The report recognised that a basket of measures is needed, covering all tenures of housing, and we are taking action to deliver that basket of measures: the spending review, the Localism Act 2011, the 2011 housing strategy, the housing and growth package and the autumn statement. But as so many hon. Members have said, a new Budget and a new spending round is due shortly,

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when I have no doubt that further announcements on housing will be made. I was not meant to say more than that, but my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley helped to further the leaks that have appeared in newspapers today on what might be covered. We will just have to wait and see what is around the corner. As the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington and others on both sides of the House have said, it is important to recognise that more still needs to be done to take a comprehensive approach, making best use of existing stock, unlocking stalled sites and stimulating new housing supply across all tenures.

I remind my hon. Friends the Members for Meon Valley and for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), who raised the issue of ensuring that within all forms of tenure we take account of older people, that we now have the care and support specialist housing fund of £300 million specifically to develop specialised housing for older and disabled adults.

All Members who have spoken agree that we need more housing, but agree that the politics at the local level can often be difficult. That is why I said that the first thing that we have to do is ensure that we make the best use of the built environment that we already have. That means, for example, tackling empty homes, providing for the change of use from commercial to residential referred to by a number of my hon. Friends, and, as has been debated a number of times in the Chamber, tackling under-occupancy and affordable housing. The new homes bonus gives local authorities not only reward for new homes, but also for bringing empty properties back into use. It is a powerful incentive that is really working. From next month, local authorities will have further flexibility to remove or reduce council tax discounts on empty homes, and in some cases where they have been empty for more than two years, to charge even higher rates.

We have £235 million of direct funding to help local groups to tackle some of the most problematic empty homes that would not otherwise come back into use. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), who spoke about the need specifically to address properties above shops in our high streets, and he will be aware that we are seeking to do that. There will always be a number of homes that are unoccupied for a short period, and we obviously need that for the market to operate, but the House will be pleased to know that the latest data show that only 260,000 have been empty for longer than six months. That is still far too many, but the figure is now 20,000 fewer than last year, so we are making progress.

We are also taking action to free up land. It was rightly said that Governments of all shapes and sizes have long argued for the need to free public sector land. We are determined to take action on that. We hope to release sufficient land for 100,000 homes, and wherever possible we will use the bill now, pay later deferred payment scheme to help get that under way, but a further announcement may or may not be made in a few weeks’ time. I was grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee who said, in relation to those issues, that local authorities do in some cases need to be quicker with their planning applications, and he will be aware that we are dealing with that in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. We are also consulting on a package of measures that I think will be welcomed on both sides

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of the House to make the planning appeals process swifter and more transparent to reduce wasted time and expense and, I hope, lead to quicker development.

The Growth and Infrastructure Bill, which was referred to only briefly in the debate, is very important because it will allow developers to review with their local authorities the viability of the affordable housing contribution on proposed sites. As the House will know, we are committed to a further £225 million, and to the loan guarantee scheme, to ensure that we can meet any reduction in the number of affordable houses that might result from those renegotiations. In addition, we have the £475 million local infrastructure fund—we published its prospectus only a few days ago—which will help local areas to deliver much larger-scale developments to meet need. We want to go still further. The House will be aware that there has not been a single new development of more than 13,500 homes in this country since the 1970s, so we intend to promote and support larger scale garden cities where there is clear local support and private sector appetite. We are currently working through the details on that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) rightly said, we must support home ownership, and we are doing that with a number of measures. Reference has been made to the Firstbuy scheme. Over 10,000 reservations have now been made towards our target of helping 27,000 first-time buyers into shared equity. Reference has also been made to the NewBuy scheme, which gives prospective buyers the chance to buy a home with a fraction of the deposit normally required. As we have heard, there are already 3,000 reservations and the figure is rising rapidly. As he also said, the Bank of England is crediting our £50 billion funding for lending scheme for increasing mortgage availability and driving down the cost of loans for home owners.

