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Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a local issue this evening. I am also grateful that the Minister is here to respond. Having been in her position for a number of years in the past, I am well aware that she has probably had to delay her departure from London to her constituency, although I suspect that the weather here will be duplicated there. Having been a Minister with responsibility for planning and having responded to similar debates in the past, I am equally aware that, although I am dealing with a specific application and related issues, the hon. Lady can only respond in broad and non-specific terms. That, of course, is because the Secretary of State is in a quasi-judicial position in that the Capel incinerator application, although approved by Surrey county council, has been referred to him for consideration because it involves a departure from the local development plan.
Surrey county council has an adopted waste local plan. However, the plan was considered by the local planning inspector to be totally inadequate because of the lack of a locational strategy and the lack of identification of any sites whatever for waste-related development. Because of that, the local inspector urged the county council to carry out an immediate review of the plan. Quite rightly, the inspector's intention was that that would provide an opportunity for the proper consideration of alternative sites and pay regard to the need to locate waste-related development as close as possible to the waste's origin. The shorthand notation for that is the "proximity principle". That would also ensure that all communities in the county would have the opportunity to engage in the consideration and that the relative environmental impacts and benefits of a range of sites would be discussed so as to provide the most appropriate solutions. Neighbouring councils have done that, and West Sussex county council in involved in that procedure at the moment.
However, Surrey county council has dragged its heels. Only preparatory work has been carried out in preparation for a revised waste local plan. In the meantime, the county has charged ahead with a competitive tender procedure involving the private sector not only applying for the task but being required to supply the sites. Clearly, a contractor's priorities differ from those of a public waste authority. In this case, it is important that the role of the public waste authority is to go through the procedures as set out by the inspector.
Environmental issues, such as the proximity principle, were clearly low on the list of considerations to at least one contractor. In the event, the contract was won by Surrey Waste Management, which submitted two planning applications for energy-from-waste incinerators. In addition, a second firm, Thames Waste Management, which is not contracted to Surrey county council, submitted a third application.
The geographical location of all three applications appears to be related to the availability of access for the applicants and not to other environmental issues. Two applications by Surrey Waste Management, the chosen contractor for Surrey county council, were at Redhill in
The interesting point to note is that the majority of the waste in Surrey is produced in the north-west and centre of Surrey, which means that both Surrey Waste Management's applications were at odds with the proximity principle. That also indicated the clear disadvantage involved in Surrey county council's assessment of the applications before its completion of a review of the waste local plan. In other words, in my opinionand I hope eventually that of the Secretary of Stateconsideration of the applications was premature.
Broad issues were considered by officers before the committee meeting of the county council was held to consider all three applications. Considerable work was undertaken to produce a paper assessing need. After some months, this paper was produced for the committeealong with other papersapproximately a week before the meeting. Even a cursory study of the details suggested that there was little or no urgency. That impression was added to by the fact that Surrey county council's enthusiasm for recycling was muted to the degree that the bare minimum required by the Government was accepted as standard.
However, to everyone's great surprise, two or three days before the committee meeting, Surrey county council suddenly produced a completely new set of needs assessment statistics whichsurprise, surprisegreatly enhanced its claimed case for urgency. As I am sure the Minister is aware, such an assessment of need is hardly an exact science. In fact, it is hardly a science; at best, it involves guesstimation.
However, given the Minister's background, she can imagine that this sudden change of statistics greatly disturbed the concerned public and clouded the issue. Furthermore, in this assessment, Surrey county council took no account of the fact that approval had recently been granted for a very large incinerator just over the northern Surrey border. The successful applicant, a firm called Grundons, is currently seeking waste sources to fuel this incinerator prior to building it. If indeed there were the urgency that the officers tried to impress on Surrey members, the utilisation of that incinerator would have been an obvious early choice. Incidentally, it would adhere much more closely to the proximity principle.
On 6 and 7 December last year, Surrey county council's planning committee considered those three applications. Having considerable experience of planning issues, I was somewhat surprised at the recommendation that the officers made to the committee, which it supported, although only narrowly in one instance. I must qualify that statement, however, as I undertook only a cursory assessment of two of the applications. The application from Surrey Waste Management, the council's contractor, for the Copyhold site near Redhill was refused. I believe that that was the correct decision. The thought of approving a large energy-from-waste incinerator site in the green belt was beyond even Surrey county council.
The second application, which I briefly looked at, was by Thames Waste for the Slyfield site near Guildford. That site has little or no environmental value in that it consists of sewage sludge ponds and a waste transfer station. From the point of view of the proximity principle, it has the advantage that it is very close to a main source
I found that intriguing. It is my opinion, which is based on the drawings, that Thames Waste had gone to great lengths to disguise the normal hideous solid square-block building with a chimney sticking outthe appearance of most incinerators. It had produced a modern rounded building which, when viewed from the green belt in the distance, was vaguely reminiscent of a modern cathedral, but without the cross.
