HC Deb 21 January 1985 vol 71 cc836-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]

11.37 pm
Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise in the House the matter of the infilling of land at Thorney farm, Iver.

Iver is under attack from every quarter. A pretty Buckinghamshire village is being turned into an extension of London suburbia. Iver village is a conservation area. The whole parish supposedly enjoys the protection of the green belt, and part of it lies within the Colne valley regional park. But that has not impeded the planners. The development of Iver has been a classic example of Hutber's law — "progress means deterioration." The object of this Adjournment debate is to sound a warning to the Buckinghamshire county council and to the Government. The people of Iver have had enough.

Through the parish run both the M4 and the M25. Within two miles of Iver church there are 14 sites at which either gravel and clay are currently being extracted or rubbish is being dumped. Not surprisingly, parts of Iver's landscape bear more resemblance to the moon's surface than to this planet's.

Now we are told there is to be a motorway service area at Iver and a British Rail park-and-ride, and the London underground may be extended to Iver if the decision is taken to build a fifth terminal at Heathrow, in which case it may also be necessary to move the Perry Oaks sewage works to south Iver.

It is all a vicious downward spiral in the quality of the local environment. The starting point is a genuinely rural environment. There are a number of viable farms. Then along comes a motorway. That has two effects. First, farms are sliced into two and land is lost. They become either less viable or totally unviable. Secondly, gravel is extracted from adjoining farm land and the land deteriorates. Although it remains green belt, it is soon being described as derelict. At this point, the logic follows through and the planners say, "Oh well, if it is derelict land, we might as well build a motorway service area or a sewage works on it."

Thorney farm is a classic example. Its history reflects the history of the area. Originally it was good quality farmland. The site was worked for sand and gravel for the construction of the M4, nearly 25 years ago. It was restored at low level. The land was used for cattle grazing, but most recently for horse grazing.

On 28 March 1983 the planning sub-committee of the Buckinghamshire county council considered an application by Cementation Construction to excavate clay from the site for use in the M25 contracts. Consent was refused on grounds which included the following: The working of this site would further extend the area of disturbed land in this area which is now successfully recovering from a prolonged history of mineral working.

The site is in the Colne valley regional park. It is the policy of the local authorities that waste disposal operations should be brought to a halt in the park as soon as possible so that a park environment can be established quickly.

On 28 March 1984—precisely one year later—S. Grundon (Ewelme) Ltd. submitted an application to fill the site with approximately 400,000 cubic metres of industrial, commercial, domestic and civic amenity waste and inert material and to restore the land to agricultural use. This was considered by the planning sub-committee at its meeting on 4 June 1984. South Bucks district council objected. It gave the following reasons: (1) The site was partially restored with inert material; the free drainage of the site should have been an integral part of that restoration programme. (2) The site will be used for wholly imported waste and will not serve any local need. (3) This district"— the South Bucks council district— taking into account Hyde Farm, has already met its obligation in respect of the provisions of the waste disposal plan. (4) The effect of the additional traffic generation not only on the direct neighbourhood but also on the dwellings in Ritchings Way, will be detrimental to the amenities of the occupiers thereof by reason of increased noise and dust. (5) The tipping on this site could be prejudicial to the completion of work on other sites in this district, for example, Colnbrook bypass and, indeed, elsewhere.

Therefore, the South Bucks district council objected, and so did the Iver parish council, which said: In the past this site had a reputation as an example of the worst kind of restoration at the time of working and should never have been allowed to be restored to its present condition. However, over the years it has developed into a natural part of the landscape, accepted by the local people and has become a habitat for various flora, birds and insects, etc. This area is under great pressure from the M25 workings and the introduction of the volume of traffic anticipated in the application would be intolerable, especially during the M25 construction period. The Parish Council would object strongly to the application and would prefer to see the site allowed to continue in its present state.

The county engineer confirmed that there would be no domestic waste from Buckinghamshire and very little, if any, civic amenity waste. The planning officer said that he was not convinced that the proposals would offer a better guarantee of improved cultivation and crop yields than agricultural improvement of the existing restored land. His recommendation to the sub-committee was that they should refuse consent because it has not been shown that the proposals are necessary or desirable to bring about an improvement of the agricultural land. He also said that the proposal would prejudice the early implementation of restoration proposals for the Colne valley regional park and perpetuate intrusive tipping operations in one of the most sensitive and damaged parts of the park.