However, I accept the point made by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich about the need to look at additions to the offers that are made, either developments of existing ones or additions to the products available, and that is what we are doing. We are also looking at the issues that many Members have raised in relation to the right to buy, but it is pleasing to note that sales between October and December topped 2,000, helping to fund the one-for-one replacement of the homes that have been sold.

Mr Betts: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Foster: I will, but very briefly.

Mr Betts: I will be brief, because the Minister need give only a one-word answer. Is he prepared to look again at the cap on borrowing to fund housing at local authority level? Why is housing the only form of borrowing that local authorities cannot enter into simply because of the prudential rules?

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Mr Foster: The hon. Gentleman knows part of the answer, because that is the same problem his Government faced, and it is to do with difficulties with the Treasury. Having said that, we are looking at the issues and are willing to look at the possibility of having flexibility in the cap and other ways of moving forward. As he rightly said, the consultation we are conducting on the potential use of local authority pension funds to help with investment is also part of the package we are considering. We are looking at all those measures.

We are doing a number of things to help make land available, to provide the resources for houses to be built, to bring empty properties back into use, to ensure that we can move forward and to develop the economic benefits to this country that new housing will bring, but also to ensure that we can provide the much-needed houses for people in this country, not least more affordable housing, because all Members are aware that under the previous Labour Government the number of affordable homes fell by a staggering 420,000. We must do something to make more affordable homes available. That is why we are committed to having 170,000 new affordable homes by 2015. It is why we have put in additional funds and loan guarantees to help secure that.

We want a housing programme that works for the people of this country and for its economy. We have made real progress. Further progress is still to come and further announcements will be made later this month. I am sure that the House will look forward to what those announcements contain.

Question deferred until tomorrow at Seven o’clock (Standing Order No. 54).

Business without Debate

European Union Documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

Business Failure and Insolvency

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 17883/12 and Addenda 1 and 2, a Draft Regulation amending Council Regulation (EC) No. 1346/2000 on insolvency proceedings; and welcomes the opportunity to consider whether the UK should opt in to the draft Regulation.—(Mr Swayne.)

Question agreed to.

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Criminal Law

That the draft Criminal Justice Act 2003 (Conditional Cautions: Code of Practice) Order 2013, which was laid before this House on 9 January, be approved.—(Mr Swayne.)

Question agreed to.

5 Mar 2013 : Column 931

JG Pears Ltd

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

7 pm

Sir Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I begin by thanking Mr Speaker for the opportunity to raise in this Adjournment debate an issue of acute local concern in Market Harborough, namely the operations of JG Pears Ltd’s animal rendering plant just outside that town. I also thank not only all the many constituents whom I have met or who have contacted me in order to provide me with evidence and information about what is happening to the local environment and how it affects their enjoyment of their properties and their own daily lives, but the environmental health officials at Harborough district council who agreed to meet me, along with my constituent Mary Morgan, at the end of last year. Regrettably, the upshot of that meeting was that there appeared to be little or nothing the district council could do, or was prepared to do, to ameliorate the problem.

I am grateful to be joined by the Minister, who is here to respond for the Government but, in reality, has very little power to influence the issues I am here to raise. It is not for the Minister to tell JG Pears Ltd how to run its business, nor is it for the Government to serve an abatement notice, to prosecute the company for offences under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, or to bring proceedings in the courts for statutory nuisance. I do not think that the Minister can even tell the local authority what to do, and I doubt he has the power to tell the Environment Agency what to do. However, he can tell us what the Government’s attitude is towards companies such as JG Pears that are not good neighbours and appear on the evidence that I have considered to be careless of the rights and interests of the people who live and farm, or work in other ways, close to their premises.

Let me deal with the suggestion, lest it be made outside this House, that my constituents and I are anti-business or think that JG Pears’ plant in Market Harborough should be shut down. We are not anti-business and we do not want the business closed, although I dare say that from time to time some of my constituents must have thought that that would make their lives more tolerable. Perhaps constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) will occasionally have thought the same, because there is another JG Pears operation in Normanton, Nottinghamshire, whose neighbours appear to be suffering in a similar way to my constituents. My hon. Friend is in his place, and I trust he will be able to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, before the Minister replies.

