Previous Section Index Home Page

6.2 pm

Angela E. Smith (Basildon) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the opportunity to raise the issue of Basildon golf course. As Members may know, the Friends of Basildon Golf Course has secured the right to a judicial review of the council’s decision to grant planning permission. I appreciate that that places a constraint on what I can say, and will also constrain the Minister’s reply. I assure the House that I will not trespass on the areas covered by the judicial review, and that all the information that I shall give is already in the public domain.

I thank the Friends of Basildon Golf Course for the tenacity it has shown in its campaign, and for the forensic and professional way in which it has conducted itself—particularly Mick and Janet Toomer and John Toplis, although I do not mean to overlook the contributions of many others. I am also indebted to the well-known local naturalist Rod Cole for information that he has supplied. The nearest that I have got to playing golf is crazy golf on holiday, and friends who have seen me putt on a crazy golf site might well be amused by my choice of debate this evening; but I intend to illustrate why the development or, more accurately, the destruction of Basildon golf course as we know it has incensed more people than just those who play golf.

Basildon golf course has been a municipal course since 1967, and before that had been cultivated land for hundreds of years. When Basildon development corporation created Basildon new town, it respected this valuable asset and planned its long-term protection by creating a golf course on the site, and placing covenants on the land so that it could only be used as a golf course or for farming or recreational purposes.

Much of the 164-acre site is located within a mile of Basildon town centre. It really is a green lung. It is popular with golfers, walkers and dog walkers, as well as those who just enjoy it and value its biodiversity. It would be possible to make an entire speech about that aspect alone, but I want to single out a few valuable nuggets of helpful information.

This is one of the few places in the new town where birds of prey are regularly seen. It is widely used by wild birds, including some rarities. We see badgers, weasels, foxes and grey squirrels, and even adders and lizards are known to inhabit the site. There are three scarce species of bumble bee—which is remarkable in south Essex—two of which are UK biodiversity action plan species, and no fewer than 28 species of butterfly are known to be on the site or immediately adjacent to it. However, even for those who do not share this enthusiasm for nature, it has to be said that it is a beautiful site and it has retained its beauty as the town has developed.

Basildon district council decided that the course should be leased for 99 years to a new company that is part of the Jack Barker golf group. There was real public concern about that, but the council is certainly within its rights to do that if it believes that it would be in the interests of Basildon residents. That decision on
24 Apr 2008 : Column 1574
its own, although not universally welcomed, is not the reason why there has been such a huge public outcry. Personally, I would have preferred to have seen greater efforts made to keep this facility public and in the control of the council, and accountable to residents.

The origins of the decision to lease the course appear to be financial, as income from the course was not meeting council targets. Following a competitive bidding process, the Jack Barker golf group was awarded the lease, and I am told that at no stage in the process did the company mention the importation of landfill, let alone in the quantities that have since been agreed.

In September 2007, planning permission was given for 120,000 cu m of landfill to—it was claimed—“improve” the site. I have to admit that I am not an expert on golf courses, and I have no doubt that it is perfectly possible that the course could benefit from improvements. I would have no objection to some landfill being used for those improvements and for re-profiling, but not 120,000 cu m. Depending on the size of the lorries carrying the waste, there would be between 8,000 and 12,000 lorry loads of waste over a six-month period. I should add that this is only phase one of the development, and that the total plans are for 321,000 cu m of waste.

Aside from the huge amounts of traffic thundering through Basildon streets, we must wonder what the implications of this will be. I have tried to visualise what 120,000 cu m of waste actually looks like. If we think about a wall being built that is 1 m high and 1 m wide, we could rebuild Hadrian’s wall, or there could be a wall from Basildon to Westminster and back again with some left over. That is the scale of the dumping there will be on this site.

Local residents and the wider community are understandably concerned about the impact of the proposed development on local traffic congestion, particularly outside Basildon university hospital, which treats 77,000 people a year and has one of the busiest accident and emergency units in the country. They are also concerned about the noise, dust and finer particulates that will be generated. Fine particulates are potentially carcinogenic and can be hazardous to those with respiratory problems. Older residents also fear a recurrence of the flooding that occurred in the 1960s, when homes were flooded by water running off the golf course after a storm. These fears may be unfounded, but what concerns residents is that there does not appear to have been a full assessment of all the possible implications, so residents have been unable to obtain the reassurances they need. For a number of homes overlooking the golf course, the view of trees and open space will be lost forever. Let us imagine what it will be like to see, instead of those trees and that green space, a 24 ft high wall of inert waste. It is no wonder people that are distressed. Basildon university hospital is located on a very busy roundabout close to the golf course, alongside St. Luke’s hospice and Thurrock and Basildon college.

