HC Deb 04 May 1971 vol 816 cc1307-32

10.4 p.m.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

I beg to move, That the Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Regulations, 1971, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd April, be approved.

Mr. Speaker

I suggest that it would be convenient for the House to discuss at the same time the following Motion: That the Town and Country Planning (Minerals) (Scotland) Regulations, 1971, a copy of which was laid before this House on 1st April, be approved.

Mr. Page

That will be convenient, Mr. Speaker.

These Regulations adapt and modify general planning law in respect of mineral workings. This is allowed by Section 197(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1962, which was a consolidation Measure. This has, in fact, been allowed since the 1948 legislation; that is, an alteration in the law as contained in the Act by Regulations of the sort that are now before the House.

There have been several sets of Regulations since 1948 relating to mineral workings. The last set was in 1963 following the consolidation Act of 1962, but since then we have had the Town and Country Planning Act, 1968, and it is necessary to bring the 1963 Regulations up to date.

The object of the present Regulations, therefore, is twofold. The first is to reenact the 1963 Regulations so that they apply to the 1968 Act. This is merely a matter of drafting and inserting "1968" instead of "1962" in a number of the Regulations. I am sure that the House would not wish me to spend time on that matter. It is merely a question of change of references and certainly not a change of law.

The second object is to carry out the purpose of the Section in the 1968 Act referring to the life of a planning permission. That object is an innovation in these Regulations compared with the 1963 Regulations. It relates to Section 65 of the 1968 Act, subsection (1) of which provided that Subject to the provisions of this section, every planning permission granted or deemed to have been granted before the commencement of this section —that is, 1st April, 1969— shall, if the development to which it relates has not been begun before the beginning of 1968, be deemed to have been granted subject to a condition that the development must be begun not later than the expiration of five years beginning with the said commencement. Therefore, any planning permission, whether it related to mineral workings or any other development of land, if it existed when the 1968 Act came into operation, had a life of only five years. That relates to permissions which existed when the Act came into operation.

Section 65(2) dealt with future planning permissions. I propose to read the subsection but to leave out immaterial parts: …every planning permission granted …after the commencement of this section shall be granted…subject to the condition that the development to which it relates must be begun not later than the expiration of—

  1. (a) five years beginning with the date on which the permission is granted or…
  2. (b) such other period (whether longer or shorter) beginning with the said date as the authority concerned with the terms of the planning permission may direct, being a period which the authority consider appropriate having regard to the provisions of the development plan and to any other material considerations."
Therefore, any planning permission granted after the commencement of the 1968 Act—that is after 1st April 1969—automatically has a life of five years unless the local planning authority inserts some other life, whether shorter or longer, after it has considered the "material considerations" and the development plan so far as they relate to the application for planning permission.

A mineral undertaker who now applies for planning permission would, if it were granted, have it for a period of five years—if he did not commence working on it in that period the life of the planning permission would go—or such other period as the local planning authority might consider fit and proper for the development of the mineral workings.

What do the mineral undertakers think about that? My Department has had consultations with the mineral undertakers as represented by a committee of the Confederation of British Industry. It has been convenient for everyone that that committee should negotiate with the Department on behalf of the mineral extraction industry. There were conferences on 10th December, 1968 and on 15th May. So far as the Town and Country Planning Act, 1968 applied to future planning applications, the C.B.I. appeared to be satisfied at the time, and that satisfaction is expressed in a memorandum which has been sent to hon. and right hon. Members in the last few days: For consents granted after the Section came into effect Local Planning Authorities are empowered under S.65(2) to allow a period longer (or shorter) than five years; if no period is stipulated the standard five years is deemed to apply. There is a right of appeal to the Secretary of State by virtue of Section 67(4) of the 1968 Act against the time limit deemed or actual… The industry accepts in respect of future consents, where the power is given to Local Planning Authorities to grant such longer or shorter period, that it will be up to the individual mineral undertaker to argue the case for the appropriate length of time. There is some danger of planning authorities adopting the standard five years but the position is protected by appeal procedure to the Minister under Section 67(4). It is important to note that there was agreement between the C.B.I., my Department and the local authority associations that there should be no change of the regulations for future applications. The C.B.I. expressed itself confident in proving the case for a period longer than five years if necessary, and confident that the local planning authorities would act reasonably. If they did not, there was always an appeal to the Secretary of State.

It is with regard to existing applications that we are at issue with the mineral undertakers as their case is presented to us by the C.B.I. I will explain first the purpose of putting a time limit on planning permissions. This was argued at the time when the 1968 Bill was going through Committee and Report stages.

