On 23rd October 2019, Sharon contributed to a Westminster Hall debate tabled by Darren Jones MP titled "Waste Processing Facilities: Local Environment."
You can read the debate below.
Darren Jones (Bristol North West) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of waste processing facilities on the local environment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. However conscientiously we all try to manage our own rubbish, most of us probably do not give a second thought to what happens to it after it is taken away—and to the extent that we do think about that at all, we often assume that the waste is transported, stored and processed in a pretty orderly way, out of sight and out of mind, away from homes and away from people. But for many of my constituents who live in and around Avonmouth, in the west of my Bristol North West constituency, the everyday reality of living close to a concentration of these facilities can be challenging. I know that other right hon. and hon. Members have constituencies where residents live close to these facilities and have had similar issues, so I am introducing this debate on behalf of many other constituents as well as my own.
In Avonmouth, we have seen a significant proliferation of waste processing facilities over the past decade. That has not come about by accident. The leadership of Bristol City Council in 2011 updated its planning guidelines to welcome such businesses to the area of Avonmouth, and as a consequence we saw an increase in the number of planning permissions being granted for them. According to the figures available from the Environment Agency, that has meant that there has been an increase in the quantity of waste being processed locally, from about 6,000 tonnes in 2013 to more than 200,000 tonnes in 2017—that figure is already a couple of years out of date.
The most immediate challenge in the surrounding areas, and my main concern in today’s debate, is the volume of flies that can be associated with the processing of the waste and the impact that that has on local residents and their community. This is a quality-of-life issue for hundreds of my constituents. It features prominently in local media and in correspondence to my office, and it has got markedly worse over the period of the increase in bundles of waste being processed each year. I was born and grew up in the area affected, and it never used to be an issue when I was growing up, but it has become one over the past five years.
There can be a particular problem in the summer months, when heat and humidity combine, alongside an increase in the amount of processing of waste, and we see a spike in the number of flies in the local community. In the absence of a permanent solution, local residents have had to get used to installing nets and flytraps, stocking up on fly spray and keeping windows and doors closed during hot weather. That evidently is not an enjoyable way of life. There have been striking photos of flypaper strips that have been put up overnight and are full of dead flies by morning. Eating and drinking outside and even making food in the home becomes increasingly difficult. The fire station, I was told on a visit, often ends up with no food for the firefighters, because if the bell rings, by the time they get back, there are flies all over the food that has been produced for them in the fire station.
The situation is extremely stressful not just for local residents and workers, but for the pubs and restaurants and some of the businesses in the area. They are concerned about return trade, but also about maintaining their health and safety compliance, which of course they take very seriously.
My concern is that this seems to have been an issue at points when we have had very hot weather, but with the effect of climate change—albeit we wish to mitigate that—it is becoming more frequent. We have started to see complaints from local residents more frequently throughout the year and not just in the hottest summer months. The science, from my perspective, is clear that flies will thrive in the presence of decaying organic matter and their populations will grow. That is why the Environment Agency provides permits for the type of activity that we are discussing. There is agreement on what the safe limits are for the amount of waste that can be processed. If businesses do not comply with the guidelines and permits, the Environment Agency is of course able to take action.
In a few cases, there has been significant negligence and action taken by the Environment Agency. One company in my constituency, New Earth Solutions, was found to have breached its permit on more than a dozen instances in the space of a year. Breaches included failing properly to cover the bales of rubbish that are packaged up and shipped out to other countries for burning. The Environment Agency said that the company had “exceeded the quantity” of waste
“that can be processed and removed without causing a build-up of onsite materials”.
To help people to visualise it, I will describe what happens. Our black bin rubbish gets dropped off, poured into large piles, treated, packaged up into bundles that look like hay, wrapped in either black or white thick bin-liner material and stored, ready to be shipped out from the docks in Avonmouth or on lorries to the continent for other countries to burn for energy. Although I endorse the circular economy principles behind that, the issue, when we are processing waste not just from Bristol and the region but from London, is that we often end up with a significantly high number of bundles on open land that can be torn or can have other issues. There are factories where, in the past, doors and roofs have not been fixed properly and where piles of rubbish are therefore subject to the open air.
