§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]12.46 am
§ Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)
I am most grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity to raise a subject of vital importance to my constituents, albeit at a late hour and in a very interesting week in politics. It is a subject, as I say, that is of great interest and importance to my constituents, as I believe it is also to yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby), who is in his seat tonight.
My purpose in seeking the debate is to focus attention on the effect of the revision of mineral planning guidance note 3 this summer on opencast applications in the green belt and to seek clarification of what those changes mean. I am concerned particularly with its impact on the east Leeds green belt, but what I have to say will have wider implications for similar areas.
I am aware that my hon. Friend the Minister cannot comment on the facts of individual cases, but I shall have to refer to some to identify the issues of principle that they raise. However, I say at the outset how pleased I am that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has agreed to visit my constituency to see the area for himself that has been affected by a recent spate of opencast applications and to discuss what needs to be done as far as the planning framework is concerned.
It has been clear for some time that MPG3, the planning guidelines governing opencast applications, were out of date and needed fairly radical review. I and many others submitted evidence to the Secretary of State in the consultation process on that review. Many of the ideas that I and others submitted were incorporated into the revision that was announced in July, and I welcome that.
However, the first appeal decision to be made by an inspector under that revision, by H.J. Banks Ltd., related to land at Garforth in my constituency, and my concern is that, if that decision is a valid precedent, the new thinking in the MPG3 revision is not working out in practice as was intended and as I believed at the time when it was raised in the House.
The old position was that, in the national interest, there was a presumption in favour of opencasting. That is clearly no longer true, as there is a massive surplus both of coal being produced and of coal reserves. That presumption was removed, first by a ministerial statement and then, by way of confirmation, by the MPG3 revision.
Rightly, there is now no overriding requirement in the national interest that coal should be extracted simply because it is there. The correct test now is principally one of environmental acceptability. But that must carry a special significance for the green belt, where there are especially strong environmental factors.
Although it is true that coal can be worked only where it lies, it is equally true that houses can be built only where there is appropriate land available. Now that there is no national priority for extracting coal, there is no more logical reason for treating that activity more favourably than any other kind of development in the green belt. In other words, it should be allowed only in exceptional circumstances.
449 Let me make it clear that I do not oppose opencasting in the right circumstances; nor, for that matter, does Leeds council. Several years ago, the council granted consent for a very large site at St. Aidans, a site in the green belt in my constituency that borders your constituency too, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The development required the diversion of the River Aire and its associated canal, and I sponsored a private Bill through Parliament to enable that to take place.
That happened under the old MPG3, but I believe that it would have been equally justified under the revised MPG3. The site was derelict, and a potential health hazard. It was dangerous, and only by opencasting could the problems be properly addressed. There will be a massive improvement in the environment when the extraction has been completed.
It is vital to be able to determine clearly what is environmentally acceptable and what is not. If environmental acceptability is now the key test, what exactly does it mean? To whom should a development be acceptable? How does the new test, expressed in the context of MPG3, impact on other planning guidelines, such as those on green belt? Does the existing case law affecting planning need to be redefined?
It is at that point that the experience of my constituency shows up the weakness in the current position. One would have expected that the revision of MPG3 would have reduced the number of opencast applications, especially in green belts. One would have expected that appeals to Department of the Environment inspectors would face more stringent tests. But the opposite seems to have happened. Apart from the St. Aidans site that I mentioned, four separate applications have been made in the green belt in or around the south of my constituency.
The Banks application at Barwick road, Garforth, which was made during the run-up to the revision but decided afterwards, was rejected by the council but allowed by an inspector on appeal. Following that, Leeds council granted an application for a site in Methley lane, allegedly on the basis that, after the Banks decision, it had no choice. At least two more applications are threatened or pending in the Garforth area, at Barrowby lane and at Hawk's Nest wood.
At this stage, it is necessary to examine the issues on which the Banks inquiry turned. The original rejection by the council took place under the old MPG3, and was on very limited grounds. The public inquiry took place in the summer and was completed just before the announcement of the MPG3 revision. The inspector's decision was announced in August, after the revision was published.
The council claimed that it was inhibited from expanding on the limited grounds that it had used to reject the original application and from bringing in wider issues of policy. I gave evidence at the inquiry, in which I reminded the inspector that he could reopen the public inquiry after the publication of MPG3 if he wanted to hear evidence on the changed criteria.
At the inquiry, the application was opposed by myself, as the Member of Parliament, by the council, by all the local councillors, by the local Member of the European Parliament, by local industry, by the Department of Transport, by a local action group and by a number of individuals. Why was there such unanimity?
450 In the Garforth area, there has been no mining for many years. Its green belt is one of the most sensitive in the Leeds area, because it prevents the Leeds conurbation from expanding and swallowing up the surrounding towns and villages. It attracts long-term, high-quality investment from international companies, which is prejudiced by opencasting.
