Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 940 - 957)




  940. But not ordinary people; only those people who can afford a very substantial fee.
  (Mr Lee) We have made sure, through the agreements with the private sector, that we kept the cost of the software package down. The price is under a thousand pounds and that price includes updates to the software, it includes training of the users, and it includes live support for the users. That is a very impressive package which is more than comparable to systems that you would normally expect to buy on the software market.

Mrs Ellman

  941. Do you think that sort of price is compatible with public access to information?
  (Mr Lee) It is certainly compatible with the tier at which we would like to see Life Cycle Assessment applied to development of waste strategies. That is at a Waste Disposal Authority (or roughly county) level.

  942. So it is not about the public?
  (Mr Lee) I think the public will obviously be interested in the use and the output from Life Cycle Assessment and WISARD, or other systems. There are other packages that are available. I would expect a member of the public who was interested in Life Cycle Assessment and the development of least environmental cost strategies to work through or with their Local Authority and I would hope and expect that their Local Authority would have access to something like WISARD.


  943. So you think a local authority should make it freely available to any community group who might be challenging waste strategy in their area?
  (Mr Lee) You are asking me to commit resources for individual local authorities and of course I could not make that decision, but I would be disappointed if the benefits of life cycle assessment were not available to the general public.

  944. Then why do you not make it available freely?
  (Mr Lee) The Environment Agency and the Department did look into the purchase of the intellectual property rights for the WISARD software. In view of the cost we have not chosen to progress with that. That is an option that we could follow but we would have to discuss the cost of the purchase with the Department.

Mr Brake

  945. The Environment Agency talks a lot on its website about waste minimisation. Why did you fail to get the Government to put anything about waste minimisation into the Waste Strategy document?
  (Dr Leinster) We believe that the Waste Strategy outlines high level principles for waste minimisation but we would agree that it does not explain how they are implemented in practice. There is potential confusion and duplication of responsibilities between, for example, the Agency, local authorities, the new Waste and Resources Action Programme and Envirowise in terms of waste minimisation. We are working with those groups through discussion and with the DETR to seek to clarify that position as to how we take waste minimisation forward. For those facilities which will be coming under the new Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control regime the Agency will be able to require them to have and to develop and implement waste minimisation programmes so we will have control through IPPC over a number of waste minimisation programmes as those facilities come in. One of the lacks that we would see is that there do not appear to be any similar levers available to influence minimisation of, for example, municipal waste. There is a lack there.

  946. Is not the truth of the matter that the Environment Agency is not committed to waste minimisation? I understand in your paper to the Agency Board of 12 July you were planning forward on the basis of continuous growth of three per cent in the waste stream.
  (Dr Leinster) We are committed to waste minimisation. We are trying to co-ordinate that much more and there are a number of initiatives that we have ongoing, for example, we have a national tyre campaign which is going forward, there is an oil care campaign going forward, so we are interested in the use and re-use of materials. That was not planning. That was just noting that we believe municipal waste is growing at three per cent and if municipal waste is growing at three per cent then in 20 years' time that is a doubling of the amount of municipal waste and any structures which are in place need to be able to deal with that growth in waste.

  947. What have you as an Agency put in place to ensure that there is not a growth of three per cent and we are actually seeing a downward trend? Do initiatives like the tyre project that you referred to add up to cutting down the waste stream or do they add up to the waste stream increasing?
  (Mr Lee) I will follow on from that. On the three per cent increase we believe the local authorities are about right in what they report there. We think that the increase is variable geographically and we do not know whether the three per cent increase will be sustained over the next one, five, ten, whatever it is, years. It is just to report on what is happening to household waste at the moment. What the Environment Agency is doing to minimise waste in very general terms is that we are inevitably part of the increase in cost of the responsible management of waste. That is not just landfill tax. That is also the cost of regulation, the cost of the facilities that are going to be used, the cost of abatement controls. The Environment Agency is part of the increased cost of responsible waste management and the increased cost of responsible waste management we hope and believe will drive waste minimisation. Minimisation of household waste is rather more difficult because individual householders like me do not feel the cost of increased responsible waste management directly; we feel it indirectly through the rates that we pay to our local authorities. The pressure on waste minimisation of household waste rightly needs to be applied through individual local authorities. We will support the work of the local authorities through things like the National Waste Awareness Initiative, through the provision of information, and through the provision of local co-working.


