Select committee rubbishes waste policies

29 Mar 01
A picture of departmental conflict and policy incoherence emerges in last week's report on waste management from the Commons' environment select committee. The result, it implies, is that local authorities will not have the resources to implement the gov.

30 March 2001

A picture of departmental conflict and policy incoherence emerges in last week's report on waste management from the Commons' environment select committee. The result, it implies, is that local authorities will not have the resources to implement the government's demands for higher levels of recycling, so there will be a drift towards waste incineration – even though the health implications of this are unclear.

Select committee reports seldom come more critical. 'It is difficult fully to express our disappointment with the continuing inertia and low level of expectation which characterise waste management in this country,' it says. 'The majority of those involved with waste in this country appear to be guilty of thinking without imagination and planning without ambition, of finding problems instead of solutions and aiming for short-term goals without a vision of the system of resource use and waste management which we should be striving for.'

Regular delays in producing policy guidance have held back local and regional planning of waste management. Meanwhile, it is unclear whether waste incineration should be counted as a renewable energy source. Yes, say the Treasury and Department of Trade and Industry; probably not, says environment minister Michael Meacher.

Government agencies and consultants are hammered. Consultant Entec is reported to have over-estimated the number of deaths to be expected to result from the polluting effects of increased incineration 'almost of an order of magnitude'. Entec puts the figure at 20 premature deaths, the Environment Agency at three. 'Entec's error is more than unfortunate: where such a study should have brought clarity to the health effects of incineration, instead it has contributed directly to the confusion which surrounds this complex topic,' say the MPs.

Yet the Environment Agency 'did not make a convincing case that it could persuade a sceptical public that incineration was safe, nor that the regulatory regime would ensure an incinerator continued to operate as it should'. In truth, says the committee, the health impact of incineration is not yet known.

The issue of incineration is key to the future strategy for waste management. Superficially, it offers the simplest solution to dealing with waste, while meeting commitments to the European Union's landfill directive, which seeks to reduce landfill dumping dramatically.

Safety is one drawback. Another is finance. Major projects such as building incinerators can be attractive under the Private Finance Initiative. Small-scale recycling schemes are not. As the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions told the committee, there is more finance available for incineration than there is for recycling.

This is ironic, when government policy has been to shift taxation towards the principle of 'the polluter pays'. It backfired with the hikes on petrol duties. The environment committee questions whether it is working with the landfill tax. 'If one accepts that the primary purpose of the landfill tax is to reduce the amount of waste being landfilled, then it is currently failing,' says the committee.

Tax levels are too low to act as an incentive to change behaviour, witnesses told the MPs, and may need to double. Despite the tax, landfill disposal is much cheaper in the UK than in many other European countries. Its effect is distorting – the real cost is felt less by the consumer than by local authorities, which meet 60% of the bill.

The real benefit of the levy is the Landfill Tax Credit Scheme, through which landfill operators claim up to 90% of donations to approved environmental bodies. But here, too, doubts are raised. While £135m has been distributed through the scheme, only one-third of this has gone into supporting sustainable waste management. Most has gone into community projects.

Local authorities are barred from receiving the proceeds; there is little public awareness of how the scheme works; and there is scant examination of the cost-effectiveness of funded projects.

The committee recommends a fundamental reorganisation of the tax credit scheme, allowing councils to bid for money and diverting more funds towards recycling and composting projects – more than the increase the government has already announced. The MPs described the body responsible for administering the tax credits, Entrust, as 'tarnished' and best replaced.

But, crucially, the money available through the tax credit scheme is marginal in terms of the job to be done. Start-up costs for a kerbside recycling scheme are estimated in the region of £2bn, but doing anything less is unlikely to meet government recycling targets, the MPs believe. This is significantly more than the total of public money allocated for all sustainable waste management projects, including composting, the creation of markets for recycled materials and the pump-priming of community recycling initiatives.

The committee predicts a growing waste crisis in which local authorities will be caught between rising public expectation and funding deficits. By default, waste incineration will be not just the most attractive option, but perhaps the only one.ct committee rubbishes waste policies


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