§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chapman.]2.41 pm
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
I raise this matter on the adjournment because of the great anxiety about the two planning applications for the development of Tinsley park in Sheffield, most of which is not in my constituency. I wrote to the Minister on 16 December, pointing out very briefly the concern among my constituents and other people in the area about the proposed planning applications. I have not received a detailed reply from the Minister, but I expect to hear more of the Department's views on the matter when he replies to the debate.
The application for opencast coal mining on the site preceded an application for what is best described as a short take-off and landing airport. The aircraft will come in over Catcliffe in my constituency and take off over Darnell which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy).
There has been a major response to those proposals by many of my constituents. The local authorities, Rotherham metropolitan borough council and Sheffield city council, have brought forward the proposal for the airport and held public consultation meetings in my constituency and neighbouring areas. In addition, an exhibition went round the locality demonstrating exactly what the proposals had in store for the area.
The response to those public consultation meetings that the local authority received can best be summed up by the chairman of planning of Rotherham metropolitan borough council in his report to co-ordinating committee A. Page 3, paragraph 3, subsection 4 says:The overwhelming reaction of approximately 750 members of the public who attended the three public meetings was against both proposals. This was also reflected in comments slips completed at the six exhibition venues and in subsequent letters and petitions received. Over 4,500 public responses have been received in the form of exhibition slips, letters and petition signatures, the clear majority being opposed to both proposals with only a handful of people expressing support. A wide range of issues have been raised in responses by local people broadly covering environmental, noise, traffic, blighting of property, health and safety matters.There is no doubt that both proposals created widespread alarm in the communities neighbouring the site.
The Tinsley Park action group was created as a result of this issue. It is a local group which articulates the views of local people. As well as advancing the arguments with the local authorities and elsewhere, it drew up a document called "Tinsley Park: A Case for Protection". The document details the environmental nature of the area.
To understand the feelings of that group and the local people, one needs to know that the area has suffered environmental blight from one source or another—whether industry or different forms of transport—for many years. Tinsley park is one of only two areas in the locality where people who live close by can enjoy the countryside. The countryside is not perfect, but it includes ancient woodland and a municipal golf course which, under the opencast coal mining proposals, would be reduced in size, if not destroyed completely.
I understand that the Department of the Environment has appointed an inspector, Mr. Acton, from Bristol, who 1367 is examining the opencast coal executive's proposals. At a meeting last Monday in Sheffield the interested parties discussed British Coal's application. I understand that the inspector told the meeting—I would like the Minister to clarify this—that the Department of the Environment is suggesting the non-determination of planning application B, which was submitted to Sheffield and Rotherham local authorities and is holding a public inquiry in March.
It is important to know exactly what the Department of the Environment is saying will be presented to the public inquiry. My information is that, because of the non-determination of that planning application, British Coal has reconsidered it and discussed with the two local authorities the possibility of changing the application so that more of the environment is protected. British Coal would he happy for opencast mining to go ahead, but not in the terms envisaged in application B. It is important for my constituents to know which application will go to the public inquiry in March.
It is interesting that in the past few years the site has come under the curtilage of the new Sheffield urban development corporation set up by the Government.
I have a copy of an article that appeared in The Star, a local evening newspaper, on 15 December 1988. It is headed:Pledge on Tinsley Park opencasting.The article continues:The non-elected SDC is now in charge of overseeing British Coal's plans to open-cast Tinsley Park.I and many others in my area want to know what that means.
Opencast mining is carried out at another two sites in my constituency. A liasion committee has been set up between British Coal, the site operators and elected representatives from the parish council and Rotherham metropolitan borough council. Sheffield UDC is a non-elected body that is not answerable to my constituents. If the application for opencast mining is agreed, I hope that it will not assume that it can take the role of elected local councillors. While we do not like the idea of opencast coal mining, when planning permission has been given with the knowledge and consent of the local authority there has been good liaison between the site operators and the local community. If opencast mining goes ahead at Tinsley park, I want to ensure that Sheffield UDC does not interfere.