At the request of the applicant it was agreed to defer a decision, and it was next considered on 24 September. This time the planning officer found the arguments for and against the proposal finely balanced, but, on balance, he favoured the restoration scheme. Planning permission was accordingly granted. That I consider to have been a very remarkable volte face on the part of the planning sub-committee of the county council.

As a result of that decision on 27 September, Mr. Brian Learmount, the chairman of the Iver parish council, wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. He pointed out that the county council had failed to buy the land at auction and it had gone instead to a waste disposal company. He said: This last factor raises the inevitable question in the minds of local residents. What is wrong with local planning when a major waste disposal company can confidently afford to pay well above current prices at an auction of agricultural land in obvious anticipation of an approval to fill the land? An approval which it should not get — but has achieved easily in spite of concerted local objection. My hon. Friend wrote to me on 1 November to say that his Department did not consider that this matter raised issues of wider than local concern such as would justify intervention by the Secretary of State, and I understand that decision.

That, as far as this planning application is concerned, is that. The infilling of the land will go ahead. For more than two years, there will be more than 78 vehicle movements a day, five and a half days a week. When one remembers that there are 14 other sites in Iver, imagines the total number of daily lorry movements and then recalls that on top of that the M25 is still under construction, one will begin to understand why the residents of Iver are at the end of their tether. They have been stoutly defended by their parish and district councillors and by their county councillor, Mrs. Ros Wingrove, but they have encountered a brick wall at County hall. That is why I now add my voice to theirs and say that enough is enough.

11.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) who live in the Ritchings park and Iver area will be grateful to him for raising an important local matter this evening. As he said, this matter was originally brought to the attention of my Department by the Iver parish council, which wrote asking that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State intervene on behalf of Iver residents and call in the planning application for investigation. Ritchings Park Residents Association has also expressed concern about the application in a letter about several planning matters in the area. The House has heard from my hon. Friend about the intrusion and the possible impact of some of these activities, which include the impact of the M25, the possibility of having a motorway service area sited near Iver station, and the green belt in general. All these factors were brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend and myself.

The application sought planning permission to fill slightly less than 13 hectares of land at Thorney farm, Iver with industrial, commercial, domestic and civic amenity wastes and inert material and restore the land to an agricultural use. My hon. Friend has acknowledged that Parliament has entrusted to local planning authorities the responsibility for the day-to-day administration of development control within their areas. The legislation governing the allocation of development control functions in England and Wales outside Greater London is contained in schedule 16 to the Local Government Act 1972, as amended by section 86 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980, and in the Town and Country Planning General Development Order 1977, as amended by the Town and Country Planning General Development (Amendment) Order 1980. Schedule 16 to the 1972 Act identifies two seperate groups of local planning authorities whose duty it is to determine planning applications.

I make no apology for going into this matter in some detail, because it may help my hon. Friend and some of his constituents to understand some of the background to the way in which the constitutional arrangements have been devised by the House. These are, first, district planning authorities, which are responsible for determining the majority of planning applications, and secondly county planning authorities, which retain that responsibility in respect of certain specified matters, such as development relating to minerals and development which is partly within a national park. My right hon. Friend has the power, under section 35 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, to call in any planning application for his own determination.

We are, and I suspect that I take my hon. Friend with me, anxious not to weaken overly the independence of local authorities by intervening in the exercise of their responsibilities. The power of call in is therefore used only in special circumstances where wider issues of national or regional importance are involved. The Town and Country Planning (Prescription of County Matters) Regulations 1980 prescribed the use of land or the carrying out of operations in or on land for the deposit of refuse or waste materials to be a county matter for the purposes of paragraph 32 of schedule 16 to the 1972 Act.

The effect of these regulations is to transfer to county planning authorities in England the functions of determining certain applications made under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 and to give county planning authorities power to make certain orders and serve certain notices under that Act where the application, order or notice relates to waste disposal. It is, thus, for the county planning authority to decide in the first instance whether any particular development of the kind referred to by my hon. Friend may be permitted or not, having regard to the provisions of the approved development plan, together with any other material considerations.

