On 11th February 2020 Sharon Hodgson MP (Washington and Sunderland West, Labour) led a debate on waste incineration facilities at Parliament’s Westminster Hall. The full transcript of the debate is available on Hansard and a video is available at parliament.tv.
The discussion featured 14 MPs speaking out against incineration and included calls for an incineration tax, a moratorium on new incinerators, more powers for the Environment Agency to better regulate incinerators, tighter emissions standards (tighter than is required by the EU), and a redoubling of the focus on recycling. Specific incinerator proposals and facilities were criticised alongside industry greenwash, and anti-incineration campaigners were praised for rising to the challenge of dealing with such technically complex issues.
Labour’s Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change Dr. Alan Whitehead declared at the debate that: “In general policy, we must recognise that the age of incinerators is over…It is imperative to recognise that to move up the waste hierarchy nationally, we need the resources to get away from incineration…We are at a turning point. The future is net zero; it cannot be incineration.”
The Government’s Minister Rebecca Pow stated that: “…the measures in the resources and waste strategy and the Environment Bill will enable a paradigm shift, in relation to reducing, reusing and recycling our waste, that should limit the amount that ever has to go to incineration and landfill” and that: “…if the wider policies set out in the resources and waste strategy do not deliver our waste ambitions, as laid out in the Environment Bill and the strategy, including higher recycling rates, the Government outlined in the 2018 Budget that we will consider introducing a tax on the incineration of waste, operating in conjunction with the landfill tax and taking account of the possible impact on local authorities”.
Quotes from the Westminster Debate (and MPs tweeting about the debate)
“[Sharon Hodgson] mentioned the [Planning] appeal process. Constituents who contacted me about this debate are concerned that the voice of the local community is heard throughout the planning process. Does she agree that that is essential for large projects such as this?”
📽 WATCH:— Sharon Hodgson MP (@SharonHodgsonMP) February 11, 2020
This morning I held a Westminster Hall debate on Waste Incineration Facilities and raised my concerns about the planning application for a gasification plant to be built in Hillthorn Park in Washington.
You can watch the full debate here: https://t.co/OnDvuCtQnq pic.twitter.com/xIa4P6Hapv
“I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend [Nick Thomas-Symonds]. I will come on to the 10,800 of my constituents who have been in touch with me. They signed a petition, and they certainly want their voice to be heard.
“I wholeheartedly oppose this planning application, and I will come to the reasons why shortly. Before I do, I thank hon. Members present who will be expressing their opposition—I assume it will all be opposition—to waste incineration facilities.
“On Saturday, I held a public meeting about my local planning application, to give constituents an opportunity to express their opinions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) said. It was well attended, despite the short notice—I arranged it only the week before—and people came from across the community and the political spectrum, with Labour, Lib Dem and Green councillors and activists in attendance. As this debate shows, this is a cross-party issue, and I am pleased to see colleagues from all parts of the House.
“As I said at the public meeting on Saturday, which was attended by more than 100 people, no one in that room was in favour of a gasification plant being built in our area. In my 15 years of being an MP, no other issue has galvanised so many people and brought them together against something in the way this issue has. It really is a community movement, with campaign groups such as No Monster Incinerator in Washington or Washington and Wearside Against Gasification leading the way to oppose the application by informing local residents and getting signatures on petitions. As I mentioned, 10,800 people have so far signed a petition in opposition, which I presented to Parliament last month.”
“…To pick up on what she said, does she recognise the expertise in highly technical matters that has been built up in communities by the groups she mentioned? They scrutinise legislation and regulations closely. In my constituency, the Docks Incinerator Action Group has drilled down into the detail and caused real problems to the proposers of a development.”
“That is an important point. I will come on to someone without whom I and most of the campaigners would not have been able to launch such a strong and informed appeal against this decision, making a world of difference.
“I am so proud to represent and work with people who show such determination and community spirit. Like them, I oppose the planning application and will be speaking at the appeal process, which begins next week. I also thank the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network and Shlomo Dowen, in particular, for his work and support on this campaign. We could not have got this far without his expertise—a point the right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) touched on.
“As the shadow Minister for public health, it would be remiss of me not to point out the public health implications of gasification and incineration, which need to be taken into account. In the planning application in my constituency, we still do not know what technology will be used, even though the application has reached this stage. We know that the technology has never been used in the UK before, although we are told that it has been used in Japan, a country with very different safety standards and regulations from the UK.