It was pointed out that it is very damaging and obstructive to proper planning to have a quantity of planning permissions outstanding of which advantage might be taken at any time or at no time. In mineral workings particularly, there are speculative planning permissions outstanding where there is no certainty about their use or when, if ever, they may be used. Section 65(1) of the 1968 Act was intended as a shake-out of doubtful planning permissions. What does the C.B.I., on behalf of the mineral undertaker, think of the principle of the shakeout—that is, shaking out the planning permissions which are not likely to be used, which are purely speculative and which are obstructing good planning in an area? I quote again, this time from paragraph 7 of the memorandum. We suggest that no time limitation should be imposed upon consents that were vested in any bona fide mineral undertaker on 31st March, 1969. But, in paragraph 9, talking about everyone else, the memorandum said: The C.B.I. proposal would not only preserve such consents as are necessary but would have the additional merit of getting rid within the next three years of old and speculative mineral working consents held by non-mineral undertakers which have never been implemented but which attach to the land. So it is agreed by those acting for the mineral undertakers that there should be this shake-out within the period—now reduced to three years—of five years after the Act unless the mineral undertaker can show that he is a bona fide mineral undertaker. I continue the quotation referring to the speculative work consents: These subsist because at the time they were granted no period of limitation was stipulated but by virtue of Regulation 6 they will endure until 1979. They could be revoked but the compensation associated with revocation is more often than not a deterrent to its being carried out by the Local Planning Authority. The result is a record in planning registers of so-called mineral reserves which can be misleading and obviously must add to the difficulty of Local Planning Authorities seeking to pursue any coherent policy. I find myself in entire agreement with that statement on the principle of shakeout, contained in Section 65 of the 1968 Act.

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)

My hon. Friend has been referring to the speculator, but unfortunately he has bracketed the speculator with the genuine miner. Would it not be a good idea to give preferential treatment to the genuine mineral undertaker and go ahead with the shake-out of speculators?

Mr. Page

The difficulty is to decide what is the genuine mineral undertaker or why, indeed, he should be exempt if he is holding speculative planning permissions. It is true that a bona fide mineral undertaker was defined for the purpose of the Land Commission Act, but there we were dealing with those in business as mineral undertakers, quite regardless of whether they might be holding speculative planning permissions. It is unrealistic to think that one can exclude a certain class of mineral undertaker and say that he is not holding planning permissions which may be obstructive to planning. It would surely be wrong to assume that no existing operator held only speculative, untried or unwanted permissions. The fact that a company was working minerals in a locality on a given date could be no guarantee of its needs or its intentions in different locations and perhaps in respect of quite different minerals.

Instead of there being a five-year period of shake-out with the exclusion of what I might call the chosen few, we propose in these Regulations that there should be a 10-year shake-out which will give the genuine and bona fide undertakers time to identify themselves to the local planning authorities, to undertake negotiations for reapplication for their permissions, and to show that they really intend to work them and are not holding them merely for speculation. We have given adequate time for operators to assess their situations and to renew their permissions in good time.

I do not think that it is realistic for them to fear, as they appear to, that permissions will not be renewed. We all know that minerals are an essential element in our industrial life, and no one supposes that workings can stop. But we can look to the time limit to clear away the permissions which are not likely to be exercised, and it is right to do that. It is right not only for the benefit of planning in an area, but, as, the C.B.I. points out in its memorandum, for the future of the industry itself.

Here again is a quotation from the memorandum: The early shake out of these mineral planning permissions held by speculators or owners who have never been engaged in the mineral industries, and which have often been obtained on the sparsest of information as to the occurrence of minerals, is highly desirable. Their existence has created complications in estimating mineral reserves and the ability of the various sections of the minerals industries to meet demand over a term of years. It is clear that the C.B.I. itself sees a danger to the industry in these outstanding permissions, as we in the Department see a danger to the local planning authorities in their efforts to plan.

There is another purpose in this shakeout of planning permissions and placing a limit on the life of a planning permission. Many of these permissions were granted a long time ago before planning had become as sophisticated as it is now in terms of the conditions placed on planning permissions with regard to working and especially with regard to restoration. They were granted before there was a Department of the Environment, and it would be wrong for us to fail to take this opportunity of looking at some of the old planning permissions to see whether there should be new conditions on them and whether the conditions which may have been imposed are being carried out properly.

I will not give any undertaking that, when a mineral undertaker who has had a planning permission for many years without working it has to seek reapplication, there will not be more stringent conditions put on it than may have been imposed 10 or 20 years ago. Surely the whole purpose of the Department of the Environment is to try and protect the environment with modern conditions against some of the eyesores which have appeared through quarry workings over the years because proper conditions were not placed upon them in the old days. I am sure that the industry is prepared to accept these conditions. With 10 years to negotiate reapplications with local planning authorities, I am sure that this proposal will work out to the benefit of all the parties concerned, the local planning authorities and the industry.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. Spencer Le Marchant (The High Peak)

I believe that The High Peak has about a quarter of the highest quality limestone in the country. A happy relationship, which works, exists between thoroughly responsible employers and a very good labour force. In my estimation at least 10,000 people, counting dependants, in my constituency depend on these quarries. This concerns not only the quarries but the ancillary services connected with them—transport, petrol, and those kinds of things.

This is a vastly important industry for the nation. The limestone which comes from this part of Derbyshire, including West Derbyshire, forms the basis of our future road programme. It is also of vast importance to my constituents because, with the closing of the mills and factories, it is the major industry.

While respecting the Minister's views on this matter, I ask whether we are using the shaking-out to hit the responsible people when we are really aiming at shaking out the entrepreneurs, or whatever they are. Regulation 6 adversely affects the responsible companies. When people make applications on a large site, they may not operate that particular piece of land, with the many applications which they have made, for many years.

