Charles Walker leads debate on Veolia incinerator application

Speaking in the House of Commons

Charles Walker leads a Parliamentary debate on the conduct of Veolia in making a planning application for an incinerator at Rye House, Fieldes Lock in Hoddesdon.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con)

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s statement this morning on yesterday’s distressing events? She spoke for the nation and for my constituents.

May I say how disappointed I am to have to bring this matter to the attention of the House and the Minister this afternoon? In the main, Members of Parliament should keep out of the way of planning applications. However, the conduct of Veolia in making an application for an incinerator in my constituency, at Rye House and Fieldes Lock, a site running off Ratty’s Lane, is so egregious that it is worthy of being aired in the Chamber.

I thank County Councillor Tim Hutchings for all his support in helping me to prepare for this afternoon’s Adjournment debate. He is a diligent representative and has worked tirelessly to inform me of his community’s concerns, as have the Hoddesdon Society and, Madam Deputy Speaker, many of your constituents—this application has an impact on your constituency as well.

The concerns centre on an application by Veolia to build a 350,000 tonne incinerator at Rye House, Fieldes Lock in the north of my constituency. Veolia had argued as recently as July 2015 that the site was wholly unsuitable for such a facility, a view shared by Hertfordshire County Council, which is the relevant planning authority and the owner of the waste contract, and, more importantly, by the planning inspector and ultimately the Secretary of State.

By way of background, in July 2015, after a long and protracted period of review, the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government threw out a planning application by Veolia for a waste incinerator at New Barnfield, a site in the Borough of Welwyn Hatfield in the neighbouring constituency. As part of that application, Veolia researched and then ruled out a number of alternative sites. One of those was Rye House, Fieldes Lock, the site of its current application.

In July 2013, Veolia, on page 35 of its alternative sites assessment report, said that the Rye House, Fieldes Lock site

“is identified as a safeguarded strategic rail aggregate depot, is located adjacent to the River Lea within an area subject to flood risk and is proximate to a RAMSAR designation. The site is also very compact and has local highway capacity access constraints that required the need for the rail linked solution. Such constraints do not facilitate the development of an RERF at this site, where the local rail network presents operational and logistical difficulties to serve Hertfordshire and where the strategy of the Hertfordshire Waste Collection Authorities and Hertfordshire Residual Waste Treatment contract are essentially based on road borne delivery.”

The findings of Veolia’s 2013 ASA were repeated virtually word for word by the company’s agent, Steven Kosky, on page 96 of his proof of evidence report, which was presented to the planning inspector as part of the New Barnfield inquiry. In responding to that evidence, Mr David Richards, the planning inspector, said on page 27 of his report to the Secretary of State:

“The fact is that no suitable alternative site has been put forward in the evidence by any of the parties to the inquiry. ​Veolia and HCC have given evidence in writing some 6 weeks before the inquiry began (and in rebuttal evidence a week before the inquiry) and in oral evidence that there is no alternative suitable site.”

The inspector went on to say:

“Fieldes Lock is dealt with in the ASA and by Mr Leech. It is not in an Area of Search in the WCS and is in the south-east of the county not well located to waste arising and collections. It was promoted by Veolia for a SRF power station with additional natural gas fired generation to serve North London and with the SRF to arrive by rail. It needed the rail feed because it is a compact site which could not accommodate the road based collections needs of this county and so could not accommodate the kind of EfW plant proposed, let alone the front-end recycling facility too.”

The findings of the planning inspector were endorsed by the Secretary of State who, in his letter of 16 July 2015, said:

“the Secretary of State agrees that there is no obvious alternative site that would perform significantly better in environmental terms and that is suitable for the use proposed and available for a development of the scale proposed at New Barnfield... For the reasons given, the Secretary of State also agrees with the Inspector that there is no available sites within the Employment Land Areas of Search which would be of sufficient size to accommodate the proposed development.”

Well there you have it, Madam Deputy Speaker: a seeming slam dunk against New Barnfield and, in connection, the Rye House, Fieldes Lock site. The Secretary of State, his planning inspector, Hertfordshire County Council and Veolia are all in agreement that the Rye House, Fieldes Lock site is not a suitable alternative for the incinerator.

