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Thames Waste Management Ltd.

1.29 pm

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I am grateful to the Speaker for selecting this debate. Thames Waste Management Ltd. applied for a permit to run an incinerator plant under the integrated pollution control regime in July 2000. The Environment Agency granted the permit in April 2001.

The application could never have been made if the Government had introduced the new directive on incinerators, the integrated pollution prevention and control regime, by October 1999, the deadline set across the European Union. By delaying the introduction of the new regime until the end of July 2000, the Government--inadvertently, of course--allowed Thames Waste Management Ltd. to sneak in its application under the old rules.

Given that they are the old rules, however, having obtained the permit does not entitle Thames Waste to burn a single tonne of waste in Guildford. Even if it gains planning permission for the plant, it will have to go through the whole procedure again to go ahead. By having the licence granted, Thames Waste has been given a spurious legitimacy for its speculative proposals for an incinerator plant in Guildford.

I come here on rather a busy day for politics. I am sure that incinerators, although important, will not be at the top of the minds of most of the country's people. However, I have come here to represent the entire community of Guildford, which is of one mind on the issue. It is concerned that the Government focus on the matter in the short time available before the Parliament dissolves. I have been in this place for four years, and do not expect contrition from the Minister, but I do hope for his co-operation. That is why I have let him know several of the points that I am about to raise.

We do not believe that an out-of-date permission should be allowed to give a spurious legitimacy to a planning application that still has to be resolved. The county council has indicated that it does not regard it as providing that legitimacy, but the authority provided by the Government's view would help to make it clear to all that the fact that the licence has been granted does not give any edge to the applicant's planning proposal.

We have also learned, through our examination of the matter, not only that the opportunity to apply for a licence should not have arisen, but that the Environment Agency should not have granted the licence. I refer the Minister to paragraph 22 of planning policy guidance note 10 on the Environment Agency, which, clearly states:

In the case under discussion, we all knew that, although the applicant could obtain an IPC licence, it would not be regulated at any point through the IPC regime. It is now absolutely clear that it will have to be regulated through a new regime. Surely, therefore, it is a breach of the Government's planning guidelines for the Environment Agency to issue such a licence before the planning issues have been resolved.

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The only alternative explanation is that the Government might have delayed updating planning policy guidance note 10 to take account of the new situation because it is their intention that all planning applications should have the appropriate Environment Agency licence. If that is their position, there will be a knock-on effect for this proposal, which now has the benefit of a licence, albeit an obsolete one. By comparison, the procedure has not yet been fulfilled for other applications, for other sites in Surrey. Under the planning guidance, no licences should be yet offered under the new regime. That goes to the heart of the matter on which we need clarification from the Minister.

In the course of our inquiries, we came up with a third issue--that, according to a written reply that I received from the Department, a new, more stringent regime is to be imposed by the end of next year. What is important about that new regime is that the public will have to be consulted not only on the planning process, but on the permit process on the granting of the environmental licence. One reason why people in Guildford are dismayed by the whole process is that the Environment Agency, despite receiving a record number of objections--more than 10,000 letters to the agency and more than 25,000 letters to both the agency and the county council--has undertaken no public consultation during its consideration of the licence proposal. Under the new regime that is to be brought in by the end of next year--we have a Government commitment on that--such a public consultation would be necessary and would provide an opportunity to deal with the many concerns that people have about such incinerators.

The whole process has been mishandled in three ways--first, in the failure to bring in new directives in time; secondly, in determining an application in contradiction to Government guidelines; and, thirdly, in view of the fact that more stringent rules are around the corner. That reinforces the call for a moratorium on all new incinerators that is being made by my party and my community. Communities throughout the country want a moratorium. We can then sort out the health risks, impose the more stringent requirements and undertake a strategic Government review of the need for such incinerators, given that so many people are now awake to their risks and would rather put more effort into the preferred alternative of recycling.

