HC Deb 03 December 1997 vol 302 cc322-9

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Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter today. It may seem that, whenever a planning application comes up, there are always people with a local interest who say that it should not go ahead. It was described by the late Nicholas Ridley as the NIMBY syndrome—not in my backyard. I hope to show that, although, obviously, we do not want a new quarry to open, it is not a matter just of the NIMBY syndrome.

Longstone Edge is a beautiful hill ridge in the heart of the Peak district national park, which is unlike any other national park in the United Kingdom because no other has so much local authority involvement, or covers the region of so many local authorities. Longstone Edge is criss-crossed by delightful paths and is easily seen from surrounding villages. It also lies in direct view of the most popular walks along Froggatt Edge, Calver and Baslow Edge. That is why people have called on me to ask the Government to call the application in, if it is at all possible.

The Peak district is within an hour's travelling distance of some 15 million people. I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that it is the lungs of England. It lies within an hour's drive of Manchester, almost in the backyard of Sheffield and not far from the west midlands conurbation. It attracts many visitors annually. It is estimated that, last year, some 22 million day visits were made to the national park. It has outstanding natural beauty.

I do not want to leave the Minister with the view that this is a matter just of NIMBYism, because the Peak district accepts that quarrying is an important activity in the national park. It is estimated that, last year, some 7 million tonnes of limestone were quarried from the national park, and quarrying represents about 1,000 jobs overall there, so we do not take the approach that no quarrying should take place in the national park.

I have been in correspondence with the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning on the matter. During the summer, he responded to me in some lengthy correspondence, for which I am grateful and which set out some of the earlier considerations that had to be taken into account. However, I was sorry to read a letter from the Minister dated 19 September, which stated: You will by now have received my reply to your earlier letter, dated 30 August, which I trust you found helpful. Indeed it was. The letter then goes on: As my letter indicated, the main responsibility for this type of development rests in the first instance with the Peak District National Park Authority, as the mineral planning authority. The Secretary of State is generally very reluctant to interfere with the jurisdiction of local planning authorities and will normally only intervene if the matters concerned are of more than local importance. Whilst it is clear that the issues in this case are of considerable importance to local residents, they seem nevertheless to be essentially of local significance and the Secretary of State's intervention in this instance would therefore seem to be unwarranted. That was met with a fair amount of disbelief, to put it mildly, by my constituents. The very fact that the site lies in the heart of a national park, which was designated because of its natural beauty and is an area that people visit, means that it is of national, not just local, significance.

I have received many letters on the matter. In response to the Minister's view that the Secretary of State's intervention was unwarranted, one letter stated: This is an extraordinary position to take. Firstly, this proposed development is in the heart of the National Park. This area attracts a vast number of tourists annually. The majority of them do not visit to see a quarry the size of Bakewell disfiguring a prominent skyline. The fact that the development is in a National Park surely lends the issue more than local significance. If it does not, the number of tourists who flood the area suggests that there might well be more than a local interest in the careful preservation of the essential character of the area. That is one of the many letters that I received along similar lines once I had sent the Minister's letter to constituents.

I am not the only one who is concerned about the issue. It is not party political. All the people concerned with the national park—the local authority and parish council representatives, as well as the Secretary of State's own appointees—are concerned not just about this individual case, but about the wider context in which it has to be judged.

I was one of those who were pleased when the Environment Act 1995 was passed. It went through the House under a Conservative Government without a Division, because most of it was generally welcomed as a move in the right direction on this issue.

I am the first to accept that it is not easy to deal with the issue that I am raising because it concerns some old mineral rights. Schedules 13 and 14 to the Act cover the review and updating of old mineral planning permissions. The initial review is concerned with mineral sites where the main or only planning permission was granted between 1948 and 1982. Schedule 14 provides for the periodic review—every 15 years—of all mineral sites. That review involves a submission for approval of modern operating conditions, covering a wide range of environmental matters, together with plans for the working and restoration of the site.

Longstone Edge is a good case, in particular the area known as Backdale quarry. The site lies about 5 km from the centre of Bakewell, in the heart of the national park, which was designated in 1951 for its valued characteristics.

Longstone Edge is extensively covered by several planning permissions, principally for the extraction of vein minerals by opencast and underground mining methods. They were issued in 1949, 1951, 1952, 1971, 1977 and 1978. The veins have been extensively worked in the form of substantial underground workings and surface workings going down a few metres only. That work has been in parts of the site where the veins have been known to exist and has not resulted in substantial removal of limestone. The underground workings have resulted in significant subsidence of some of the surface, so that deep trenches now exist along large stretches of the Edge.

