Controversial plans for energy-from-waste incinerators have been approved this week following ministerial intervention.
The facilities are both PFI schemes, in Leicestershire and Norfolk. The first, at King’s Lynn, would process up to 268,000 tonnes of waste every year, and generate electricity sufficient for 36,000 homes.
Norfolk County Council councillors voted on Monday to approve the incinerator by nine to four, with two abstaining. The decision follows years of controversial wrangling, culminating in an intervention by communities secretary Eric Pickles last week, who will now rubber-stamp the decision.
The project is jointly managed by Cory Environmental and US incineration manufacturer Wheelabrator under a £500m, 25-year contract, saving, the Council claims, £200m on landfill fees over its lifetime.
A sweetener of £91m in infrastructure credits was promised by Caroline Spelman in January 2012 towards the plant, so anxious is Defra that it should proceed, in order to meet targets on renewable energy and landfill diversion.
Objectors' concerns ranged from environmental threats to nearby Roydon Common, health issues, the negative effect on recycling and waste minimisation, and the reputation of Wheelabrator.
Commenting on the decision, Graham Plant, the council’s cabinet member for planning and transportation, said: "The committee was satisfied that officers had addressed all relevant considerations".
Councillor Bill Borrett, the member for environment and waste, expressed relief at the approval and added: "I believe that this proposal has been subjected to the most intensive scrutiny, by the planning process, the public, the Environment Agency and Defra, which has approved the largest grant Norfolk has received for a single project. I have been very keen that we do everything by the book, so I welcome the Secretary of State's interest.”
The Environment Agency must yet grant the facility permission before it can begin operating.
Another, even bigger incinerator, at Newhurst Quarry in Shepshed, Leicestershire, that had been refused permission twice by the County Council, had that refusal reversed by Eric Pickles on Friday.
The £200 million facility would capable of burning up to 300,000 tonnes of municipal waste a year and generate energy sufficient for 42,000 homes.
The Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) report said the benefits of the scheme, proposed by Biffa, were "substantial and compelling", and that "these considerations outweigh the harm by way of impact on the appearance and character of the area, heritage assets and conflict with certain policies of the development plan".
The council says it plans to appeal against the decision. A local opponent said: "It would appear that, despite bold rhetoric encouraging communities to 'have their say', the Government really is not listening. Recourse to the High Court is almost impossible to consider for a small community group".
Conservative Matthew Blain, Charnwood Borough Council's cabinet member for planning, said: "Decisions like this are part of the more strategic infrastructure and made at a higher level".
Wherever they are proposed, incinerators generate massive controversy. In 2011, a total of five planning appeals in respect of incinerators were considered by the Planning Inspectorate, of which only one was disallowed.
Fiona Bruce is one Conservative MP who is campaigning against a proposal in her Congleton constituency. Last month she asked Prime Minister David Cameron whether he would support her campaign.
"The incinerator was rejected by the local planning board, is overwhelmingly opposed by my constituents in Middlewich and would involve transporting lorry-loads of waste hundreds of miles across the country," she told him.
Apart from saying that any decision must "take into account the size and scale of any proposed development and to consider the potential effect on any local community", David Cameron was noncommittal and deferred the decision to Eric Pickles.
LibDem MP Norman Baker is also against an incinerator that has been constructed by Veolia in his Newhaven constituency, particularly on grounds of traffic and the fact that it will not produce heat for local consumption. “Any half-decent council would have secured millions in compensation, or the rerouting of heat generated to provide cheap district heating for the town," he said. He is boycotting the official opening scheduled for tomorrow.
The Health Protection Agency (HPA) is conducting a study into the link between emissions from municipal waste incinerators (MWIs) and health problems, and there were calls to defer the Norfolk decision until the results are known, but this will not be until March 2014.
The HPA’s current position is that well run and regulated modern MWIs are not a significant risk to public health, based on research published in 2009. The new study is being carried out to "extend the evidence base", and is examining possible health effects up to 10–15 kilometres from sites, including: low birth weight, still births and infant deaths.
Incinerators may not only burn waste. There is an increasing number of biomass incinerators being planned or under construction, and expected as a result of the Renewable Heat Incentive. Consequently, there are concerns about the impact on the health of nearby residents, and the HPA study does not cover this issue.
Biomass power plants with capacities above 20MW are regulated under the Waste Incineration Directive and subject to stringent emission controls. But regulations for smaller plants are not so tight. Defra has said that it will include emission limits for particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen as eligibility criteria for the Renewable Heat Incentive covering biomass plants below this size, but has yet to publish them.
At present there are no plans to monitor any effects on people living near to such power stations.
Story: David Thorpe, News Editor