Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 20 November 2000 (continued)
I too sympathise with the representatives and those people affected in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. In West Tyrone there is also high dependency on this type of agrifood industry. It is not long since we lost one of our outlets with the closure of Killen Creamery. Is the Minister aware of any other threats to the agrifood sector that the House should be aware of? Given the movement toward rural diversification, this sector features highly in the revitalisation of the community.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am not aware of any further threat to any particular company, but today I requested an urgent review of the sector to see if that should be the case. As I said earlier, we had no notification whatsoever. Companies are not under any obligation to inform us of redundancies, particularly if they do not have Government programmes in place. Nevertheless, there have been one or two rationalisations in the bulk liquid milk sector in the past few months. In view of what has happened over the past few days, I thought it prudent to trawl through the remaining companies to find out if such a thing might be the case.
I have to stress that there had been talk — and Mr McHugh mentioned this in his supplementary — about whether there are other companies in the field. We must remember that this is commercially sensitive information, and some companies, if they are trying to do business with another company or offload or whatever, would be reluctant to expose any of their plans to Government or anybody else. They will be reluctant to upset their suppliers, or interrupt their supply, by allowing that information to become public. As people know in Northern Ireland, things never lose anything in the telling. It could well be that they could damage themselves commercially.
With that health warning, I can assure the Member that I am positively pursuing this. The relevant client executive in the IDB will be pursuing this particular sector forthwith.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker]
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Several Members, in addition to the Minister, who will take 10 minutes, wish to take part in this debate. We have to complete our business by six o’clock, so speeches will be limited to five minutes, with the exception of that of Mr Ford, who is raising the subject.
My concerns are with the implementation of the waste management strategy across the entire eastern region and not just in my council area of Antrim. I do not propose to discuss the strategy document today. The document is valuable in that it sets out strategy, but it leaves much of the detailed work to the three consortia of councils that now exist in Northern Ireland.
The largest consortium consists of 11 eastern councils bounded by Larne, Ballymena, Antrim, Lisburn and Down, which contain over half the population of Northern Ireland and a large share of the region’s waste management problems. Many of these councils are already under severe stress and the specific causes are the limited facilities that exist for waste disposal in the eastern region.
In the summer of 2000 the Eastern Region Waste Management Group prepared a paper on the essential interim capacity, and it showed that there is scarcely one year’s capacity left in the region, even allowing for one large site at Dargan Road in Belfast, over which there had been some doubts. The situation must cause problems to council officers and councillors trying to put together a long-term strategy for their districts. There is some spare capacity, for example, in Down district at Drumanakelly. I find it difficult to see that any capacity in Down would be of much use to Antrim, Ballymena or any other council at the northern end of the region.
Several councils, including Antrim, Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus, Larne, North Down and Ards, depend on one site — UK Waste, now known as Biffa Waste Services Ltd — at Green Road in Ballyclare. The paper prepared by the Eastern Region Waste Management Group shows how this works: Antrim Council, short-term contract in Ballyclare; Ards Council, short-term contract in Ballyclare; Ballymena Council, its own site at Ballymacvea, with one year’s capacity in a somewhat prehistoric site, I say cautiously; Belfast City Council, its own site at Dargan Road; Carrickfergus Council, dependent on UK Waste at Ballyclare on a short-term contract; Castlereagh Council, a site at Ballygowan with one year’s capacity; Down, thanks to Drumanakelly, has 28 years’ capacity; Larne, dependent on UK Waste at Ballyclare; Lisburn, two years’ capacity at a site at Drumlough; Newtownabbey, dependent on Green Road in Ballyclare and a short-term contract, although this will last for a matter of years rather than months; North Down Council also has a short-term site in Ballyclare. This shows the difficulties that exist when so many councils are dependent on one site.
How can it be the best environmental option? Surely councils are obliged to find the best practicable environmental option available. It cannot be best value for waste to be taken long distances or to have a local monopoly, because that is effectively what UK Waste now has across the eastern region. Even if there were spare capacity at Dargan Road or in the Down district, these groups have no legal status. Councils have to make their own decisions on what is best because that is their legal obligation. I quote from a paper sent to the Department of the Environment in October from the eastern region:
"Technically individual councils may be capable of moving waste; however, sharing of capacity within the group has not been discussed at a political level and this issue does not form part of the current remit of the eastern region group."