The Backdale area of Longstone Edge has an extremely complex site history, arising primarily from a single ministerial consent for underground, opencast and surface working of vein minerals granted on 24 April 1952. In 1989, it was noted that limestone was being removed and processed at a crushing and screening plant installed at Backdale. The operator claims that at the time the removal of limestone was permitted in accordance with the terms of the permission issued in 1952.

In July 1996, RMC confirmed that long-term development of the Backdale area was being considered in the context of the review of permissions in accordance with the provisions of the Environment Act 1995. However, no working, landscaping or restoration details have been submitted by the operator for the remainder of the area—some 143 hectares. We are talking about a huge area of land. The operator claims that the provisions of the Environment Act 1995 allow for phased submissions, but that is disputed by the mineral planning authority. That highlights one of the many problems with the legislation.

One of the other problems is the time in which the MPA has to respond to applications made to it. That is a particular problem when dealing with an area of such a size. I would be the first to say that planning authorities should try to turn applications round quickly, but when we are talking about a planning application not for a building but for a permission that could last for some 45 years, more time is needed to ensure that the MPA makes the correct judgment.

The authority considers that limestone extraction on the scale proposed in the Environment Act scheme was not envisaged by the Minister in 1952 and substantially exceeds the terms of the Minister's consent. This problem comes up time and again. In 1952 when the vein extraction was granted, it was for the extraction of minerals 1 m to 2 m from ground level. We are now talking about a wholly different application from what was initially envisaged.

I know that the Minister will probably say that the Peak park, or the MPA, can place certain restrictions on RMC, make certain recommendations or go to court, but RMC would also be able to take the matter to court. If RMC won, the Peak national park might have to pay the compensation, but it does not have the money to do so and therefore has to consider very carefully before entering into any legal process because of the possible drain on its resources. The problem is not one for a local authority to take care of. The Peak national park was originally set up because of the national significance of the area.

Several people have written to me to make representations about the proposed quarry. The Government talk regularly about an integrated transport policy, so I hope that the Minister will consider the problems of transporting goods from the proposed site. The roads being considered for access to the quarry are wholly unsuitable for lorries.

The other day, Sheffield council issued a statement saying that if the proposal was to go ahead, it would want a rail link to be used. I shall be interested to see Sheffield council's plans for a railhead in Backdale quarry, because it will first have to build a railway. That might be difficult, not least in view of the time involved.

I received a letter from the Curbar, Calver and Froggatt Women's Institute, which states: The roads being used to gain access to and from the mining site are not in good condition. Hassop Road and Froggatt Road in particular are not in any fit state for heavy vehicle use. The traffic on the A623 is already very heavy, and many fatal and near fatal accidents are occurring, particularly in Stoney Middleton and Baslow. The vehicles used for transport, particularly when empty, also constitute noise pollution and…the traffic starts before 5 am now". The road that many of those vehicles would take out of Froggatt to Sheffield passes very close to some houses, which would cause considerable damage.

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will accept that this is not a case of being anti-quarry or against the extraction of minerals. We acknowledge that that already happens in the park. However, we are now talking about a new huge quarry being opened. The Minister may say that it is not really new if there has been extraction there since 1952, but the kind of extraction being proposed by RMC is new. That is one of the reasons why I believe that the application merits being called in.

I do not write to the Minister on every controversial planning matter and say that it must be called in. The records at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will show that it is very rare that I have said that. However, we are talking about a huge application beyond anything that I have dealt with before in my constituency. It is in the heart of the national park. I do not agree with every decision that the park has taken, and I have been critical of it in the past. I was pleased when parish council representatives were allowed to serve on the park authority, so that an elected element was included. I shall not go over the arguments, but I welcome the changes that have been made.

A bizarre aspect of the problem was highlighted by Julian Tippett of Stoney Middleton. He wrote to me: it is bizarre that a consent given in 1952 can rule what is done 45 years later without a planning inquiry of the kind that I think necessary for this application. I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with some of the points that I have raised.

1.16 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on his success in obtaining this Adjournment debate and on his speech on the future of quarrying at Longstone Edge. He is lucky to have such magnificent countryside as that part of the Peak district in his constituency. It is right that he should be extolling its beauty and defending its interests. He has raised a very important issue.

I know that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I must of necessity avoid commenting on the particular circumstances of an individual case, as it may come before the Secretary of State on appeal. Should an appeal be lodged with my Department on any planning matter, Ministers have a legal responsibility to all parties involved to act impartially and with an open mind.

