HC Deb 17 June 1981 vol 6 cc1133-9
Mr. Giles Shaw

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 8, line 26, leave out'(d)' and insert '(b)'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it may be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 7, 25 and 26.

Mr. Shaw

This is a technical amendment. The effect of the amendment, in conjunction with the following one, is merely to transfer the new paragraph inserted into section 41(3) of the 1971 Act, which I moved in Committee, to the most appropriate position in that section. The insertion is of a similar kind to the existing paragraph (b), and therefore it should most logically immediately follow it.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Skeet

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 8, line 27, leave out paragraph (e) and insert— '(e) To any planning permission granted for development consisting of the winning and working of minerals'. I listened carefully to the Minister. He has been most accommodating. He has accepted two amendments and I hope that he will feel disposed to accepting mine.

My hon. Friend was kind enough to write to me on 15 June 1981. The letter contains three misconceptions. He implies that section 41 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 should apply just as much to mineral workings as to other forms of development. There is a big difference between developments in industry and developments on land. So far, minerals have been treated as a special case because the impact of planning control on mineral workings is greater and stricter than on any other form of development. The winning and working of minerals is a continuous operation—generally extending over long periods of time —as opposed to housing development, where on completion the planning permission is discharged and ceases practically to have further effect.

Section 264 of the 1971 Act and the 1971 mineral regulations showed the special position that minerals hold in the economy. Statements in paragraph 7.8, on page 70 of Stevens, also stress the importance of taking mineral considerations into account. In view of that, I suggest that minerals cannot be treated in exactly the same way as any other development.

The Minister pointed out in the letter that to provide that the development must be commenced within five years of planning permission would prevent the accumulation of unused planning permissions. The hon. Gentleman will recollect that section 65 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1968 declares that, where planning permission was granted before 1 April 1969 with no time limit attached, it would lapse on 31 March 1974 if not implemented by then. Such permissions relating to mineral workings were extended to 31 March 1979 by the Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Regulations 1971. Thus, all speculative complaints had been got rid of and the shake out was complete at that date. The retention of the five-year rule imposes a penalty on responsible mineral operators in order to cope with the occasional speculator.

The third point mentioned in the letter is that a mineral operator always has the right to appeal to the Secretary of State. This matter was dealt with under clause 5. The Minister said that the matter could be rectified on appeal. This matter could also be rectified on appeal. However, delays and expense would be involved and such matters would best be obviated by accepting the amendment.

There are four elements in mining—finding the materials, obtaining planning permission to work them where they lie, acquiring the minerals, and developing them. According to Stevens, on page 70: To service his capital investment the mineral operator must also secure his future supplies of raw materials (the ore-bearing land from which he extracts the minerals). The operator cannot simply go into the market and buy mineral lands. Minerals must be mined where they lie, and suitable land for mineral working comes on to the market only relatively rarely. It must be purchased when available. No one in his senses would dream of taking a mining licence for only five years when heavy capital expenditure is planned. Modern mining is obviously expensive. Alternatively, nobody would expect a mineral operator to wait until he is down to his last five years of reserves before he secured fresh supplies. There are delays in finding materials, further delays in obtaining planning permission and acquisition of rights. At a later stage planning permission may be refused even after the appeal procedure has been explored.

Baroness Birk, in another place, referred to objections by the Association of County Councils and the AMA. She said: I believe it would undermine long-term mineral planning, it would generate uncertainty in the community at large". —[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 February 1981; Vol. 416, c. 1325.] However, Stevens in paragraphs 7 to 9, on page 71, says that to implement the five year starting rule could have "environmentally damaging results". To prevent the lapse of the permission, the operator will comply with the conditions and start work within the specified period. Having thus preserved his planning permission, he will suspend operations until a time when, in accordance with his own programme, he is ready to resume them and carry them to completion.

Stevens spent a long time on preparing his report, and I do not think that we have had a more thorough examination of minerals in the history of planning. The report concludes: We see no need for any legal limitation to be placed in the time within which working of that area must start …There should be no time within which work under a mineral permission must be started provided: (1) Working has a defined place in the operator's working programme: (2) The operator's working programme is acceptable to the County Mineral Consultative Committee. In other cases the limit fixed will take full account of the legitimate needs of both the operator and the planning authority. As the Minister has been prepared to accept Stevens on two occasions tonight, he could accept the Stevens report now. Why deviate from it? Why not accept the entire package?

What planning authorities conveniently overlook is that exact methods of and time of working must inevitably be uncertain. There is the problem of quality control. Details of the quality of minerals are often discovered only during extensive excavations. Geological knowledge is cumulative. Coal mining at Rothis had to be abandoned, due to extensive faulting, and the quarry operation at Dunbar cement works in Scotland had to be altered on the advice of geologists, leading to a more effective way of working the quarry. Faults in limestone are discovered only by intimate boring, which is now reckoned at about £5,000 per borehole.

