HL Deb 30 April 1985 vol 463 cc189-95

7.51 p.m.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I beg to move that the regulations laid before the House on 27th March 1985 be approved.

Your Lordships will be aware that these regulations were approved by a Committee of the other place last Wednesday, 24th April 1985. The regulations make provision for the abatement, in certain prescribed circumstances, of the amount of compensation payable by local authorities in respect of loss, damage or abortive expenditure arising from an order to restrict mineral working. Your Lordships will be aware that the framework of the regulations, the principles of abatement and the circumstances in which abatement may be made, were extensively considered by Parliament in 1981, during the passage of the Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Act 1981 which inserted the compensation framework into Section 178A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971.

Mineral extraction is of course subject to the same general planning law as other forms of development. However, unlike other forms of development—for example, building construction—mineral extraction can continue for decades, during which time the conditions attached to the original planning permission, if any, can easily be overtaken by changing economic or industrial circumstances, or by increased public sensitivity about the sort of working practices which are considered environmentally acceptable.

As your Lordships are aware, the history of these regulations starts with the Stevens Committee which was appointed in the early 1970s to consider the operation of the general planning system in relation to the special problems of mineral extraction. The committee's report, made in 1975, recommended a number of important new measures to enable old minerals permissions to be brought into line with modern day standards. But the committee recognised that it would not be reasonable to expect the local authorities, or their ratepayers, to bear the full financial burden of bringing old minerals permissions to modern standards in the way which is usually required by planning law when established rights are altered. They recommended that, in view of the special characteristics of mineral extraction, the minerals industry should accept reasonable additional costs arising from the changes in conditions.

Because the compensation arrangements were recognised as fundamental to the operation of the 1981 Act, there was considerable debate during the passage of that Bill about what proportion of the additional costs it was reasonable to expect the industry to bear. In response to concern expressed in the other place, my honourable friend Mr. Giles Shaw, who was the Minister then responsible, introduced an amendment to Section 16 of the Act which effectively defined the amount by which compensation might be abated as either the prescribed sum or not more than 10 per cent of the notional value of the site.

When this House debated that amendment on 3rd July 1981 my noble friend Lord Bellwin explained how the Government proposed to flesh out the skeletal framework in the regulations. A key element would of course be the calculation of the notional value of the site. The Government's approach to this, he explained, would be essentially similar to that proposed by the Stevens Committee. The notional value would be the product of two factors: the annual value of the right to win and work minerals on the site and a capitalisation factor to take account of the estimated future life of the working which would be based on an 81¼ per cent. single rate. Taken together, these two factors provide a rough and ready assessment of the notional value of the mineral working on which the industry's contribution to the cost of updating the relevant planning conditions could be based. This was the package which was accepted by Parliament in passing the 1981 Act and which can now be implemented by means of these regulations.

It is a statutory requirement of the main legislation that interested parties should be consulted before these regulations are agreed. Informal consultation began in 1980, culminating in a formal consultation exercise in February of last year. Some might suggest that this was a protracted consultation period. I must admit that I cannot dispute that. However, a glance at the provisions of the regulations explains how this came about. The formulation of these regulations within the framework of the 1981 Act proved an enormously complicated task. Inevitably, there were a number of conflicting interests. A great effort has been made to achieve a reasonable accommodation of those conflicts, and although this has taken rather longer than had been expected I hope your Lordships will feel that the time has been well spent. I commend these regulations to the House.

Moved, That the regulations laid before the House on 27th March be approved. [18th Report from the Joint Committee.]—(Baroness Cox.)

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, it falls to my lot and is my pleasure to be the first Member of this House to respond to the first ministerial speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, from the Government Dispatch Box. From the noises of approbation all round the Chamber it is quite clear that, whatever the merit of what she said, from the way she said it and certainly from the very close attention she has always shown to the affairs of this House, she is held in the highest regard. I simply say that I wish her well—not too well, perhaps—in her new duties.

The issue is fairly uncomplicated and I believe well understood by those who are deeply and directly affected by it. But there are a number of questions which I should like to put to the Minister, and I shall be happy if I need to be written to with the answers. Reference was made to consultation with persons and bodies who appear to the Government to be representative. I wonder whether the Minister would care to give us either a long short-list or some illustrations from the list of the kind of bodies concerned. I would have in mind, for instance, clearly the representatives of the quarry owners or the landowners, the Country Landowners' Association, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, perhaps, and other local authorities. I wonder whether the Minister would care to tell us who were actually consulted. I am intrigued by the fact that, whoever was consulted, the National Coal Board appears in some special way—no doubt the Minister can tell us what it is—to be singled out not to be able to claim compensation nor, I should imagine, to be consulted.