I refer to the publication by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in 1960 which goes back to the 1948 Act. On page 5, it says: The acreage of land comprised in each allocation should obviously be related to the individual operator's need of security for his capital outlay—for example the allocation of resources with a life of say sixty years or more may be justified in the case of a large-scale and highly mechanised undertaking. I suggest that that is what we are speaking about tonight. In such matters, capital must be invested on a 60 years' basis. For example, five, 10 or 20 years is no good. For surface operations, 20 years will bring the capital back; but for these people it is a question of needing a much longer period to be certain.

I refer to another comment in this Departmental publication where, on page 6, it says: It should be the concern of the local planning authority to protect mineral reserves of economic importance which it is expected will have to be worked in the long term (beyond the period of the development plan). These are the worries which I suggest we have to consider tonight.

We must try to keep confidence in investment. We must consider, from the industry's view, the expense to which it might be put by continuing applications. I entirely agree that it is not possible to decide on a bona fide mineral undertaker. My hon. Friend has mentioned that a bona fide mineral undertaker could be working at a place where it could easily be ascertained that he was doing the correct thing, but on another site he may not be doing it.

I ask the Minister to consider this matter again in the near future and to realise what a great deal of capital is needed for a very long period in this industry.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

The Minister explained with great lucidity—no one is more lucid than he, whatever my criticisms of what he said—that these Regulations flow from the 1968 Act. But that starts with the supposition, which in the case of houses is wholly reasonable, that planning consent, once granted, must be used within five years or fall into disuse. It is when my hon. Friend seeks to extend that principle into the field of minerals that I draw his attention to the fact that minerals are a totally different industry, a highly technical matter which ony those who have spent their lives in it can understand.

The very phrase "mineral industry" is a misnomer, because there is no such industry. There is a large number of different persons extracting different minerals in different circumstances to which different Regulations may apply. My hon. Friend did not mention any particular mineral. There are several in my constituency, each different from the other.

These Regulations are highly controversial and are opposed by every mineral developer in my constituency, and I do not believe that this is confined to my constituency. I am not concerned mainly with sand and gravel, which I suspect is what the Minister is thinking about. There are in South Dorset the quarry men of Swanage, the marblers, who, for generations, in a way which has offended no one, have carried on an industry on which the whole county is proud. They have done nothing at any time to deface the countryside. There is at Wareham the ball clay industry, in which, again, conditions are quite different.

Finally, there is the stone industry at Portland, where I believe the Department genuinely believe that these Regulations will make some contribution to amenity or beauty. In fact, they will have directly the reverse effect. Portland stone, known to everyone, is the pride of the architectural heritage of Britain. St. Paul's Cathedral, Mansion House, this House itself—so many of our great buildings are built of Portland stone.

The Portland stone industry today is on the verge of extinction. If it be extinguished, that will be no contribution to amenity. If my hon. Friend places on it these burdens, which will add to the cost of production, there will be no argument to justify it, in the interests of the employers, the investors or the workers, many of whom are out of work.

These Regulations, however marginally, will make production more expensive. I often wish that, when planning matters of this kind are considered in the Department, it was someone's job to cost them. This might lead to a different decision. Not so long ago, the same Department prohibited the conversion of premises in the City of London into flats. Last year that decision was reversed. I put down a Parliamentary Question asking what the effect would be. The effect was that those rents went up by 200 per cent. I dare bet that by the time the Regulation was introduced no one had attempted to calculate what the economic results would be. I fear that the same sort of lack of calculation, at least in the industries about which I am speaking, is evident here.

I recently received a letter from a member of a stone firm, who said: I am particularly concerned about the situation in Portland where the reserves of Portland stone are well covered by planning consent. However, the land covered by three of these consents, granted prior to April, 1969, will not be entered into within the next 10 years. It is obsolutely vital that we maintain the reserves of Portland stone and protect the industry on the island. Only last week the Town Clerk of Portland wrote to me asking me to move the Government in any way whatever to protect employment in Portland. It is going down in many other respects, but I should be out of order to pursue that now. I dislike the thought that the only reply I can make to the town clerk so far is that the position has worsened in this respect.

My hon. Friend will probably reply that we need not be too concerned about this, because the local planning authority, when the time comes, will have the power to use common sense to extend these per- missions as they ought to be extended. If the local planning authority were still to be Portland, I might share the Minister's confidence. He may have seen in the Press that one councillor has urged a Portland U.D.I., but I do not think that we need take that seriously. However, by the time these matters come to be considered we shall be unitary area number 29. That authority has not yet come into being. Certainly no Portland authority will exercise the power which I think ought not to be exercised.

My hon. Friend wrote to me pointing out the powers of the local planning authority. His argument was that the local planning authority was likely to take the right decision and if it did not, there was the appeal to the Minister. He ought not to run two horses, because throughout the last six months and more the Ministry has been arguing that more power ought to be given to local authorities. The number of times the Minister upsets the local authority on appeal is small. I would be unwilling, in the light of the immense pressure that now rests upon local authorities, to place industries which have national importance wholly in their hands.