In other words, it may be a fine thing to say on paper in the Department that there is major spare capacity in the eastern region, but we have to consider the political options. We have to consider moving waste, and the costs involved. Early this year I asked the director of finance in Antrim Council for the cost of using a site in Ballyclare rather than the site of our own that we had hoped to have. I was told it was approximately £120,000 per year. Antrim is a medium-sized council — approximately the same size as Down, Omagh or Coleraine. It meant a charge of 2p on the rates for the extra cost of disposing at a site that we do not wish to use. That is not the council’s fault.
There is a long-running saga about the options that Antrim Council has attempted to secure. Before I was elected to the council in May 1993 the search for the next waste site — which would be required by 1998 — was already under way. A site was quickly identified at Ladyhill, near Antrim town, a planning application was submitted in 1995, and a public inquiry was held in 1997. I understand the inspector’s report was finalised in 1998, but we are stuck because of the waste management strategy. There has still been no determination on that application, and Antrim Council continues to pay the extra costs of waste disposal because there has been no decision from the Department of the Environment planners. Again, that decision was planned well in advance by the council. That is the situation that Antrim Council has been in.
As my council Colleague who is in the Chamber could doubtless confirm, Antrim has been proactive on waste issues for many years. It was the first council to have borough-wide kerbside collection of recyclables, and the first with a fully engineered landfill site. That site has just been closed because a second proper site is being sought. We are not in the position of some councils which are still dependent on old sites that they have not been running to the highest standards. Our officers lead the eastern group, and have made a major contribution to the Department’s advisory group on the strategy. Antrim Council is not jumping at the last minute; it has done all it could to plan in advance and yet has been let down. The result is that the ratepayers are suffering the expense of 2p on the rates simply for the additional costs of moving waste from Antrim to Ballyclare.
If that is a problem, I cannot imagine what it is costing Strabane Council. I understand that that council is also transporting waste to Ballyclare because the situation in the western region is so bad. Where is the sense in that?
The three groups have been working on detailed strategies for their own areas. Plans were supposed to be prepared for next June, but it is quite clear that in the eastern region that will not happen. Apart from anything else, there is a requirement under best practice to have proper public consultation on such matters. It would be easy to take a decision and announce it next month, but it would not be the best decision, and it would not have followed proper consultation. We therefore do not expect that the plans in the eastern region will be finalised until next November — a full year from now.
That leads to two problems. I have already highlighted the fact that the spare capacity of a little over a year may well run out by the time the plan is prepared, and that is going to create major problems. There is a further problem, for which we must thank the Minister, who created it. He announced funding of £3·5 million to offset waste disposal costs next year, in particular to implement the waste management plans that follow through from the strategy. It is not entirely clear to me what that money can be spent on.
Unfortunately, if the plans are not finalised until late in the next calendar year, that only leaves two or three months of the next financial year in which any of that money could be spent. I thank the Minister for having found the money, but it would be rather sad if we were unable to spend it because the plans are not advanced. It is vital that action be taken soon to avoid major problems in Antrim and other council areas.
Were I slightly more naive, I would perhaps suggest that the Department might consider granting planning permission for some of the necessary sites. That might prejudice any concept of a strategy. As one of the MLAs representing the Mallusk area, I say to the Minister — as he would expect me to — that I would be concerned if permission were given to expand Cottonmount at a time when the strategy is not in place, particularly given the controversy surrounding that application and the problems that it will create for my constituents.
On the other hand, I am sure that I could establish a case for Ladyhill as being the best practicable environmental option for Antrim. The Minister might well disagree and I would not wish to push that point.
In a letter to Antrim Borough Council last month the Minister acknowledged that there were options open to the council in the interim, but that they would cost money. I trust the Minister has already had the letter that was sent back to him on 14 November by the mayor. I quote it for the benefit of other Members:
"The council remains extremely concerned at the position in which it now finds itself, despite its best efforts to secure a cost-effective disposal route. … I am aware that the Environment and Heritage Service has recently carried out an analysis of Essential Interim Capacity. Arising from this, it is my understanding that they have concluded that there is an urgent need in the Eastern Region. I would therefore seek clarification as to the conclusions drawn that options are available, and how the costs of any such options, if any, can be mitigated through DOE support before interim capacity comes fully on stream."
I would like to return to the Minister’s £3·5 million —
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The Member is running out of time.
I am sorry, but I did not hear you put any time limit on me.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I think I did in my introductory remarks. We need to move on because more Members wish to speak. How much time do you need to finish?