Another matter that must be taken into account is that the response to advances in technology is unpredictable. Technology may switch the area to be worked, and clause 6 would be of little benefit. The wet process for producing cement in Oxfordshire is due to be replaced by the dry process, with its energy-saving considerations. Output and the extent of working minerals may also vary with the turn of the economic cycle or trade recessions.

It might be relevant if I read a letter from the Blue Circle technical department, in which it says: It is true that the new Clause 6 allowing a sequential approach to section 41 may well help, but it would not be so easy to do this if as it is quite possible at Oxford we would first need to work at an interjacent area and where it is any case the existing and new quarrying areas might need to be worked in tandem for a sustained period of time. The only solution in these circumstances would be to allow the amendment which you"— that is, me— are now putting down. 11.45 pm

The type of mineral may also be a factor. The Government's judgment has been influenced by many cases deriving from the sand and gravel industry. They cover a number of implications which are different from those of the long-term limestone quarry. Expensive plant must be invested in the latter case and must be retrieved by long-term planning.

Early warning may operate against the sterilisation of mineral reserves. Not limiting the period would pose an early warning to developers not to sterilise minerals by building houses, schools, sewers, and so on, above them. In the London area alone, 50,000 acres of gravel-bearing land, representing 1 billion cubic yards of material, was built on between the wars. All that could be avoided.

I cannot understand the Government's concern for supporting section 41. As a quid pro quo for long-term mineral planning by companies, it is reasonable that local planning authorities should have the right periodically to review planning conditions, as outlined in clause 3.

The Government's response is not satisfactory. Advising planning authorities which the Minister will probably rely on that they must ensure adequate provision for mineral undertakers is not much good in practice. "The Control of Mineral Workings"—the Department's green book —has been largely ignored by planning authorities over the years.

The history of mineral planning is littered with unnecessary appeals arising from the failure of planning authorities to have regard to the advice contained in the green book. A recommendation in the Department's circular 58/78 that the green book should be revised and thereafter kept up to date has been quietly overlooked and the industry is still waiting for its republication. Two years have elapsed and we are still waiting for the republication of the book, which is supposed to be for the guidance of mineral operators.

In paragraphs 7 and 8 the Stevens report refers to the failure of local authorities to act on the advice given by the Department. It says: We were told that the standard period of five years was still being imposed, and in some cases shortened rather than lengthened. For example, planning refusals by Staffordshire county council were founded on grounds that the application was premature and not in accordance with the development plan. Many authorities are reluctant to allow long start dates. A continuation of the present law is in breach not only of Stevens but of the Department's circular.

It is not good enough for the Minister to say that the difficulty can be overcome by the discretion of the local planning authority if it wishes to exercise that discretion in a company's favour. What if it does not? What if a company is left with insufficient security for future mineral development? The Minister may say that there is an opportunity to appeal, but appeals are expensive and long-drawn-out, and may not have the proper consequences.

One matter that has not been rectified is pointed out in paragraphs 4 to 6 of the Stevens report, which state: Many of the past failures of planning control in relation to mineral workings were directly attributable to the lack of necessary professional skills in local planning staffs. I do not want to detain the House for long, but I thought it right to refer to the Stevens report, which gave earnest consideration to a matter of importance to the mineral industry.

The Minister has been kind enough to write to me with his initial conclusions. He has tried to accept a broader package tonight to accommodate some of my hon. Friends. Will he take a further step forward and see that these additional difficulties are put right? It is no good being stubborn. Sooner or later, modifications will have to be made. I do not see why he should relinquish his position to satisfy the environmental lobby.

Mr. Giles Shaw

The House realises that when my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) gets his teeth into a matter hon. Members will have to listen for a considerable time. The volume at which my hon. Friend speaks does not necessarily mean that his argument carries such weight that the point has immediately to be conceded, and I have to warn my hon. Friend that my magnanimity has run out to a small extent at this stage.

My hon. Friend knows that the Government have considered the arguments. We have corresponded on the matter. The amendment is against the continuing application of section 41 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 to minerals permissions. I remain convinced that it performs the same valuable function in this area of planning as elsewhere. One of the most important considerations in the Bill is to see that there is a proper balance of planning controls.

Section 41 ensures that planning permissions do not continue in existence indefinitely if the development to which they relate is not carried out. It prevents the accumulation of unused planning permissions which may lead to further applications being refused in a district in case too much potential development is authorised. It also discourages the hoarding of permissions and speculation in land.

