Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The con-sultation trap

Curly's Corner Shop recently remarked on the waste of time that is the Downing Street e-petition website, and I agree. Most petitions are just a protest on paper, carry little weight and are easy to ignore. Perhaps reasonably so - they only represent the feelings of the core constituency affected by the issue at hand, and those people who could be bothered to put their name to paper and/or wish to show some solidarity with the petitioners' cause. As long as it doesn't take too much of the signatory's time of course.

Some consultations rely on this kind of apathy, and quite often you can tell by the questions asked which way the authors of the consultation want things to go. So it was with the consultation for the South Tyne and Wear Waste Management Partnership strategy. Some campaigners saw the pointed manipulation that was designed into the consultation response questionnaire so instead formed their own responses.

The consultation document asked things like whether ‘obtaining benefit from rubbish by modern treatment facilities’ was a good idea - but didn't state what ‘modern treatment facilities’ people would be supporting. Hence the interpretation of the results to the consultation assumes that respondents would be happy with any ‘modern treatment facilities’ - irrespective of cost - financial or environmental.

Today's meeting of the exclusively Labour cabinet of South Tyneside Council will discuss/rubber stamp the future of the waste strategy, drawing on the interpretation of results of the recent consultation. The review of responses to the consultation holds no surprises for those with some experience of consultations.

But I suppose at least the council appeared to attempt some level of openness.

Now we discover that the councils which are part of the partnership - South Tyneside, Gateshead and Sunderland, are trying to keep us all in the dark about what is really being planned.

Initially, there were nine treatment options to deal with residual waste, but this has recently narrowed to three options:

Mechanical biological treatment (MBT) of waste through aerobic digestion
A combination of mechanical recovery of recyclable materials with a biological treatment to produce a soil conditioner/compost.

Recovery of recyclable materials, sterilising biological waste and producing a material that can be used as a refuse derived fuel (RDF or secondary incineration).

Energy from Waste with Combined Heat and Power
Recovering recyclable materials before burning the residual waste to generate energy in the form of electricity and/or heat (otherwise known as incineration - and Councillor Capstick's preferred option).

It's assumed that one of these options will be put forward as part of a PFI project.

A reasonable assumption, because in July 2007, DEFRA approved the initial ‘expression of interest’ for a PFI bid for cash to build a mega waste facility somewhere in the South Tyne area. The expression of interest was originally submitted by the Partnership to DEFRA in March 2007.

Remember, this was all before the consultation ended in August. So it would be nice to know what type of treatment infrastructure was in the expression of interest.

Back in September local waste campaign group BAN Waste asked DEFRA what type of waste treatment infrastructure was being proposed as part of the PFI bid. After six weeks of wrangling DEFRA refused to grant a Freedom of Information request, on the grounds that "the councils involved do not wish this type of information to be made public".

Wow. It's worth saying that again.

"the councils involved do not wish this type of information to be made public."

That's right - our councils want to keep us all in the dark about a policy which will affect us and our children for at least the next thirty years.

What are they concealing?

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