I have been trying for some time to work locally with the Environment Agency, Bristol City Council, businesses and local residents to fix the problem. It has been an ongoing and difficult problem. Ultimately, I had to write, in June of this year, to the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. In that letter, I quoted regulation 22(3) of the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016, which sets out that, to revoke a permit, a 20-day notice period has to be served on the offending operator. Under regulation 31(1)(f), an operator on whom notice has been served has the right to appeal to the “appropriate authority”—normally the Planning Inspectorate—which then can exercise the power on behalf of the Environment Agency. Any revocation notice that comes will take effect only once the appeal has been concluded. That not only imposes costs and time issues on regulators, but provides such a slow response for local residents that often the issue may have come and gone.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
I am sorry that I missed the first two minutes of my hon. Friend’s remarks. He will be aware that I initiated an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber on this very issue; the situation sounds exactly the same. It was with regard to the recycling plants at Teal Farm in my constituency. As I came into this Chamber, he was talking about flies, which is a massive issue that can fill my inbox every summer. My hon. Friend is talking about the Environment Agency. I have come to the conclusion that the Environment Agency needs more powers, specifically to issue spot fines, rather than having to go through the current rigmarole. The bar seems to be far too high in terms of the amount of time required and the legal process that has to be gone through, and spot fines could be the answer. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I do agree. I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and for her Adjournment debate on the Floor of the House, which I referenced in my letter to the then Environment Secretary, not least because the Government had promised to bring forward some regulations. To be fair, they had done that, but those measures evidently have not been able to solve the types of issues that my hon. Friend and I have to try to tackle in our constituencies.
This is a very lived matter for us locally. My constituents will make complaints to the Environment Agency, to the council, to me and to others, and often there seems to be something that falls between the cracks. If it is not a major, significant issue that the Environment Agency can tackle, Bristol City Council might rightly not be able to tackle it, and constituents then feel that they have nowhere to go and nothing happens. This is the frustration that many of my constituents face.
Even when actual breaches can be demonstrated, an individual instance in itself needs to be sufficiently big for action to be taken. With regard to Bristol North West, Avonmouth historically was land associated with a stately home in the constituency. Its owner built the village very close to industry, essentially for workers, but that has meant that we have an unusual situation—it may not arise in other parts of the country—in which people are living very close to the processing that is taking place. My conclusion as the local MP is that there seems to be just too much processing of waste, by too many facilities, too close together and too close to local residents.
I wrote to the Department about assessing the cumulative impact—not just the individual impact of a particular site or planning permission—with proper sight of how permits are monitored, managed and enforced as well as the impact on the community. The Environment Agency should have greater flexibility to raise minimum standards for the approval and renewal of permits as part of the lifecycle, taking an evidence-led area-wide view in setting conditions on the types and quantities of waste that can be handled, the processes taking place on site and the acceptable means of storage. For us, that might mean in lived experience that less rubbish needs to be processed at any one time, and perhaps fewer bundles may be stored on local sites. Perhaps bundles should be stored in closed, maintained facilities, not in open-air environments.
At present, operators are required to demonstrate how they will seek to minimise and mitigate negative consequences that attach to their work by submitting a written management plan. In affected areas, applicants and existing operators should be subject to more exacting requirements to explain how their processes adhere to the Environment Agency’s guidance on fly management, and such processes should be frequently inspected to ensure that they are delivered on a day-to-day basis.
As things stand, the only avenue for dealing with the problem is through identifying significant rule-breakers. Therefore, even in the best-case scenario, there is slow, piecemeal progress and no resolution to the issue. My constituents are clear that that is not good enough. The Environment Agency needs to be able to draw on a framework for assessing cumulative impact and have the teeth and the flexibility to take action to deal with that impact.
John Howell (Henley) (Con)
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. In my area, the recycling centres are all enclosed in buildings. Does he not think that the planning system is a better means for controlling this problem?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is part of the puzzle. National and local planning frameworks should better reflect some of these issues when decisions are being taken. For example, a number of early planning decisions were granted by Bristol City Council, but the previous two applications were rejected locally only to be overturned by the national planning authorities, not having taken into account the proper representations made by local councillors about the cumulative impact. We therefore need improvements to the planning process as well as to the rules and the Environment Agency’s ability to take action.
I do not want to spoil the flow of my hon. Friend’s speech. On planning, when a company, which could be rogue to say the least—some of these places can be said to be the scrapyards of our modern age—shuts up shop and goes, someone else can move in without having to apply for new planning permission; the permit still stands. Does he agree that that should be looked at?
I very much agree, because I have had exactly that issue: a company that went into administration was bought by an overseas company, and activity on the site continued with the existing permit. That is a problem. It shows a lack of enforcement, and that is why constituents get concerned about that.
To extend my answer to the planning question, one of the issues is about putting too many of these facilities too close together. I understand why it might seem good to put warehouses to process rubbish in parts of the industrial space in my constituency. We probably would not want to put them in other places. However, I go back to the main thrust of my argument, which is the cumulative impact. Surely there is a threshold at which there are too many of them and someone should think about putting them somewhere else.
I am told waste is a profitable business, and some of these businesses can invest significant amounts in their facilities. For example—not to make any of the companies blush—Viridor seems to be building a well-funded facility in my constituency, whereas New Earth Solutions did not have the investment or capital available to maintain the highest possible standards.
