HC Deb 27 March 1986 vol 94 cc1109-14 12.38 pm
Mr. Mark Carlisle (Warrington, South)

I am grateful for the opportunity of this Adjournment debate. I must correct an error which is entirely my fault. The request for the Adjournment debate refers to the decision not to call in the planning application for a refuse tip on land at Moore in Cheshire. I am reminded that although for some reason all the parties, including the borough council, refer to the land at Moore, the land is not at Moore but at Arpley meadows, the whole of which is in the Warrington district. No part of it is in the parish of Moore.

I realise that it may be said that I am trying to bolt the stable door after the horse has fled. On Monday 17 March the Secretary of State took the decision not to call in the application by the Manchester Ship Canal Company to have a waste disposal tip on the land at Arpley meadow but to leave the decision to the county council.

Within hours of the Secretary of State making that decision the Cheshire county council planning committee, ironically with one of the Labour councillors for Warringon in the chair, approved the plan for such a tip with indecent haste. Therefore, the decision for Cheshire had been taken. I understand from the borough council that it is considering the possibility of a judicial review of the decision taken by Cheshire county council, presumably based on the speed with which the decision was taken. That speed did not enable the council to consider objections to the scheme and I understand that Warrington borough council was not given the opportunity to comment on the amended plan which was approved on 18 March.

I protest over the fact that the Ministry did not call in the planning application. There is one simple question. Why was the planning application not called in by the Ministry? Of course I accept that we must have waste disposal tips somewhere. However, if we were more efficient in the recycling of waste we would save a great deal of natural resources and have less need for large tips. In this day and age alternative methods of waste disposal should be considered when any form of public inquiry is held.

However, we must have some form of tips. I recognise that the county council is under a statutory duty to provide for waste disposal. I also recognise that, wherever a tip is located, it is likely to be unpopular and there are likely to be objections. I accept that, if an application is called in after a public inquiry, it may well be that, at the end of the day, the same decision will be taken. My objection is that by leaving that decision to Cheshire county council the objectors' case has not been heard.

It cannot be said that this was not a controversial application. It was opposed by many local people and it was opposed by all the parish councils in my constituency—Penketh, Lymm and Moore. The hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) and myself are also aware that it was opposed by Warrington borough council. All these parties asked the Minister to call the application in for consideration.

This is not a minor matter. The plan has been considerably modified. The original proposal was that the tip should be used for 40 years, but that has been modified to 25 years. That is still a generation—a generation for many people of lorries going in and out of the site. The site is roughly 400 acres. The height of the tip above ground level has been modified but it is still believed that it will reach 130 ft above the ground. The site will have 550,000 tons of rubbish dumped there every year. It is clear that it will be the major tip for Cheshire and it will also provide space for the waste from Merseyside.

This is not a normal type of planning application. Although it is true that the owner of the land is the Manchester Ship Canal and although it is true that the company made the application, the interested party in granting that application is the county council which is proposing to use the tip. It seems inevitable that it was bound to grant an application, if given the opportunity to decide it, because it is the party interested in achieving that result.

The speed with which the decision was taken certainly tends to confirm the fact that the decision had been prejudged. I repeat that, as far as I am aware, neither the district council nor the parish councils were officially asked to comment on the modified proposals. The failure of the Minister to call the application in has meant that the objectors have not been heard. The impression that is given is that Cheshire county council has been the judge and jury. I remind the Minister of the old adage that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done.

Why was the application not called in? I have no doubt that the Minister will say that the Secretary of State was sympathetic to the proposal but that it did not meet the criteria which are used for decisions of this kind. I realise there is great pressure on the Ministry to call in many inquiries and that it cannot call them all in. I realise that one must have some criteria and that one must use power to call in sparingly. What are the criteria that are used? Are they statutory or discretionary? If they are discretionary, why was discretion not exercised on this occasion? If the Secretary of State felt he could not call the application in because it did not meet the criteria surely the criteria are wrong and should be changed.

I am aware that any planning inquiry is time-consuming and expensive. It has one great advantage—it allows people to be heard. I have no doubt that the parish councils, together with the development corporation, the borough council and those concerned with conservation, were anxious to be heard on this occasion. One does not know what the outcome or modifications would have been had there been such an inquiry.