I received a letter from Burpham community association that pointed me towards the recent report of the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, which I am sure that the Minister has studied in detail. Paragraph 93 of the report states that

For all those reasons, there is a strong case for allowing communities such as the one that I represent to pursue alternatives such as recycling and to wait for the more stringent requirements of the new regulations to come into force before allowing a single further incinerator to be approved in this country.

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I am grateful to the leader of our local campaign, the Guildford anti-incinerator network, the Reverend Colin Matthews, who has pointed out more generally in the context of the Environment Agency's performance over this application:

We should therefore like a statement in this debate or an undertaking to write as soon as possible--preferably before Parliament dissolves--to the planning authority of Surrey county council. What is the status of the licence that has been granted? Why have the Government delayed implementing the current rules, which would have prevented the application happening in the first place? Why has the Environment Agency approved the licence in contradiction of the current planning guidelines? In view of the new rules that the Government have undertaken to introduce within the next 18 months, how far should the planning authority take into account the new requirements, which include a requirement for public consultation on environmental implications? I notice that the Minister is nodding his head, and I should be grateful for his co-operation on those points.

In the short time left to me, I should like to raise several planning issues that surround the application. It is evident that the application is a departure from both the local plan in Guildford and the structure plan for Surrey. The local plan requires any planning application to take into account its impact on the landscape and character of the town. How can a structure bigger and taller than Guildford cathedral possibly be in tune with the design, layout, history and character of our historic market town? How can it be right that an applicant can ride roughshod over normal planning guidelines because it says that it must deal with waste in that way?

We know that there is a local will, and the means on that site, to assist a massive increase in recycling. I shall be the first to admit that towns such as Guildford can do a great deal more to recycle. Indeed, if there is one benefit of the process, it has been the wake-up call to our community, and to others, that we must do a great deal more to recycle our waste to minimise the requirement for incinerators. An opportunity for recycling would, of course, be generated by a moratorium on incinerators, which would give communities a chance to prove how much more they can do.

I should like to draw the Minister's attention to the wider issue of the loss of amenity. Section 41 of PPG10 states:

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In the context of telecommunications masts, it is now accepted that the impact on amenity of a mast and concerns generated in a local community are valid planning considerations. If, for example, a mast is proposed next to a school, the fact that its erection might cause the numbers at the school to fall because parents would withdraw their children, which could mean that the school, nursery or other community facility would have to close, is now, according the Government's latest guidelines, a valid planning consideration. By the same token, is the enormous concern generated by a proposal in a town such as the one that I represent a valid planning consideration? Are the effects on local services, schools and businesses near the proposed plant valid planning considerations?

Only the other day, I visited a major international company, Regus, the office providers, which has built a new suite of offices for businesses in Guildford. Along with other leading companies such as Ericsson and Colgate Palmolive, it is concerned by the impact that the proposal will have on its staff, on their willingness to move to the town and, of course, on other facilities in Guildford. If the impact on amenity applies in the case of a telecommunications mast, surely it should apply in this case.

The announcement that the agency had approved a licence for a giant incinerator in Guildford was a scandal. We would not be in the position that we are in today if the Government had introduced the new rules and the Environment Agency had followed the current planning rules. As I said, the company will have to go through the whole procedure again before it can progress with its proposals.

The affair highlights the need for a moratorium, and the need to give alternatives such as recycling the chance to take root and prove themselves in communities such as the one that I represent. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister rejected my call for a moratorium. The message to the people of Guildford is that the Government do not realise the issue's importance. The Minister has an opportunity to put that right now and to respond constructively to the points that I have made.

1.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) on securing a debate on the licensing of a proposed incinerator in Guildford, and thank him for making us aware of some of the questions to which he would like an answer. That is most helpful, and I shall try to answer as many of them as possible. I recognise that the issue is attracting considerable public interest in his constituency.

In July 2000, Thames Waste Management Ltd. submitted a planning application to Surrey county council and a concurrent application to the Environment Agency concerning a proposed integrated waste management centre at Slyfield. Surrey county council will decide whether to grant planning permission for the proposed facility, which includes an energy-from-waste plant.

