Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

Protecting the Public from Waste

Public Accounts Committee 22 Jan 2003

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SIR JOHN BOURN KCB, Comptroller and Auditor General, further examined.
MR BRIAN GLICKSMAN, Treasury Officer of Accounts, HM Treasury, further examined
MR CAVANAGH, Director, National Audit Office, examined

Examination of Witnesses

MR BRIAN BENDER CB, Permanent Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, BARONESS YOUNG OF OLD SCONE, Chief Executive and MR STEVE LEE, Head of Waste Regulation, Environment Agency, examined

Mr Steinberg : Going back to fly tipping, has the landfill tax encouraged more fly tipping?

Baroness Young of Old Scone :It is difficult to judge because of the point that was already made about the lack of national standard statistics on fly tipping so I think to some extent it is perception we are talking about, but we think our perception is pretty valid because we are on the ground across the country. Our perception is that fly tipping is increasing and, particularly worryingly, of hazardous substances rather than just general rubbish. We know that general rubbish is unsightly and upsetting for the public as a whole but hazardous waste is altogether different.

Mr Steinberg : I am sure. You cannot go anywhere now along a road or a side road without finding rubbish dumped at the side and plastic bags waving in the trees at you as you go past, and I do not think the local authorities take it seriously enough.

Baroness Young of Old Scone :We do have a differing relationship with some local authorities. We have done some very interesting work with some local authorities where we undertake joint surveillance work where we install close circuit television and surveillance cameras in particular dumping hot spots, and I do not want to victimise travellers but they do tend to attract fly tipping, or create it on occasions - areas where we know that illegal activity may be taking place. We undertook a very successful series of undercover operations in Wales funded by the National Assembly; they gave us an extra quarter of a million and we managed to increase our fly tipping of illegal waste success tenfold on the back of quite a small sum of money, so there is scope for good activity with us, and not only with local authorities but also with other authorities. Quite often the guys who are doing this are also engaged in all sorts of other illegal activities so the VAT man is helpful as well.

Mr Steinberg : That brings me to where the Agency could be a lot more effective in dealing with licence holders who continuously break the law and who continually breach their licensing conditions. They have to be pursued relentlessly otherwise it gives the message that we are not interested in a cleaner environment. Would you agree? How do you intend to do that? And do you do that?

Baroness Young of Old Scone :Our enforcement prosecution policy does work on the basis of the environmental impact of the particular breaches of licence, and takes relevant and appropriate enforcement action for that.

Mr Steinberg : So will you take away licences from persistent offenders?

Baroness Young of Old Scone :Where an offender persistently breaches his licence and that has a major environmental impact, or potentially has a major environmental impact, we do on a number of occasions suspend licences. Where the site is a landfill site, we would be very chary of taking away a licence or of revoking it completely because, if it is revoked, that severs the responsibility of the operator for the care and management and aftermath care of that site so it is not a good idea to revoke a licence. We would far rather work with those companies and improve their performance.

Mr Steinberg : Your answers are very long and I only have ten minutes. There is a case in here where, in fact, a landowner had to pay £2.4 million, if I remember, to put right something that had gone wrong on a site where very little money had been put into the kitty for aftercare. Here is a case presumably where the landowner was not the operator?

Baroness Young of Old Scone :Yes.

Mr Steinberg : So presumably, if you have landowners who are not operators, you can take away the licence from the operator and then the landowner has to find a new operator. Is that ever done?

Baroness Young of Old Scone :The financial provisions process is the process whereby we would want to provide for the aftercare of an operator who either went broke or decided to go out of action. The problem is the financial provision process is not a good one yet and there is to be consultation on improving it, so on occasions a landowner will discover he has a liability still on his site that there is no sufficient financial provision for.

Mr Steinberg : I was not really going down that line. You said that you would not take away a licence from an operator on a landfill site because it might stop the scheme taking place, but what I am saying is it may well be that many operators do not work on their own land and the operator themselves could have a licence taken away and the landowner would then find a new operator to continue the scheme.

Baroness Young of Old Scone :Certainly our negotiations with companies would explore every avenue. I am not entirely sure of the particular case you are referring to but it may well be that Mr Lee could answer this.

Mr Lee : I have been trying to find the specific example. There is one referred to in the report from the early days of the Environment Agency, Premiere Environmental. What is important about that is that there was a financial provision available; at that stage it was thought that the liquidator did not have access to the money; that the money could be used for clean-up of the site; and the money was given to the landlord, Legal & General. It was used to bring about appropriate clean-up on the site and that was good.

Mr Steinberg : Let us forget it; we have gone down the wrong track and I did not want to go down that track. I do not think you understood what I was talking about but never mind - a lot of people do not! I have had a very large waste site in my constituency over a number of years, ever since I have been an MP - 15 years - which has caused me all kinds of problems, but certainly since 1997 - and I do not know whether that was a specifically important date or not - dozens of complaints I have had seem to have stopped. Is this because of the number of inspectors or because the sites are now licensed and are worked in a different way? What do you think the reason is? When I was reading the report I thought "I have not had any complaints about this site for a long time", yet I was inundated at one time. What has happened?

