Business without Debate

Business of the House


That Private Members’ Bills shall have precedence over Government business on 6 and 13 July, 7 and 14 September, 19 and 26 October, 2, 9 and 30 November 2012, 18 and 25 January, 1 February and 1 March 2013.—(Mr Heath.)

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Arpley Landfill Site

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

6 pm

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): I thank the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice), for the work done so far within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on this difficult issue, the future of the Arpley landfill tip. I am also grateful to his noble colleague, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, with whom I met recently to discuss some of the issues that continue to prevail.

I wish to make a number of specific points about the Arpley site before making some general remarks about UK landfill policy within the context of the EU. It continues to be a disappointment that we fail to emulate those more enlightened countries that have, to all intents and purposes, eradicated the need for landfill sites altogether.

By way of background, Arpley tip is situated very close to the centre of Warrington. The site is huge, covering some 400 acres, and is currently serviced by up to 250 20-tonne lorries every day—that is 500 separate journeys. Up to 10,000 residents live within a square mile of the site and many thousands more are impacted on by the lorries, which wind their way through residential streets to get to the site. The current licence expires in 2013, after nearly three decades, and the operators, WRG—Waste Recycling Group—have submitted an application to continue operations until 2025, a further 12 years.

Not content with having put a landfill site in the middle of a rapidly growing town, the town’s planners decided in their wisdom to build a new housing estate, Saxon Park, less than a quarter of a mile from the entrance to the site. Indeed, the new estate shares an access road with the lorries that move in and out every day. From talking to the residents who bought the houses, it would appear that many of them received verbal assurances that the site would be closed by 2013, which formed part of their decision to buy. In summary, there are two distinct problems with the site and I shall address them both. The first is the logistical disruption caused throughout Warrington by the 500 daily road movements through residential areas to get to the site. The second is the very existence of such a site at such a location.

I will consider the road issue first. The site’s central location means that all the waste brought into the estate must be driven through urban areas. Although Warrington is relatively well served by motorways, Arpley is not and trucks leaving the M62 have to travel through built-up residential suburbs for several miles. The site has a single access road, which is connected to another local road, the Old Liverpool road, that is simply not designed to take such a large volume of traffic at such a velocity, yet all vehicles entering the site must travel along it before turning into the access route. The Victorian-era houses are set quite close to the road and are vulnerable to vibrations. Several have suffered structural damage.

To have to put up with such problems during normal daytime hours is bad enough, but despite a ban on vehicles entering the site before 8 am, many lorries enter

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the access road well before 7 am and we have seen photographs of parked-up trucks taken as early as 6.45 am. Given that the site operates on a Saturday, that means that residents in the Sankey Bridges area have their sleep patterns disturbed six out of seven days every week as well as having to endure all the dirt, flies and smells associated with a landfill site of this size. In fairness, the operator, WRG, has recognised the problem of unco-ordinated road movements and has proposed a new one-way system for trucks. However, even if that can be properly enforced, it brings additional problems because although those on the busiest part of the route will get some relief, many others will be blighted more than they were previously. It is a question of waking up Peter so that Paul can have a lie-in.

The real solution would be for WRG to use either rail or the ship canal to get the waste to its destination. Planning permission exists for a rail head on the site, but the site operator consistently refuses to make use of it, arguing that its suppliers do not have the facilities to transport waste in that manner. That is a circular argument because suppliers will not invest if they know that there are no reciprocal receiving facilities. A further solution could be to make use of the new facilities provided by port Warrington and the ship canal, although that would take longer to put into place. The reluctance of the site operator to entertain either of those solutions is disappointing and unacceptable.

The real issue at stake concerns the site itself, not just these logistical considerations. It simply cannot be right that a large district is blighted in this way given that from 2013 none of Warrington’s waste will go to landfill either in Arpley or anywhere else. I will return to that point later. First, I want to talk about a development that will exacerbate this issue. WRG proposes to reduce the overall footprint of the site, keeping it away from the end nearest to Saxon Park and stacking the waste higher. Obviously, that is good in that it keeps the waste away from houses, but WRG will gain because such stacking will increase the pressure and result in more landfill gas being produced.

