Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Gummer : The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the importance of those standards. I am concerned that we should reach those standards in the most sensible, cost-effective way. There is no doubt that many of the costs associated with reaching those standards are considerable. Some of the legislative measures--not only in the directive, but others--are prescriptive. We want to achieve the standards sensibly. In the post-Maastricht period, it might be more sensible to regard drinking water standards as matters of subsidiarity to a greater extent than they were viewed in the past. It is reasonable to treat them in that way. I do not see why the subject should divide the House.

Mr. Steen : Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no point in being part of Europe if the other European countries do not play by the rules ? Will he ensure that, for every European environmental directive, each country embarks on a compliance-cost assessment ? That would ensure that every country knew how much the directive would cost before it embarked on it and how much it would cost to enforce it. Britain should not go it alone and follow the directive until every other country has done the same, and there must be cross-border enforcement.

Mr. Gummer : The manifest advantages of our membership of the European Union are enhanced if we ensure that EU countries undertake a cost -benefit analysis before decisions are made. I want to go one stage further than my hon. Friend suggests--I want the Commission to produce figures in advance of making the proposition in the first place. That would be sensible government--it is what we would expect in this country and certainly what we would expect in the European Union.

Mr. Kilfoyle : When the Secretary of State meets his European Union counterparts, will he discuss objective 1 funding, which partly covers environmental needs and designates Merseyside as one of the poorest areas in Europe ? Will he explain to them why the Government choose to pump millions into rich, Tory-controlled boroughs in the south of England at the expense of areas in the north which, by the Government's own definition, are deprived ?

Mr. Gummer : I will certainly explain to them that the system by which we provide money to different parts of the country is based on an objective system worked out by the largely Labour-controlled council associations. They may have misread a statement by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who was special adviser in the Department of the Environment when Labour found that Westminster's need per head was £486.47 and Liverpool's was £326.95. The difference was 49 per cent. in Westminster's favour. While the Conservative Government have been in power, it has been 33 per cent. We can see the truth of the hon. Gentleman's slurs.

Mrs. Gorman : Will my right hon. Friend take time when he next meets the European Environment Commissioner to discuss the latest directive proposing to phase out chlorine from industrial activity ? Is he aware that chlorine is a basic component of bleach, which every housewife needs to clean the loo and to bleach shirts and

Column 879

sheets ? Is he aware that chlorine is a basic component of PVC and clingfilm, which every housewife needs to wrap up scraps before putting them in the fridge ? Is he aware that Britain has the two largest PVC manufacturers in the world that provide thousands of jobs, which will go if the directive is implemented ? There are at least 250 manufacturers of packaging material based on PVC. The directive will create an enormous vacuum and many job losses.

Mr. Gummer : I find it difficult to agree with my hon. Friend's suggestion that those jobs are done only by housewives. I hope that they are done by both sexes in the home. For environmental reasons, we need to look extremely carefully at the use of chlorine. Although it is a most useful chemical, it should be used in a way that is not detrimental to the environment. The Department is determined to ensure that our children's future is put first. Therefore, if it is possible beneficially to restrain the use of chlorine, that is what we shall do.

Mr. Dafis : Has the right hon. Gentleman discussed with the EU Environment Commissioner chapter 10 of the White Paper on competitiveness and growth ? If he has, does he agree that it shows a new understanding of economic policy and the fact that economic success and job creation are both compatible with and strengthened by environmental sustainability ? Will the Government support the principle of that chapter, which is to shift the burden of taxation away from jobs and people on to the overuse of resources and pollution ?

Mr. Gummer : I am sure that it is right to accept that environmental protection is a spur to competitiveness and to industrial success, rather than the opposite. Therefore, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join us in supporting a major example of putting taxes on the overuse of energy--I refer, of course, to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's imposition of 17.5 per cent. VAT on fuel.

I note that the hon. Gentleman's party, like the Liberal Democrats--not to the same extent, but in the same direction--speaks in generalities about these matters, but is never prepared to put its name to the cost of delivering green policies. The Conservative party is prepared to pay the cost and deliver the policies.

