Previous Section Index Home Page

24 Oct 2006 : Column 395WH—continued

It might be helpful if I explain some of the overall mechanisms that are in place and the division of responsibilities between the various agencies and organisations. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has overall policy responsibility for flood risk in England, and we work in partnership with the Environment Agency, which is the principal operating authority for managing those risks. The agency’s flood risk management activities are largely funded by DEFRA and operate within the framework of policy guidance that we provide to all operating
24 Oct 2006 : Column 396WH
authorities. Operational responsibility for the programme to manage risk rests with the operating authorities.

The measures to manage the risk include the building and maintenance of defences to reduce the probability of flooding, but go beyond that to embrace a range of approaches for reducing the consequences of flooding. They include flood awareness campaigns, flood warnings and emergency planning, and seeking to avoid increasing risk through inappropriate new development.

We cannot prohibit all development in areas at risk of flooding, but where new development is necessary we must ensure that it is appropriate and safe and does not increase the flood risk elsewhere. My hon. Friend made a number of comments about that. He might be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government intends shortly to publish strengthened planning policy guidance for planning authorities on development planning and flood risk.

Among other things, the Environment Agency has been made a statutory consultee for planning applications in flood risk areas. A new direction is to be issued. It will allow proposals for development that planning authorities intend to approve, against Environment Agency advice given on flood risk grounds, to be called in for consideration by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Todd: That is extremely welcome, and follows advice that I gave the Deputy Prime Minister when he directed this area of policy some four or five years ago. Will the Minister apply that also to the workings of the inspectorate that determines applications refused by local authorities, very often on exactly those grounds? Slightly alarmingly, it does not always stick to that sort of guidance.

Ian Pearson: I shall certainly look into my hon. Friend’s comments. I welcome his acknowledgement that we have made a step forward, and I agree with him.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the Government’s strategy as a result of their consultation “Making Space for Water”, and how we are taking it forward. Among other things, we are currently consulting on extending the Environment Agency’s role in the strategic overview of coastal flood and erosion risk. It is not a subject for debate today, but it is an important area.

We have set up an innovation fund to encourage the development of novel solutions for managing flood risk, and it offers great opportunities. In addition, we have identified 15 sites for possible pilot projects to help develop improvements in integrated urban drainage. We also aim to encourage better resilience and resistance of buildings and emergency infrastructure, and are exploring whether it might be practicable to provide some form of financial assistance to make homes more flood resilient or resistant in areas where community defences cannot be justified. We are considering a range of options for helping communities adapt to the threat of increased erosion or flood risk, particularly in coastal areas but in other areas as well, where traditional forms of defence may not be cost-effective or sustainable.

24 Oct 2006 : Column 397WH

My hon. Friend asked several questions about budgets and prioritisation. I shall deal with them before addressing the specific concerns that he had about some villages in his constituency. The first point is that total Government expenditure on the management of flood and coastal erosion risk this year will be some £580 million, up from £310 million in 1996-97. That is a 35 per cent. increase in real terms. Of course there are increasing demands, and the floods of 2000 raised awareness of flooding. Much work has been done by the Environment Agency on producing fluvial strategies and on developing shoreline management planning processes along the coast. That work has increased the demand for expenditure on flood defences, but it is important to recognise the 35 per cent. real-terms increase in budgets. The large programme that we are funding through the agency and other operating authorities continues to maintain and improve standards of protection for communities across the country.

My hon. Friend discussed the reduction this year of the Environment Agency’s flood defence budget. I can confirm that the budget reduction does not affect capital works. We were faced with a need to reprioritise our budgets as a result of unavoidable pressures. Like any Government Department, we must remain within our overall budget. The budget for flood risk has been reduced from £428 million to £413 million, but, as I said, capital works have not been affected. I regret that the reduction has led to some small delays in the Derwent study, but I assure my hon. Friend that work on it is continuing.

My hon. Friend asked about prioritisation of investment. He will be aware that the Environment Agency has a priority scoring system. There is always a need to prioritise when proposals are considered. The programme of improvement projects is driven by the operating authorities, and the projects that come from the strategies are built into an overall programme and then prioritised through an objective prioritisation system. If my hon. Friend would like some details of the methodology, I will ensure that the Environment Agency provides him with it, but I do not have time to go into it today.

For many years, we have encouraged operating authorities to adopt a strategic approach to flood risk and to ensure that solutions are co-ordinated. I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes the fluvial studies that have taken place to date. We are taking them one step further by developing plans to assess flood risk at catchment level by funding a programme of catchment flood management plans that are being developed by the Environment Agency.

I turn now to some of the specific points that my hon. Friend raised in respect of his constituency and, more broadly, South Derbyshire. The Environment Agency has evaluated flood risk from the three major rivers in the area—the Trent, Derwent and Dove—in order to establish priorities. As my hon. Friend said, substantial modelling work was required in several instances, and some of those things take a considerable amount of time.