“The lack of information and transparency from the planning applicant does little to allay the fears of my constituents and me. On Saturday, constituents told me that young families were moving away from the area because of the fear of carcinogenics, diseases and birth defects. My constituents should not have to live in fear of being test subjects for something such as that. “
“I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. In my constituency, an incinerator is due to be built near our local primary school and a number of local houses in Torry. Does she share my concerns about the potential public health impact on residents and the children at that school?”
“I absolutely do. In our previous debate, I spoke about how nine primary schools in my constituency, as well as many thousands of homes, are within a one-mile radius of this development. That is unacceptable, so I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Also, a technology that has never been used in the UK before is not welcome in Washington and Sunderland WesT—or, probably, in any of our constituencies.
“Surely a technology that is expected to release millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide during the anticipated lifetime of the gasification facility should not be backed by the Government. Indeed, that is a direct contradiction of the Government’s policies on climate change and waste processing. For every one tonne of plastic incinerated, approximately two tonnes of CO2 are released into the atmosphere, therefore contributing to climate change, whereas, perversely, one tonne of plastic in landfill releases zero CO2, so incineration cannot be and is not the solution we seek—it has to be more recycling.”
“My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on an important issue. She just mentioned recycling. Does she agree that much more needs to be done to encourage more recycling so that we do not have, or reduce, the need to rely on incineration or landfill?”
“I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. More recycling has to be the solution; it will never be landfill, and certainly not incineration. How does the Minister expect to meet the Government’s climate target of being carbon neutral by 2050 if planning applications for waste incineration continue to go ahead?
“A recent study by Waste and Resources Action Programme Cymru found that 75% of commercial and industrial waste sent to incineration or landfill in Wales is recyclable. With recycling rates flat-lining, will the Government consider introducing a tax on incineration, as promised in 2018, to address climate harm and encourage recycling rates? There is a precedent, as that is what the landfill tax aimed to do. Surely it is counter- productive to have a landfill tax to deter burying plastic, which causes no CO2, but not to have an incineration tax for incinerating plastic, which causes masses of CO2.”
“…Sunderland City Council is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030—a target that will be totally scuppered if the planning application for Hillthorn Park is approved. The problem is the emissions from not just the plant but the 110 HGVs that will work around the clock to ship waste to it.”
“The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. Does she agree that the issue is not just the incinerators but all the traffic that comes with them to transport the waste? That adds to pressure on local roads, which is concerning because of CO2 emissions.”
“Absolutely. Residents raised that point on Saturday—especially those living around the proposed site, who will be bothered by the congestion, extra fumes and mess from those heavy goods vehicles. The HGVs are supposed to be strapped and covered, but every day stuff flies off the lorries that go to the other waste recycling plants in my constituency.”
“My constituents and I know that the Environment Agency is a little toothless in tackling the problems that waste processing sites cause. We are rightly concerned that any issues arising from this gasification plant will bring just more of the same. If the planning application is approved, my constituents fear that their houses will suddenly become worthless; because of all the concerns I have mentioned, no one would want to buy a house next door to a plant such as this.”
“We don’t want an ecological eyesore to become the new ‘landmark’ which tells visitors they’ve reached Sunderland…This is a proposal which is unwanted and unnecessary.”
“I hope I have made it clear, even in these brief comments, that the gasification plant at Hillthorn Park in Washington must be opposed, and I will continue to do just that.”
“Her parting shot was that her constituents do not want an ecological eyesore as their new landmark, and my constituents feel exactly the same way about the proposals to build a giant incinerator between the villages of Longparish and Barton Stacey.”
“I regret to have to rehearse the issue we face in Romsey and Southampton North, where American conglomerate Wheelabrator seeks to build a massive, industrial-scale incinerator the size of Battersea power station in the Hampshire countryside. Billed by the applicants as a green waste-to-energy scheme, locally there are serious doubts that a proposal such as this can ever be green. So enormous is the development that it is to be determined by the Secretary of State—it is classified as a nationally significant infrastructure project—rather than by the local waste and minerals authority, Hampshire County Council or the local borough council, Test Valley Borough Council. I commend both those councils for being resolute in their opposition to it.
“I will not rehearse the many good planning reasons why the scheme should be refused, but there are serious questions about whether it will ever generate the amount of power required to achieve the level of a national infrastructure project. On its website, Wheelabrator proudly proclaims that the scheme will have an energy generating capacity of up to 65 MW, but in public consultations with residents, the company has acknowledged that that is entirely dependent upon the calorific value of the feedstock. We know we have to get better at removing plastics from the waste stream, and those plastics have some of the highest calorific values when burned. I commend the steps the Government have taken so far, but much more can and must be done.
