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Time for clear data about London's waste

Planning is often identified as one of the great barriers to the delivery of waste management infrastructure. But for waste planners in London, these problems are largely self-inflicted. The challenges now facing the Capital do not stem from the planning system, but from the poor implementation of it.

The London Plan published by mayor Boris Johnson in 2011 fails to plan for the management of all of the waste arising in the capital.

In fact, less than 70% of the waste arising in London will initially be managed by its boroughs, rising to 76% in 2016 and 84% in 2021. The London Plan is silent on what happens to the remainder.

The reality is that millions of tonnes of waste are being sent to landfill in the South East and East of England.

This has been acknowledged by Home Counties planners and is provided for in their Regional Spatial Strategies, which contain possible distributions for this landfill, depending on criteria such as geology, existing capacity and distance from the capital.

Unfortunately, the London Plan pays no attention to these issues, implying that this waste will look after itself.

The market will find locations to take the waste. The trouble is that many of the sites on which London has been dependent for many years have either closed recently, or are in the process of closing. Well known names such as Stewartby in Bedfordshire and Pitsea in Essex have either closed or will do so soon. The replacement destinations will be further and further away, and costs of transport will be passed back to council tax payers and businesses.

Of course, there are better ways to manage waste than to send it to landfill. London has the lowest municipal waste recycling rate of any English region, and improving this has to be a priority for London’s local authorities. But this process comes up against the same barriers.

Sites must be found for recycling and reprocessing materials but unfortunately, there is a marked reluctance among London authorities to find sites for waste uses in the capital. Although transfer and bulking sites are being identified, the real work is located outside London’s boundaries.

The implication is that it is easier to find sites for waste infrastructure in the Home Counties than in London itself. While there is a general acknowledgement that landfill is limited within London, it is far from clear that it is easier to get planning permission for energy-from-waste facilities in Hertfordshire or Oxfordshire than in the capital.  

The debate with those residents who ask why they should deal with London’s waste is made harder by the failure to even acknowledge the level of current and future exports of waste from London.

It is time that the London boroughs produced proper waste plans that tell us all how and where their waste will be managed, without monopolising existing landfill, which is a scarce resource for everyone.

If the plans involve building energy-from-waste plants in neighbouring authorities, this has to be clearly stated. There are some forms of waste management that lend themselves to locations in London, such as electrical waste dismantling or certain kinds of hazardous waste treatment where economic levels of material can be accumulated over a relatively small geographic area.

Employment could be brought to parts of London where it is needed, growing the green-collar jobs on which our economy may rely in the future.

But first we need some clarity and honesty about where London is sending its waste. Then politicians and local authority officers in London need to make an effort to identify a more sustainable approach.

Then we could all work together on developing plans to our mutual benefit.

Deborah Sacks is principal of Sacks Consulting, convenor of the South East Waste Planning Advisory Group, and secretary of the East of England Waste Technical Advisory Body.

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