HL Deb 25 June 1998 vol 591 cc405-26

7.7 p.m.

Viscount Addison rose to ask Her Majesty's Government how they intend to demonstrate their determination to go further in addressing the environmental damage caused by quarrying.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I should first declare an interest as a vice president of the Council for National Parks, the national charity that promotes the conservation, enhancement, quiet enjoyment and understanding of the National Parks of England and Wales. My comments relate mainly to national parks, although it is also my intention to signpost some broader issues about which I am concerned and that I understand other Members of this House intend to raise during the course of this debate. Tonight's debate is very timely because of the Minerals '98 initiative which is being promoted this week.

While I fully recognise society's need for minerals, the environmental damage that can be caused by quarrying cannot be overlooked. It includes permanent changes to the landscape; loss of biodiversity; increased coastal erosion and damage to the historic environment. In view of this I welcome the plan that the quarrying industry's professional body, the Quarry Products Association, announced this morning to review its operations in national parks. It is most interesting, too, to note that Aggregate Industries UK Ltd is prepared to give further undertakings with regard to dormant quarries and named working quarries within national parks. I am pleased that the industry recognises that national parks are special places that have the highest status of landscape protection. National parks are beacons for the sustainable management of the whole countryside and I hope that this plan will raise standards generally and influence practices in an industry whose environmental impacts have often been too high.

The sustainable development approach demands that because of those environmental impacts we manage demand for minerals and seek to minimise any damage to the environment from supplying that demand. One of the key issues in the debate about the environmental impacts of mineral extraction is the supply from national parks. The environmental impacts relate to the location—in very sensitive and beautiful landscapes—and the volume of extraction. National parks supply 10 per cent. of the construction aggregates in England and Wales—the same proportion as the land area they cover—and the same level as is supplied from outside the parks. There is also the extent of permissions in the parks (they cover 36 square kilometres, the size of the city of York) and also the length of permissions. There is an historical legacy of old permissions in the parks, many issued on the eve of national park designation and remaining in place today, more than 50 years later. Those permissions often have end dates set at the year 2042, something mineral planning authorities can seldom address without facing huge bills for compensation.

This evening I want to focus on how this environmental damage can be addressed. The way forward for everyone—as this is a problem minerals companies themselves are now seeking to address—seems to me to involve two sticks and one carrot.

The first stick of course is regulation. Tighter policies on mineral extraction should help prevent some of the environmental damage from occurring. It is also important to ensure that policies are properly implemented, and this necessitates the adequate funding of mineral planning authorities and ensuring that they have a full and workable toolkit of powers available to them.

One of the main tools in the toolkit, when it comes to the extraction of aggregates, is minerals planning policy guidance note 6 (MPG 6). The Government's approach here is that future sources of aggregates and other minerals are likely to become increasingly constrained in terms of the areas of the country where they can be acceptably worked. Wise resource use is a policy objective many minerals companies embrace. Within the terms of sustainable development, future generations need national parks as they will need minerals, and using resources wisely means taking that into account.

I ask the Minister, therefore, to ensure that during the forthcoming review of MPG 6, the Government will look again at the policy concerning mineral extraction in national parks, as set out in paragraphs 70 and 71 of the guidance note. We have seen the policy applied with rigour in the recent North York Moors quarry extension decision, to which I shall return to later, but I fear that its present wording, specifically criterion iv of paragraph 71, is acting as a disincentive to companies in reaching voluntary agreements on restoration and land management. It also encourages a growing tendency by companies to emphasise the potential for reshaping the landscape in order to justify applications for extension.

When it comes to mineral working, incremental permissions of this kind seriously undermine the first purpose of national parks: to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the landscape. Clarity of wording in the revised MPG 6 will help to remove uncertainty and ensure that the Government's determination to protect national parks is not hindered. Since the 1995 Environment Act now enables mineral planning authorities to review old permissions and to impose modern restoration and aftercare conditions, there is no need to refer specifically to enhancement of existing quarries in the revised version of MPG 6. I therefore seek the deletion of this obsolete criterion.

I also ask the Minister to confirm that the issue of end use control will be looked at during the review of MPG 6, as I believe that this is essential to moving towards a more sustainable mineral planning system. The review of MPG 6 also provides an opportunity to subject the broad policy aims of mineral planning to public consultation. The Government have a real opportunity at last to abandon the "predict and provide" approach to minerals planning and adopt an approach that is much more environment led. I hope that this is seized.

Individual decisions which implement the regulatory measures are of course vitally important and send signals about the stance of the minerals planning authorities and the Government. The Government's decision in April of this year to refuse permission for the extension to Spaunton Quarry in the North York Moors National Park is a landmark decision for mineral planning in national parks. I believe that it is a welcome and important demonstration of the Government's determination to protect national parks.

In refusing permission, the Government have reaffirmed that national parks are afforded the highest level of statutory environmental protection and that their natural beauty must be protected in the national interest. These are both very welcome commitments, whose reiteration today would be helpful. However, the good news at Spaunton is only one decision. The fact remains that national parks bear a heavy burden in supplying aggregates, even though there is a lot of slack in the mineral supply system. Special protection should mean parks only provide minerals to meet a national need and where no alternatives exist, yet they provide as great a proportion of aggregates as anywhere else. This undermines the principles for which the parks were designated. Reducing demand, increasing recycling and the use of secondary aggregates and choosing the least environmentally sensitive locations as sources of supply will all help to relieve the unsustainable burden on the parks and to prolong the mineral resource for future generations.