I know that my hon. Friend will send a circular to local authorities on this point shortly, and I hope that when he does so he will make clear, in the most certain terms, at least in respect of the industries which I have mentioned, that if there is any attempt to restrict these permissions to 10 years then, on appeal, those decisions will be reversed.

10.39 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) upon so clearly expressing the fears which many of us share. I should like to take the opportunky of congratulating my hon. Friend the Minister, because he is a man for whom I have a great deal of admiration. He is a very dogged sort of person and once he gets hold of a phrase I am afraid that he becomes determined to stick to it. In this case, knowing my hon. Friend's persistence, I feel that he is determined, as he puts it, to "shake out" these planning permissions. I fear that, regardless of what we say tonight and the obvious unfairness to many holders of planning consents, my hon. Friend will, to use his words, shake out these planning permissions.

It is no recommendation to me to be told that the Regulations stem from the 1968 Act, because 1968 was a vintage year for bad Acts of Parliament. Although this particular Act is not as bad as some, it is certainly no recommendation that the Regulations originate from that source.

Ten years is an inadequate period to allow for work to be commenced under these planning consents. In many cases, a planning consent will refer to just one reserve of minerals, and in order to acquire all the reserves in the site one may need more than one planning consent. A mineral right owner may have to go to a number of different sites in one reserve, each covered by a different planning consent, commence extraction at one point, then move, perhaps, a few hundred yards to another, commence extraction again, and so on, simply to be able to say that on 1st April, 1979, extraction had commenced.

Obviously, that will be an uneconomic state of affairs, but it will be necessary for the mineral owner to take that course, and the consequence will be the disfiguration of the countryside.

Another drawback of the Regulations is that that will mean that a good deal of land now in agricultural use, land which could remain undisturbed almost indefinitely until required for mineral extraction, will have to be disturbed by commencement of extraction before the 10 years are up and then be left in abeyance, presumably, until such time as the company wishes to get down to full-scale extraction.

A good many mineral consents relate to land in what are known as areas of outstanding natural beauty. If the Regulations are accepted, mineral companies will be forced to commence extraction in these areas, sterilise the land by the starting of works, and then leave the eyesore of a hole and a slag heap started until such time as it is able to get down to work properly.

As my hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant) said, mineral working is a long-term business. It calls for considerable capital equipment. In the cement industry, for example, it may take up to 60 years to write off the expensive capital equipment involved in such extractive work.

What would be the position of somebody who had acquired mineral rights in, say, 1965, with the relevant planning permission, and who planned to commence extraction in, say, 1981? If the extraction had not commenced by 1979, the planning consent would be deemed to have lapsed, and even if a fresh application were made, there would be no certainty that it would be accepted. In such circumstances, there would be a direct loss to the company concerned. It has paid for the reserves, with planning consent to commence extraction. Does the Minister propose, if the Regulations are persisted in, that owners of such planning consents would be compensated for the obvious financial loss involved?

In view of what he has heard so far, and what he may yet hear, I urge my hon. Friend to think again before pushing the Regulations through the House.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I join with other hon. Members in congratulating the Minister on the lucidity with which he put his case. In common with other hon. Gentlemen, I suspect, the clearer it became, the stronger my opposition to his intentions became. In putting that to the hon. Gentleman, I mean no abuse or offence. This is not in any way a matter of party politics.

My disagreement in this matter—and I suspect the disagreement of his hon. Friends—is not a disagreement with objectives; it is a disagreement with means. It is the method that is in doubt rather than the objectives sought. I am sure that everyone, including the bona fide mineral interests, would approve the triple objective of this set of Regulations.

The first objective, to which the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) has already referred, is the necessary shaking out of outstanding consents on which no action appears likely. It would, perhaps, be helpful to the House if the Minister—I realise that he may not have the information readily available—could give an estimate of the number of such consents outstanding. Information on the acreage involved would also be useful to hon. Gentlemen. On this first objective of shaking out, I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman in rejecting the proposition in the memorandum, from which he quoted, that there should be no time limit. He is absolutely right. There has to be some time limit, for reasons which the memorandum adduced in another section.

Equally, I agree that it would not be right to exclude what would be arbitrary groups or classes of holders of planning consent. When I read the memorandum I felt the same objections that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. Again, he is absolutely right in his rejection of the form of words put forward.

Mr. Skeet

During the course of the Land Commission Bill through the House, special exemption was made for minerals because they were regarded in the classification of Case C, and put in a special category of their own. Would not the hon. Gentleman consider that there is a case also for putting minerals in a special classification here, especially when a grant has been conceded and it is now to be withdrawn?

Mr. Williams

I thought that the hon. Gentleman and I were in utter agreement, as is the Minister, I think, that there is a special case for minerals.

In removing one anomaly, we are concerned not to perpetuate an even worse anomaly in adopting a form of words which is unjustifiable in equity.