If the planning application is to go before a public inquiry in March at Sheffield, what will happen about the planned airport? I shall quote from the minerals planning guidebook, which was published by the Government in May 1988 and deals with planning for opencast coal mining. Under "Restoration and Aftercare", it says:The principles of restoration should be settled at the time planning permission is granted, although it may sometimes be sensible for the details to be agreed at a later stage. The intended after-use must also be decided when permission is granted, but in the case of longer-term sites the detailed aftercare programme can be settled in a scheme agreed subsequently.Tinsley park is not a long-term site. I am concerned that the Department of the Environment will deal with the issues of opencasting and after-use at different inquiries. I hope that both issues will be the subject of a public inquiry and that Sheffield UDC will be unable to override it on the question of the proposed airport close to local communities. It would be more sensible if opencast 1368 mining, after-use and the airport were dealt with together at a full public inquiry at which all bodies concerned could be heard in a proper forum.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope)
The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) has explained his concern about this case and I congratulate him on bringing this subject before the House. He was kind enough to send me a letter on 16 December about this matter in which he expressed his concern. In that letter he told me that he intended to apply for an Adjournment debate on the subject. I apologise for the fact that I did not reply in the interim period, but I was expecting this debate. I have also received letters about Tinsley park from other hon. Members and I will reply to them shortly.
Tinsley park is currently the subject of various planning applications connected with the opencast extraction of coal and the subsequent building of a short take-off and landing airport. The position with regard to the opencasting is that an application is under consideration by both Rotherham and Sheffield metropolitan borough councils which have indicated that they are minded to approve it subject to the conclusion of a section 52 agreement. However, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware that the British Coal corporation has already submitted to my Department an appeal under section .37 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1984 in respect of a second application which relates to a slightly smaller site, together with requests for related compulsory purchase rights and footpath orders to be made. The public inquiry in respect of this appeal is due to open in March.
I am seeking further information about what was said on Monday. I am not sure whether I can answer the hon Gentleman on that specific point this afternoon. If I do not get the information before the end of this debate, I will ensure that he receives a reply as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Barron
I appreciate what the Minister has said. However, it appears that the redefined application for a smaller plan B will be the subject of the public inquiry. As I represent the constituency close to the area concerned and as I represent the area which was originally the subject of plan B, I must state that I have not been notified that a different application will be put before the public inquiry. I assume that that will happen and that the amendment was made in the talks between British Coal and the local authorities and that the new application will go to the public inquiry. Am I right?
§ Mr. Chope
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is right to assume that and that was not the intention of my earlier remarks. My advice is that the subject of the inquiry would be an ordinary application which was not determined. I understood that there was a section 37 appeal against non-determination and that that would go to the public inquiry in March. In the light of the hon. Gentleman's comments, I will have that checked for him.
With regard to the airport, the local authorities have also said that they are minded to approve the application, but they have referred the case to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State as a departure from the development plan.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that while the appeal is before my right hon. Friend and while the 1369 planning application for the STOLport is being considered from the point of view of whether my right hon. Friend should recover it for his own determination, I cannot discuss the merits of any of these proposals.
The hon. Gentleman has urged my right hon. Friend to call in these applications for a joint public inquiry. He has also referred to the role of the UDC. Before I deal with the question of call in, it may help if I explain the role of the UDC and say something about the Government's policy on opencasting as concern has been expressed about the impact of the proposals on the local area.
I will deal first with the question of planning responsibility and the role of the UDC. Development corporations are charged with bringing land and buildings into effective use; encouraging the development of industry and commerce and improving the environment. They place particular emphasis on the reclamation and servicing of land and the provision of adequate infrastructure to encourage private sector investment. They provide land for housing, industry, commerce and leisure. We are supporting development corporations with grants worth some £200 million in the current financial year.
Sheffield development corporation is one of our third generation UDCs, which came into force on 30 June 1988. It includes nearly the whole of Tinsley park, the subject of these planning applications.
Sheffield development corporation became the development control authority for its area, including Tinsley park, on 5 October 1988. Planning applications in the pipeline at that time, like the opencast and airport applications which had been made previously to Sheffield and Rotherham councils remain to be determined by those councils. But, quite clearly, it makes sense for the issues raised by the applications to be discussed and, where possible, agreed by the relevant parties.
I know that discussions are taking place between Sheffield development corporation, the two councils and British Coal Opencast Executive, all of which have a quite proper interest in the details of the proposals. I know, too, that Sheffield development corporation's strategy will be considering the contribution which opencasting, the resulting reclamation and a city airport could make to achieving its regeneration objectives. That said, however, these matters are now before my right hon. Friend and, while it is sensible for such discussions to continue locally, my right hon. Friend has to consider the matter before him on its merits.
The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members in correspondence have expressed concern about the impact of the opencasting. Although mineral workings are temporary uses of land, they can have a serious impact on the environment. The Government recognise this. At the same time minerals are essential for the economy and can be worked only where they occur. It is the job of the planning system to balance the need for the mineral against environmental and other relevant factors.