Perhaps I may draw the Minister's attention to a series of Questions that has appeared on the Order Paper in the names of my noble friend Lord Stoddart and myself. The purpose of the Questions can be seen from the drift of them. We certainly recognise that the value which is under the ground needs to be exploited before the ground is built upon. I live in the Lee Valley, which, over the last 30 or 40 years and in fact for longer, has been a prolific source of aggregates. I certainly subscribe to the view that they need to be taken out before housing is put up. It was at one time called "glass" country, because there were glasshouses. Then the glasshouse industry went down, and the glasshouses have gone. The gravel has been extracted and housing will be put up.

Is the Minister in a position to say something about the drift of the Questions? I am not saying for a moment that the countryside around Enfield, Hertfordshire, the Lee Valley and Essex is spoilt. We know of other parts of the country where it is quite horrific, with the lagoons which have been created in one way or another. However, my noble friend Lord Stoddart and I wonder why this is so when spoil is available on top of the ground which is substantially capable of being used for the purposes for which gravel is extracted. There are limits to what minestone can be used for. However, my information is that minestone is capable of being used for many things, particularly road building and railway embankments. Is the Minister in a position to say something helpful about the Government's intention to use what is, quite clearly, a national asset? Earlier in today's debates reference was made to a Minister for waste. I imagine that this is a matter which the Minister for waste would need to examine very carefully, or could examine very carefully, in order to encourage a better use of national resources.

Can the Minister give us some idea of the amounts of money which are likely to be paid in compensation to people who accept a proscription on their ability to take the aggregate out of the ground? Are we talking about millions of pounds? Can the Minister tell us how much compensation has been paid in the last year or so and what this change is likely to involve? Can the noble Baroness give the House one or two illustrations why the Government do not wish aggregates to be extracted? I readily agree that I would rather leave the land unmined and unspoilt. At the same time I accept the logic that if someone has a piece of land which is valuable below the soil, he is entitled either to extract and be paid by the large contractors or to receive compensation in another way.

Certainly we on this side are not in any way restrictionist; we recognise that people whose land is valuable are entitled to exploit it. Reference has been made to the Countryside and Wildlife (Amendment) Bill to which this House has just given a First Reading, and I think the Minister should appreciate that there is a slight unease about this. The original Act contains many provisions for compensation as regards management agreements where farmers decide not to exploit; for instance, sites of special scientific interest. We are finding ourselves in the odd situation where people are being paid public money not to do things which they otherwise would do. This is of a similar character. We on this side of the House accept and support the thrust of the instrument.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, it is a great privilege and pleasure for me to be in the position of congratulating the noble Baroness the Minister on her maiden speech from the Front Bench. She has been introduced to her new duties on a subject of great difficulty, and we have heard much about the difficulties associated with town and country planning matters today. From the competence and charm which the noble Baroness has shown in making her speech, I am encouraged to say that her success in her new duties is inevitable. I hope that she will find the duties interesting and that they will bring her a great deal of happiness.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, I am interested to know something about the people and institutions which have been invited to comment on these matters during the last four years or so in which the regulations have been gestating, if that is the correct term to use. I am particularly interested—and no doubt the Minister will write to us about this—to know of the sort of consultations which went on with institutions and bodies in Wales. I have found these very complicated, nine pages of closely printed words rather surprising, but I am interested that in Regulation 4 it says that compensation can be claimed arising out of: depreciation of the value of an interest in land". I had the privilege of making a few speeches about a Mineral Workings Bill recently and I endeavoured, without any success, to encourage the Government to introduce a parameter in claims in regard to compensation—that the parameter should be the depreciation of the value of the land in certain instances. Nevertheless, we see those happy words in this complicated regulation.

Mineral Bills and reference to mineral planning appear to be rather popular these days. It is a very important matter indeed. Can the noble Baroness the Minister indicate whether these regulations have any impact on the Mineral Workings Act which passed through this House a few weeks ago? I mentioned this to the noble Baroness, and the information probably is that they are not relevant at all; but if she has some information, I should like confirmation.

Clause 3 of the Local Government Bill indicates the importance of mineral planning. Subsection (3) gives some definitions of what is meant by "mineral planning authority". Can the noble Baroness indicate whether these regulations have any impact in the context of the Local Government Bill, assuming that Clause 3(3) stays essentially the same? If the noble Baroness writes to the noble Lord, Lord Graham, perhaps she will send me a copy of her letter on these general matters.

