During the debate, Sharon shared the experiences and concerns of local residents, and called on the Government to consider extending the powers of the Environment Agency so that they can impose proper enforcement so that her constituents don't have to suffer any longer.
This is my first end of day Adjournment debate in a very long time; however, I am glad to have secured it as it gives me the chance to raise an ongoing issue in my constituency that has been a source of great consternation to me and many of the residents of Teal Farm and the areas adjacent to the Pattinson Road waste processing sites cluster, which I will refer to collectively as Teal Farm, as that is quite a mouthful.
For more than two years now, or perhaps even longer, residents and local councillors—especially Councillor Tony Taylor, who has been vigilant and tenacious on this matter—have raised concerns about the activity going on in Teal Farm, especially on the industrial estates that neighbour the residential area. It has been going on for so long that I have been applying for this debate for months now, and my former researcher, Daniel Tye, who helped me prepare this speech, moved on months ago. I wish that the issue had as well, but alas it has not. That is what brings me here.
Let me give some context. Washington new town was built in the 1960s as one of a few new towns across the country to help with overcrowding and population growth in local urban areas. In Washington’s case, that means the neighbouring cities of Sunderland, Durham and Newcastle. Part of the planning was meant to allow it to be a town with residential estates and industrial estates that were side by side but did not interfere with each other’s daily lives. Whilst the planning was meant to reduce interference between the two, that has become more of a problem as the town has grown and more residents have moved into the area, making the luxury of quiet residential living more difficult than when the town was first founded in the 1960s.
Sadly, the situation in Teal Farm in Washington is a microcosm of that situation; the original idea of residential and industrial being in close proximity but not bothering each other has been thrown out of the window. That has led to tensions between residents and businesses alike, and have extended to organisations such as the local council and the regional branch of the Environment Agency. Unfortunately and annoyingly for the residents of Teal Farm, there seem to be endless cases of problems airising, and local residents have kept me abreast of all the issues through the residents association and the dedicated team of local councillors.
As I just set out, the reason I am speaking today is to officially document on the record and to prise out of the Minister what more can be done to address the issues of industrial mismanagement that has blighted the lives of many of my constituents in Washington, especially when it comes to environmental issues.
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am pleased with his intervention, and I will come on to fines later, as that is the crux of what I am proposing.
To help the Minister understand fully the scale of the problems that my constituents have faced, I want to read a few excerpts from some emails I have received over the years. I assure him that he will find them both troubling and enlightening about the situation that has been ongoing for some time. First, in 2016 I received an email in which a constituent described the following situation:
“Last week when it was exceptionally warm, I left the windows open in the dining room and sitting room to allow some air circulation for my dog, the scene I returned to was unbelievable. Every single room in my house was inundated with flies. To say that there were upwards of 50 flies in my house would be a conservative estimate, and yes, you read that correctly, I said upwards of 50.”
This constituent went on to say:
“I have lived in Teal Farm Village for three summers now and for three summers this pantomime has repeated itself”.
In a follow-up email, after issues were raised with local agencies, the exasperated constituent wrote:
“Nothing is done to prevent a recurrence, nothing is done to compensate those of us who cannot eat, sit, play or venture into our gardens or onto our balconies or even dare to leave windows open when we are in or out of the house. How about those of us who are woken during the night by smells that have to be experienced to be believed.”
However, it is not just flies and other vermin but the activity of businesses operating in the industrial park are blighting the lives of my constituents. In an email I had passed to me from March of last year, a constituent documented that he witnessed
“several vehicles over the last week, some from Niramax and two others from their contractors, leaving Monument Park and travelling along Pattinson Road to the A1231—then travelling down the slip road towards the A19. All of the lorries were netted but litter was streaming out of the covered areas onto the road behind them.
Pattinson Road is again awash with litter as is the A1231 slip road from the roundabout—this slip road has not been litter picked since the middle of last year at which time it had not been done for over a year.”
This constituent then went on to say:
“The trees alongside the road have plastic streaming out in the wind dropped from lorries, and the verges are an absolute disgrace. It is no wonder fly tipping is on the increase as litter attracts litter”.