Where there is a major application of a nature that will affect the lives of many people for many years, and where the planning authority is the applicant, the Ministry should call the application in. If the criteria do not allow the Ministry to do that, I submit that the criteria ought to be changed.

I protest that this decision has been made. It is a mistaken decision and it is unfair to those involved. In my area it has been described as dictatorial and undemocratic. I have promised the hon. Member for Warrington, North that I would give him an opportunity to contribute to this debate so I shall make one final point.

It is said that the land has ecological importance and that much of the wildlife habitat would be destroyed by the tip. The traffic on all the routes will be enormous but I have no doubt that the county will do their best to meet that increase in traffic. It will require a new bridge to be built over the Mersey. Will the building of that bridge require further permission or, if it is on private land, will the county council be able to build it? I understand that the outer Warrington local plan had recommended that the area should be protected for recreational use. There was the possibility of a county park. The hon. Member for Warrington, North and myself are aware that there is not much spare land in that part of Cheshire. I am concerned, not so much with the merits of the case, but the failure to give those who wish to object the opportunity to advance their objections. I bitterly regret the Department's decision not to call in the application.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. We got off to a late start this morning, but we have made good progress in catching up with the printed schedule. I should be grateful if hon. Members would help me get back on course at about 1 o'clock.

Mr. Mark Carlisle

I spoke for just 11 minutes.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am grateful.

12.51 pm
Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

I shall try to assist you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in getting back to our schedule.

I thank the right hon. and learned Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Carlisle) for giving me this brief opportunity to support his objections. The matter affects not just his constituency but mine. Much traffic would be caused by 314 loads a day going through a heavily populated part of my constituency on Liverpool road to the new bridge that will be built at Forest Way, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman described.

The land has ecological, recreational and educational value. There should have been a public inquiry. Despite the modification from 40 years, 25 years is still a long time. It is still a high tip in low-lying land. It will be seen for a long way, certainly from the heavily populated area in my constituency of Warrington, North, and from the main railway line that runs from London to Scotland. These days the impression that people get as they pass through an area is important. Warrington is a delightful area, with many places of scenic beauty, but if there is such an eyesore that can be seen from the railway line, people might decide not to bring their industry and so on to Warrington. Therefore, the proposal is a mistake.

I do not understand why the Secretary of State did not use his discretion under section 35 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 and the articles of the General Development Order 1977. Under those provisions, he could have called for a public inquiry. The reason is that Cheshire county council has an interest—it will manage the waste disposal tip, which will be very large. The council will profit from it as the waste will come not only from the Warrington and Cheshire area but from Merseyside. As other tips come to the end of their lives, the amount of waste will be added to. As the right hon. and learned Member for Warrington, South said, that is a wasteful way of going about it. Other methods could have been used. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was right to say that Cheshire county council is judge and jury. It acted speedily, within 24 hours, so that no one had a chance to make an objection.

All the parties on Warrington borough council were unanimous in their opposition to the proposal. Environmentalists and anglers object. I have much correspondence from my constituents and others objecting to it. I cannot understand why the Secretary of State took that action. Many people think that it was a spineless, diabolical thing to do to inflict that on the people of Warrington. My constituents and people in the surrounding area are dismayed, disappointed and disgusted at the action of not only the Secretary of State but Cheshire county council. I want to convey their views and dismay in the strongest terms.

12.53 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Richard Tracey)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Carlisle) has raised an interesting and important matter. Quite rightly, he has been supported by the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) from the Labour Benches. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I know that the matter about which they are concerned is controversial. Indeed, proposals for development often are. That is one reason why in this country we have a planning system of which we are justly proud, which allows the majority of planning decisions on development proposals to be made by locally elected representatives. They are generally in the best position to understand the needs of their area and to have regard to the views of their electorate. I do not need to remind you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that often in debates in the House there is much talk about over-centralisation.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington, South has taken a close interest in the proposal by Manchester Ship Canal Company to tip domestic and industrial waste on 390 acres of land between the ship canal and the river Mersey at Moore, near Warrington. I appreciate his concern. Tips are, by their nature, particularly controversial. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend has lent his support to those of his constituents who approached him to express their opposition to the scheme.

