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ESA urges Government to align planning reforms with circular economy infrastructure

A new report published by the Environmental Services Association (ESA) highlights the potential role that planning reforms could play in supporting the future development of circular economy infrastructure in the UK.

The report, Planning for a Green Economic Recovery, sets out how overhauls to the UK’s planning system could also benefit waste management planning.

An energy from waste plant in the distance, with a large river and bank in the foregroundThe ESA claims these measures hold the potential to unlock the domestic waste processing capacity and recycling needed to meet Government ambitions to achieve a 65 per cent municipal diversion target by 2035 and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The report emphasises the need for local plans to support the UK’s transition to a more circular economy, through closer integration and alignment of the land-use planning system with resource management, the green economy, energy policy and climate change.

It adds that these plans should include measures to reduce waste, increase recycling rates, and capture energy from residual waste.

According to the report, these measures would ensure the effective delivery of essential sustainable waste management infrastructure from collection, sorting, recycling, re-processing, and energy generation infrastructure.

The latter, says the ESA, should also be supported by encouraging housing, commercial, and industrial developers to take advantage of heat offtake opportunities from energy wherever possible.

Energy-from-Waste (EfW) and landfill are outlined in the report as ‘compatible with higher rates of recycling’, stating that these solutions are ‘simply designed to treat a different part of the waste stream’, and should therefore be included in local plans.

Concerns have been raised over the implementation of EfW solutions, with a recent report published by Eunomia finding that waste incineration produces significantly more carbon emissions than other low carbon sources of electricity.

In February, the Confederation of European Waste to Energy Plants (CEWEP) released a statement urging that investment in new or expanded EfW plants should be restricted only to ‘well justified’ cases.

The report also adds that local planning authorities should support ‘sensible development proposals’ on closed landfill sites, given that they meet wider sustainability and climate change objectives.

The report additionally urges the Government to prevent local authorities from imposing catchment boundaries on waste treatment facilities, labelling measures such as these as ‘unrealistic’, ‘unenforceable’, and a ‘commercial disadvantage’ for local recycling facilities.

Calling for a shift in planning culture, the ESA report encourages planners to move away from the ‘control regime’ of the ‘landfill’ era and instead recognise the transition that the waste and recycling industry is currently experiencing.

The report criticises the imposition of additional operational restrictions, such as planning consent, on modern recycling facilities, which it says now tend to resemble ‘mainstream’ industrial and logistics operations.

Significant reforms of the UK’s planning system and a new Planning Bill are anticipated later this year, building on the broad policy principles and assumptions set out in last year’s Planning White Paper consultation.

Much of the commentary currently surrounding these reforms is focussed on the housing sector, running the risk of overlooking the potential for planning reforms to also help deliver essential UK infrastructure.

Weighing in on this debate, the report urges the Government to ensure that policies designed to encourage housing supply recognise and safeguard existing and proposed operational waste management infrastructure.

Without taking this into account, the ESA says, measures intended to solve the housing problem will create a waste management problem in the process.

The report additionally encourages planning authorities to engage developers on draft conditions attached to planning consent, prior to submission to planning committees.

Measures such as these, according to the report, would identify and address conditions which might unreasonably impact on the operational use or commercial viability of waste management development.

Stephen Freeland, ESA planning policy advisor, said: “The ESA and its members are committed to helping the government meet the ambitious targets set out in its Resources and Waste Strategy and we have also clearly set out our ambition for the recycling and waste management sector to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040 – playing an important role in the UK’s pursuit of net-zero emissions by 2050.

“Meeting these targets will require billions of pounds of investment in new recycling and waste management capacity, helping to on-shore the material processing activities that the UK currently relies on export markets to deliver.

“But the UK planning system must play its part in facilitating this transition and planning reforms should allow for a system which is more responsive to the needs of the modern waste management industry, and which recognises the dynamic nature of our operations.

“With reduced reliance on landfill, much more of this material is on the move as a valuable commodity, crossing local authority boundaries for recycling or processing as markets require.

“Modern waste management development is therefore entirely consistent with development criteria in the envisaged “growth areas”; should be accommodated within Local Plans accordingly, and should benefit from a more streamlined, efficient, approval process.

“We hope the various recommendations set out today in 'Planning for a Green Economic Recovery' will help inform debate during the Planning Bill’s passage through Parliament and deliver a planning system more closely aligned with wider Government policies to preserve resources and reduce emissions.”

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