While Westminster is gridlocked, life goes on in our local communities, where concerns over public services, crime, climate change, housing, health and business are growing. Sick to the back teeth of the B word, they feel increasingly alienated from our politics.
So, on Monday evening I was glad to raise the concerns of residents about Blaydon Landfill in the House of Commons. My constituency, Blaydon, has had more than its fair share of landfill sites, with two quarries currently situated on either side of the main road from the town of Blaydon itself, blighting the lives of local residents. Concerns over the operation of these sites are widely and deeply felt.
In 2016 there was a major incident at Path Head Quarry, when a heavy, sulphurous smell hung over large parts of Ryton for months, causing intense concern about the impact on health and seriously affecting residents’ ability to enjoy a normal life.
Thankfully, that site is now closed and being restored, but it has left an enduring concern about the effect that this type of waste management has on communities like Stargate and Crookhill, which are within just a few hundred yards of the site and had to endure odours and other problems throughout its life.
But the neighbouring Blaydon Quarry continues to cause misery for residents who are affected by the smell, disruption to their lives and what can be best described as environmental vandalism.
In early 2015, during a period of high winds a huge mass of litter escaped from the site and was sprayed around the area, landing in fields, hedges and trees. Our usually green and pleasant area was now festooned with rubbish. It was disgusting, difficult to clear and today you can still see the tatter of plastic bags in trees and bushes. It caused a huge outcry, with residents protesting, rightly angry at the operator’s failure to secure the litter on site.
This was environmental vandalism of the highest order, but, astonishingly, after consideration by the Environment Agency legal team, we were told that it was not possible to prosecute this breach even though the scale of the devastation was clear to local residents.
And two months ago, as on so many previous occasions, many residents contacted me about a bad smell in the air – calling it an odour is far too polite. In fact, they didn’t need to contact me, as I could most definitely smell it myself when I was at home. The smell was persistent and very unpleasant.
I raised the issue with the Environment Agency team and Gateshead Council, who were responsive as always. Enforcement action was taken and the site was stopped from receiving waste for a period of up to two weeks while the operators fixed the problem of the smells from uncovered waste. The required action was taken by the operators and this particular episode was concluded, but the tip re-opened and problems are likely to resurface.
It has become clear that the Environment Agency just doesn’t have sharp enough teeth to be able to deal with irresponsible operators. So, on Monday night I asked the Government Minister to strengthen the law covering landfill and waste sites to ensure that where there are recurring problems communities don’t have to continue to endure the problems arising from landfill sites. We need much stronger powers for the Environment Agency to act to really protect our environment and to deal with landfill operators that fail to meet their duties as good neighbours.
I also called on the Government to take practical steps to strengthen environmental legislation, to reduce the use of landfill. It’s time to move on from this approach and Councils like Gateshead are leading the way through their Waste Partnership with other local authorities, by converting waste into energy that can be sold to fund public services.
In the meantime, I will continue to work with my constituents, Gateshead Council and the Environment Agency to see that Blaydon Quarry is closed safely and restored as a public space, bringing an end to the misery which my constituents have had to endure.