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24 Jun 2008 : Column 266

My hon. Friend asked about specific wind speeds and dispersal. That works in a way that perhaps is contrary to his expectations. When the tiny particles are in the wind, if they are blown at speed in a specific location, they are more likely to clump together, form heavier particles and therefore fall to the ground more quickly. Of course, we would expect particles to travel as far as 1,000 m. They are being constantly spread throughout the atmosphere.

Mr. Clapham: I accept that a gentle wind in a level area may take the spores further than a stronger breeze. However, in the Pennines, the modelling showed that the wind goes to the top of the hills and forms a vortex over them, carrying the spores much further and putting communities that are further away than 250 m in danger. I therefore believe that we should have a wider buffer zone.

Joan Ruddock: My advice is that that dispersal mechanism reduces the density. Between us, we are unable to decide, so we probably need to leave the matter to the experts, but that is the advice that I have received.

The Environment Agency recently reviewed the 250 m limit, in the light of our recent increases in composting capacity, and concluded that it remained valid. Therefore, I am afraid that the Government cannot accept my hon. Friend’s suggestion that all composting schemes throughout the country should be deferred until further research has been conducted. There are further research projects under way, which I shall mention, but he knows that I have given him chapter and verse on those, including their publication date and what they aim to achieve, in the letters that I have sent him.

All forms of waste recovery or disposal, including composting, are regulated to prevent harm to human health and the environment. That regulation is achieved in two ways: first, through the planning system and the requirement for planning permission for use or development of land; and, secondly, through an environmental permit, or in some cases a registered exemption from the Environment Agency. The aim is for the two systems to complement each another to achieve the overall control and protection required.

The Environment Agency is consulted, as part of the planning process, on environmental and human health considerations and, where composting sites are involved, takes the location of the site into account when permitting a site or registering an exemption. The Environment Agency requires permit applicants and those wishing to register exemptions to provide it with a site-specific bioaerosol risk assessment where the proposed composting facility will be within 250 m of dwellings or workplaces. That assessment will need to demonstrate that the levels of bioaerosols have dropped to background levels before reaching the first receptor, which means dwelling or workplace. Where prospective compost sites are more than 250 m from occupied premises, a more basic risk assessment is completed that does not require monitoring of bioaerosols, for the reasons that I have already given.

My hon. Friend referred in his correspondence to the site at Hood Green, which is just over 300 m from the nearest house. The nearest workplace is 210 m away, but is an unstaffed sewage treatment works. The prospective operator was required to submit only a basic risk
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assessment, as part of a registration process for the waste exemption. That assessment determined that the risk was acceptable, given the distance of the site from the nearest dwelling. That meets the Environment Agency’s requirements for assessing exemption registrations when sites are more than 250 m from a dwelling or workplace.

It is a fundamental principle of the planning system that each application must be decided on its individual planning merits, following consultation with those potentially affected by a development. As my hon. Friend has acknowledged, given that there is an outstanding application for planning permission in respect of the Hood Green site, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further at this stage. However, I understand that the occupier of the site has already registered an exemption with the Environment Agency in respect of the proposed composting operation. The Environment Agency has advised me that it has considered the request in detail and has checked the proposed composting activity could meet the terms of the exemption before placing it on the public register of exempt activities.

Under the terms of the current exemption provided for in legislation, the amount of waste being composted at any time must not exceed 1,000 cu m. The Environment Agency has advised me that it will inspect the site if it becomes operational. If the Environment Agency finds that the site is causing harm to the environment or resulting in noise or odour nuisance, it can remove the exemption from the register. The Environment Agency can also take enforcement action, but only if there are any grounds to do so once the activity has commenced. If the composting activity is unable to meet the requirements of the exemption and is removed from the public register, the operator will be required to apply for an environmental permit to carry out the activity. The site will be subject to inspection by the Environment Agency to ensure that the operations are being carried out to an appropriate standard and in compliance with the rules of the exemption.

My hon. Friend referred to the composting site in Stourbridge. In that case, the Environment Agency refused to register an exemption because of its concerns
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about nuisance and other local impacts. I have checked the details specifically in relation to bioaerosols, and the Environment Agency has said that they were not the reason for closing the site. The reasons were dust, noise and smells, all of which have an impact on local people, and it was as a consequence of those factors that the agency exercised its enforcement powers. I understand that bioaerosol monitoring has taken place at the site, and they were not one of the factors involved. It is really important to assure people of that.

My hon. Friend referred to the follow-up research that he says has been carried out. I have not seen it, but if there is value in the work, we will undoubtedly need to look at it. The Environment Agency and others who are carrying out research and producing reports will clearly need to look at it as well. My hon. Friend has described a very small sample, however. As a scientist myself, I think that it might be difficult to draw conclusions from a sample of that size.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): I share many of the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) has expressed, in relation to my own constituency. I hope that the Minister will refer to the research that he has mentioned, as I believe that it could have an impact on the decisions that she might ultimately make.

Joan Ruddock: May I give my hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone, that assurance? I am determined to look into all the issues that have been raised. As I said in my letters, if the research throws up new factors, it will of course be appropriate to review the situation, and we will have to look at the conditions surrounding the permits and exemptions—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.

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