|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 549co-operate with the Government. That would reduce the need to keep a 10-year gravel planning bank and enhance the environmental protection and, indeed, his enforcement capacity.
As an illustration of what happens, may I bring to the attention of the House the disgraceful situation on the Water Hall estate on the Essenden road leading out of Hertford. The two heaps of overburden are higher than the Victoria Tower of the Palace of Westminster. They consist of overburden and other material illegally dumped by the extraction company and are proposed to be left in place after the completion of the extraction. That is blatant interference with the original planning permission given by the county council, in which it was agreed that the gravel company would restore the land to its original contours.
The county council, however, without consultation and as a result of an admitted mistake by a junior officer, accepted an additional application from the gravel company to vary the original planning permission, thus giving the gravel company authority to leave the twin mountains there in perpetuity.
The county council has not only experienced constant difficulty in enforcing section 106 agreements, but it has entertained damaging variations to the original planning permission, which included the provision of housing on the worked-out gravel pits, concrete block manufacture, and small businesses being established to take advantage of the natural progression from gravel extraction to ready-mixed concrete activity.
What should we conclude from that? I urge on my hon. Friend the Minister the obvious conclusions that he should arrive at in the light of the arguments that I have advanced. He should refuse this truncated and inadequately protective planning application, which is incapable of enforcement. He should then allow time for his new regulatory framework and guidelines for mineral extraction to be introduced and confirmed by the House. That would permit smaller planning applications to be presented over a truly temporary period of, say, five years, with proper environmental and social protection built in and restoration on an agreed plan.
Further planning applications would be likely to arise because the gravel is there and there is a constant temptation to extract it, but they should be agreed only if restoration and section 106 agreements had been complied with in the previous planning application and subsequent mining. Such a procedure would give the county council effective control over the mining company, provide better protection to the resident community and minimise the blight on the whole area of Hertford. The concept of huge restoration- led land applications is fatally flawed in practice, because they are impossible to control. The Minister's proposal to release the company from an agreed timetable torpedoes the intention of the inspector to protect residents from some of the effects of long-term planning blight, and compounds the effect of the huge planning application in a beautiful area which, none the less, is close to residential areas and is an important amenity for north London.
My hon. Friend must understand the disruptive effects of opencast mining on the highly populated south-east. He should give time for the further development of C1 and material mined in more remote but less highly populated
Column 550areas. It cannot be sensible to permit the south-east to be dug up, with all the disruption that that entails, to build roads winding their way through a disused landscape or moonscape of gravel pits. I beg my hon. Friend to reconsider and to refuse this application. 10.42 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) is a doughty champion of the best interests of his constituents. I know that the issues that he has raised this evening reflect his long- standing concerns, and he put his case clearly and effectively. There is no need for him to give me a plan. I am aware of the full detail of the application that is causing him concern ; he has raised those concerns with me on a number of occasions. My hon. Friend's constituency is one of a number in England that have some attractive countryside and also considerable mineral wealth. It is a truism--but one worth remembering-- that minerals can be worked only where they occur. His constituents have for a long time been faced with the conflict of mineral extraction for the benefit of the nation as a whole and the preservation of the local environment. Perhaps it would be helpful if I set out the Government's policy on the provision of aggregate, of which sand and gravel form an important element.
Of course, our society needs sand and gravel for a variety of purposes. The consumption of aggregates by the construction industry reflects the economic well-being of society in general, and for our economy to function properly we need a steady and adequate supply of minerals. We wish to ensure that the construction industry continues to receive that supply of aggregates at the best balance of environmental and economic cost.
We seek to ensure the implementation of that policy mainly through the issuing of minerals planning guidance notes to the relevant planning authorities--in this case, the county council. The MPG notes set out the Government's policies on minerals for the benefit of local authorities preparing development plans and considering planning applications. We issued a draft revised MPG note on aggregates provision for consultation early last year.
Since the end of the consultation period last March, we have been considering the many responses made to us--including responses from my hon. Friend and some of his constituents--holding discussions with key interest groups, including local authorities and producers, and determining how we should proceed in the final guidance. It is important for us to strike the right balance, and our discussions and consultation have taken some time ; but the final MPG6 will be issued as soon as possible.
