HC Deb 10 December 1990 vol 182 cc791-8

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

12.36 am
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The title of the debate suggests that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Minister and I should pack our buckets and spades for a seaside outing. If buckets and spades were all that there was to it, we would not have a problem. Unfortunately, we are dealing with the removal of sand on a much larger scale.

Druridge bay consists of over six miles of magnificent Northumberland countryside—one continuous beach backed by dunes. Part of the bay is owned by the National Trust and associated with it are four nature reserves, giving protection to rare species of birds and vegetation. There is also a designated site of special scientific interest at Cresswell ponds.

During the summer months and at weekends the area is very popular with people from Tyneside, but it is so large that it can absorb quite a large number of people without losing any of its beauty or any of the sense of remoteness and release that it gives. It cannot so readily absorb or cope with industrial threats, however. One—the plan to build a nuclear power station, against which many of us have been campaigning for over a decade—has receded, along with the rest of the Government's nuclear power programme. I hope that that proposal never reappears; if it does, it will be bitterly contested.

The threat with which we are concerned tonight, however, is that of the erosion of the sand, made worse by industrial sand extraction. Sand has been extracted for many years from the dunes and foreshore—originally it was in very small quantities. Planning permissions were refused for the main areas of activity—Hemscott hill and Blakemoor burn—in 1959 and 1964 respectively. The planning authority took the view that industrial sand extraction on a significant scale should not take place at either of those locations. Then, Ministers of Housing and Local Government—one Conservative and one Labour —gave permission on appeal for both the sites, in 1960 and in 1966 respectively. Since those dates, the areas have been worked—first, by a local builder and since 1982 by Northern Aggregates, a subsidiary of RMC Ltd.

The sand extraction is undertaken by one mechanical shovel, which, since the beginning of 1988, has operated only on the smaller of the two sites—Blakemoor burn— where sand is dug out from the foreshore. On the larger site—Hemscott hill—sand may be dug from the foreshore or from the dunes and the existing permission allows for the complete removal of the dunes along a 1,500 yd stretch of coastline. There are no restrictions on the hours of working or on the number of wagons that can be used to take away the sand. Approximately 40,000 tonnes of sand is taken each year. In 1960, when it all started, only 14,000 tonnes were taken. There is no quantity limit and it is estimated that over 1 million tonnes have been extracted in that way.

It is important to note that the planning permissions were granted on appeal and not by the local authorities in the first place. I do not believe that permission for sand extraction on that scale would have been granted today by the present Minister or any recent Minister. The extraction appears not to have been made subject even to some of the conditions envisaged by the inspectors at the two inquiries. The inspector recommended in 1960 that the appeal should be allowed and he suggested that planning permission should be given for periods of three and four years at a time so that sea encroachment and land drainage might be kept under review. As regards the foreshore, the Minister sees no reason why it should not be worked to a limited extent. The inspector's report also stated: The Minister doubts whether it is practicable to limit annual production for the area to a fixed amount … The Minister does not think it necessary to limit any permission to a term of years. The inspector's report was not even borne out in the Minister's decision which did not impose the kind of restrictions that the inspector seemed to envisage.

In 1965 the inspector referred to allowing the appeal and granting permission to the extent and subject to such conditions as are necessary to ensure that the cleaning is on a scale and in a similar manner to that which was carried out before the appellant commenced work on the site. However, the conditions set that year do not bear that out. They are not sufficient to limit the extraction of sand to the level that was going on before 1960 or 1965.

I do not believe that permission for extraction would have been granted today. Even if it were, it would be subject to the kind of conditions that the inspectors envisaged back in the 1960s, but which were not applied. One of the conditions was that one small mechanical shovel should be used. Of course, that term now extends to quite a modern piece of equipment that has three times the capacity of the machine used in 1960.

We should also bear it in mind that since then the Cresswell pond site has been declared a site of special scientific interest. However, because of the planning permission, it could not be extended so that its limitations covered the whole area, as that would have made the declaration retrospective and outwith the terms of the SSSI legislation.

So far as I know, nothing like this is tolerated elsewhere on anything like this scale. The county council has inquired around the country and has found that in almost all comparable cases permissions were more restricted and in many cases had been brought to an end. The planning permissions to which I have referred effectively last until 2042. They have more than 50 years to go. People in the area are deeply concerned about what is happening and about seeing their beach removed in that way.

Much of the concern stems from the fear of significant erosion. Research undertaken in 1970 by Professor Clayton of the University of East Anglia and research undertaken in 1985 and 1986 by Babtie, Shaw and Morton for Castle Morpeth borough council showed that the effects of sand removal coupled with coal mining subsidence affecting some parts of the bay could lead to a danger of inundation by the sea. The Babtie, Shaw and Morton report stated: Sea encroachment would flood and contaminate large areas of agricultural and amentity land, together with the C110 Cresswell to Druridge road. That road is flooded today. The area that has been cut away was flooded—the sea broke into it during the stormy weather of the past weekend.