In the opinion of my affected constituents, their complaints to the district council have been met, to use their words,

“with a stone wall of complacency”.

The council simply does not seem to think there is a problem. It has provided my constituents with so-called alleged nuisance record sheets. These are essentially diary sheets to record the smells that they experience. They are fascinating documents. At the top, they read as follows:

“In order to assist officers of this department with the investigation of your complaint, you are asked to keep a record of the alleged nuisance that is troubling you. Please keep a note below and, on a

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separate sheet if necessary, of the dates when the alleged nuisance occurs, the time it starts and finishes and the way in which it affects you. Remember that any action subsequently taken by the Council could end in Court and it is therefore important that accurate records of the specific times when the alleged nuisance affects you are kept.”

There are columns on the sheets to record the date, the weather conditions, the start and end times of the observations, the odour intensity and extent, the type of odour nuisance and its effects, and whether contact was made with the company.

There are five levels of odour intensity, level 1 being “no detectable odour” and level 5 being

“very strong odour (this is when you really wish you were somewhere else)”.

There are also five levels of odour extent, ranging from level 1,

“very impersistent (only detected during brief periods when wind drops or blows)”,

to level 5,

“persistent odour detectable at monitoring location and beyond”.

My constituents have been carefully completing these record sheets since February 2011 and providing the council with them. It has made no difference. They have set up a campaign group and circulated leaflets locally, which read:

“Please help to stop the environmental pollution and nuisance caused by JG Pears factory…this includes foul odour, noise (eg droning, crashing/beeping), black smoke and pollution of adjoining land and watercourses. You may not have realised where the foul odours in your area are coming from. If it smelled like rotting cabbage, dirty bone meal or a nauseating meat broth odour…it is probably JG Pears. These nasty odours are carried on the wind to Great Bowden, Foxton and the Langtons.”

The Langtons are the five separate villages or hamlets of Tur Langton, Church Langton, Thorpe Langton and East and West Langton. The leaflet goes on to say:

“Try driving up Gallow Hill with your car window open and you will probably recognise JG Pears’s foul odour. After years of individual complaints from residents to Harborough District Council…JG Pears’s foul odour and noise continues to torment local residents, day & night, on an almost daily basis.”

The problems continue. On the evening of 2 March, there was a pervasive, nasty stench of meat broth. Shortly before that, on the morning of 15 February, there was a nasty rotting smell. This morning a local councillor, a farmer and his partner, and a reporter from the BBC inspected the watercourses on the farmer’s land adjacent to the site. They found slurry in the ditch which looked like chicken fat. The councillor collected some of this slurry in her gloved hands. It is known in the business as mixed liquor bacterial slurry and is used by JG Pears in the process carried out in the main aeration tank and then sluiced out on to its land, whence it leeches into the nearby watercourses. There is no reference to the proper disposal of this slurry in the company’s licence. Why not?

This site was designed to deal with 1,400 tonnes of material each week. Judging from the huge number of 25-tonne articulated lorries delivering animal products to the site every day, it is not unreasonable to assume that a good deal more than 1,400 tonnes are being processed every week, which may explain why the disposal systems leave a lot to be desired. There seems to be a somewhat haphazard approach to the site’s design and

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operating methods. There are also doubts about whether some metal chimneys were put up with the necessary planning permission.

