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10.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford): The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies) is new to the House. It is therefore understandable that he is perhaps unaware that I cannot give answers on a specific case. I hope that he will take that into account.

The hon. Gentleman has also failed to recognise the importance to this country of quarrying, mining and minerals--most obviously the energy minerals of coal, oil and gas. Those industries form a vital part of our economy. There are some 2,500 mineral workings in the United Kingdom; 900 sand and gravel pits; 500 hard rock and sandstone quarries; and 275 coal workings. In 1993, they were worth £16 billion to the United Kingdom, and they cannot be ignored. They also help to offset a deficit in our balance of payments which would occur if we had to import those minerals from elsewhere.

The mineral extraction industries also help to reduce our unemployment rate, because 36,000 people are employed in such industries. I am excluding those who work in offshore oil and gas extraction, which employs 34,000 people.

We accept that, in many cases, taking minerals out of the ground inevitably causes disruption. There can, however, be long-term benefits. It is worth pondering on that. Some of the sites have been subject to dramatic improvements, particularly where old sites have been cleaned up and brought back into a state of reasonable order.

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Ultimately, it is an obvious geological fact that minerals can be worked only where they are found. That limits the choice of locations for extraction. Modern quarrying is a major industrial activity, and must often take place in what would otherwise be quiet rural areas. Government, industry and environmental organisations have done much to develop a broad and deep understanding of the effects of such quarrying, and how we can reduce them.

Much research has been undertaken into noise, dust, blasting, and the associated traffic. The aim, which to a large degree has been met, is to offer further advice to planning authorities, which must authorise the quarrying and control it through the conditions imposed on planning permissions. It is in their hands.

It is important to recognise that the industry has realised that it must improve its environmental performance, and it has taken dramatic and positive steps to do so. Our experience shows that the most successful approach is one based on co-operation between the industries, the mineral planning authorities and the local communities; and that happens. A blast such as that which we have heard from the hon. Gentleman does not necessarily contribute to that co-operation.

The task of granting mineral planning permissions and monitoring how those sites are worked throughout their lives, and then restored, is a right of local government. It is something for it to undertake. The Government have a role; they set the right framework.

I accept that, historically, mineral extraction has been a significant cause of dereliction, but we have moved on since then. We now have an accepted policy that the land which is worked for minerals is reclaimed at the earliest opportunity to a high standard and for a beneficial use. Excellent results are being achieved, although I shall not go into them, because there is insufficient time to do so.

Many planning permissions were, as has been said, issued in the past. Many of those permissions are still being worked. The standards that we expect to be achieved on those sites are those that we would set today. That is why further action has been take in that sphere during the past five years.

The first step has been to recognise that the Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Act 1981 was not working as well as had been intended. In 1991, we brought in the Planning and Compensation Act. We legislated to reform interim development order permissions--IDOs, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The earliest remaining mineral permissions in Great Britain date from 1943 to 1948. Those permissions had first to be registered with the local planning authority, and the operator or landowner then had to submit to the planning authority an updated scheme of working, restorations and conditions, which worked well.

The Environment Act 1995 built on that earlier success, and made provision for similar reforms to deal with old mineral permissions, by which I mean permissions granted between 1948 and 1982. In addition, it put into place a system to review all mineral permissions, regardless of their date, periodically thereafter.

The first step in the new reforms is for local mineral planning authorities to publish by 31 January lists of all dormant and active phase I and phase II mineral sites in

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their areas that require to be reviewed. For active phase I sites, the list must specify the date by which an application for an approval of new conditions must be submitted to the mineral planning authority.

The definition of what constitutes a dormant site, which has been mentioned in the debate, is clear in the Act. Retrospectively, the Act defines as dormant mineral planning permissions for sites where there has been no substantial working between 22 February 1982 and 6 June 1995. Should a mineral planning authority determine that a site is dormant, it is then up to that authority to take enforcement action in the usual way against any unlawful working.

Operators have no appeal against a mineral planning authority's classifying a site as dormant, except to seek a judicial review. However, classifying a site as dormant does not annul the permission. It can be reactivated at any time, provided that the operator can comply with full modern conditions for the site's working and restoration. Those conditions do not attract compensation.

The Environment Act also provides for periodic reviews at 15-year intervals of all mineral permissions, irrespective of the date when they were granted, to ensure that they are kept up to date.

I turn now to the specific issue of reopening mineral workings. Sites can suspend operations for a number of reasons--market conditions, unexpected geological problems, rationalisation and so on. Suspension of working does not in itself mean that operations should not be allowed to recommence when circumstances improve, or when temporary problems have been overcome, provided that they are carried out in accordance with the terms of the planning permission.

Where a mineral planning authority believes that a permission should not continue, it already has the powers to revoke or discontinue it, but it must pay compensation to any person with an interest in the land or minerals who suffers loss or damage. We have made it clear that the Government do not believe that it would be right to revoke without compensation planning permissions that have been validly granted and validly held.

However, as I have already said, we recognise that there is a particular problem with older planning permissions when working has been suspended for many years, and the terms of the original planning permission may have been overtaken by higher environmental expectations and improved standards. That is why, for the oldest permissions--the interim development orders, or IDOs--the Planning and Compensation Act 1991 specified that sites that had not been worked to any substantial extent in the two years ending on 1 April 1979 could not restart until full modern operating and restoration conditions had been approved by the mineral planning authority. Similarly, the 1995 Act provides that for pre-1982 sites where no substantial working has been carried out between 1982 and 1995, working cannot restart without full modern conditions. In neither case is any compensation payable.

Those are tough requirements, and they will ensure that dormant sites cannot be reactivated without a full consideration of all the issues, and the imposition of stringent modern planning conditions.

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Mr. Chris Davies: The Minister rightly said that I had given him a local example. I would not expect him to respond in detail to that--although I tried to use the example of Newhey as an illustration of the wider problem. He referred at length to the new Environment Act 1995, which has already been helpful in some cases in Rochdale borough--but the IDO problem is my main concern.

Although the introduction of modern planning conditions may be helpful in some instances, it does not deal with the problem caused by a quarry such as that in Newhey--there are probably others on many sites throughout the country--which simply would not be given planning permission in the first place if there were a fresh application. The site is a dead quarry, 150 years old, which is now being brought back to life. Does the

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Minister acknowledge the need for stronger powers for local authorities to recognise the changed circumstances in which such a quarry is now expected to operate?

Sir Paul Beresford: The hon. Gentleman is underrating the powers of the local mineral authority. The authority can impose strict environmental standards under the new legislation and the various guidance notes. I repeat that I cannot refer to a particular case, but the powers in the hands of the planning authority are considerable. I would like the hon. Gentleman to ponder on that before he comes back and raises the matter, as I suspect he will in a written form at the first opportunity.

Question put and agreed to.

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