Following completion of the fluvial Trent strategy last year, construction work is under way at West Bridgford in Nottingham and at Burton-on-Trent. A
24 Oct 2006 : Column 398WH
further project to reduce the risk to more than 16,000 homes in Nottingham is expected to begin in the next three years. I understand that the agency is completing floodbank repairs and other improvements around Shardlow, and that further works are planned for later this year at Great Wilne.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about other villages in his constituency. I understand that the Environment Agency is doing further work to identify options for reducing flood risk in Hatton, Scropton and Egginton. Further investment will depend on the outcome of that work; if viable options are identified, they will then have to be prioritised against investment needs elsewhere. As he knows, there are many competing demands for investment of Government resources in flood and coastal risk management, and there must be some objective system of priorities.

Mr. Todd: Will my hon. Friend ensure that the tasks that are defined in the Dove study for funding by the Revenue—he rightly explained the prioritisation process—will be completed and will not be delayed by the cuts imposed on the agency?

Ian Pearson: I have no doubt that work will continue on the Dove study and will in the future lead to the completion of projects, but the priority that is accorded to them will depend on how they score when compared with other projects.

I also understand the point that my hon. Friend made about insurance and the fact that, as a result of some of the studies, it is thought that some areas are not protected to the level that they were before the work was done. That may be an important issue for some constituents. We cannot uninvent knowledge, but we must try to find ways of dealing with the situation if genuine problems have resulted.

I am aware that there is an issue around raising expectations. If we produce strategies, there is a natural assumption that they will be implemented. As I said, we must be careful not to raise expectations, given the overall budget situation. The budget is growing, and we hope that the importance of flood risk management will be recognised in the comprehensive spending review, but we simply cannot fund all the projects throughout the country. We will have to continue to make some tough decisions, and that is why it is important that we have an objective way of doing so.

The Environment Agency is trying to improve the management of public engagement. The engagement of the public in developing measures to reduce the risks that affect them is of key importance. People need to be aware of and understand the risk, how decisions might affect them, how the risk can best be managed with finite resources and how they might be able to prepare for and respond to flood risk and flood events. There are some important issues around public engagement. Through its building trust with communities and making space for water programmes, the Environment Agency will consider ways of increasing participation by the public in the overall decision-making process.

I thank my hon. Friend again for raising these important issues. As I said, the Government have finite resources, but I am well aware of the issues in his constituency and would like to assure him that we will continue to give them serious attention.

24 Oct 2006 : Column 399WH

Backdale Quarry (Longstone Edge)

12.59 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): This is the second debate on the subject in which I have spoken. I was going to say it is the second in which I have had the honour of speaking, but I would much prefer not to have to speak on the subject again. The last time such a debate was held in the House was 3 December 1997, nearly nine years ago. In some respects, however, the issue was different then because it involved a quarry company, RMC, that wanted to engage in a huge extraction. RMC subsequently withdrew its application for the site, but the overall story is still much the same.

The 1997 debate was answered by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who was then Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions. One frustrating thing is the way that the debate has moved from Department to Department over the nine years. We started off with the DETR, then it moved to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The matter now seems to be split between two Departments, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs taking responsibility for national parks and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government taking responsibility for the Planning Inspectorate. That might give the Minister more freedom, as the Planning Inspectorate is reporting not directly to him, but to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

When I asked the Library for a paper on the subject not so long ago, it came back with a lovely line, which read:

It is. Today, I want to deal not with the history of the project, because that would take a long time, but with what worries me, my constituents and the wider front of those who are involved in the national park—that is, what is happening on the Longstone Edge site. I want to come to that in some detail.

I mentioned that the 1997 debate was answered by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. I received a letter from the Department just prior to that debate, which said:

That was an inappropriate response then, and it is even more inappropriate now. We are nine years on and the issue is still not resolved. It is still complicated and there is no end in sight.

Two public inquiries were planned for the past year. One was cancelled when the Planning Inspectorate, which had originally allowed three days for it, turned up and decided that it would take a lot longer to
24 Oct 2006 : Column 400WH
determine the issue. A second was stopped on legal grounds by the intervention of the Deputy Prime Minister. I accept that he was acting solely on legal grounds and best advice, but that has meant that there is still a great question mark over what is happening on the site.

The Peak District national park has more than 22 million visitors a year. A thought to bear in mind, perhaps, is that the dome was visited by 7.5 million people in one year, and we spent a lot of money on it. Those 22 million visitors enjoy the countryside and the facilities of the national park, which has been referred to as the lungs of Britain. It is within an hour’s drive of the populations of Manchester, Sheffield and the west midlands. That is why, more than most other national parks—it is the second most visited, after the Lake District—it gets a huge number of visitors.

Not only those in the local villages, but all those who have enjoyed the national park, are concerned about the massive scar that is appearing on the landscape. That is why I do not believe that the Government should say any longer that the matter is one merely of local importance and that the Secretary of State does not therefore have a role to play.

