HC Deb 17 February 1972 vol 831 cc761-70

10.24 p.m.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)

Democracy is as much a matter of the rights of individuals as it is of great affairs of State, and I make no apology, after the dramatic scenes through which we have just lived, in turning to the particular affairs of my constituents.

The last thing that I want to do tonight is to put the county administration of Flintshire into the dock. Flintshire is one of the best administered counties in the United Kingdom and, in the defence of its people's interests, it is second to none. If there is room for criticism—the criticism which I shall be voicing tonight—it is that it has not so far developed the practice of ensuring that people are always fully consulted, as they might be, about decisions which are liable to affect them.

Quarries are a very sore point in Flint-shire at present. Last Friday a shattering explosion of the limestone quarry at the village of Dyserth sent huge boulders crashing through roofs and windows in the village. Three schoolchildren were injured in their classroom and a number of cars were totally destroyed. It was a miracle that no one was killed. The people of Dyserth are demanding that no further blasting be allowed at this quarry. It is certainly unthinkable that operations should be resumed there until the most thorough examination, including the most meticulous geological examination of the rock structure, has been most carefully and painstakingly completed. Even then it is, to my mind, most unlikely that the mining company will ever be able to give the people of Dyserth the kind of assurances which will set their minds at rest. Unless it can do so, I ask that all blasting operations at this quarry should cease permanently.

In this matter the conduct of the county council has been exemplary in its speed and thoroughness. Moreover, it is a fact, which has been remarked upon, that the permission given to the company to blast on the quarry face overlooking the village was in fact given in 1954 by the then Ministry of Housing and Local Government, overruling a negative decision by the Flintshire County Council. In this the county council, then as now, faithfully represented the interests of the people of Dyserth who had all along been saying that sooner or later a tragedy was inevitable.

As I have said, in the case of the Dyserth quarry I have nothing but praise for the county council. Such criticisms as I have relate, however, to a quarry at the other end of my constituency at Gwernymynydd. The people there have read of the Dyserth explosion with grim foreboding, for they find themselves faced with the same risk to life and limb and the same certain disturbance of the peace, quiet and cleanliness of the countryside which has for so long marred the otherwise idyllic village of Dyserth.

The people in and around Gwernymynydd face these consequences as a result of the grant of permission to the Tunnel Cement Company to extend its working at the Cefn Mawr Quarry to within less than 100 yards of a row of houses in the village. The people of Gwernymynydd have become inured to the noise and dirt and danger of streams of heavy lorries carrying their loads out of the quarry, though they know that this traffic will build up still further as a result of the larger-scale operations which will now occur. But they must now face the danger of some such uncontrolled or uncontrollable explosion as occurred at Dyserth bombarding their homes with huge rocks from a mere 100 yards distance, and the even likelier risk that, in an area riddled with disused mine shafts, their homes may be swallowed up in some gaping hole in the earth as an overlarge blast combines with geological faults to crumble the very foundations of their homes.

One of their strongest objections is that the company was given permission to extend its workings without any proper survey being made of the stability of the surrounding land. It is not long since, on the golf course which has been laid out there, a whole green disappeared into the earth. But even that is not the main burden of their complaint, or mine. Their biggest grievance is that at no stage were they consulted, either directly or through their elected representatives, as to the grant of a planning permission which would affect so fundamentally their property and perhaps even their safety.

The facts, briefly, are these. In January, 1947, Holywell Rural District Council granted permission for quarrying at Cefn Mawr on 126 acres of land. In November, 1948, an extension of 8½ acres was approved. This is water under the bridge. But it was presumably because of the two previous planning permissions that when in June, 1970, the Tunnel Cement Company made application for a further small extension—and it is this small extension which will bring blasting operations to within 100 yards of the group of houses in question—the county planning officer recommended to Holywell Rural District Council, which is the planning authority, under delegated powers, that the permission be granted.

What about consultation? Here there is some dispute of fact whether the Ramblers Association and the Council for the Preservation of Rural Wales were consulted, or at least whether they were consulted on the exact proposal for the extension of the quarry. The parish council was consulted, but apparently under the shadow of a threat—I do not think that this was from the county council, but from information conveyed discreetly by the company—that if permission were not granted the quarry would have to close and many jobs would be lost locally. So the parish council acquiesced; it did not inform the neighbours whose houses would be affected. That was certainly a most regrettable omission, but, perhaps, understandable in an atmosphere in which consultation has not yet become a regular habit with authority.