I have three quick questions to ask the Minister. First, will the Minister allow councils to spend the allocation to meet the short-term needs, while the regional plans are put in place and current applications are decided? Secondly, what was the outcome of the essential interim capacity study and what conclusions has he reached in relation to that? Thirdly, what options are available to councils such as Antrim in the next 12 months and in the year or two after that?
As one of the representatives of South Antrim, one of the major concerns in the constituency has been the site at Mallusk. This discussion is about the entire waste management strategy in the eastern region. In my view, the Department needs to make a decision at an early stage in relation to the Mallusk site. Having made that decision, it will then be possible to use it to formulate an overall strategy to deal with the eastern region.
One of the developing problems is that the absence of decisions on individual sites is undermining the Department’s ability to make a strategic decision in relation to the entire eastern region. How can a strategy be developed when individual planning applications are not being dealt with? If the Mallusk site is to go ahead, that will have a major impact on the development of an overall strategy in the region. If it is refused, that again will impact on the overall strategy. I would press the Minister to make a decision on the Mallusk site as soon as possible, and in so doing enable a better strategy to be developed.
With regard to an overall strategy on waste management, as a society we need to develop a better system to deal with our waste. In the long term, it is not acceptable to use landfill as a method of dealing with waste. It is ineffective and causes enormous environmental hazards in the area. There are few sites which are available for use as landfill in a proper way.
One has to acknowledge that companies such as UK Waste are leaders in their field; they have developed extensive technology to deal with landfill and they do the best job possible for landfill sites. Nevertheless, difficulties arise because landfill is inherently difficult to manage and is an environmentally destructive method of waste management.
I say to the Department and to society that we need to develop a better overall strategy in dealing with waste management. That means looking at recycling options and energy from waste. Belgium has an extensive waste- to-energy facility and has made provision for such facilities. That country manages to convert an enormous amount of its domestic and industrial waste into useful energy. That is something that we could be doing.
There is no reason why, on the island of Ireland, it is not possible to construct waste-to-energy sites which could convert waste on an all-island basis and make positive use of that, producing a form of energy that could be fed back into the energy system. It is foolish that we simply continue to look at our strategy as being how to dig the biggest holes, fill them up with waste, and try to manage them as best we can. That is not an option that has any long-term sustainability. It is vital that we have a sustainable strategy for waste management which involves — and I acknowledge that this is in the Department’s strategy — inverting that triangle so that in future landfill will be the last resort for waste, and it will be a minority of waste that will be dealt with by landfill.
My Colleague Mr Ford has made some valid points in regard to the landfill site at Ladyhill in Antrim. I am aware of residents’ concerns, but that area is probably less residential than the Mallusk site. Consequently, the landfill does not have the same impact on residents as the Mallusk site, which is essentially situated within a developing residential and industrial complex. There are probably some valid arguments that could be made in relation to Ladyhill, but I am sure that I will get telephone calls to the contrary very shortly. That probably covers what I wanted to say initially.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
You do not have to use the five minutes.
No. However, one will rarely get a barrister who cannot fill five minutes.
I come back to the question of overall strategy in the eastern region. Development of waste management control in the eastern region is something that has to be looked at from a global perspective. Individual sites cannot simply be looked at, and decisions made on them on them, and then the overall strategy development in the eastern region dealt with.
It is important that a strategy be phased into the eastern region and subsequently replicated across all of Northern Ireland. That means developing a strategy for waste management which involves adjusting how waste is dealt with. In particular, new methods of waste control must be developed, moving away from landfill and increasing the use of recycling.
Increasing home composting is an example. A large quantity of domestic waste goes into landfill. The presence of foodstuffs in domestic waste causes a major biological hazard in the form of gas and leachate development. This can be dealt with more effectively by home composting schemes, where foodstuffs can be broken down in the back garden and can then be used more beneficially. Landfill sites can be restricted to domestic waste, which does not have the same impact.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mr Doherty, you do not need to take your full five minutes.
Mr A Doherty:
To my embarrassment, I may take less than five minutes.
I was intrigued by the title chosen for this debate. I presumed rightly that when Mr Ford used the term "eastern region" he was not referring to the Far East, the Middle East or the Near East, nor even the east coast of our offshore island, Great Britain, but to our eastern region — the region east of the Bann, with all the blessings which accrue to that favoured location. Quite clearly, from what Mr Ford says, all is not manna from heaven in our eastern Eden. I begin like this not to display my knowledge of geography, nor my ability to decipher an adjournment motion, but to make a very serious point — one already touched on by Mr Shipley Dalton.
