, which was projected to be filled in 2002; the suggestion that recycling rates could be raised from 6 per cent. to 15 per cent. during the period of the plan, which runs to 2011; and the creation of a waste-to-energy plant, which would create new waste management capacity, but which could not hope to be commissioned before 2005.

The draft plan identified a gap between the filling of United Mines' facility and the commissioning of a long-term replacement. The draft plan suggested overcoming that gap, either by transporting waste to east

27 Oct 1999 : Column 996

Cornwall or beyond, which would add to heavy traffic and would be contrary to the proximity principle, which states that waste should be disposed of as close as possible to its place of generation; or by finding additional landfill capacity in west Cornwall. The Government office for the south-west responded to the draft plan on the Secretary of State's behalf. The main points were that: the plan should embody national objectives for waste management set out in "Making Waste Work", now replaced by "A Way with Waste"; and, in particular, that it should reflect the proximity principle.

The plan seemed to treat landfill as a favoured option, rather than a last resort. The Government office suggested that, instead, the council should work towards the principles established in the national strategy, including reducing dependence on landfill. The plan should also outline the practical steps needed to put those principles into practice: for example, it did not state what mix of waste management methods was favoured for the long term, nor did it contain any specific development proposals or locational guidance.

Mr. Andrew George: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Mullin: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not doing so, but I have only three minutes left and I think that he will want to hear what I have to say about Cornwall.

It is important that the council confronts the issues quickly, especially as the plan showed that important choices will have to be implemented by about 2005. The plan should make those choices and propose the key investments to put them into practice. I understand that the county council intends to deposit its local waste plan formally in the spring. I also understand that the council now--perhaps belatedly--accepts that Cornwall's heavy dependence on landfill will have to change and that waste-to-energy technology will have to be developed. I welcome the county council's adoption of that forward-looking approach and I expect it to be reflected in the deposit draft of the local plan, both in the overall strategy and in the identification of actual sites. My officials will continue to work with the council, to encourage it positively to plan the necessary facilities.

Several planning applications related to the disposal of waste in Cornwall have come to my Department's attention in recent months. They include applications at Hernis farm landfill site for a weighbridge and recycling centre with a wood-burning unit; two applications by County Environmental Services Ltd. to extend the United Mines landfill site at St. Day, for which permission has just been issued; and an application by Aram Resources plc for the restoration of an existing quarry by landfill at Carnsew quarry near Mabe. I cannot comment on the merits of those proposals, since to do so could prejudice the Secretary of State's impartial role within the planning system. However, I can advise the House that the Hernis farm applications did not warrant our intervention. Local residents expressed concerns about the possibility of landfill development there in future, but any further proposals will have to be determined on their merits.

27 Oct 1999 : Column 997

I have already said that permission for the United Mines extension has just been issued. We received several late representations asking that the application be called in by the Secretary of State. I should explain that the Government's policy is to leave planning decisions as far as possible in the hands of locally accountable planning authorities, so the Secretary of State is highly selective about calling in applications. In general, he will take that step only in cases where issues of more than local importance are raised, so only a small proportion of applications are called in each year. The Carnsew quarry application is in its early stages--

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.

27 Oct 1999 : Column 998

Next Section

IndexHome Page