Clearly, mineral deposits are not distributed evenly throughout the country, and--as I have said--minerals can be worked only where they can be found. It is a fact that good mineral deposits are frequently found in areas of attractive landscape, or in areas which, for other reasons, are environmentally sensitive.
It is the job of the planning system to strike the appropriate balance between the need for minerals on the one hand and environmental considerations on the other. In the majority of cases, it is for the minerals planning authority--the local county council, for example--to decide how to strike the best balance between supply and environmental cost. In the determination of planning
Column 551applications, appropriate weight must be given to any relevant national policy, development plan policy and other planning guidance. In particular, section 54A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 requires planning applications to be determined in accordance with the provisions of the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.
Environmental considerations and concerns are increasing in response to both new planning applications for mineral working and existing activity that may have been authorised some time ago. I think that we all greatly welcome today's greater awareness of environmental considerations. It is, of course, right that environmental concerns should be properly assessed before any decisions are made ; so we recently published our sustainable development strategy report.
In that publication, we set out a framework for sustainable development of mineral resources. The strategy has the following aims, which clearly demonstrate our intention to ensure that--in working and winning minerals, as in all other regards--our policies accord with the best practices of sustainable development.
We want to conserve minerals as far as possible, while ensuring an adequate supply to meet the needs of society ; we want to minimise production of waste, and to encourage efficient use of materials, including appropriate use of high-quality materials and recycling of wastes ; we want to encourage sensitive working practices during mineral extraction, and to preserve or enhance the overall quality of the environment once extraction has ceased ; and we want to protect designated areas of critical landscape or nature quality from development, other than in exceptional circumstances in which it has been demonstrated that development is in the best public interest. I think that my hon. Friend's constituents will share and support all those objectives.
That framework has been established against a backdrop of increasing demand for minerals. People sometimes ask why minerals are being extracted when there is no demand for them ; in fact, all the forecasts indicate that there is certainly a demand for minerals, and almost certainly an increasing demand. But, against a backdrop of increasing demand and need for minerals, there is also increasing concern about the need for higher environmental standards during mineral working and in restoration.
For that reason, we also have an extensive programme of research into sources of materials, environmental effects, reclamation and the environmental costs and benefits of using different sources of minerals. In particular, there is on-going research into how to increase recycling of aggregates. If builders' waste, rubble or work that has been mined elsewhere can be recycled, it will reduce the need for fresh working of sand and gravel. Obviously we want to encourage that.
That is the background to tonight's debate. I shall now turn to the subject of gravel extraction in Hertford and the specific proposals for minerals development on the land north of the Hertford site. I cannot make any specific comments on the merits of the specific application by Redland Aggregates Ltd. as that application is at present before the Secretary of State and is thus sub judice. As I have said earlier, planning applications in Hertfordshire, as elsewhere, must be determined in
Column 552acccordance with relevant national policy and in accordance with the provisions of the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.
My hon. Friend referred to the status of the consultation draft of the mineral planning policy guidance. It is perhaps appropriate to have regard to the draft revision of MPG6, which was published for consultation early last year, but at present it is only a draft and thus can be accorded little weight in view of its status as a draft and subject to amendments. The existing MPG6, therefore, remains the policy as and until the new MPG6 is published.
The development plan for Hertfordshire comprises the county structure plan of 1988 and the East Hertfordshire district plan. A minerals local plan is currently being prepared. I understand that the inspector's report was received last year. It is hoped to place the plan on deposit in late April and that it will be adopted in January next year.
Turning to the specific application, which my hon. Friend has mentioned on several occasions, I set out the factual position. Redland Aggregates Ltd. appealed under section 78 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 against the refusal of the Hertfordshire county council to grant permission for the working of a 375 hectare site, located 2 km north of Hertford, some of which falls in the metropolitan green belt. The proposal is for the extraction of 20 million tonnes of sand and gravel in 20 phases over 17 years, with progressive restoration.