One such company, which I worked hard to help bring to the Garforth area, opened two years ago and now employs almost 200 people in the textile industry, which, we hear from so many sources, is under threat in the United Kingdom. The company is now planning further expansion. It has submitted evidence that it would have to invest heavily in air filters if opencasting was allowed, to protect the quality of the white polyester yarn it produces at the factory. Why should such a company have to compensate for environmental degradation? Is it sustainable development when long-term, world-class investment in jobs is threatened by an ephemeral opencast application?
Against that background, great play was made by the opencast developer of the sterilisation of coal reserves that would follow due to the imminent building of the A1-M1 link road over the site. However, the Department of Transport opposed the application, because it feared that opencasting would delay work on the road, which is massively important to my area, from both an environmental and an economic point of view. It will open up access for industrial operations and it will remove heavy traffic from congested villages. What on earth do the concepts of environmental acceptability and sustainable development mean when consent for opencasting is given by the inspector against that background?
The inspector gave that consent without warning in August, when many people, including myself, were away on holiday. A petition was raised, which was signed by most of the local inhabitants, which I passed on to the Secretary of State for the Environment. I was told by his office that he had no power to intervene, and that the decision was the inspector's alone. Many local people find it difficult to believe that, and I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that was the situation. How unsatisfactory that is. This is an issue that cannot be decided on that narrow basis alone.
Indeed, the problem was that the only group that could, in practice, have objected was the council. It could have applied to the court for judicial review, but it chose not to do so. It was not helped in that decision by the fact that there was a limited time for appeal, which was fully taken up with the holiday period. That in itself was bad enough. We have now moved on from that situation to one in which the council is inclined to grant further opencast applications without serious opposition, as it has at Methley lane, arguing that it is bound by the Banks decision.
That is simply not acceptable, especially when the council owns, directly or indirectly, a great deal of the land in the area and stands to make a great deal of money if opencasting expands, or if the fear of opencasting forces an area of the green belt out of the green belt and into other kinds of development. All this is a very long way from the principle of environmental acceptability, and it is politically unacceptable as well.
451 I am aware that the council can prepare a minerals plan, defining where opencasting would be acceptable and where it would not be. That is sensible, and the council should get on with it, alongside the current unitary development plan for Leeds. However, even if we can get over the council's conflict of interests, that will not help us in the short term, with the current and pending applications for opencasting and others that will be stimulated by the success of previous applications. Nor does it set the right background for the preparation of the minerals plan.
Against that background, I should like to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say. I look forward to the visit by the Secretary of State to the area, and to being able to show him at first hand exactly what is at stake. Most of all, I look forward to action to resolve the uncertainties. There is uncertainty about what environmental acceptability means in the context of a sensitive green belt. If that requires further clarification or amendment, so be it. The current situation in my constituency is simply unacceptable.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)
First of all I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste), in spite of the hour, for raising this quite important matter. He has been extremely diligent in pursuing the interests of his constituents over this matter.
I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend and his constituents about opencast coal mining. It is those concerns and similar concerns that influenced the thinking behind the guidance we published in the new MPG3 in July. That guidance emphasises that development should be allowed only where the development can be carried out in an environmentally acceptable way or where there are overriding—I must emphasise—benefits. But it is not, and should not, be the intention to stop all opencast mining.
The aim of the new guidance is to ensure that the extraction of coal can take place in accordance with the full and proper protection of the environment and the principles of sustainable development. The new guidance was not produced rashly. It was drawn up after extensive consultation with the industry, planners, environmental groups and local communities. As has been mentioned, that consultation included meetings with my hon. Friend, a delegation from Leeds city council, and the Yorkshire Opencast Objectors Group.
As my hon. Friend graciously recognises, the new guidelines respond to many of the concerns that were expressed. The strong presumption in favour of opencast mining has been removed. The guidelines emphasise a development plan-led approach and tests of environmental acceptability for individual projects. There is a tougher approach to the assessment of impacts with an annex addressing each one in turn, including such matters as dust, noise and visual impact. We are committed to monitoring the implementation of the guidance through the research programme.
The development plan-led approach ensures that decisions on land availability and use are debated fully and openly at local level. That must offer the greatest 452 certainty for industry about where coal extraction and spoil disposal is likely to be allowed. Similarly, however, communities where coal reserves exist will have a clearer idea about where such activities are likely to take place and over what period. This new approach, which responded to many of the concerns raised, has been generally well received, but I need to expand a little on it.
Planning policy needs to be formulated within the framework of the Government's energy programme. That programme, or policy, is to ensure diverse and sustainable supplies of energy in the form which people and businesses want and at competitive prices consistent with wider economic policies and the full and proper protection of the environment. The Government believe that that can best be achieved through the operation of a competitive and open market. In that context, it is not for the planning system to seek to set national limits on or targets for any particular source or level of energy supply, nor to predetermine the appropriate levels of coal to be produced by underground or even opencast mining.