I do not believe that it is necessary for me to set out in detail what is contained in the planning policy guidance note 3, which was published in May last year, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is sufficient to say that the guidance advises mineral planning authorities on the 1370 balance which needs to be struck between the economic benefits of developing this source of low cost energy and the protection of the environment.
Because opencast coal is one of the cheapest forms of energy available to this country, it is in the national interest to maximise production where that can be done in an environmentally acceptable way.
But there is no Government target for coal production or opencast output. That is a matter for the market. It is therefore for the industry to decide the level of opencast output for which it wishes to aim in any period. But it is for the mineral planning authorities initially—and, ultimately, my right hon. Friend if the case comes before him on appeal or call-in—to determine the acceptability of specific projects having regard both to the benefits of opencast coal and the particular proposal, and the environmental and other material considerations relating to the specific site.
Our aim is to encourage a positive and constructive approach by the industry and mineral planning authorities to ensure that this important resource is extracted in an environmentally acceptable way.
The hon. Gentleman has urged, that these applications should be considered by my right hon. Friend following a public inquiry. It is a long established policy for the Secretary of State not to interfere with the jurisdiction of planning authorities unless it is necessary to do so. That is an important principle. Parliament has given clear duties and responsibilities to local planning authorities. They often have to take difficult and unpalatable decisions, and it would be wrong for my right hon. Friend to interfere unnecessarily in the development control process. My right hon. Friend will therefore continue to be very selective about calling in cases for his decision, and applications will in general be called in only if planning issues of more than local importance are involved. Such cases may include, for example, those which in my right hon. Friend's opinion could have wide effects beyond their immediate locality, which give rise to substantial regional or national controversy and which may conflict with national policy on important matters.
Presently, there are three issues before my right hon. Friend. First there is the application for opencasting of the site currently before the local authorities, which he has been asked to call in. Secondly, there is a similar application for opencasting, on which British Coal has appealed on the ground of non determination, and on which the public inquiry has been called. Thirdly, there are applications for the STOLport which have been referred to my right hon. Friend as a departure from the development plan. Although these applications relate by and large to the same area of land, they are distinct matters and my right hon. Friend will consider each of the matters before him on its own merits.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to guidance from my department on whether simultaneous applications for different types of development on the same site are necessarily called in to be considered together at a joint public inquiry. The general position is that, if one of the proposals is before the Secretary of State for decision, consideration is given on a case-by-case basis whether it would be convenient for the parties for the applications to be considered at one inquiry. For example, if there are competing proposals for a site and they are mutually exclusive, that would be a good ground for a joint inquiry. If only one application, for example, were to be called in 1371 by the Secretary of State, that proposal could be disadvantaged by having to spend time going through the public inquiry system. Under those circumstances, if asked to do so, the Secretary of State would consider calling in the other cases purely to ensure that each received equal treatment. Having said that, each would still be considered on its own merits. That circumstance applies to where the proposed developments are mutually exclusive.
However, where the competing proposals are not mutually exclusive, by virtue of being capable of consecutive development—for example the extraction of a mineral from a surface working or any other use of a site for a limited period, following which that site will once again be available for development—different criteria apply. In those circumstances, there is not necessarily anything to be gained by arranging for a joint inquiry.
§ Mr. Barron
Obviously I do not know the details of the discussions taking place between the opencast coal executive committee, the two local authorities and Sheffield urban development corporation. My understanding is that British Coal has told the local authorities that it will lay down the framework for the runway for a STOLport when it restores the site that it will opencast. I do not believe that there is any contradiction in my argument or in the planning guidance that has been issued by the Department. There is a strong link between British Coal's plans and the plans for the airport. That direct link 1372 has been discussed many times in the local press and everybody knows about it. That is why both plans should be subject to a public inquiry.
§ Mr. Chope
I note what the hon. Gentleman says, but I cannot comment upon the merits of his argument. As I said, my right hon. Friend is considering whether the STOLport application should be called in.
As a matter of general policy, our Department likes to encourage local authorities and applicants for planning permission to reach an accommodation between themselves. Often that is done with the assistance of section 52 agreements, and if a section 52 agreement was reached between the parties in this case, it would not be novel. Obviously, I cannot comment on that case, but what the hon. Gentleman has said will be taken into account when we decide whether to call in the application.
There is nothing more that I can usefully say to help the hon. Gentleman in anticipation of the quasi-Hudicial process that must continue. I assure him that I recognise the importance of the matters that he has raised, which have also been raised by the hon. Members for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) and for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) as well as by people outside the House. All those representations will be taken into account by my right hon. Friend when he reaches a decision on the matter.
§ Question put to and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Three o'clock.