I hope that this Government will promote better husbandry of the mineral resource and its efficient use. In order to ensure that the least environmentally sensitive areas are targeted for minerals extraction, I urge the Government to undertake a strategic environmental assessment of the minerals resource. This would be wholly in keeping with the recent recognition by the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, Richard Caborn MP, when he said, in his keynote speech at an international seminar in Lincoln last month, strategic environmental appraisal is one of the most important policy areas which Government will need to develop further as we move into the next century. It is an essential part of the drive for sustainable development". It would be interesting to hear what the Minister has to say about this and I would welcome reassurance that this will be looked at.

The second stick available to the Government is fiscal measures that will encourage best practice and discourage damaging activities. I know that some speakers tonight intend to address the Government's willingness to consider a minerals tax. For my part, I ask the Government to give serious consideration to imposing a premium rate on any aggregates, taxed or not, extracted in national parks and other sensitive areas as mentioned in MPG 6, including the New Forest. This is in recognition of the historical legacy that these areas face from old permissions and in view of their outstanding environmental quality, which is too often compromised by minerals extraction.

Now the carrot, which is the potential for minerals companies to increase their environmental performance, thereby strengthening their position in a competitive market and improving the public image not just of the individual companies but of the minerals industry as a whole. Recently, the Minister, Richard Caborn, invited the industry at the annual seminar of the Quarry Products Association in Solihull last month to, consider whether its interests overall might not be better served by a policy of voluntary self-restraint over further proposals to extract aggregates in the National Parks, bearing in mind the strong policies of planning protection which are already in place, which will remain in place". He reiterated this on Monday of this week at the international launch conference of Minerals '98.

This is a great opportunity to do something positive. In national parks, two positive actions would make a real difference and I am very pleased that the quarrying industry has indicated that it will be looking at both of these in its plan to review its operations in national parks. Minerals companies may be able to consider undertaking not to extend sites in national parks where there is no national need for the product and where there are alternative sources of supply or ways of meeting the need for that product. National parks also have many dormant permissions in very sensitive locations which would never be granted permission today. Minerals companies which hold some of those dormant permissions would receive much credit for giving up some of those very sensitive sites, whose working in any case is unlikely ever to be acceptable. Those are just two ideas of what voluntary self-restraint in national parks might mean in practice.

I hope that the Minister can indicate what positive steps she would like to take to encourage minerals companies to raise environmental standards in a world where we increasingly need good business practice. That message of voluntary self-restraint should also go to the construction industry to encourage lean build technology on a "built to last" basis.

In conclusion, I believe that the objective for the Government in going further to address the environmental damage caused by quarrying should be minerals being supplied at the right specification, from the least environmentally sensitive locations, in the most environmentally acceptable way and at the most efficient levels. To achieve that, the Government need to add together all the tools at their disposal: a minerals tax with a premium rate for extraction from national parks and other special areas such as SSSIs; tougher policies on aggregates extraction; and a firm stand on individual cases.

This firm stand, combined with encouragement to the industry to redirect away from bulk supply at least cost with reliance on some of our most beautiful and popular national park landscapes as sources of supply, to adding value to a wider range of products from a greater diversity of sources, is what is required. I hope that the Minister will be able to give a sympathetic answer to the points that I have raised.

7.19 p.m.

Baroness Young of Old Scone

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, for raising the important question of the environmental impact of the quarrying industry. I declare an interest as chairman of English Nature, the statutory nature conservation agency.

It is probably true to say that four industries currently have most impact on the natural environment: clearly, agriculture is one of the most important; the water industry; the ports; and minerals abstraction. All mineral working must be planned and managed using the principles of sustainable development to safeguard and increase wildlife and natural features while recognising the vital role of the aggregates industry in supplying raw material needed by national and local economies.

I wish to make three points. They mirror to some extent those made by the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, although perhaps extending beyond the remit of national parks. First, I refer to the question of long-term strategic environmental assessment of minerals policy. I welcome the planned consultation on the review of Minerals Planning Guidance Note 6 later this year. It is important to move away from the predict and provide model, and to take account of concepts such as that of environmental capacity. On the last occasion quarrying was discussed in your Lordships' House, the Minister said that there should not be unrestricted growth in quarry capacity through the planning system, particularly through aggregates, to meet projections of demand that are not based on the principles of sustainable development.

My second point refers to the management of demand for primary aggregates. It is important to achieve that to reduce long-term pressure on the environment. We need to encourage the use of secondary and recycled aggregates. I recognise that recycling is increasing, but more still needs to be done; and I am pleased that the Government are actively exploring the use of economic instruments—an aggregates tax in particular. Such a tax could not only send signals about the need for an increase in recycling, it could also raise valuable revenue (that is not against the Chancellor's rules) to pay for measures to offset environmental damage, including compensation for revocation of planning permission. The Treasury appears to be struggling with the technicalities of monetary valuation of impacts on the environment. I wish to make the case for it simply. In the case of designated nationally and internationally important wildlife sites, society has already invested in law that says that those should be regarded as beyond price, thereby making the monetary valuation extremely simple.

My third point relates to designated sites. They are the foundation of nature conservation in the United Kingdom. By designated sites I refer to that alphabet soup of sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), special protection areas (SPAs) and special areas for conservation (SACs). Those have been designated for a reason: because they are fundamental building blocks in the conservation of nature in this country. But too often we still see aggregate extraction causing loss of important wildlife habitats or natural features. Pollution, noise, infrastructure impacts and changes in water systems can also threaten wildlife. The minerals planning system still does not fully recognise that at present.

I should like to see three things happen. First, extraction should be sited away from those critical sites. Secondly, revocation should be sought of planning permissions where aggregate working is likely to damage designated irreplaceable sites. Thirdly, I should like to see the industry and planners working together on working arrangements during extraction and after-use of aggregate extraction sites, taking measures to minimise adverse environmental impacts and increase environmental benefit.

In all those measures, adequate environmental assessment is imperative. I look forward to seeing the details of the implementation of the environmental impact assessment directive in the UK in March 1999 as a good start.

