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31 Jan 2000 : Column 878

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In view of the very grave news emanating from Northern Ireland tonight, would you do your very best to ensure that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland comes to the House tomorrow to make a statement on the events subsequent to the de Chastelain report?

Madam Speaker: I am sure that the Ministers on the Treasury Bench who have some responsibility for Government matters will have heard the hon. Gentleman's point of order.


Queen's recommendation having been signified--

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a),

(1) any expenditure incurred by the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority or the Telecommunications Authority by virtue of the Act;
(2) any expenditure incurred by the Secretary of State by virtue of the Act;
(3) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under any other Act.--[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a),

(1) the inclusion in--
(a) licences granted under the Telecommunications Act 1984, the Gas Act 1986 or the Electricity Act 1989; and
(b) appointments made under Chapter I of Part II of the Water Industry Act 1991;
of conditions requiring the payment of increased amounts payable into the Consolidated Fund; and
(2) the payment of sums into the Consolidated Fund.-- [Mr. Sutcliffe.]

Question agreed to.



Local Authorities (Funds) (England) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations


    That Mr. Paul Keetch be discharged from the Catering Committee and Bob Russell be added to the Committee.--[Mr. Tyler.]

31 Jan 2000 : Column 879

Waste Disposal (East Sussex)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

10.15 pm

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): I want to raise a matter of considerable importance to my constituents and those of other Members in East Sussex, namely the present state of the East Sussex-Brighton and Hove draft waste disposal plan, and perhaps more importantly for the purpose of the debate, the Government's strategy, which has led the councils to their present position.

This country throws away 105 million tonnes of waste each year: 70 million tonnes from industry, 20 million tonnes from households and 15 million tonnes from offices. The situation is getting worse year by year. In 1994, the UK packaging industry predicted that packaging waste would increase by 10 per cent. by 2000. That is contrary to what is happening in the Netherlands, which planned a decrease of 10 per cent. between 1986 and 2000. Does the Minister know what has happened concerning the prediction by the UK packaging industry?

The amount of waste arising each year is still increasing by 3 per cent., certainly in East Sussex. That puts tremendous strain on the Government's strategy and on the waste disposal authorities that have to deal with waste at the rough end.

The Government are facing a pincer movement. On the one hand, an EU directive requires a maximum of 35 per cent. of household waste to be landfilled by 2016. The present figure is 80 to 85 per cent. Does that figure apply only to biodegradable waste collected by local authorities? I ask because the directive says that

is included in that figure. That makes a difference, and it is important to quantify what percentage of waste is equivalent to that produced by households and whether the Government are including that in the figure of 35 per cent. That half of the pincer movement rightly requires a substantial decrease in the amount of waste that is landfilled.

The second half of the pincer movement--which is a beneficial manoeuvre--is the Government's recycling target. I understand that the target is to recycle 25 per cent. of waste by 2005, so it does not take a mathematician to work out that there is a large gap. The only realistic way to fill that gap in the short term is to incinerate waste. Are the Government actively choosing incineration, or have they been left with that option because there is no alternative way to deal with waste?

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Does my hon. Friend agree that his point about the landfill of domestic waste is crucial, particularly for authorities such as North Yorkshire county council, which has a major problem with its Harewood Whin site? That site, which is just outside York, is coming to completion, but the council has applied for a major extension to take in another 15 to 20 acres of greenfield land on which to dump rubbish. Without a clear statement of policy from the Government, it will be difficult to do that.

Mr. Baker: I share my hon. Friend's concern, and I am sure that the Minister will address the question of landfill in his reply.

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Landfills in the Sussex area are described as "restoration of chalk downland", which is a euphemism that I shall not employ. The landfill site that is about a mile from my house--I am declaring a sort of interest--is responsible for a substantial amount of groundwater pollution, as recognised by the Environment Agency. I understand that landfills nationwide are responsible for a third of all groundwater pollution. They produce methane in large quantities, which is a bad greenhouse gas. Every day in East Sussex and Brighton and Hove, 700 tonnes of rubbish is landfilled, and that quantity is increasing by 3 per cent. a year. Clearly that needs to be dealt with.

When the Minister responds, will he explain the Government's position on incineration, which is euphemistically called energy from waste? The term "incineration" is not liked now and there is a preference to call it something else.

Do the Government accept that incineration is inevitable? If so, are they happy that that is the position? At present, there are only a handful of incinerators throughout the country, and the projections that I have seen suggest that there will be 130 or more in the coming years. Yet it is accepted, as it is by Ministers, that there is a problem in public perception terms at least with the possible health implications of incinerators. They emit dioxin and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury. Standards have been tightened recently but, for example, the standards in the Netherlands are 10 times higher than the new ones that have been introduced in the UK. Incineration plants still produce toxic ash--particularly fly ash and bottom ash--that has to go to a landfill site.