  948. We have quite a few more questions which I think we had better send to you in writing. Have you any comments on Greater Manchester's soil improving scheme?
  (Mr Lee) Yes. Very briefly, the Environment Agency gets a lot of proposals put to it and I think those numbers of proposals will increase in the near future as things like the Landfill Directive and the National Waste Strategy start to bite. We need to make sure that those novel proposals for dealing with waste are environmentally safe, to use a word that was used earlier on. The soil making procedure in Manchester using milled household waste might, on first hearing seem to be a good idea. The practice turns out to be rather different, so we have stopped any further applications in Manchester and we are working with the operator to make sure that any further operations or applications are acceptable.

  949. So the stuff that was put on at Droylsden just was not acceptable?
  (Mr Lee) Correct.

  950. Have you prosecuted them?
  (Mr Lee) We have not prosecuted them. We are working with them to make sure that the process, if it is to be used in future, will be acceptable.

  951. The Guardian had a series of allegations about the dumping of illegal waste. Have you done anything about those allegations?
  (Mr Lee) We started work on our concerns about the negative impacts of things like the landfill tax, but not only the landfill tax, a considerable time before The Guardian article.

  952. Oh, I am sure you did.
  (Mr Lee) And in fact we had one of our senior officers seconded into the Department for the whole of 1999/2000 to work with them on improvements to the scheme of exemptions from Waste Management Licensing that we have been looking for for some years. Those improvements include an increased degree of control over what we perceive to be the most environmentally risky or hazardous so-called exempt activities, and in general they can be summed up as those involved in the application of waste to land. That includes land spreading, it includes using inert waste as a construction material. We have made those proposals nearly 12 months ago now. We wait, as does the rest of industry, to see the consultation document from the Department. We look forward to the improvements in the control that we think that will bring about.

  953. But meanwhile you can still make golf courses that get higher and higher out of waste, you can improve farmland with bricks and things like that, and you can dump on beaches, you guys, at making a road which never quite seems to get finished. Is that right?
  (Mr Lee) Of course you cannot use a so-called exempt activity that does not meet the relevant objectives under the Waste Framework Directive, basically harm to the environment or people, and we do inspect these operations, although nowhere near the sort of level that we would like to. That is why one of the proposals that we put forward to the Department is that those types of operation are subject to prior verification by us and are subject to an annual fee payable to us to make sure that we are funded to do the inspection.

  954. So a lot of people are getting away with it at the moment and it is really down to the Department to get these new regulations out? Is that it?
  (Mr Lee) I would say it is down to the Department to get the regulations out. I would not say that a lot of people are getting away with it.

  955. Is anyone getting away with it?
  (Mr Lee) Clearly they are. You will have noted in the recent Despatches television programme the Environment Agency and the local authorities' attempts to control operations that are running out of control and trying to take effective enforcement and prosecution action, and you will have noted from that programme that that is not easy.

  956. So how many successful prosecutions have you actually had?
  (Mr Lee) I should have been prepared for that question, should I not? I have not got that information available. We will have to write back to the Committee Clerk after today if that is acceptable.

  957. It would be very helpful if you could tell us how many. It would also be helpful if you could tell us whether there were substantial fines and whether the fines appeared to be greater than the benefit someone might accrue from breaking the law.
  (Mr Lee) I am glad you have made that point for me, but if you will allow me I will ram it home. One of the concerns of the Agency is that the fines must match the crimes. What we cannot live with is an industry that may come to face prosecution as an acceptable professional hazard.

  Chairman: On that note can I thank you very much for your evidence. We will follow it up with one or two more questions in writing.

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