Making plans

Britain's landfill sites are overflowing, yet those who would offer alternatives are often daunted by the planning process. Glenn Sharpe, of Hammonds law firm, says they shouldn't be

Readers of Environment Business will not need to be told about the great strides which have been made in waste management technology. The alternatives to landfill are wide-ranging and sophisticated. The case for the development of a substantial number of, for example, MBT centres, energy-from-waste schemes and composting sites is easily made. Each year the UK produces a huge amount of waste, an increasing amount. This fact, set against the government's agreement of robust targets with the EU for the reduction of waste production (and, in particular, a reduction in the amount of landfill) gives rise to a clear need for a significant number of new waste management facilities (WMFs).

The Environment Agency has estimated that a further 1,000 such facilities will be required if the UK is to attain its agreed reduction in landfill. The government has confirmed its support in this respect, declaring that its vision for waste, "embodying the principles of sustainable development, is to protect the environment and human health by producing less waste and using it as a resource wherever possible. In particular, this means reducing reliance on landfill and making a step change in waste management, including significant new investment in waste plant" (ODPM - Joint Ministerial Statement on Sustainable Waste Management, 6 December 2004).

Fat of the landfill

Notwithstanding the government's vision for waste, grave predictions have been made regarding our ability to attain the rolling targets set by the Landfill Directive. Although progress is being made (household waste recycling rates in England and Wales are currently at their highest ever levels), analysis of the waste stream as a whole indicates that the UK, year on year, is producing more and not less waste. The greater proportion of this increasing amount of waste is still disposed to landfill. In order to buck this trend, the UK needs alternatives - and it needs them quickly. Pessimism as to our ability to do this stems in large part from the fact that new WMFs require planning permission.

Many waste operators regard the Town and Country Planning system as an obstacle to the development of new facilities. Such proposals, in local political terms, can be highly contentious, giving rise to the expenditure of vast amounts of time and expense in the pursuit of planning permission. While tales of unreasonable decisions abound (indeed, many local authority planners acknowledge the shortcomings of the planning system), it is simplistic to present the scenario as one in which waste planning authorities (and, indeed, inspectors on appeal) are simply refusing to grant planning permission for new WMFs.

Statistics regarding the number of planning applications for waste development are available on the ODPM Website. Analysis does not bear out the arguments of those who view the planning system as an impediment to progress. Certainly, clear positive trends can be identified.

Decisions, decisions

In 2003/4 authorities decided 1,333 applications for waste development. This is a 15% increase on the figures for 2002/3, which in turn saw the largest number of decisions taken since 1996/97. In 2003/4, 22% of decisions were for developments relating to landfill sites, compared to 39% in 1997/98. Overall, in terms of applications, in 2002/3, 91% of all applications decided were approved.

In view of these statistics, why does the view persist that the planning system is to blame for preventing the development of a sufficient number of WMFs? Part of the problem may be attributed to a number of high-profile decisions, particularly in the case of incineration. The Secretary of State's refusal, in late 2003, to allow WRG to construct a waste-to-energy incinerator in Hull was widely believed to have led to Surrey Waste Management's withdrawal of a similar proposal at Capel.

The perceptions as to the time, expense and risk associated with taking forward a waste proposal are important. The ODPM's statistics cannot reveal the number of prospective applicants deterred from taking forward a proposal because of their view that they are unlikely to succeed with an application. Similarly, the statistics do not reveal the number of applications submitted but which, for whatever reason, remain undetermined.

In any event, the government is clearly committed to ensuring the delivery of more WMFs, and its response to concerns about the ability of the planning system to deliver these has been to issue a raft of draft policy documentation. A total of four papers dealing with the strategy and policy associated with the delivery of sustainable waste management have, in the recent past, been the subject of consultation. This consultation consisted of the following:

  • A paper dealing with proposals for the provision of national data and advice on waste creation, recycling levels and any national capacity needs;
  • Proposed changes to the decision-making principles and procedures in the government's key strategy document, Waste Strategy 2000;
  • Draft guidance on the preparation of municipal waste management strategies; the objective of this guidance is to provide clarity on the government's waste management objectives and decision-making principles and also the need to provide "best value" partnerships between waste planning authorities and the private sector;
  • Draft planning policy statement (PPS 10): planning for sustainable waste management. This is perhaps the key document and will replace current guidance which is contained in PPG10.
  • A pleasant draft

    Government guidance is a critical factor in the consideration by local authorities of planning applications. There is a notable shift in tone between the existing guidance and that of the new draft. Robust policy support is a prerequisite to almost any form of contentious development, and in promoting PPS10 the government has acknowledged that the existing guidance has been found wanting.

    The existing guidance provides that in selecting the site for any waste proposal, the planning authority should be satisfied that the principles of Best Practicable Environmental Option (BPEO) have been taken into account in arriving at a decision. The principles include those embodied in the waste hierarchy, as well as proximity and self-sufficiency. The existing guidance also provides that the planning authority should identify sites which would be suitable for waste facilities "where possible"; together these requirements have created an atmosphere of uncertainty which has compromised the development of new facilities. This has been recognised at a local level, where planning inspectors overseeing the development of localised planning policy have been critical of the refusal of planning authorities to make site-specific allocations in their local plan policies.

    PPS10 is unequivocal in its efforts to create a more robust policy context. Both the BPEO and "where possible" requirements of the existing guidance have been abandoned. That section of the draft policy which deals with the preparation of Local Development Documents is highly prescriptive in terms of a suggested policy for identifying sites and locations for new facilities. The guidance says that in bringing forward proposals, it is essential to ensure that the provision of waste management capacity is not prejudiced by unreasonable expectations of the suitability of a particular site or location for the development of waste facilities. Support is given to those local planning inspectors who have sought to engender a more site-specific approach in local policy terms with PPS10 stating that sufficient available and suitable sites should be shown in the Local Plans.

    Bouncing back and forth

    In terms of actually determining planning applications, the guidance states that waste planning authorities should concern themselves with implementing the planning strategy in national and local policy guidance and not with the control of processes that are properly a matter for the waste management and pollution control authorities. Whether this will mean an end to the delay which can bedevil some applications - issues being bounced back and forth between the local planning authority and regulatory agency - remains to be seen. However, the objective of the draft policy is clear.

    The new guidance encourages local planning authorities and applicants for new facilities to work together constructively to identify suitable sites and locations. Applicants for planning permission should expect expeditious and sympathetic handling of planning applications on sites and in locations identified in development plan documents, where the proposal reflects the planning strategy for waste management and policies set out in the development plan.

    Draft PPS10, in its present form, provides a solid platform on which to base an increase in the number of waste management facilities in the UK. However, many aspects of the document have already proved to be contentious; in particular, the abandonment of the requirement to obtain BPE0 and the direction to treat waste applications in an "expeditious and sympathetic manner" have resulted in extensive representations being made from a number of sources. The closing date for consultation was 11 March 2005, and the extent to which the wide range of responses will result in the dilution of the approach adopted in the draft will be significant in determining the ability of the UK to meet its targets to increase recycling rates and to reduce the amount of waste disposed to landfill.


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