The Secretary of State recovered the appeal for his own decision in September 1991 because the appeal relates to major proposals involving the winning and working of minerals. A public local inquiry was held between 5 November 1991 and 24 February 1992. The inspector's report was received by the Secretary of State in July 1992. The inspector recommended that permission should be granted for the areas covered by phases 1 to 12 and 18 to 20, the phases generally known as the southern section, subject to conditions and a section 106 agreement, but refused for the area covered by phases 13 to 17, usually known as the northern section.
My hon. Friend was concerned that the section 106 agreement was not enforceable. I disagree. The enforcement of any section 106 agreement--of course a section 106 agreement has to be entered into by the contractor before permission can be given, if that is one of the terms upon which permission is granted--is for the local planning authority. The proper method of enforcement, if the contractor should at any time fail to meet the terms of the agreement, is by injunction in the courts.
My hon. Friend asked about bonds as a condition. I consider that if a section 106 agreement is properly worded and appropriate planning conditions are complied with and, where necessary, enforced, there should be enough to secure restoration and proper after-care, and that performance bonds should not be necessary.
In January 1993, a letter on behalf of the Secretary of State was issued to all parties who appeared at the inquiry, requesting further information on the impact of a split decision as recommended by the inspector. Earlier this month, a further letter was issued on behalf of the Secretary of State, which informed the parties that "following careful consideration of the Inspector's report and of the further representations received, the Secretary of State takes the view that there are compelling planning reasons why permission should not be granted for the area of land covered by
Column 553Phases 13 to 17. He is therefore minded to accept the Inspector's recommendation that planning permission should not be granted for the area of land covered by phases 13 to 17. However, the Secretary of State does agree with the Inspector, for the reasons set out in her report, that planning permission should be granted for Phases 1 to 12 and 18 to 20, subject to conditions and agreement."
I hope that the fact that the Secretary of State has carefully considered the inspector's report--the inspector had also carefully considered all the issues--makes it clear that it is a matter to which considerable time and attention have been given.
My hon. Friend said that the Secretary of State had succumbed to bullying by the contractors. I assure him that that is most certainly not the case. Indeed, the only representation received from the developers since the inquiry was in response to our request on 20 January 1993 to all the parties that appeared at the inquiry for further representations on the impact of a split decision. I assure him that the decision on the application has been reached after due process and with due consideration of relevant national policy and development planning policy after full consideration of the issues. The "minded to approve" letter states that before the Secretary of State finally determines the appeal he will wish to see signed copies of all agreements between Hertfordshire county council and the companies. The letter also highlights the Secretary of State's support for the establishment of a site liaison committee and for the preparation by the appellant of an annual report to be made publicly available.
My hon. Friend also suggested that the Secretary of State in some way removed the protections suggested by
Column 554the inspector. Again, that is not so. The principal means of safeguarding the residents' interests by the inspector were by limiting the duration of the workings, by way of a section 106 agreement, or by an obligation to run with the land requiring the appellants and their co-developers to start the scheme as soon as the existing Rickneys' workings are completed and to complete the restoration, including the existing Rickneys' workings, by an early and agreed date. We accept the inspector's view that, in order to prevent the amenities of local people being disturbed for a significant period, the duration of the workings should be limited. We believe that these aims can be achieved by conditions that run with the land. That is why there will be a section 106 agreement. There was also a suggestion that the workings should continue without interruption at a minimum level of extraction, so much a year, each and every year. The reason we have written to tell my hon. Friend that that would be inappropriate for inclusion in a planning obligation is straightforward and fully in accord with precedent. Such obligations should be not only reasonable but sufficiently precise to be enforceable, and the suggested condition is neither. It is not appropriate for the requirement to be the subject of a condition.
Once the Secretary of State receives the requested agreements, he will issue a final decision letter which will set out the detailed reasoning that led to his decision. The letter will also include a detailed schedule of conditions which will--
The motion have been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour , Mr. Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order . Adjourned at two minutes to Eleven o'clock .
|Written Answers Section