How to avoid public outrage about waste

As alternatives to landfill have to be found, outright opposition to new waste treatment facilities is no longer an option, says Tom Curtin. But councils will need to engage effectively with the public

On the front of the brochure there was a picture of a mucky stretch of water with various bits of rubbish strewn about. The headlines said something like: "Boston Harbour is filthy, polluted and disgusting ... Who is responsible?" Turn inside to a picture of a man sitting on a toilet, and the big headline screams: "You."

Yes, it is an obvious truism that we are all responsible for waste, and yet it is very difficult to get anyone to take responsibility for it. Councils are being faced with some difficult decisions on how they manage the wastes they produce. Key issues facing local authorities focus on the methods of treatment adopted for treating the waste and the location of facilities. These decisions have then to be sold to local communities. Already, opposition groups are springing up as concerned residents seek to defend their communities.

Buckinghamshire Residents Against Incinerators (BRAINS) is dedicated to fighting Buckinghamshire County Council's plans for an incinerator in the south of the county, although the site has not yet been chosen. In Wakefield, South Kirby Residents Against Waste (SKRAW) is opposing the siting of a waste management facility - not an incinerator - at a former colliery site.

Treatment options
Buckinghamshire County Council decided on thermal treatment of waste as the solution, and has recently announced that it has shortlisted three companies to develop an energy-from-waste plant. Oxfordshire County Council remained technologically neutral after it put its waste contract out to tender. The shortlisted companies all offered energy-from-waste (EfW) as the disposal route, and the council has now narrowed its shortlist of bidders down to two. Wakefield Metropolitan District Council's preferred bidder is proposing a materials handling facility using autoclave technology.

Different permutations of the same story are being played out in councils all over the country. Whatever the option chosen, there are some difficult meetings ahead. But communities must begin to accept that, whatever the technical merits of the waste disposal route chosen, outright opposition is no longer an option because alternatives to landfill have to be found. Councils therefore have to work closely with developers to ensure the public is engaged in the process.

Consider the consequences
Waste facilities will typically operate on 25-year contracts, which means that communities will be living with the consequences of decisions being taken now for a long time. So, how do waste management companies convince local communities that a specific development should be supported in the first place? And how can messy public fallouts be avoided?

The waste industry is to a large extent living with mistakes of the past, when old dirty polluting incinerators were feared, not admired. Here, local liaison committees can play a key role in acting as a bridge between developers and communities. Where they already exist, they should be used - at new sites, they must be established.

Transparency is key. But this is not as easy as it sounds. Developers have to balance commitment to lengthy and costly tendering processes, where commercial confidentiality is critical, with a desire to keep local communities engaged throughout the process.

Other waste treatment technologies have led to concerns in the past about noise, dust and smells. But there are already a number of modern EfW plants operating in the UK that are a world away from the old technology. Public perception and health issues will need to be addressed so that concerns can be allayed. Nevertheless, there is some well organised opposition, particularly to EfW plants, as advances in technology have not been matched by improvements in public perception.

To keep waste management facility developments on track, companies and LAs must recognise the need to engage and educate the communities that surround them about the scope of the project being planned. Good consultation, open and fairly conducted, offers a real opportunity. By engaging early and intensively with communities, some momentum can be introduced into the system.

Many councillors on planning committees are unlikely to be experts in waste management or the technologies involved. Here, facility visits to modern plants can prove invaluable in showing the reality of what is proposed. Communication should also avoid the technical jargon that afflicts the industry, so councillors and the public can understand what is being proposed.

Early consultation
Consultation needs to be early enough to allow for full consideration of all the views expressed. But it should not be too early, where the level of information and detail available is insufficient to communicate appropriately. Additionally, the people to be involved are a vital part of gaining the true views of a community. Identify the community, political leaders and opinion formers. Involve them in commenting on the consultation strategy, to ensure it is appropriate for the local situation.

Developers must also think beyond securing a valuable planning permission. As the building work begins and lorries move regularly through the local town or village to the project site, it is essential that stakeholders are kept informed. A roving exhibition might be considered a worthwhile option at regular intervals throughout each phase of the building work. Using this facility, the developer can explain how the development is progressing, highlighting each stage of the process and what people can expect to see in the coming weeks and months.

It is also important to let people know how their input has been fed into the proposals.

This is a two-stage process. First, let people know what you have found out. Then, after careful consideration, explain how you have taken on board the views expressed, or why you may not be able to respond to some opinions.

Consultation is no longer an optional bolt-on. The failure to consult can be viewed as grounds to reject a planning application. But consultation alone is not always good enough - a bad consultation programme may have worse implications than doing nothing at all.

Tom Curtin is chief executive of Green Issues Communications

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