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9 May 2006 : Column 54WH—continued

Mr. Lancaster: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but she has been speaking for five minutes and has not even begun to address the issues that I raised. I said at the start of my speech that I accept that Milton Keynes will expand—that is a given—but the rate at which it expands is a different matter. Please will
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the Minister get on to my points, rather than just repeat the arguments that the Government have already made?

Angela E. Smith: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s impatience, and as I develop my comments, I shall address his questions, but it is also important to set the matter in context in terms of where the demand for new homes is coming from and how that demand should be managed. It is a shame that he has taken up more time with his intervention, but I give him an assurance that I will address all his points.

It is worth making the point that Milton Keynes’s economy and learning partnership, which includes all leading economic and learning partners, has been supportive of the growth agenda. Continued economic success relies on new homes.

The hon. Gentleman referred to his petition, which I read and noted. It complains about the lack of public consultation and suggests that consultation was not long enough to involve the citizens of Milton Keynes fully in the planned expansion. That reflects a misunderstanding of the process. There was a consultation period, and my information is that he is incorrect to suggest that there was no support whatever for the plan. My understanding is that there were those who opposed it and those who supported it. But that is not the plan that goes forward; that is part of the evidence—the examination—that will be given, along with that of other organisations.

Other organisations have not consulted on the evidence that they are putting forward. For example, the local council is also putting forward information for examination, but that has not been subject to public consultation. There was no statutory right or duty to undertake public consultation; it was an additional consultation, although it was helpful that it was undertaken. It was not the case that no one supported the plan; my understanding is that there was both support for it and opposition to it.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the South East England regional assembly recently submitted to the Government its draft south-east plan, covering the 20 years to 2026, and that that is also now out for public consultation. I encourage everyone who wants to move Milton Keynes forward and wants it to be successful, regardless of their point of view, to use the available opportunities to add to the debate in the current south-east plan consultation. When the council starts preparing its new planning policy for the area—it is important to recognise that the council prepares planning policy—it will be its responsibility to translate the strategic guidance in the south-east plan into specific proposals at the local level, so there will be strong involvement for the local council.

The hon. Gentleman was critical of the Milton Keynes Partnership in that regard, but the partnership involves the council, and it has representatives fromthe local authority and the council. My understanding is that after the local elections there will be representatives from all three political parties. That is a democratic route by which local people can make their views known.

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I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is so dismissive of the role of local councillors in the Milton Keynes Partnership. My understanding—I have been in post for only two days—is that the committee strives to be open and to involve the local community in its activities. Since its launch, the committee has played a key role in expansion and prosperity for Milton Keynes, and it will continue to do so. Key figures from local life, who understand the major issues facing the area, are involved. Of course, we are talking about a delivery vehicle; it is in the legislation that we should review all local delivery vehicles over a five-year period.

The hon. Gentleman also said, using rather emotive language, that English Partnerships was robbing Milton Keynes of money. It is correct that, in the time frame that he mentioned, receipts from EP land sales exceeded the none the less substantial expenditurein Milton Keynes. It is worth noting that English Partnerships operates on a national canvas, so the money that comes in goes to English Partnerships generally; it does not necessarily belong to Milton Keynes. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman chose a particular time frame. The land being sold now was acquired for Milton Keynes by the Commission for the New Towns, which was the previous body. It is not that Milton Keynes is being robbed; it is just a natural progression. If he uses a different time frame and goes back to when the land was acquired, he might find completely different figures.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to funding. I am glad to have the opportunity to address that issue, because communities are more than just housing; they must be sustainable. Mistakes were often made when new towns were built. Some people who grew up in new towns feel very strongly that mistakes were made and that the necessary infrastructure was not always provided. However, in government, we have consistently said that our approach is to ensure that we have the necessary infrastructure investment in place to support housing growth. We use a mixture of funding from mainstream programmes, investment by the private sector and top-up funding from the growth areas programme.

The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that money was being made available. I am sorry that he was rather dismissive of some of the investment available, but I shall give him some examples: almost £37 millionfrom the growth areas fund, including £7 million for Milton Keynes hospital to consolidate its present site; £32 million from the community infrastructure fund, including £24 million for Milton Keynes and Wolverton stations; and £8 million for upgrading junction 14 of the M1. There is ongoing investment from a range of mainstream programmes, including an extra £20 million revenue and £20 million capital for health programmes in Milton Keynes. In addition, the Milton Keynes “Prospectus”, known locally as the tariff, will attract private sector funding estimated at £315 million, alongside the Government’s funding for infrastructure.

Mr. Lancaster rose—

Angela E. Smith: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman if he wishes, but it may mean that I cannot answer the other points that he raised.