Finally, it is extremely welcome that the quarrying industry is moving to address some environmental issues on a voluntary basis. I ask the Minister to assure us that the Government will enhance the voluntary principle with swift progress on the three regulatory and incentive measures that I have raised today.

7.23 p.m.

Lord Brain

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Addison for raising this topic.

7.24 p.m.

Lord Norrie

My Lords, I believe that I am to speak before the noble Lord, Lord Brain. Like the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, I declare an interest as Vice President of the Council for National Parks and as an adviser to a minerals and waste company which does not have an interest in national parks. So I hope that I can offer some help and a balanced view.

My noble friend Lord Addison highlighted some ways in which the Government can address the environmental impacts of quarrying. The burning question is how to generate sufficient funding to raise environmental standards.

In identifying those areas which are most vulnerable, we need look no further than MPG 6, which has been referred to by my noble friend Lord Addison and the noble Baroness, Lady Young. Those are areas for special treatment when it comes to aggregates extraction. Those include sites of special scientific interest, national nature reserves, areas of outstanding natural beauty, the New Forest heritage area and national parks.

If the Government are to introduce a tax on minerals extraction, that will provide a method for addressing environmental impacts. Let me suggest how this could be done.

Any method needs to be based on research which demonstrates what those impacts are and how they are to be addressed. I am aware of the recent research that the Government have commissioned on the environmental costs of aggregates extractions. That information is intended to help the Chancellor to decide whether there should be a tax on aggregates extraction, and how best to impose it. However, I, among others, have doubts about it. Because of the way it has been conducted, and the type of method used, it is inevitable that the research findings underestimate the environmental costs of aggregates extraction. I hope that the Government will recognise this undervaluing and will not try to put a figure on impacts that cannot be measured in monetary terms. Those impacts include damage to the landscape, loss of biodiversity and destruction of the historic environment and coastal areas, all of which affect national parks in one way or another. I know that the minerals industry also believes that that research is seriously flawed. Can the Minister provide reassurance that that research programme will now provide a more accurate understanding of the impacts of aggregates extraction?

I turn now to what I believe is a great cost of minerals extraction and one way in which the Government can address the issues. The Government have stated in paragraph 6 of their consultation document on the revised UK sustainable development strategy that, sustainable development is a very simple idea. It is about ensuring a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come". The environmental condition of national parks is fundamental to both our quality of life and to the Government's achievement of their sustainable development objectives. That must be reflected in any tax on aggregates extraction, and I welcome the Minster's reassurance on that point.

With that in mind—we have heard from the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young—I, too, support a premium rate on any aggregates tax for extraction in national parks and those other special areas mentioned in MPG 6. I was pleased to learn that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Nick Raynsford, has not ruled out the important principle of rebate in relation to a possible tax on greenfield development. I ask the Government to ensure that any tax on aggregates extraction includes an element of rebate.

Let me draw a simple analogy. If, for example, the Government decide that the going rate for an aggregates tax is £10 per tonne, for those areas recognised as special in MPG 6 the aggregates tax should be increased to £15 per tonne. The extra £5 per tonne would be rebated for the benefit of those special areas.

Once rebate had been generated, it could be used to buy out dormant permissions in highly sensitive sites, where working quarries would be unacceptable by today's modern environmental standards. The rebate could also be used to restore unsightly or abandoned quarries to an acceptable environmental standard.

Generating a green tax in this way will help the Government address the environmental impacts of quarrying. An aggregates tax alongside strong regulation will make for a stronger system of protection for our environment.

Noble Lords may be concerned about the possible loss of employment. It is absolutely correct that this aspect should be addressed to its best advantage. Jobs may indeed be lost over a long period of time at specific sites in national parks and other areas mentioned in MPG 6, but those interested in rural regeneration must take a wider view.

In some national parks, a relatively high percentage of the local population rely on the minerals industry for employment. However, this is not true in all the national parks. Also, as the minerals industry diversifies there may be an increase in the number of jobs overall—quarries in national parks are generally not labour intensive in view of their scale and highly mechanised operations.

With an increase in recycling activities and use of secondary aggregates, we should see the industry once again becoming more labour intensive, with jobs becoming differently distributed. It is also important to bear in mind that minerals extraction can act as a disincentive to other kinds of employment.

When one considers that somewhere between 70 and 100 million people visit our 11 national parks every year, the importance of the tourism industry is clear. People visit national parks to find peace and quiet, open spaces and places of great natural beauty, all of which can be impaired by scars on the landscape.

Similarly, another important and growing employment sector is the kind of high-tech, remote working professionals attracted by high quality environments in rural areas. These people have chosen a high quality environment from which to carry out their businesses. These rural-economy based activities sustain rather than harm the environment, and I believe point the way to a sustainable future in all the rural areas in which they exist, including national parks.

A final pointer to a sustainable future is the plan by the Quarry Products Association to review its operations in national parks. It is a welcome step in reducing the environmental impacts of quarrying and I look forward to seeing what positive benefits this will mean for national parks in practice.

7.32 p.m.

Lord Brain

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, for rising to speak. I had been down to bat at number three in the previous debate and had forgotten that I had been demoted. I also apologise to the House for that error.

Again, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, for initiating the debate. I may surprise him because I do not intend to talk about a problem in a national park nor even in the hills. I intend to talk about a lowland esturial problem. I may be closer to the noble Baroness, in that I shall talk about the problems of enlarging a quarry in the Bovey Tracey basin, an area between Newton Abbot and Bovey Tracey in Devon.

There, a local company has submitted a planning application. I do not expect the Minister to prejudge the planning permission but I hope that some of the issues I raise may lead the department to ensure that they are considered while the application is being made. I also hope that, when the department decides whether to accept the inspector's report, it, too, will take them into consideration.