Each region of Northern Ireland, as well as each other region of any sort or size throughout the world, may have its particular special problems with regard to waste management. However, the issue of waste management is not a local problem. It is not a national problem. It is an international problem. It is a global problem. Much can be done locally, by way of education, to change attitudes and practices. Some things can be done locally to develop new and better systems of minimising, reusing and recycling waste and of creating markets for recycled materials. Local improvements can be made in methods of, and practices in, waste disposal, but most of the problems — both technical and economic — are too big to be dealt with on a purely local or parochial basis. We are too small to go it alone. As I have said many times before, we must think big — nationally and internationally — if we are to achieve our aims in waste management.
It is important to consult and co-operate with our neighbours, here and abroad. It is particularly important to consult and co-operate with the local authorities, the Government, and other interested parties in the Republic, in the development of practical and achievable waste management strategies. These strategies will serve the needs and interests of all, and will assure a better quality of life for all on this island.
I take account of the issues raised by Mr Ford, and I appreciate the particular conditions prevailing in the south Antrim area. I know that Mr Ford appreciates my points, and I hope they register with every Member.
This debate is an opportunity to discuss issues that may be of low priority but are important for us as elected representatives. The need to promote waste management is the issue of the future, especially in our area where it has to be considered and a strategy developed. The Government have introduced the concept of producer responsibility, thereby ensuring that producers take a life-cycle view of their products and encourage the three Rs — reuse, recovery and recycling. The need to find alternatives to landfill arises for a number of reasons and because of a number of pressures. We are all aware of the importance of the environment — hence the trend to increase taxes to achieve environmental goals, and a landfill Directive which sets stage targets for diversion, bans certain waste and requires pretreatment of others.
We also have national and international commitments, with regulations coming from the UK, Europe and further afield. We are encountering growing public expectations from the green lobby and others who are not entirely green-minded, but who see the importance of these issues. We have the Waste and Contaminated Land (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which requires councils to develop a waste management plan, and that is why the eastern region has come together.
The waste management strategy for Northern Ireland sets out substantially to divert waste management away from landfill solutions. It presumes that individually Northern Ireland councils are too small to plan strategically. That is correct. Individually the councils cannot provide all the environmentally acceptable solutions economically, but collectively they can. Therefore, the solution is to bring the councils together to achieve cross-council co-operation. It is necessary to amass a sufficient volume of waste to make environmental treatment economical.
The Eastern Region Waste Management Group has 25% of Northern Ireland’s landmass, 54% of the population and 55% of the waste produced. Again, this clearly illustrates the issues. And while 550,000 tonnes of waste were produced in 1999-2000, that figure is predicted to rise to 950,000 tonnes by 2019-20. That is the term we are looking at, and that helps us appreciate all that we have to do and our responsibility.
The Government have set targets for recovery and recycling. By 2005 they want 25% of household waste — 145,000 tonnes — recovered, 15% through recycling. By 2010 they want 40% of household waste recovered, 25% by recycling and composting, and that amounts to 267,000 tonnes.
Those targets are difficult, and they represent a challenge for all those in the eastern region. They may be unattainable, but they are the goals set down by the Government, and they will not be achieved without significant investment. That investment will involve collection methods, separation at central points, the development of markets and the purchase of processing plant and equipment. I will not go over all the issues about waste itself, but as each year goes by the number of households will increase, with an anticipated 100,000 new households in the eastern region between now and 2020.
The first technology anticipated to achieve the targets and attain the strategy is recycling, and almost every council is directly involved. Some are further ahead than others, but nonetheless they realise its importance.
Incineration is perhaps the most important method of anaerobic digestion. That works by getting rid of the waste and generating electricity. Gasification is another method of making energy for nearby households. It looks increasingly as though incineration will be the chosen method. It is certain that disposal costs will increase, although it is too early at this stage to quantify the increases. This depends on the chosen technologies and the success of the recycling and recovery markets. It is vital that unit costs be equalised in the eastern region and that an assurance be given that no authority — I ask the Minister to take this on board — will be penalised due to geographic or infrastructural constraints.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The Member should draw his remarks to a close, please.
One-stop point-of-deposit and transfer stations need to be uniform across the region. I seek that reassurance from the Minister.
I wish to speak about the effects of waste management in my constituency of South Antrim. The Department of the Environment’s Waste Management Strategy in 1999 stated:
"The vision for this strategy is of Northern Ireland as a European centre of excellence in resource and waste management."