The rural district council also discussed the matter, and although the two local councillors representing the area objected to the grant of planning permission, they were outvoted by their colleagues, who said that as the county planning officer had recommended permission he would certainly be backed by the county council planning committee. The R.D.C. did not inform the neighbours either. The county planning committee has not considered the matter; but it was the two county councillors represent ing the area who became alert to what was going on—too late.

It may now be too late to reverse the planning permission for the extension of the quarry, but the company may have other projects in mind, such as the installation of a tarmac plant. I have recently learnt that at another quarry, not a mile away, the Cambrian Quarry, the firm of Cabot Carbon of Stanlow has applied for permission to tip carbon waste. This is most unwelcome to the neighbours. They are wondering whether they will be given an opportunity to object before it is too late.

In view of all this, the two county councillors concerned are seeking an assurance that at the very least the county planning officer shall henceforward make a practice of circulating to the elected members of the planning committee every month a list of applications for planning permission. I understand that it is far from certain that this request will be granted, and that the matter is to be considered at a meeting on 22nd February.

The request of the county councillors to be kept informed is not a matter with which my hon. Friend can concern himself. But what he can do is to use his influence in order to spread the idea that the maximum of consultation in such matters is a good thing. Indeed, if one does not rest content with the statutory obligations, not even with extensive advertising of planning applications in local newspapers, but if one takes the trouble to go out and make sure that all those directly concerned know exactly what is proposed then one may very well find that one gets through the planning processes actually quicker than if one leaves people to find out for themselves, if they can, by calling at County Hall to inspect lists and plans whose very existence they have no reason to suspect. Even if one does not save time, one will have a very much healthier local democracy.

That, after all, was what the Skeffington Report was all about. Strictly speaking, Skeffington does not cover the kind of development permission I am talking about; but if the spirit which runs through that report were generally prevalent and generally accepted, each of the councils concerned in this case, the parish council, the district council and the county council, would have made very sure that, at the very least, the councillors representing the areas concerned were fully briefed from the outset of the process. Better still, if the kind of philosophy represented by Skeffington were generally prevalent, steps would have been taken to ensure that each individual directly concerned was personally warned of what was impending, perhaps by a circular passed through the letter box or a summons to a local meeting.

I understand that the Minister for Local Government and Development is planning to issue guidance to councils in England—I got this advice from HANSARD of 26th January last, column 1528—and this should help to spread the idea that planning authorities should take active steps to inform individuals directly concerned by planning decisions, instead of graciously allowing them to find out for themselves, if they can. Certain authorities in Wales already go to considerable lengths to consult the public in these matters. I believe that Denbigh is outstandingly good in this respect.

I hope, therefore, that the Minister will tonight be able to give me assurances on four points. First, he should ensure that all blasting operations at Dyserth Quarry are stopped until the local people can be completely reassured about their safety, and that probably means for ever. Second, he should carefully consider the representations he has received about the Cefn Mawr Quarry and he should insist on a geological survey to assess the state of the surrounding ground and its liability to sudden subsidence.

Third, he should consider carefully any representations made to him to allow tipping at the Cambrian Quarry at Gwernymynydd. Fourth, he should issue guidance to planning authorities in Wales advising them of the advantages of carrying out the recommendations of the Skeffington Committee for all types of planning proposals, and in particular the advisability on grounds of good democratic practice of keeping elected councillors fully informed.

10.37 p.m.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. David Gibson-Watt)

My hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) was right to seek an Adjournment debate, for he has raised with great feeling a number of important points which are of major concern to his constituents. Two matters concern quarrying operations, one the dumping of industrial waste and the other the question of passing information to the public on planning applications.

It may be helpful if I first described the present statutory and administrative arrangements for notifying planning applications and decisions to people directly or indirectly affected. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand if I deal with this in a way which may appear somewhat academic, but it must he so.

Parliament has placed on local planning authorities the duty of assessing the advantages and disadvantages of proposed developments, subject to a right of appeal to the Secretary of State by aggrieved applicants for planning permission. This has been the basis of our present system for many years and it undoubtedly places most emphasis on the interests of the public at large, rather than on the interests of, say, individual neighbours of a proposed development.

It is sometimes argued that the rights of third parties are insufficiently protected by our present town and country planning legislation. But it must be remembered that the purpose of that legislation was, in the words of the judge in a leading case in the High Court: to restrict development for the benefit of the public at large and not to confer new rights on any individual members of the public. But within this system certain provision has already been made to protect the rights of people directly affected, neighbours and other third parties.

