HC Deb 24 January 1989 vol 145 cc1002-8

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

12.52 am
Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)

On 14 July last year, the Summerleaze Gravel Company Limited applied to Buckinghamshire county council for planning permission in relation to land in East Burnham park, Lees farm and Hunts Wood farm, all of which are in East Burnham in my constituency. The application is for the winning and working of sand and gravel and matters ancillary thereto, including the erection of processing plant, the crossing of public highways, the importation of infilling material and restoration to agriculture. Part of the land is at present used as farmland, part is a nursery and part is woodland.

The total site area is 52 hectares and the development will take 13 years to complete. It will involve the removal of 1.65 million tonnes of gravel at the rate of 150,000 tonnes a year. The site will then be filled with 1.1 million cu m of waste material. According to the planning application, the development will involve maximum daily lorry movements of 365.

The application site lies within a preferred area in the Buckinghamshire county council's minerals local plan, which was adopted nearly seven years ago, in April 1982. The preferred area is known as area 17. Preferred areas are areas where applications to work sand and gravel for general market needs will be favourably considered. There is therefore a presumption in favour of the application. I want to explain to my hon. Friend why that presumption should be rebutted—at any rate, why we should call in the application, even though there is a presumption in its favour.

There are two principal reasons—one of substance and the other of procedure. The substantive reason relates to the proximity to the site of Burnham beeches, which is nationally recognised as one of the largest remaining blocks of woodland in England—undisturbed since the ice age—and is highly valued for the ecological system to be found within its borders. It is listed as a site of special scientific interest under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The beeches have been owned by the Corporation of London since 1880. The Corporation of London (Open Spaces) Act requires it to keep the land unenclosed and unbuilt on for the recreation and enjoyment of the public and to observe its natural aspect. Burnham beeches attract up to 500,000 visitors from the surrounding area, London and overseas every year.

The application site is about 200 m from the southern boundary of the beeches. The corporation of London is therefore concerned that, should planning permission be granted, damage would be caused to the environment and amenity of Burnham beeches. The ground water table system could be unbalanced by the draw-down effects of the excavation of the natural water table. The corporation has therefore commissioned a report from the Institute of Hydrology on the hydrological implications. To date it has received only an interim report, prepared in under six weeks. The Institute of Hydrology has concluded that the underlying parts of the beeches are in hydraulic connection with the gravel it is proposed to extract. The exact nature of the connection is not known at this stage, and its establishment will require further boreholes and associated study.

The pollution effects of dust discharge over the beeches could be severe. The corporation has therefore also commissioned a report on the potential effects of dust discharge and in particular the effect of such pollution under the lichen and algae within the beeches. The bedrock strata immediately adjoining sections of the proposed site are fractured and fissured in such a way that the methane by-product of the infill material could find its way through the substrata into the beeches. The corporation has therefore commissioned another report on the potential effects of pollution as a consequence of the proposed landfill with industrial and domestic waste.

My hon. Friend may, not unreasonably, say that all these matters must have been thoroughly investigated when the Buckinghamshire minerals local plan was drawn up at the beginning of the decade. The Nature Conservancy Council has addressed this point in its assessment of the potential effects of the proposal on Burnham beeches. The council says: The plan dates back to the early 1980s and the NCC would have had an opportunity to comment at the draft stage. That they did not raise any objections to extraction in this area reflects the state of knowledge relating to hydrological matters, and likely implications for sites of nature conservation interest, at that time. Since then a number of sites have suffered badly, particularly in East Anglia, through the effects of changing the groundwater table. In response to these problems our understanding has increased, through the implementation of directed research, and we would almost certainly have questioned the designation of this sie as a preferred area had the plan been presented today. There are two additional matters of relevance to the minerals local plan. The first is that the description of the buffer zone in the plan is out of date following residential development of the land. The second is that the plan envisages a maximum production rate of 100,000 tonnes per annum, whereas the application proposes 150,000 tonnes per annum. To summarise this substantive reason, Burnham beeches could be irreparably damaged by the proposal. The Summerleage Gravel Company Limited has written to me today to say: We pose no threat to Burnham Beeches. That is a disputed issue of such importance that it should be considered by an independent public inquiry.

The procedural reason why the planning application should be called in arises from the need for an overall environmental assessment. As my hon. Friend knows, the Town and Country Planning (Assessment of Environmental Effects) Regulations 1988 came into effect on 15 July. It is, of course, no coincidence that this planning application was submitted on 14 July, because the chief planning officer advised Summerleage to get its planning application in quickly to avoid the effect of the regulations. This suggests that the planning officer took the view that, had the regulations been in force, an environmental assessment might have been necessary.

