HC Deb 10 January 1996 vol 269 cc305-12 Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Streeter.]

10 pm

Mr. Chris Davies

(Littleborough and Saddleworth): I am grateful to Madam Speaker for granting me the debate.

I should be grateful if the Minister would consider the issue I am about to put to him. A quarry, which had been worked for 120 years, devastating the landscape and creating a massive and ugly scar on the hillside, finally closed in 1980. For the residents of Newhey, an urban village of more than 1,000 homes on the edge of Rochdale, its closure can hardly have come a moment too soon.

Over the past 15 years that quarry has gradually been taken over by vegetation and many new residents have moved into the village, never thinking for a moment that the disused quarry was ever likely to reopen. They certainly never dreamt that it would be turned into a super-quarry, to be excavated far below the level of water table, not simply scarring the hillside but taking it away entirely. It is not surprising that over that period they had few fears. After the quarry closed, the land that it occupied was included within Rochdale council's green belt. It was so important and so protected that just 19 months ago, when the Secretary of State for the Environment considered the report of his inspector into an application to build an hotel on the quarry site, he refused planning permission.

It is worth noting some of the comments made by the inspector. He said that as the quarry had remained closed throughout the 1980s, a period, he said, of high demand, on the balance of probability it was unlikely to resume operations. He said that the arguments put forward by the applicants were not sufficient to overcome the general presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt. He recommended that if the Secretary of State was mindful to approve the application, he should impose conditions to ensure that consents relating to mineral extraction on the site should not be implemented.

Any reasonable person could be forgiven for thinking that this was a prime example of an ex-quarry—one which would never be worked again.

Why is it that the residents of Newhey are now facing the real prospect that the quarry is not only to be reopened but to be massively extended? What the residents here and in many other locations did not appreciate was that by trying to tidy up the problem of old mining permissions, the Government blundered into Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, switched on the electricity and woke up the monster.

An interim development order was granted for Newhey quarry in 1947, at a time when wartime priorities for development took rather more precedence over the planning considerations we have today. Planning permissions were granted which would not be granted under more recent legislation. In 1991 the Government announced that the holders of such permissions had to apply for re-registration by March 1992 or the permission would cease to have effect. That woke up a lot of people. The result of that announcement was to transform what in some cases was land assumed to have relatively little commercial value—the quarries had closed, had never been worked or the IDO records were not clear and contained potential conflicts—into land which came attached to a legal piece of paper which proclaimed it as potentially worth a great deal of money.

In addition, the Department announced that once an application had been approved, owners would have just 12 months to make further applications to determine the operating and restoration conditions. The developers were first given a good shaking then, instead of the land being kept as an asset value and perhaps used as collateral or as a trading commodity, new quarrying schemes began to appear on the drawing board and take on a life of their own.

I understand from the Wildlife Trust that planning permissions granted under IDOs have been claimed at 652 sites in England and Wales, many of which have never been developed to any extent and quite a few of which are in countryside of importance to nature conservation. The list includes 87 sites in areas of outstanding natural beauty and many others that incorporate land designated as sites of special scientific interest.

The Government have provided no special protection. On the contrary, in dealing with the oldest of mining permissions they said: Applications for registration of IDO permissions must be determined on the evidence of the case and not on the perceived planning merits of the development. The fact that over a period of 50 years local conditions, as well as public attitudes, may have changed, has made not a jot of difference.

I understand that many local authorities were not even aware of the existence of many of the permissions, so old are they, and so have not made any reference to them in their development plans. Suddenly, a new housing estate or an area designated for protection as green belt finds that a new quarry may appear in its midst. In effect, that is what has happened in Newhey. The site owners applied to re-register the IDO permission. Despite the opposition of all parties on Rochdale council, their claims were upheld and approved by the Secretary of State. That is not surprising, given the provisos built into the requirements.

Certainly, the land owners have rights. Given the comments of the planning inspector that I cited earlier, a few years ago the owners may not have realised that they held such a financial asset—but they certainly do now. In his attempt to clean up old procedures, I fear that the Secretary of State has made the owners' rights very clear indeed. What rights do the local residents have? Above all, what rights of objection do they possess? The answer is that they have hardly any rights worth having. Their community has no real protection against a development to which it is strongly and almost unanimously opposed.

No doubt the Secretary of State would argue that by tidying up the old permissions he has ensured that the quarry can be worked only after it has secured planning permission from the local authority, which will impose a requirement of modern operating conditions. However, a quarry such as this in a location such as this would not have been granted planning permission in the first place if the application were fresh and original. The local authority would have had the strongest objections to it and I have no doubt that a succession of guidance papers produced by the DOE over the years would have given strength to its arm and ample support for the objections of residents.

In practice, the local authority does not have the right to take the commonsense approach that would gain the approval of most residents—that is, simply to refuse planning permission. It can impose conditions on the working of the quarry, but only provided that they do not fundamentally affect the economic viability of the operation. It must take a reasonable approach. What is reasonable? Is it reasonable for work to start at 6.30 am? It may be in some locations, but the location that I am discussing is in the heart of Newhey. I well know that many residents find it entirely unreasonable.