“I visited a packaging manufacturer in my constituency with the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)—we look terribly attractive wearing blue hairnets. The company’s managing director kept making the point that they wanted to use high-quality recycled plastics in their packaging, but it was too difficult to get hold of them. They used a percentage of recycled, but it was easier and cheaper to get fresh plastics than to extract plastics from the waste stream. They wanted Government action to ensure that the plastics that we all know are in the waste stream can be redirected into businesses such as theirs.”
“In Scotland, any new incinerator is required by law to remove all metals and plastics from the waste product before it is incinerated. Would the right hon. Lady welcome similar legislation in England?”
“It is critical that we redouble efforts to ensure that anything that can be reused and recycled is extracted from the waste stream, whether metal or plastic. At Barton Stacey Primary School, the children have embraced the message we heard a few weeks ago in another room in Parliament, when a giant Womble urged us to repair, re-use, recycle and reduce. We have to keep striving to reduce the amount of material going into the waste stream.
“Two weeks ago, I raised the issue of an incineration tax. I do not recall whether the Minister responded to that point, but I fear she did not, so perhaps she can today. Before I came to this place, I was a borough councillor in Test Valley. I always said I represented the ward with the most landfill sites—existing, former and proposed. Landfill is subject to a tax, and it is absolutely right that the next step up the waste hierarchy should be similarly taxed. The Budget statement of October 2018 included a reference to the consideration of an incineration tax. The time for consideration has passed.
“Turning to emissions—I recognise that I only have a minute left—we all recognise that the EU relatively recently tightened regulations governing permitted levels of emissions from incinerators, but is the Minister content that being within permitted levels is good enough? Where is the aspiration and ambition? Surely, at a time when we are seeking to improve air quality, we should be looking to reduce the levels of emissions that are allowed. I have lost count of the number of times over the last three and a half years that we have been told that leaving the EU will provide us with opportunities. Surely, this is one area in which we can go further and faster than would otherwise have been allowed. We must do more and not slip back into the lazy argument that development will be allowed only within current regulations.”
“The World Health Organisation indicates that there is no such thing as a safe level of particulate matter in our air, and that is echoed on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website.”
“We have declared a climate emergency. We have bold ambitions, through the Environment Bill, to make radical strides forward in creating a cleaner and greener environment for ourselves, our children and generations to come. We cannot do that if we keep pumping pollutants into our atmosphere. I urge the Minister, who I believe genuinely cares about these issues, to ensure that she has as tight a grip as possible on our future waste strategy so we simply do not keep doing that.”
This morning I have been speaking about sustainable #WasteManagement. 🗑️♻️— Wera Hobhouse MP 🔶 (@Wera_Hobhouse) February 11, 2020
In the last five years #ToryCuts have meant that #LocalGovernment has less and less resources.
This is not the fault of Councillors, who work tirelessly to do the best for their communities. pic.twitter.com/zraGOcwOdT
“For too long, waste incineration has been labelled as energy from waste and seen as part of the circular economy and a green way of disposing of our municipal waste. Councils have been struggling with their budgets, and they look into anything that saves money. Bath and North East Somerset Council has just agreed a big contract for a waste incinerator. I have raised concerns about that, and I am still arguing with the council about whether it is actually a green solution. We have been looking at ways of diverting waste from landfill because it creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas, but burning waste creates very high carbon emissions, too. That must get into the public domain so that people who make decisions know what they are doing.
“I believe that we should not send waste to incinerators. Every tonne of municipal waste that is incinerated releases between 0.7 tonnes and 1.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Recovering energy from waste produces more carbon emissions than burning gas. As was mentioned, incinerators need a blend of waste materials, including plastics, to have the calorific value to create enough heat. Incineration is just a cheaper option than landfill for getting rid of municipal waste. The result is that we become a lot less active in avoiding, reducing and recycling. The order of the waste hierarchy is: avoid, reuse, recycle, incineration and then landfill. Incineration is only one step above the landfill solution.