As has been drawn to our attention, the Peak district national park authority, which is the mineral planning authority, is also considering enforcement action against the operator. I understand that it centres on the interpretation of the original planning consent to which the hon. Gentleman referred and the extent to which that consent allows for the removal of limestone. The enforcement process, too, involves a right of appeal to my Department and adds to the circumspection with which I must address the case.

I do, however, want to make it clear to the House at the outset that the Government recognise and understand the very real concerns raised locally about quarrying and its impact on the environment. Successive Governments—not least those formed by the hon. Gentleman's party, as well as the current Government—have sought to respond to those concerns and to achieve a sensible balance between the interests of the economy and the construction industry on the one hand and the environment on the other. That is reflected in primary legislation. I shall return to the legislative aspect in detail later in my speech, as it is important to set out clearly the purposes of the reforms of recent years.

I must emphasise that the task of reviewing mineral planning permissions and of monitoring how they are worked and restored throughout their lives is one properly for local government to perform. It is the local mineral planning authority—in this case, the Peak district national park authority—and the quarry operator, in this case, RMC Roadstone Ltd., to which both government and local people rightly look for improvements.

As I said, the Government recognise and understand the passions that quarrying raises. As the hon. Member will know, in recent years, successive Governments have accorded the reform of old quarrying permissions considerable priority. I should like to remind the House of the progress that has been made.

The modern reform of the mineral planning system began as far back as 1976, with publication of the Stevens committee report. The committee's recommendations formed the basis of the Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Act 1981, which is now consolidated within the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and is the cornerstone of modern mineral planning legislation.

The 1981 Act introduced a duty on mineral planning authorities—which, in current terms, are the counties, unitaries and national park authorities—to review and make orders updating mineral permissions, and established that the minerals industry should itself bear part of the costs under the "polluter pays" principle. However, the 1981 Act's provisions for review and updating of conditions did not work well in practice.

Mineral planning authorities were reluctant to risk incurring compensation liabilities that were difficult to assess in advance of using their order-making powers. The shortcomings of the 1981 Act were recognised. Consequently, two further pieces of legislation were enacted to address those shortcomings.

The first measure was the Planning and Compensation Act 1991. In that Act, the then Government legislated to reform interim development order planning permissions. Those are the earliest remaining mineral permissions in the United Kingdom and were granted under interim development orders between 1943 and 1948, chiefly to meet wartime needs and the demands of post-war reconstruction. Those permissions had few, if any, planning conditions attached to them, and in many cases records of their existence had been lost. Under the 1991 Act, IDO permissions had to be registered with local mineral planning authorities and then submitted to those authorities for updating of their working and restoration conditions.

All IDO permissions remain valid and cannot legally be revoked without compensation, which is consistent with the wider general principles of planning and property law. There is no compensation for the cost of complying with new conditions, but our planning guidance makes it clear that conditions imposed on active sites should not fundamentally affect the economic structure of the operation. For dormant sites—a site where there has been no substantial working for two years between May 1989 and April 1991—full modern conditions may be imposed without compensation. Full planning guidance is given on the operation of the 1991 Act in mineral planning guidance notes 8 and 9.

The reforms have worked well over the years, and they are delivering real benefits as older quarries are brought up to modern environmental standards.

The Environment Act 1995, to which the hon. Member referred, built on that earlier success and made provision for similar reforms to deal with permissions that were granted between 1948 and 1982. Those are known as old mineral permissions, and the Longstone Edge complex of quarries comes into that category. All OMPs are subject to initial review and updating of conditions. I am sure that the House will agree that it is important that, once modernised, mineral permissions do not slip back again. That applies to all permissions, not only to IDOs or OMPs. I am sure that no hon. Member would like to be confronted continuously with the issue.

The Environment Act 1995 therefore provides for periodic reviews—at 15-year intervals—of all mineral permissions, irrespective of the date on which they were granted, to ensure that, once modernised, they are kept in line with current environmental standards and best practice. That is a particularly important aspect of the reforms, and one that has clear benefits.

The initial review task for OMPs granted between 1948 and 1982 is much more substantial than that for pre-1948 IDOs, as the 1995 legislation covers permissions granted over nearly 35 years. Therefore, to spread the work load in bringing the old permissions up to date, the review of active sites is taking place in two consecutive phases, each of three years.

Phase I, which is now in progress, deals with sites where the predominant permission or permissions were granted before 31 March 1969. Phase II, which is due to begin in October 1998, will deal with sites where the predominant permission was granted after that date, but before 22 February 1982. However, all sites wholly or partly within national parks, sites of special scientific interest or areas of outstanding natural beauty are treated as phase I sites. That means that the most environmentally sensitive sites should have the protection of new conditions in the first half of the review programme.

