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The Localism Act will not help to cut 'waste miles'

The Localism Act came into force late last year to facilitate decentralisation of power from Whitehall to localities. However, opinion in the waste industry appears to be united in concern over what this new approach will mean for waste projects. While transferring power from central decision makers to local councils is in reality a positive step for many facets of local government operations, when it comes to planning and waste management, Philip Simpson, commercial director at PDM, discusses whether nimbyism will prevail over localism.

We have to face the fact that in the UK we are accustomed to sending our waste away for someone else to deal with. It’s no surprise therefore that plans to build waste treatment plants faced sharp scrutiny and opposition from local residents before the Bill was passed. That scrutiny has now intensified further with locals’ concerns being given a greater voice.

However, we can’t escape the fact that our waste infrastructure needs to grow. Our landfill capacity is already stretched and is running out fast. When it comes to food waste, the UK is severely lacking a comprehensive recycling infrastructure. With fuel costs rising, and focus on reducing carbon impact, it’s no longer acceptable – nor makes environmental and financial sense – to haul waste long distances.

Therefore, smaller, localised plants are the most environmental solution to handling waste produced in a relatively small radius. However, the Localism Act stipulates greater consultation during the early stages of the process is required which will ultimately lead to even more planning red tape and make the process increasingly arduous.  

Indeed, industry would petition that planning approval for such projects needs to be made easier – or at least more streamlined when proposed projects tick certain boxes – for instance being located in an industrial areas or on an existing waste site.

The other issues facing the sector are misconceptions and outdated knowledge on waste management processes. For example when it comes to anaerobic digestion, the fact that food waste is going to be delivered to a site and turned into energy, leads residents assume that the site will smell and that it will give off pollutant gases similar to first generation incineration plants.

The truth couldn’t be more different as environmental processes have developed significantly over the years. Our ReFood plants, for example, receive all food waste in an enclosed reception hall and air within the facility is extracted and cleaned to remove the potential for odours.

The fact that central government retains the ability to overturn a decision – either approval or denial – places more uncertainty on the planning process for private companies and will be viewed negatively by financiers. The latter is vitally important; in today’s economic turmoil, finding the finance needed to fund infrastructure is extremely challenging and with additional uncertainty making for an even lengthier process and an uncertain end result, it is going to make securing finance even more difficult.

In reality, for the Localism Act to have a positive impact on the waste management sector, we need to see a cultural shift in the public’s attitude to recognise that as the producer of waste, they have a responsibility to accept waste facilities.

For the waste management sector, we need to be ensuring that there is the knowledge out there about different treatment processes and their impact. All too often the negative becomes sensationalised and the real benefits distorted. 

Philip Simpson, commercial director, PDM

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