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Waste site planning applications down heavily as councils feel squeeze

Planning applications for ‘environmentally-friendly’ waste management sites have dropped by 20 per cent in the past year as local authorities feel the squeeze from continuing budget cuts, according to commercial law firm EMW.

Waste site planning applications down heavily as councils feel squeeze
Over 20 per cent fewer planning applications for 'green' waste sites were received by LAs last year
A review carried out by EMW found that 189 planning applications for ‘green’ sites were submitted in 2015/16, the lowest number in five years of reports, down from 237 in 2014/15. This is the second consecutive year that the number has dropped, having fallen by nine per cent from 261 in 2013/14.

It classifies ‘green’ waste management facilities as materials recycling sites, composting and anaerobic digestion centres, and incineration plants with energy recovery.

The fall comes as dropping local authority budgets mean that many councils cannot fund new facilities, says the firm, which is subsequently ‘likely to make a significant dent in local councils’ commitment to delivering alternative energy’.

According to EMW, over the past five years, local authorities have had to find £20 billion in savings amid cuts of 40 per cent in central government funding, a severe tightening of belts that it predicts will continue as local authorities face rising costs in other sectors like social care provision. In that sector alone, shortfalls mean that councils will have to raise £540 million more over the next financial year, according to the Local Government Association.

The report also suggests that the impending Brexit process has put a halt to planning applications, as developers wait to see what implications the departure from the EU will have on recycling targets, waste material export and EU subsidies for recycling and waste energy production.

Planning applications for ‘green’ sites received by year
In its latest review of UK waste infrastructure in December, Eunomia Research & Consulting modelled the different outcomes of a ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit. Under a ‘high recycling scenario’ that could results from a ‘soft’ Brexit that sees the UK maintain access to the European Single Market and stick to European targets, Eunomia says that supply of capacity would exceed the available quantity of residual waste in 2020/21, or 2023/24 if the export of refuse-derived fuel (RDF) is excluded from the analysis

However, under what the review called a ‘worst-case’ scenario, where the UK rejects the European targets and therefore sees no reduction in residual waste arisings, there would be a capacity shortfall of 1.7 million tonnes of residual waste – or 5.3 million tonnes if RDF exports are excluded. This is despite expected reductions in residual waste in Scotland and Wales, as England accounts for the vast majority of the UK’s waste.

Councils may need to look at incentivising more efficient solutions

Commenting on the planning application figures, James Geary, Principal at EMW said: “Budget cuts and Brexit have placed the UK’s waste management sector in limbo. Continued investment in expanding and upgrading our waste management capacity to cope with growing demand and to meet increasingly stringent environmental protection targets is vital. These figures cast doubt on whether enough is being done.”

EMW is warning that without building enough new sites, the municipal waste sector risks becoming ‘over-stretched’, leading to greater use of landfill, which in turn will lead to greater costs for councils. In 2016, the landfill tax fee rose to £84.40 per tonne, compared to the £7 per tonne when it was introduced in 1996.

“As the population continues to grow, ensuring a sustainable waste management sector is going to become more pressing – but also potentially more controversial – than ever. Building more new sites may not be popular with local residents, but investing in cleaner, greener technology may help to allay some of those concerns.

“Now that the landscape has changed with Brexit, re-evaluating the effectiveness of subsidy arrangements and focusing on investment plans should be a renewed priority. Policymakers and local authorities may need to look again at how to incentivise and support more efficient, eco-friendly waste management solutions alongside more traditional options.”

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