8.8 p.m.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I am most grateful to noble Lords for their contributions. Before I begin to try to answer their questions, perhaps I may especially thank them for their kind and generous words of welcome and reassurance. I also wish to apologise in case perhaps they feel a little hard done by through having such a novice to respond to the points that they have made. I confess that I cannot think of anything harder on which to cut my teeth than minerals, but perhaps I may assure the noble Lords that if I do not answer their questions adequately, I shall naturally be pleased to write to them subsequently.

Before I turn to the matters which have been raised by the noble Lords, I should like to clarify a point which I know would have been raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, had she been here tonight, and I promised her that I would put this point on the record. As your Lordships are aware, approval of this order will clear the way for implementation of the important new provisions of the 1981 Act which derive from the recommendation of the Stevens Committee. Among those new provisions will be Section 10, which inserts into the 1971 Act Section 51 A, and that new section will for the first time enable authorities to make orders prohibiting the re-opening of old, apparently abandoned mineral workings.

When this House debated the new Mineral Workings Act earlier this year, the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, was very concerned that the Northamptonshire County Council and other authorities in the Midlands ironstone district should be able to prevent developers from re-opening restored ironside workings for the extraction of limestone and other associated minerals, as is still theoretically possible under some old ironstone planning permissions. The noble Baroness pressed my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale to make provision for the abatement of the amount of compensation which authorities would have to pay on making a prohibiting order I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, will find it helpful if I draw attention to Regulation 4(4) of this order, which provides that the amount of compensation payable on making an order under Section 51A shall not include the value of any mineral remaining unworked on the site in consequence of the order. That is a very significant concession, which honours the promise given by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale to the noble Baroness during the passage of the Mineral Workings Act through this House.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, and the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, mentioned the parliamentary Questions which were tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, last week about the Government's policy in respect of the use of alternative aggregates for construction purposes and the implications of that policy for the granting of new permissions to work traditional aggregates.

I understand this concern, especially given the noble Lord's association with the Lee Valley area. However, I am advised that Written Answers to two of those questions were provided yesterday by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, two more are being answered by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport, and the final two fall to be answered by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy. I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not rehearse each of those answers this evening.

In so far as the noble Lord's comments relate directly to the order now before us, perhaps I may say that naturally I share the noble Lord's concern that fresh mineral workings should not be undertaken where suitable and economically viable alternative supplies of the mineral in question may already be available on waste heaps.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will allow me to intervene simply to say that I understand that there are literally thousands of millions of tonnes of unvaluable and unviable waste from pits on the ground. It strikes me as odd that perhaps we are in the process of taking out the equivalent number of millions of tonnes of aggregate, particularly if it is possible to equate their value. I was simply saying that perhaps the Government should look closely at this. The reply stated that the response of an interdepartmental committee is due to come out shortly.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. I was just going to refer to the fact that the interdepartmental committee is hoping to make its report available shortly.

I turn to one or two other questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Graham. The noble Lord asked with whom consultation had taken place. I understand that all local authorities have been consulted, as has industry. For example, the CBI, the Sand and Gravel Association, the CLA and the NCB were consulted. I have a full list of those consulted, which I should be happy to send to the noble Lord if he would like to receive it.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Yes, my Lords.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, the noble Lord also asked about compensation amounts. It is not easy to give an estimate of those amounts. The noble Lord should perhaps be aware that the regulations we are debating do not apply to any new permissions which may be granted in the Lee Valley or elsewhere.

I think the final question of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, related to the Lee Valley and the use of minestone there in the Lee Valley. As we have just indicated, that is being considered by the interdepartmental committee. A reply is expected shortly, but I should like to reassure the noble Lord that Government policy is to support the use of alternative materials, where they are suitable, as a substitute for natural aggregates.

I turn briefly to try to answer one or two of the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd. The noble Lord asked about consultation with Wales. I am informed that the Welsh Office has been consulted and the Welsh local authority committees, and bodies such as the CLA and the NFU may well have consulted their members in Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, also asked about the impact on the minerals Act. There is no direct link between the regulations and the Mineral Workings Act 1985. I think that I should prefer to write in reply to the other question that the noble Lord asked.

Finally, the drafting of these regulations, I am sure it will be appreciated, was an ambitious project, and probably even more ambitious than was realised when the compensation provisions in the 1981 Act were discussed. As I have already observed, it took a good deal longer than had been hoped to produce these regulations and, thus, to implement the important environmental measures in the 1981 Act.

I hope that your Lordships will agree that the order now before us provides for a reasonable apportionment of the costs of updating old mineral permissions within the framework already contained in the 1981 Act. I therefore invite your Lordships to approve the regulations this evening so that we can implement without further delay the provisions of the 1981 Act which depend upon them. I commend this order to the House.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I beg to move that this House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.50 p.m.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.16 to 8.50 p.m.]