The second objective of the Regulations, which again I find utterly acceptable, is that they give greater security to the mineral operator than that given at present. The hon. Gentleman's supporters should recognise that. We think that this will be inadequate, but nevertheless there is greater security and this is part of the objective in helping those who genuinely intend to carry out operations on the land presently covered by consents.

The third objective, which again I find unexceptionable, is that the Regulations would give the opportunity to apply modern restoration concepts where possible and necessary. Most hon. Members would find this a desirable objective. I have tried to follow closely the speeches made so far, and where I disagree with the hon. Gentleman is in his method and in his rigidity of approach. This is the difficulty. I hope to show that the universality of requiring work to start before 1st April, 1979, if planning consent is not to lapse, is both unnecessarily rigid and possibly harmfully rigid. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind that there seems to be a completely bipartisan approach in opposing these Regulations.

In framing Regulations a Ministry which is subject to several conflicting lobbies tends, where the case is reasonably evenly balanced, to decide in favour of the lobby with which it has its most frequent contact and conflict. This is too much of a concession to the pressures of the local authorities and not sufficient of an understanding of the industry's problems. There is no need for this conflict. All the objectives which the Minister and the local authorities wish to achieve could be achieved without the harmful results for the operators.

We all recognise the need for mineral operators to have adequate reserves to ensure their survival as commercial entities and enable them to continue to meet the nation's mineral needs. The Minister will also be aware that the greater the capital investment in the plant associated with a particular type of mineral operation the further ahead it becomes essential to guarantee adequate and accessible reserves. For sand and gravel operations it is necessary to think in terms of 15 to 20 years before capital is recouped and the operation is viable. In the case of cement, involving plant investment amounting to millions of pounds, it is necessary to think in terms of 60 years and upwards. This is an important factor to bear in mind when assessing the impact of the Regulations.

Mineral reserve areas which will carry a firm for such a time span will almost inevitably be covered by more than one planning consent. We know the difficulties of obtaining the mineral rights where mineral rights are often separated from land ownership and where rights have been fragmented between a multiplicity of owners. Because of the difficulties of acquisition, or because reserves must be so large and the areas in which sufficient reserves can be found are not contiguous, there is often more than one consent covering the reserves of a perfectly legitimate operator who has every intention of legitimately using the reserves.

It is clear that, against such time scales, in many instances a time limit of 1979 for starting operations is unrealistic. The length of time scales is recognised in the planning permissions that have been granted since 1969. We recognise it for those currently being given and those to be given in future. Local authorities are in general reasonable and realistic about the life span of planning permission, but when they are not the Ministry provides a valuable safeguard through the appeals system.

The extra five years contained in the Regulations is an improvement. The fundamental anomaly remains. Basically, unless work is started before 1979 the consent will be lost and new planning permission will be required. We must not under-estimate the importance of the requirement for a completely new planning permission.

To avoid resubmissions, operators will be forced to undertake uneconomic and premature exploitation of reserves that they should not be tapping for years to come. Such an action will make economic sense to an operator rather than risk going through the planning procedure again. This is very important, as an operator faced with a planning refusal knows that what follows is that his capital tied up in reserves is immediately depreciated. It is less valuable because the reserves are not exploitable. For that reason even the land becomes worth less than it was worth previously. Furthermore, because he has already entered into a capital commitment which was based on an assumption of long-time use of resources, and therefore long-term depreciation of the capital, he finds himself with a non-viable investment in plant as well.

All these factors are very real worries to operators. One firm, which it would not be fair to name, has told me that it may have to remove face material from a reserve area to meet the deadline, though it does not need the reserves in that reserve area for many years ahead. Not only will that be expensive, because it will mean less economic utilisation, but—even more important, and against the amenity lobby, for which most of us would express sympathy—it will mean a premature disturbance of already existing agricultural land. If it were not for the Regulations, that land could be carrying on in agricultural use for many years beyond 1979. In this sense it could be that the Regulations will become counter-productive.

So again I ask the Minister not to under-estimate the industry's fear that it may be faced with a series of renewed and costly planning permission skirmishes, with objectors reopening old battles. Many firms have made a heavy investment in plant, on the legitimate, legal assumption that the planning battle was already won. They would not have made those heavy investments had the planning battle not been seen by them to be won. Now they face the fear of loss of availability of reserves, losing the capital value of reserves if the consent is revised, and the possibility of being left with a non-viable fixed investment in the form of plant.

They do not accept, and I do not, the assurance of the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, in another place on 23rd April, when he said: It would be unrealistic to assume that Section 65 will be allowed to bring essential workings to a halt."—[OFFICLAL REPORT, House of Lords, 22nd April, 1971; Vol. 317, c. 902.] If there is no uncertainty in the whole question of re-submitting through the planning process, why re-submit in the first place? There must be an element of uncertainty if anything is to be achieved. It is that very requirement which creates the fear in the minds of the mineral operators.

I have a suggestion, in a genuine attempt to be helpful. It may well be that it will not be practical, but perhaps the Minister could consider it. It seems to me that the fears of the industry could be met by a relaxation of the single criterion—having started operations—which he is seeking to impose within the Regulations. Could he make it possible to bypass the resubmission by saying that this would be acceptable where agreement is reached with the planning authority before the terminal date, 1st April, 1979, on a new life span for the existing planning permission, so that it could take into account the requirements of the mineral industry as it does on the new permissions, and where there has been agreement on suitable restoration provisions being accepted by the mineral operator?