My hon. Friend wrote to me on 9 January to explain the position in relation to planning applications made in the period from 3 to 14 July. The directive ought to have come into effect in the United Kingdom on 3 July. My hon. Friend told me that it would be open to the Secretary of State to call in such an application for his own decision, if it appeared to him to relate to a project that might fall within the terms of the directive. In that event, my hon. Friend told me, the Secretary of State would be likely to arrange an inquiry, the procedure for which would achieve the principal objective of the directive. In this way, the spirit of the directive would be respected in the case of applications lodged during this period.

The Department's circular on environmental assessment, which was issued last year, explains that it is a technique for drawing together in a systematic way expert quantitative analysis and qualitative assessment of a project's environmental effects, and presenting the results in a way which enables the importance of the predicted effects and the scope for modifying or mitigating them, to be properly evaluated by the relevant decision-making body before a decision is given.

In my view, that is precisely what is required in this case: a drawing together in a systematic way of all the evidence and the presentation of the results in a way that facilitates a proper evaluation. In the absence of an environmental assessment, which the applicant has contrived to avoid, this can be achieved only by a public inquiry.

My hon. Friend might say that such an inquiry would place a heavy burden on all the parties involved. My answer to that is that, when it comes to the preservation of something as special as Burnham beeches, there is a heavy responsibility on all of us to ensure that its future is secure.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that many of the environmental matters that have to be considered in a case such as this are highly technical. There is, no doubt, no shortage of technical expertise at county hall, but for the reasons I have given, it is vital that there should be an independent inquiry into all these matters.

I understand that the county planning committee proposes to consider this matter in April. I doubt very much whether it will have all the information it needs to be able to make an informed decision by then. A public inquiry would be able to consider all the important issues in a sensible timescale.

Some 200 of my constituents have written to me on this matter. A rather larger number attended a public meeting recently. Many organisations support the calling in of this application. They are the British Lichen Society, Britwell parish council, the Bucks, Berks and Oxon Naturalists Trust, Burnham parish council, the corporation of London, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, English Heritage, Farnham Royal parish council, Friends of the Earth, the Nature Conservancy Council and the Ramblers Association. There is widespread local concern about the impact that this development would have on the whole surrounding area, and I urge my hon. Friend to call the application in.

1.4 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) on the lucid way in which he has raised this important matter. He has addressed a matter of considerable worry to many of his constituents and to others who enjoy the beauty and tranquility of Burnham beeches.

Outside Greater London and the metropolitan areas, day-to-day planning responsibility for minerals planning and development control is vested in the county councils. Although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State does have discretion under section 35 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, to require a planning application to be referred to him for decision, it is a long-established policy for the Secretary of State not to interfere with the jurisdiction of planning authorities unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.

Reference to the Secretary of State is required only when matters of more than local importance are raised by the application. This is an important principle. Parliament has given clear duties and responsibilities to the mineral planning authorities. They are frequently faced with difficult and contentious proposals for mineral development and they have to balance the need for mineral supplies to be maintained against the need to preserve the countryside and the environment. Mineral planning authorities generally face up to their responsibilities well, and it would be wrong for my right hon. Friend to intervene unnecessarily in the development control process.

A significant feature of this case is that the application relates to a site designated a preferred area for sand and gravel extraction in the Buckinghamshire minerals subject local plan, as my hon. Friend said. This plan aimed to provide for sand and gravel production in the county at about 16 million tonnes over the period 1981–91. The plan identified a number of preferred areas in the south of the county, together with some areas of search elsewhere in the county, where this target could be met with the least environmental damage. Within these preferred areas, favourable consideration would be given to applications for sand and gravel extraction, although each application would have to be judged on its own merits.

This minerals subject plan was the subject of a long and detailed public inquiry, and the possibility of designating this area east of Burnham, the so-called area 17, was thoroughly debated. The inspector who conducted the inquiry concluded that the area was suitable as a preferred area for sand and gravel extraction, subject to conditions concerned with access and with the safeguarding of three listed buildings in the area. In his view, sand and gravel extraction could take place without unacceptable visual intrusion if suitable earth bunds were erected.

Buckinghamshire county council adopted this plan in April 1982. In July of that year it granted planning permission to the Summerleaze Gravel Company Limited to extract gravel from a 10 hectare site within this preferred area. As my hon. Friend said, the company has now submitted a new application to extract gravel from almost the whole of the preferred area, and it is this application which has generated the current controversy.

It has been argued by some of those who have made representations opposing the application that this minerals local plan is out of date, and my hon. Friend spoke to that point. That is an aspect which the Secretary of State will have to consider, notwithstanding the fact that the plan was designed to cover the period up to 1991. It is the statutory development plan for mineral development in the county and, as such, the county council is obliged to take it into account as a material consideration when determining planning applications.

