HC Deb 25 June 1998 vol 314 cc1243-52

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

7.58 pm
Mrs. Diana Organ (Forest of Dean)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, thank you for allowing me the opportunity of bringing the issue of the environmental protection of the forest of Dean to the Floor of the House of Commons.

When I secured the debate, I suspected that perhaps only I and the Minister would be here on a Thursday evening, with no Friday sitting. I am pleased to realise that, with the debate starting at this earlier hour, I have the opportunity to press my case for two and a half hours. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is always happy to listen to representations on the issue. However, I reassure him that I will take far less time, as I know that he will be able to respond to my questions in less than two and a half hours.

I thank the hon. Members who are in the Chamber for showing their support in an issue which is of wider interest than just my constituency. It concerns protecting a part of Britain which is valuable to the whole nation, since it is a landscape treasured by many—both local and visitor. The forest of Dean sits between the rivers Severn and Wye. It has long been known as a great area of beauty. Daniel Defoe, in his travels around Britain in the 18th century, commented on the spectacular views and towering oaks.

Successive Governments in this century have looked at protecting the area. It was one of the first areas to be considered by the national parks committee in 1929 and by Ramsay MacDonald's Government. In 1938, it was designated a national forest park, predating consideration given to the New forest. In 1947, the Hobhouse committee looked at granting national park status to the forest of Dean, but decided against it, and against the lesser status of area of outstanding natural beauty. Each time, the forest did not gain protection, which was deemed unnecessary on the ground that, as an ancient royal hunting forest, it would be protected by the Forestry Commission.

In 1974, there were investigations into making the forest an area of outstanding natural beauty, but again it was left out—principally for the same reason that applied in 1929, 1938 and 1947. However, changes made to the Forestry Commission under the previous Administration mean that this body alone can in no way be considered as a guardian or protector of our area.

The area, which is vulnerable and demands environmental protection, is much wider than those administered by Forest Enterprise. The limited guardianship offered by Forest Enterprise to only parts of our environment is not enough—it is not, nor is it intended to be, the custodian of this wooded limestone escarpment.

Times have changed. Over the past 50 years, the pressures and demands on land use and the scale and effect of intrusive and invasive development mean that we must act now to protect the area before it is too late. The valued area of the Forest of Dean is particularly vulnerable to those demands and pressures. Areas of wilderness, forest, moor and marsh are scarce in our densely populated island. Those that remain need to be recognised and protected by the Government for the whole nation and for future generations.

The Government are committed to greater access to the countryside for all people and are actively working to improve access for many, recognising that, by being in such a wonderful environment and taking pleasures in the landscape, town and rural dwellers alike can relax and restore their spirits. In the forest of Dean, we welcome warmly the opportunity for as many as possible to share our beautiful landscape. It is our greatest asset, and a vital component of our rural economy.

The forest of Dean attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. They come to relax, walk, ramble, climb, ride, cycle and fish, and to learn about our arts, crafts and industrial heritage. We need them to come and enjoy themselves. We need them, of course, to spend their money. They are important contributors to the rural economy. The revenue and jobs created by tourists helps our economy to remain vibrant, and are a force in the regeneration of our area. They come to see Dennis Potter's "Blue Remembered Hills"—the breathtaking vistas which only limestone escarpments cut through by rivers can offer. I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to refresh his weary spirit and take a little time to relax in the summer recess by coming to enjoy the beauty and splendour of the forest of Dean.

Increased access to a landscape which is despoiled, degraded, diminished and damaged offers nothing. Visitors will not come to see spoil heaps or gaping scars in the view. They come to escape noise, dust, pollution and congestion. The very aspects that the tourists come to see are those which are vulnerable to large-scale invasive activity.

We have no environmental protection in the forest of Dean against the growth of that kind of activity. There is no regime to protect the area for the nation. We do not even have the protection that the Labour Government of 1945 believed would be there. The forest of Dean does not even have recognition of its valuable landscape.