The relaxation of section 41, which I moved in Standing Committee, and which, incidentally, would be removed by the amendment, helps in a specific situation that occurs in mineral operations—the commencement of development being dependent upon progress in another part of the programme. I recall the importance in the Cornish mining industry of sequential developments of this kind. That dependence can often be foreseen at the time of the planning application.

I accept that there will be occasions when a mineral operator requires more than five years between a grant of planning permission and the start of development. When it is clear that this will be so, the planning authority can extend the five-year period at the time the planning permission is granted. Although some operators, I understand, believe that authorities are never willing to do this, we know of cases where the five years has been increased to 10 years because the operator has asked for such an extension and has been able to justify his request. Moreover, when the operator believes that the five-year period is too short, but the authority has refused to extend it, he has the normal right of appeal. I am sorry that my hon. Friend does not feel that this is a right that can be exercised with the speed to provide the decision that the mineral operators might want. I accept that this is frequently a complicated matter that involves delay.

There may also be cases where the five-year condition is imposed and accepted, but is subsequently found to be too short. In those circumstances, the authority can renew the permission. The General Development Order 1977 provides for a simplified procedure for applications made for the same development prior to the expiration of the time limit. Again, there is the right of appeal.

I know that parts of the industry, possibly only small parts, my hon. Friend should note, still regard the position as unsatisfactory. Despite our requests, they have produced very little specific evidence of difficulties. I can see no reason for taking minerals outside the normal requirements of the planning system in this respect. There would be a real danger that if no time limit for the commencement of development could be imposed, authorities might respond and, perhaps, would respond by refusing applications where it seemed likely that commencement was likely to be deferred.

I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that if that happened it would be in no one's best interest, least of all that of the industry. For those reasons, I should not be prepared to accept the amendment so eloquently moved by ray hon. Friend. I ask him to withdraw it.

I can please my hon. Friend in at least one regard. He was critical of the Department's green book, which is the bible under which the minerals industry and the planners operate. I can tell him that it is being updated and will be issued shortly. After all, it will be issued, I hope, in the context of the Bill. Thus, it will be a useful and long-lasting document. It has been widely asked for. I hope that even my hon. Friend will accept that it will be of use to the industry on whose behalf he has spoken so eloquently tonight. I therefore again ask him to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Penhaligon

The Minister recognises that there is a problem. I admit that I do not worry about it very much in my county, because the Cornwall county council, as the minerals planning authority, is well aware of the importance of minerals to the county's economy and wants the industry to grow if there is any possibility of encouraging it to do so. In my view, the Cornwall minerals authority will be a benevolent county planning authority. I am not saying that it will allow firms to get away with anything, but I am sure that it will start by wanting to find a way.

The hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) raises the matter of a planning authority dealing with a malevolent county authority. I cannot go as far as the amendment goes, because it seems to suggest no time limit at all. That is what the Bill is supposed to be improving, and rightly so. However, the problem exists. I imagine that we shall have to wait to see how the system works and come back to the matter again if there is clear evidence after five, eight or 10 years—whatever is a reasonable period—to show that the problem is a real one. There might even be a problem in my county, but I doubt it.

Mr. Skeet

Industries do not want unlimited time in which to start. They want to collect together sufficient resources, which they can develop at the appropriate time in the future. The amendment that has already been included by the Minister—the current paragraph (e)—is useful in itself, but it does not enable industries to switch about to the property that is appropriate for development, as they see it, particularly if they have to move to another area body immediately. That does not meet what the industry has in mind.

The Minister says that the green book is coming along. We have waited for it for a long time, and it will certainly provide a guidance for the local planning authorities. But it cannot be enforced. Will they be guided by it? The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) says that if an authority is malevolent and has no experience in planning, and so on, it can reject the application, and all that could be done would be to appeal to the Minister after some time for an extended period. What guarantee is that? It would not provide the certainty that is necessary to justify a major investment in new plant and machinery.

Sand and gravel involve short-term operations. Limestone quarrying is a long-term operation. The two are quite different. The Minister has assumed that the two are somewhat similar in their requirements. That is not so.

I envy the hon. Member for Truro. He lives in an area where mining has gone on for years. The local authority there is realistic and well informed on these issues. It knows what should be done, and is prepared to give the appropriate time in which to start the operations. But that does not happen in many parts of the country, as we have already noticed.

Mr. Giles Shaw

I must make it clear to my hon. Friend that 82 per cent. of mineral applications are granted. That is the present figure. The vast majority of mineral planning authorities are all too prepared to accept the need to provide a planning decision for the mineral operator, in the industry's best interests.

Mr. Skeet

I accept what my hon. Friend says, but I am still not satisfied.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made: No. 7, in page 8, line 27 leave out '(e)' and insert '(b1))'. —[Mr. Giles Shaw.]

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