Charles Walker leads debate on the threat represented by Veolia’s incinerator proposals to the Lea Valley glasshouse industry

Speaking in the House of Commons, 19 July 2017

Charles Walker leads a Parliamentary debate on the very real threat to the Lea Valley glasshouse industry represented by Veolia’s proposals for a 350,000 tonne incinerator in Ratty’s Lane. He also raises the danger represented by Hertfordshire County Council being both the sponsor of the incinerator and the determining authority who are set to have to pay a break-up fee of £1.2 million if it does not determine in Veolia’s favour.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con)

It is a great pleasure to lead this Adjournment debate on the Lea valley greenhouse industry. You know, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you represent a large part of it, what an industry it is. There are 350 acres of glass greenhouses in the Lea valley—a magnificent sight to see. The industry employs 2,500 people and has a turnover of £500 million a year.

Let me put some more numbers into the record. You will know these, Madam Deputy Speaker, but many people will be ignorant of the facts and I want to inform their thinking about this great industry. Our glasshouse industry in the Lea valley produces 80 million cucumbers a year—75% of the UK’s total cucumber production. It produces 70 million sweet peppers a year, which is more than 60% of the UK’s sweet pepper production. But it does not end there. The industry produces thousands and thousands of tonnes of tomatoes, lettuce, baby leaf salad and herbs, as well as bedding plants, trees, shrubs and flowers—a smorgasbord of great things.

The Lea valley glasshouse industry also produces a huge number of aubergines. I am not particularly familiar with aubergines, but I was given a few by a greenhouse owner a few weeks ago and they were turned into moussaka by Mrs Walker. I had always thought that moussaka was an impossibly exotic dish left over from the 1970s, but it has a lot going for it. If anybody out there wants to try moussaka—a lovely, evocative word that rolls off the tongue—I advise them to get to know aubergines from the Lea valley.

I have visited these amazing greenhouses, and it is just extraordinary to see the labour and effort that goes into growing this fresh produce. One of the most beautiful things about going there is getting to see the boxes of bumblebees that are used to pollinate crops. Bumblebees are lovely creatures anyway, but to see them beetling around—if that is not mixing a metaphor—the greenhouses and pollinating really is a wonderful sight. The glasshouse industry is hugely important to the economy of the Lea valley and it is a hugely important part of this country’s overall farming economy, which is why I am so pleased to see the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food here to respond to the debate.

I want to pay tribute to those who run the greenhouse industry in the Lea valley. All of them are fantastic people, and many of them are of Italian extraction. First generation Italians or their children and grandchildren run many of these amazing businesses, of which there are about 85 in the Lea valley. I am so lucky to have more than 10,000 Italians and their descendants living in my constituency. They throw a great party, we have a great town twinning event with Sutera every year and they are an absolutely fantastic group of people to know, work with and represent.

I want to discuss a couple of issue that may threaten the future of our glasshouse industry. The first relates to the vote on the EU. I am a committed Brexiteer and I know the Minister is a committed Brexiteer, as are many people in the farming community, but that is not to say that they do not have concerns. Our industry is ​reliant on seasonal workers, many of whom come from eastern Europe, and they play a very positive part in the production of these amazing crops. I hope that the Minister will work with the National Farmers Union, the Lea valley glasshouse industry and other interested parties to make sure that the industry can still access the labour it needs to put this wonderful food on our tables.