Why does the stacking matter? It matters because previous safety concerns regarding the site will be exacerbated by such major restructuring works. At some point in the mid-1990s, several hundred cattle carcases that were either infected or believed to be infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy were dumped at Arpley—in many cases illegally. It now appears that the current site operator has no idea where those carcases were buried or what their condition is. No definitive research exists on the potential for prions from such carcases to contaminate soil and groundwater, but the best scientific advice is that human exposure to such carcases should be kept to a minimum. Indeed, the Government’s own adviser, Professor Smith, the chair of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, recently expressed disquiet about the safety of landfill sites that might have been contaminated in that way. In addition to the risks from animal carcases, Arpley produces other dioxins and poisons such as mercury. As was confirmed in a letter from the Environment Agency in March 2011, no emissions limits for those dioxins and poisons exist, which is concerning. Neither the status quo nor the stacking proposal that could make it worse are acceptable.

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I want to talk about landfill policy more generally because an overall solution to this issue will be realised only when we markedly reduce the amount of landfill in the UK. Our track record in the UK is very weak. We send 50% of our waste to landfill, whereas the figure in Germany is 3%, in Holland it is 5%, in Sweden it is 5% and in Denmark it is 5%. Even France, which is a relatively poor performer, sends only 30% of its waste to landfill. Why do all those countries outperform us? First, let me make it clear that it is not because they recycle more—at least not principally so. Under successive Governments, we have increased the amount we recycle from 11% to about 45%. Even Germany recycles only about 55%. No, we are unique in western Europe in utilising so little of our waste to generate energy either from combustion or from anaerobic digestion.

The energy that could be produced in that way is local and relatively green. An oft-quoted example is Denmark in which every new housing estate has combined heat and power so that residents use their own waste to provide their own energy. Government Ministers talk about the hierarchy of waste with recycling being best, energy from waste being next and landfill being worst, but only the first part of that hierarchy is seriously attempted in the UK. I believe the problem is partly that some elements of the environment lobby, including Friends of the Earth, appear to believe that combustion is as bad as landfill. They are wrong to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and if they want to see how wrong they are, let them come to Arpley and see the landfill for themselves.

I make it clear to the Minister that this is not a plea for an incinerator in my constituency; nor am I trying to claim that incineration is more desirable than recycling. What I am saying is that burning waste and harnessing the energy is infinitely preferable to putting it into big holes in the ground. The fact remains that best-practice countries such as Germany recycle more and combust more than the UK, and that must be the way forward.

A recent report produced by the North West Regional Technical Advisory Body on Waste concluded that in 2008 waste from Warrington represented less than 10% of the waste sent to Arpley. A staggering 90% comes from outside the borough. I quote from the report:

“Warrington remains an anomaly, accepting waste that is vastly disproportionate to its own arisings.”

Furthermore, from next year even that tiny percentage will cease. The site will only receive waste from other parts of the north-west of the UK, mainly Liverpool and Manchester. In summary, despite Warrington’s managing to reduce the amount of waste it sends to landfill, we will be punished because neighbouring authorities have failed to do the same.

At one level, I am very encouraged by the new provisions in the Localism Act 2011, which I believe will introduce a new duty for local authorities to co-operate with regard to waste. I look forward to seeing how it can alleviate the issue.

I thank the Minister for listening patiently on a Thursday night with a one-line Whip. My constituents and I will be grateful for any words of support he can offer us. We shall be interested to hear what he has to say about four specific issues. If there are points that he cannot address today, perhaps he could respond to us in writing.

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First, there is a hierarchy of waste—recycling is better than incineration and incineration is better than landfill—yet progress from landfill appears painfully slow. Could the Minister update us on his targets and progress? In particular, what more can the Government do to ensure that we begin to emulate the best in Europe in terms of anaerobic digestion and energy from waste—both in community-based and larger installations?

Secondly, given the general and clear direction of the Localism Act, can the Minister give an indication of what that might mean to a town where councillors of all parties are opposed to the granting of a new licence? If localism is to be meaningful on the ground, that must be a significant consideration in any planning appeal.

Thirdly, given that from 2013 Warrington itself will send no waste to landfill, how will that consideration be factored into the planning appeal process? We talk about the duty to co-operate, so surely that must be relevant. A town that produces no landfill waste should not be a dustbin for others.

Fourthly, will the Minister give me an assurance that the Environment Agency will be proactive on Arpley and satisfy itself that there is monitoring of the cattle carcases and of potential BSE issues? Furthermore, will he ensure that mercury and dioxin levels are monitored properly and that any risks are dealt with fast? In particular, can he give an assurance that a new licence will not be issued unless such checks are stringently and explicitly made?

Finally, I invite the Minister to visit the site with me and to meet some of the 10,000 residents affected by it. It cannot be right that in the 21st century a 400-acre site of that type is located so close to so many people who just want to live their lives. Enough is enough.

