HC Deb 07 May 1986 vol 97 cc214-21

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

8.35 pm
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (Surrey, South-West)

I appreciate the opportunity provided by this debate to draw attention to a subject of grave concern and interest in my constituency. I refer to the proposal that Stockstone quarry near Hindhead should be used over a five-year period to deposit London rubbish, involving perhaps 84 movements a day of unwieldy and potentially dangerous 32-tonne lorries through our narrow, winding country lanes. This is to take place in an area of outstanding natural beauty in the heart of the green belt.

The final insult to local opinion and sensitivity is that it may be possible to permit such an affront to our rural environment on the basis of a condition set by a planning agreement over 30 years ago to a now defunct local authority.

I have already made a number of representations to the Minister about Stockstone quarry. I have visited the quarry and had a number of meetings and discussions with local activists and other elected representatives.

As a general rule, planning is not directly the responsibility of a Member of Parliament—nor should it be. Only in exceptional cases such as this have I personally become involved. I am a staunch supporter of the Government's green belt policy. I have no doubt that our green belt policy is a triumph of post-war planning. With increasing pressure in the south-east, I believe that concerned. Members must be vigilant in ensuring that our rural areas are protected from the threat of erosion.

The case of Stockstone quarry presents a potential precedent for many similar areas. Because of that, I am, exceptionally, seeking the Minister's intervention. I have little doubt that the Minister will say that the Secretary of State is sympathetic to our predicament, but that it does not meet the criteria used for decisions of this kind.

I appreciate the enormous pressure on the Department to call in inquiries and that this power must, in the public interest, be used sparingly; otherwise local responsibility for planning decisions would be undermined. Whether or not, even in the light of my arguments, the Minister is able to intervene, I am anxious to draw to the attention of the House and the Department of the Environment the implications of such a travesty of natural justice and common sense for others throughout the country who may, in their ignorance, believe that our planning laws protect green belt areas and areas of outstanding natural beauty from such outrages.

Are the criteria used by the Minister statutory or discretionary? If the Secretary of State argues that he is without power in this case, surely that must be a sign that the criteria are wrong and should be changed.

Stockstone quarry is situated less than 50 miles from London. However, reaching the quarry involves a journey along winding, country lanes, whose width in places is little over 11 ft. The quarry is dug to a depth of 100 ft and a width of about 700 ft. It covers 9.6 acres.

To appreciate the strength of feeling on the matter it is important to understand the quarry's history. The quarry started in 1929 with two men on one lever breaking out boulders with horse-drawn transport. At that time the area of work comprised less than one acre. In 1938 work ceased and the quarry was abandoned until further work, recommenced in 1971.

In 1952 the Hambledon rural district council granted permission to the absentee owner of Stockstone quarry, imposing eight conditions. One of those conditions was that the quarry should be infilled with materials suitable for plant growth. That is being used as the justification for the current proposals. Some minor work restarted in the early 1970s, but the first high level of work, with the associated intrusion, disturbance and pollution, began later in the 1970s. In 1979 the quarry changed hands and the intensity of work increased.

In 1981 the quarry was bought by A. J. Bull, which still owns it. Initially there were difficulties over the blasting of the rock and this caused distress to residents in the immediate vicinity. By the following year local residents complained that at times they were experiencing one 32-tonne lorry every two minutes, that local lanes were frequently blocked at busy times, that the roads were dirty and dangerous and that the noise and vibrations were causing further disturbance.

It was at that stage that the Stockstone quarry working action committee was formed to represent local opinion in the face of increasing frustration over requests that activities be curbed. It is a source of considerable worry to me that the Stockstone quarry working action committee has had to raise considerable amounts of money to pursue its reasonable and fair case. I applaud the group's persistent and painstaking work.

The members of the group represent residents of Hindhead, Beacon Hill, Stock Farm, Churt, Frensham, Lower Bourne, Farnham, Pitch Place, Tilford, Elstead and Thursley—beautiful areas, many of them villages, in my constituency, where planning permissions are fiercely resisted and every effort is made to maintain the character and rural nature of the locality. It can be appreciated that when permission to erect an extension to a house, for example, is a matter of great local controversy, the provocative nature of the development of a quarry causes mounting local feeling and anger.

Whatever the debate and struggles of the past, it was at the end of 1984 that a whole further generation of difficulties emerged. At that time, A. J. Bull applied initially on a planning application form for permission to fill the quarry with classes A, C and D rubbish. It proposed 1.5 million cu m volume with 360 lorry journeys a week for the next five years. It is believed that the county council returned the application advising A. J. Bull to proceed as if with a submission of details in accordance with the conditions set out in the 1952 permission. That course left the local residents with no formal powers to resist the application. It will be appreciated that the proposals under consideration will affect the daily lives of many people for many years to come. Understandably, That greatly offends my constituents' view of the way in which decisions should be taken in a democratic society.