“The more incineration plants are built in this country, the less likely we are to achieve our target, because local authorities need to fill incinerators with waste for them to function. I have been a councillor and tried to ensure that people recycle more. It costs a lot of human resources to go around and ensure that households—particularly hard-to-reach households—recycle in a particular way, and it costs councils money. It is no wonder that cash-strapped local authorities are looking at cheaper options, but incineration is not the right option. The real way to reduce carbon emissions is to recycle more or, indeed, to find compostable materials. I had a meeting yesterday with an interesting company that is looking into compostable plastics, but those are not the plastics that an incinerator needs. We need to look at actual green solutions, not at incineration.
“I recognise that 10 years ago, energy from waste seemed like a way to get to a low-carbon economy. When our target was to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, it was an option, but everything has changed since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. We now know that we have to get to net zero by 2050. The last 20% of emissions are crucial, and they are very difficult to get out of the atmosphere. For that reason, low-carbon solutions are no longer an option. We have no time to invest in low-carbon technologies; we need to put all our efforts into net zero solutions. I believe that incentives and disincentives are the way forward. I also support the idea of an incineration tax. The landfill tax has made a massive difference in diverting waste from landfill; an incineration tax would ensure that we do not just divert all our waste to incinerators.”
This morning I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate raising the issue of the proposed incinerator in Shepshed.— Jane Hunt MP (@JaneMHunt) February 11, 2020
You can see my part of the speech here: https://t.co/l2uxXIz0f8
“Research shows that the PM2.5 emitted by incinerators can penetrate deep into our lungs and impair lung function. The taskforce for lung health has stated that ‘exposure to PM2.5 can cause illnesses like asthma, COPD, coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer.’ I therefore echo the concerns of colleagues that incinerators may put the health of local residents at risk.”
Unfortunately, however, that is only half the story in my constituency. As I mentioned in my maiden speech, the UK’s leading university for sport, Loughborough University, sits at the heart of my constituency and is home to a variety of world-class sport programmes. As its reputation for sporting excellence has grown and it has gained international recognition, the university has invested heavily in its sports infrastructure so it can continue to attract and train the best athletes from around the world. The university also plays host to international Olympic and Paralympic teams, which come to take advantage of its unique facilities. The university is a jewel in the crown of the United Kingdom.
“I understand that the average resting human breathes approximately 5 to 6 litres of air per minute. However, a typical endurance athlete may breathe around 150 litres a minute, and some world-class athletes may breathe 300 litres a minute. That increased ventilation means that elite athletes are far more susceptible to respiratory problems such as asthma. Colleagues will therefore be shocked to learn that planning permission has been granted for an incinerator to be built in proximity to the university and its sport facilities. It is simply unacceptable for people who breathe up to 60 times more air per minute than the general public do, and who are more susceptible to respiratory problems, to be put at risk in that way.
“The World Health Organisation’s air quality guideline values are based on general ambient air concentrations and do not take into account the impact of physical activity, exercise, sports participation, or elite athlete training or competition. More research therefore needs to be undertaken into the impact of incinerators on those who participate in sporting activities.”
“I am also concerned about the impact of incinerators on the environment and the Government’s commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050…if we are to achieve the target that we have set, we must work to reduce emissions from all sources”
“The Government have published a policy paper on how we can preserve material resources by minimising waste, promoting resource efficiency and moving towards a circular economy in England. As we are actively encouraging individuals and companies to recycle more and produce less waste, in time we will become less reliant on incinerators, and there will not be enough waste to keep existing incinerators open, let alone justify building new ones.”
“It is clear that a moratorium should be placed on the building of new incinerators. That moratorium should be extended to those that have been granted planning permission but not yet built, such as the one in my constituency, because they are a barrier to reducing emissions and achieving a circular economy. More research also needs to be undertaken to better understand their impact on people with higher activity levels.”
“Edmonton has one of London’s three major waste incineration facilities. The incinerator serves the North London Waste Authority and the seven north London boroughs of Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Waltham Forest. The current facility, which is over 45 years old, is reaching the end of its life, and a decision has been reached to replace it with a new energy recovery facility, which it is claimed will supply both heat and power. Last year, construction of the north London heat and power project began. Many of my constituents are incredibly concerned about the decision and what it will mean for their health and their children’s future.
“I argue for an immediate pause and review of the construction of the new facility for three main reasons. First, there is growing evidence that the new incinerator poses a major health risk. Across London, our children already face a toxic air pollution crisis, and residents in Edmonton are at the centre of it, not least because of the constant traffic on the North Circular. According to King’s College London and the international clean air summit, high pollution days in London lead to an extra 87 cardiac arrests, 144 strokes, and 74 children and 33 adults being treated in hospitals for asthma attacks. That is why we must listen to the evidence on waste incineration.”
