Planning reform a priority for waste, says industry

Local councils need to speed up completion of waste development frameworks to help waste facilities obtain planning consent, according to the industry. The Planning Act has done little for waste.

The new Planning Act fails to provide the reforms needed to encourage the development of waste infrastructure, according to the Environmental Services Association.

In November, ESA - the waste industry’s trade body - appeared before the House of Commons Environment Committee’s inquiry into the government’s waste strategy. Without improvements to the planning regime for waste, the UK may struggle to meet EU targets to divert biodegradable municipal waste from landfill, it said.

In October, the Audit Commission said England would miss the EU’s target for 2013 if waste projects were delayed by a year as they sought to obtain planning permission (ENDS Report 405, p 16 ). Merseyside Waste Disposal Authority has already admitted it is struggling to find sites for the new waste facilities it needs. Some waste planning applications - like Sita’s for an incinerator in Surrey - have repeatedly stalled (ENDS Report 378, p 13 ).

The government has previously said that over 700 new waste treatment facilities are needed in England by 2020 (ENDS Report 377, pp 28-31 ).

"We’re going to have problems with the 2013 target," said Dirk Hazell, ESA’s chief executive, at the inquiry. The Planning Act, which received Royal Assent at the end of November, would do little to change this, he added.

The Act could speed up the development of hazardous waste sites. The new Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) will decide whether to award consent for hazardous waste treatment plants with an annual capacity over 30,000 tonnes, and hazwaste disposal sites with a capacity over 100,000 tonnes - taking these decisions out of the hands of local planning authorities. However, it does little for non-hazardous waste sites. Energy-from-waste plants above 50MW in size will go before the IPC, but these already go before the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change under section 36 of the 1989 Electricity Act.

"[The Planning Act] concentrates very much on large-scale facilities and we would like to see [those size limits] widened," said Richard Skehens, the ESA’s chairman and managing director of Grundon Waste Management. "An awful lot of waste facilities - although absolutely vital to local and regional infrastructure - will not come anywhere near the scale."

Several other alterations to the planning regime are needed, Mr Skehens said. Most importantly, there needs to be pressure on councils to finalise waste development frameworks. These replace local waste plans and state how much treatment capacity is needed in an area for the next 15-20 years and allocate possible sites. The allocation of sites is supposed to make it easier for firms to obtain planning.

The frameworks were introduced in 2005 (ENDS Report 367, p 39 ). However, the Planning Inspectorate has only approved five councils’, Mr Skehens told the inquiry - Hampshire, Lancashire, Milton Keynes, Plymouth and Surrey. This lack of progress is leaving developers in "a state of limbo" about where they should apply to build plants. Where frameworks are not in place, the government’s planning policy statement on waste - PPS 10 (ENDS Report 367, p 39 ) - "should prevail", Mr Skehens said. This encourages planners to approve waste applications.

Waste firms should also be allowed to apply for environmental permits before they apply for planning permission, Mr Skehens said. "Other industrial [plants]… do not have to have planning permission before they can get a permit. It would make life easier if this hurdle… was not there because the permit sometimes guarantees the permission."

There also needs to be an extension of permitted development rights so waste firms do not have to apply for planning for "minor, uncontroversial" changes to sites. Mr Skehens gave the example of a firm wanting to move the location of a weighbridge as the type of project that would fall into this category. The current requirement simply gives people who object to a facility an opportunity to delay its improvement.

The need to improve planning is accepted throughout the waste industry. Jeremy Jacobs, managing director of the Association for Organics Recycling, said planning is one of the main reasons for a slowdown in the growth of composting. In December, the Association released its annual survey on the state of the market.1 This shows that the volume of compost produced in the UK grew by 5% in 2006/07 - disappointing given previous year-on-year increases of around 20%.

"Clearly planning isn’t as fast as it needs to be," Mr Jacobs said. "Unfortunately no one has hard and fast numbers of how many projects are held up, but all our members tell us it’s the biggest roadblock." Most delay is caused by public objections to potential odour, he said. However, the only solution he could see to this was better education of the public rather than a change in the planning regime itself.

Gev Eduljee, Sita’s technical director, agreed with ESA that the lack of waste development frameworks was holding back progress. "I wouldn’t say more waste facilities need to be brought under the remit of the IPC. Our industry is dependent on getting public trust, so we have to fight our battles locally."

However, Dominic Hogg, director at consultancy Eunomia, said many waste development frameworks could "massively underestimate" the need for sites when they are finalised. "Work on some frameworks began three years ago, and that was a world before we knew the landfill tax would go up £8 a year," he said. "It was quite clear then that municipal waste would have to come out of landfill, but it was less certain what would happen to commercial and industrial waste. It might have led some [councils] to overlook the need to promote treatment of it."

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