Why the planning system must improve to help build better recycling infrastructure 

David Wilson, managing director of recycling company Vanden, argues the case for an improved planning system so more plastic recycling infrastructure can be built across the country.

Plastic has become a big issue over the past year or so with the public.

It is great to see engagement from people all over the UK and a genuine willingness to recycle their plastics.

But if the UK does not start building the recycling infrastructure that is needed to recover from the amount of material that can be recycled, it will be a big missed opportunity.

With China giving away a 7 million tonnes a year and closing off imports of plastics for recycling, and other Asian nations following suit, the UK needs to start building recycling facilities. Otherwise, material that could be recycled could end up in energy to waste facilities and landfill.

If we do not start now, the rest of the world will go ahead and build its infrastructure, and valuable material will leave the country.

For this to happen, planning permission needs to be made as clear and as flexible as it possibly can.

Last year at Vanden, we completed the building of a new recycling facility in Peterborough and currently are transitioning from waste exemption to getting a full permit with the Environment Agency.

Going through the planning system and looking at where to place the new plant, we took in a number of considerations. We looked at where we were getting the waste from, what materials we wanted to keep in the UK and what ones were available, transport routes, and cost of buildings. We knew that we needed the flat areas for recycling, and by narrowing down our search to Eastern England, we chose Peterborough.

A major advantage for the company was the building we found already had planning consent for waste from the previous occupier, meaning we never had to go through the initial process. If the building didn’t have this consent, it would have been a lot harder for us considering we knew nothing about the planning system in that area and we didn’t know the local authority. It would have been a difficult relationship to build from scratch.

As we want to add more space, we are going through the process to get the building that adjacently joins our plant planning permission. I’m quite optimistic about getting it approved due to the original consent on the first facility. It should hopefully flow quite well. In particular, Cambridgeshire County Council produce a document specifically detailing requirements for the location and design of waste management facilities and this has been very useful.

While our experience with the local council has been good so far, I understand that planning systems vary depending on location. Some recycling facilities are permitted to operate in a building with consent for warehousing and light industrial and others requiring more detailed applications needed for waste management. This makes it more complicated for firms wanting to build facilities to actually gain the licence.

Considerations that local authorities have to look for include the closeness of the facility to other buildings, air and water quality and security, which are measures that I completely understand have to be taken. But this doesn’t mean that there cannot be some consistency throughout the UK for planning permission. If you look at how the Environment Agency operates, they provide country-wide waste permits, and it would be great to see this happen with local authorities with regard to planning.

For companies wanting to apply for consent, I suggest you be as clear and as detailed as you possibly can in your application, as this will make it easier for you and the local authority. In particular your local authority will have produced guidance on what’s required to build a facility as Cambridgeshire has done.

The truth for local authorities is that the UK is short of processing capacity and we have to build recycling facilities, not just to handle the waste, but for the economic benefits it will bring – more money for infrastructure and job creation. With so much market confusion, the industry is facing problems and simplicity of the planning system would really help. If the council does not want recycling plants. they need to make it clear, so companies can rule out those areas.

While I would describe Vanden’s experience of the planning system as benign so far, we were fortunate enough to find a place that already had suitable planning permission. I think our experience would be a lot different if this was not the case. Clarity in the system is a must for the improvement of not only the recycling infrastructure, but for the entirety of the UK economy. We cannot miss out on the opportunity to expand and keep our materials in the country.

For more information contact Alex Bean.


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