UK: Hazardous Waste Threshold Questioned At Parliamentary Hearings

Last Updated: 28 September 2011
Article by Angus Walker

This is entry number 278, published on 23 September 2011, of a blog on the Planning Act 2008 infrastructure planning and authorisation regime. Click here for a link to the whole blog. If you would like to be notified when the blog is updated, with links sent by email, click here.

Today's entry reports on hearings into the Hazardous Waste National Policy Statement.

The backbone of the new Planning Act regime is the suite of National Policy Statements (NPSs) (when shall I stop calling it new? When the first decision is made next month, perhaps). At the moment six have been finalised ('designated'), all on energy, two have been scrutinised and are awaiting progress (ports - 18 months and counting, waste water) and one is in the process of being scrutinised, hazardous waste.

A public consultation on the Haz Waste NPS is running until 20 October (details here), and simultaneously, Parliament is considering the draft. The House of Commons has until 12 December to produce a report on it, being 39 days before the 'relevant date' of 20 January 2012, the end of the scrutiny period. The House of Lords is having a debate on it on 11 October (it seems to have confused the public consultation deadline with the Parliamentary scrutiny deadline).

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee of the Commons is conducting the scrutiny in that House (Select Committees being named after government departments they shadow without the 'D' for department). It invited written representations and received a grand total of six - from the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC), Whitemoss Landfill Ltd, the Environmental Services Association (ESA), Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), Environment Agency (EA) and Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM). The written submissions can be found here.

Of note, the IPC submission made three comments:

  • paragraph 4.1.2 of the draft should not say that there is a presumption in favour of granting consent;
  • the draft uses a thesaurusful of words like liaise, cooperate, consult and should be more consistent, and
  • the draft does not deal with transboundary effects.

The committee has also held two evidence-gathering sessions, on 7 and 14 September. There will be a third and final one next month. At the first it had witnesses from the ESA and waste companies Augean and Veolia; at the second, it heard from CIWM and the EA. Transcripts of the debates can be found here and here, but here is a summary.

The lack of written submissions was matched with a lack of interest from the MPs on the committee: five out of 11 turned up for the first session and only three for the second.

All the witnesses thought that the draft NPS set out the need for infrastructure fairly well. It seems that the industry is waiting for the NPS to be finalised and this is holding back applications, although on the other hand there are only seven hazardous waste landfill sites currently in existence that processed more than the threshold of 100,000 tonnes last year.

All hazardous waste permissions are time-limited, and there is often controversy about extending the time limits. It is not clear, however, if the thresholds in the Act only deal with physcial capacity extensions rather than time extensions. Arguably it should include the latter if it doesn't already.

The 30,000 tonnes per year threshold for non-landfill permissions was quite low, but some promoters may nevertheless try to avoid the regime by coming below it. The costs of using the IPC regime were estimated to be 6-16 times that of getting planning permission, but if the permission is refused and won on appeal, the costs are similar.

In some cases there was a difficulty in calculating tonnage since there is often mixed hazardous and non-hazardous waste. Ship dismantling was given as an example by one witness but another said the whole ship was regarded as hazardous waste. Waste is either hazardous or not - there is no recognition of how hazardous it is, e.g. a tonne of soil with some zinc in it could be as hazardous as a jar of arsenic but they are both just 'hazardous waste'.

The witnesses were asked about new types of hazardous waste coming up not contemplated by the NPS and the main example was lithium batteries from hybrid/electric cars as they come to the ends of their lives.

The waste companies didn't like being required to assess whole life costing as part of their applications.

There was considerable discussion about the relationship between planning permission and environmental permitting. The boundary was complex and the timing was difficult, but on the whole it was agreed that they should continue to be separate. I think the committee was hoping to recommend that they be merged, but the witnesses didn't go along with that.

The NPS should deal better with how local anxiety should be assessed. I was struck by the remark that people are happy to walk around B&Q, when 80% of the products would be hazardous waste if they were waste, but don't want a hazardous waste facility near them.

Nobody knew why insect infestation was included as an impact - insects steer clear of hazardous waste.

The UK is stricter about what is 'recovery' and what isn't than other EU states, so the playing field was not that level and this affected the market.

A tip for public affairs professionals: academics were better advocates than consultants, and women were better than men; addressing small groups was better than large ones, for explaining a controversial scheme.

At the second session there was quite a lot on siting facilities in flood plains - one witness thought only the lowest risk land was acceptable, but the EA thought the existing 'sequential test' was OK. Indeed, the EA toed the government line closely.

The EFRA committee will produce a report once it has finished its evidence sessions, and of course this will be reported and analysed on the blog in due course.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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