The plant will require planning permission and authorisation under the new integrated pollution prevention and control--IPPC--regime to be built and

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operated. Planning permission and the granting of IPPC authorisation are two independent processes, which will take different considerations into account.

It would be improper for me to comment on the merits or otherwise of a planning application proposal. Any such comments could prejudice the Secretary of State's position, if the application should ultimately come to him for a decision. However, the hon. Gentleman has set out concerns about the licensing regime for the proposed plant and it will help if I give some background information on the subject.

Until the new IPPC regime comes into effect, large waste incinerators are regulated by the Environment Agency under the integrated pollution control--IPC--regime. Thames Waste Management made its original application to the Environment Agency in July 2000, before the new IPPC regime came into force. In April 2001, the Environment Agency granted authorisation to the proposal under the IPC regime.

The IPC authorisation issued by the Environment Agency does not allow the applicant to operate the incinerator. For the incinerator to operate, the applicant must apply for and obtain an IPPC permit. Should such an application be made, there will be a public consultation.

The IPPC regime 2000 for England and Wales came into force on 1 August 2000. Its basic purpose is to introduce a more integrated approach to controlling pollution. In a recent press release, Surrey county council acknowledged that the IPC does provide information to inform the planning process. Planning permission may be granted without IPPC authorisation if Surrey county council is satisfied with its examination of health and pollution issues surrounding the application. As I said, however, the plant will not be able to operate until it has been granted IPPC authorisation by the Environment Agency.

The Environment Agency considers that, provided that the applicant can demonstrate compliance with the additional requirements imposed under the IPPC regime, the principles of best practicable environmental option, air dispersion assessment and health risk assessment could be transposed into the new IPPC regulatory regime.

It might be useful if I make a few comments on the Government's general approach to waste.

Mr. St. Aubyn : Will the Minister give way on that point?

Mr. Ainsworth : I should like to make progress because I know that the hon. Gentleman is anxious for me to place certain points on the record and answer his questions.

In May 2000 we published the national waste strategy, setting out the Government's policy for sustainable waste management for the next 20 years. The strategy identified the need for a step change in the way in which we think about the management of our waste. That will mean curbing the growth in waste, and learning to recognise waste as a resource. The Government are committed to dramatic increases in recycling and composting rates.

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For the first time, the Government have set statutory targets for household waste recycling and composting, which will require councils, on average, to double recycling and composting by 2003-04 and almost triple it by 2005-06. We have set even higher targets for 2010 and 2015, which we shall keep under review and raise if to do so proves practical.

The key driver behind those goals is the European landfill directive, which will require substantial changes to the way in which we manage our waste. At present, the United Kingdom landfills more than 80 per cent. of its municipal waste. The directive will require substantial reductions in biodegradable municipal waste that is sent to landfill.

The national waste strategy provides a clear framework for decision making. The waste hierarchy, which is a key part of the decision-making process, makes it clear that waste should be eliminated where possible and that the potential for reuse and recycling should be maximised. However, where it does not make sense to recycle or compost waste, consideration should be given to the recovery of energy from waste.

Although the Government have no plans for a specific number of incinerators, they do not rule out their use as part of an integrated waste management plan. Some new incineration capacity might be required if we are to manage all the waste that is to be diverted from landfill in the next 20 years.

The proximity principle, which is another key consideration in taking waste management decisions, advises that in general, waste should be managed as near as possible to its place of production, given that transporting waste has an environmental impact. Dealing with waste in that way is generally preferable to exporting it elsewhere, although the best practicable environmental option for certain wastes--normally those that are especially hazardous or toxic--might be to transport them to facilities that are designed to deal with them. Ultimately, the choice of waste facilities is a matter for local councils, in consultation with local communities.

In determining the application, I am confident that Surrey county council will consider all relevant issues. In particular, it will need to take into account representations from the local community, and the guidance for local planning authorities and others involved in the development process as set out in planning policy guidance note 10, "Planning and Waste Management", and planning policy guidance note 23, "Planning and Pollution Control".