The requirement imposed upon it put the local authority in a cleft stick. It wants to impose planning conditions that will genuinely protect the interests of local residents—but if it goes too far, it risks throwing the baby out with the bath water, of the applicants appealing and of no effective restrictions on quarry operations surviving. In effect, the planning authority has been stripped of all real powers. Mineral planning authorities have powers to change out-of-date permissions, but as they can do so only by paying substantial compensation to operators, it is not a feasible option.

The Minister may know that back in 1976 the Stevens committee pointed out that the mineral extraction industry had special characteristics and it recommended that it should have to accept any reasonable additional costs arising from the modernisation of old mineral permissions. In other words, a permission granted in the 1940s should not necessarily be considered a licence for everlasting life.

It is a shame that the Government did not take on board more of those points when they started the process of reviewing the interim development orders four years ago. Consideration should perhaps have been given to revoking some of the IDO permissions put before them. One must remember that the natural environment when the IDO permissions were granted was given much less priority than it is today. With advanced technology, the scale of operations now envisaged in many of the quarries may be vastly greater than was ever originally predicted.

In cases such as Newhey, a quarry which was in operation for 30 years after the IDO permission was granted and for almost 100 years before that, surely no one could argue that the original owners had not recouped their investment many times over.

As time moves on, it is surely reasonable to suggest that the interests of local communities should be given priority. As part of the process of modernising permissions, the Government should issue guidance to local authorities indicating the circumstances in which environmental and other considerations may be allowed to override the interests of a quarry operator.

The local authority should also have clearly defined rights to impose upper limits on the rate of output from such quarrying sites, which, as I pointed out, may be vastly increased because of the developments in technology and transport over the past 50 years and the new ways in which stone can be moved from quarry sites across the country.

Strengthening of the regulatory powers of planning authorities may affect the economic basis of some quarry operations. So be it. The owners of land for which mineral working rights exist for 50 years must assume and expect that changes in the approach taken by Governments over the years will affect their operations and the value of their asset. That is the risk that they take.

Perhaps it will be argued that the imposition of new conditions may conflict with the property rights of quarry owners. That is no more effective an argument than to say, for example, that if Parliament imposed restrictions on sulphur dioxide pollution from power stations, it would take away the rights of National Power—or ICI in the case of a chemical plant—to profit excessively from operations which pollute the air.

The principle that what was acceptable in 1947 will still be acceptable almost a century later—that is how long these permissions go on—simply cannot be sustained. It is not reasonable that owners should be able to demand excessive compensation for the loss in value of sites that were only given real value in the first place in some cases by a stroke of a Secretary of State's pen just a year or two ago.

The Government have acted in recent years to modernise old permissions and I do not suggest that they set out with anything other than the best of intentions. But the method adopted ignored the question of whether permission for the re-working of those old sites should be given at all. No one now would be able to gain permission to open a quarry so close to a major residential community as that in Newhey. Equally, it should not be possible to gain permission to reopen a closed quarry that belongs to another time and another age. That may have serious effects upon a local community. I hope that the Minister will tell us what action the Government will take to strengthen the rights of local residents and planning authorities in such cases.

10.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies) is new to the House. It is therefore understandable that he is perhaps unaware that I cannot give answers on a specific case. I hope that he will take that into account.

The hon. Gentleman has also failed to recognise the importance to this country of quarrying, mining and minerals—most obviously the energy minerals of coal, oil and gas. Those industries form a vital part of our economy. There are some 2,500 mineral workings in the United Kingdom; 900 sand and gravel pits; 500 hard rock and sandstone quarries; and 275 coal workings. In 1993, they were worth £16 billion to the United Kingdom, and they cannot be ignored. They also help to offset a deficit in our balance of payments which would occur if we had to import those minerals from elsewhere.

The mineral extraction industries also help to reduce our unemployment rate, because 36,000 people are employed in such industries. I am excluding those who work in offshore oil and gas extraction, which employs 34,000 people.

We accept that, in many cases, taking minerals out of the ground inevitably causes disruption. There can, however, be long-term benefits. It is worth pondering on that. Some of the sites have been subject to dramatic improvements, particularly where old sites have been cleaned up and brought back into a state of reasonable order.

Ultimately, it is an obvious geological fact that minerals can be worked only where they are found. That limits the choice of locations for extraction. Modern quarrying is a major industrial activity, and must often take place in what would otherwise be quiet rural areas. Government, industry and environmental organisations have done much to develop a broad and deep understanding of the effects of such quarrying, and how we can reduce them.

Much research has been undertaken into noise, dust, blasting, and the associated traffic. The aim, which to a large degree has been met, is to offer further advice to planning authorities, which must authorise the quarrying and control it through the conditions imposed on planning permissions. It is in their hands.

It is important to recognise that the industry has realised that it must improve its environmental performance, and it has taken dramatic and positive steps to do so. Our experience shows that the most successful approach is one based on co-operation between the industries, the mineral planning authorities and the local communities; and that happens. A blast such as that which we have heard from the hon. Gentleman does not necessarily contribute to that co-operation.