There is, however, another and far darker cloud on the horizon, which is the proposed incinerator in the Rye House and Fieldes Lock area off Ratty’s Lane in my constituency of Broxbourne. The planning application is for an incinerator that will burn 350,000 tonnes of rubbish. The incinerator was originally going to be on the New Barnfield site in Welwyn Hatfield, but in 2015 the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government threw out that application. In doing so, he said that the alternative sites, one of which is the proposed site in my constituency, were wholly unsuitable as locations. Those were not his words, but the arguments put forward by Veolia. In 2013, Veolia identified the Ratty’s Lane site as

“a safeguarded strategic rail aggregate depot”

located on a floodplain and opposite a Ramsar site, which is one of the highest designations for a protected and treasured environment. It said the site was too compact to house a 350,000 tonne incinerator, let alone the recycling part of the operation, and was not easily accessible from the road network for more than 280 lorry movements a day. However, having said all that against the site, Veolia, when it lost its planning application for New Barnfield, suddenly changed its tune and decided that the area in my constituency was after all the perfect site for its incinerator.

As the Minister will be aware, this is causing huge concern to the 85 businesses that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and I represent. This is a serious business. The interests of a French multinational such as Veolia are not unimportant, but its interests are certainly less important than those of the 85 businesses, many of which have been established for 50, 60, 70 or 80 years, that are contributing to our communities in the Lea valley.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, among others, and on the remarkable work he has done on this issue. Is he aware that many people in Roydon and Dobbs Weir in my constituency of Harlow have expressed numerous objections against this waste installation that we are all threatened with, yet all their objections seem to have been ignored?

Mr Walker

My right hon. Friend makes a number of excellent points. This application is hugely contentious. It is on the edge of Hertfordshire. I do not want it in my backyard, and up until 2015 Veolia did not want it in my backyard. However, what Hertfordshire County Council, the sponsor of the facility, is actually proposing is that all the smoke ends up in Harlow’s backyard and Epping Forest’s backyard, so it is your constituents, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the constituents of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow who are downwind and will get the fallout.

The critical point is that we have an industry that is turning over half a billion pounds a year and producing huge amounts of fresh produce that graces the restaurants ​and cafeterias of the House of Commons and is to be found in the homes of millions of people up and down this country, and the producers of that food get very nervous when half of the 350 acres of glass might fall within a 5-mile radius of a 350,000-tonne incinerator. Their concerns need to be heard.

It is simply unacceptable for Hertfordshire County Council, the sponsor of the incinerator, to be the determining authority for the application. Hertfordshire both owns the contract and is the determining authority for the contract, and if it does not determine in Veolia’s favour it has to pay a break-up fee of £1.2 million. This cannot be a safe decision. It cannot be a safe decision for my constituents, but it certainly cannot be a safe decision for your constituents, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the constituents of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow or for the 85 businesses that risk suffering the fallout from the facility.

It is no good for the Environment Agency to say, “There’s no worry here. These are tall chimneys. This is not a problem.” I am not saying that it will say that, but it does not matter what the Environment Agency says about this. The fact of the matter is that 85 producers are concerned that if they are downwind of this facility, they will lose contracts with supermarkets. That could be devastating. There are 2,500 jobs on the line and a half a billion pound industry.

I know that the Minister is not a miracle worker—he is pretty good, but he is not a miracle worker—and it would be unfair of me to suggest that he was, but what we do have in this Minister is a champion for the farming industry and a champion of our industry in the Lea valley. My simple request to him this evening is please to engage with the concerns of the Lea valley growers and our greenhouse industry, and please to reflect those concerns to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, because we need this application to be called in.

We need the chance to argue our case before an independent planning inspector—not just me, not just my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow and not just you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the NFU, the Lea valley growers, my constituents, my right hon. Friend’s constituents and your constituents. We need the chance to argue our case before an independent inspectorate. That is what we are asking for today. Please, as our voice for agriculture, will the Minister listen to the concerns that I and my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow are raising today and take them to the Secretary of State, because this is a very important industry? No doubt he will have received representations from Madam Deputy Speaker, who is not allowed to speak in this debate. If she could, I am sure she would join me on these Benches.