Surely that must be a consideration for planning and Environment Agency powers, because there is an impact on the character and economic prospects of an area. Many Avonmouth residents feel doubly trapped and frustrated. They cannot sell their homes because of the press coverage and local understanding that at points in the summer families are eating their dinners under mosquito nets and the pub has to close because it feels unable to serve its customers. It takes its toll on community life and puts a tone on a community that no one wants where they live. They want to be part of a vibrant community where outdoor spaces can be enjoyed in the summer.
This area, like so many others, deserves a diverse range of high-quality, well-paid jobs in a community in which people feel happy and able to live and enjoy the outdoor environment. We must be careful that in clustering such facilities and not having proper rules and enforcement powers to deal with them, we do not create waste capitals across the country, where for local residents it will have to do. It does not have to be that way. We can make changes.
It is clear that there is no consent from my constituents in Avonmouth, or indeed the surrounding areas of Bristol North West, for this to continue—nor for it to have been put in place. I have therefore been left with no choice but to bring it to the House in a Westminster Hall debate to raise it with the Minister. Like my constituents, I have run out of places to go. I have come to dead ends in trying to find a solution. I can only conclude that the Government and the Minister’s Department are the best and only place left to try to find some solutions to fix these issues for my constituents and those in other parts of the country.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow)
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones)—almost a neighbour in the west country—on securing the debate and on his commitment to bringing this issue to our attention. I know he has been working hard locally with the Environment Agency and other partners to try to pinpoint the sources of some of the problems faced by his constituents. Having grown up on a dairy farm, I am well acquainted with living with flies in everyday life, and I sympathise with his constituents who are living with this. I know the Avonmouth area relatively well, having been a news reporter based in Bristol. I was often sent to Avonmouth to report from the industries there—and, indeed, some of the recycling centres.
A relatively significant cluster of waste facilities in close proximity to a residential area will, by its nature, have some impact on local amenity. The planning and permitting systems need to work together to ensure that those impacts are managed within acceptable limits. We need to ensure that we have clear and strong environmental regulation and planning controls that work for the environment, for the people living there and for business. The Environment Agency and local planning authorities therefore each have distinct roles with regard to pollution and planning control to enable that to happen. That is their purpose.
It is for local planning authorities to prepare local plans to meet the need of waste management in their areas and deal with relevant planning applications. All steps of the planning process are subject to public consultation, and local planning authorities do consider representations from stakeholders when making planning decisions. When determining planning applications, local authorities have to give due consideration to potential statutory nuisance and other cumulative impacts—flies could come under that—as well as similar developments being close to one another.
Bristol City Council’s core strategy, which, I remind the House, was adopted by a Liberal Democrat-led council back in 2011—the council is now Labour—identified Avonmouth as a priority area for industrial and warehousing development, including waste management activities. A decision, which was thought about, was taken to make the area a centre for such activity. Planning applications are determined in accordance with the local plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise, and they take account of the likely impact, including cumulative impacts on the local environment, communities and the economy.
When considering those impacts, the planning system has the power to limit the number and types of operation being developed in any particular area, if appropriate. Although I am unable to comment on individual cases, I believe that the hon. Gentleman’s reference to central Government’s overturning the council’s decision to withhold planning permission may relate to an occasion when an independent public inquiry allowed an appeal against the decision. The decision to allow the appeal was then upheld following a challenge in the High Court.
I hear what the Minister says about what the planning system and local councils can do, but does she recognise that many local councils have different standards for implementing these things, and that that leads not to standardised performance in this field, but to widely varying performance around the country?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Local authorities do have power and are required to act for the benefit of local people; I gather that my hon. Friend’s council has decided that its recycling facilities have to be enclosed, so that is the decision it has made for the benefit of its constituents.
Our published guidance makes it clear that when applying for an environmental permit for regulated activities, operators should make applications for both planning permission and environmental permits in parallel whenever possible. This helps the operator, the planning authority and the Environment Agency to join up, to the benefit of all concerned. I know that necessary distinctions in regulatory roles and remits can lead to particular issues on the ground. It is therefore important that all parties involved in the consideration of granting permission to and permitting regulated facilities work together openly and transparently at a local level, to achieve the best outcomes.
The Minister will have to forgive me if I am treading on the next paragraph of her speech, but the issue here is the retrospective view. Planning permissions and environmental permits have been granted, and we are now in a position where we have too many of these facilities, too close to residents and processing too much rubbish. The question is about powers to deal with them now that those decisions have already been taken, whether at local or national level. Are there powers that the Minister can refer to that will deal with the issues already in place, or are we just discussing powers for getting this right on new applications in other areas?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Of course, powers were used in the case of the company he referred to, New Earth Solutions, in respect of the fly infestation. Action was taken, and I am told by the Environment Agency that the situation has improved and the company has subsequently complied. Clearly, the powers worked in that particular instance.