“It is thought that the new incinerator in Edmonton will produce more than 700,000 tonnes of CO2 every year.”
“All environmental and public health policy should be based on the precautionary principle that, where reasonable doubt exists over the safety of an initiative, it is paused or blocked until rigorous, independent evidence can be heard to inform a proper decision. That simple principle is why I ask the Government and Enfield Council to pause, review and consult on the decision.”
“Secondly, the new incinerator threatens to undermine and take resources away from London’s waste management strategy. The Mayor’s London environment strategy aims for 50% of waste to be recycled, up from the current rate of 33.1%. Enfield Council is rightly backing the push and has launched a new recycling arrangement across Edmonton. The vast majority of my constituents welcome the new recycling and reuse centre as a necessary addition to the Barrowell Green site. It will give the east side of the borough much easier access to recycling facilities, but if the Government or the council are serious about achieving these green strategies, we must back them with proper resources.
“The new incinerator will have a vast capacity of 700,000 tonnes of waste per year, but if we deliver on London’s plan to increase recycling, it is hard to conceive why we could possibly need that much capacity. We all know that money is tight. In April, Enfield Council will make bin collections fortnightly in a bid to save £12 million, yet the projected cost for the rebuild of the incinerator is an astonishing £650 million, funded by a loan that will end up being repaid by council tax payers across the seven boroughs.”
“Thirdly, I know the Minister will not want to impose a new incinerator on local residents without properly engaging with what they have to say. Toxic air pollution is worsening and our health is at risk. London has signed up to increase and to resource recycling, our Mayor is against unnecessary incineration, our residents are against the incinerator, and the Government have just been elected on a platform of promising to listen to people and put decision-making power in local hands. I am confident that the Minister will want to keep that promise and avoid forcing a decision on local residents in Edmonton.
“I conclude by inviting the Minister to come to Edmonton and chair a roundtable discussion with my constituents, Enfield Council and local environmental groups. I firmly believe my constituents must be at the heart of deciding what happens next. I hope the Minister will agree at least to listen to what they have to say and to the growing evidence against the new incinerator in Edmonton.”
“Members present at that debate will remember that I brought up the Beddington incinerator in my constituency, and I will give an overview of what it is like to live in the shadow of one of these things. I spoke about the harm it does to my constituents in Carshalton and Wallington and about my campaign to improve air quality monitoring near the site, both to prevent operators from regulating their emissions and to take into account the effect on local roads, congestion and air pollution of taking the waste from four London boroughs into that one site.
“In this debate and the previous one, Members from all parties spoke of their concerns about what might happen to their constituents if incinerators are granted approval in their patches. I am sad to report that our previous debate was met—as I am sure this one will be—with scorn by my local Lib Dem-run council. Just to recount some of what has been said to me since the last debate, I have been told that we surely understand that there is no alternative to incineration; that Members attending these debates prefer landfill; that we do not recognise the benefits of district energy schemes—not the least of which is to lock residents into energy prices at least three times higher than the market average; and that none of us understand that incinerators are not nearly as bad as we have made out. That is the gist of the stories and labels that have been thrown at me since we last discussed this matter. However, I have not heard a single Member today—or ever—say that landfill is any better. None of us is saying that. Many have pointed out that incineration is considered only slightly better than landfill. In many cases, incinerators are worse—particularly when they burn plastics. That point has been powerfully made today.
“Something the council should find sobering is the fact that the emissions figures for January 2020 have just been released, and they demonstrate how out of touch it has been on the issue over the years.”
“Because of the consistency of breaches at the Beddington incinerator, the Environment Agency has increased the frequency of reporting from every half hour to every 10 minutes. The 10-minute maximum imposed by the Environment Agency is, I believe, 150 mg per cubic metre. On 26 January, the emissions from just one of the Beddington incinerator’s two chimneys were nearly five times that level, and consequently it was shut down for two days. The other chimney was even worse and exceeded emissions limits on 2, 14, 20 and 26 January. On 26 January the level was 10 times over the limit. To add insult to injury, the operators were still registering at least one invalid report almost every day of the month.
“No one says that landfill is the alternative, or any better. However, we—both councils and the country—need to be much more ambitious about cleaning up our air. With advances in technology, there are more air quality-friendly options even in the energy recovery stage, which is only one better than landfill on the waste hierarchy—things such as mechanical and biological treatment. Of course, as we have all said, we need to look much further up the waste hierarchy as we look towards a greener future. That means boosting recycling rates and reuse wherever possible.