The former warden for the Northumberland wildlife trust of the area around Druridge bay said that, at the present rate, within 20 years we will not have any sand dunes, and that if one takes sand from one point, the sand moves to make the same shape, and the result is erosion all along the bay. That point by Mr. Scott explains how it is that, although the sand keeps replacing itself at the point from which it is being extracted, the process attracts sand to fill the gap from other parts of the bay where the beach is being eroded. All those who have carried out any research or study of the matter are convinced that serious erosion of the beach will continue and that damage to the dunes is threatened. Sand extraction affects the whole bay and there are signs of rapid erosion at the north end.

Work on the dunes could be resumed within the planning permission at any time. It is not going on at the moment, but further extraction from the dunes—effectively levelling the dunes—could be resumed at any time and disastrous consequences could follow.

We all know that changing meteorological patterns and global warming are expected to result in an increase in tide levels in the North sea, which would further threaten the dunes. That is now accepted wisdom—the former Prime Minister herself referred to it. Clearly, it is extremely worrying for extraction to continue against that threat. The National Trust is very concerned about the danger to its own property in the part of the bay that it safeguards. The Northumberland wildlife trust is concerned, and its concern is shared by local residents, by Castle Morpeth borough council and by Northumberland county council.

What is it open to the authorities to do? Town and country planning legislation could allow the local planning authority and Northumberland county council to revoke or modify the two planning permissions, but compensa-tion would be required for the loss of mineral reserves. That could be on a massive scale. The company has talked about a six-figure sum. The resource is not finite, unlike a quarry, in which case one could point to a time when it will be worked out and, therefore, there is a limit to compensation. Because sand keeps reappearing from other parts of the bay, there is no limit of time or quantity and, therefore, potentially a large sum in compensation.

In December 1989 the then Secretary of State for the Environment stated that section 276 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, which has since been superseded, enabled him to revoke a planning permission if the original decision is judged to be grossly wrong, so that damage is likely to be done to the wider public interest."—[Official Report, 20 December 1989; Vol. 164, c. 327.] Northumberland county council's view is that it might be appropriate to use that power for a planning permission that is clearly outdated and does not even conform to the inspector's initial proposals to safeguard the two sites in question.

In a letter to me in June the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) said that he was not prepared to use that power and that, in any event, compensation would have to be paid by Northumberland county council. I ask the Minister to consider how serious it would be if such a large sum had to be met by the poll tax payers of the county of Northumberland, unaided. The county council would quickly exceed its capping limit if it were to undertake a payment on that scale. It is an unreasonable demand.

At the same time, the Castle Morpeth borough council, in conjunction with its consulting engineers, is considering the possibility of taking action under the coastal protection legislation. Precedents for that are not encouraging. The legislation is not particularly well drafted. There are only two previous cases in which local authorities have successfully applied for such orders in remotely comparable circumstances.

Other forms of campaigning are going on to deal with the problem. Local people are campaigning vigorously, and the Druridge bay campaign, which was originally set up to campaign against a nuclear power station, is now campaigning to secure assurances from local building firms that they will not use sand taken from the site. Two local firms have given indications that they will take that line. The well-known north-east Bowey construction group has said that it will not use sand from the site, and the firm of George Tower of Blyth has said that it will not do so. I hope that the campaign will widen and that many more firms will take advantage of it, but I do not think that that will solve the problem.

It is worth remembering that Northumberland has 16.8 years' supply of permitted sand and gravel extraction within the area and a further 1.8 million tonnes has just been added by a further permission. There is no question of Northumberland in any way failing in its duty to ensure that the construction industry has access within that area to sufficient supplies for the years to come. It has already exceeded the recommended 10-year amount of extracted sand and gravel that it is supposed to allow.

In these circumstances, I ask the Minister to think again about the Department's position. It is not fair to put the entire bill for ending this state of affairs on local community charge payers. In any case, it is not clear that huge compensation is appropriate in this instance. Why should this firm have rights to dig out the beach without any limit on time or quantity? It has already had a good run. This has been a nice little earner, which has been perfectly legal and above board, and which has cost the firm only whatever sum it paid originally and the limited cost of carrying out the extraction and carting the sand away. It cannot be said to be under any great threat if it is considered that the extraction should end without a huge sum being paid in compensation.

However, if compensation is to be paid, why should it be paid solely by the community? Central Government caused the problem by overruling local knowledge and local decisions. I recognise that it was not the present Government, but it was central Government, and the responsibility cannot be left on the shoulders of the local community.

I do not expect the Minister to brandish a wholly new solution to the problem tonight, but I urge him to get his officials to look again at it, to visit the site and to begin discussions with the local authorities involved to find a way to end this uncontrolled and unlimited destruction of the local environment, the cost of which should not fall wholly on the local community, which tried hard to stop this happening in the first place and is therefore entitled to some help from central Government in bringing the problem to an end.