European Policy --

10. Mr. Loyden : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what items of environmental policy he has raised in the past month with the European Commissioner.

Mr. Atkins : I have discussed a wide range of environmental policy issues with Commissioner Paleokrassas in the past month.

Mr. Loyden : Next month, the Government will have the opportunity to ban toxic waste from EU countries. Will the Minister assure the House that he will take immediate steps to impose that ban in this country and in all developed countries from next month ?

Mr. Atkins : We have signed the convention, which takes effect on 6 May. Therefore, the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question must be yes.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Does my hon. Friend agree that EU environment directives should be better framed and should always be based on the latest scientific evidence ?

Column 880

Does he further agree that the policy of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties of environment directives being scrutinised

Madam Speaker : Order. We are here not to discuss Labour and Liberal Democrat policies, but to question the Executive. Would the hon. Gentleman like to rephrase his question ?

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Thank you for that stricture, Madam Speaker. Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour and Liberal Democrat policies

Madam Speaker : Order. I shall move on unless the hon. Gentleman asks a proper parliamentary question. I shall give him another chance.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : Thank you, Madam Speaker--third time lucky. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. We shall move on.

Mr. Barnes : The Court of Auditors is one of the more effective organs of the European Union. It has produced a number of devastating reports, including one showing that most EU expenditure happens to be counterproductive to environmental matters. The Government's view was defeated in the European Legislation Committee because the Government had dragged their feet over discussing the report. Is the matter now being taken seriously by the Government and the Commission ?

Mr. Atkins : Yes.

Supermarkets --

11. Mr. Ian Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what proportion of planning applications for new supermarkets are for in-town sites.

Mr. Gummer : We do not hold the information in that form.

Mr. Taylor : My right hon. Friend probably holds some information in some form. Does he recognise that my normally tranquil and serene constituency of Esher is at present up in arms about the villains from Tesco and Sainsbury, who are attempting to put superstores on the edges of communities in my constituency in Thames Ditton and Long Ditton ? They would not be out-of-town shopping centres, but shopping centres on the edge of communities which would rip the hearts out of those communities. He has received thousands of letters opposing those developments ; will he consider carefully the damage that superstores cause to communities in semi -urban areas ?

Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend would not want me to comment specifically about decisions which I may have to take from a quasi-judicial position, but, in general terms, my view is that we need to take those decisions in the light of the viability of the shopping centres in high streets of small towns and large towns and also in some less urban areas. That is the purpose of PPG 6--the planning guidance on town centres and retail development--and the joint planning guidance on transport--PPG 13-- with the Secretary of State for Transport. Putting the two together,

Column 881

my hon. Friend should have confidence that we are determined to protect the viability and life of our traditional high -street shopping centres.

Mr. Hardy : While I do not disagree with the Secretary of State, will he look into the question recently drawn to my notice of applications for developments that are described as warehouses or buildings for leisure pursuits, when the real intention is to develop retail outlets of the sort that he apparently deplores ?

Mr. Gummer : I am determined to ensure that the same planning rules shall be laid upon all comparable developments, and merely calling them something different will not exclude the full planning procedures. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are some who seek to do that ; I will seek to make sure that they fail.

Mr. Brandreth : Is my right hon. Friend aware how welcome his recent proposals on out-of-town shopping centres have been in constituencies such as mine, where thriving inner-city, city-centre shopping is of paramount importance to the economy and quality of life of the community ? Is he aware that the balance that he is introducing in his proposals is widely welcomed in Chester ?

Mr. Gummer : It is important not only to get the balance corrected, but to raise the standard of the design of the shops when they come back into city centres and the centres of our small towns. That is why I turned down a particular proposal in Ludlow, where the design was not up to the quality of the town centre it sought to enhance.

Mr. Vaz : May I congratulate the Secretary of State for finally acknowledging that the Labour party policy on out-of-town developments, on which we have been campaigning for years, is the right one ? Will he now apologise to the councils that have had their decisions overturned and the developers that now face hundreds of extant planning permissions which, on current completion times, will take years to finish ? How does he propose to compensate local communities that have had their green belts ruined, and the local authorities that have seen the destruction of their town centres because of the myopic policies of this Government ?