“However, as in everything, prevention is key—saying no to unnecessary waste and cutting it out of the system altogether. We can do much more than follow the poor example set by the council in my area. None of us has the power to promise our constituents that we can stop incinerator proposals or get live incinerators decommissioned, but, representing an area where an incinerator is already operational, I will continue to hold the council to account for its failure and to do whatever I can to mitigate its effects. As I have said, that includes improving both air quality monitoring and traffic measures on the Beddington Lane and insisting on the rapid completion of the proposed Beddington Farmlands, which is supposed to act as a CO2 capture for the incinerator site.
“My hope is that those Members facing the threat of incinerators in their constituencies will be able to use the Beddington example to convince local authorities and the Government, where necessary, that there are better alternatives and to deliver a much greener waste disposal programme in their areas, rather than just having to carry out mitigation.”
“Many hon. Members and I return to this issue because of the adverse experiences of our constituents who live alongside waste processing facilities, and whose voices often get lost in the decision-making process.
“It has been four months since I secured a debate in this place to highlight the experiences of people in Avonmouth in my constituency. Avonmouth is home to a significant number of waste processing plants, and in the past decade it has seen a hundredfold increase in the tonnage of waste passing through our local facilities. That is not just waste from Bristol or the greater Bristol region; it comes from London on trains every night. We are processing waste from across the country. That exponential growth has real consequences for local people, the most challenging of which has been an annual spike in the fly population during hot weather periods, especially when there are large quantities of bundles of waste stored on open land.
“I have had to raise this issue frequently since my election, and it is all the more depressing because so little seems to change. The persistence of the problem has understandably intensified local people’s sense of powerlessness over a decision-making process that has concentrated this number of plants in the area, often without local consent. People are angry, and I share their anger, not least because it is clear where the system has been going wrong. In Avonmouth, as in Sunderland and other parts of the country, these plants have not arrived by accident.
“Bristol City Council changed planning policies in good faith in 2011 to try to favour the circular economy approach to dealing with waste, as opposed to landfill. Its intention was not for Avonmouth to become a dumping ground for the nation’s rubbish, but when the city council opted to reject planning permissions for large-scale incinerators and other companies in Avonmouth, those decisions were just overturned by national planning authorities…”
“As I have argued in the past, two main things must happen. First, the Environment Agency must be given a much broader range of powers to allow it to deal more quickly and effectively with minor and frequent breaches that do not immediately lead to the revocation of a licence. Secondly, the planning system must better reflect the clear human cost associated with the concentration of individual sites processing waste in a particular area. I have said before, and I say again, that I do not believe the cumulative impact of individual sites or their proximity is properly considered.
“Avonmouth is a classic example of those issues. In my debate last year, I drew attention to a series of breaches by a company operating locally that had violated its permit more than a dozen times in the space of a year. It was eventually singled out by the Environment Agency, but a very high frequency of breaches had to occur before action could be taken. It should not take bad behaviour on that level to warrant enforcement action. Even when permits are revoked, the resulting appeals process is long, complicated and costly, imposing an obvious disincentive for the Environment Agency to deal with the individual breaches that collectively create such massive problems for local residents. The agency should have at its disposal a wider range of remedies, sanctions and fines that fall short of outright revocation.
“Of course, we recognise that waste processing must happen, and we would rather that it be done in a way that is not landfill and that has wider circular economy implications. However, frameworks for granting permits and planning permissions need to work in tandem to consider the concentration of existing waste processing facilities locally, as well as their proximity to each other and to local residents. The local planning system must therefore work more intelligently and more compassionately, recognising that capacity considerations must be weighed against the wellbeing of the people who are most directly affected by the processes.”
“In my debate here in Westminster Hall last year, the Minister shared my concerns but seemed to suggest there was nothing further that the Government could really do at that time. I find that hard to believe. Will the Minister today set out what her Department plans to do about this issue, perhaps in the Environment Bill that is coming to the House soon, and whether, given the obvious national concern expressed here today, a wider review of waste processing in the UK is required?”
“…It is quite clear from the number of hon. Members who have spoken, and from the unanimity with which they have spoken, that there is a major problem.
“It struck me that anyone who seriously believes that Britain is a model of modern democracy in action should watch this debate. Something must have failed in this democracy for so many people, from so many different political standpoints, to have come here and said, “No, we can’t have this.” How did we get to a position where the planning framework, energy production regulation and all the rest of it are so out of touch with the real people for whose benefit the energy is supposed to be created? I will leave that question there, because it is a much bigger question than I can answer today.”