12.51 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tim Yeo)

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has explained his concerns about this issue with characteristic eloquence and reasonableness and I congratulate him on bringing the subject before the House. I know that his interest in this case is not new as he wrote about it earlier this year to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) when he was Secretary of State.

The hon. Gentleman is lucky enough to have a constituency that is noted for its attractive landscape, including much of its coastline. He speaks of it with justifiable pride and enthusiasm. It is also endowed with a number of important minerals, including coal, sand and gravel. Because of that, it is not surprising that there are concerns arising from the desire to protect and enhance the environment. From time to time, those concerns may appear to conflict with the need to exploit the mineral resources for the benefit of the nation.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I first briefly outlined the Government's policy on the provision of aggregates, of which sand and gravel form an important element. For our economy to function properly, we need a steady and varied supply of minerals. It is Government policy that the construction industry continues to receive that supply at the best balance of social, economic and environmental cost. In the past few years, there has been extensive consultation with the industry and with minerals planning authorities on the preparation of new policy guidance. That guidance is contained in a series of minerals planning guidance notes, seven of which have so far been issued.

The guidance sets out the Government's overall policy and the matters to be taken into account when planning applications are submitted and considered. It also sets out matters to be included in development plans and gives guidance about reclamation and, importantly for the matter before the House, about the review to be undertaken by minerals planning authorities of existing mineral workings. I shall return to that in a moment.

Minerals deposits are not evenly distributed. They can be worked only where they can be found. It is a fact that good mineral deposits are frequently found in areas of attractive landscape, or in areas which, for some other reason, are environmentally sensitive. That can lead to disagreements about whether working should be permitted or, where it is already taking place, whether it should be allowed to continue. In the majority of cases, it is for the minerals planning authority, which is in the best position to judge, to decide on how the best balance of supply against environmental cost can be struck.

I now refer to the importance that the Government attach to the environment in the assessment that has to be made in considering the acceptability of minerals working. Most minerals working causes some environmental disturbance. Most people are aware of the impact that mineral extraction has had and can have on the landscape and on a variety of local features and naturally occurring processes and activities. Although some minerals working may be a relatively short-term activity, in other cases it can last much longer—perhaps for several decades, as in the case that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Environmental concerns are increasing in response to both new planning applications for minerals working and existing activity that may have been authorised, as in this case, many years ago. I welcome today's greater awareness of all kinds of environmental considerations. It is right that they should be properly assessed before any decisions are made. The Government take those concerns extremely seriously. In the White Paper, "This Common Inheritance", the Government have set out what has been done and what is proposed. For minerals, attention is drawn to the importance of balancing the interests of amenity against the need to exploit the resource. It calls on operators to take account of best environmental practice.

In recognition of the environmental concerns arising from minerals working and the fact that minerals are a finite resource, the Government have an extensive research programme into sources of materials, environmental effects, reclamation and related issues. Two projects are of particular relevance. One deals with re-use and recycling by using secondary aggregates—the by-products of industrial processes. We hope that that will provide information on the availability of such materials and their potential for use in construction as alternatives to primary aggregates. A second project will investigate sources of supply from coastal superquarries. Some of the projects are already under way and the results will be taken into account when the Government's minerals planning guidance is reviewed.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the problems of old minerals permissions. For some time the Government have been aware of that matter. The Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Act 1981 provides for a review of mineral workings. It imposes a duty on mineral planning authorities to carry out reviews of mineral workings and to make orders to revoke or modify planning permissions as appropriate with, in some instances, abatement of compensation that may be payable.

The purpose of the review is to monitor all recently active sites or sites authorised but not yet started and to ensure, where practicable, that conditions are consistent with current minerals planning practice. There is no statutory requirement on timing, frequency and manner of carrying out the review. That is a matter for the mineral planning authority. It is also up to the authority to decide which sites should be tackled first. I understand that in the case raised by the hon. Gentleman Northumberland county council has not been able to make much progress on that exercise. But it remains a matter for the county council and not the Secretary of State.

The Government are concerned that that part of the Act does not appear to have been operating as speedily as intended. This time last year a survey by the County Planning Officers Society showed that only some 35 of the 91 mineral planning authorities had started reviews, and progress on the actual reviews that had been started was somewhat patchy. The Government announced in the White Paper their intention to review the operation of that part of the Act, including the compensation arrangements. That review has now started.