Clearly, a number of old mineral permissions were granted on terms at least as broad as IDO permissions. Their lack of detail and limited operating conditions would not be allowed if they were being granted today. However, the permissions remain valid.

In the case raised by the hon. Member I well understand how frustrating it must be to residents of the area that old mineral permissions are, by today's standards, so loosely worded. That is why the review process is so necessary—to ensure that active sites, such as Longstone Edge, are worked under proper modern standards.

I emphasise that the review's purpose is certainly not to allow operators to exceed the terms of their original permission. On the contrary, the purpose is to ensure that old permissions are subject to modern-day operating and restoration conditions. For active sites, owners or operators must submit new schemes of working and restoration conditions for the mineral planning authority's approval, by the date that it specifies.

The hon. Member for West Derbyshire asked about phased restoration. All reviews should impose proper restoration conditions, but the level of detail appropriate will vary according to the circumstances of the particular case. More detail should be provided for sites with a short life—for example, for sites where mineral operations will cease, or restoration is due to start, within five or 10 years of the review. For sites that will continue for a longer period, it may be preferable to have conditions that require the mineral operator to submit detailed schemes for final landforms and contours, and for the necessary aftercare when a particular operational phase has been reached, or by a set date.

There should also be provision to ensure that the mineral operator will propose and implement a scheme for final restoration and aftercare arrangements should the site cease operation for any reason before the end of the time limit. The precise details of the conditions are, of course, a matter for the mineral planning authority to determine in the first instance.

There is no compensation for new restoration and aftercare conditions, or for conditions that do not restrict working rights. Those include, for example, modern environmental conditions—such as wheel-washes and sheeting of lorries to provide for the cleanliness of roads leading to and from the public highway and of vehicles leaving the site.

The aim of the review process is to ensure environmentally sound outcomes while not prejudicing economic viability. Traffic conditions could therefore include control of access to and from the highway, display of on-site signs showing recommended vehicle routes and improvement of visibility where access roads join the public highway. Where such problems cannot be resolved, it may be appropriate to impose conditions limiting the rate of output, to preclude substantial future traffic increases, or prohibiting night-time working. Such conditions must be used flexibly. Those that significantly restrict the rate of output in such a way as to prejudice the quarry's economic viability to an adverse degree would give rise to liability for compensation.

The point on compensation is important. For modern conditions that restrict working rights, compensation will be payable only if, in the opinion of the mineral planning authority, the effect of the restriction would be such as to prejudice to an unreasonable degree either the economic viability of the operation or the asset value of the site. As ever in planning, the test is one of reasonableness.

Some quarry sites are dormant under the 1995 Act. They are sites where no substantial mineral working or substantial depositing of mineral waste has occurred between 1982 and 1995. Work cannot restart until a new scheme of full modern operating and restoration conditions has been approved by the mineral planning authority. There is no compensation for the cost of complying with conditions imposed on dormant sites.

The Department has published full guidance on how to operate the 1995 minerals reforms in mineral planning guidance note 14. That document was published after extensive consultation with industry and local authorities, and copies were supplied to all mineral planning authorities. It is a material consideration which must be taken into account when old permissions are reviewed.

As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning has made clear in correspondence with the hon. Member about the case that he has raised, the Peak district national park authority, as the mineral planning authority, is directly responsible for making progress on the matter. I hope that it will do so with application and imagination.

The 1995 Act seeks to maintain an equitable balance between the rights of those who hold long-standing valid planning permissions and the proper protection of the environment and amenity. In the Government's view, the way to proceed is for the Peak district national park authority to complete its review of the Longstone Edge permissions under the 1995 legislation and ensure that they conform to proper modern conditions. That would involve neither revocation nor payment of compensation, provided that the authority did not seek to impose conditions that restricted working rights to such an extent that the economic viability of the operation or the asset value of the site was prejudiced to an unreasonable degree.

I want therefore to make it clear that the Government stand by their decision not to call in this case, as the hon. Member requested. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning made it clear that the Secretary of State's call-in powers are used only sparingly. This is not a case where we believe that call-in powers are appropriate.

I also want to make it clear that the intrinsic landscape quality of any individual site does not justify the Secretary of State substituting his judgment for that of the local planning authority. Otherwise, the Secretary of State would end up determining every planning case in environmentally sensitive areas. The fact that the site is in a national park is not in itself a justification for call-in—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. We must move to the next debate.