The Government believe that coal can be mined economically and in an environmentally acceptable way, and that it is an important indigenous energy resource. The aim of the guidance is to ensure that development that can be carried out in an environmentally acceptable way is not inhibited. While it is for the industry to make decisions on the level of output that it wishes to aim for in the light of market conditions at the time, the acceptability of individual projects will be determined by the land use planning system.
My hon. Friend expressly refers to the test of environmental acceptability and how that is to be discharged. As he will realise, there is no simple answer to that question, but what is clear is that, first, the development plan has to provide a policy lead. The preparation of the development plan provides an opportunity to test the acceptability of national guidance to local circumstances. Secondly, in considering individual proposals, planning authorities need to weigh up on one hand the benefits of the development and, on the other hand, the environmental impact.
As I have already said, the new guidance gives comprehensive advice on the specific impacts that may arise and how to deal with them. Those include such matters as visual impact, noise, as I have already mentioned, blasting, dust, water pollution, transportation, land use and built heritage and nature conservation. The MPG3 also makes it clear that the guidance it contains is relevant to the consideration of planning applications whether or not the development plan is up to date.
My hon. Friend referred to the decision to grant planning permission for opencast coal mining at Garforth. As he said, that decision was issued on appeal by an inspector in August, following a local inquiry in June. Although the inquiry was held before the new MPG3 was published, the inspector took account of the revised guidance in reaching his decision. The inspector, as has been mentioned, has delegated powers to issue decisions on behalf of the Secretary of State. That was the situation in this case.
My hon. Friend will understand that it would be improper for me to discuss the merits of a decision. The pros and cons were argued at the local inquiry and the reasons for the decision are set out in the inspector's letter. I can say, however, that the decision appears to fall well within the revised guidelines. The project is of short 453 duration— 13 months— and avoids the sterilisation of coal by allowing its extraction in advance of the construction of the three-lane M1-A1 link road.
The planning inspector has imposed tough conditions on the permission. These conditions relate, for the most part, to the timing, preparation, operation and restoration of the site, together with measures for the protection of local amenity, including controls on noise and dust.
My hon. Friend mentioned other cases in the area—one which has already been approved and two which are pending. He expressed concern that the appeal decision at Garforth had created a precedent and fettered the planning authority's discretion. That is not the case. I cannot comment on applications currently before the planning authority, but I should point out that, in his decision letter on the Garforth case, the inspector stated:Nor do I consider that an approval in this case has any bearing on other proposals for opencasting in the wider area that might come forward in the future".That is clear. The fact is that each case must be determined on its merits in accordance with the relevant provisions of the development plan and all other material considerations.
I turn to mineral working in the green belt, which was raised by my hon. Friend. Green belts have been a cornerstone of the town and country planning system. They will remain so, serving us in as good if not better stead as we enter the 21st century. Now, more than ever, we need to remember that we hold the environment in trust for future generations, and to take decisions wisely.
Green belts have served us well in preventing urban sprawl and ribbon development. They are probably the most popular part of our planning system. They have been emulated widely abroad, from the Netherlands to South Korea. Let no one doubt that the Government remain as firmly committed as ever to green belts. Since 1979, their extent has more than doubled. They now cover 12 per cent. of England, or about 3.8 million acres.
Inside green belts, development is normally restricted to agriculture, forestry, open-air leisure and sport, and other uses appropriate to a rural area. There is a general presumption against inappropriate development within them. Very special circumstances are required to justify permitting any development which is not normally 454 appropriate in a green belt, or removing any land from the green belt. We expect shortly to publish a revision of planning policy guidance note 2 on green belts. This will confirm the overriding importance that we attach to their protection, and further strengthen green belt policy.
But there is no bar to making planning applications for development in the green belt. Nor do we intend to introduce a presumption against mineral working in green belts. The simple fact is that minerals can be worked only where they are found, and are a temporary use of the land. Their extraction therefore need not be incompatible with green belt objectives.
However, applications for mineral working in the green belt should be examined very carefully, and development should be allowed only where the highest standards of operation and restoration can be achieved. MPG3 does not encourage applications for green-field sites, but provides that priority should be given to proposals that involve the clearance of dereliction. Operators will need to demonstrate that real benefits will accrue from their proposals if they wish to work sensitive green-field sites.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which he has presented his case and represented his constituents. In addition to the debate, he has met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. As my hon. Friend has said, he is to visit his constituency. I know that my right hon. Friend is particularly well aware of my hon. Friend's concerns; hence his acceptance of the invitation.
I emphasise that the purpose of the new planning guidelines, as set out in MPG3, is to ensure that mining and spoil disposal are carried forward in an environmentally acceptable way through the planning system.
The guidelines aim to provide a balanced approach. On the one hand, they provide a positive steer in terms of national policy for the extraction of the resource. On the other hand, they give planning authorities the responsibility of indicating how, where and at what pace the resource should be developed through the development plan system. Within that framework, each proposal must be considered on its merits according to the circumstances of the particular case.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past One o'clock.