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1066 and all that: time to ignore councils' traditional boundaries

During the previous fortnight, it feels as though everyone has taken a view on the Institution of Civil Engineers’(ICE) State of the Nation: Waste and Resource Management report, both from within the waste sector and outside it.

Many views have been disproportionately focused on the issue drawn out by the report on quantity and quality of household recyclates. But as the debate raged across the national press, commentators seem to have missed some of the more interesting recommendations that the ICE report made.

ICE waste steering group vice chairman Jonathan Davies told MRW: “We’re at an interesting point. It would have been very easy just to carry on doing what we’re doing now and we’ll get something out of it. But it won’t necessarily suit us for where we’re going, and we do need to acknowledge we’re living in a changing world.”

The ICE report set out a “possible evolution” for UK waste infrastructure that looks as far ahead as 2050. It envisions a gradual transition from expansion of in-vessel composting systems, anaerobic digestion (AD) and mechanical biological treatment (MBT) to small scale, energy from waste (EfW) facilities, and ultimately a decommissioning of waste infrastructure altogether.

“We are seeing some local authorities beginning to realise they’ve got to ignore these boundaries and say ‘if it’s better for our region to share a facility, then that’s got to be good’.”

Davies said that all of the report’s recommendations were part of reaching this fundamental change: “We thought it was helpful to try and provide an illustration. There’s a lot in train at the moment and if you cast your mind further forwards up to this 2050 period, we will have had to change whether that is from legislative, economic issues or shortages of materials we will be changing dramatically.”

Such recommendations included a call for greater co-operation between local authorities in the context of waste infrastructure, in order to “deliver wide benefits to communities affected by facilities.”

It makes a case for ignoring “bureaucratically defined boundaries” by asking Defra to encourage authorities to forge partnerships as part of the forthcoming review of waste policy, in order to capitalise on economies of scale.

The news was welcomed by Grant Thornton LLP director of government and infrastructure advisory Nigel Mattravers, who was also the previous ICE chairman of the waste and resources board.

Mattravers told MRW: “We’re stuck with this framework of Anglo Saxon boundaries, which have been there since before 1066 and an awful lot of decision making is made within that boundary, although the socio-economic boundary is completely different.

“Authorities might say ‘we can’t build a facility here in Dorset, because we haven’t got enough waste in Dorset, but over in Devon, 2 miles away we’ve actually got lots.’ So we are seeing some local authorities beginning to realise they’ve got to ignore these boundaries and say ‘if it’s better for our region to share a facility, then that’s got to be good’.”

The report also recommended the creation of a national policy statement which “sets out the national ‘need’ for infrastructure” and provide “much needed clarity for all concerned.”

Davies said: “Potential investors can readily see the need for facilities, which ties into a planning need too. We are short of high quality data on waste arisings, and although you can trawl around get information on the permitted throughput of facilities, the actual existing throughput will depend on what was actually built.”

Other recommendations made by the report included the construction of a limited number of large scale EfW facilities, and a “case for some of the proceeds from landfill tax (£842m in 2009-10) to be used to help capitalise the Green Investment Bank (GIB).”

Mattravers said: “We’re being asked to invest in new lorries and wagons, but the tax isn’t coming back to us, so in the report there’s a case for the proceeds of landfill tax which can be used to help capitalise the GIB. That’s a good thing to say, because we don’t know where the rest of the money’s going to come from.”

But he added: “The fact that Government must facilitate private investment is also critical, how that investment is made doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of grants but nonetheless there’s got to be support for strategic infrastructure for the nation’s economy.”

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