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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope) : I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) on the lucid way in which he has raised this important matter. He has addressed a matter of considerable worry to many of his constituents and to others who enjoy the beauty and tranquility of Burnham beeches.

Outside Greater London and the metropolitan areas, day-to-day planning responsibility for minerals planning and development control is vested in the county councils. Although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State does have discretion under section 35 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, to require a planning application to be

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referred to him for decision, it is a long- established policy for the Secretary of State not to interfere with the jurisdiction of planning authorities unless it is absolutely necessary to do so. Reference to the Secretary of State is required only when matters of more than local importance are raised by the application. This is an important principle. Parliament has given clear duties and responsibilities to the mineral planning authorities. They are frequently faced with difficult and contentious proposals for mineral development and they have to balance the need for mineral supplies to be maintained against the need to preserve the countryside and the environment. Mineral planning authorities generally face up to their responsibilities well, and it would be wrong for my right hon. Friend to intervene unnecessarily in the development control process. A significant feature of this case is that the application relates to a site designated a preferred area for sand and gravel extraction in the Buckinghamshire minerals subject local plan, as my hon. Friend said. This plan aimed to provide for sand and gravel production in the county at about 16 million tonnes over the period 1981-91. The plan identified a number of preferred areas in the south of the county, together with some areas of search elsewhere in the county, where this target could be met with the least environmental damage. Within these preferred areas, favourable consideration would be given to applications for sand and gravel extraction, although each application would have to be judged on its own merits.

This minerals subject plan was the subject of a long and detailed public inquiry, and the possibility of designating this area east of Burnham, the so-called area 17, was thoroughly debated. The inspector who conducted the inquiry concluded that the area was suitable as a preferred area for sand and gravel extraction, subject to conditions concerned with access and with the safeguarding of three listed buildings in the area. In his view, sand and gravel extraction could take place without unacceptable visual intrusion if suitable earth bunds were erected.

Buckinghamshire county council adopted this plan in April 1982. In July of that year it granted planning permission to the Summerleaze Gravel Company Limited to extract gravel from a 10 hectare site within this preferred area. As my hon. Friend said, the company has now submitted a new application to extract gravel from almost the whole of the preferred area, and it is this application which has generated the current controversy.

It has been argued by some of those who have made representations opposing the application that this minerals local plan is out of date, and my hon. Friend spoke to that point. That is an aspect which the Secretary of State will have to consider, notwithstanding the fact that the plan was designed to cover the period up to 1991. It is the statutory development plan for mineral development in the county and, as such, the county council is obliged to take it into account as a material consideration when determining planning applications. My hon. Friend expressed particular worries about a threat to Burnham beeches, which is a site of special scientific interest. I wish to reassure him that I am in no doubt about the national importance of the beeches. Their history, habitats and flora are all well documented and they must be protected. I am sure that this view is shared by Buckinghamshire county council.

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The possibility of an adverse effect on the hydrology of the Burnham beeches area appears to be a particular concern, not least to the Nature Conservancy Council. My hon. Friend pointed out, fairly, that this is to a large extent a new issue which was not canvassed when the minerals local plan was debated. This is clearly a matter which needs to be investigated. It will need to be established whether there is a hydraulic connection between the water in the glacial sands and gravels which underlie the beeches and water in the Boyn Hill terrace gravels which the applicants propose to work. I understand that the county council has asked the applicants to provide a report on the likely effects of their proposals on the area's hydrology and that the council has retained an independent hydrological expert to examine that report when it is produced. I am sure that the applicants realise that they must satisfy the planning authority that the working of the application site will not affect the water regime at Burnham beeches.

I understand that the City of London corporation has also commissioned some hydrological studies into this matter and has written to the county council saying that its preliminary studies indicate that there is a link between the groundwater underlying Burnham beeches and the site which is the subject of the planning application. It would be extremely helpful if the corporation could make any evidence it has available to the county council, and to the applicants' hydrological consultants to help them resolve the matter.

My hon. Friend raised the question whether the applicants should be required to provide an environmental assessment of their proposals. The Town and Country Planning (Assessment of Environmental Effects) Regulations 1988 require developers to provide an environmental assessment to accompany planning applications for certain developments if they are likely to have significant effects by virtue of factors such as size, nature or location.

As my hon. Friend said, these regulations apply to applications submitted on or after 15 July last year but implement an EC directive on environmental assessment which came into force on 3 July. The Summerleaze Gravel Company Limited submitted its planning application on 14 July.

Two questions therefore arise. First, there is the general question whether planning applications made before the United Kingdom regulations came into force on 15 July 1988, but after the EC directive came into force on 3 July 1988, should be subject to the requirement to provide an environmental assessment. Second, there is the question whether this particular planning application would have needed to have been accompanied by an environmental assessment if it had been submitted on or after 15 July.

On the first point, under normal circumstances United Kingdom legislation is not applied retrospectively, and in the planning system it has been considered generally to be both against the principles of natural justice and impractical to alter provisions affecting a particular application after it has been made. The 1988 regulations do not apply, therefore, to planning applications made before 15 July 1988, when the United Kingdom regulations came into force.

Nevertheless, I can assure the House that the spirit of the directive will be respected in the case of applications lodged in the relatively short period between the entry into force of the EC directive and the starting date for the

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United Kingdom regulations. If any relevant planning application made between the two dates is drawn to my right hon. Friend's attention, he will consider whether it would have required assessment under the regulations if they had applied to it. It would then be open to my right hon. Friend to call in the applications for his decision if it appears to him to be such a case apart from any other grounds he might have for calling the application in. In that event he would be likely to arrange an inquiry, the procedure for which would achieve the directive's aims of supplying environmental information and consultation with bodies with relevant


It has been pointed out in representations that the site area of this application is 2 hectares greater than the indicative 50-hectare threshold for sand and gravel operations which is mentioned in the Departmental circular which accompanied the regulations. However, the size thresholds for mineral operations referred to in the circular are only indicative, and projects which exceed the thresholds will not in every case require assessment. The main criterion is whether the proposal raises the likelihood of significant environmental effects. On the information available to me, it would appear that the hydrological

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studies which have been set in train will cover the issue which would assume greatest importance in any environmental assessment of this application.

My right hon. Friend is considering this matter in the light of the representations he has received. Clearly, an important consideration will be the possible impact of the proposed sand and gravel extraction on the hydrology of the area. As I have already mentioned, the mineral planning authority is acting quite properly and responsibly in looking into this, and my right hon. Friend will wish to take account of its investigations, and the other points raised so eloquently this evening by my hon. Friend, before reaching a decision on whether or not to call in this particular sand and gravel extraction proposal for his own determination.

My hon. Friend mentioned that, if there were to be a public inquiry, it would be a burden. That would not be a constraint on the Department's consideration whether it was necessary to call in the application. I can assure my hon. Friend that would not be a relevant consideration ; we would judge the issue on the other criteria to which I have referred. I and my right hon. Friend are well aware of the importance of Burnham beeches, and before reaching a decision we shall very carefully consider all the issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past One o'clock.

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