I declare an interest, in that the extension of the quarry will involve the moving of two rivers, the River Bovey and the River Teign. I have a membership of the Upper Teign Fishing Association and the run of sea trout and salmon, such as it is, may or may not be affected. That said, one wishes to understand what is happening in the area.

Over the years, the company has taken what is known as "ball clay" from a bed in the area. It has gradually extended its quarries by limited reapplication or new applications. This time it is asking for a major extension which it says will extend the life of the quarry by 60 years. However, it is asking for the extension at the end of the period of the county's structure plan; it expires in 2002. The consultation drafts on the new structure plan indicate that it would be unlikely that such a quarry extension would be allowed in the future. Furthermore, the minerals plan for the area is under revision, which is likely to lead to problems.

It has also been suggested that the Bovey basin, which consists not only of the two rivers and the claypits by them, but to the north of the A.38 an extensive area of heathland which is important as adjoining the boundary of the Dartmoor National Park. It provides lowland heath with nightjars and so forth. The whole area must be considered as one cohesive unit because, although some clay beds have already been exploited, it is well known that there are equally important clay beds under the area of heathland. Therefore, my first question to the Minister relates to the planning controls. In the light of the public inquiry and bearing in mind that the work will not start before 2001 and there is only one year of the structure plan to run, can the Minister comment on the progress of the new structure plan?

My second point is probably closer to the noble Baroness's heart. It is said that the existing river beds are nesting sites for 30 per cent. of the sand martins in Devon. It is also suggested that there is an active otter holt in the area and of course otters are protected under EU legislation. I ask the department to look carefully at the report and consider all the information about the natural history of the area in order to see whether it has been studied adequately.

The applicant company will consider environmental rehabilitation as it undertakes the work. It believes that that is a good idea, but I have been told that there is another opinion. For example, although new river beds will be produced they must be so stout that they cannot be eroded and therefore will not allow otters, water voles, sand martins and so forth easily to get into them.

Is the quarry extension really necessary? Yes, there is an important bed of clay. The reason for the extension is that the quality of clay is peculiar and there is a special need for it. However, the company admits that the bed will last at most for 60 years and possibly for only 40. It is an extraction firm and we have already heard about the use of secondary aggregates and so forth. Will the inquiry take into consideration secondary methods of processing other clay to enable it to be used as a substitute for the particular clay involved? There are two reasons for its existence. Clay in that area was formed originally by erosion, by an ice floe during the Ice Ages. It gradually flowed down into a "lake" and sedimented out different-sized particles and so on in different areas.

The chemical composition of all those clays is very similar: it is the size of the particle that is significant. Has the company investigated mechanical methods of changing the particle size? Will the inquiry seek evidence as to whether or not the quarry and the relevant costs are really justified, because moving that quarry and the rivers will cost a lot of money. It may be that that money would be better spent on capital investment for future developments which will have to take place as the use of the quarry expires, especially as the environmental regulations in that area are bound, over the years, to become tighter.

7.40 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, this week marks the beginning of Minerals '98, a year in which the quarrying industry is opening its doors to the public, telling them what it does, and how and why it does it. Therefore, I share the views of those who have congratulated my noble friend Lord Addison on raising this issue this evening. I pay tribute, as I am sure my noble friend would, to the organisers of Minerals '98 because the activities of the past few days have certainly got it off to an extraordinarily good start.

I must also declare an interest, as I have done before, because I have worked for Hanson plc for the past eight or nine years and it owns ARC, a large aggregates producer. I shall not follow my noble friend Lord Addison entirely in his further ideas for sticks and carrots to chivvy along the industry but I have no doubt that the industry will note carefully the points he makes.

I wish to make six simple points about quarrying. First, and it is self-evident, no one quarries for fun. Quarries exist to meet a demand, a demand created by every one of us in this country every second of our lives.

The industry delivers what we ask of it. We want better housing, schools for our children, hospitals and an efficient transport system. They all depend on materials produced by quarries. As my noble friend Lord Norrie pointed out, the industry also provides 40,000 or so jobs in rural communities. It is an industry which serves us all. It has gone on since man's earliest existence and will continue until man's extinction.

Secondly, there is nothing wrong in digging up the resources given to us on this earth. Of course, we must use them sensibly, as sensitively as possible and without waste. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, talked about those SSSIs which have been damaged to some extent by the aggregates industry. I hope she will acknowledge also that there are many other sites across the country which are now SSSIs as a result of the work done to restore them to the condition in which the noble Baroness, with English Nature, will have a particular interest. Therefore, there are positive signs as well as some negative ones.

It is good and not bad to use those resources. There is no question of aggregate extraction being unsustainable in this country. There is a plentiful supply.

Thirdly, despite what we hear from some environmental groups, the industry is forward looking. It is constantly changing and improving and, where possible, it responds to public concern. Self-regulation has been very much a feature of the industry in recent years as it has developed, and self-imposed discipline is something which I am sure my noble friend Lord Addison will readily acknowledge.

Only this morning, the Quarry Products Association, the industry's trade body, made a major announcement about national parks. Responding to understandable concern, some of it raised by your Lordships, it has decided to review all its operations in the national parks. A four-point action plan is proposed, and I am extremely glad that my noble friends Lord Addison and Lord Norrie acknowledge it. They agree that the package goes a long way towards meeting the Council for National Parks' own publicly-stated agenda.

The purpose is to resolve uncertainties over the extent of quarrying in the national parks. It will remove the anxieties over dormant permissions in two ways; first, by identifying them, and, secondly, where appropriate and possible, the companies will agree not to reactivate them. It will ensure that no new applications are proposed unless they satisfy the tests of national need or bring benefit to the park in question. We should not under-estimate that. It is a huge step forward. It goes beyond anything demanded by regulation or by law. The industry should be warmly congratulated on what is a fairly bold initiative. Recognition of its efforts will do an enormous amount to encourage further those who have led the industry from the front.

