HC Deb 22 January 1992 vol 202 cc302-4
8. Mr. Colvin

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what percentage of planning applications this year have been accompanied by environmental assessments as required by EC directive 85/337.

Sir George Young

The environmental impact assessment directive applies to certain types of projects that are likely to have significant environmental effects. About 200 planning applications a year are subject to environmental assessment. This represents approximately one in 3,000 of all planning applications in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Colvin

Does my hon. Friend agree that, by agreeing the directive, the Government are not saying that the European Environment Commissioner can dictate planning decisions but formalising best planning practice, as the directive gives the public full information about the environmental impact of major projects and helps local planning authorities to determine what conditions to put on planning consents?

Sir George Young

I accept my hon. Friend's analysis. The Government are serious about their environmental stewardship. We are second to none in the thoroughness with which we consider major projects and have an excellent record on implementing European environmental measures. It would be wrong for anyone to suggest that that was not true.

Mr. Simon Hughes

When I asked the Attorney-General on Monday why the Government were not acting on Sunday trading—because they say that the European Community has not yet said whether Sunday trading is in breach of European law—and why they were not acting to enforce the environmental impact assessment directive, even though the European Commission had said that certain transport schemes were in breach of European law, the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred me to the Secretary of State for the Environment. As the Secretary of State has just returned from a meeting with the Commissioner in Brussels, will the bulldozers be called off Twyford down and will the Government obey Brussels's interpretation of the law and ensure that we do not rip up our countryside in breach of a law that we signed?

Sir George Young

My right hon. Friend had a friendly and constructive discussion with the Commissioner. The Government believe that these issues can be resolved without recourse to the European Court of Justice and that is our objective. In the meantime, we do not wish to be drawn into a public argument on the matter.

Mr. Marlow

Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the writ of Mr. Ripa di Meana runs in Italy as well as this country? If not, will he bring to the attention of the honourable gentleman—or whatever he cares to call himself—the principle of subsidiarity and tell him that we are far better able to organise our own environmental affairs than the Greeks, the Italians, the Spaniards, the French and the host of other European nations which he seems to leave alone?

Sir George Young

I understand that other countries have been prosecuted by the European Court of Justice more intensively than this country. As I said at the beginning, our record on environmental stewardship is among the best in Europe and I am convinced that it is higher than that of Italy.

Mr. O'Brien

Is it not a fact that the purpose of environmental assessments is to protect the standard of living and the quality of life of people affected by planning decisions? Therefore, is not it incumbent on the Government to ensure that environmental assessments are attached to planning applications, or are the Government reneging on the question of the quality of life being attached to planning applications, as they have reneged on so many other subjects?

Sir George Young

The hon. Gentleman may know that the matter was discussed at some length during the Committee proceedings on the Planning and Compensation Act 1991. As he may also know, certain planning applications must be accompanied by environmental impact assessments and there is provision in the legislation to extend the categories that are so qualified if we so wish. I believe that at the moment the balance is right. The objective is to inform decision makers about the environmental impact of a planning application if they decide to go ahead. We achieved the right balance by insisting on such assessments where they are relevant but without encumbering the planning system by insisting on them in cases where they are not.

Mr. Dykes

I thank my hon. Friend for that fair and balanced answer. Does he agree that in a country—especially in the south—which is congested and which has a diminishing supply of undeveloped land the environmental impact assessments are very important? Now that the more hysterical newspaper articles attacking the respectable Commissioner, mainly because he was Italian, have subsided, will my hon. Friend confirm that the environmental impact assessments are extremely important to the Government and that the Government are fully committed to implementing them?

Sir George Young

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. I believe that we were doing much of what the Commission wants us to do before the directive came into affect.

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