The spectacular landscape wraps itself around small towns and villages which reflect our industrial heritage. We do not have chocolate-box villages. They are instead industrial working settlements. The forest of Dean has a long, proud industrial heritage based on iron ore, limestone quarrying and deep coal mining. Its skills are those of engineering and manufacturing. Our economy is heavily based on industry. The forest, therefore, would not seek, or want, blanket protection that national park status would give. It would stifle the economic regeneration which is desperately needed to revitalise our market towns.

The status of an area of outstanding natural beauty may be sufficient for areas such as the Cotswolds, but we feel that it would be insufficient to ensure that large-scale intrusive developments could be prevented in the Dean. That is another of our dilemmas. The future economic vibrancy of the forest of Dean is dependent on mutually beneficial planning regimes which enable appropriate and sympathetic development but protect and preserve the valuable environment and vistas. The beautiful landscape is increasingly vulnerable, and that is recognised by many of my constituents and local authorities.

The landscape is vulnerable to opencast mining and inappropriate large-scale leisure developments. At present, it is most threatened by extensions to quarrying activity—a common threat in limestone areas. Areas of great beauty, such as the Mendips and the Peak district, are subject to large-scale quarrying, as limestone is the gift of God—providing not only good-quality rock that is easy and cheap to extract, but beautiful scenery.

Gloucestershire county council, for instance, has identified new areas of search on the limestone escarpment as part of their local minerals plan. It was suggested that the forest of Dean would have to accommodate new quarries along the splendid ridge. Although quarrying activity has been carried out in the area for centuries—there is quarrying for aggregates by both large-scale and small-scale operators—at present that is more or less accommodated within our landscape.

Indeed, companies such as Tarmac at Stowefield and Arc at Drybrook work hard to give good-quality environmental screening and take measures to minimise dust and noise pollution. They work and liaise with the local community. I received a letter from Drybrook parish council, which is next to the Arc quarry. The council wrote to me in response to an article in The Mail on Sunday to say that the quarry in the parish provided jobs, but did not pollute or disrupt the environment.

The proposed major expansion of quarrying highlights the vulnerability of the limestone area and has focused my constituents' minds with legitimate concerns. They have formed a campaign group to raise the issue and to alert both local and central Government to the potential problems. They have been shouting loudly for some time.

I must make clear that this is not a case of "not in my back yard" or of whingeing locals who are concerned only with their house's value. They have genuine concerns that the large-scale invasive activity that the proposed new quarry would bring will irrevocably damage the asset of this exquisite environment; not just for themselves—they are not that kind of campaigner. They are concerned about our tourist economy and the whole nation.

In spring 1997, in response to the campaign, the then shadow Secretary of State for the Environment—now the Secretary of State for Health—my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) visited the forest of Dean and took on board the unique needs of the area. He pledged that an incoming Labour Government would provide the environmental protection that the area required. They would recognise the value of the landscape, and seek to protect its vulnerability. However, they would also knowledge the dilemma of having to protect beautiful scenery while not stifling necessary economic regeneration of towns and villages.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning for all the efforts that he and his Department have made in realising that pledge; for his time in meeting two delegations from the forest of Dean; for answering all my numerous letters and inquiries; and for always giving me his time and attention when I raised the issue with him in the Tea Room, the Lobby and the Corridor, and at all the meetings that we happen to be at together. Most of all, I want to thank him for supplying us with the avenue for the process, so that we can evaluate and quantify the situation, and allow consultation through the democratic planning process.

I thank the Minister also for pressing Gloucestershire county council to complete speedily its draft minerals plan, so that the matter can move on to public inquiry.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this Adjournment debate. The next time that she meets the Minister in the Tea Room or Lobby, will she perhaps raise with him an issue that concerns not only the forest of Dean but south Herefordshire? As tolls on the old Severn bridge are imposed on traffic going only in one direction, very many heavy goods vehicles going in that direction use instead Gloucestershire's and south Herefordshire's roads, byways and even B roads to avoid paying a toll. It is about time that tolls on that bridge were imposed on traffic going in both directions—between England and Wales—or not at all. Significant environmental damage is being caused, in south Herefordshire, to the forest of Dean because of that situation.