Exasperated at the lack of action by the council, my constituents got in touch with me. I contacted the local authority’s environmental health team last October and persuaded them to see me. I also asked them to meet one of my constituents, Mary Morgan, who is a spokesman for the campaigning group, and they reluctantly agreed. Mary Morgan made a compelling and rational case at that meeting. The more I have learned about this matter, the more convinced I have become that the complainants have a case that needs not just to be taken seriously by the council and the company, but acted on.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister cannot answer these questions, but why does the council not take seriously the years of evidence presented to it and why does it continue to deny that there is a problem? If, as the council contends, the company is operating within the terms of its licence, why does it not look again at the terms of that licence to measure their effectiveness against the evidence of the public nuisance that clearly exists? Why has the council asked residents to go to the trouble of filling out diary sheets if it then says that it cannot rely on the information contained in them because the company’s licence requires the odours and other problems to be witnessed by an environmental health officer? I understand that when the only officer to have been on the site was asked if he understood the company’s processes, he replied that he did not have to. I disagree. He has a professional obligation to know what he is looking at and for. Why are my constituents’ photographs of the billowing black smoke and the contaminated watercourses—available on Facebook, but sadly not reproducible in Hansard—rejected as evidence?

An Environment Agency inspector has identified unacceptably high levels of effluent from the site in watercourses on neighbouring farmland. The company’s licence permits it to spray its effluent fluids on to a small piece of land it owns, but it does not require much imagination to see the consequences of that. The effluent drains from that land straight into the ditches on the next-door farm, as confirmed this morning, and ultimately into the River Welland, which the agency is trying to restore. My constituents have had to suffer smoke, stench and noise—an appalling combination of disturbances that has been allowed to continue for some time. Now, through me, my constituents say they have had enough—enough nuisance and enough inactivity.

I wrote to the company and the district council to let them know that I intended to apply for this debate. The council denies that the complaints I have referred to are made out. It goes as far as to say that there is no evidence to support the claims of odour, noise and water pollution; that the odour problem has been experienced by only a small group of residents; and that only one person has complained. It says that there is no basis for it to take action. I appreciate that the council’s revenue budget is very small and getting smaller, so it is perhaps understandable that it will take no action. However, it should deal with the issue and not try to brush it under the carpet or minimise the problem. The evidence is there and it needs to be acted on.

The company’s operating director was less defensive in his reply, explaining that it strives not to cause problems for its neighbours. It spends considerable

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sums on its plant and equipment, and does what it can to control odorous emissions. This week, I received a letter from a Manchester firm of planning consultants employed by JG Pears, telling me of its proposal to carry out

“a significant programme of developments”

at the site. I gather that the firm did the same thing in Nottinghamshire and the problems have got worse, not better.

Tomorrow, JG Pears is holding an exhibition to explain its proposed development, which will include

“a new material reception building, a workshop, a replacement water treatment plant, additional parking facilities and a new, safer access off Harborough Road. The proposed works also include a thermal oxidiser. This piece of equipment”,

it explains,

“is the best available means of destroying odorous emissions but at the same time will provide energy to operate the plant. Consequently the proposals include a new chimney.”

If the company needs to do all those things now, it is a pity it did not think about doing them before.

Good businesses should be good neighbours. Good councils are not defensive, but are vigilant to ensure that their residents’ lives are not disturbed improperly. I hope that the Minister, if he can do nothing else, will insert some steel into one or two backbones. My constituents would be pleased if he were to do that.

7.12 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) for the opportunity to speak and for securing the debate.

I must declare an interest because I live just outside the area of contamination, if I may refer to it in that way, from JG Pears, near the village of Normanton on Trent in Newark. I have written to the council a couple of times as a private citizen to express my doubts and concerns about the matter.

I must thank two councillors principally, Councillor Christine Rose and Councillor Bruce Laughton, for their unfailing efforts on this issue. I also thank Judge John Machin, Dr Charlie Clayton and Mrs Sheila Hamilton for leading a very effective campaign in and around the village of Normanton on Trent, which lies directly below JG Pears’ plant, about 10 miles north of Newark.

I will make no further points, because they have all been made splendidly and eloquently by my hon. and learned Friend, other than to say that as well as all the nuisances that blight the lives of his constituents, such as the smell and the flies, we also get a heavy volume of disgustingly smelly traffic moving through the small lanes of Nottinghamshire and, from time to time, some deeply grizzly spillage. That is not only unpleasant but very dangerous.