These are noble words. However, that is all that they are at present. The reality is very different. The Minister responsible for the issue at the time, George Howarth, stated that the Government were committed to playing a leading role.
I must challenge the Department of the Environment on several issues, in particular the current position regarding landfill sites in the South Antrim constituency. One of the first major debates in the House in 1998 was about the horrendous problems facing residents in Mallusk Road, Newtownabbey regarding the UK Waste Management Ltd landfill site. Over two years later the residents of that area are still living with the uncertainty regarding the phase two application for this site, despite the total opposition of every Assembly Member in the constituency to it.
In 1995 it was revealed that UK Waste Management Ltd had leased the Cottonmount quarry and intended to take waste from Belfast to Mallusk until 2000. It was also revealed that it had applied for planning permission for the remainder of the quarry complex, which would extend dumping by 20 years. UK Waste Management Ltd stated that, within six months of starting operations, the residents would not be aware that the company was there. Dumping began at the end of February 1996, and the impact was felt immediately. The fears of the residents who had opposed the planning application were realised — the smell, the birds and the litter, both wind-blown and that falling off lorries. Roads and footpaths became hazardous because of the dirt, and the volume and speed of traffic. Meetings were held between the residents and UK Waste Management Ltd, but the problems were not resolved.
The situation deteriorated. Public meetings were held and attended by over 300 residents each time. Their plight was heard in detail and numerous public health issues were raised. Many residents are unable to enjoy time in their garden because of the strong smell which makes some of them ill. Problems for asthma sufferers are increasing due to the poor air quality, but they are unable to open any windows. Sunday appears to be the day when the smell is worst. Large numbers of birds generate a huge amount of droppings in the area and on nearby farmland. The rockets used to deter the birds are very loud and frighten pets. There is increased litter on the Bernice Road and surrounding areas, and there is an unacceptable volume of traffic, resulting in increased congestion, speeding and dirt.
There have been several instances of mice and rat infestations in the residential area, and there are many flies. As a result, people cannot open their windows. Food has to be covered while being eaten. For example, 60 bluebottles were found in one kitchen in one week. Such cases are not isolated and are clearly unacceptable. The problem was exacerbated by a High Court judgement issuing an order compelling the Department of the Environment to provide planning permission for the second phase of the landfill development operated by UK Waste Management Ltd. This ruling could enable waste from Belfast and surrounding areas to be taken to Cottonmount for the next 25 years.
In 1997 the residents wrote to the Planning Service to object to phase two as so many problems were still unresolved in relation to phase one. The Planning Service’s opinion failed to take account of EC legislation requiring areas of separation between landfills and residential and recreational areas. The Planning Service’s opinion also gave a competitive advantage to UK Waste Management Ltd by placing 50% of all waste management in Northern Ireland in one company.
In February 1998 Newtownabbey Borough Council commissioned an independent survey of odour problems in the area of Baird’s Brae landfill site at Mallusk Road, Newtownabbey. The report stated that the site is situated in an area of mixed development with light industrial, commercial and extensive residential developments all located within 200 metres of the site boundary.
A summary of the report states that offensive odour levels were encountered at Baird’s Brae on all four site visits, mainly as a result of operational practice. That was principally the combination of a large active area and landfill gas venting into the atmosphere. Waste management practice in Northern Ireland lags behind that of some other parts of Europe. The Government are obliged to ensure that waste management develops closely in line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom and in accordance with European Directives.
One of those objectives is to reduce the volume of municipal waste considerably. Phase two at Mallusk would therefore directly contravene EU Directives. It is clear that alternatives to landfill in Northern Ireland must be implemented, including the reuse of waste and increased recycling. There must be no further development of landfill sites at Mallusk or Ballyclare, and I also oppose the Ladyhill site in Antrim. The constituents of South Antrim should not have to put up —
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The Member is coming to the end of his five minutes.
The constituents of South Antrim should not have to put up with having the waste of other constituencies on their doorstep.
I shall be exceptionally brief, for I believe it is important that we leave as much time as possible for the Minister to respond to the important questions asked.
There is a crisis in the waste management strategy in the east of the Province. "Crisis" is a word often overused in politics, but in this case it is very appropriate. I understand from experts that in total around seven to eight years’ worth of landfill sites is available for the people of Northern Ireland. However, that does not take account of the highly localised nature of the problem. Antrim has less than one year remaining, and the cost to the borough’s ratepayers of taking waste from the Antrim area to other landfill sites is tremendous — I believe that Mr Ford gave us the figure of 2p in the pound per annum.