6.13 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) on obtaining the debate. I gather that he was supposed to be having a debate in Westminster Hall on the Arpley landfill site but lost the opportunity when the House prorogued. I am pleased to have the chance to respond to the serious points he has made, and to recognise how diligently he has represented the interests of his constituents, including as he rightly said, holding a meeting with my noble Friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach. In regard to my hon. Friend’s invitation to me to visit Arpley, I am sure that I would thoroughly enjoy it, but I think I must defer to my noble Friend, who is the responsible Minister, as my hon. Friend well knows. That would be more appropriate, although there may be issues of propriety, given that the application is under consideration.

As my hon. Friend may appreciate, I may fail to respond to some of the points that he has raised; I certainly cannot pass judgment on the relative merits of the proposals made by WRG because, as he obviously is aware, the proposals are largely a matter for the relevant planning authority—in this case Warrington borough council—and they must be based on the merits of the application. They are also, as my hon. Friend said, matters for the Environment Agency, which regulates the operations at Arpley landfill through an environmental permit granted to the operator. The decisions made by

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planning authorities and the Environment Agency are also potentially open to appeal by the applicant. It is therefore important that Ministers, both in the Department for Communities and Local Government and DEFRA, remain impartial in case they are called upon at a later stage in an appellate role.

I also emphasise to my hon. Friend that it is the planning permission that is due to expire in 2013. The licence that he mentioned is, in fact, an environmental permit and that will not expire. Environmental legislation ensures that once granted, operators cannot rid themselves of their obligation to manage the site, so permits remain in force until they are surrendered and sites are returned to a satisfactory state. However, it is likely that the planning application, if granted, would require WRG to apply for a variation to its existing permit to ensure that any risks are reassessed and that appropriate measures are put in place to mitigate that risk.

I fully recognise the concerns, expressed by my hon. Friend, of those living very close to the Arpley landfill site and who may be faced with the prospect of a 12-year extension to the operations there. I am sure that my constituents would have very similar views—and yours, too, Mr Deputy Speaker. Residents living near the site—particularly those living in new housing developments built in the expectation that the site was nearing the end of its life—will perfectly naturally and understandably worry about the continued potential problems and the nuisance from traffic movements, noise, odour and so on from tipping, although I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend refer to the applicant’s proposals to alter traffic movements.

Decisions about the grant of planning permission are always in the first instance a matter for the relevant local authority, acting in accordance with national planning policy. It is during the planning process that concerns, many of which my hon. Friend has expressed, such as the height and the contouring of the site, should be considered, as well as issues such as the routing of traffic, the positioning of site entrances from the public highway and the opportunities for alternative transport by road and rail.

The Environment Agency is charged, along with other bodies, to protect human health and the environment, not just during the operation of the site but also for many years after the site closes. Modern-day landfill sites are subject to stringent technical standards to provide long-term containment of pollutants. Pollution control monitoring of such things as leachate—contaminated water on the site—and the capture and treatment of landfill gas produced from the breakdown of biodegradable waste are all part of that. Sites will remain regulated by the agency after final closure to ensure that the pollution control systems remain operational for the long-term aftercare period needed for landfill sites.

Tipping at landfills is carried out to achieve optimum waste densities in a site, so that its slopes are stable and encourage even settlement of the contours over time. Many factors, such the nature of the waste and the moisture content, determine the rate of landfill gas production. It is not just the issue of pressure, which my hon. Friend mentioned. It is important to capture and treat landfill gas—first, because it reduces the harmful

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greenhouse gas emissions of methane, and secondly, because it is a form of energy recovery from waste that can be utilised.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, the proposed restructuring of the site would involve over-tipping of some areas previously tipped and completed, but contrary to his understanding, we understand that this would definitely not involve disturbance of the Birchwood area where the carcases of cattle suspected of having BSE were deposited under direction from the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. If there was such a prospect, clearly the Environment Agency would have to consult partner agencies, such as the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, in assessing any risk from the disposal of suspected BSE cattle in the early 1990s.

The Government consider waste planning authorities to be best placed to create and to deliver waste management strategies for their areas. That means making sure that waste plans inform and are informed by relevant documents, such as the municipal waste management strategy, as well as by the relevant waste collection and disposal authorities working together—and demonstrating how they have done so under the duty to co-operate provisions of the Localism Act 2011—so as to provide effective and sustainable cross-boundary arrangements to meet their needs.