Since then the local elected bodies, the parishes of Frensham, Elstead, Tilford and Thursley, together with the town council of Haslemere, have all made their views abundantly clear about the proposals. Similarly, the local Waverley borough council rejected the application unanimously.

At considerable expense, the local activists applied to the High Court for a judicial review of the matter. Had they been successful, the result might have been that the county council had to treat the matter as a fresh application. In that case, it might have been referred to the Minister's Department if the county council had considered it to be in contravention of structure plan policy. They learnt recently, however, that the application for a judicial review was unsuccessful and that the county council was behaving lawfully in its decision to regard the application as a question of detail. It is as a result of that decision that I sought the Adjournment debate today.

The position in which local residents find themselves is that it is now proposed to allow a course of action that is quite out of proportion to that envisaged in 1952. It is inconceivable that when the original permission was granted by the now defunct local authority with the infilling condition, it envisaged hundreds of 32-tonne lorries trundling down our local lanes each week over five years. The size of vehicles, the scale of the operation and the disturbance involved was in no way contemplated.

At present, discussion and consultation is taking place between local authorities about the details of the site licence. Local residents are encouraged that efforts are being made to restrict the classes of refuse to be permitted. There had been great anxiety that household or commercial waste would be dumped in the quarry. It would be quite unacceptable in an area with houses in close proximity to risk any prospect of methane gas or contamination of the water supply. Limits are also being set on the amount of waste that can be tipped daily. Obviously that relates to the number of vehicles using our rural roads and the associated risk to travellers and pedestrians.

I have already emphasised that the quarry lies in an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is important to point out that the quarry itself is recognised by the Nature Conservancy Council, which has notified Stockstone quarry as an area of special scientific interest. It described the site in the following terms: This quarry shows the finest available exposure of the Bargate Beds which are a distinct lithological sub-unit of the Lower Greensand Sandstone Beds in the north western weald. The quarry is also of great significance in providing the best field illustration of the phenomena associated with chert formation in the Bargate Beds—showing both the calcareous and cherry sandstone lithologies. In short, any geologist would obtain an immense amount of information from this one site, which is the finest example of bargate in the region, with the added bonus of chertified stone.

Suggestions are being put forward in the area that the quarry might become a nature reserve, primarily for educational purposes. The size of the reserve would he sufficient to allow local schools to have small areas for biology projects — for example, to study colonisation and ecosystem development. Not too far from the site lies the Seale quarry, which is owned by Surrey county council but managed by the Surrey Trust for Nature Conservation.

It is widely recognised that planning decisions are sensitive and controversial, especially in areas like mine where there is potentially endless demand for development and housing, but where there is equally great demand—and, I would argue, a duty—to preserve the character of the environment for future generations. It has also become an accepted and expected principle of our lives that justice should not only be done, but be seen to be done.

I want the Minister to realise that the present arrangements for Stockstone quarry seem to allow no formal opportunity for local voices and opinions to be heard. Even if the final decision were to go against local opinion, it would be easier to bear had there been a full and public inquiry at which all the arguments could have been put formally.

A number of proposals have been made. Perhaps there should be a time limit on planning permissions so that they would be officially reviewed once a certain period had expired. It will be recalled that we are discussing a permission granted 34 years ago. Alternatively, the restoration aspects of the permission could be subject to review.

It is also proposed that greater weight should be given to the local borough council in the oversight of mineral and waste disposal decisions. It is the district authority that has to live with those directly affected by those decisions. In short, I believe that the decision-making process affecting Stockstone quarry is hard to reconcile with our broad green belt and conservation policies. It lies far outside the bounds of common sense and natural justice, even if it lies within the law as it stands.

A licence issued as little more than a token gesture a generation and a half ago, to a disused village quarry that had last employed horse-and-cart technology before the 1939 war to provide building stone for the locality, has been hijacked to cover a large-scale operation of a wholly different kind, using technology unimaginable to the issuing rural district council — which itself ceased to exist 12 years ago.

This same licence is now being used — and some would say abused—to allow the deposit of 1.5 million cu m of rubbish in an entirely unsuitable and specially protected area. I ask the Minister to give this matter his full and urgent consideration and to review his green belt, environmental and planning policies in the light of this profoundly worrying case.

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

I sincerely congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) on raising this matter on the Adjournment, and also on the careful and concerned way in which she has presented a matter of considerable concern to her constituents. Indeed, we have come to expect such concern from her, and tonight has been no exception.