Baroness Young of Old Scone :Waste licensing and management is a lot better than it was. I think the last seven years, since we have had an Agency that has done it countrywide as opposed to individual local authorities, standards have rocketed up the way, so I am glad you are a satisfied customer.

Mr Steinberg : We do not want it on the record that I am satisfied! In paragraph 11 we see that there is an average of something like 15 visits by inspectors to each licensed site. Is that not a bit excessive? That is more than one a month.

Baroness Young of Old Scone :It depends on the site. In some cases we will be there twice a week. We do a risk-based approach. If you are dodgy operator or a site that is highly risky we will be on your doorstep a lot of the time.

Mr Steinberg : So would that be one reason why we have not got so many complaints now? There have only been 15 visits since you have taken over. What happened when the 1983 authorities were running it?

Baroness Young of Old Scone :It has varied quite considerably. For the last three years we have been operating on a risk basis. It may well be, strangely enough, that your operator has got his act together and a decent management plan.

Mr Steinberg : I think the local authority set the company up to do it, so that is probably the reason. When I had a surgery in this particular area where the site was, whenever I went to the surgery I had many people coming to see me about it, and it struck me that the very best inspectors of sites are the people who live round the sites because they know exactly what is going on: they know the problems they are faced with - the flies, the dust, the dirt, the smells and God knows what else. Do your inspectors consult with residents?

Baroness Young of Old Scone :We encourage the companies to consult with residents because they have to develop a good relationship with the local community, but we also take a part in that relationship and talk to local people, particularly if there are problems.

Mr Steinberg : Pressing on, Mr Trickett talked a lot about sites that were exempt but do there not need to be some exemptions that are brought into the scheme, with some schemes that are licensed being more relaxed? I have a case which the local authority have told me of where, for example, bottle banks were being inspected every other day or whatever -

Baroness Young of Old Scone :Not by us!

Mr Steinberg : -- Perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration, or inspected on a regular basis but where, on the other hand, they had a potential hazardous problem where literally thousands of tyres had been stored illegally and nothing was done because there was no time for inspectors to do anything about it. Is it not time we looked at the exemptions and decided on priorities? For instance, Mr Jenkins mentioned pet cemeteries, where it is prioritised.

Mr Lee : The short answer you are looking for is "Yes", and we have a golden opportunity to do that through the Waste Management Licensing Review that both the Department and the Agency are signed up to.

Mr Steinberg : Do you think that the licence application process is a possible discouragement to waste operators developing new and innovative ways of recovering value from waste?

Baroness Young of Old Scone :I do not think the waste licensing process is but the exemption process may well be. We are anxious in terms of the exemption process that we do not discourage one person's waste being seen as somebody else's raw materials. We want to see the maximum amount of recovery in waste.

Mr Steinberg : Just quickly, do you think the Agency should draw a distinction between traditional waste processes and environmental technology, because I know, for example, that some new strategies in waste management are dependent on new waste technologies and there seems to be a handicap here. How are you going to put this right?

Mr Lee : New technologies have to break in because we have to break our reliance on landfill. That does not mean to say that the Environment Agency should say, "This is a novel technique therefore we will give it an easy ride". Because it is a novel technique that may mean that we have to put much more effort into making sure it is safe and secure. I think what the Environment Agency can and will have to do is work with people who would like to bring near market technologies in and on understanding what the process is, how it should be operated and how we should regulate it.


Mr Steinberg : I have one final question. I was told by my local authority that they had great concerns about the capacity of the Agency to carry out all its increased range of duties and the possible delays that caused in processing licences. What they are saying is that this is causing them delays in investment in new facilities. Would you like to comment on that?

Baroness Young of Old Scone :The speed at which we issue licences is something that we are particularly anxious to ensure is done as quickly as possible, not only because of issues for the local authority but for the regulated industry as well. There are a number of reasons why we cannot issue licences as quickly as we would like and several of these are outside our control to some extent. Sometimes the applicant provides inadequate information and we have to go back. Sometimes there are issues to do with planning that have to be resolved before we can make any progress. On other occasions the negotiation of the financial provisions under the current arrangements for financial provisions is far too lengthy, which is why we want the arrangements changed. There are a variety of reasons why fast processing of licences is not as fast as we would like it to be and we would like to see some of those removed. In terms of speeding up the process we are helping operators through guidance, through model applications, through examples, to make better applications to us first time so that we do not have that reason for delay. We are also looking at how we can have more appropriate licences commensurate with the risk of that particular process so, for example, standardised permits, shell licences to which we can add only minor changes and conditions, so we can have a much slicker process for licensing those sites where you do not need a very bespoke licence. There are a number of things that we can do.

Mr Steinberg : It is not because you are just sitting on them because you have got so much work to do in other areas, it is because there are problems in the application itself?

Baroness Young of Old Scone :We do have one area where at the moment we are suffering from resource problems and that is in transferring waste licences, or at least licensing under the new prevention control regime where, in fact, the work involved in that is proving to be more intensive than we had anticipated and we do have a backlog. We are now looking at ways to streamline that process and to centralise it into centralised permitting factories which will develop an expertise and a pace and bang through the permits at a fast rate so that we can work off the backlog.

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