Like the undead, however, this zombie application is now rising from the grave, badly decayed but somehow still living. Having invested significant sums of its corporate treasure to trash the Rye House, Fieldes Lock site, Veolia is now promoting it as the ideal alternative location for its incinerator. Veolia’s previous statements, such as that the site

“is located adjacent to the River Lea within an area subject to flood risk and is proximate to a RAMSAR designation”,

or

“the site is also very compact and has local highway capacity and access constraints”

or

“Such constraints do not facilitate the development of an RERF at this site”

have, on page 22 of Veolia’s 2016 ASA, incredulously been replaced with the following statement:

“Generally, the site has few operational, planning and environmental constraints, although it is noted that the presence of power lines across part of the site constrain the developable area.”

That is a simply stunning volte face on behalf of Veolia: no mention of the site being poorly located for waste arisings, and no mention that the site was previously deemed too compact by the planning inspector or was ill-suited to road-borne deliveries. In essence, it is a complete reimagining by Veolia of its previous position: a new and alternative reality completely at odds with both Veolia’s previous position and the stated position of the planning inspector and the Secretary of State.​
Quite frankly, on this evidence Veolia could argue with a straight face that the moon is actually the sun and the sun is in reality Mars. Just last week, when interviewed by Broxbourne’s local newspaper, the Hertfordshire Mercury, Richard Kirkman, a director of Veolia, said:

“I think people always worry about transport. We have looked at the impact on the local highways and what has been demonstrated is that even now traffic can be supported”.

But in making this statement, Mr Kirkman must have known that it entirely contradicted Veolia’s position, as stated in its 2013 ASA that

“The site is also very compact and has local highway and access constraints.”

So I say to Mr Kirkman, on behalf of my constituents, “Why are you taking us for fools? Your statement is false. It is false not just because it falls foul of your own ASA statement, but because in 2012, when Veolia was trying to promote the Rye House, Fieldes Lock site for a rail-fed incinerator to burn London’s waste, Hertfordshire County Council Highways objected to just 46 of Veolia’s proposed HGV movements, as opposed the 212 and the company is now asking for.” So, Mr Kirkman, if five years ago our roads could not cope with 46 HGV movements a day, how can they cope with 212 a day now?

Veolia’s creation of alternative facts is matched by its wholly cynical public information campaign. In a letter, dated 9 March, that it sent to thousands of homes in the Rye Park and Hoddesdon area, the company stated:

“This application is for a smaller facility than previously proposed at New Barnfield”.

Well, if not directly dishonest, that is a wholly distorted statement designed to mislead my constituents. The New Barnfield application was for a 380,000-tonne incinerator. The application for Rye House, Fieldes Lock is for an incinerator with a capacity of 350,000 tonnes. That is a fractional difference of about 9%. However, Veolia’s conduct in this claim is, once again, most effectively damned by its own Steven Kosky, who, when concerned residents were arguing in favour of smaller sites than the one being proposed, wrote on page 10 of the company’s 2013 supplementary proof of evidence to the planning inspector:

“In addition two facilities, of say 200,000 tonnes throughput capacity, each would not be materially smaller in terms of height and land take than the single facility proposed… In summary, to make a materially smaller ERF facility, the annual throughput would need to fall considerably below 100,000 tonnes”.

That is a breathtaking rebuttal of Veolia’s claims, by Veolia. You really could not make it up, unless you could find it in writing.

Just as concerning as Veolia’s cynicism on the issue of size is this claim in its 9 March letter:

“Already £6.5 million has been allocated through the Local Enterprise Partnership to improve the local road network.”

