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6 Dec 2006 : Column 415

It is even more interesting to note that Surrey county council has accepted a landscape impact report, which included examining the site some seven years ago. The report said that the site should never be considered for waste in the future. The council revalidated the same report earlier this year.

In quashing the original application, Mr. Justice Sullivan made it clear that the court accepted that the council had erroneously treated the site as land with an existing waste use for the purposes of the plan. He confirmed that the council should have considered the site as greenfield. It appears to have ignored that. The quashed application was based on using Guildford as a collection site and trucking the waste to an incinerator at Capel. The vehicles that would have to be utilised to carry the waste would be large, for economic reasons, and it was estimated that some 80 vehicles would make the return trip from Guildford to Capel daily. There are two possible routes. One is through some fabulous villages with tiny streets. That route was finally rejected for the longer route of the A3, M25 and A24. Eighty trucks a day were to make that journey of approximately 60 miles there and back. The added difficulty, which was ignored, was that, as one approaches the Capel site, the A24 is a small, narrow, windy single carriageway with an appalling accident history. The addition of 160 truck movements daily would mean that sense had gone out of the window. One wonders whether the council has ever heard of the proximity principle.

Let me consider the adverse effect on the ecology of the site. It is near Vann lake and Ockley woods, which are an SSSI. The actual site is a geological SSSI. Added to that, there are—bless them—great crested newts. Lack of time means that I must restrict the detail, but I must mention one specific matter, which is especially unusual.

The Capel site is unique in that it is directly in the flight path of planes flying into Gatwick airport from a westward direction. The planes must pass a beacon on the Capel site at an altitude of 1,500 ft. Recent research from NASA has shown that aircraft of the size that fly into Gatwick flying over the chimney that would be required for dispersing the fumes of an incinerator would cause a downward draught that would drive all the fumes downwards. I have a video from NASA that I could lend or give to the Minister to show the effect. It is a dramatic video. At busy times, one plane lands or takes off from Gatwick every two to three minutes. The chimney plume would not work.

If we consider other environmental issues, I cannot understand from my background in local government and in planning as a Minister responsible for planning why on earth Surrey county council has picked the site. In choosing it as the primary site, it has ignored the proximity principle, its own decisions about the restoration of the site, the consequences of the flight path at Gatwick airport, the surrounding landscape, the SSSIs, the AONB and the various environmental issues, including the newts. It is also now quite apparent that it has ignored the effect of the waste production, and the Government’s PPS on rural development. It has ignored the access problems relating to the road network close to the site and the issues that were specifically expressed when the original application was quashed.

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I can assure the Minister that although there are not many of them, the people who live, farm and work in that part of the Surrey countryside are, to a man and a woman, vehemently upset at the prospect of having to live and deal with this huge tonnage of other people’s waste from urban areas in Surrey or wherever else.

7.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mole Valley(Sir Paul Beresford) on his success in securing this debate on the draft Surrey waste plan. It is obviously an issue about which he feels passionately. I also thank him for giving me an idea of some of the issues that he was going to raise. As a former planning Minister, he will be familiar with ministerial proprieties in relation to what we now call spatial planning matters. An independent planning inspector will be conducting the public examination into the Surrey waste plan, which will begin in February next year. If I were to comment on the merits of the plan and the proposals that it contains, there would be a risk that I would prejudice the outcome of that examination. The hon. Gentleman will therefore understand that I can talk about the waste plan in only the most general terms.

I would like to begin by providing some context on waste management and waste planning. It is widely acknowledged that waste management is an issue of national importance, and there is a pressing need for new waste management facilities to be provided throughout the country. The Government’s visionfor waste, embodying the principle of sustainable development, is to protect the environment and human health by producing less waste and by using it as a resource wherever possible. In particular, this means reducing reliance on landfill and making significant new investment in waste management facilities. Theoretically, the Government would prefer it if no waste at all were produced. Where it is produced, it should be re-used, recycled or composted wherever possible. However, we know that there is a need to manage what is left after recycling and composting, and our view is that energy from waste has an increasingly significant role in diverting waste away from landfill. In doing that, there are potential benefits to be exploited in terms of the security of energy supply, climate change and our national obligations under the landfill directive, as well as for sustainable development generally.

The planning system is pivotal to the adequate and timely provision of the new facilities needed for all types of waste. Planning policy statement 10, published in July last year, underlines the importance of planning for, and consenting to, the necessary number and range of facilities to support sustainable waste management. The Government expect development plans to be up to date and fit for purpose.

I should now like to widen the scope of the debate and say a few words about our reformed planning system, which will help to deliver the mix of development that communities need, in the right place, at the right time and in a faster, fairer and more flexible way. I hope that that will address some of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. Our reforms are designed to improve the integration between planning for housing,
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services and other infrastructure, including waste management. That is not an easy challenge to meet, and it places a great responsibility on regional and local planning bodies. We know that it involves taking difficult decisions, so we are asking local councils and their officers to show real leadership, backed up with the best support that the Government can offer.

Collectively, our challenge is to bring the community on side. The community needs accurate information about the process in order to learn about the choices available and their implications. It is essential that members of the community are fully involved in the planning process, so that they understand that it is not possible to dump all their waste on someone else’s doorstep. It is obvious that every human, every home and every business creates waste—indeed, almost every human activity creates waste. We just sometimes try to forget about it. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 introduced major legislative changes to the planning system, which we have underpinned with a programme of changing planning culture. We have made the planning system faster, fairer and more flexible.