The very first case that I dealt with when I was elected in 2001 related to JG Pears in Normanton on Trent. For most of the time since then, it has been a very good neighbour. However, its performance varies hugely. Most of the time it adds wealth, most of the time it adds work and most of the time it is a good neighbour, but not all of the time.

It is important to raise this matter because there is planning permission for a further extension of the plant and because it lies on the boundary between Bassetlaw

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district council and Newark and Sherwood district council. I would not begin to point a finger at either authority, but operations that occur on the boundary between two authorities tend to fall between two stools.

Let me underline the points already made and suggest that the lives of people in Normanton on Trent—a village of more than 1,000 souls—are affected deeply by this nuisance. I appeal to the firm to moderate its operations, bearing in mind that it can live with us in harmony. I fully understand the restrictions on the Minister, but will he do his best to help not just the constituents of my hon. and learned Friend, but my constituents in Nottinghamshire?

7.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) for the eloquent way in which he raised this case, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) for underlining the concerns felt by his constituents. This debate demonstrates in a particular setting—two settings, in fact—the way in which my Department’s priorities interact. First, however, I first want to say on a purely human level that I have huge sympathy for the constituents of my hon. and learned Friend, and wish to ensure that any business of this kind is a good neighbour.

To set the debate in context, we want the rural economy to grow, and rendering plants provide an important service to the farming and food producing community by taking waste and animal by-products and processing them for further use or disposal. Such plants are strictly regulated by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency to ensure that animal by-products are handled and processed safely and do not present a risk to public or animal health. They contribute importantly to our priority of safeguarding animal health but, like all businesses, they should be good neighbours.

This particular plant takes in low-risk material from abattoirs and cutting plants but does not take in fallen stock. It turns that material into high-quality processed animal protein for the pet food industry. It gets inspected quarterly by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, and was last inspected on 15 January—I suspect it will be small comfort to the constituents of my hon. and learned Friend, but in that inspection all was found to be satisfactory.

The Department’s priority is clearly to improve the environment, and rendering plants are subject to integrated pollution prevention and control under a European directive of that name. That directive has been recast in a somewhat strengthened form into the industrial emissions directive, which we transposed last month. Under integrated pollution prevention and control, each rendering plant must have a permit from the environmental regulator that contains conditions on any pollutant likely to be emitted in significant quantities. Pollution is defined in the directive to include the emission of anything that may

“result in damage to material property, or impair or interfere with amenities and other legitimate uses of the environment;”.

Odour and noise are plainly covered by that.

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In this case the environmental regulator is Harborough district council. In accordance with the secondary legislation that introduced the EU system of integrated pollution prevention and control in England, the council first issued a permit for the rendering plant in May 2003 and updated it in November 2008. That permit is readily available on the web.

The permit requires all emissions to air from the plant to be free from offensive odour as perceived by the local authority inspector outside the plant site boundary. As we have heard, a group of residents consider themselves to be continuously and adversely affected by odour from the plant. Following their complaints, in May 2012 Harborough district council compiled a report to determine the impact of odour from the plant on the local community and whether any breaches of the permit had occurred.

A second report for the same purposes was compiled last month. Between them, the reports show that the council officers undertook a total of 64 visits to the vicinity of the site between January and November 2012, some in the company of the complainants’ representatives. Between January and April 2012, an offensive odour was found on one of the 30 visits. Between September and November, the period covered by the second report, an offensive odour was found on one of the 34 visits. That in no way diminishes the points made by my hon. and learned Friend or my hon. Friend. I entirely take their constituents’ concerns as they stated them.

The council’s reports point out that the Secretary of State’s guidance for the rendering sector, issued in 2008, recognises that occasional escapes of offensive odour may occur from rendering processes. The guidance is that formal enforcement action may not be needed if there are no more than two such instances in a 12-month period, provided remedial action is taken rapidly.