There would be all the benefits to be obtained from going through the process of getting planning permission. The operator would have to give all the information required to justify getting planning permission, and he would have to make the same concessions to amenity requirements; but he would not be facing the risk of losing a basic part of his investment. If the local planning authority were in doubt about the genuineness of the operator's intentions, it could require him to go through the whole planning permission process and possibly be subjected to objections from the general public.

I do not expect the Minister to deal with this tonight. I know that he has a Whip majority, but I know that his hon. Friends feel strongly about this, although they would be placed in an invidious position if I forced a Division at this time. But I hope that he will bear in mind that this solution, if it is a solution, would still enable the shake-out to take place when local authorities discuss future consents and the future time spans of operators. It would still enable amenity and restoration factors to be taken into account. But it would give something which the Regulations do not give—a sense of security to the bona fide mineral operator with a heavy investment which he legitimately wanted to protect.

I have endeavoured not to be political tonight, and I make this suggestion sincerely. To some extent the Minister's hon. Friends have indicated a certain support by their various noddings, unless they have been nodding off to sleep because I have been so long. I ask the Minister not to give an outright rejection and in return we will not ask for outright acceptance. Will he consult his advisers and the industry, and the local authorities if necessary, on the basis of the reasonable, common-sense compromise which I have endeavoured to put forward?

I understand that the Government are considering bringing forward the mineral rights legislation. I worked for 18 months preparing the draft proposals and I should like to see them reach the Statute Book. That legislation would provide a convenient opportunity for the Minister to give us his views and say whether amending legislation should be introduced. If he will give that assur- ance, he will receive support from his own back benches and from the industry, and he will receive my gratitude, for I shall not have wasted my time trying to think of a solution to this difficult problem.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)

During the Committee stage of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1968, I had the privilege of moving on behalf of the Opposition an Amendment to exempt mineral workings from the scope of the five-year rule. I will not weary the House with the argument which I used on that occasion, but it is interesting to consider what the then Parliamentary Secretary, in the late Arthur Skeffington, said in reply: As regards existing workings, it is immediately conceded that a limitation to five years is unreal. Operations and programmes might be threatened or put in jeopardy if it were thought that this were to apply to existing permissions. In these cases my right hon. Friend and my hon. and learned Friend will consider relying on Section 197(1) of the principal Act, whereby minerals attract very special treatment, and under which regulations can be made to adapt and modify anything in the major Act. My right hon. Friend will consider making regulations after consultation with the local planning authorities and the mineral operators. It may be necessary to have different periods for minerals but regulations will be made relating to existing mineral permissions."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee G, 4th April, 1968; c. 972.] As a result of that undertaking I withdrew my Amendment, but I am not sure that I should have done so, as that extension from five to 10 years does not seem a satisfactory solution to this problem.

The effect of these Regulations is that as from 31st March, 1979, there may have to be a whole series of bogus starts on developments to avoid the loss of right to work for minerals at some time in the future. The alternative will be to seek renewed planning permission.

It must be remembered that local authorities have their local interests at heart. Although they are aware of the national interest, what may be nationally important by way of a mineral working may be highly unpopular locally. This could result in the danger of local planning authorities either refusing permission, and taking this marvellous opportunity to revoke planning permissions without compensation, or imposing very onerous conditions, and we should not overlook the fact that conditions can be extremely expensive.

Bearing this in mind, it is clear that the 10-year rule is not acceptable. I urge the Minister to think again and to remember those days in 1968 when we might have voted to remove the five-year rule in relation to minerals. I am sure that he does not want to go back to the nonsense we had under the Land Commission legislation, with people digging trenches simply to be giving the impression of starting a project on a particular day. That is the sort of bogus start he is asking the industry to go in for under this Instrument.

11.8 p.m.

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)

I am glad of this opportunity to speak on this subject, in which I immediately declare my interest in cement and hard stone. I will be brief because I know that a number of hon. Members still wish to participate.

I welcomed the comments of the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) and I appreciated his suggestion. We are considering what is a compromise, though it could ease the transition period between the termination of the 10-year period in 1979 and the time when reapplication will have to be made. The difficulty of the industry rests on the possible reopening of the old hostilities, with the possibility of a new grant not being made and the waste of large sums of expenditure. The outlay could amount overall to £50 million.

Having looked carefully into the matter, I find a considerable change of view on the part of the Ministry. For example, in The Control of Mineral Working", published by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in 1960, we were told in paragraph 72: Mineral undertakers often need to make their plans a long way ahead, and local planning authorities should adopt a similar time-scale in handling mineral problems. In particular, because of the heavy initial capital expenditure that is often involved, the mineral undertaker will need to be assured that planning permission for mineral extraction will be granted over an area of land sufficient to ensure the economic working of the plant for its useful life". We are told that local authorities will be reasonable, but when amenity con- siderations arise they will have to look over their shoulder to their constituents. It may be that they will refuse and then the mineral operator will have to go to the Minister on appeal. As a result, the planning machine will be overloaded. In order to obtain the raw materials which are essential for building and the construction of roads, it is desirable, not merely to clear the planning machine, but to enable the Minister to have a less worrying time vetting applications.