This matter was first raised with my Department in November of last year, when the proposals were being considered by the Waverley district council. Since then, there has been a large number of letters of objection to the proposals, and my hon. Friend has taken up the matter with my right hon. Friend on three occasions since November.

I and my right hon. Friend have every sympathy with the residents of the area for the position in which they now find themselves. However, my first concern must be to ensure that the planning system is operating properly and as laid down in the relevant legislation. My hon. Friend has given us a detailed account of the problems that have arisen at Stockstone quarry, but I need to highlight and amplify some of those to explain my Department's position.

The first point that must be made is that quarrying at the site started many years before the introduction of town and country planning legislation in 1947. As my hon. Friend has said, in those days it was a small-scale operation, perhaps involving no more than a couple of men. The size of the workings and the level of output would have been very small by modern standards. Planning control at the site really started with the 1952 permission granted by the former Hambledon rural district council. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, it was that permission which sowed the seeds of the problem which we are discussing this evening.

It is planning condition No. 4 which deals with the filling in and restoration of the quarry. It states: Excavations shall be filled in or surfaces covered with materials agreed to be suitable for plant growth by the local planning authority on consultation with the undertakers, Ministry of Agriculture and/or the Forestry Commission. The interval and stages at which the filling in or covering shall be carried out shall be agreed with the local planning authority. Clearly, this condition offered the operator a choice in his approach to restoring the site. There is no doubt at all that a modern planning consent would have a far more rigorous condition for restoration. Indeed, it would probably contain a separate set of such conditions, but that does not invalidate in any way the legal standing of the condition that I have just read out. Public attitudes to mineral workings have changed enormously during the past 30 to 40 years, and that is reflected in much tighter control through the conditions attached to modern planning permissions. However, there is a legacy of old permissions. As those workings became exhausted, or as new permissions for extensions are used to consolidate earlier consents, the problems are diminishing. Nevertheless, it will be some years yet before the problems have disappeared completely.

My hon. Friend has asked whether planning permission for mineral workings should be reviewed from time to time. My Department is doing what it can to help in this regard. The Town and Country Planning Act (Commencement No. 3) Order 1986 will bring new provisions into force on 19 May. These include, under section 3, the requirement for mineral planning authorities periodically to review every site in their area where mineral working operations are being carried out. It requires them also to make such orders under section 45, 51, 51(A) or 51(B) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 as they consider appropriate.

The purpose of the review is to monitor all recently active sites or sites authorised but not yet started to ensure that conditions are consistent with current minerals planning practice. Of course, it is only the duty to review which is completely new under the recent commencement order. Local planning authorities already have powers under the 1971 Act to revoke or modify planning permissions but, in such circumstances, compensation would be payable and this could be considerable. It is for the local planning authority to judge whether this would be a right and proper course of action.

Next there is the question whether the proposals for infilling the site constitute a new application for planning permission. As my hon. Friend has told us, the case was recently the subject of a judicial review in the High Court. We have heard that the court ruled that the county council was acting correctly in treating the application as an approval of details pursuant to the 1952 planning permission. This therefore has a bearing on the powers of the Secretary of State.

Under section 35 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, my right hon. Friend is empowered to call in for his own determination applications for planning permission being considered by the local planning authority. But the important clause in this provision is "applications for planning permission". The High Court judgment has ruled against such an interpretation in the case of the infilling of Stockstone quarry. A large number of my hon. Friend's constituents have written to request the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. But, even if he wished to do so, he has no appropriate powers at his disposal, because, as I said, the court ruled that it was not a new application for planning permission.

My hon. Friend referred to green belt policy. I suspect that the proposals have generated particularly strong objections because, as we have heard, the site is within both the green belt and the Surrey hills, of outstanding natural beauty. I sympathise entirely with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend about this. On the green belt, it would perhaps be appropriate for me to set out, briefly, our present position.

It was a Conservative Government in 1955 who first introduced a comprehensive green belt policy. This Government have strongly reinforced that policy in the circular which we published in 1984. The overall aim is to develop and maintain a positive approach to land-use management which makes adequate provision for necessary development and ensures that the green belt serves its proper purpose. Planning is a matter of balancing the two interests—development and conservation. By ensuring that development takes place in the right place, both interests can often be served well.

On the specific question whether mineral workings should be permitted in the green belt, our policy is influenced by three factors. First, mineral extraction is a transient use of land. Secondly, proposals to work minerals within green belts should be considered on their merits, having regard to the provisions of the development plan, the general presumption against inappropriate development within green belts and any other material considerations. Thirdly, as minerals can be worked only where they occur, the need for the mineral when balanced against other considerations may justify extraction. Our policy on minerals extraction in areas of outstanding natural beauty is that any applications for substantial new workings or extensions to existing workings should be subject to the most rigorous examination. This may well include the consideration of alternative sources of the mineral which could be obtained from less environmentally sensitive areas.