The current situation is that Thames Waste is in the process of assessing over the next few weeks whether to appeal or to re-submit a further application. Obviously it may choose to do nothing, but with the recent approval on appeal of the Portsmouth incinerator application, I feel that an appeal may well be successful.
Interestingly, Surrey county council required Thames Waste to produce an assessment of all three applications, based on the proximity principle. Its application at Guildford clearly followed the proximity principle most closelycertainly much more so than either of the other two applications. Anyone who is familiar with Surrey geography and the applications would recognise that that is a statement of the obvious.
However, in considering all three applications, Surrey county council officers advised the planning committee on totally different grounds. Their assessment of the proximity principle was that if the site was within Surrey's boundaries, the proximity principle was met. In my opinion, that is a cavalier approach, especially as the committee members to whom I have spoken were unaware of the results of the mileage assessment undertaken for the county by Thames Waste.
The third application was for a site at Capel. That application for recommendation for approval by the officers was confirmed narrowly by eight votes to six. However, as I have already explained, that application has been referred to the Secretary of State as a departure from the development plan. I believe that that particular application should be called in for a public inquiry and final determination by the Secretary of State.
There are many reasons for that, and I will give only the main ones. First, the site is approximately 1,700 m from the green belt. It is clearly visible from it and from many of the sites in Surrey that people use to look over the downs. The view from those sites is beautiful, the downs are spectacular and there, sitting in the corner, will be a pile of tin cans with a chimney poking out of it in the middle of a rural area. The drawings show a hideous building. Although it would be slightly lowered into the ground, it would still have a detrimental effect on the view. What is interesting is that the key reason for refusing the Thames Waste application at Guildford was reversed or ignored and ceased to apply when the committee considered the Capel application.
The second reason is that the application proposes a substantial industrial development for a remote rural location, which is contrary to the guiding principles for development in the countryside as set out in planning policy guidance note 7. Indeed, the Minister for the Environment is on record as saying that he thought that
As I have already said, the application flies in the face of the proximity principle. Waste for the Capel incinerator would have to be transported by refuse collection vehicles in central Surrey, predominantly in Guildford and Woking, to the Slyfield site near Guildfordthe same site to which the application from Thames Waste relates. The rubbish would then be transported by road to the Capel incinerator, giving a round-trip distance of approximately 100 km. We face the prospect of tens of thousands of 100 km-trips by heavy lorries to transport waste that could be dealt with nearby. If there is to be an energy- from-waste incinerator in Surrey, handling Surrey's waste, then Capel is probably the most remote from the origins of waste in Surrey. That is acceptable only if one ignores the whole basis of the proximity principle.
The Minister, with her local government background, will understand my great concern about the transparency of the decision. The council is not only the waste planning authority, but has a land ownership interest in the site and a waste disposal contract with the applicant. Indeed, the service committee chairman reminded the planning committee of the importance of the fact that Surrey Waste Management, the applicant for Capel, is the council's waste management contractor. My concern is increased by the fact that the reverse point was made regarding the Thames Waste application as the company is not a Surrey waste management contractor.
The Minister will be well aware that neither of those points are planning considerations, but they almost certainly influenced some members. As I said, there is an argument that consideration of the applications is premature, but it is worth recognising also that the proposed development at Capel is contrary to the provisions of the current Surrey waste local plan, to the Surrey structure plan and to the Mole Valley local planCapel is within the boundaries of Mole Valley.
Council officers have recommended granting planning permission for the site on the basis that it is the least worst of the three applications before them. They did not accept the argument that the sites for such development should emerge through the local plan process. To compound that error, they, by their own admission, accepted that the applicant's consideration of alternative sites had not been exhaustive. Indeed, at a public meeting in Capel, I asked Surrey Waste Management's planning adviser why the Capel site was chosen. He gave two reasons. First, the applicant, as Surrey county council's waste management contractor, had access to the site because the county had a land ownership interest. Secondly, because it was a rural site and therefore of low population density, there would be little protest. That is hardly a planning issue. Even so, I believe that the Government office of the south-east is currently dealing with about 1,500 written protests from very upset people in the Capel area, a rural area with about 880 houses.
To put it mildly, Surrey county council's consideration of its waste management responsibilities and of the three applications is at best murky. As the Minister will be aware, when a local authority grants permission, in effect to itself, which frequently occurs, that authority should go to considerable lengths to provide transparency. I believe that, in this particular case, that demand has not been met. As the decision conflicts with various local plans and the current waste local plan has been severely criticised, the