Is the Minister happy that incineration plants can be operated safely, and are the present standards ones that he is happy to accept? Can he give an assurance to communities that will be faced with incineration plants, whether in East Sussex or elsewhere, that he is confident that there are no health implications? Do the Government have a guideline distance for the siting of an incinerator from nearby domestic properties? Is a certain distance employed, or is it safe in the Government's view to have an incinerator next to someone's house? That is a genuine question. I do not know what the Government's view is on the safety of incinerators in those terms.

Incinerators can add to global warming, and in comparison with recycling materials, there is a considerable deficit in terms of the Government's attempts to meet the Kyoto targets. According to Friends of the Earth, recycling would save 4.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year when compared with energy-from-waste plants. Friends of the Earth tells me that that is equivalent to 12 per cent. of all vehicle mileage in the United Kingdom, even allowing for displacement. That is energy that need not necessarily be created as a consequence.

Another problem with incineration that concerns me is that the contracts that local authorities have to enter into are often for 25 to 30 years. In other words, they have to guarantee a waste-stream for the incinerators. If there is a shortfall because recycling efforts have been too successful, compensation payments must be made. For example, the contract signed by Cleveland county council before it was abolished in 1995, guaranteed 180,000 tonnes of waste per year for the incinerator. There was a shortfall the first year of 12,000 tonnes, and the county council was penalised to the tune of £147,000.

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In other words, because it recycled too much it had to pay a fine. Incineration capacity necessarily acts as a break on recycling and re-use efforts that are made by local authorities, which is of great concern. The assistant director of environmental services at Stockton borough council said:

    "Essentially we are into waste maximisation."

My second concern about incineration is the high capital cost. Pollution abatement equipment tends to make small incinerators unprofitable. That suggests that a huge amount of waste is needed to make them pay.

Thirdly, can incinerators be built quickly enough within the planning process? As the Minister will know, there is considerable opposition to incineration plants anywhere. There will be big fights locally, whether in East Sussex or elsewhere, in opposition to any incineration plant. It seems inconceivable that the Government's gap, which they want to fill with incineration, as I understand it, can be met within the planning process.

In my view, incineration is at best a bridge to a solution and not a solution in itself. I shall be happier tonight if the Minister tells me that he is not too comfortable with incineration and sees it only as a short-term step on the way to recycling and re-use, and waste minimisation as a long-term concept.

I suggest that the Government should set incineration capacity for each area at a maximum percentage of the present waste generated there. They should not allow incineration capacity to grow indefinitely and stifle recycling efforts. The Government should say, "This is as much as you can have. Any extra waste will have to be dealt with by recycling." That would offer some protection and some incentive for recycling.

The excellent Environment Minister, who won a green ribbon award last week, which I am happy to say was fully deserved, in a recent parliamentary answer described recycling rates as "pathetically low". Switzerland recycles 52 per cent. of its waste, the Netherlands 45 per cent., Austria 45 per cent., Norway 34 per cent., Sweden 33 per cent., England 8 per cent. and Scotland 6 per cent. That is very poor.

The Government must do more to encourage recycling. They should, for example, support the Newspaper and Magazine Recycling Bill, which would require 65 per cent. of papers and magazines collected to be recycled. The Government should find ways of using economic instruments to encourage recycling. The Treasury should cost in externalities and reform gross domestic product.

The Government should consider a tax on virgin materials, with a compensatory benefit for recycled materials to give incentives to local authorities and others. One possibility is a tax on primary aluminium producers, because of the massive environmental damage that they cause through the extraction of bauxite.

The Government should take account of the fact that there are no real incentives for waste disposal authorities--only for waste collection authorities--arising from recycling credits. The Government should give further incentives to local councils and issue guidance on simple matters such as the size of dustbins.

In my constituency there are two waste collection authorities--Lewes district council and Wealden district council. Wealden district council recycles far more per

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head of population, but the amount per head that goes to landfill is the same, because Wealden district council has wheelie bins and Lewes district council has traditional dustbins. The wheelie bins in Wealden get filled up to the top. The size of dustbins should be reduced. That is a simple thing to do, but from the parliamentary answer that I received, the evidence nationally shows that authorities with wheelie bins produce more waste per head of population. It would be simple for the Government to deal with the capacity of dustbins.

The Government need to reform standard spending assessments. I understand from the director of environment and transport for East Sussex county council that the waste allowance under the "other" bloc allocation is insufficient for East Sussex and every other local authority in the country. He does not know of one that does not spend more than the target set in the SSA.

There are various measures that the Government could adopt to produce extra incentives.

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