The Environment Agency is working closely with Bristol City Council and, I believe, with the hon. Gentleman, but it has not been able to identify a single source of the fly infestation. The agency would have to be very certain before it could take action, because there are 39 permitted waste facilities regulated by the Environment Agency in close proximity to Avonmouth. They manage a range of waste materials, including metals, healthcare waste, and household, industrial and commercial waste, and they will therefore all have different impacts. Not all of them will be the source of flies, noise, or dust, but all those facilities—both those that are and those that are not currently operational—are regulated by environmental permits that set out the measures with which operators are expected to comply in order to minimise any adverse impacts to local residents, businesses and the environment. So, there is a system.
The Environment Agency has a range of powers that it can use to address shortfalls in operators’ performance. In fairness, the agency has put a lot of effort, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, into investigating the potential causes of the fly infestations at Avonmouth, and it continues to work closely with local partners. I have spoken to the agency myself about how much it is doing to try to crack the situation.
It is clear that any operator who does not comply with the conditions of its permit will be subject to compliance and enforcement action by the Environment Agency, but revoking is the end of the line. What the agency really wants is to work with the businesses to make the system work, because we need places to send our rubbish. Bristol is a big city, so that is very important. Depending on the action being taken, there are different timescales, but revocation is an absolute last resort. Fly infestations can also be treated as a statutory nuisance and enforced against by the local authority—that comes under the local authority as well, so it has that power.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the cumulative impact of the facilities. The Environment Agency investigates complaints received from local residents regarding odour, dust, noise and flies. I reiterate that although it has been possible to substantiate historic complaints in some cases, with the Environment Agency taking appropriate enforcement action, in many instances it still has not been able to identify any one source for the issue.
Although it is not in the Environment Agency’s remit to determine the locations of waste management facilities, it continues to meet the council to ensure that they work together to minimise the impact on residents. I believe it has also done a lot of work with the city council over the summer, because that is when the flies are worst, to investigate and monitor local fly populations. Officials from the Environment Agency have even toured the area with the Mayor; I believe the hon. Gentleman may have been there as well.
Going on to the ground seemed to me like an eminently sensible thing to do. I gather that, following that tour, the Mayor decided that they would try to see whether they could help somewhat by looking at how local waste is collected and tasking each collection team with more emphasis on the cleanliness in its particular streets. That is just one of a list of measures that have been used to help. The Environment Agency continues to visit the permitted facilities in and around Avonmouth constantly, although those visits still do not seem to have found the one source of flies.
Following the Adjournment debate that I secured in the House, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), said that he would go away and look at the question of future further powers for the Environment Agency, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) mentioned. Now that this Minister is in post, can she commit to looking into that, specifically with regard to spot fines? For littering and dog poo, officers from the council can issue spot fines, but for something as big as this, the Environment Agency does not have that power. Does she think she could look into that?
I was not at that particular debate, but there are a great many measures coming through the resources and waste strategy, which I am sure the hon. Lady is familiar with, with plans to reduce waste and increase recycling and resource efficiency, as well as an ambitious set of reforms to the way waste will be regulated and managed to mitigate future impacts. We will write to her about any progress being made on the idea of spot fines, but there is already a process that the Environment Agency can operate, with revocation being the end, if possible. I will get back to her. She mentioned earlier the transfer of permits; the Environment Agency has to assess transfers of permits, and there are regulations for how that should work.
Going back to the resources and waste strategy, there is a great deal in there that will be coming forward. As indicated by the hon. Member for Bristol North West, waste management facilities are now all required to have a written management system, designed to minimise the risk of pollution and reduce the impact on local communities and the environment, which should cover things such as the management of flies, odour, noise and dust. However, I take his point regarding requirements and actions to combat flies. That is already picked up through the written site management plan for Avonmouth, but I would expect the Environment Agency to be paying particular attention to that—I know it is doing so, but I will highlight that it is essential that it looks at that.
In the resources and waste strategy we will also strengthen the requirement for those operating permitted waste sites to be technically competent, remove or change some of the higher risk exemptions from the permitting system to ensure those facilities can be regulated fully, and enact far-reaching reforms to the ways in which waste can be transported and tracked. Just yesterday, £1 million was announced for investment in technology to help to crack down on illegal waste.
To sum up, I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this subject to the House. He is clearly working hard on behalf of his constituents. I hope I have made it clear that there is a system in place, and that the Environment Agency is doing all it can and will continue to monitor the situation with Bristol City Council and, indeed the hon. Gentleman himself.