Another very alarming and worrying situation that occurred in October of last year, which was raised with me by Councillor Tony Taylor, involved a badly loaded HGV and an incident when a washing machine fell off the back of a van while it was whizzing down the A1231. The Environment Agency said that it was not going to investigate any further as insufficient evidence had been brought to its attention. Someone could have been seriously injured or killed—there could have been a pile-up—if this washing machine had fallen into the path of another vehicle, yet the case did not warrant any further investigation from the enforcement agency that should have been looking into it with urgency.
As I am sure the Minister can appreciate, these are stressful circumstances for my constituents to live in every day, all because of companies that fail to adhere to their responsibility to be good neighbours and keep our local area litter-free, as well as the fact that agencies such as the Environment Agency fail to penalise and fine the offending businesses.
There has been plenty of documentation of visits and activity regarding these issues at the industrial park, including a visit by residents, councillors, council officers and a member of my office who saw run-down premises inviting in flies, smells and vermin and in which they could thrive.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)
I agree with my hon. Friend that the Environment Agency is a toothless tiger, but does she agree that this is not just about the agency but about the fact that it does not work with other Government agencies, such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, to crack down on illegal activity—not just dumping, but avoidance of landfill tax and other taxes that should be going to the Exchequer?
Yes, I agree with my right hon. Friend, and that is not an issue that I had planned to cover in my contriubitons, so I am pleased that he has raised it. I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench heard him.
This issue has gone on for many, many years with many, many complaints and investigations, resulting in significant resources being directed at addressing the problems by the Environment Agency, by my office and by the numerous councillors who have to deal with them week in, week out, trying to take up the cases on behalf of constituents. The Environment Agency has been into my office with a team at least twice, and once into the council offices, and has stressed the amount of resources it is putting in to deal with this one small area in the larger north-east, but the issues returned after breaches occurred and, in no uncertain terms, that has infuriated my constituents—and, I must add, me. It cannot continue.
Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that the Environment Agency has additional powers and that the polluters—the people causing the problem—should pay for the time and resources put into resolving these problems? My constituency had a similar problem with litter a couple of years ago, and it devastated our area. The signs are still there. It is really important to local people.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I remember the case she mentions in her constituency of Blaydon. In certain areas, such as driving along the A1231, people can see the plastic still in the trees. We now know that local councils do not have the resources to be picking up constantly after these companies, as years ago they did. It is therefore up to these businesses to be more responsible, and if that means that the Environment Agency has to fine them to make them pay for picking up the litter, so be it.
As I have said, I have convened several meetings with the Environment Agency, which is supposed to deal with these problems, and I have repeatedly been told that it does not have the powers or the authority to do anything other than the bare minimum that it has done. To me, it just seems as though these companies get a slap on the wrist. One constituent, Mr Morgan, has described this sorry saga as
“a badly written Groundhog Day movie sequel”,
and I have to admit that I agree with him. The repeated incidents that have been reported and the breaching of operating permits, with the lack of any apparent enforcement action for so long, have left many constituents and me feeling frustrated and disappointed. I am not blaming the Environment Agency, which is acting within its remit and in accordance with what it is allowed to do under the current law. That is what has brought me to the Floor of the House to plead with the Minister, and I have some solutions about what might be done.
Mr Kevan Jones
I am very interested in what my hon. Friend is saying about wanting more powers, but the Environment Agency already has powers—for example, to enforce the storage of waste at waste transfer stations. In my experience, it is very reluctant to use such powers, or if it does, it gives a slap on the wrist, as she suggests, rather than real enforcement action in conjunction with HMRC and local councils, which would be far more effective in bringing these rogue operators to book.
I definitely agree with my right hon. Friend. That is why I felt the need to bring this debate to the House. I want to seek the Minister’s views on this matter, and find out what more he and his Department can do given the examples that I and other hon. Members have outlined.
I have been trying for many months to secure this debate. It is incredibly interesting that, since I let it be known publicly that I had applied for a parliamentary debate, I have finally seen some activity by the Environment Agency. [Interruption.] I know; it is rather curious. It seems that the threat of a parliamentary debate does wonders for getting things sorted—small wonders—but this should never be the case, and this matter should never have been escalated to the Floor of this Chamber.