That statement is concerning. For more than 20 years Broxbourne borough council has been seeking funds to pay for that upgrade without success; then, miraculously, after more than two fruitless decades, a £6.5 million investment arrives at a time that is most advantageous to both Veolia and Hertfordshire County Council—which, I remind the Minister, in relation to this application is both the relevant planning authority and the owner of the contract. In making that investment, the LEP announced that it would create

“up to 400 new jobs”.​
That figure is not dissimilar to the one being trumpeted by Veolia in its press release, but let us be clear: of those jobs, 300 will end when the construction phase is completed, with the proposed incinerator employing no more than 40 whole-time equivalents.

Why are my constituents concerned about Veolia’s laying claim to having motivated that £6.5 million investment? They are concerned because Hertfordshire County Council has senior representatives sitting on the LEP board and a direct interest in securing those funds: not primarily, I suspect, for the benefit of my constituents, but to ease the progress of Veolia’s—its business partner’s—planning application.

My constituents are concerned that our county council is even entertaining the application for the Rye House, Fieldes Lock site, given that on 24 June 2014, in a special report addressed directly to Hertfordshire County Council, Andrew Freeman, the planning inspector, stated unequivocally:

“In addition to flooding and groundwater issues, there is a safeguarded rail aggregate depot within the Rye House site. Waste developments not served by rail could have a significant impact on the local highway network. The viability of a smaller (road served) facility could be questionable given the cost of likely necessary mitigation measures. Allocation of the sites would not be appropriate”.

Despite that statement by the planning inspector, and despite its being ruled out by the Secretary of State, the council still seems to want to promote the site along with Veolia.

Why is the £6.5 million important to Veolia? It is important because, as I said a few moments ago, in 2012, when Veolia was promoting the Rye House, Fieldes Lock site for a mostly rail-fed incinerator, Hertfordshire County Council lodged a highways objection against just 46 HGV movements a day. In making its objection, the council stated, in October 2012:

“Should the facility be unable to import 90% of the SRF material by rail, then it is considered that the resultant impacts on the highway network would be unacceptable in highway terms because…additional road movements would have a significant impact on the highway network”.

The 46 HGV movements to which Hertfordshire County Council objected in 2012 pale into insignificance compared with the 212 for which Veolia is now asking. So, bluntly, without the LEP stumping up the cash, this current planning application to burn Hertfordshire’s waste would be even more dead in the water than it is now. Let us be honest—if this application was a fish, it would be floating around, belly up and bloated. Even with the LEP money, the application is on its last gasp before the point of expiration. I believe that it is possible that coincidence can be the bedfellow of happy circumstance and that therefore not everything is a conspiracy, but given the highly contested nature of this incinerator, it is now incumbent on Hertfordshire County Council, the Hertfordshire local enterprise partnership and Veolia to demonstrate beyond contention that public money has not been used to promote and ease Veolia’s planning application.

In pursuit of establishing the facts, you will not be surprised to learn, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I wrote to all three parties on Monday 13 March asking that they place in the public domain any communications they had in relation to this £6.5 million of funding and its possible connection, either in whole or in part, to the ​incinerator. While I still await a substantive response from Veolia, I can say that the chief executive of Hertfordshire County Council has responded and categorically denied any suggestion that the local authority placed any pressure on the Hertfordshire LEP in relation to the £6.5 million of LEP funding in connection to Veolia’s application. I accept this assurance at face value, and I can say that the LEP has also written to me along similar lines.

However, I also asked the county council in my letter to release information in connection to any discussions it had had with Veolia regarding the road and bridge improvements. That question remains outstanding, but it needs to be answered. It needs to be answered because, in bringing forward its application, it is inconceivable to imagine that Veolia did not raise the Hertfordshire highways department’s 2012 objections to its previous Rye House, Fieldes Lock application for just 46 HGV movements a day. Following that objection, Veolia would surely have asked the council how that could be overcome, given that the company is now proposing 212 HGV movements for the same site in 2017. Until there is full disclosure, the nagging concern will remain that the allocation of public money for the road improvements was primarily motivated by an interest to improve the circumstances of Veolia, a private company that is in danger of being rewarded for its shoddy enterprise and shoddy conduct.

