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6.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford) on his success in securing this debate on the proposed energy-from-waste incinerator at Capel. As a former planning Minister, he will understand that I cannot comment in detail on the specific proposal. As he outlined, following its decision to grant planning permission for the incinerator, Surrey county council has referred the application to the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions as the proposal departs from the local authority's development plan. That procedure was introduced to give the Secretary of State the opportunity to consider whether such proposals should be called in for his determination. The incinerator scheme is before him, and I cannot comment because that could prejudice his decision.

Nevertheless, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that in deciding whether to call in the proposal, which, I know, has caused considerable local concern, we shall give careful consideration to the points in his letters to the Secretary of State, Lord Falconer and me. We shall also consider carefully the concerns of the local community, which we have heard about at some length. Given the limitations on what can be properly discussed, this could be one of the shortest responses to an Adjournment debate on record. However, it may be helpful for the hon. Gentleman, his constituents and people who have an interest in these matters if I set out the procedures and principles, to reassure them that the matter is being dealt with properly.

Although the hon. Gentleman is clearly familiar with the Secretary of State's power to call in planning applications, it may be helpful if I run through our policy on call-in, which was set out by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport in a written answer to a former Member on 16 June 1999. The general approach of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, like that of previous Secretaries of State, is not to interfere with the jurisdiction of local planning authorities unless it is necessary to do so because Parliament has entrusted them with responsibility for day-to-day planning control in their areas. It is right that, in general, they should be free to carry out their duties responsibly, with the minimum of interference.

There will be occasions, however, when my right hon. Friend may consider that he needs to call in applications to determine them himself. His policy is to be selective about calling in planning applications and, in general, he will take that step only if planning issues of more than local importance are involved. Such cases may include, but are not restricted to, those in which the decision may conflict with national policies on important matters; cases that could have significant effects beyond their immediate locality; cases that could give rise to substantial regional or national controversy; cases that may raise significant architectural and urban design issues; or those that may involve the interests of national security or of foreign Governments. However, each case will continue to be considered on its individual merits.

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Before I talk about other issues involved in this debate, it may be helpful if I say that the three schemes that the hon. Gentleman talked about are regulated by the Environment Agency for England and Wales to prevent harm to health and the environment. I understand that a permit application has been received by the agency for the proposed incinerator at Capel, which is currently under consideration. An incinerator must have both planning permission and a pollution permit to operate; gaining one does not guarantee that the other will be issued.

I am aware that Surrey county council considered two other planning applications for waste-to-energy incinerators last month, at Slyfield industrial estate in Guildford and the Copyhold works in Redhill. I understand that those, too, were deeply controversial. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Surrey county council decided to refuse those applications on a number of grounds. The applicants have until July to appeal against the council's decision; the Secretary of State may find himself determining the appeals so, obviously, I cannot say anything that would prejudice them.

I should like to say a few words about the plan-led system and why we believe that such difficult and often highly controversial planning issues can best be handled at local level. It might be considered that there have been shortcomings in the way in which the wider system has been handled locally. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that when Surrey drew up its draft waste local plan, which was adopted in 1999 and is still in force, the plan contained a list of potential sites for large-scale waste processing and treatment facilities. There was considerable public opposition to the proposed allocation of some of those sites, one of which was the site at Capel. As a result, Surrey chose to delete them from its plan. Instead, the council drew up criteria-based policies against which planning applications for waste management facilities could be assessed.

In her report following the public inquiry into the plan, the local plan inspector recommended that Surrey county council proceed to an immediate review of the plan, which should include an identification of sites or preferred areas to accommodate Surrey's needs and to make an appropriate contribution to meeting regional guidance needs. I am encouraged to hear that officials in the Government office of the south-east have held discussions with Surrey about preparing a revised waste local plan containing sites for waste management facilities, although a new plan is unlikely to be forthcoming before the end of the year.

The lack of sites for waste management facilities is, of course, by no means exclusive to Surrey. In our role of scrutinising development plans to assess them against our policies, it is all too common to come across plans that lack identified sites for new facilities. A great deal of controversy is generated when such sites are later identified. If more sustainable waste management systems incorporating a range of waste management options are to be implemented effectively, there will clearly be a corresponding need to identify suitable sites for the development of the necessary facilities. The key instrument for identifying such sites is the waste local plan, which is developed in consultation with local communities.