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Mr. Lancaster: The Minister mentioned health care in Milton Keynes. Since things are going so well, will she tell me why it was announced only today that the Fraser Day hospital in Milton Keynes will close?

Angela E. Smith: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an answer on that issue. If he had given me notice, I would have asked my colleagues in the Department of Health. The fact is that there is significant additional investment, and if he has concerns about those issues, I hope that when investment is proposed in the House of Commons, he will always vote for it. Too often, Opposition Members request money but are reluctant to vote to deliver it in the House of Commons.

In the time remaining, I shall try to address the hon. Gentleman’s additional comments. On the tariff, he spoke about a gap of 25 per cent., but private sector investment of about £300 million will be brought in. Assessing the cost of infrastructure is complex and involves several uncertainties. To address them and to ensure that we have the appropriate infrastructure, we are undertaking the 2007 comprehensive spending review. There will be a cross-cutting review to determine the social, transport and environmental infrastructure implications of housing growth in different locations. The 2007 review is an opportunity to consider those issues.

The hon. Gentleman also said that the tariff is designed to operate in greenfield areas, and that it is not so straightforward in brownfield areas. Milton Keynes Partnership designed the tariff for use mainly on greenfield land, but it is for Milton Keynes council to discuss the operation of the tariff with the partnership, learn lessons and determine how it might be delivered for other sites.

The hon. Gentleman also raised several concerns about planning gain supplement. I appreciate that he gave me notice of the question about what percentage will go to the council, and I am sorry to disappoint him, but I am not able to give him the exact figure. As I am sure he is aware, the consultation concluded on27 February. Responses are being considered, and I assure him that when the announcement is made, he will be kept informed.

Milton Keynes is a success story. It has grown into one of the country’s most exciting and prosperous areas in just a few years. It now has an opportunity to create a new chapter in its history. The Government are supporting Milton Keynes with funding, investment—we take on board the comments about ensuring that the infrastructure in place—and delivery arrangements to enable it to embrace that future with confidence.

Mr. Lancaster: On a point of order, Mr. Hancock. Since the Minister is failing to answer many of my questions, will she endeavour to write to me after this debate?

Angela E. Smith: As far I am concerned, I have done my best to answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions. I may not have given him the answers that he was looking for, but I have answered the questions. I shall go through his speech, and if I have failed to answer any of his questions, I shall of course take them up in writing with him.

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12.59 pm

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce this short debate on composting as part of our waste strategy. It is timely, as this is composting awareness week, which is organised in the UK by the Composting Association, as it has been since 2001. That international event involves Canada, the United States, Australia and the European Compost Network. Its aims are, first, to encourage the public to think about composting and learn more about the subject and ongoing efforts to recycle more, and to try to persuade them to compost, as I do. Secondly, there is a need for the industry to encourage site operators to build links with the community and explain the benefit of composting to educate people about its value and to answer any questions.

This year’s event operates with the theme, “Add power to your flowers...Compost!” The Composting Association is running a series of events across the country, and distributing leaflets. Last year, it ran some 300 events. It is important to raise the profile of composting, which is part of a natural cycle that has much to contribute to our waste strategy.

Composting is already an important part of that strategy. It is driven in part by the European Union landfill directive, which recognises that emissions of methane from landfill sites are an important contributor to climate change. Methane is 20 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide, and the more we can reduce emissions, the more we can combat climate change, which is a key priority for the Government.

I want to congratulate local authorities, which are often scapegoats in the House of Commons. They have worked extremely hard on recycling and have reduced the amount of biodegradable municipal waste sent to landfill. They have big targets, but I am confidentthat they can achieve them. As an example, I commend my county council, Nottinghamshire. Last year, it composted some 40,000 tonnes of green waste, which represents 25 per cent. of the domestic waste stream.

The authority hopes to sign a big new private finance initiative contract later this month. It works closely with the Government and acknowledges the advice and support it has received from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials. It has written to the Minister to ask him to join the celebration of that new contract, which will be an important step change for Nottinghamshire.

Composting has been increasing: in the early 1990s, there were only a handful of sites producing just 150,000 tonnes of compost, but there are now more than 200 producing more than 2 million tonnes per annum. There is also a big and real issue over the composting of domestic waste. To compost domestic waste effectively and safely, we must introduce in-vessel composting. There are about 20 such units, but the Environment Agency suggests that we might need 200.

As I said at the outset, this is a timely debate. Yesterday, the Waste and Resources Action Programme released its third business plan, which includes organics and composting as key focuses. Interestingly, WRAP recognises the retail sector as an area where important gains in recycling could be made. Far too much food is
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wasted. The amount could be reduced at source, but it could also be dealt with through recycling.

Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend encourage the Minister to review the desktop study that led to the widespread exclusion of kitchen waste from compostable streams and which has led to significant confusion for households? It seems to me that the assumptions about the level of pathogens that might be reintroduced through agriculture were overstated.

Paddy Tipping: I tend to agree with my hon. Friend. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between safety and increasing composting.

We were all scarred by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and following that strict animal waste regulations were introduced. My hon. Friend will recall the discussion in the House of Lords when it was suggested that because compost would have to be subject to extreme temperatures to kill pathogens it would be of no value. Like him, I am not confident that we have got the balance right. I want to press the Minister and his officials on that point. I know that discussions are taking place this afternoon, so this is a timely debate.

It is important that compost is certified as being of an appropriate standard. The Composting Association has worked with WRAP to bring forward the BS1 PAS 100 standard. The importance of certification and the safe use of compost on the appropriate site are important to us all.

The composting industry faces a number of challenges. The Environment Agency suggests that more than 200 new composting, anaerobic, digestive and biological treatment facilities producing 40,000 tonnes a year are needed to manage the UK’s biodegradable waste stream, but the rate of growth does not suggest that that target will be met.

I want to raise with the Minister five issues that he and his officials are aware of. If we can overcome them, we can make progress towards ensuring that composting really is a big and effective part of the waste stream. The first is home composting. Good local authorities understand the importance of promoting home composting. It is far better environmentally to compost in the garden than to have green waste schemes, although such schemes are valuable. Local authorities with good practice are not able to discount home composting against their recycling targets. I know that that is a difficult issue, but if we want to promote good practice we must do further work on it. I am delighted with the work that WRAP has undertaken and about which it has had discussions with the Department. I hope that those discussions can be brought to an early conclusion.

The second issue is one with which the Minister has been directly and helpfully involved. Community composting is valuable in that it raises awareness and involves the whole community, although there have been difficulties with exemptions from waste licences. He intervened last year to allow discretion or a disregard to enable community composting schemes to go forward. That was valuable, and I know that work and discussions
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are still taking place in the Department. The cost of waste licensing will be crippling to many smaller community composting schemes and it is important to make progress and to reach decisions.

It is also important to introduce new in-vessel schemes as quickly as possible, but there are difficult issues involved. To set up a new composting plant, one needs planning permission, a waste management licence and, importantly, veterinary approval. As those approval processes are separate, it can take an awfully long time for a new plant to gain all three strands of permission. There must be a better way of doing things: it must be possible to run those three strands together so that it does not take so long to get approval for new sites. A failure to do that will be a failure to achieve our targets; we will not be able to divert biodegradable waste from landfill sites quickly enough.

There is also uncertainty about the financing of new plants. In-vessel composting plants are expensive and high-technology. We tend to think of composting in fairly rudimentary terms, but new techniques require carefully thought out plants. Most such new plants, including the one in Nottinghamshire, are financed by the PFI. Only large, perhaps international, waste companies can afford the time, energy and finance required to introduce new proposals. In the banking and finance sector, composting is still seen as a risky proposition. It is quite difficult for a small business to find the necessary finance to introduce smaller-scale schemes. Some certainty that composting will have an important role in waste strategy, and that the end product will be seen not as waste but as a valuable product, will be important to the introduction of new plants.

I return to the key point that I made earlier: we must persuade people that composting and composted material are valuable and safe. Composting can be used in many ways, and there is no reason why composted material could not play a large part in the remediation of sites. I would like to see a great deal of recycled and composted material used for the Olympic facilities. Composting used on agricultural land and in gardens might have to be of a higher quality, but we need to ensure that real and acceptable conclusions about the safety of compost are reached in discussions between the Department, the Environment Agency and representatives from the sector. Unless we can have a good regulatory framework on which there is agreement so that compost can be spread appropriately on golf courses and agricultural land, we will face difficulties.

I started by saying that the debate is timely because this is composting awareness week. By coincidence, it is also the last day of the consultation on the Government’s new waste strategy. I say firmly to the Minister that the Government have achieved an awful lot in terms of recycling. Ambitious targets have been set and are beginning to be met, but we can do more. I want this debate to be a final representation to the consultation.

This matter is fairly straightforward. Composted material has been used widely by farmers for more than 4,000 years. Composting is a natural cycle and something we can all support intuitively, but perhaps we view it in over-complicated terms. Compost has been used for more than 4,000 years, so I want to ensure that the next waste strategy has composting at
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the heart of our recycling strategy. That strategy should be about not only recycling and diversion from landfill, but combating climate change.

I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about the benefits of composting as somebody who spends some of his time in his garden composting. I speak not only from the head, but from my feet and hands on this subject.

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