NORTH-East taxpayers could foot the bill for annual fines of up to £83m unless councils slash the amount of rubbish dumped into landfill.
The warning from town hall chiefs comes as councils work to meet Government targets to cut the level of biodegradable waste sent to landfill, as required under European Union (EU) rules designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change.
The 12 North-East authorities responsible for waste disposal must cut the amount from 879,666 tonnes in 2007-08 to 692,340 tonnes by 2010 and to 322,680 tonnes a decade later – or be fined £150 per excess tonne.
Annual fines could reach £28m within three years and £83.5m by 2020 if no progress is made, although councils say work is underway to meet targets. Councils are also allowed to trade surplus allowances, keep them or ‘borrow’ future amounts.
Newcastle Council say its cumulative fine could reach £47.5m by 2020, but it is investigating potential solutions like composting and incineration as part of a strategy to avoid penalties.
The National Audit Office (NAO) has already warned of a “significant” risk that English councils won’t meet targets set out in the landfill allowance trading scheme (LATS), introduced by ministers to meet EU rules. The watchdog last year said councils could face £40m annual fines by 2010, rising to £205m by 2013, while EU penalties imposed on the Government could be passed to town halls.
Blair Gibbs, from the Taxpayers Alliance, warned council taxpayers would lose out because of the EU forcing decisions on councillors.
“If councils try to meet these landfill targets, we get a reduced level of service, frontline collections and extra charges for bins.
“If they don’t try to meet these targets or they try and fail, they will pay a fine to the European Union which will only mean that they raid resource budgets for frontline services or hike council tax further,” he said.
A Local Government Association spokesman said: “The fear is that any additional costs may have to be passed onto the council taxpayers. We have identified waste and recycling as one of the biggest pressure points on local government and we certainly identified it as an area that needs a lot more government investment over the next few years.”
He added councils in England and Wales face paying £3bn in landfill tax –designed to encourage recycling – over the next four years. The standard fee is increasing £8 a year per tonne, rising to £32 next April.
But North-East councils responsible for waste disposal said work was under way to cut landfill use and avoid penalties. Northumberland County Council said recycling rates would rise to 45%, generate energy from residual rubbish and disposal to landfill be cut to 8% under a 28-year waste contract.
Sunderland Council is consulting on a joint 20-year strategy with Gateshead and South Tyneside – with a key issue being how to best use waste that cannot be recycled.
“Facilities that can use the residual waste to generate electricity and steam for heating purposes did feature among the options. The aim is to seek arrangements that help to meet the landfill avoidance targets from 2009 with longer- term facilities being available from about 2012,” said a spokeswoman.
John Wade, from Durham County Council, said additional treatment capacity was needed from around 2011 but hoped to award a new waste contract to meet targets. The new system would stem greenhouse gases, even if it was initially more expensive.
Page 2: From your wheelie bin to compost in six days
From your wheelie bin to compost in six days
FIVE years ago a pair of towers no taller than a three-storey home were constructed in County Durham to treat rubbish that families were sending to landfill.
Five years on, the Premier Advanced Recycling Centre (Parc) at Thornley, near Peterlee, is finding new uses for 78% of the rubbish that would otherwise have been dumped in the ground.
Now a trio of towers, they can receive up to 62,000 tonnes a year of municipal waste, generally from wheelie bins.
Within six days, the process is complete. It effectively grinds up and composts the rubbish and sorts the material into plastics, metals, glass and a compost for resale and reuse, sending just over a fifth of the original material to landfill.
The plastic is used as covering for pipes, the metals are recycled and the glass is used as aggregates. ‘Biologically active’ material, such as card, paper and kitchen waste comes out as a type of compost that is mixed with garden waste products to give a fertile topsoil for the construction industry.
Last night bosses at Premier said they were looking to expand their Parc operation – which is cheaper and better for the environment than incineration and could effectively wipe out North-East councils’ landfill targets.
Premier marketing manager Tony Hitchens said: "Councils are looking for alternatives. We’re looking to expand, we’re looking for new sites. We’re certainly getting interest from commerce and industry and from other local authorities."
Committed – but with little chance
THE Government yesterday insisted it remained committed to renewable energy sources, despite a warning by officials that it has little hope of achieving ambitious European targets.
A leaked briefing paper by officials at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform warned that the UK was set to fall far short of the EU target of generating 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
According to the document obtained by a national newspaper, the best Britain can hope for is to raise the level of renewable energy generation from 5% at present to around 9% by the end of the target period. It suggested ministers should consider "what options there are for statistical interpretations of the target that would make it easier to achieve".
Downing Street acknowledged that the targets, which Tony Blair signed up to shortly before standing down as Prime Minister, were "challenging" but said it was up to the European Commission to come forward with proposals to achieve them.
"The UK is fully committed to renewables," a No 10 spokeswoman said. "It is no secret that these are ambitious targets and it will be a major challenge to meet them, not just for the UK but for all EU states. It is now for the Commission to propose how the EU-wide targets should be met."
Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks said the Government was on course to meet its own target of generating 15% of Britain’s electricity from renewable sources by 2015.
He acknowledged, however, that the EU target – which covers all energy production including transport – was more demanding.
While he said that the UK was determined to make its contribution towards achieving it, he would not be drawn on whether it could reach 20% by the target date.