Resolving the waste crisis

The planning system has to make some important decisions on the provision of further waste facilities, maintains Mike Rigby.

Endless press coverage has alerted us to the impending crisis in the waste industry. We hear that thousands of facilities must be built to treat and dispose of the UK's waste over the next 15 years and that only a fraction of the required plants will be provided at the current rate.

Failure to meet the level of landfill diversion set by the EU could lead to fines for the UK government of up to £500,000 a day. Many commentators are pointing the finger at dilatory and obstructive planning authorities for slow growth in the number of major waste plants. The planning profession is used to taking stick, but is it really deserved in this instance?

According to ODPM statistics, 1,333 waste planning decisions were made in 2003-04. Of these, 370 were made on major developments and 963 on minor proposals, with approval rates of 88 and 93 per cent respectively. These figures hardly seem to back the recurring cry that it is the planners' fault because they refuse all applications.

But how are the two sides of the argument to be reconciled? Under current conditions, many waste operators are discouraged from making applications at all. Given the policy vacuum in many parts of the country, the cost of applying for planning permission may well be too high a risk for any proposal that is other than entirely straightforward.

Many local authorities have failed to designate enough, or even any, specific sites for waste management in their local plans. The value of plans prepared this way is highly questionable when a key reason for producing them is to give stakeholders certainty over where development is likely to be accepted. Criteria-based local plans provide few further clues.

The funds to construct the required facilities do not appear to be available in the waste sector. This is one reason for the slow progress in providing waste treatment facilities. However, the industry is going to find it easier to secure the significant equity injection required where there is a greater degree of certainty in achieving consent for treatment facilities.

The need to identify specific sites is especially relevant where a local authority is seeking bids for the disposal and treatment of domestic waste. Given the difficulties faced by some successful bidders in obtaining planning permission for the facilities that councils want them to provide, the major waste players have doubts about bidding for future contracts.

Local authorities are more likely to receive attractive bids and achieve Best Value where they have prepared the ground by identifying sites acceptable for waste management. While the designation of sites does not mean that permission is a sure thing, it does mean that the principle has been accepted, thus removing a good deal of risk.

Another potential explanation for the discrepancy between the industry's perception of poor planning performance and the figures quoted by local authorities may lie with statistical methods. The figures that local authority and government representatives tend to quote relate to the percentage of positive decisions as a proportion of all decisions made.

Proposals such as the Belvedere waste recovery scheme in south-east London, which has been in the planning process for 15 years, are not counted until a decision has been made. But the ODPM does not gather statistics on the number of waste applications submitted, so we cannot see approvals as a percentage of this.

Competing land uses are another difficulty for the industry. Rocketing land values have led to optioning of large parts of the immediate hinterland of most major towns and cities. As a result, many sites that are ideal for waste uses in planning terms are unavailable for development. The only way such sites can be procured is where councils make it clear that waste schemes are the only acceptable use.

The sequential approach to housing land is a further source of difficulty. This is an environmentally sound and politically acceptable solution. However, it often causes older industrial estates that are still economically active to be redeveloped for housing, displacing waste management tenants. Only through site-specific local plans can these locations be protected or replacement land identified.

Despite the coverage, there is little in the way of positive action. "We must take this challenge forward" and "it's time to get tough on the issue of waste" are typical of the vague phrases used by some of those involved in tackling the problem. We need positive ideas to allow the waste industry to secure planning permission for the facilities that the country needs.

A very good first step would be for ministers to send a clear instruction to local planning authorities that only site-specific waste local plans or development frameworks will be deemed acceptable. However, most people count their home as their biggest asset and are prepared to mount vigorous campaigns to defend the perceived devaluation caused by proposed waste facilities. Avoiding the aggravation that goes with this is probably the biggest motivation for councils to avoid site designation.

PPG10's direction that waste planning authorities should identify waste management sites in development plans "where possible" has been firmed up through the omission of this get-out clause in last week's draft PPS10. The guidance has also been strengthened with the obligation to identify sites capable of handling five years' worth of waste. This needs to be rigorously enforced by inquiry inspectors.

The stick with which the planning profession is being beaten should be reserved for councils that seek to save time and aggravation by drafting criteria-based waste policies rather than taking the bull by the horns and designating suitable sites. Perhaps the implementation of PPS10 will see capacity rise to the required levels. But time is running out.

Mike Rigby is an associate at Peter Brett Associates.

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