I do not believe for one moment that all the blame lies with the present Minister. Part of this problem stems from direct rule and over 20 years of Ministers’ refusing to make decisions on a proper waste management strategy, putting the issue onto the back burner. Several Members earlier referred to two possibilities. Mr Ford spoke at some length about incinerating waste. The reality is that, if the present Minister made such a decision, by the time the location of a plant had been chosen, given the probable need for a public inquiry, we would still be faced with a very serious waste management problem.
Mr Shipley Dalton referred to recycling. While we all laud the possibility, the difficulty in changing the mindset of Northern Ireland people to encourage recycling means that we would make few inroads into the problem. I would like to ask the Minister a few specific questions. I do not believe that his essential interim capacity report took into full account third-party waste and the engineering material used at landfill sites, which probably accounts for 20% of the total waste. Is the Minister aware of the problem? What decisions have arisen from that study, and what options will he make available to the ratepayers of the Antrim area? Will the Department of the Environment mitigate the cost to Antrim Borough Council of using any of the alternative options?
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I call Dr William McCrea. Perhaps, since he was not present earlier, I should say that the limit is five minutes. If he could make it shorter, we would be most grateful.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Rev Dr William McCrea):
There is certainly a big problem with waste management, both throughout the Province and, in particular, in the area mentioned by Mr McClelland. Not only one problem — that of Antrim — has been identified in the area; there are also problems at Green Road in Ballyclare, and at Cottonmount. The Minister is certainly aware of all those issues.
Local residents have asked a number of questions concerning Ladyhill, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Many of those questions which were posed to the Minister by the Environment Committee require a response from the Department, which is considering them at present. Issues such as roads and siting impinge on the local community, and must be responded to in a positive way.
On phase two in Cottonmount, the Department could take one of two roads: it could hold a public inquiry or refuse the planning request. The best route for the Department is to refuse this and those who feel aggrieved can lodge an appeal. Is the Minister mindful of the concerns of the Mallusk community, and is he prepared to refuse this application? If an appeal is lodged, the full implications can be discussed.
There are many problems with the Green Road area of Ballyclare. The responsibilities of both the Department and Newtownabbey Borough Council have been clearly identified, as I have already told the Minister and his officials. The Minister’s officials tell me one aspect of the problem, while the council gives me a different picture. There appears to be a great divergence of views on the solution to the matter. I have requested that both sides meet, rather than my meeting the bodies separately and diplomatically, only to find that the two views are not complementary — sometimes the members of one body are not even complimentary about the other. Rather than running around like a dog chasing its tail, the best way to process this application in the interests of the local community is to hold a proper meeting. The concerns could be clearly ironed out and an independent view taken of all actions to date.
We have to deal with waste management in a sensible and sensitive way. Incineration and recycling must be considered and the community must be educated on these matters. Members of the Environment Committee are concerned that the Department, as well as local government, should be actively engaged in this, rather than waiting for the other to take the lead. The Department must get together with the councils to see how we can process this in the best interests of the public.
This issue is worthy of an Adjournment debate, but we will hear a good deal more on the subject. Finances will have to be provided to enable councils to do an excellent job in waste management for the future. This situation, with all its problems, has evolved over the years. It can be taken forward in a sensitive way with the necessary finance made available. I support the introduction of the issue, and I trust that the Minister will have something helpful to say to the House.
Figures recently published in a written answer show that there are some very low levels of recycling in some district council areas in Northern Ireland, and it is obvious that improvements must be made. Recycling has not had enough focus and priority to date. Waste management and minimisation must commence right, however, and there must be a focus on reducing, through improved packaging and minimisation, the amount of waste that is produced in the first place.
What happens to all the paper that is gathered up in the paper banks? On some occasions even this might go to a landfill waste site. Obviously, there is a need to act collectively in regional areas and to devise ways of dealing with waste efficiently. I support the concept of ensuring that bigger quantities of recycled goods are gathered together and are moved and recycled more efficiently. There is a great deal of waste recycling in England, but with that come large transportation costs, which affect the industry’s economy. It should be the responsibility of Departments to consider how a system of paper recycling might operate.
There is now a large bottle manufacturing plant in Fermanagh. I hope that all bottles that are gathered in the bottle banks are not dumped in a landfill site — I know that that has happened on occasions.
The IDB should tie the whole thing together, in that companies which attract grants should receive them only if they provide a service to the community and pay heed to the environmental benefits of recycling products in a particular region.