However, it is a fact of geology that many of the mineral deposits that are of value to the extractive industry occur in some of the more beautiful parts of the countryside. The Surrey hills AONB is no exception. That is well known. I understand that the elevation of the ground in this area owes itself in part to the underlying sandstones and limestones known collectively to geologists as the lower greensand. Of course, the problem in this case is that the assessment whether quarrying and subsequent infilling should take place at this locality has already been made. Indeed, it was made prior to the designation of the Surrey green belt and the Surrey hills AONB.

It has been suggested in correspondence to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that Stockstone quarry is of national scientific importance. My hon. Friend has raised the matter again this evening. We have heard that the quarry face shows particular sedimentary features of interest. The Nature Conservancy Council may be seeking the designation of the quarry face as a geological site of special scientific interest. If the site does display unique features, I can well understand the NCC's intentions. But we cannot overlook the fact that a valid planning consent exists which gives the operator the option of filling in the quarry. The designation of the site as an SSSI, even if it were to go ahead, cannot therefore give the site any protection in this regard.

I am sorry if my comments sound rather negative and unhelpful but, as I hope I have made clear, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has no powers to call in this matter for his determination. I should now like to consider the specific question of the infilling operation. It would be quite wrong to assume that the local authority has no powers at its disposal here.

Any person who intends to use a site for the disposal of controlled waste under the terms of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 requires a waste disposal licence. This will be given only if a valid planning permission exists under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. It has already been established that a valid permission is in operation. Surrey county council is the licensing authority and has a duty not to reject the application unless it is satisfied that its rejection is necessary for the purpose of preventing pollution of water or danger to public health.

Before a licence can be issued in this case, Surrey county council must consult, among others, the appropriate water authority. It must then agree conditions which may relate to such matters as the duration of the licence, the kinds and quantities of waste which may be dealt with and the hours of operation. The consideration of the conditions would, of course, take into account also such matters as the risk of polluting the underlying water table.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State does not have any powers to call in a licence application for his own determination, but if the water authority requests that the licence should not be issued or disagrees with the county council about the conditions, either of them may refer the matter to my right hon. Friend. Similarly, if the licence application is rejected or if the company were to disagree with the conditions, it can appeal. It is conceivable, therefore, that the case might come before my right hon. Friend, but I must stress that he could not reassess the validity of the condition permitting filling at the quarry. The only matters that could be considered would relate to the nature of the waste disposal licence.

From the correspondence that my Department has received, some of my hon. Friend's constituents have particular concerns about the prospects of Stockstone quarry becoming a dump for some of London's household refuse. As I have said, the type of waste that could be disposed of at the site is a matter to be covered by the site licence, but I understand that the applicants have excluded household waste from their list of infilling materials. I have no doubt at all that the county council's officials and the water authority have been looking critically at the proposals. I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that it would be quite wrong of me to speculate on the conditions that the county council might attach to the site licence, but the Control of Pollution Act 1974 confers quite wide powers as to what might be covered.

My hon. Friend has expressed understandable concern about the traffic implications. Traffic generated by quarrying and the infilling of quarries is, of course, a frequent source of local concern about which we hear regularly in many parts of the country. This is especially true when it involves the use of minor roads in rural areas. I have no specific information on the frequency of traffic movements which might arise in the case of the filling of Stockstone quarry, but I would expect the site licence to set a limit on the number of tonnes of waste which might be tipped at the site in any period and that will, of course, have the knock-on effect of limiting the traffic volume. Once again, that is a matter for the local authority to consider.

Clearly, planning permission for the filling operation has to be judged to exist and it would therefore be quite wrong unreasonably to prevent the access of appropriate vehicles to the site. I have little doubt that the county council will endeavour to strike the best possible balance in this regard. Indeed, it would perhaps be appropriate to reflect upon the local authority's position in the case of Stockstone quarry. In their letters to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, some of my hon. Friend's constituents have expressed a considerable sense of frustration about Surrey county council's handling of this matter. We should not under-estimate the difficulties that this case has created for the council's members and officials. I am sure that those responsible for drafting the 1952 planning consent had no conception of the problems that were being created for their successors in title.

Finally, let me say that I fully recognise my hon. Friend's concern in this matter and the deeply felt anxiety of her constituents. I hope that I have explained the position as far as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is concerned. We must hope that discussions in relation to the licence allay some of the fears that have been expressed in my hon. Friend's excellent exposition of the worries of her constituents.