February 24th, 2014
I once attended a branch meeting of the Royal Town Planning Institute where the members were all feeling pretty low. The very concept of planning was under attack from the coalition government. Any reason for control of land use was being questioned at a fundamental level.
One leading member then explained how he sells the need for the planning system: he described the predicament of a developer who creates a beautiful new business park which is then threatened by the potential arrival of a ghastly waste management facility on its doorstep. This, he thought it was obvious to conclude, would destroy the snazzy hi-tech ambiance, not to say the value of the shiny new development – and the planning system would be likely to come to the rescue. As the only waste planner in the room, I had that awkward feeling you get when you realise there’s a consensus in the room and you’re not part of it.
So, do we need waste planning – and if so, what for? Where waste facilities get sited is supposed to be governed by a local waste plan in each local authority area, but by no means all councils have produced one. However, since the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) simplified the guidance on planning, introducing a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, the default answer to a request for planning permission should be “yes” unless there is a very good reason to say otherwise. We could therefore be forgiven for assuming that the shackles are off and obtaining planning consent for the waste infrastructure we need should be much easier. So is there still a good reason for local authorities to go through the time-consuming process of creating a plan?
At one level, there is a very straightforward reason to answer “yes”: it is required by Article 28 of the Waste Framework Directive. This requires each EU member state to produce a plan showing the sites where waste will be managed. Given that planning is carried out at local authority level, the British Government is dependent on waste planning authorities to carry out this work on their behalf.
The energy with which this task has been tackled by government has waxed and waned, as has the threat of action from the EU for non-compliance in this area. At one point, government officials made it clear that any fines for failure to produce waste plans would be covered by central government. This was contradicted by the original version of the Localism Bill, but then a friend of local government secured an amendment during the bill’s progression through the House of Lords. Local authorities are therefore protected from EU fines – unless a vote is taken in Parliament to pass them down the line. This is good news for councils, but means that whilst there is some incentive for central government to ensure that local plans are drawn up, there’s no direct pressure on local authorities to get on with the job.
Without local waste plans setting out what is required in each area, the chances of us ending up with the right facilities in the right places to meet our needs are slim. Developers will be left not only with the job of demonstrating that their proposed facility fits with an area’s requirements – they’ll need to make the case that the facility is required at all. Reading the NPPF more closely reveals that on its own it provides no real help for those trying to build waste facilities. In practice, indications from government have been that the “presumption in favour” doesn’t actually apply to waste developments. Planning for waste management was explicitly excluded from the NPPF and updated guidance for this area is still awaited.
The free market alone is very unlikely to ensure that sufficient land of the right type comes on stream in a timely fashion. In practice this means identifying the number, type and broad location of sites that are suitable for waste management. In some areas there are many possible sites to choose from and only the best ones need be identified in the plan. In most areas however, it is difficult to find land that meets all of the criteria. It needs to be accessible and able to handle significant vehicle movements. It must be suitable for what could be a large building, and not in an environmentally sensitive location. If a thermal treatment plant is envisaged, then to achieve a high level of efficiency it will need to be near to a potential user of the heat energy it will produce – something that has disappointingly rarely been managed with incinerators in the UK.
All types of infrastructure are prone to being left out of developments since the main money is to be made in housing and commercial developments. It is the role of government and both national and local level to ensure that this gap is filled.
Perhaps the biggest reason to produce a waste plan goes back to the fear raised by my colleague at the RTPI: the need to ensure that development is not undertaken in the wrong locations to the detriment of other users. It can be difficult to convince people that not all waste management facilities are bad neighbours. Some operations can be relatively “hi-tech,” too, and if well managed need not impact on nearby sites; it doesn’t help, though, that in reality there some waste facilities you definitely wouldn’t want to be next door to.
To me it seems obvious that waste management facilities will find it harder and harder to find a home in the absence of clear direction and support from the Waste Planning Authority. But the two-tier system that predominates in England creates a tension between county and district councils that militates against the delivery of both sites and facilities. District councils often insist that their particular area has no suitable locations and that other areas are better suited to siting waste developments. Presumably these are authorities in which residents and businesses do not generate any waste….
Recently, during the examination of a waste plan, the planning inspector suggested that the county and the districts should work together to revise the boundaries of the green belt to accommodate waste facilities. The fact that one district had objected to the county’s plan at every stage, attended every day of hearings and employed consultants to support them in their objections made this seem an unlikely scenario.
So, there are several reasons for an authority to produce a waste plan. Understanding what is likely to be required is particularly difficult in the context of waste management, but it is important to make available the right kind of sites to enable the market to deliver the right facilities at the right time and without compromising future demands.
The process of developing a plan needs to be managed carefully with a thorough evidence base showing what waste needs managing and what facilities are already available. Perfection should not be allowed to become the enemy of the good: taking too long over the process can result in developers either competing for feedstock, or not coming forward at all.
A waste plan that is fit for purpose will guide the waste industry as to the type, size and location of waste facilities to be delivered. It will identify sufficient sites to manage the quantity and types of waste arising in the plan area. The sites identified will be in appropriate locations in terms of transport, environment and neighbouring uses. If these criteria can be achieved, a waste plan is good news for the local economy as a whole, providing certainty for industry and aiding the move towards the most sustainable approach for managing waste materials.