Mrs. Organ

I should like to deal with one campaign at a time, with one Minister at a time. I really do not want to overburden the Minister by being on his back about all the issues. However, I should say that I have already written to the Minister of Transport about that very issue, which concerns both my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch).

It is crucial that we undergo a public consultation process, as our pre-election pledge of environmental protection did not detail its parameters—its remit or the areas to be included. In the pledge, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health was quite clear that all of those issues would have to be put out to public consultation. He did not say—neither was it ever agreed—that the matters would have to be settled later. What areas were to be covered—the old royal hunting forest, all of the district council area, all of my constituency, or only the St. Briavels hundred?

Some people may have thought that, after the general election, the pledge could simply be slotted into place without public consultation. However, there was no mapping out of which areas were to be included, or explanation of which types of development the forest required protection from. All those issues must be resolved using the democratic process—by public consultation, through the planning process.

The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning is a driving force in the Government's determination to modernise the planning process—a system that was established by the 1945 Labour Government and has generally served us well. His policy statement, "Modernising Planning", makes the Government's policy clear—that all future development must be sustainable, both economically and environmentally.

I welcome the Minister's commitment, but the issue is broader than quarrying control. This debate is not only about limestone quarrying. The pledge was made, and it must have a wider remit—to cover any large-scale, invasive activity that could detract from the area's natural beauty. Such activity was encompassed in the pledge given in spring 1997.

It is important that the Government are seen to be delivering on the commitment that they made. The pledge therefore has a wider political significance, which concerns not only the people of my constituency but others. The new Labour Government must be seen to be building trust between the electorate and Government; and we are doing that. We are delivering on what we said we would do—for example, on modernising Britain, and on reforming the constitution. Only this week in the House, we have been working on Bills to incorporate the European convention on human rights into United Kingdom law; and, in our Crime and Disorder Bill, we are delivering the fast track for young offenders. Those are pledges that are being fulfilled. We have to continue that work, to deliver on all our pledges.

In proceeding with the consultation offered as part of the minerals plan, the county council chairman of the minerals panel, Councillor David Gayler, would like to be assured that the inspector holding the inquiry will be able to include in his or her brief the proposal for a custom-built status for the forest of Dean, and that the inquiry will have the wide remit that we seek. The county council is currently preparing a paper on the issue.

I and many other people wish a public consultation with a wider remit to be established—similar to that which was conducted on the New forest, which recommended that "bespoke" planning conditions should be applied to that area. The forest of Dean has many similarities to the New forest. The New forest, too, is an ancient royal forest that was initially protected by the Forestry Commission. It, too, is controlled by a single local authority, and has a very beautiful landscape, which is under threat and did not have any protection.

The public inquiry for the New forest was particularly lengthy, taking many years. I know that the Minister is keen, as part of the modernisation process, to shorten the time that is sometimes required to reach planning decisions. The policy document states: There can be no justification in a modern planning system for procedures which take years to produce". I ask the Minister to ensure that we in the forest of Dean do not have to wait years for that protection, and that the matter is dealt with at all stages as speedily as possible. The issue is not a local one—neither politically nor environmentally.

As a Government, we have a responsibility to deliver on our pledges, to keep trust with people, to plan wisely, to protect our valuable areas and to ensure that development is sustainable and for the mutual benefit of all.

8.15 pm
The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning (Mr. Richard Caborn)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) for not taking two and a half hours to explain her case to the House. I am sure that all hon. Members will be pleased about that, as we were expecting to get extremely late trains tonight. It is pleasant that we may be able to get home a little earlier than we had planned.

I am pleased also that my hon. Friend has raised the issue of the proper protection of the forest of Dean. As she said, I have twice met her and delegations of her constituents, including local councillors, to discuss the potential problems in the forest of Dean and the best way forward in resolving their concerns. I therefore feel that I have a reasonable grasp of the specific worries of those campaigning for greater protection of the forest of Dean. I also continue to believe that—as she said—we identified early in our discussions, in October 1997, the most effective and realistic way forward.