The extract continues: The period will vary from industry to industry and even from quarry to quarry; but individual applications are unlikely, in most sections of the industry, to relate to mineral areas affording less than 15 years working and local planning authorities should be prepared to consider applications for areas with a working life of up to 60 years or sometimes even longer". By a document issued by the Department in 1951 local planning authorities should be prepared to consider applications designed to cover operations of up to 60 years or, in exceptional cases, even longer. Planning permissions or consents were granted many years ago on the assumption that these large plants were to be amortised. These rights, which were lawfully conceded by the planning authorities under the 1962 and 1968 Acts, are to be taken away completely. No compensation is payable, but under the 1962 Act compensation is available in certain circumstances for the variation of a grant. But here no compensation is to be payable.

The Minister has indicated that many speculators are in the field and that they need to be shaken out. But I mentioned in an intervention the question of being able to discriminate between them and the general mineral operator who wants to produce the necessary raw materials for industry and to enable the Government to achieve their aims and goals. More recently we have had Section 197 of the 1962 Act and Section 65 of the 1968 Act. Even more recently there have been environmental considerations. I appreciate that restoration clauses may not be present in the original consents and that modifications may be required on landscaping, but I was surprised that the Minister did not give the assurance which I am sure everyone wants to hear that a local authority, in the case of a reapplication, will not impose impossible conditions which would put out all the calculations on which the original plant was financed and founded. If it is to have the opportunity of putting in the most stringent conditions, the whole confidence of the industry will be lost.

I cannot agree with Lord Sandford, in another place, that because the procedure has been altered and abbreviated it will be easier. The applicant will have to come before the Minister, there will have to be a public inquiry, everybody for miles around will have the opportunity of making their complaints, and after a period and possibly further appeals which cost a lot of money for the industry, the extended period will be granted.

I should like to ask the Minister a specific question. He has indicated by the Regulations that if development has begun before 1979 the original consent is preserved. I often wonder what "development" means. Will it be essential to drill? Will the overburden have to be removed? Or does it simply mean that it will be necessary to dig a trench? If that is done, the 10-year period provision is obviated and a longer term is granted. What term will be granted? The Minister should give a clear answer on this point so that the industry may know the position.

The industry desires to co-operate. It does not wish to see speculators in the field. It desires to protect its reserves and investments. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider these Regulations again and consider introducing at a later date some modification which is more acceptable to the industry.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Peter Trew (Dartford)

The hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams) described with great lucidity the praiseworthy objectives of these Regulations—the desire to shake out redundant planning permissions, to take note of the special problems of mineral operators and to safeguard the environment. The 10-year period fails signally to achieve the first two of these objectives. It prolongs unnecessarily the life of redundant planning permissions, indeed it extends them for five years, and utterly fails to take account of the special needs of mineral operators who have to work over long periods especially those in the cement industry in which many of my constituents earn their livelihood.

Should these Regulations come into effect, a mineral operator is faced with the choice of applying for renewal, with the possibility either of losing his permission or of getting it with onerous burdens which greatly increase the expense of his operations—or he can resort to starting work. My hon. Friends the Members for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) and Bedford (Mr. Skeet) have suggested that he has the remedy of a technical start rather than the digging of a trench on a building site under the Land Commission Act. But he does not have that remedy, because, on my reading Regulation 7 requires a full start to mining operations. This must be expensive and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) pointed out, this will often disturb good agricultural land long before it is necessary to do so or damage areas of great natural beauty.

The Regulations will please nobody. They will not deal adequately with the problem of redundant and speculative planning permissions, they will place mineral operators in a position of risk and uncertainty, and they will place a considerable burden on the planning authorities. I hope that my hon. Friend will take an early opportunity to look at the Regulations as they work in practice and consider whether there is not a better way of dealing with redundant planning permissions, of safeguarding the interests of mineral operators and of preserving the environment. I commend to him the proposal put forward by the hon. Member for Swansea, West.

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page

With the leave of the House, Mr. Sneaker, I will deal with the points which have been raised. After having listened to the speeches of some of my hon. Friends anyone reading the Regulations would be astonished at their moderate tone. All we are dealing with is existing planning permission to carry out mineral workings. We are not destroying the mineral extraction trade. We are not attacking it root and branch, as some of my lion. Friends seem to think. We are dealing merely with planning permissions which may have been granted a considerable time ago and which are not being worked during the next eight years. We are asking that before working them after 1979 the mineral undertakers should first make further application to the local planning authority.