I do not want to go on for too long. I said that I would be brief and I want to get home for my moussaka— I genuinely am having moussaka tonight. I thank my colleagues who have remained in this place for attending and for listening so intently and politely to what I have had to say on behalf of 85 businesses in the Lea valley that do an outstanding job, produce an outstanding product, employ 2,500 people and make a huge contribution to farming and agriculture in this country.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing)

Before I call the Minister, I commend the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) for his eloquence in putting ​the case so well, and the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for supporting the case. I of course am not able to make any comment from the Chair, but if I were able to do so I would tell the House how much I am in agreement with the hon. Member for Broxbourne.

7.15 pm

The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (George Eustice)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) on securing the debate. I note your comments too, Madam Deputy Speaker. In your neighbouring seat, you clearly share many of his concerns and his passion for the very important Lea valley glasshouse industry.

I recognise the importance of the sector and some of the challenges it faces. For several years, I ran a glasshouse enterprise in Cornwall. I had two acres of heated glasshouses, a former tomato nursery and I grew strawberries for the best part of five years. I am therefore familiar with some of the issues and, having studied horticulture, I am familiar with the role that Lea valley enterprises play. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the Lea valley is the UK’s largest cucumber and sweet pepper producer, accounting for more than 200 million pieces per annum—including 60 million cucumbers—and representing up to 75% of the UK’s total cucumber production and over 60% of the UK’s sweet pepper production.

Lea valley horticultural enterprises contribute some £500 million a year to the British economy and sustain 2,500 jobs annually. Today members cultivate around 120 hectares of glasshouses, extending beyond the Lea valley and across a dispersed area including London, Essex, Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Cambridgeshire and Yorkshire.

Robert Halfon

I want to pick up a different issue, although it is directly relevant to the Lea valley greenhouses, to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) and to you, my wonderful constituency neighbour, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have a woodpile in Nazeing—which is part of both the Harlow and the Epping Forest constituencies—which has burned down four times in the past four years, causing massive damage to one greenhouse glass enterprise as well as local residents. Many residents feel that not enough has been done, and we cannot understand why new licences are given to new companies to “run” the woodpile site. It causes enormous damage and expense—it burned down again only recently. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look into the matter because it has a significant effect on the Lea valley glasshouse industry.

George Eustice

I am not familiar with the issue that my hon. Friend raises, but if there are concerns about the licensing of the woodpile operation he mentions I will ask officials to look at them.

I want to point out the history of the Lea valley. The success of the Lea valley over the years has been its fantastic contribution to feeding London throughout its history. From the middle ages onwards, it served the fledgling London with wheat, hay and barley, which came through to east London. The Lea valley has fertile alluvial soil, so by the mid-18th century it had become the leading market garden for Britain, growing a wide range of field vegetables and fruits. By the mid-19th century, ​the advent of the railways resulted in greater supply to London. As the population grew and the glass tax was removed in 1845, Lea valley became home to the very first greenhouses and subsequently developed its industry in everything from grapes to cucumbers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne raised the issue of labour, and I can reassure him that I am in regular contact with representatives from the farming industry, including the National Farmers Union and others, and I am picking up that concern. Indeed, it was recently the subject of a report produced by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and only last week we had a Westminster Hall debate on that very issue.

In the last 12 months the number of EU migrants to the UK has increased by about 171,000, bringing the total to more than 2.3 million. However, horticulture faces a particular challenge relating to seasonal workers, who come here for a few months and then return home. Between 1945 and 2013, a seasonal agricultural workers scheme enabled people from countries outside the European Union to work here on a temporary basis. The scheme was closed in 2013 on the advice of the Migration Advisory Committee, but we have always made it clear that we will keep the issue under review. We established a SAWS transition group, which has met regularly, and met as recently as 6 March to discuss some of the challenges that businesses are facing this year. For instance, changes in the benefits system in Poland mean that fewer Polish citizens come here, and the work being done in Bulgaria to encourage people to stay and take employment there has also had an impact.