Landfill should be the last option. In an ideal world, there would be no landfill, but we do not live in an ideal world. We want our waste to be collected regularly, so there have to be landfill sites in which to dispose of it. The landfill tax levy provides a financial incentive to minimise this — and it is being increased progressively — but we are out of line with some of our European counterparts. There may be a case for increasing this tax in order to benefit the environment.
No one likes to talk about raising taxes, but it may be necessary to do so. Of course, that is a reserved matter. The money could subsequently be spent on recycling, thereby bringing benefit to the community and to the environment.
South Antrim Members have highlighted the difficulties caused by the existing waste landfill sites. Where do they want the waste processed? I hope that they have not got their eyes on some neighbouring constituencies. I would like to hear where they want their waste to be recycled. All they do is knock all three landfill sites. I am not advocating them, but if one complains about them, one has to suggest an alternative.
I hope the Member was listening to me.
I will listen later on. I hope that people have not set their sights on my constituency. There was a proposal to develop one of the largest landfill sites in Europe in my constituency, and I would like to highlight some of the reasons why it was not successful. First, Larne Lough is a protected environment. There are shellfish in the lough, and according to EU Directives, the water purity must be protected. Secondly, there are roseate tern there.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Can the Member please bring his remarks to a close.
The roseate tern is an endangered species, and it must be protected. The watercourse must also be protected, and there are additional serious environmental concerns which must be addressed at other locations that some of the South Antrim Members may have set their sights on. I hope they are not suggesting that this location should be used as the landfill site for the entire eastern region.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important subject. The issues surrounding waste management have an enormous impact on everything that today’s society values. This Assembly, the Minister and the Department need to address these issues sooner rather than later.
It will require radical and innovative thinking. It will mean breaking the mould, because to continue with the easy option of dumping waste into the ground will have serious consequences for future generations.
In 1988 the figure for household waste was 704,400 tonnes. Ten years later that figure had risen to 867,500 tonnes, an increase of 163,100 tonnes. That represents an average growth rate of 1·91% per annum for the Province. Therefore, it is safe to assume that domestic waste will continue to increase and that the cost of landfill will rise accordingly. Landfill sites will continue to disappear, and because of environmental issues new sites will be virtually unobtainable.
Like Mr Beggs, I want to flag up the issue with Mr Ford and advise him not to look towards Larne Lough and the Magheramorne site. I know he mentioned various sites in South Antrim, but there is also opposition to Magheramorne.
I said that I opposed the Mallusk site because of the major problems around Cottonmount. Unlike some of your Colleagues, I did not oppose the Ladyhill site. I have supported that site in the council, as has Mr McClelland.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
Shame on you.
As of April 2000, my local authority, Carrickfergus Borough Council, is paying a landfill tax of £11 per tonne, plus a disposable cost of £33 per tonne — a total disposal cost of £44, not to mention the costs involved in collection and transportation. That is an enormous burden on local authorities and, ultimately, the ratepayer.
The limited amount of landfill capacity currently available allows companies to hold local authorities to ransom. Again, to use the example of my own council, our waste disposal contract expires on 31 March 2001, and we have been unable to sign a new contract. One can only assume that local authorities are being played against one other for the companies’ benefit.
This is a major problem. If the Assembly misses the opportunity to address the issues of waste management, the consequences for future generations could be catastrophic. We have to be imaginative about waste disposal. We must find ways to recycle at affordable prices and we have to find ways to protect our environment and natural resources. We need to turn our throwaway society round. Everyone has his or her part to play.
Central Government can help to provide the facilities to process material collected for recycling — such as glass, cans and plastic — because there are a limited number of outlets in Northern Ireland. The Assembly can play a key role in helping local authorities form waste management partnerships and develop joint waste management plans. Industry can create more resource-efficient products and services. The public can segregate waste for recycling at home, work and at school. Everyone must play his or her part in this crucial issue. In the words of Mr George Howarth MP,
"If we are to make real progress towards a better use of resources and reducing waste, we must rethink our current habits."
We talk about sustainable development. Without a radical overhaul of our waste management strategy and a genuine and sincere approach to recycling, our economy will suffer. How can we attract new industry if we cannot dispose of our additional waste? How can our industry become more competitive in a global market if the cost of waste disposal is spiralling? The Assembly, together with central Government, local authorities and the general public must tackle the issue of waste management urgently.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster): I welcome the teasing out of this important issue. I have listened to the debate with interest and have noted the difficulties raised. Moreover, I believe that everyone in the Assembly will appreciate, as I do, the gravity of these matters.