“It is not good enough just to say, “They are a bunch of nimbys.” There are clearly concerns about the incineration of industrial and domestic waste that go well beyond the attitude of “not in my backyard”. I think it was the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) who commented that she had been assured that the danger to her constituents was less than it would be if they lived next to a major road. If I was a parent worried about my children living next to an incinerator, telling me that some other poor MP’s children or constituents were going to be made even sicker than mine would not be a particularly sensitive or sensible way to present the case.”
“We should look to move quickly to a point where our energy supply does not rely on energy from waste at all, because it does not appear to me as though there is any way to indiscriminately burn waste material without creating an unacceptable health hazard to those who live close by. As has been pointed out, children and those who are more active tend to be the ones who suffer. I thought the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) spoke very well about the almost ridiculous fact that for people living near an incinerator, exercise might actually make them more ill, rather than helping them to get healthy.
“I have a couple of questions for the Minister. First, we are covered at the moment by the European waste incineration directive. Can she give an absolute, unconditional guarantee that there will be no lessening of the standards contained in that directive once we have left the European Union? There will be pressure from big business to relax those standards, as there will be to relax a lot of other standards that are there to protect us.”
“My final point, which has already been made by other hon. Members, is that if our energy supply depends on having waste to burn, we will have to keep producing waste. That is a bad thing. We should be reducing the amount of waste we produce. The fact that waste can be used to create energy does not make its production a good thing. We heard some good examples of that, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) listed some steps that have been taken in Northern Ireland. As a priority, we should reduce the amount of waste that we produce. If that meant that it was no longer economical to build an incinerator to burn waste because waste was no longer being produced, that would be a good thing.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate. As she said, it is our second debate on the matter in recent weeks, and it is one of a series of contributions from her on the question of waste incineration, particularly in relation to what she described as the “monster” incinerator that is planned for her area.”
Other hon. Members used that phrase, as well as the words “giant” and “enormous”, today when they spoke about planned or active incinerators in their areas. As the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) said, we need to understand why, in an era of zero-carbon ambitions for our economy, the idea of granting permission for such enormous plants to deal with our waste is still being contemplated.
“In general policy, we must recognise that the age of incinerators is over. A decade or two ago, perhaps we could have said that incineration was an improvement on the previous practice of landfill. Indeed, in this country incineration has increased in inverse proportion to the reduction in landfill over the last few years. However, as we move towards net zero [carbon], we are in danger of freezing in time our waste strategies by granting permission for large incinerators that capture waste streams over time. That will prevent us from moving up the waste hierarchy in dealing with our waste generally, and in looking at it as a resource to be recycled, reused and put back into the circular economy—rather than put in landfill or burned, usually for minimal energy recovery.”
“…The vast majority of large incinerators do not produce much energy, and they certainly do not capture the heat that comes out of the plants. On the other hand, they capture the waste stream over long periods of time. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) described that process in his area, with waste arriving from all over the country to feed the furnaces of the incinerators. From the description of the plans for the new north London waste incinerator given by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), I suspect that is also the case in her area. We are in danger of ossifying the process of waste disposal. Now is not the time to go down that route; it is the time to move rapidly up the waste hierarchy and think about different ways of disposing of waste.”
“…I do not want to blame local authorities for the actions that they have taken over a time when they have had no money to deal with the issue. They have merely had exhortations from central Government, and there have been no resources to go alongside the actions that they are required to undertake. There is a temptation to try to resolve the problems in a local area by going into partnership with a waste company. That may produce a solution to the local waste disposal problems, but it will do so at the cost of a 20, 30 or even 40-year contract that will fix the future policy of that local authority or consortium of local authorities.”
“It is imperative to recognise that to move up the waste hierarchy nationally, we need the resources to get away from incineration. There are further exhortations on the matter in the waste strategy. We cannot simply say that local authorities must have separate arrangements for collecting all the waste food in their area; we need to ensure that local authorities have the resources to enable them to move up the waste hierarchy without being subject to the temptation of using large incinerators to solve their problems.
“We are at a turning point. The future is net zero; it cannot be incineration.”