My fourth point is about recycling, raised, among others, by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. The industry shares the Government's objective to increase recycling. In fact, the industry has already met the targets it was set for the year 2001. But that is no excuse whatever for lessening effort. There will be no lessening of effort. Many companies have recycling operations. Where it is possible and safe to do so, the industry wants to do more and it will do more. In other words, the market is benefiting the environment so it would be encouraging to hear plaudits from time to time for the industry instead of a certain amount of knocking which can become rather self-defeating.

Fifthly, I make a plea to all those who believe that there is a simple solution to this problem. Nothing is black and white. In the real world, no solution brings all benefits and no down-sides. Perhaps I may explain by way of example. Many environmental groups want more recycling so that there is less extraction of virgin aggregates. That is all very well. As I said, the industry agrees. But let us consider what a recycling operation involves—a huge crushing machine emitting clouds of dust and much noise, served by heavy lorries. To avoid the high cost of moving materials twice, the recycling takes place at the point of demolition, often near built-up areas. So that recycling has an environmental cost in the same way that extraction has a cost. Therefore, I put in a plea for a debate in which there is greater intellectual honesty and little pursuit of headlines.

I hope that we shall see some realism from the Government too. As we have heard this evening—it was raised by my noble friend Lord Norrie—and as we have discussed before, the Government are considering the possibility of introducing an aggregates tax. It is claimed that it will be a green tax. That means that we are supposed to believe that it will benefit the environment. Despite the views of my noble friend Lord Norrie, I do not believe that it will benefit the environment. If it is high enough as a tax, it will reduce consumption of aggregates. Prices will then soar to the detriment of the economy, the construction industry and jobs, damaging quality of life in the most direct way possible. Set at any other level, it will simply be a money-raising exercise by the Treasury. It would be wholly wrong for the Government to claim that such a tax was green.

I suspect that the spin-doctors in the Treasury believe that if they call something a green tax, the taxpayer will somehow find it more acceptable. I really cannot believe that that is an honest way to approach the issue. To my mind, it is the fastest way to undermine the confidence of business and industry in the principle of green taxation. It will ill serve any government to embark on such a con trick.

I add a final thought. On a day when the Government have announced plans to secure a longer term future for coal, Ministers may wish to reflect on one fact: the best and most efficient way to make coal less environmentally damaging is by using large quantities of limestone in what is known as flue gas desulphurisation. Increase the cost of limestone by imposing a tax and the Government will increase further the costs on coal or on the energy produced from coal. I thought that was precisely what the Government were trying to avoid.

I hope that we can take the opportunity this evening to celebrate an industry on which the quality of life of the whole nation depends. Let us congratulate the industry for its national parks initiative—I am glad my noble friend has done so—and say that it is a proper way to mark Minerals '98. Let us determine tonight to cast aside differences which result in nothing more than non-productive posturing. We should remember that every one of us uses quarry products. We must work together to find solutions to problems which are not of the industry's making but our own.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I first declare an interest as a civil engineer and chairman of the Rail Freight Group. However, I shall not talk about railways tonight. I congratulate the Quarry Products Association on its initiative. Whatever we may think about the quarry industry, which is the subject of tonight's debate, it is welcome that it is telling the public what it is doing. It is hoped that the industry is educating the public and perhaps convincing the public that it is doing good things, especially as regards the environment.

I wish to discuss recycling. About two months ago in this House my noble friend the Deputy Chief Whip, in response to a question from me, said that when No. 2 Marsham Street is demolished—for me that cannot happen too soon—the Government will make a profit because they will be able to sell the products of that horrible concrete structure when crushed for a higher sum of money, presumably, than the cost of the demolition. I have worked with crushers on construction sites. They can be noisy and dusty but that does not have to be the case. We need to find easier and more environmentally friendly ways of crushing or otherwise recycling materials rather than saying that is too difficult.

Tonight speakers have concentrated on the aggregates industry, quarries in national parks, and a river-bed in either Somerset or Devon, I am not quite sure which. However, aggregates can also be mined from the sea. I believe there is an interesting quarry situated in the Outer Hebrides which produces a fine quality of granite aggregate which was used to build the Channel Tunnel. That was transported by sea. Tonight I wish to discuss the environmental effects of production and of transporting aggregates to where they are required. Both those processes have adverse environmental effects to a lesser or greater extent.

Last week I visited a quarry in Buxton, Derbyshire. I was impressed at the minimal visual impact on most of the surrounding land and with the way in which water borne pollution was dealt with. The quarry workers sprayed the roads to prevent the dust from rising and they tried to mitigate noise levels. I asked how aggregates were taken away from quarries in Derbyshire. The leader of Derbyshire County Council spoke at a conference I organised. He said that his council had demanded that the quarry use rail to send the aggregates to the Manchester airport construction site and reduce its number of lorry journeys by 70,000. At another site near Preston, lorry journeys had to be cut by 200,000 a year. That local planning authority was able to impose those conditions on a quarry that was already being worked. I believe that council leader acted well in that respect.

However, there are other ways of transporting aggregates. One can transport them by sea, although admittedly one has to use lorries or trains to get them from the ports. I think most people would accept that rail is a good alternative in terms of transporting aggregates from a quarry. It is less environmentally damaging than road transport. However, in some cases no rail connection exists. One must also remember that one cannot move concrete as it is being mixed, or black top for road surfaces, in a rail wagon because it might go hard. Therefore road transport is necessary for certain aggregates.

There is an interesting environmental debate taking place in Cornwall at the moment in respect of an English China Clays site. English China Clays made an application to remove china clay by rail using an old rail track and laying a few kilometres of new rail on it. That old rail track had been turned into a cycle track. The aim is to prevent lorries grinding through a small Cornish village. However, there was opposition from the people who use the old rail track and from the residents who live in the village. It is difficult to work out the right solution to that problem. Overall I believe one must consider the effects of the production site on the environment and the environmental effects of transporting the products and consider how long that will last.