My hon. Friends the Members for The High Peak (Mr. Le Marchant) and Bedford (Mr. Skeet) quoted a booklet previously issued by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. These are the rules which the Ministry hopes the local planning authorities will apply in considering entirely new planning applications and new planning applications which arise out of the termination of an existing application. I would quote these rules again and again as the rules which should be applied when a planning application now existing has not been worked when we get to 1979 and the mineral undertaker has to apply for a further period of time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King), said that every mineral undertaker in Dorset was opposed to these Regulations. That is not so. If his mineral undertakers are represented by the C.B.I., the opposition is merely on this point whether—

Mr. Evelyn King

Perhaps I may intervene on a question of fact. What I said was true. They have all written to me. I did not suggest that they were represented by the C.B.I. They represent themselves very adequately.

Mr. Page

Indeed, they all wrote to my hon. Friend enclosing the memorandum from the C.B.I. I do not think many of them even read that memorandum. I have seen some of the letters and the writers have not understood how moderate the recommendations are and to what extent we are in agreement with the C.B.I. on this point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford asked, "What is development?". My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason), who has been involved in this matter since the Committee stage of the 1968 Act, talked about development by removing the top soil or trench digging. That is not development, as I understand it, under the Act. "Development" is defined in Section 12 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1962, while Section 65 of the 1968 Act refers to the development which is permitted. I think that it is the mining operation itself which is permitted. Mining is mentioned specifically in Section 12 of the 1962 Act. It is the mining and not merely the bit of gardening on the top soil which is the development. It would be the mining operation proper which would have to start if the planning permission is exercised properly before 1979.

Mr. Robert Boscawen (Wells)

What happens where a stone quarry which has been worked out in the past carries planning permission? Can that be re-worked in a number of years' time or does it fall into the regulation of having to apply for further permission?

Mr. Page

If the development allowed by the planning permission has been operated, then the planning permission has been exercised and its life does not terminate. I am speaking of a hypothetical case and I would not like my statement to be taken too far on that, however. If the development has occured, within the period permitted by the planning permission, the permission does not die at the end of this 10-year period from April, 1969.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Alan Williams), for his agreement with the general principles behind the Regulations, and for the way in which he set out the triple objectives. I agreed wholeheartedly with the way in which he set them out. He asked me to have less rigidity in approaching this subject and to relax the single criterion. We proposed to the C.B.I. that there might be different periods for different kinds of working. The C.B.I. rejected that proposal. The discussion did not go so far as what periods there should be, but the proposal was rejected and so we were left to fix such periods as we thought appropriate.

Mr. Alan Williams

The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that it would be 1979 for one type of mineral operation and 1985 for another. But that does not meet our point. The circumstances of the individual unit have to be taken into account. That is where flexibility is needed. To make us all go home happy we want only an assurance from the hon. Gentleman that he will consider the possibility.

Mr. Page

That flexibility will come on the application for fresh planning permission. As the Act stands, a planning permission cannot be extended, and that is what the hon. Gentleman was hoping could be done. I should have been very happy if the Act did that. But I see no reason why we cannot get round that difficulty.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State proposes to send out a circular explaining these Regulations and giving guidance to local planning authorities on how they should operate them. That circular will point out that, in respect of new applications and new applications consequent upon the termination of permissions the lives of which will run out, they should apply sensible reasoning, and that the 10 years mentioned in connection with existing planning permissions should not be taken as an optimum or as any standard figure for future permissions.

I should like the local authorities to apply to a renewal application exactly the same principles as they would apply to a new application, to disregard the fact that it has run out over a period of 10 years, and to consider whether five, 10, 20 or 60 years is the right period for a new application. I see no reason why a local authority should not enter into negotiation long before 1979 with the mineral worker concerned, and there should be discussion about the length of time and the conditions to be imposed on any new planning permission which may be granted.

Mr. Alan Williams

The hon. Gentleman has missed the cardinal point. It is not this sort of flexibility which worries us. It is the sheer uncertainty in terms of existing investment which faces an operator and leaves him vulnerable to pressures from objectors. That is what we want removed. I have put forward a proposal which will enable the hon. Gentleman to allay those fears. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider it.

Mr. Page

The proposal is that there should be an extension to an existing planning permission. In law, that cannot be done. We shall look at the law to see whether it would be wise to amend it, assuming that it could be got into the legislative programme over the next two or three years. But there is a way round the difficulty without amending the legislation.

I hope that local planning authorities and mineral undertakers will enter into negotiation at once, if necessary, to consider what "extensions"—they will be new permissions—should be given at the end of the period in 1979. I shall see whether, in law, local planning authorities can give any firm undertakings about extensions. However, we are dealing with democratically-elected bodies which may change in colour over that period of time and come to different decisions. I shall have to consider whether any firm agreement can be given by an existing council to bind its successors. But I appreciate that the sooner that any mineral undertaker can be certain about whether he will get a new permission at the end of eight years, the better.

This will mean that the bad ones will be shaken out the quicker, and the whole purpose of the Regulations will be carried out. I will look into this in that spirit, to try to get a settlement as early as possible for the mineral undertakers on the renewal of their planning permissions and to see whether we can sort out the matter on that basis.

Mr. Alan Williams

May I thank the Minister for that concession?

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Regulations 1971, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd April, be approved.

Resolved, That the Town and Country Planning (Minerals) (Scotland) Regulations 1971, a copy of which was laid before this House on 1st April, be approved.—[Mr. Younger.]