We estimate that there are between 67,000 and 80,000 seasonal workers in the UK, and that is very important to the industry. The Home Office, which leads on the issue, has said that it intends to commission the Migration Advisory Committee to examine the issue of immigration in the context of the decision to leave the European Union, including the issue of so-called tier 3 low-skilled labour. We had some discussions with members of the SAWS transition group to establish when they will be able to give us accurate data for the third and fourth quarters of this year, with a view of meeting again before the end of the year to review the position. I am therefore well aware of the issue of labour, and I can reassure my hon. Friend that we will be looking closely at the issue.

One of the great things about leaving the European Union is that we will regain control, and it will be in the gift of the British Government to do whatever they choose to do. If we deem that we need additional labour in a particular area, it will be within our power to secure that labour, and to set up whatever work permit arrangements are required to satisfy our needs.

My hon. Friend dedicated most of his comments to the issue of the Hoddesdon incinerator proposal in his constituency. Applications of that kind are always incredibly contentious. I remember that, a few years ago, there were proposals for an incinerator in Cornwall, a few miles down the road from my constituency, and I am well aware of the deep-seated concern that people may feel in such circumstances. My hon. Friend made a number of flattering remarks about my knowledge of the issue. As he knows, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government would have to ​lead in this regard, and planning issues are obviously a matter for the local authority in the first instance, but there is a role for the Environment Agency in a couple of areas.

As my hon. Friend also knows, Hertfordshire County Council is currently dealing with the planning application. One of the roles of the Environment Agency is to act as a statutory consultee in the planning process, and I am told that it is engaged in a dialogue with the council in that role. The agency also has a role in the environmental permitting regulations, dealing with any concerns that would arise as a result of an environment permit. I understand that it has received an application for an environmental permit, and that the application has been duly made, which means that the information has been received, but it has not yet been processed or assessed. I am told that the Environment Agency is due to start consulting on the permit application imminently and that it intends to hold a public drop-in session in due course. I understand that that consultation will take place in earnest in the weeks ahead.

I have asked the Environment Agency whether in principle there are certain issues here. It will not surprise my hon. Friend to know that it very much depends on the individual application and that it would not be appropriate for me to make any judgments on the case he described in his constituency. However, as a general point on some of the concerns about smoke, I am told that a properly constructed incinerator with the right kind of filtration would not necessarily have a problem such as he describes and residues one would not necessarily be expected. I am also told that the environmental permit will assess and control emissions to air, land and water. That said, he is right that each case has to be considered on its merits. This case will be considered thoroughly on its merits. The consultation is under way. I would encourage any—

Mr Charles Walker

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He said that the application will be considered on its merits. As it currently stands, it will be considered by Hertfordshire County Council, which is both the owner of the contract and the determiner of the contract. It is impossible for anyone in my constituency, and I believe in the constituencies of Epping Forest and Harlow, to imagine that the application will be considered on its merits, given that Hertfordshire County Council, if it does not grant it, will have to pay a £1.2 million failure fee to Veolia. That is the real concern, which is why I am hoping that the Minister will help the Lea valley growers and the NFU to make representations to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for a proper independent inquiry by a planning inspector.

George Eustice

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but he will be aware that I am not an expert on planning law and planning policy and that any such decision would be a matter for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Robert Halfon

On that point, will my hon. Friend ensure that the consultation is open and transparent and that everyone can see exactly what is being said?

George Eustice

Yes, the consultation that the Environment Agency will conduct on the environmental permitting regulations will be an open process. As I said, ​it intends to open the drop-in session to members of the public. I encourage anyone with concerns about this application, of which, according to my hon. Friends and the representations they have made, there are many in their constituencies, to contribute to the consultation that the Environment Agency is putting together. I understand that the consultation is open and that that drop-in session will take place shortly.

I recognise the points that my hon. Friends have made on this contentious issue and I will ensure that Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government ​sees a transcript of the debate. I am sure that Members will continue to make representations to him. It is ultimately for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to make any decisions along the lines that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne seeks.

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