The particular application with which we are concerned was submitted to the district planning authority — the South Bucks district council—but, in accordance with the regulations, was transferred to the county planning authority, Buckinghamshire county council, for determination.

My hon. Friend has given the House a graphic description of the surrounding countryside at Iver, its conservation status and the general level of activities which have gone on in the area, which I suspect have gone on in many home counties not many miles from here. The whole area is in the metropolitan green belt as defined in the approved Buckinghamshire county structure plan, and it will be evident that the area is very sensitive in planning terms. Nevertheless, the principles that I have outlined still apply, and where planning applications are made they are for the appropriate local planning authority to consider and determine. We would not wish to intervene unless it could be shown that the matter was of more than local importance.

The Thorney farm site itself has been within an area designated as green belt for many years and the draft local plan for the district proposes to continue this designation. Government policy on green belts is set out in my Department's circulars 42/55, 50/57 and as recently as 14/84, and is aimed at checking the unrestricted sprawl of built-up areas, safeguarding the surrounding countryside from further encroachment, and assisting in urban regeneration. The latest of these circulars points out that local authorities can help to ensure the future agricultural, recreational and amenity value of green belt land by working with landowners to enhance those areas of land lying within the green belt which are suffering from disuse or neglect.

The approved structure plan for Buckinghamshire includes green belt policies which are compatible with the general aims of the green belt, but which allow some exceptions to the general presumption against development. These exceptions include development essential to the use of land for agriculture, and the proposed development at Thorney farm—which does not involve the erection of buildings — is not incompatible with green belt policy. One could not therefore justify calling in the application on green belt grounds.

Although the decision whether to permit the infilling of the site with waste is clearly one of importance and raises many questions, such as its effect on people living in nearby housing, the possibility of affecting water courses and the consequences of generating extra traffic, these are all of local significance. I understand, from the information provided by the correspondents I have mentioned, that Buckinghamshire county council found the issues for and against the proposal, as my hon. Friend said, to be finely balanced. Apart from the applicant's case, it had before it five letters of objection to the proposal. I am told that the council consulted widely, and I am informed that comments were received from the county engineer, the Thames water authority, Rickmansworth water company, the Colne Valley park standing conference, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, Hillingdon borough council, the Health and Safety Executive, the Civil Aviation Authority, the British Airports Authority, the Central Electricity Generating Board and South Bucks district council. As my hon. Friend said, the last named objected to the proposal.

Some of the other consultees suggested the imposition of conditions on any planning permission granted. The council, having considered these views, resolved to grant planning permission. There was and is nothing to indicate that matters of more than local importance are involved, and accordingly my Department decided not to intervene. This decision was conveyed to Iver parish council, which had asked for our intervention, in my Department's letter of 25 October 1984. I understand that Buckinghamshire county council granted planning permission for the proposed development on 2 November 1984.

There is no right of appeal for third parties once a planning application has been decided. The effect of the planning legislation is to take away from individuals the right to develop land as they wish. Parliament therefore considered it necessary to give an applicant a right of appeal if his application for permission to develop was rejected. The current provision is section 36 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. Successive Governments have taken the view, however, that it would be quite wrong, and unfair to the applicant, to afford to third parties a right of appeal, and thus put the development, once permitted, in jeopardy, perhaps for quite a long time, while the objections of third parties were considered afresh. However, should any person affected by the council's decision feel that he has suffered as the result of maladministration by the council, he has the right to refer the matter to the Local Government Ombudsman.

Under section 276 of the 1971 Act, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has the power to revoke a planning permission by the making of a revocation order. The power is rarely used, however, and would be justified only in the most exceptional circumstances, since it would render the local planning authority liable to the payment of compensation or possibly result in its being required to purchase the land, perhaps to the detriment of local ratepayers. While my hon. Friend may consider the circumstances of this case to be wholly exceptional, I regret that I could not recommend revocation in this case on the information currently available. I must stand by my view that this matter is purely of local significance and that the local planning authority has exercised its statutory powers in deciding the matter as it thinks fit.

I hope my hon. Friend will feel that I have outlined the constitutional arrangements that the House has seen fit to pass so that those in south Buckinghamshire, Iver and Ritchings understand some of the background that makes this very much a local issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Twelve o'clock.