I recognise the fears of many of my hon. Friend's constituents over their vision of large-scale new quarrying in the forest of Dean. As has been clearly explained in this debate, the forest of Dean is a beautiful part of our countryside. However, traditionally, it has also been a hard-working area in which mining has been an important local industry. The concerns of my hon. Friend and her constituents have centred, although not exclusively, on the quarrying industry.

We have an established and long-standing system in Britain for regulating the activities of the quarrying industry. The system balances modern society's need for the industry's products with careful planning of the industry's location and activities and regard for its environmental impact.

The mechanisms for considering the industry's impact at the local level is the minerals local plan. Such plans are the mechanism against which the granting of minerals permissions is assessed across the country, and the mechanism that must be used in the forest of Dean.

I believe that the fears that have grown in the forest of Dean because of possible development of new quarries are a result of the early work of Gloucestershire county council on the minerals local plan for Gloucestershire. Last year, Gloucestershire county council's officials identified certain areas in the forest that would be capable of meeting the county's sub-regional apportionment of aggregates provision. That early exploratory work did not constitute an invitation to the quarrying industry to submit applications for new quarries; nor did it necessarily mean that the areas that the officials were considering would appear in the final version of the Gloucestershire minerals local plan.

As I have often made clear to campaigners from the forest of Dean, the way of resolving those matters is for Gloucestershire county council to produce the minerals local plan for public scrutiny. As my hon. Friend said, I have written to Gloucestershire county council to remind it of the importance of producing its plan. Forest of Dean campaigners asked me to do that, and I did so very soon after our meeting.

All future quarrying planning applications will be considered with reference to that plan, and it is crucial, therefore, that it is debated and agreed at the local level as quickly as possible. That debate can properly include a public inquiry, if that turns out to be appropriate. The debate will not only eventually resolve the question of any possible new quarrying within the forest, but help in assessing whether any new additional environmental status needs to be given to the forest of Dean.

On the role of the inspector in the context of a public inquiry into the minerals local plan, I must make it clear that the plan inquiry could not make any decisions about special status for the forest of Dean. The role of an inspector in the local plan process is to hold the inquiry into objections to the published local plan and to report to the council with recommendations. He or she carries out that role independently, against the background of existing Government policy, so it would not be appropriate for Ministers to issue any instructions to the inspector in relation to any possible status for the forest of Dean.

Nevertheless, in subsequently considering the appropriateness of special status, Ministers would have the benefit of any views expressed at the inquiry or in written representations and recorded in the inspector's report to the council. To be relevant to the inquiry, those views would need to be expressed as objections to a particular proposal in the plan. The campaigners for the protection of the forest have to recognise that there is no immediately available one-off solution by which I could simply exclude all quarrying from the forest of Dean. I cannot draw a line around the area and issue a proclamation. Even in national parks there is not an absolute ban on quarrying, although there has to be a strong case to allow new quarrying in such areas. The Government have made our determination on those matters clear in our decision not to approve an extension to Spaunton quarry in the North York moors national park.

Two national designations are potentially available to the Government in awarding landscape and planning protection to the forest of Dean. They are the designations of national park or area of outstanding natural beauty. Both are concerned with far more than merely quarrying. The delegations that I have met from the forest of Dean have said that they do not consider either of those designations as appropriate to the forest. That is because both designations apply strong planning protection, which some people fear might adversely affect some of the imaginative regeneration schemes that are being developed for the forest. That demonstrates the difficulty involved in achieving just the right level of protection to safeguard the environment, while nurturing the development of local communities.

I now understand that my hon. Friend is looking for a solution that takes into account the various other pressures on the forest, such as those from visitor numbers. Those issues are central to the system of protected areas designation.

The Countryside Commission has been undertaking work on various questions concerned with protected areas nationally and is about to submit its formal report to the Government. That will deal with the future status and management arrangements of the New forest and the south downs, as well as the Countryside Commission's proposals for enhanced funding and management of areas of outstanding natural beauty.

As a follow-up to that advice, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has asked the Countryside Commission to look again at the forest of Dean. Since the criteria for national park status were laid down in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, the forest of Dean has never been among the limited number of areas considered potentially suitable as a national park. It was given at least informal consideration as an area of outstanding natural beauty, but that has so far not come to fruition.