Thus the law already requires an applicant for planning permission to notify any owners and agricultural tenants of land comprised in the application, and they have an opportunity to make representations to the planning authority within a specified period.

Sir A. Meyer

My hon. Friend said "comprised in the applicaton." That does not include an enabling application which is only land included in the area of the planning permission.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

My hon. Friend has understood me exactly correctly.

It is also recognised that there are certain types of development, such as slaughterhouses, refuse tips and sewage works which by their nature are "bad neighbours". Applicants are required to publish notice of such proposals in a local newspaper, and again a specified period is given for representations to be made. The applicant must also take steps to post a notice of the application on the land concerned.

Another important safeguard is that local planning authorities are required by the law to consider whether any proposal put to them would constitute a departure from the provisions of the development plan for the area.

If they decide that it would be a substantial departure or that it would affect the whole of a neighbourhood, the planning authority must advertise the proposal in a local newspaper and give at least 21 days for objections. If a proposed development is within a conservation area they must publish a notice if they consider that the development would affect the character or appearance of the area, and a notice must be displayed on or near the site.

These are all statutory obligations. In addition, local planning authorities have been asked by the planning Ministries to use their discretion in publicising proposals which, for example, might affect a right of way or a considerable part of a community, or which might adversely affect buildings of architectural or historic interest.

It must also be kept in mind that besides the matters I have already mentioned, local planning authorities are required or encouraged to consult other statutory authorities or bodies which may be concerned with a proposal. They are also obliged to issue their decision on most applications within a period of two months. Thus the legitimate desire for more publicity for planning applications has to be reconciled with another need—the need for planning procedures to be operated with reasonable speed.

I turn now to the individual cases mentioned by my hon. Friend. First, there is the case of the Dyserth quarry, where there was a most disturbing incident a week ago. I know the House will join me in expressing deep sympathy to the parents of those young children who were hurt at the school. As my hon. Friend knows, the Flintshire County Council acted with speed in obtaining an injunction to stop blasting operations at the quarry.

That injunction expires tomorrow, but I understand that the Council is applying for its renewal and that the company will not oppose this. As the matter is sub judice, I will say no more about it, except that the Mines and Quarries Inspectorate is continuing its inquiries and that the Welsh Office is in close touch with the Department of Trade and Industry and the county council about the case.

Secondly, my hon. Friend mentioned the Cefn Mawr quarry, which was recently given planning permission for an extension. I am informed that the required notice was served on the tenant of the land, but that otherwise the local authority, the Holywell Rural District Council, did not consider that this was a case which it was legally obliged to advertise. The Council says, however, that it consulted various bodies, including the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales, the Ramblers' Association and the local parish council referred to by my hon. Friend.

I also understand that the Press is free to attend meetings of the R.D.C.s planning committee and normally does so. According to the R.D.C. no objections were made, but the parish council did make the proviso that output from the quarry should not be increased.

In the event the local authority decided to grant planning permission, subject to a number of conditions, for an extension of 26½ acres to a quarry occupying an area of 130 acres where work had been carried on for the last 20 years.

I note my hon. Friend's statement that the county planning committee never considered this matter. I know that there is much local anxiety about the quarry extension. My Department is in touch with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Flintshire County Council, and I have asked for a further report as soon as possible. This will cover among other things my hon. Friend's suggestion that there should be a geological assessment of the ground surrounding the quarry.

As regards the third point of the disposal of waste in the Gwernymynydd quarry, I understand that the company concerned has been tipping carbon waste there since the 1950's. It has recently applied to Flintshire County Council for consent to continue tipping. This application is now before the council, and as appeals against it may later be made to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State I must say no more about this particular case. However, on the general question of the disposal of waste materials, the Government are not satisfied with the present arrangements and are urgently considering how to improve them.

I would like to end by saying that the whole question of publicity for planning applications has been under review by the Government. Among other things we are considering the desirability of extend ing the "bad neighbour" class of development which must be advertised to include mineral workings. We are also issuing a new circular to local authorities, giving them up-to-date advice on the wide question of local publicity even in cases where this is not required by law. In taking these steps our aim will be to maintain a satisfactory balance between the need for a speedy and efficient planning system and the need to ensure that adequate publicity is given to proposals which will affect the interests and amenities of individual people.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising tonight matters that not only affect his constituency of West Flint but have far wider implications.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.