I am not convinced that the additional costs arising from environmental protection measures, or of specifying a particular means of transport, will be too severe. The cost of the aggregates constitutes a small proportion of construction costs as a whole. I suggest that an environmental tax will not impose too severe a burden on overall construction costs.

It is easy to say that there should be no more quarries and that we should close down the existing ones. One hears the "not in my backyard" argument, especially as regards a national park or an SSSI. However, one may live in the Thames Valley and live near the pits situated near the M.4. I hope that the Government will consider ways of strengthening the ability of the planning or the mineral authorities to impose reasonable environmental conditions either on quarry sites, and/or the means of transporting quarry products. Noble Lords this evening have given me encouragement that this suggestion will receive general support.

I believe it is time to carry out what I call a "top down" review to discover how much quarrying capacity is required in the UK in the next 100 years, given the current policy on sustainable development. I suspect that the potential volumes of products to be gained from all the planning applications that are outstanding will be many times what is actually required. We need to quell the fears of local people and environmental groups about planning applications that are still outstanding.

We cannot get away from the fact that we need aggregates. Quarries, when mined, have adverse environmental effects, as does the transportation of the end products. I do not know—I do not imagine my noble friend the Minister knows—how you put a value on the adverse environmental effects of a quarry, or of a 40-tonne lorry passing through a small village every 10 minutes. It is a challenge for us all to make that work. I believe that a little more recycling would be beneficial.

7.58 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I, too, declare an interest in that I think I am probably a candidate vice president of the Council for National Parks. As such I obviously have an even greater interest in this matter than those who are already acknowledged and much respected vice presidents. I shall certainly do my best to acknowledge the enormous importance of the quarrying industry as such.

I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, first, for introducing this debate and, secondly, for the admirable speech in which he so clearly outlined the points that he wanted to make and the situation as it is at the moment. I join with him in congratulating the quarrying industry on the important announcements that it has made regarding its behaviour in the future. I congratulate the industry on the careful timing of their production before our debate this evening.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brain, for his remarks. He raised the whole question of what is happening with the Devon Wildlife Trust and the River Teign. It is a complicated and important matter. I join with the noble Lord in his pleas. However, I shall not take up your Lordships' time with repetition of much of what he said.

Quarrying is a useful industry. It is basically wealth-producing. Where it can be done in Britain, it is a good thing that it should be done. The transportation of aggregates does not help the sustainability of the planet. Anything that would mean more imports of items that we can produce ourselves is not a good thing.

However, total aggregate use should be restricted. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, made an extremely good point about the large number of building permissions that have been granted so far. We must examine the permissions that are given and it should be clear that there is a specific need. Blanket extractions should not be allowed under such permissions. There are one or two rather bad case histories of companies receiving permission for specialised extraction and then expanding it to wholesale extraction of vast areas of limestone. That is a matter that the Government can, and should, control.

The first need is to restrict the amount that is needed. The second is to encourage re-use wherever possible. Those are two basic requirements of the ecological economics that we should apply in this case. In national parks and on sites of special scientific interest the presumption should be against granting extraction permissions. If necessary, existing permissions should be rescinded. Any case for compensation over a long period of time should be regarded with considerable scepticism. Profit from despoilation is to be discouraged.

We live in a world in which we now know that we must apply the principles of sustainable development if there is to be development at all, and that we must take immense care. Of course, the extraction of minerals is one of the basic ways in which mankind increases its wealth. I am not entirely certain that I go along with the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, when he says that no one quarries for fun. I think we all started quarrying for fun when we were about five years old. I cannot imagine it not being fun, as well as being profitable and useful. However, like a great many activities that are profitable, useful and fun, quarrying must be controlled. I hope the Government will see their way to responding to the various pleas made to them during this debate.

8.4 p.m.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, I echo other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Addison for initiating this debate. There is no doubt that quarrying is an important industry, both in terms of providing raw materials and in terms of employment. In 1996, in a debate in the other place, the number employed was put at some 36,000 by my honourable friend Sir Paul Beresford, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of the Environment. Bearing in mind the important element of employment, and the extra cost to the end user in both the public and private sectors, the introduction of a tax needs careful consideration before it is proceeded with.

It is true to say that quarrying can cause problems, both in the effect that the extraction has on the landscape in physical terms and arising from the transportation of extracted materials. There are many planning permissions in existence. The Environment Act 1995 contained provisions for the review of old and new permissions. If I understand the position correctly, active sites were to be reviewed in two phases, the first relating to planning permissions given between 1948 and 1969, and the second to permissions given between 1969 and 1982. National parks, areas of natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest were all to be considered phase one sites. The mineral planning authorities had the responsibility of preparing a list of phase one and phase two sites and all dormant sites by 1st January 1996. We should be interested to learn the state of the review of old and new permissions. It is possible for the planning authority to classify unworked sites as dormant. How many have been so classified? But even that may not solve the problem, as it does not annul the permission; it merely enables new and modern conditions to be imposed before working recommences.

References have been made to the question of permissions in national parks—the Broads, the New Forest and other areas of outstanding natural beauty. Like other noble Lords who have spoken, I welcome the constructive moves on the part of the industry of which we have been advised during the debate. They were referred to fully by my noble friends Lord Addison and Lord Glenarthur.

However, we should remind ourselves of what MPG 6 says about quarrying in national parks. It states that the Government consider that all mineral applications must be subject to the most rigorous examination and all mineral developments should be demonstrated to be in the public interest before being allowed to proceed. Similarly with sites of special scientific interest, mineral proposals within or likely to affect SSSIs should be the subject of the most rigorous application.