My hon. Friend expressed particular worries about a threat to Burnham beeches, which is a site of special scientific interest. I wish to reassure him that I am in no doubt about the national importance of the beeches. Their history, habitats and flora are all well documented and they must be protected. I am sure that this view is shared by Buckinghamshire county council.

The possibility of an adverse effect on the hydrology of the Burnham beeches area appears to be a particular concern, not least to the Nature Conservancy Council. My hon. Friend pointed out, fairly, that this is to a large extent a new issue which was not canvassed when the minerals local plan was debated. This is clearly a matter which needs to be investigated. It will need to be established whether there is a hydraulic connection between the water in the glacial sands and gravels which underlie the beeches and water in the Boyn Hill terrace gravels which the applicants propose to work.

I understand that the county council has asked the applicants to provide a report on the likely effects of their proposals on the area's hydrology and that the council has retained an independent hydrological expert to examine that report when it is produced. I am sure that the applicants realise that they must satisfy the planning authority that the working of the application site will not affect the water regime at Burnham beeches.

I understand that the City of London corporation has also commissioned some hydrological studies into this matter and has written to the county council saying that its preliminary studies indicate that there is a link between the groundwater underlying Burnham beeches and the site which is the subject of the planning application. It would be extremely helpful if the corporation could make any evidence it has available to the county council, and to the applicants' hydrological consultants to help them resolve the matter.

My hon. Friend raised the question whether the applicants should be required to provide an environmental assessment of their proposals. The Town and Country Planning (Assessment of Environmental Effects) Regulations 1988 require developers to provide an environmental assessment to accompany planning applications for certain developments if they are likely to have significant effects by virtue of factors such as size, nature or location.

As my hon. Friend said, these regulations apply to applications submitted on or after 15 July last year but implement an EC directive on environmental assessment which came into force on 3 July. The Summerleaze Gravel Company Limited submitted its planning application on 14 July.

Two questions therefore arise. First, there is the general question whether planning applications made before the United Kingdom regulations came into force on 15 July 1988, but after the EC directive came into force on 3 July 1988, should be subject to the requirement to provide an environmental assessment. Second, there is the question whether this particular planning application would have needed to have been accompanied by an environmental assessment if it had been submitted on or after 15 July.

On the first point, under normal circumstances United Kingdom legislation is not applied retrospectively. and in the planning system it has been considered generally to be both against the principles of natural justice and impractical to alter provisions affecting a particular application after it has been made. The 1988 regulations do not apply, therefore, to planning applications made before 15 July 1988, when the United Kingdom regulations came into force.

Nevertheless, I can assure the House that the spirit of the directive will be respected in the case of applications lodged in the relatively short period between the entry into force of the EC directive and the starting date for the United Kingdom regulations. If any relevant planning application made between the two dates is drawn to my right hon. Friend's attention, he will consider whether it would have required assessment under the regulations if they had applied to it. It would then be open to my right hon. Friend to call in the applications for his decision if it appears to him to be such a case apart from any other grounds he might have for calling the application in. In that event he would be likely to arrange an inquiry, the procedure for which would achieve the directive's aims of supplying environmental information and consultation with bodies with relevant responsibilities.

It has been pointed out in representations that the site area of this application is 2 hectares greater than the indicative 50-hectare threshold for sand and gravel operations which is mentioned in the Departmental circular which accompanied the regulations. However, the size thresholds for mineral operations referred to in the circular are only indicative, and projects which exceed the thresholds will not in every case require assessment. The main criterion is whether the proposal raises the likelihood of significant environmental effects. On the information available to me, it would appear that the hydrological studies which have been set in train will cover the issue which would assume greatest importance in any environmental assessment of this application.

My right hon. Friend is considering this matter in the light of the representations he has received. Clearly, an important consideration will be the possible impact of the proposed sand and gravel extraction on the hydrology of the area. As I have already mentioned, the mineral planning authority is acting quite properly and responsibly in looking into this, and my right hon. Friend will wish to take account of its investigations, and the other points raised so eloquently this evening by my hon. Friend, before reaching a decision on whether or not to call in this particular sand and gravel extraction proposal for his own determination.

My hon. Friend mentioned that, if there were to be a public inquiry, it would be a burden. That would not be a constraint on the Department's consideration whether it was necessary to call in the application. I can assure my hon. Friend that would not be a relevant consideration; we would judge the issue on the other criteria to which I have referred. I and my right hon. Friend are well aware of the importance of Burnham beeches, and before reaching a decision we shall very carefully consider all the issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past One o'clock.