Mr. Gummer : It is very often the local Labour council that has given the planning permission. That was a pretty rich comment, even for the Labour party. It would be nice if the hon. Gentleman at least could say that after a perfectly reasonable period where the retail revolution was allowed to continue, providing a considerable number of jobs and choices for the people of Britain, we are now saying that the balance should be reverted--in a different direction. That is perfectly reasonable. We are not in any sense resiling from the view that there ought to be a mix, but we need vibrant city centres. We are encouraging that, not only through the planning process, but through the enormous sums of money that we are putting into our city centres in such excellent policies as city challenge and similar ones which were opposed virulently by the Opposition.

Column 882

Flora and Fauna --

12. Mr. Fabricant : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps his Department is taking to protect endangered flora and fauna indigenous to the British Isles from extinction.

Mr. Atkins : The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 provides comprehensive statutory protection for endangered wild species of flora and fauna and their habitat in Great Britain. Further measures will be introduced shortly to meet legal objectives under the EC habitats directive.

Mr. Fabricant : Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the biodiversity action plan steering group will provide a major opportunity to protect in the United Kingdom endangered species such as the dormouse, red squirrels, otters, pine martens, the lady's slipper orchid and, indeed, strapwort ? Will my hon. Friend also confirm that he intends to protect the habitat and species named in the UK Red Data book ?

Mr. Atkins : Yes.

Mr. Foulkes : Does the Minister accept that two of the most endangered species in Britain are Tory councillors and Tory MPs, and that no amount of grant gerrymandering by the Government will save them from near extinction on 5 May and 9 June ?

Mr. Atkins : I wish that there were protection for the loud-voiced bamboozler which is obviously represented by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Kenneth Carlisle : Does my hon. Friend agree that the only enduring way to protect wildlife is to conserve and create habitat ? Will he therefore work with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to ensure that the habitat scheme is made effective under the new set-aside arrangements ?

Mr. Atkins : As I think the House knows, my hon. Friend has a distinguished record in, and knowledge and understanding of, these matters through his own personal experience. I will certainly give detailed consideration--indeed, I am doing so--to the points that he raises.

MPG3 --

13. Mr. Gunnell : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many appeals by private mining companies against refusal to agree opencasting by local authorities he has (a) allowed and (b) rejected since the introduction of the present mineral planning guidance note3.

15. Dr. Wright : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the environmental impact of opencast coal mining.

17. Mr. Bill Michie : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received from local authorities on the issue of the draft mineral planning guidance note 3 on coal mining and colliery spoil disposal ; and if he will make a statement.

20. Mr. Mike O'Brien : To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on mineral planning guidance on opencast.

Column 883

Mr. Baldry : My Department's records show that the Secretary of State has allowed 30 appeals and dismissed 17. Opencast coal mining can have a serious environmental impact. That is why we have revised the planning guidelines for coal extraction to ensure that they set tough environmental tests for the industry. The consultation period for MPG3 has only just expired. I will place a list of those who responded to the consultation exercise together with a summary of their comments in the Library of the House in due course.

Mr. Gunnell : Does the Minister agree that the data that he has given to me about the results of appeals show that the present mineral planning guidance very much favours mining companies above the interests of local authorities and local communities ? In considering the revision that is going on at the moment, will he examine the needs of areas such as Morley--one half of my constituency--which faces six planning applications : three of which have been granted, one of which is pending, and two in which mining companies have shown an interest ? Will he accept that there is a cumulative effect upon communities to which they should have a right to object ? Does he understand that when the last planning application was given, local people did not want to see it accepted or the appeal granted by the Minister ?

Mr. Baldry : If the hon. Gentleman had looked at the draft new mineral planning guidance, he would have seen that the strong presumption in favour of opencast coal development in MPG3 which did exist is being withdrawn and replaced with a test of environmental acceptability. I should have thought that Opposition Members would welcome that.

