Who’s accountable for Public Health?
Under the Health and Social Care Act, local authorities were given statutory responsibility for protecting and improving the public health of their constituents, and are now liable to prosecution if they fail to identify public health risks and put in place suitable protection against harm. This makes sense, given that health and life expectancy depends more on income, housing and a safe environment than what the NHS has to offer. Much of what councils oversee, from alcohol policies to planning applications, have public health implications. So do councils understand their new responsibilities?
On September 3rd, Bath and North East Somerset council (BANES) walked out of a Public Inquiry into a proposed asbestos landfill of Stowey Quarry in the Chew Valley (Eye 1311), because they ‘didn’t want to use public funds’ representing the public health objections of over 4000 residents who’d signed a petition and campaigned vigorously against the plan. Many are already living in fear of the plan, and understandably so. The landfill would be in a shallow quarry at risk of landslip on a windy escarpment above the drinking reservoir which serves most of Bristol.
Landfills near drinking water reservoirs are never a good idea because linings always leak in time and even inert waste in large volumes is almost invariably contaminated and the leachate threatens the drinking supply. Indeed, Bristol Water has had two of their water sources put beyond economic use by pollution from landfill leachate and is objecting strongly. Leachate pollution has been devastating for residents near the landfill in Houghton Le Spring in Tyne and Wear. The Environment Agency issued a permit for the landfill but was completely unable to stop the pollution, fining Biffa £105,000 this year after campaigners had complained of the smell and water contamination for 12 years.
Landfilling Stowey Quarry with asbestos alongside inert waste makes the public health objection even stronger. The site is very windy and asbestos fibres will readily disperse. There is no ‘safe limit’ for inhalation for those at risk of mesothelioma, an incurable lung cancer, and the site has no mains water to hose down fibres on lorries due to arrive every 6 minutes. The quarry owners have no track record in asbestos disposal and have made no effort to explain their plans the local community. And at an asbestos dump in nearby Evercreech, the Environment Agency was unable to prevent asbestos fibres being repeatedly released into the air. Asbestos fibres can also be carried suspended in water and swallowed, increasing the risk of peritoneal mesothelioma. And the Stowey site has not had a full environmental impact assessment for risk of landslip or leakage.
Unsurprisingly, residents of the Chew Valley (of which MD is one), perceive the risk of harm to them and future generations to be significant if planning permission is granted. BANES was expected to have presented these public health objections to the Public Inquiry, having rejected the plan unanimously at the Development Committee stage in 2012, but walked away claiming it was now ‘neutral’, leaving residents to go it alone – much to the consternation of Planning Inspector Brian Cook. The Inquiry was adjourned until October 3.
MD asked BANES if it had taken into account the Health and Social Care Act 2012 before walking out. Its response: ‘Health issues are capable of being material considerations in the planning system but they are given little weight when these issues are covered by other legislation. This responsibility lies principally with the Environment Agency.’ Given the EA ‘virtually never’ refuses a permit, this is a clear abdication of duty.
If local authorities fail to understand their public health responsibilities, what sense is there in shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham’s big plan to hand over the vast majority of NHS funding to local authorities, who would then hold an ‘integrated budget’ for health, social care and public health of around £90bn? Would they spend it wisely and stand up to corporate greed on behalf of the health of their residents? In Somerset and Sunderland, it would appear not.
Stowey Quarry Public Inquiry
Fry’s Conference Centre, Keynsham
3rd and 4th September and 3rd and 4th October
Planning Inspector: Brian Cook
For the Appellant. Barrister: Vincent Frazer, QC. Witnesses: John Williams and Robert Harper.
For BANES. Lawyer: Mr Forster. Witnesses: Chris Herbert of SLR, Mr Webb, Mrs B. Keenan of the Environment Agency, Mr Berry of Bristol Water.
For Stowey Sutton Action Group. Solicitor advocate: Paul Stookes. Witnesses: Dr D. Dickerson, Gareth Thomas, Dr Kay Borland, Heather Clewett, Dr Phil Hammond, David Beecham, Keith Betton, Victor Pritchard.
Members of the public who wish to speak: Rosemary Naish (Clutton PC), Sarah-Jane Streatfeild-James, Sally Monkhouse, Chris Charlton (Advisor to Bristol Water).