Since Surrey adopted its waste local plan, my Department has finalised its advice in planning policy guidance note 10, which is intended to assist planning

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authorities in the preparation of their waste local plans, and in the determination of planning applications for waste management facilities. It also provides specific advice on the criteria for the siting of those facilities.

We expect waste planning authorities to consider all the relevant planning issues when determining planning applications, and PPG10 makes it clear that waste management decisions should be based on the best practicable environmental option and the following three principles, the first of which is waste hierarchy. That is a conceptual framework that we want local authorities and others to use to rank the waste management options. It sets out a preferred order for dealing with waste—reduction, re-use, recycling, composting, energy recovery and, if those are not viable options, incineration without energy recovery or disposal through landfill.

The second principle is the proximity principle, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It suggests that waste should generally be disposed of as near as possible to its place of origin. That was one of his prime concerns. It avoids passing the environmental costs of waste management to communities that are not responsible for its generation, and reduces the environmental costs of transporting waste. The third principle is regional self-sufficiency. As far as practicable, waste should be treated or disposed of within the region in which it was produced.

In considering waste management options, authorities should take into account all three principles to arrive at the option that produces the best balance between environmental, social and economic needs.

Sir Paul Beresford: When the hon. Lady speaks of disposal within the region, she is presumably not equating the region with the county. I raise the matter because next door to the northern border of Surrey is a site for which there has been a successful planning application, as I mentioned in my speech, for a large incinerator. It is conceivable that Surrey county council could use that, although the officers believe that they are restricted. I believe that they are misinterpreting the Government's guidance and interpreting the region as being within Surrey's boundaries alone. I think that that is incorrect.

Ms Keeble: I do not want to be drawn into interpreting the guidance, as in this instance, there is a specific application about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned. If he would like any further information about the principle of regional self-sufficiency, I shall certainly provide it to him writing, but I do not want my comments to be read across to a particular application.

To assist waste planning authorities to develop sustainable strategies for the management of waste in their areas and in the preparation of their waste development plans, my Department has commissioned consultants to develop guidance and best practice on identifying and assessing the factors that should be taken into account when deciding on the best practicable environmental option for dealing with controlled waste streams. Research has also been commissioned to produce good practice guidance on the types of policies that should be included in waste development plans. That will benefit waste planning authorities when they prepare or review the plans and assist my Department in its role of scrutinising development plans to ensure that they comply

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with Government guidance. Both studies will report shortly and I shall certainly ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives copies of both reports.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the procedures by which the local authority would generally set about handling these matters. I thought that it might help him and his constituents if I set out some of the information, advice and views that the Department has on the way in which local authorities should conduct the process. The role of local authorities is, of course, crucial to achieving more sustainable means of handling the waste that we produce. As I explained, they are responsible for identifying suitable sites and methods for waste treatment or disposal. They are expected to take an integrated and socially and environmentally sensitive approach that includes the following three points: first, promotion of informed debate with the public and businesses; secondly, establishment of the best practicable environmental option, which means taking account of the waste hierarchy that we have set out in "Waste Strategy 2000" and the proximity principle; and, thirdly, regional self-sufficiency in managing waste and working with the

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Environment Agency to ensure that planning and licence conditions are complementary and effective. He also raised concerns about transparency. Of course, any local authority planning decision must be taken completely transparently and with a great deal of integrity. I do not want to make any remarks that might impinge on that.

In conclusion, I repeat that we recognise the concern that is felt locally about the Capel scheme. I assure the hon. Gentleman that he can inform his constituents that the Government are fully aware of the strength of feeling and the nature of the debate. We will consider this matter and the different issues that are involved against our planning policies and the call-in criteria. I hope that in the interests of ensuring that his constituents feel that the Government are acting transparently, he can inform them of the criteria by which we make a decision on a call-in application. Although I cannot say more about the decision on this particular scheme, I can say that we will of course ensure that he has that decision as soon as possible. I hope that he and his constituents will find the information that I have set out of some help and reassurance.

Question put and agreed to.

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