I have inherited a problem which I want to solve quickly. However, the implications for the environment and the economy of introducing a new waste management strategy should not be underestimated, nor should the serious impact that a wrong development decision could have on the daily life of a community. Many communities, on the basis of experience, hold out the hope that landfill will no longer be necessary. In contrast, others are seeking more space because of their current dependency on this form of disposal.
Landfill dependency in Northern Ireland — currently at a level of 95% — frequently relies on the tolerance of the host community. That is mainly because of the reluctance of waste producers to commit to changing their practices or to pay for a higher-quality waste management solution, a quality of facility that any community would welcome rather than resist.
Two weeks ago we had an informed debate about zero waste. The concept had universal appeal because it presented a picture of Northern Ireland achieving a level of waste reduction, reuse and recycling that meant that none was left to dispose of. That hierarchy is recognisable — it is the same hierarchy of preferred options described in the waste management strategy.
The strategy was agreed by an independent advisory group and by the Environment Committee, and supported by almost all stakeholders. Why is there such a level of agreement? It is because the measures for change not only meet EU Directive requirements but also make sense for the protection of our economy and our environment. These sensible measures are tough on landfill, and they need to be so if we are to ensure a sustainable future.
I emphasise that every one of us must rise to the very real challenge of changing practices and attitudes toward waste in Northern Ireland. However, the role of district councils is pivotal. District councils are responsible for preparing waste management plans and identifying their current needs. Their analysis is critical in both minimising costs and resisting short-term price pressures. Reacting to recent premium pricing of landfill space could risk predetermination of their plans and affect future markets.
I will refer to a couple of points that were made earlier. Although I cannot answer all today’s questions definitively, I will try to arrange answers to a few of them. In answer to Mr Ford, the waste management strategy sets down a clear timetable for the production of plans by district councils by June 2001. I understand that the other groups of councils are aiming to meet that timetable and to identify any interim needs and examine how the available support funds can best be used. The financial allocation in the draft Department of Environment budget is intended to be spent in a strategic way in support of the waste management plans prepared by the councils.
I say to Mr McClelland that the essential interim capacity study did take account of third-party waste from commerce and industry. In the area of concern, I understand that there are over 70 licensed sites for this type of waste. Nonetheless, there is a need for capacity for municipal waste, which I am considering urgently.
Appeals for two landfills operating in the Newtownabbey area were completed by the site operator in September this year. Those formal applications follow delays by both the appellant and the council in supplying the necessary information. The Green Road appeal is being heard tomorrow. Legal advice on the appropriateness of hearing an appeal on Cottonmount is imminent.
In the summer I directed my officials to expedite an analysis of the complex social, environmental and economic issues that surround the outstanding planning applications. In particular, I told them to involve district councils in the determination of their essential interim capacity needs — that is, the level of additional landfill that they consider they will require before they complete their waste management plans. This vital information has been slow in coming, thus indicating both the complexity of the assessment and the sensitivity surrounding almost all the outstanding applications.
I fully recognise the urgency of the situation. That is why I instructed my officials to press district councils for definitive information on their needs. That is also why my Department continues to provide them with financial and professional support to prepare their waste management plans by June 2001. Those plans will map out the future infrastructure and, through public consultation, the choice of facilities and level of community participation will be agreed.
Community involvement is essential to achieve the aims of the strategy. I want to emphasise that as a further reason why I am giving the most serious consideration to the representations that I have received in respect of the outstanding planning applications.
We have to make choices which are correct for the long term, because the decisions made now will make a difference for three generations. Landfill sites operate for 25 years, and their aftercare may last for another 50 years. Therefore, it is a fitting precaution to take time now to ensure that we are making the right decision.
I must satisfy the requirements and constraints of a detailed planning process. I appreciate the pressures that some councils face, and I will continue to take into account the weight of public representations made to my officials and me. I continue to attach the greatest importance to the decisions I have to make. In acknowledging the weight I attach to these obligations, I have instructed my officials to bring these matters to an urgent conclusion. They were unable to do that until they received critical data from district councils earlier this month.
I assure Members that I have insisted, because I want to make the correct decision, that all necessary information be gathered and fully considered before decisions are taken which are of such importance to so many people. I must make them on a strategic basis, rather than piecemeal. The most important concern is that the right decision be made. That is my intention, my responsibility and my assurance to the House.
Adjourned at 5.57 pm.