The task of granting mineral planning permissions and monitoring how those sites are worked throughout their lives, and then restored, is a right of local government. It is something for it to undertake. The Government have a role; they set the right framework.

I accept that, historically, mineral extraction has been a significant cause of dereliction, but we have moved on since then. We now have an accepted policy that the land which is worked for minerals is reclaimed at the earliest opportunity to a high standard and for a beneficial use. Excellent results are being achieved, although I shall not go into them, because there is insufficient time to do so.

Many planning permissions were, as has been said, issued in the past. Many of those permissions are still being worked. The standards that we expect to be achieved on those sites are those that we would set today. That is why further action has been take in that sphere during the past five years.

The first step has been to recognise that the Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Act 1981 was not working as well as had been intended. In 1991, we brought in the Planning and Compensation Act. We legislated to reform interim development order permissions—IDOs, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The earliest remaining mineral permissions in Great Britain date from 1943 to 1948. Those permissions had first to be registered with the local planning authority, and the operator or landowner then had to submit to the planning authority an updated scheme of working, restorations and conditions, which worked well.

The Environment Act 1995 huilt on that earlier success, and made provision for similar reforms to deal with old mineral permissions. by which I mean permissions granted between 1948 and 1982. In addition, it put into place a system to review all mineral permissions, regardless of their date, periodically thereafter.

The first step in the new reforms is for local mineral planning authorities to publish by 31 January lists of all dormant and active phase I and phase II mineral sites in their areas that require to be reviewed. For active phase I sites, the list must specify the date by which an application for an approval of new conditions must be submitted to the mineral planning authority.

The definition of what constitutes a dormant site, which has been mentioned in the debate, is clear in the Act. Retrospectively, the Act defines as dormant mineral planning permissions for sites where there has been no substantial working between 22 February 1982 and 6 June 1995. Should a mineral planning authority determine that a site is dormant, it is then up to that authority to take enforcement action in the usual way against any unlawful working.

Operators have no appeal against a mineral planning authority's classifying a site as dormant, except to seek a judicial review. However, classifying a site as dormant does not annul the permission. It can be reactivated at any time, provided that the operator can comply with full modern conditions for the site's working and restoration. Those conditions do not attract compensation.

The Environment Act also provides for periodic reviews at 15-year intervals of all mineral permissions, irrespective of the date when they were granted, to ensure that they are kept up to date.

I turn now to the specific issue of reopening mineral workings. Sites can suspend operations for a number of reasons—market conditions, unexpected geological problems, rationalisation and so on. Suspension of working does not in itself mean that operations should not be allowed to recommence when circumstances improve, or when temporary problems have been overcome, provided that they are carried out in accordance with the terms of the planning permission.

Where a mineral planning authority believes that a permission should not continue, it already has the powers to revoke or discontinue it, but it must pay compensation to any person with an interest in the land or minerals who suffers loss or damage. We have made it clear that the Government do not believe that it would be right to revoke without compensation planning permissions that have been validly granted and validly held.

However, as I have already said, we recognise that there is a particular problem with older planning permissions when working has been suspended for many years, and the terms of the original planning permission may have been overtaken by higher environmental expectations and improved standards. That is why, for the oldest permissions—the interim development orders, or IDOs—the Planning and Compensation Act 1991 specified that sites that had not been worked to any substantial extent in the two years ending on 1 April 1979 could not restart until full modern operating and restoration conditions had been approved by the mineral planning authority. Similarly, the 1995 Act provides that for pre-1982 sites where no substantial working has been carried out between 1982 and 1995, working cannot restart without full modern conditions. In neither case is any compensation payable.

Those are tough requirements, and they will ensure that dormant sites cannot be reactivated without a full consideration of all the issues, and the imposition of stringent modern planning conditions.

Mr. Chris Davies

The Minister rightly said that I had given him a local example. I would not expect him to respond in detail to that—although I tried to use the example of Newhey as an illustration of the wider problem. He referred at length to the new Environment Act 1995, which has already been helpful in some cases in Rochdale borough—but the IDO problem is my main concern.

Although the introduction of modern planning conditions may be helpful in some instances, it does not deal with the problem caused by a quarry such as that in Newhey—there are probably others on many sites throughout the country—which simply would not be given planning permission in the first place if there were a fresh application. The site is a dead quarry, 150 years old, which is now being brought back to life. Does the Minister acknowledge the need for stronger powers for local authorities to recognise the changed circumstances in which such a quarry is now expected to operate?

Sir Paul Beresford

The hon. Gentleman is underrating the powers of the local mineral authority. The authority can impose strict environmental standards under the new legislation and the various guidance notes. I repeat that I cannot refer to a particular case, but the powers in the hands of the planning authority are considerable. I would like the hon. Gentleman to ponder on that before he comes back and raises the matter, as I suspect he will in a written form at the first opportunity.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Ten o'clock.