My constituents’ concerns about the relationship between the principal parties—Veolia, Hertfordshire County Council and the Hertfordshire local enterprise partnership—are legitimate. They are legitimate because this is meant to be an undetermined planning application. They are legitimate because, despite its having a foot in all camps, it is reasonable for my constituents to expect that Hertfordshire County Council’s planning regime is robust and independent. They are also legitimate because as recently as 2015, the interested parties now promoting the Rye House, Fieldes Lock site deemed it to be unusable, a position endorsed by the planning inspector and the Secretary of State.

The Minister will be aware that, for the reasons I have set out, I am of the view that this application cannot be safely determined by Hertfordshire County Council. That is the case because Hertfordshire County Council, as both the relevant planning authority and the owner of the waste contract, has a glaring conflict of interest in relation to this long-running application that has been going on in some form for more than six years. The county council has put itself in an impossible position from which it now needs to extricate itself. Let me be absolutely clear that although I am making this criticism of the county council, I believe that in all other areas it is an outstanding example of good, sound and principled local government. It is an authority for which I have immense respect, and I do not damn it for its sole error of judgment: entering into a contract with Veolia, a company whose conduct in this matter plumbs new depths of entitlement and corporate dishonesty. That dishonesty is exampled in its dealings with the planning process, the inspectorate, Hoddesdon’s local newspaper and, most importantly, my constituents and yours, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I wholly accept that the Minister will not be able to respond to my concerns this evening. However, I want to conclude with these facts. The applicant, Veolia, the contract ​holder, Hertfordshire County Council, the planning inspector, Mr Robinson, and the Secretary of State have all previously agreed that Rye House, Fieldes Lock is unusable as a site for an incinerator. None of the facts that underpinned the decision has changed. The site is still compact, it is still at the far edge of the county, it is still on a flood plain, it still has highway and capacity constraints, and it is still next to a Ramsar site. These are the fact as they are, not as Veolia would reimagine them to be.

5.20 pm

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Gavin Barwell)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) on securing this debate on the proposal to develop an energy recovery facility at Ratty’s Lane in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. I know that the issue is of great importance to him, as he demonstrated by the eloquence of his speech. It is also an issue of great concern for many of his constituents, and he does them a good service by raising it in the House tonight. I know that this is also a matter of concern for many of your constituents, Madam Deputy Speaker.

As my hon. Friend said, a planning application was submitted by the developer, Veolia, on 22 December last year for an energy recovery facility located in the Lea valley in Hertfordshire that would deal with 320,000 tonnes of municipal, general, commercial and industrial waste produced each year in Hertfordshire. It would be expected to generate 23.5 MW of electricity per year.

Mr Walker

The capacity would be 350,000 tonnes. That figure is taken from Veolia’s own press release.

Gavin Barwell

I have experience of dealing with these issues, because a similar facility is being developed in Sutton, near my constituency. I believe that 320,000 tonnes is the projected annual usage, but that there is a maximum capacity of 350,000 tonnes, as my hon. Friend says.

I should say at the outset that, as my hon. Friend kindly pointed out at the end of his speech, proprietary considerations prevent me from commenting on the detail of the specific planning issues that he has raised, for two reasons. First, this is a live planning application that is currently being processed by Hertfordshire County Council. I understand that the application is subject to a public consultation that closes at the end of this month. There is obviously a possibility, were the application to be refused, that an appeal could be made to the Secretary of State, so it is important that I should not say anything that might prejudice the Secretary of State’s position in determining any such appeal. Secondly, my hon. Friend has asked the Secretary of State to call in the application, and it is equally important that I should not say anything that could prejudice that call-in request.

I will therefore focus on how the planning system operates in contributing to the robust regulatory framework that we have in place to plan for the sustainable management of the waste that we produce. The national planning policy for waste was published in October 2014 and provides part of the wider regulatory framework in which the application to develop an energy recovery facility in my hon. Friend’s constituency will have to be considered by the council.​
The Government are committed to a zero-waste economy. By that, we do not mean somewhere in which no waste exists. We mean a society in which resources are fully valued, financially and environmentally, in which one person’s waste is another’s resource, and in which nothing is actually wasted, so that, over time, we get as close as we can to zero landfill. The planning system plays a vital role in delivering that ambition, and it is pivotal to the adequate and timely provision of the new waste facilities that are needed to move the management of waste up the waste hierarchy so that we do not continue to bury large amounts of our waste in the ground as previous generations have done.