However, as my noble friend Lord Addison reminded us in a previous debate in January this year, that does not address all the problems. Some of the problems that arise on these sites are the result of permissions which have already been granted but which would not be granted under today's more rigorous planning standards. In the debate in January, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, referred to a review of all the policies in MPG 6 being undertaken later in the year. Has that been commenced, and what is the position?

However, it is not merely in national parks or the countryside that there is concern. Earlier this year, concern was expressed to me over proposals to extract sand and gravel from redundant reservoirs in the area of East Molesey. The extraction is planned to continue for seven years, with the attendant disruption in the area caused by large lorries. We have to ask ourselves: does the existing planning process enable adequate protection to be given as regards this kind of problem?

There is also the question of outstanding planning permissions. I am sure noble Lords will have noted the concern expressed this month by the Council for the Protection of Rural England. It drew attention to the fact that, An area of countryside four times the size of Manchester is (alleged to be] at risk from quarrying and rural England faces a lurking threat from planning permissions to quarry four and a half billion tonnes of minerals". As an example, the council cited Wiltshire and Dorset, where enough planning permissions for crushed rock quarrying exist to last for the next 132 years.

Finally, other noble Lords have referred to specific sites. Perhaps I may raise the question of the Forest of Dean. It is reported that, shortly before the general election, six areas in the Forest of Dean and the nearby Wye Valley, an area of outstanding natural beauty, were to be designated as quarries by the year 2006. Some 46.1 million tonnes of stone are to be dug up and carried by lorries through the forest's narrowest lanes. We are not talking here of the traditional rights of quarrying in the Forest of Dean; we are talking about giant limestone quarries in the forest.

It is said that, during the election campaign, Labour's parliamentary candidate promised to fight these proposals and enlisted the support of the then shadow environment spokesman. Mr. Dobson promised that an incoming Labour Government would, offer special planning protection to the Forest of Dean". He said that Labour would go beyond any of the existing special categories of protection. He added, We propose instead to offer the Forest of Dean a new 'custom-built' special status appropriate to its unique character and status". I hope that, in dealing with the questions, the Minister may be able to tell us what special protection is to be offered to the Forest of Dean and, if special protection is not to be offered, why that should be so, in view of the assurances that were given?

8.11 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, for securing this debate. Your Lordships last discussed this subject on a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, in January. My noble friend Lady Hayman replied on that occasion. This debate gives me an opportunity to review recent progress and look forward to future developments.

I welcome the comments made by the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, and other noble Lords about the need for minerals. We cannot envisage modern life or economic activity without them. We should never forget that the industrial growth of this country was largely founded on minerals, in particular coal and iron.

Mineral working has always carried an environmental cost, as many noble Lords said. Large-scale mineral working in the past has left in certain areas a legacy of dereliction. The great progress that we have made in dealing with this legacy over the past 30 years is a tribute to those working in local authority planning and regeneration teams throughout the country. But, as noble Lords have commented, and as my noble friend Lady Hayman recognised in the debate in January, more remains to be done. I should therefore like to outline some important recent developments.

On national parks, the Peak District National Park used its existing powers to stop a fluorspar quarry from being developed into a larger new aggregate quarry. The operating company concerned accepted that, although I understand that the freehold owner is now challenging the national park's action in the courts. Clearly, the Government will look carefully at the outcome of that case, and I cannot comment further on it today.

Also in the national parks, the Secretary of State did not allow the extension to Spaunton Quarry in the North Yorkshire Moors, a point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Addison. That strongly reaffirmed the policy that all minerals developments in national parks must clearly be in the wider national interest before being given permission. The decision was widely welcomed by all those concerned about the national parks for the signal it sends about new or extended quarry proposals.

Looking to the future, my honourable friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning has invited the industry to consider whether a policy of voluntary self-restraint over further proposals to extract aggregates in the national parks would not now be very much in its interests. Noble Lords have referred to the welcome that is being given to proposals from the industry, a point to which I shall return later. The noble Viscount, Lord Addison, referred to the industry making some extremely interesting proposals. We shall wish to look at those very carefully.

My noble friend Lady Young raised the question of acting to strengthen environmental protection of sites subject to proposed mineral extractions through extension of the environmental impact assessment. One of her questions related to an important point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, on the issue of sustainable development and compensation. The Government have said that they would compensate for the closure of sites of the highest designation, and policy already is to avoid all designated developments in new areas.

My noble friend Lady Young also referred to the fact that we shall introduce new regulations later this year, or early next year, to implement the 1997 European directive on environmental impact assessment. In effect, all but the smallest and least offensive quarrying proposals will then be subject to mandatory environmental assessment. This is important because the assessments inform planning decisions and identify the conditions which should be applied to mitigate the impacts where applications are allowed.

As the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, said, it is important that we are continuing to conduct and publish research into mitigating environmental effects. That will carry through into planning guidance, which local authorities must take into account.

The noble Viscount, Lord Addison, raised the issue of end-use control. We would certainly look carefully at any detailed proposals which those concerned about the impact of aggregate quarrying might wish to put to us. But, at first sight, it does not appear to be consistent with the present purposes of the planning system. They are about the use of land. Planning permissions and conditions run with the land. Enforcing conditions on end-uses of particular minerals could require a very large enforcement or monitoring system. Alternatively, it could involve the attachment of conditions on other land use permissions. For example, should we set a limit on the tonnage of material that could go into a school, a hospital or a new house? And there could be possible conflicts with owners' rights. However, if there is a feasible option, we will certainly give it careful consideration.

The noble Viscount, Lord Addison, also referred to strategic environmental assessments. We shall be consulting on how this might best be done in the review of planning guidance on aggregate extraction which is about to begin. It may be something best conducted at the regional level as part of the strengthened process of regional level planning, which my honourable friend the Minister for Planning is keen to see introduced.