My hon. Friend challenged the Government’s record on landfill, but I assure him that we have been reducing landfill for some time. The number of operational landfill sites in England and Wales has fallen from more than 2,000 when the landfill directive was implemented in 2002 to fewer than 500 now. The amount of waste being landfilled has continued to fall year on year since 2002-03 and is now about 45% lower than a decade ago. We are already meeting our 2013 target to reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste sent to landfill. As my hon. Friend rightly said, considerably reduced landfilling helps to explain why many of the landfill sites that remain in operation are not being completed and restored within the time scales originally envisaged, or, as in the present case, are seeking extensions to their period of operation.

Landfill should be the waste management option of last resort and be used only for wastes for which there is no alternative use. The measures outlined in our “Review of Waste Policy in England”, published last June, will play a significant role in pushing wastes up the hierarchy and away from landfill by encouraging the right infrastructure, markets and culture to enable us to treat waste more fully as a resource. I have often said that one man’s waste is another man’s raw material.

Prevention also has a great part to play, and the amount of waste produced is 6% lower than in 2006. The landfill tax—£64 per tonne now, rising to £80 per tonne in 2014-15—remains a key driver to divert waste from landfill, but we want to do better than just diverting waste. We can be more optimistic about recycling—according to the latest figures, we recycle 42.5% of waste. We should also be using a range of alternative methods, including, as my hon. Friend rightly emphasised, energy from waste and anaerobic digestion, adopting the range of options that work best locally—although, as I think he implied, we should not underestimate local opposition to power from waste or anaerobic digestion plants. I have had to deal with both in my constituency.

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Even with that push, however, it would remain likely that some waste that could be put to better use would end up in landfill. The introduction of additional restrictions may therefore be warranted to achieve our ultimate aim. As a starting point, we will consult later this year on whether to introduce a restriction on the landfilling of wood waste, with the aim of diverting the still substantial tonnages that end up in landfill to better uses up the waste hierarchy, and delivering clear environmental benefits. I cannot understand why people pour wood into landfill sites.

David Mowat: The Minister says we are making progress on reducing the amount of landfill, which is true, but it still accounts for about 50% of the total, versus 3% in Germany and 5% in the Benelux countries. Will he confirm that the Government’s long-term plan is to achieve similar figures in this country? That is a long way from where we are now.

Mr Paice: I can confirm that it is the long-term plan of the Government to eliminate landfill altogether; my hon. Friend is right to challenge us on that front. On the question of why we are well behind a number of other countries, I will not make excuses for the past, but we have historically had a much larger reliance on landfill sites, because we had a high number of mineral industries, and quarries that required a form of restoration and that were obvious sites for tipping. We also had the natural protection afforded by our largely clay subsoil. We start from further behind, but that is no excuse for not continuing to do better.

I hope that I have covered a number of my hon. Friend’s points. He asked me four questions at the end of his speech. I hope that I have answered the first point, which was about our ambition for waste prevention and the waste hierarchy. Our measures are already beginning to bear fruit, and we want the pace of change to continue and increase. On the second and third points, I defer to the Department for Communities and Local Government on interpretation of the Localism Act 2011, but on meeting the proximity principle—that is, recovering waste at the nearest appropriate facility—I am afraid that there is no expectation that each waste planning authority will deal solely with its own waste.

On the fourth point, I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that the Environment Agency will assess closely

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any application to vary the permit, and will satisfy itself that the proposals do not result in previously deposited waste posing an unacceptable risk to health or the environment. It will ensure that the permit provides the necessary monitoring of pollutants likely to arise in landfill. My hon. Friend has asked a number of parliamentary questions on the subject. I hope that the answers given by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), have addressed some of his concerns. The Environment Agency not only takes notice of what comes from a landfill site, but studies what goes in. From that, it can derive some evidence or indication of what likely pollutants might arise. For instance, there will be dioxins only if there is a significant level of chlorine products in landfill. That is something that the Environment Agency monitors.

I would like to re-emphasise a point that is of huge concern to me as Minister with responsibility for agriculture. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South mentioned the knowledge of where carcases likely to be infected with BSE are. As I have said to him, the Environment Agency believes that it knows where they are, and it has identified that the proposed changes are not in that area. If my hon. Friend has any evidence that might disprove that, clearly I would welcome seeing it, because obviously we want to make absolutely sure that there is no risk from that.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising his concerns, which I am sure would have been raised by other Members faced with a similar situation. He has rightly, in the interests of his constituency, raised the problems, and today’s debate gave me the opportunity to provide some reassurance that we have systems that are able to strike an appropriate balance between meeting the needs of society on the one hand, and the protection of people and the environment on the other. We are making great strides in dealing with waste in accordance with the waste hierarchy—a point that he rightly reinforced—and intend to continue to do that. I hope that he can take some comfort from my remarks, and I congratulate him on the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

6.28 pm

House adjourned.