In the past—and too often in the present—industry has complained that it is difficult to get planning permission and that the process takes too long. On the other hand, local communities and environmental non-governmental organisations feel that ill-considered proposals are railroaded through the system. Local planning authorities are often caught in the middle. In my experience, businesses often do not understand the local authority planning process and, likewise, local authorities do not always understand the pressures on business. Greater understanding between the two can smooth the entire process.

The 2004 Act puts a much stronger emphasis on both the need for speed and the quality of decision making, while emphasising the importance of community consultation and involvement. The hon. Gentleman will know all about the duty to draw up statements of community involvement as part of local development frameworks, which makes sense. With often controversial waste schemes, it is critical that the public do not just object as a matter of principle. Planning authorities must engage and take the community with them as they assess the need for new facilities, identify suitable sites, scrutinise the environmental impacts and ensure open and transparent decision making. Experience has shown that that is a proven way of making faster and better decisions.

That is the bigger picture that supports PPS10. As PPS10 says, positive planning has an important role to play in delivering a more sustainable approach. It confirms our belief, and enshrines in policy, that good planning strategies, regionally and locally, can help deliver sustainable waste management. Rather than seeing waste as a problem, we need to try to see waste as a resource. Disposal must be the last option, but one which must be catered for adequately.

Good plans should provide a framework in which communities take more responsibility for their own waste, and enable sufficient and timely provision of waste management facilities to meet the needs of communities. It is possible to deliver the policy outlined
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in PPS10 by integrating waste management alongside other planning concerns, including housing. We need clear regional strategies and local development frameworks, which provide for waste management and ensure that the design and layout of new development takes waste management into account.

On the whole, planning applications for waste proposals are determined favourably: the approval rate approaches 90 per cent., which is higher than that for housing. The system is not working as smoothly as it should, however, and decisions are too often taken in a heated, adversarial climate. The end result is that we are still not getting enough waste facilities on the ground. There is a great need for local authorities to engage more with their communities earlier in the development plan process.

Sir Paul Beresford: Does the Minister agree that, apart from the issue of fairness to those in other areas, it is sensible for environmental reasons to deal with waste close to its source?

Angela E. Smith: The point about communities considering how to deal with their own waste is an important one. Of course, transporting waste increases its environmental impact. Obviously, every county council will have to make plans on the basis of what suits its area best. It is important to engage local people on all those matters, including environmental and transport issues.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Surrey county council—although he disagrees with its conclusions—has been busy preparing its draft waste plan under the new local development framework system, which includes specific site allocations. The plan was formally submitted to the Secretary of State in June, and will be one of the first waste development plan documents to be examined under the new system.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for indicating in advance which issues he wished to raise this evening. As we have heard, Surrey county council has included a proposal within its plan for an energy-from-waste plant at a site known as the Clockhouse Brickworks in Capel near Dorking, which is in his constituency. The waste plan explains that because the site is on the southern fringe of Surrey—as he said—and therefore away from the main centres of population, the plant may be expected to be of relatively small capacity. Fromhis comments, I do not think that that is his understanding. I can therefore well understand that he and his constituents have genuine concerns about the proposal. We all produce waste, but dealing with it is unpopular. The planning system must therefore help us to balance those difficult, competing interests.

In this case, the planning inspector will preside over the Surrey public examination, listen to and read the arguments for and against the proposal and come to a judgment, which will be binding on Surrey county council. That point requires some clarification. Under our system of local development frameworks, the purpose of the examination is not to debate the particular merits of individual policies or proposals but to determine whether the plan is sound—whether it has a robust basis, in terms of its content and the process by which it has been produced. It must also be founded on robust, credible evidence with an appropriate level
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of community involvement. It will be assumed that a local authority’s plan is sound unless it is shown to be otherwise as a result of evidence considered at the examination.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman did not make any representations on the Surrey waste plan during the two formal six-week consultation periods. That is unfortunate. The last consultation period closed on18 August, and it is now too late to submit comments for consideration at the examination. The hon. Gentleman may still wish to make his feelings known, but unfortunately there is every chance that the county council and the inspector will rule them inadmissible. I cannot intervene in the process, because it is possible that I would end up in court if I tried to do so. Clearly the hon. Gentleman has nothing to lose from airing his views, but let me suggest two possible alternatives to writing what could prove to be an abortive letter.

The inspector can request the attendance at the examination of any person or organisation he considers to be needed to enable the soundness of the plan to be determined. That applies whether or not the person or
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organisation has previously made representations on the plan. The hon. Gentleman could write to the inspector to ask whether his presence at the examination could help the inspector to reach a decision. Alternatively, he could approach a person or organisation whose views are aligned with his own—I am sure he knows of such people or organisations in his constituency—and offer to speak on behalf of that party at the examination, if comments have been submitted at an earlier stage.

A planning application for an energy-from-waste plant at Capel is being prepared, and I am informed that it is likely to be submitted to Surrey county council early next year. The hon. Gentleman and his constituents will have an opportunity to look at the details of the scheme, and to make their views known.

I hope that I have described a course of action that the hon. Gentleman can take, while putting the issues involved in a wider context.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Seven o’clock.

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