In the first of the two instances of offensive odour found in 2012, further visits were undertaken on the day but no further offensive odours were found. In the second instance, a problem with the abatement technology on site was identified and, I understand, rectified as soon as possible. The council, taking into account that guidance but making its decision in line with its enforcement policy, has therefore determined that no enforcement action is to be taken. That is a matter for the district council as regulator, but I understand that my hon. and learned Friend is concerned about it.

The district council has investigated the residents group’s complaint about noise. The council’s officers deemed noise emissions to be extremely low, of negligible impact and not in breach of the plant’s permit conditions. I can only report that; I am sure that the residents might have a differing view. I understand that the council’s recent offer to the complainant of sound-monitoring equipment to enable further investigation has been declined.

The district council has correctly pointed out to the residents concerned the availability of private action if they remain of the view that odour from the plant is significantly impacting on the use and enjoyment of their premises. The district council has also pointed out to the residents that they can contact the site manager of the plant if they experience odour problems.

The district council has recommended that the company operating the plant explore methods to abate odours likely to be considered offensive. That is where the

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possibility of progress might be found. I am pleased to note that the company appears to have needed little prompting in that regard. I understand that it is developing proposals for a new raw material reception facility, which my hon. and learned Friend described, a replacement effluent treatment plant and the installation of a thermal oxidiser. I am slightly dismayed to hear my hon. Friend say that such improvements have not addressed the problem, but let us look to the future positively.

According to my Department’s experts, those proposals, if carried through, should lead to an improvement in the environmental performance of the plant, while developing its business. They should deal not only with odour emissions, but with emissions of ammonia to contiguous watercourses. My hon. and learned Friend alluded to an event that the company is holding in Market Harborough between 3 and 7 pm tomorrow, 6 March at which those proposals will be described to local people, enabling them to comment. I hope that the event, which I understand is being publicised in leaflets to local residents, will help to enable the company to move forward in delivering environmental improvements, while not only continuing to make its distinctive contribution to the rural economy and society but, one hopes, being a good or better neighbour to those who live around it. That would be entirely the best solution, and I trust that it will meet the concerns expressed so eloquently by my hon. and learned Friend on behalf of his constituents.

All Members of Parliament have a depressing sense of déjà vu when we come across “neighbours from hell” issues and the path of least resistance is for the agency—whether it is a housing agency, local authority or the police—to require people to keep a log. There is a feeling among too many people that that is a delaying tactic. However, I hope that with the proposed measures we will find a way forward.

Sir Edward Garnier: May I say how grateful I am to my hon. Friend for his measured response to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer)?

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I am puzzled by the suggestion he has gathered from the district council that my constituents declined to make use of sound monitoring devices. That is not my information. I am slightly concerned that the information he has received from the district council confirms the air of complacency I discussed at the beginning of my remarks. That is not the fault or problem of my hon. Friend the Minister. I know that he is simply acting as an unwilling mouthpiece for the district council, and that this is the system in which we have to operate in these sorts of Adjournment debates. However, may I, through him, urge the district council to up its game and not brush this matter under the carpet, and to ensure that these genuine concerns, concerns confirmed by the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Newark, are properly taken account of?

Richard Benyon: I entirely accept my hon. and learned Friend’s point. The information I have shared with the House is only as good as that given to my Department by the council. There is clearly a discrepancy between what my hon. and learned Friend has been told and what I have been told. I hope that this will be clarified in the near future and that the changes the company are making will resolve the issue. I recognise his point that this is a matter over which the local authority has control: it has to address the clearly genuine concerns of local people. These are not the kind of vexatious claims that one might hear from an individual who may object to a particular type of business for the wrong reasons. This is a consistent concern for a large proportion of those who live nearby, and is therefore something that the local authority needs to address. He and I are in a business where perceptions are reality. If that is the perception, then it needs to be addressed as a reality by the local authority.

Question put and agreed to.

7.28 pm

House adjourned.