MPs succeed with Bills on waste minimisation, traffic, pesticides

The Waste Minimisation Act has become the last of three Private Members' Bills on the environment to come on the statute book during the 1997/98 parliamentary session. The other two Acts will increase public access to information on pesticides and require the Government to set targets or otherwise report on its plans to reduce traffic.

The last session of Parliament brought major disappointments for the energy conservation lobby, which lost no fewer than four Bills. Among them were the Energy Efficiency Bill, intended to require mortgage lenders to prepare reports on the energy efficiency of homes and ways of improving it, and the Energy Conservation (Housing) Bill to improve the operation of existing legislation on domestic energy efficiency (ENDS Report 278, pp 31-32 ). Both were blocked at an advanced stage in the Commons by Conservative MPs.

The Waste Minimisation Act, which received Royal Assent in November, will enable local authorities to do or to support anything they consider "necessary or expedient for the purpose of minimising the quantities of controlled waste, or controlled waste of any description," in their areas.

The legislation has been supported by the Government. In the Lords, its spokeswoman, Baroness Farrington, noted that "although some local authorities undertake initiatives on waste minimisation, many do not because of a lack of clarity in the existing legislation." The Act will remove that uncertainty.

"In the past," she added, "waste minimisation has received less attention than recycling. Local authorities have tended to treat the amount of waste produced as something over which they have no control, and which they have to manage. We have not been getting the waste minimisation message across as successfully as we need to."

The Act will not empower local authorities to impose any restrictions or requirements on businesses or individuals. Examples of the initiatives they will be able to take, according to the Act's main sponsors, the Women's Environmental Network (WEN), are the inclusion of waste minimisation strategies in waste plans, giving people information about alternatives to wasteful products, setting reduction targets in waste contracts, or introducing repair schemes for household appliances.

WEN is preparing a list of "waste-avoiding" products and services, and is seeking companies which wish to work with local authorities to reduce waste.

The Act obliges a local authority intending to exercise its new powers to consult any other with which its area overlaps. There are no other consultation provisions, although during the final stages of the Act's passage through Parliament the Industry Council on Packaging and the Environment pressed for an amendment to require councils to consult major local waste generators. One of its concerns may have been a suggestion in the Commons that the legislation might be used to organise campaigns to return used packaging to retailers.

Lack of parliamentary time meant that the amendment could not be pressed. But during Committee stage on 6 November, Baroness Farrington said that the Government "recognise the importance of consultation and, through guidance, would encourage and expect a local authority to consult interested parties" - though in using the word "would" she left it uncertain whether such guidance will in fact be forthcoming.

Another two Private Member's Bills on the environment made it onto the statute book in the summer.

  • The Road Traffic Reduction (National Targets) Act obliges the Secretary of State to publish a report containing traffic reduction targets for England, Wales and Scotland, with the aim of reducing the adverse environmental, social and economic impacts of traffic.

    However, where he considers that "other targets, or other measures, are more appropriate for the purpose of reducing the adverse impacts of road traffic," he need not set such targets, but must publish a report "explaining his reasoning and including an assessment of the impact of the other targets or other measures on road traffic reduction." Periodic progress reports must also be published.

    In the Commons, junior Transport Minister Glenda Jackson promised that the first report will be published at the end of 1999, while progress reports are expected every three years. However, the Government has refused to commit itself to setting targets in the first report (ENDS Report 278, p 26 ).

    Attempts by peers speaking for business interests to insert an amendment obliging the Secretary of State to "have regard to the needs of business, commerce and industry" when deciding how to comply with his duties were unsuccessful.

    The Government's spokeswoman, Baroness Hayman, resisted the amendment, though promising that business needs will be taken into account when preparing the reports. But there was, she added, "considerable scope for striking a more sensible shifting more freight from road to rail and also by improving logistics to reduce the proportion of lorry trips that are empty running." The amendment was defeated by 72 votes to 28.

    The new Act complements the Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997, which obliges local authorities to set targets for reducing traffic or its rate of growth, or come up with reasons for not doing so (ENDS Report 266, p 29 ). However, the timetable for producing local transport plans containing these targets has been slipping.

    In October, Transport Minister Dr John Reid revealed in a parliamentary answer that local authorities have been complaining about the difficulty of preparing robust transport plans by the scheduled date of July 1999. 1 Only "provisional" five-year plans to 2004/5 are therefore being requested by the Government by that date, he disclosed, with "full" plans due a year later.

    The delay means that statutory traffic reduction reports required by the 1997 Act will also not be available until July 2000, although non-statutory "interim" reports will be expected by next July. The slippage may give the Government a justification not to set national targets in its own report at the end of next year.

    Another problem, Dr Reid said, is that "a greater degree of standardisation from local authorities in the measurement of existing traffic levels and forecasts" is needed "in order that we can assess the national implications" when considering setting national targets. Standardisation is being pursued, but next year's interim local authority plans will not be in a standardised format. The odds appear to be lengthening against any national traffic targets being set next year.

  • The Pesticides Act provides for public access to environmental and safety data on older pesticides, as well as strengthening local authorities' enforcement powers (ENDS Report 278, p 32 ). Regulations to implement the freedom of information provisions are expected in the first half of 1999.

    Also on the statute book is the Public Interest Disclosure Act, which protects whistleblowers who disclose environmental and safety hazards and wrongdoing at work from being penalised by their employers (ENDS Report 275, p 32 ).

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