As the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, said, we are continuing the vital work of assessment. We have recently published research on the impacts of blasting, and we shall shortly publish a report on the impacts of traffic generated at quarry sites.

Many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Young and the noble Lords, Lord Norrie and Lord Glenarthur, raised the issue of recycling. We are continuing to promote the use of secondary and recycled material for construction site aggregates in place of digging new material. In 1994 the previous government set targets for the use of recycled construction waste and mineral and industrial waste minerals. The aim was to raise this to 40 million tonnes in England by 2001 and to 55 million tonnes by 2006. We have been encouraging the use of alternative materials through the experimental Aggregate Advisory Service and have recently published research into better means of monitoring and reporting recycling activity.

For the benefit of my noble friend Lord Berkeley, I understand that the crushing, following the collapse of Marsham Street, will take place off site. I happened to be in that building on the day of the hurricane and share the views of those who look forward to the building coming down.

As the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, said, the industry has helped also by extending and developing its recycling activities. As a result, there has been a substantial increase in the amount of construction and demolition waste used as aggregate. That could now be around 25 million tonnes in England—double the 1990 figure. When secondary mineral waste and other material is added, we may already have reached or passed the target set for the year 2000; that is, between 20 per cent. and 25 per cent. of all aggregate currently used in England.

I can also announce tonight that the Government will continue funding the Aggregates Advisory Service until next February, following the end of its experimental phase. The service has fully proved its worth in promoting suitable alternatives. We will now consider how it can become self-supporting as a service within, and for, the construction materials community.

Planning controls and guidance have become increasingly effective in reducing the environmental impact of quarrying. They set criteria for the policies in development plans and consideration of quarry applications. They also provide for the attachment of operating conditions and modernising permissions. We are about to start reviews of planning guidance governing the two most environmentally contentious minerals: that is, opencast and aggregates. In the case of opencast coal we shall be paying close attention to community concerns about the intense noise, dust and traffic generated over the fairly short period of coal working. That will take into account the statements made earlier today in relation to the Electricity Fuels Review.

My noble friends Lady Young and Lord Berkeley raised the question of forecasts. In the case of aggregates, we will review the long-term forecasts of the need for aggregate materials for concrete, road surfacing, building sand and so forth. We will also strengthen the scrutiny at regional level of future production guidelines. We will of course look at the criteria for national parks in the review of MPG6 as requested by the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, and the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, and the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness.

The most important current issue concerning quarrying is the question of a tax on primary aggregates. That was a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, among others. As the Chancellor said in his last Budget, research will continue into valuing the environmental impacts of quarrying. The Government have already conducted research which broadly confirmed that there are still adverse impacts with which society needs to deal. My noble friend Lord Berkeley referred to the fact that those impacts are mainly the noise, dust, vibration and transport effects, together with the loss of habitats and landscapes, as referred to also by my noble friend Lady Young and the noble Lord, Lord Norrie.

Those impacts can be costed. But more work needs to be done to obtain stronger results. That is why we are undertaking further research. Customs and Excise are also consulting all interested parties on how an aggregates tax might be applied and collected. No one should be in any doubt that this Government are totally serious about developing and introducing an appropriate aggregates tax.

The noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, questioned whether an aggregates tax will protect the environment. The Government do not regard the tax as the only solution; they still believe firmly in the value of regulation. But a tax would have a number of relevant benefits. First, a tax sends a price signal that aggregates are a valuable commodity with a cost to our environment. They should not be wasted. Secondly, there are issues relating to the price of primary aggregates which boost the use of secondary and recycled material. We have made good progress with the recycling but more needs to be done. Thirdly, it is legitimate to look at the balance of taxation. It is worth looking at whether we can sensibly shift the balance towards more environmental taxation; for example, taxing environmental "bads" rather than "goods" such as productive employment, as was mentioned by many noble Lords.

The noble Lord, Lord Norrie, raised in particular the issue that an aggregate tax could also generate revenues for local environmental improvements, should the Chancellor so decide. The Government are committed to developing and introducing a suitable aggregates tax. However, my honourable friend the Minister for Planning also said that, as a government, we would genuinely be interested in hearing from all those in the industry about alternative proposals, noting that they must be credible, deliverable across the whole industry, permanent and proportionate in effect and benefits. That is a demanding test, but those concerned about the environment and those suffering from the impacts of quarrying, will expect no less. My ministerial colleagues will give any proposals that they receive full and fair consideration.

It is difficult to cover all the points. The noble Lord, Lord Brain, raised the issue of the East Devon case. That case was called in last year by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister because it involved a nationally important and scarce mineral resource in an environmentally sensitive area. A local inquiry is about to begin and I know that noble Lords will understand that I cannot comment further. However, I am sure that the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Brain, will be shown to the inspector holding the inquiry.

The noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, asked for the cost of limestone for coal desulphurisation to be taken into account. I am sure that my right honourable friend the Chancellor will make careful note of that point.

I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, and other noble Lords who have spoken tonight for raising an important issue and enabling me to give this hastily delivered progress report. As my right honourable friend the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning said at the launch of Minerals '98 last Monday, there can be no argument but that minerals are important to society. However, he also strongly emphasised that more needs to be done to reduce the environmental impacts of the quarrying, to quarry only where unavoidable and to maximise the use of less damaging alternatives. I have set out a full agenda to meet those objectives and commend them to the House with the additional thought raised by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, that perhaps when we give our children tipper trucks for Christmas we will be contributing to the interests of quarrying.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, can she assist me about the Forest of Dean?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I have already trespassed by going four minutes over my time and undertake to write to noble Lords in relation to matters I have not answered.

House adjourned at twenty-seven minutes past eight o'clock.