UK’s planning system stifling circular economy progress, industry claims

An "outdated" culture within many of Britain's planning authorities is causing punitive delays to new waste management projects and the system must be improved in order to develop more sustainable business models shaped by the circular economy.

That is the conclusion of a new report released this week by the Environmental Services Association (ESA), which claims the £11bn waste and resource management sector is being “bogged down” by lengthy delays in the planning consent process.

The industry body says a “strict control culture” continues to prevail among many planning authorities which are seemingly stuck in the “landfill era”, where the remit of planners was to regulate the supply of landfill capacity and to control the daily operations of consented sites through detailed and prescriptive conditions.

The ESA’s policy advisor Stephen Freeland said: “Many local authorities need to let go of the strict control culture that has prevailed in one form or another since the ‘landfill era’ and instead adopt a more responsive approach to planning for waste management which better recognises the variable and dynamic nature of the space in which our industry now operates. Our industry increasingly resembles that of any other logistics business with materials moved around as markets dictate.

“Few other sectors face the same planning and political obsession about the origin of material or commodities, and where these should be transported to. To hamstring the resource and waste management industry in such a way will likely hamper investment and progress towards the objectives of the circular economy.”

‘CHP ready’

The report cites several instances of waste management processes being held back by planning authorities. For example, mileage limits are being imposed on the haulage of waste to and from recycling facilities within local plan policies or through planning conditions on consented development.

“Such an approach is not only anti-competitive and difficult to enforce, but fails to acknowledge that some waste facilities could have a highly-specialised role requiring a large catchment area extending beyond a planning authority’s administrative boundary,” the ESA says, and the group is therefore calling on local authorities to desist from seeking to impose catchment boundaries on waste treatment facilities.”

Another key issue highlighted within the report is the deployment of combined heat and power (CHP) systems within energy-from-waste (EfW) plants – in which both electricity and heat can be produced at the same time from the same fuel source.

“Opportunities for incorporating CHP into EfW remain constrained by uncoordinated public (planning) policy and, as such, most EfW, while ‘CHP ready’, nonetheless operate in electricity-only mode,” the report states. “Until a more strategic approach is adopted, one which better aligns waste and energy policy, the planning system will likely remain a barrier to realising the full benefits of CHP.”

The report notes that a circular economy could help to generate 50,000 new jobs; attract £10bn of investment in new waste management infrastructure, boost GDP by £3bn and generate an additional £1.4bn in recyclate revenues for the UK economy if all recyclable material was captured for recycling.

Read the ESA’s ‘planning for a circular economy’ report here.

Luke Nicholls

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