Dr. Wright : Is the Minister aware that one of the largest opencast sites in the country is located in my constituency ? In making the planning application, British Coal said that it was necessary in order to mix the coal from this site with the coal from Lea Hall colliery, and then Lea Hall colliery was closed. British Coal then said, "We need the coal to mix it with the coal from Littleton colliery" and then Littleton colliery was closed down. Is the Minister therefore aware that all that my constituents have left is a big environmentally unacceptable hole in the ground ?

Mr. Baldry : The planning guidelines aim to strike a balance between the economic importance of opencast coal--we should not underestimate the fact that it does have an economic value--and protection of the environment in a way that is fully compatible with the principles of sustainable development. In all these matters, balance is important.

Mr. Michie : I do not think that any of my colleagues are happy with the replies. The planning guidelines contain a loophole so large that one could put an earthmover through it. There is more than planning at stake. Will the Minister make it clear whether the demise of planning control over opencast mining has something to do with the closure of deep-mined pits ?

Mr. Baldry : The hon. Gentleman has clearly not listened to either of the answers that I have given. In my role as Minister responsible for planning, I am determined to ensure that the acceptability or otherwise of individual proposals for opencast coal mining depends on the balance

Column 884

between environmental impact and economic gain. That balance has to be struck, irrespective of the ownership of the coal or who is involved.

Mr. O'Brien : Why, having made a decision on the Birch Coppice opencast application on 2 August 1993, did the Minister set it aside on 25 February 1994, thereby blighting thousands of homes in north Warwickshire ? When will a further decision be made ? Will he now offer an apology to the people of north Warwickshire for the long delay ? Is it not the case that, if he had displayed such manifest incompetence in a proper job in the private or public sector, he would long ago have been dismissed ?

Mr. Baldry : That question shows manifest ignorance of the whole planning system. The hon. Gentleman must surely appreciate the fact that all planning decisions are subject to the review of the High Court. Ultimately, it is the High Court which determines whether a planning decision is valid. Although I appreciate the concerns felt by the hon. Gentleman's constituents, he knows, but did not seek to make it clear to the House, that the High Court has still to determine the planning application in the matter to which he referred. I am sure that he will appreciate that I am unable to comment further at the moment.

Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker : Before I hear the point of order, may I say that I am very disappointed that the House did not make the progress that it should have made at Question Time. Questions have been too long and, although there have been one or two very brisk answers from a particular Minister--for which I award him an accolade--answers, too, have often been too long. I hope that things will improve tomorrow and in the coming days.

Mr. Wigley : You may be aware, Madam Speaker, that following reports in the press in Wales today under the headline "Redwood Plan in Tatters", referring to what is called

"the humiliating defeat of the Secretary of State's plan which blew a hole through his blueprint for counties in Wales",

comments have been made by the Welsh Office about the future of the Local Government (Wales) Bill which have not been made in the House. The position is exacerbated by virtue of the fact that the Secretary of State for Wales is not a member of the Standing Committee dealing with the Bill. In these circumstances, would it be possible for the Secretary of State for Wales to make a statement in the Chamber on what is going to happen to the Bill, in view of the uncertainty that it is causing for local authorities in Wales ?

Madam Speaker : I have not seen the report to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but he is clearly referring to decisions, activities and debates that took place in the Standing Committee. I have not so far been informed by the Secretary of State that he is seeking to make a statement to the House.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East) : Further to what you said, Madam Speaker, about the prolongation of Question Time, would it not be better were we to revert to

Column 885

the old custom--and only very few of us here remember it--that nobody bothered to thank you for allowing them to catch your eye ? This is a new development. The new calibre, lower-quality Members now think that somehow or other they play to your favour by saying "Thank you." Will you tell them that there is no need for that ; you are simply doing your job ?

Column 886

Madam Speaker : I wish that all hon. Members were as courteous to each other as the hon. Gentleman seems to think that they are to me. They are not always very courteous to me, and I value a little "Thank you" sometimes. I now call Mr. Hain.

Next Section (Debates)

  Home Page