I understand that, in the 1950s and 1960s, when most of the designation programme was proceeding, there may have been an assumption that the involvement of the Forestry Commission in the forest of Dean was sufficient to provide the protection required. I am told that the matter was last looked at in 1971, when the local authorities concerned were consulted, but did not wish to proceed with designation as an area of outstanding natural beauty. The Wye valley area of outstanding natural beauty, which was designated in 1971, runs along the western edge of the forest. Whatever the previous conclusions and despite the earlier doubts of the anti-quarrying campaigners about area of outstanding natural beauty status, times change and the Countryside Commission is now looking afresh at the question.

In consultation with the local authorities and the Forestry Commission, the Countryside Commission is employing specialist consultants to help it to review how the position has changed since 1971, the land management, access and recreation pressures, the potential impact of any future minerals extraction and what the options might be, including AONB designation, to secure the future of the forest of Dean. There will be a steering group to take account of the views and interests of the key stakeholders, and the commission is looking carefully at the best way to take account of wider views.

As part of the study, the commission will look expressly at the suitability of AONB designation. Planning policy guidance provides that any applications for new or extended mineral workings in areas of outstanding natural beauty must be subject to the most rigorous examination and be demonstrated to be in the public interest. In general, policies and development control decisions affecting areas of outstanding natural beauty should favour conservation of the natural beauty of the landscape.

The Countryside Commission could recommend a special status, but the one option available to it without primary legislation but with the support of the Secretary of State would be an area of outstanding natural beauty. As my hon. Friend knows, if the commission recommended special status and the Government accepted the recommendation, it would require primary legislation; it would have to join the queue and could take some time to get through. I hope that campaigners in the forest of Dean will make what they want known to the commission.

My hon. Friend referred to the position in the New forest as a possible way forward for the forest of Dean. I can assure my hon. Friend that the campaigners for greater protection in the New forest are not happy with the current arrangements there. In 1994, the previous Government took the unusual decision to award the New forest heritage area the planning status of a national park, without the usual designation or administrative arrangements for a national park. They wanted the boundary of the heritage area to be defined in the local plan process. The fact that that process is still not complete shows the cumbersome nature of those arrangements, and I think that my hon. Friend referred to the time that had been taken already.

As I have said, Ministers will shortly be looking at the Countryside Commission's advice on the possible ways forward in the New forest. I do not regard the current arrangements in the New forest as a suitable precedent for the forest of Dean. In any case, those were based on the long-standing view of the Countryside Commission, which is responsible for the designations subject to the confirmation of the Secretary of State, that the New forest is suitable for a national park level of designation under the terms of the 1949 Act. The forest of Dean is a different case. It has not been considered appropriate for national park status under the legislation, but, as I have made clear, the question of AONB status remains open.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to give those issues a proper airing in the debate. The House will recognise that, far from reneging on an election pledge, the Government are tackling the issue of quarrying in the forest of Dean head on. Before coming to power, we said that we would consult local groups, local businesses and the district and county councils on how best to sustain the character and prosperity of the forest and its community. I have made it plain that the best way to achieve that consultation in the context of quarrying in the forest of Dean is to use the existing public inquiry procedures, which occur during the preparation of Gloucestershire county council's minerals local plan. We have also now provided an opportunity for views to be fed to the Countryside Commission as part of a wide-ranging look at what might be the best means of providing appropriate protection for the forest in the future. Those who really have the interests of the forest at heart should now get down and concentrate their energies on putting across their views in the public debate at the local level. That is where the decisions can be affected.

It would be pleasing if the reporting were slightly more objective; it would not be a bad idea if, from time to time, journalists contacted the Department, so that we could put our views. That would allow for a slightly more constructive debate than the one that has being going on in some of the heavy newspapers and the Sundays.

I hope that I have outlined a clear way in which our manifesto pledge can now be carried out. I hope, very genuinely, that those who have visited my office over the past few months will now get down to putting their case succinctly to the two bodies that are considering it—the minerals plan inquiry and the Countryside Commission. I am sure that we will be able to find a satisfactory solution to what clearly is a problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Eight o'clock.