If the matter had been resolved, perhaps the explanation nine years ago would have been sufficient, but nine years on it has not been resolved. As things stand, I see no end in sight. That should be disturbing to the Minister, and it is most definitely disturbing to me, my constituents and, I would imagine, all the people who enjoy the beauty and tranquillity of the national park. I want to push the Minister on the question whether he still regards the matter as one of local significance.

There are nearly 70 mineral sites in the national park, of which 12 are active limestone quarries, 10 are active gritstone sites and eight are vein mineral sites. Fifteen are no longer active and 24 are in restoration or aftercare. The majority of the sites that operate in the national park are compliant with their planning permissions. Many of the quarries started before the national park came into existence and the quarries along Longstone Edge were given permission in the early 1950s under a Minister’s consent. The early national park governing body was not instrumental in that. In fact, that was a far different era with far fewer restrictions on planning permissions.

The Town and Country Planning Act 1990 allowed the revocation of old planning permissions, but stated that compensation would have to be paid. That was beyond the financial scope of most national park authorities. It is worth thinking how much the national park has spent over the past nine years, both in correspondence with various Departments and on legal bills. If we were to add all that money up, I assume that we would come to a tidy figure.

A review of the old planning permissions began following the passing of the Environment Act 1995, but active sites could continue to work while modern working conditions were determined. The problem is that there is a loophole in the legislation that came about as a result of case law, as modern working conditions cannot be determined without environmental information from the quarrying companies and the authority has no power to compel the operators to provide that information.

24 Oct 2006 : Column 401WH

Most quarry operators have complied with the authority’s request for the information, but some have not, and they can carry on with their old conditions. Are the Government considering new legislation to compel those with old permissions to provide the necessary environmental information? I would be interested in the Minister’s answer to that.

The problem started off at Backdale quarry, and we have now moved on to Wagers Flat, where extraction is being moved on. There is no doubt that fluorspar is being used as an excuse to quarry out lots of limestone. The figures are there. Between 2003 and December 2005, some 11,500 tonnes of fluorspar were removed with a market value of approximately £5 a tonne, which means a total of some £57,000, while 573,963 tonnes of limestone were removed, with an approximate market value of some £4.5 million. The fluorspar, which is what the permission was granted for, is worth £57,000 and the waste product—the side product of the need to get down to the vein minerals—is worth some £4.5 million.

I have even seen reports that the fluorspar mined has never been moved off the site but is still stored there. If ever there was a question as to what is being taken away from the national parks, I have no doubt whatever that the answer is limestone. That should alert the Minister and the Government to the serious problems on those sites.

Wagers Flat is being operated with an intensity that is incredibly worrying; we can now see it on the skyline as we leave Bakewell. It is not a big hole at the moment, but the way the extraction is going it will become a huge scar on the Longstone Edge landscape. Part of the trouble is that although there are other vein extractions on Longstone Edge—it is a huge site—they are covered by restoration provisions, so they are being restored in a proper manner and under proper conditions.

Wagers Flat and Backdale are not covered by the restoration programme, and if the company can continue extracting without having to pick up any of the restoration costs, it will have a far bigger advantage over its competitors. Again, I say that this is not a local problem. I strongly suggest that it is of such importance that it needs to be considered more widely.

Another problem has been brought to my attention, which involves the aggregates tax. Many people have been trying to find information on it, and it has not been easy. One could argue about the rights and wrongs of such a tax, but if it exists it should be paid by everyone. I understand that no aggregates tax has been paid for Wagers Flat. It is ridiculous that the company not only does not have to meet the costs of restoration, but that it is not paying the aggregates tax. That is not fair. Put plain and simply, it is not right or proper. Action needs to be taken.

At the moment, an inquiry is scheduled for next February. I am a little worried about that, because of what happened with the previous two inquiries, but even if that inquiry goes ahead—the Planning Inspectorate has set aside 10 days, which seems right—how long will it take to report? During that time, extraction will still be taking place at Wagers Flat, which will result in a huge blot on the landscape of the national park.

24 Oct 2006 : Column 402WH

Those in the villages nearby are rightly concerned—they include Calver, Curbar, Froggatt and Baslow—as are the people of Longstone. Indeed, the village of Longstone has a distinguished resident—a former deputy leader of the Labour party, Lord Hattersley, who would like to have a national parks Bill to stop quarrying in the national parks. I do not know whether there is much chance of that, and we are coming up to the Queen’s Speech, but I press the Minister on the fact that loopholes in existing legislation ought to be addressed. That is needed soon, and I hope he can say what will happen.

This is a huge problem, but I have only limited time and I want to allow the Minister enough time to give us the Department’s thinking. His predecessor, now the Minister for Schools, visited the Peak district, and the people whom he met were greatly impressed with what he had to say. He went a long way to helping the national park get finance for the first stop order, but he was in the job for only 18 months before being promoted to Minister of State. This Minister should take on his officials—look where he might land!

Not so long ago, at a public meeting at Cliff college, a former regional director of planning who lives in the national park was advising the Planning Inspectorate. He said:

Next Section Index Home Page