I fully understand that local people are concerned about the impact of the proposal. Lymm parish council and Great Sankey parish council wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State expressing concern and drawing attention to the strong objection of local bodies. He received from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington, South the representations of the Warrington New Town Nature Conservation Group. It expressed concern about the loss of areas of county ecological significance and the loss of an area used for informal recreation. The representations from Warrington borough council were brought to my right hon. Friend's attention by the hon. Member for Warrington, North. The borough was concerned, too, about the involvement of Cheshire county council as planning authority and waste disposal authority.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was aware of the other objections from local bodies and local residents. Some of the local interests that originally expressed concern about the proposal did not object, and I understand that some withdrew their objections. That resulted at least in part from amendments to the proposal, which were negotiated by Cheshire county council with the ship canal company. They clearly went some way to meeting some of the objections of local people.

Let me rehearse briefly the details as I understand them. The site is intended to replace an existing disposal area at Gateworth farm on the opposite bank of the River Mersey. Capacity there will be exhausted in 1988. The new site is mainly dredging deposit ground, now disused. Cheshire county council, is to lease and manage the tip and will be the major user of the tip. The life of the tip was originally proposed to be 40 years, but in negotiation with Cheshire county council, as my right hon. and learned Friend said, the ship canal company reduced that to 25 years. Other amendments included reducing the visual impact of the tip by lowering its height by 14 m and by proposing shallower gradients. When complete, the southern section of the tip is to return to agriculture and the northern area to forestry.

I understand that a large measure of agreement has been reached with the Cheshire Conservation Trust. The trust is to lease and manage 180 acres of land adjoining the proposed waste disposal site as a nature reserve.

In its revised application, the ship canal company proposed to open up a footpath along the southern bank of the River Mersey and to provide an increased area devoted to forestry and landscaping. So, in the longer term, a substantial area of former waste land will become widely available for informal outdoor recreation. Wearing another of my hats, I welcome that.

But to pass on to the proposition that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had before him, it was not a question of the merits of the proposal—the issue was whether it was appropriate to take the decision out of the hands of Cheshire county council. My right hon. and learned Friend asked about that. The Secretary of State considered the proposal against his general policy, which is to continue to be very selective about calling in cases for his own decision. There is a long-standing policy that applications will in general be called in only if planning issues of wider than local importance are involved.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, after very careful consideration of all the representations that he received, decided that the application should be left to the county council to determine. He appreciated the strength of the views raised in opposition to the proposal and acknowledged their importance, but he concluded that they were of local rather than regional or national significance, and he was not persuaded that it was a matter that the county council did not have the competence to determine.

I am informed that the application was approved by the county council on 18 March. That is subject to negotiation of an agreement, under section 52 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, with the canal company for the 180 acres of woodland and wet grassland immediately to the south of the application site to be leased and managed by the Cheshire Conservation Trust.

I must emphasise that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State considered whether he should take the decision out of the hands of the county council. He was not taking a view on the merits of the proposal. But I would like, nonetheless, to invite the House to look beyond this particular case and consider the need far a positive approach to the whole Mersey basin. Right hon. and hon. Members will have heard of the Mersey basin campaign—a major Government initiative to clean the undoubtedly badly polluted water courses of the Mersey system and to promote matching improvements in the use of the land alongside. The basin covers 1,000 square miles. It takes in river and watercourses from the Pennine foothills to the mouth of the Mersey. The aim is to bring together public, private and voluntary sectors to attack the twin problems of water pollution and riverside dereliction. I hope that the energy and skill of local people and groups will be directed in a positive way to using every asset to bring this about.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's top priority is care for the environment. I do not think that anyone can doubt that from the statements he has made. The Mersey basin campaign is a prime example of that commitment. Ultimately, if everybody with an interest in the area pulls together, the result will make a contribution to the economy of the area and to creating an attractive environment and recreational facilities for the good people of the north-west.

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