Waste facilities are an essential part of the infrastructure necessary to make our towns and cities function properly in the 21st century, and they often provide an important service beyond their immediate neighbourhood. The key to getting this right is the preparation of waste plans. There are sound financial and environmental benefits in having up-to-date plans. They provide certainty to attract investment in new facilities, and they guide and deliver waste infrastructure that will help us to divert waste from landfill and to reduce greenhouse gases. To that extent, and without commenting on the merits of the plan for the reasons to which my hon. Friend alluded, I am pleased that Hertfordshire County Council has in place an up-to-date waste core strategy, which was adopted back in 2012 and covers the period to 2026.

I appreciate that many people may have concerns about the type of technology under discussion: an energy recovery facility that would generate electricity by incinerating waste. The planning system is technology-neutral. It is not for planners to describe a specific type of energy-from-waste technology required for a particular site; it is for the planning system to decide whether it is appropriate to site such a facility in a particular location. That is my hon. Friend’s argument. Energy-from-waste facilities—they include incinerators, but also embrace other technologies such as anaerobic digestion or gasification—make a valuable contribution to achieving waste objectives, but we recognise that recycling waste is better than energy recovery. The evidence for that is the national target to increase the recycling of municipal waste to 50% by 2020. In the majority of cases, however, maximising the energy recovered from non-recyclable residual waste is better than sending it straight to landfill.

The choice of technology must reflect local circumstances, which clearly will vary from place to place. However, it is important that plans for the technology emerge out of local waste strategies, which seek to drive waste up the waste hierarchy. Whichever type of technology is chosen, national planning policy requires that waste planning authorities—Hertfordshire County Council in this case—assess the suitability of locations against a range of criteria when they are preparing a plan or deciding an individual application. It might help my hon. Friend if I set out those criteria, which should include: the physical and environmental constraints on development; existing and proposed neighbouring land uses; the capacity of existing and potential transport infrastructure to support the sustainable movement of waste, which my hon. Friend touched on in his speech; the cumulative impact of existing and proposed waste disposal facilities on the wellbeing of the local community; and any significant adverse impacts on environmental quality, social cohesion or economic potential.​
Waste processing facilities are unpopular neighbours, and it is understandable that local residents will be concerned about the possible adverse impact of such a facility on their local environment. As my hon. Friend is no doubt aware, those matters must be considered by the county council when reaching a decision on the application. Should planning permission be granted, we must not forget that such facilities will not be able to operate until the operator has also obtained an environmental permit from the Environment Agency. Once such facilities become operational, I assure the House that the Environment Agency governs their operation strictly, ensuring that ambient air and water quality meet standards that safeguard against negative impacts to the local environment and human health. In addition, planning authorities such as Hertfordshire County Council can ensure that waste is handled in a manner that protects the environment and human health through the application of appropriate planning conditions, adequate enforcement, and monitoring of the operation of facilities once they are up and running.

I am very much alive to the concerns that my hon. Friend and other Members have raised about this planning application. In this particular case, the council should process the application and, when reaching a decision, should thoroughly examine the concerns raised by my hon. Friend and his constituents, and by you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and your constituents. I encourage anyone with an interest in this application to let ​Hertfordshire County Council know their views by 31 March. I assure the House that the Government are not complacent.

We welcome the contribution that my hon. Friend has made during the debate. We will continue to maintain both the right national planning policy and a robust regulatory framework to secure the sustainable management of waste across the country.

Finally, it falls to me to end our proceedings today. As other hon. Members have done during the course of the day, I want to put it on record that it does this House, our society and our country great credit that, in the light of yesterday’s tragic events, business in this House has gone exactly as planned. We have got on with the job that we were elected to do, and we will not be deterred from doing it by those who have committed such heinous crimes.

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