“Part of moving up the waste hierarchy involves a proper and full accounting of what goes in and out at each stage of the process. I recently asked the Minister to assure me that the plastics that come back to the UK in those containers will be properly dealt with and will not just go into incineration or landfill. Other countries have started to bar us from using waste export as a route out of doing a proper job of recycling and moving up the waste hierarchy. We therefore need the next generation of resources to deal with that move up the waste hierarchy. We simply do not have enough plants in this country that can properly recycle all the different grades of plastic waste, and we do not have enough anaerobic digestion plants to deal with the putrescibles that will come out of the waste stream. The Government have a substantial responsibility to ensure that those facilities are available, so that we can move up the waste hierarchy as fast as we need to on our path towards a net zero economy.”
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow) (Government Response)
“I make clear at the outset that waste and air quality are devolved matters, and stress, as I did on 28 January, that the Government’s intention is focused purely on reducing, reusing and recycling waste and on the whole idea of moving to a circular economy to achieve greater resource efficiency, as many hon. Friends and hon. Members have referred to. Measures that we are introducing will help us to do just that.”
“Evidence of the Government’s commitment to that aim can be seen in our landmark Environment Bill, introduced on 30 January, which, among other things, contains broad powers to establish deposit return schemes, such as those for drinks containers; provides for consistency in the materials collected from households, including food waste; and sets out services that businesses must take part in. I am pleased that the devolved Administrations joined us in the extended producer responsibility scheme, resource measures and eco-labelling. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned some of those.”
“I point out that it is a Labour-run council in Sunderland, where the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West comes from, and has been since 1974. In 2018-19, its household waste recycling rate was just 27.1%, compared with the national average for England of 43.5%, and its total waste incinerated was 71% of collected waste. It is telling that the hon. Member herself calls for a great deal more recycling and consistent collecting, rather than incineration, which is the direction her council has gone down.”
“…Interestingly on that note, while the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) was strong in her case against incinerators, it was actually the Lib Dem-led Sutton Council that approved the Beddington incinerator that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington talked about, and a Lib Dem councillor who publicly campaigned against it was expelled from his own Lib Dem group. We need to get our messaging right about what we are calling for.”
” I really do not believe it is good to play the blame game here. Cash-strapped councils have looked at many areas for affordable alternatives to landfill, because it became very expensive. As a councillor from a deprived area, I know that recycling schemes and enforcing recycling are very human and resource-intensive. Councils need more money from central Government in order to get proper recycling schemes off the ground. “
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow) (Government Response)
“I must be clear that local waste planning authorities are responsible for identifying their waste management facility needs and for working out the best direction to take. The hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that the measures in the Environment Bill that will be placed on local authorities will all be costed and funded.”
“On taxing incinerators…if the wider policies set out in the resources and waste strategy do not deliver our waste ambitions, as laid out in the Environment Bill and the strategy, including higher recycling rates, the Government outlined in the 2018 Budget that we will consider introducing a tax on the incineration of waste, operating in conjunction with the landfill tax and taking account of the possible impact on local authorities.”
“I wanted to be very clear, and I hope it has come out in what I have said, that the measures in the resources and waste strategy and the Environment Bill will enable a paradigm shift, in relation to reducing, reusing and recycling our waste, that should limit the amount that ever has to go to incineration and landfill. I hope that, from what I have said, hon. Members understand what is happening, the direction that the Government are absolutely committed to, and the move to a circular economy.”
“I thank the Minister for leaving me some time. This has been an excellent debate—the latest in an ongoing series. I have no doubt that, as the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, if it was not us here, it would be a different 10 MPs, but the message would be the same. I hope that Rolton Kilbride, the applicant for the proposed gasification plant in my constituency, has been listening—I am sure that it has—and that it withdraws its appeal. I live in hope.
The Minister mentioned the low rates of recycling in Sunderland, and I agree that “they need to be much better, but that needs investment, as other hon. Members have said, and the hard truth is that the Government have cut Sunderland City Council’s budget by £350 million in the past 10 years, so perhaps the Minister can address investment to support councils to recycle more—I am sure they would.
“The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) mentioned the Environment Agency—that is who the Minister said would monitor the plant in my area if it went ahead—and the number of breaches at his local plant being unacceptable. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) said that the Environment Agency needs more powers, and I agree, especially on powers to spot-fine and revoke permits—I have raised that in past debates—without needing to go through protracted legal processes in the courts.
“The solution to all this has to lie in more and better recycling and looking to other countries that are doing so much better than we are, but we also have to look to ourselves and how we live and consume and to be more considerate consumers. We need to create less waste.”