I should now like to refer to the site at Druridge bay and to the subject of sand and gravel production in the county of Northumberland. But I must make it clear that I cannot make any specific comment on the merits of the particular case, since under the terms of the review that I mentioned it could come formally before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Druridge bay comprises a five-and-a-half-mile sand beach on the Northumberland coast about 20 miles north of Newcastle. It is backed by sand dunes, beyond which is pastureland. Sand extraction is believed to have been taking place there for about 80 years. In 1960 planning permission was granted on appeal by the then Minister of Housing and Local Government for sand extraction in part of the bay at Hemscott hill. Conditions were imposed on the depth of working and confined the use of machinery to a small mechanical shovel. Further permission was granted on appeal in 1965 to extract sand at Blakemoor burn to the south of the other site.

A site of special scientific interest has recently been designated at Blakemoor burn and on part of the bay to the north of Hemscott hill. A wildlife reserve has also been recently created north of Hemscott hill.

As the hon. Gentleman said, sand extraction has increased over the years. I am aware that there are concerns about flooding and erosion because of loss of sand in the dunes, because in the past it has been removed faster than it was being replaced. But, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, for the past two and a half years sand extraction at the site has voluntarily been restricted to the Blakemoor burn site, and the dunes and foreshore at Hemscott hill are not being worked. I believe also that there could be other causes of erosion in the bay, notably coal mining subsidence.

The county is an important source for sand and gravel for the nearby Tyne and Wear. Although the county council now has a landbank of permitted reserves of sand and gravel in excess of the 10-year minimum to which Government guidance refers, it is acknowledged in the regional commentary of the northern regional aggregates working party that there could be a shortfall of sand and gravel by the year 2006. The commentary states that for sand and gravel to 2006 it is unlikely that extension to some sites will be possible and there could be problems in finding environmentally acceptable new sites in Northumberland accessible to the main Tyneside Markets". The importance of that site as a source of sand, relative to other sources in the country, therefore needs careful consideration by the minerals planning authority.

Mr. Beith

The Minister has put his finger on a rather important point. If there is a basis for the concern about future supply, it could lead to the full working of the entire planning permissions, including the dunes area, which is voluntarily not being worked at present. That strengthens the case, therefore, for new protection of that area.

Mr. Yeo

Commercial pressures may point in one direction. I dare say that the reasons that led the operator voluntarily to end mining sand at Hemscott hill will still apply with equal force in future.

As I mentioned, the county in which the hon. Gentleman's constituency is situated has much to commend it environmentally. Indeed, I note that significant areas are within the Northumberland national park. Much of the coastline to the north of Druridge bay is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty and identified as heritage coast. I also note, however, that Druridge bay itself does not come within any of those designations.

The hon. Gentleman has requested that the Secretary of State should use his powers to end sand extraction at Druridge bay. I think that it would help if I explained the powers that are available for revoking a permission.

Section 97 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provides local planning authorities with powers to make orders to revoke or modify a planning permission if it appears expedient to do so. If planning permission is revoked, the owner or occupier of the land—in this case, the minerals operator—may, in accordance with section 107, make a claim for compensation from the local planning authority. That would be on the grounds of abortive expenditure or sustained loss or damage attributable to revocation. Section 107 specifically provides for the local planning authority to pay the compensation.

If it appears to the Secretary of State that an order should be made under section 97 and the local planning authority has not done so, he may himself make such an order under section 100. Such an order would have the same effect as if it had been made by the local planning authority. Even if that default power were to be used by the Secretary of State, it would still fall to the local planning authority to pay any compensation due. I understand why the hon. Gentleman may feel that, if the Secretary of State has granted planning permission that is subsequently revoked by him, he ought to pay any due compensation. But I am afraid that there is no provision for the Secretary of State to do so.

The Secretary of State has considered a request to use those default powers from the county council, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan), the Under-Secretary of State for Energy, explained, on the basis of the information available, he was not persuaded that use of the powers would be justified. The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, be pleased to hear, however, that the Government are reviewing the operation of the legislation.

I hope from what I have said that I have made it clear that the Government recognise the very real concerns about the environmental impact of mineral operations. As we have said in the White Paper, we plan to issue further guidance on how those matters can be improved. Of course many companies already take environmental considerations seriously, but there is no room for complacency in any of us. It is particularly important that problems should be tackled in a co-operative manner with minerals planning authorities, such as Northumberland, working in close liaison with the industry to see what can be done on an informal basis. That approach has worked successfully in a number of counties and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that there is much to commend it if there is to be progress.

I have listened very carefully and with interest to what the hon. Gentleman said to support the end of sand extraction at Druridge bay. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has considered the issue but concluded that it is a matter for the county council to decide in the light of the prevailing circumstances. It is in the best position to strike the right balance of supply of sand and gravel against the environmental costs. It also has the powers to revoke or modify the existing planning permission.

As I said a moment ago, there is considerable merit in the operators and the county council holding discussions to see what might be done about the present operations without recourse to the statutory powers that are available. I understand that some discussions have started and I would urge both parties to continue that dialogue without delay as a positive and sensible way forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past One o'clock.

Back to