In a plan-led system, consideration of the siting of major waste management facilities begins with waste planning authorities preparing their local waste plans. The plans set out the authorities' policies and proposals for dealing with waste in their areas, and should include the identification of sites for any new or extended facilities that might be required. It is important that the public become involved in this process, so that they can be fully informed about future development and use of land in their areas.

I fully appreciate that local people may have concerns about the proposed development of an energy-from-waste plant in Surrey. Representations from local people will be one factor that Surrey county council must take into account when determining the

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application. However, modern energy-from-waste plants are strictly regulated by the Environment Agency according to the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The environmental performance of waste incinerators has improved immensely since the early 1990s.

The hon. Gentleman said that he believes that the application was dealt with in a manner contrary to the guidance in planning policy guidance note 10. Under IPPC, Thames Waste Management Ltd. would have had to apply for planning permission before applying for a permit from the Environment Agency. By applying under IPC, it was deliberately avoiding that requirement. In fact, the situation under IPPC will remain the same as under IPC, in that planning permission will not be needed in order to apply for either permit. To have waited for IPPC to come into force would have made no difference, except that it is likely to involve a lengthier process.

The hon. Gentleman also said that it is not normal to do business by seeking IPC, or IPPC, approval prior to planning permission. However, I am afraid that it is quite common for companies to deal with matters in such a way and it does not detract from the requirements of the planning process that must be undergone subsequently. It also means that the IPPC regime will still have to be taken into consideration before the plant can operate.

Mr. St. Aubyn : Paragraph 22 of PPG10 says that where a licence is sought, planning approval must first be obtained unless the facility is regulated through the IPC regime. Is the Minister saying that that exemption will be extended when the planning guidance is revised to include the IPPC regime and that, therefore, the Government's policy is that companies should apply for the environmental licence and have a decision taken on the licence before the planning process is completed?

Mr. Ainsworth : It will disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I will repeat what I have already said. Under the IPPC, the situation will remain the same as it is under the IPC. The company will not need planning permission to apply for either permit and it will make no difference to have waited for the IPPC to come into effect, except that the IPPC is a lengthier process.

Mr. St. Aubyn : The Minister is not answering my point that we are not simply concerned about whether an applicant applies for a licence, but about whether it is granted. Locally, people feel that the grant of an environmental licence in some way prejudges the planning process. The application allows the

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Environment Agency to examine the issues, but it should not issue its final determination of the licence until the planning process is completed. Perhaps the Minister will write to me on that point.

Mr. Ainsworth : I will come back to the hon. Gentleman if I can and if subsequent inquiries throw up anything that differs from the comments that I have made. It is normal for companies to apply for licences from the Environment Agency first because that agency is statutorily bound to issue or refuse a permit within four months. A planning process may take much longer. There is an incentive for companies to carry out business that way round, and they often do. That is contrary to what the hon. Gentleman believes to be case. If I subsequently discover that what he says has some relevance, I will contact him.

The Government welcome the recent adoption of the EU waste incineration directive, which reinforces the already tough emission standards under domestic legislation.

Mr. St. Aubyn : I assume that we have a few minutes left. I also raised the point about a departure from the local and structure plans. We do not expect the Minister to comment on that individual application, but it will be considered alongside other applications, at least one of which will receive an automatic consideration by the Minister as to whether there should be a public inquiry, because it is in the green belt. It has been said of both the other applications that they are departures from the plan. Will the Minister take an even-handed approach to those applications, which are considered at the same time and all of which are, in various ways, significant departures from the local and structure plans? Does he consider that they should be called in or be the subject of a public inquiry?

Mr. Ainsworth : The hon. Gentleman knows that if there is a departure from the plan, the proposal is flagged up to be potentially called in. If an application is turned down, applicants have an automatic right to appeal against it. Even if a proposal is within the plan, that does not preclude the matter from being called in. Considerations such as whether the application has an impact wider than that on the local area and whether there has been conformity to the plan must be taken into account. Without prejudicing any future decision taken by the Secretary of State, I cannot go much further than that in helping the hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

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