As I have said, the Environment Agency has finally fined one of the major culprits in this on-going saga: Niramax Group Ltd received a fine of £26,000 in January. However, it is frustrating that the Environment Agency clearly made this out to be a victory for it and local residents, yet, as its own press release stated, the specific issue with Niramax had been going on since April 2015. That was nearly three years previously, so it is hardly a victory. It is safe to say that I was flabbergasted by this announcement and stunned that, after so many years of back and forth with the Environment Agency, it had finally pulled its finger out and done something constructive and punitively necessary to sort out the many breaches that have occurred for far too long.
However, in the words of one of my constituents, Mr Kirkland, following this announcement:
“Although the Environment Agency have brought a successful prosecution it has taken an unacceptable amount of time and done nothing but confirm the inadequate regulation of these and other waste operators in the area. There has been nothing done by the Environment Agency regarding the disgraceful and neglectful disregard of the littering laws by the same companies and the main road routes taken by their lorries are some of the worst roadside littering I have ever seen.”
He went on:
“They should be made to pay for our hundreds of phone calls and hours spent complaining to the Environment Agency and the council, and we must now have grave doubts as to the honesty of any such companies who will— we have no doubt—lie through their back teeth to keep their permits.”
As you can appreciate, Madam Deputy Speaker, my constituents feel that it is now time for regulatory change and for the enforcement powers of the Environment Agency to be bolstered so that such situations never happen again. My constituents have put up with this for far too long. I therefore want to know from the Minister what it plans to do to look into all the cases involving Teal Farm and to learn from the failures that my constituents have had to endure for far too long.
It is only right and fair that my constituents should be able to live a happy and comfortable life in their homes, not see their lives blighted incessantly by the failures and disregard of businesses operating in the area, and that when such episodes take place, they should have the fullest confidence that the agencies, which they pay for through their taxes, will do all they can to ensure that violations are dealt with swiftly and punitively, with on-the-spot fines for any breaches that occur.
I am therefore calling for increased powers for the Environment Agency, so it can actually do the job that it is there to do, and can issue on-the-spot fines to environmental offenders. After all, environmental litter officers can issue on-the-spot fines to the public for littering and dog fouling. Surely the problems that Environmental Agency officers deal with in regard to such companies are just as troublesome—perhaps even more so—and they should face the same penalty action. There should not be any disparity in our approach to litter louts—be they individuals or businesses.
I would like to gauge from the Minister what support there is in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for conducting a strategic review of charges and fines to businesses that breach environmental permits. It is important that penalties are taken into consideration with the type of business put under the microscope, but also that they reflect the scale of the incidents that occur, often on a regular basis, as I have outlined, and set out.
Alongside the idea of reviewing fines, I want to hear more from the Minister about the scope for time limits on business permits—perhaps three to five years—and about making them renewable only if businesses are fully compliant with their permit mandates and there have been no breaches at all during that time. One way for the Environment Agency to monitor any such breaches would be to have on-the-spot fines, which I have already mentioned, to penalise businesses immediately.
Another way would be to introduce a “penalties on your permit” system, not dissimilar to fixed penalty notices for motorists who are caught speeding, which could be used as part of the review of businesses’ environmental permits when they are up for renewal. Currently, when such a facility is up for sale, the licence the Environment Agency grants is automatically kept with the land and sold on by default. This is a very easy way for unscrupulous companies to obtain a licence. Does the Minister agree that that is wrong?
I do hope that the Minister will look into all of this carefully, and will respond with assurances that I can take back to the residents of Teal Farm. I want to bring my speech to a close, but I have one further point to add. It is pertinent as it relates to the application for a waste gasification plant in my constituency. If successful, this will lead to a huge increase in HGV traffic to and from waste processing plants, and I fear—given what I have set out today—that it will bring the inevitable litter and congestion. Having written to the Minister about the safety of this plant, I have received letters reminding me that the body ultimately responsible for monitoring the site’s safety is none other than—you’ve guessed it—the Environment Agency.
I hope that the Environment Agency will live up to its promises, and that I have given the Minister some food for thought about the solutions I and my residents in Teal Farm feel could be implemented. I know that Governments do not necessarily like new regulations, but on this issue I think hon. Members would say that I have—and I hope I have—made the case for them tonight.