Despite council claims that it, local schools and the primary care trust were consulted over the plans, it appears that that was not the case. Therefore, given all these concerns raised by residents, how did this development and waste dumping get planning permission? It should be noted that there was not a
24 Apr 2008 : Column 1575
unanimous decision. The only two opposition committee members—Labour councillors Lynda Gordon and Danny Nandandwar—were unconvinced by the arguments and felt that not all their concerns had been addressed. They voted against planning permission. One councillor, Frank Tomlin, after voting in favour of the plans had a letter published in the local paper, the Echo. Somewhat surprisingly, he stated:

He went on to explain that he had

and also said:

Does he really believe that those opposing planning permission do so only because there will be a mess during construction and the company will make money? In fairness, I think that if councillors had seen some of the information that I have now seen, there would have been more questions asked and greater examination of the detail, and permission might well have been refused.

I have made it clear that I am unable to discuss some issues today because of the judicial review. However, I can tell the House that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is investigating whether an adequate assessment of the impact on those with disabilities has been carried out and that the local primary care trust is considering undertaking a full assessment of the health implications, particularly those arising from dust and finer particulates.

A key part of the planning process is consultation. The result of the consultation with Natural England was reported to the committee thus:

However, Friends of Basildon Golf Course has obtained a full copy of Natural England’s letter to Basildon council dated 17 April 2007. Its first paragraph states:

I accept that it is legitimate for councillors not to have information on a subsequent development that is not
24 Apr 2008 : Column 1576
before them at the time; every application has to be assessed on its own merits. However, Natural England’s submission refers to:

Furthermore, on page 9 of the planning application it is stated:

I therefore query whether it would have been appropriate for this information to be formally reported to the members of the development control committee.

Another consultee was Sport England, and the result of that consultation was reported to the committee thus:

In subsequent correspondence, Friends of Basildon Golf Course learned that Sport England was supporting only the principle of a new clubhouse and the principle of a new driving range forming part of the facilities, and no more. It was not endorsing the detailed design, the precise location, the importation of landfill, the cutting down of trees or any other aspect of the environmental impact. Importantly, it was also not endorsing changes to the design of the course. Again, it would have been helpful if councillors had been given that information.

Shortly after the initial agreement to lease Basildon golf course to Jack Barker Golf Ltd for 99 years, the Conservative administration on Basildon council agreed changes to the local plan and the removal of what were considered to be restrictive guidelines. The rules calling on councillors to resist the building of large-scale clubhouses and to scrutinise closely the installation of driving ranges in the district have been jettisoned in the latest local plan. The council’s cabinet member for regeneration, Stephen Horgan, freely admitted that councillors had had Basildon golf course in mind when deciding to scrap the guidelines. He said:

One of the changes deletes the following commitment in the plan:

That goes back to the 24 ft-high wall that I mentioned. Although changes to the plan were drafted, they were not ratified by the time the planning application was considered by the committee. Councillors who were making the planning decision were not told about the local plan or the issues it raised about how the proposals should be assessed.

I am also quite clear about the fact that councillors and the public were unaware of the extent of the dumping and the impact it would have. That is not surprising, given that some proposals were never put online as the files were said to be too big. In addition, the plans showing the contours of the height of the driving range—the range will be directly adjacent to a residential area—were not submitted to the council until 15 May. The closing date for consultation
24 Apr 2008 : Column 1577
responses from the public and those affected by this proposal was 18 April. That is almost a full month before things were submitted to the council. So those people whose homes look out on to trees and a green area—they will now be faced by a 24 ft bank that holds a driving range with associated lights and so on—were not given any opportunity to object to the proposed height of the driving range.

A further issue of some confusion at the council—although I do not think it was the council’s fault—was whether the waste being dumped fell under the terms of a paragraph 19 exemption or whether a waste management licence would be needed. It was finally decided that a no licence was required because the waste would not be stored but would be dumped where it would be used, so no landfill tax applied.

I disagree with my local council from time to time, although at all times I try to be co-operative and helpful and to work in the interests of local residents. Even in this case, I wrote to the leader of the council, and met him, to point out a number of my concerns. I asked him to delay progress so that the issues could be further examined and fully investigated. I assured him that he would face no criticism from me—in fact, I told him that I would praise him for being willing to consider some serious issues. He refused.

I have concentrated on Basildon, but it is not the only place where such dumping goes on. My hon. Friend the Minister made a welcome commitment in response to a question from the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) when she announced that the Environment Agency will look into the dumping of waste and will consult on the subject.

I appreciate that because of the time scales involved, and because of the opportunity for new legislation, it might take some time before any new policy comes into effect. Nevertheless, action is needed and I urge that there be no unnecessary delays. May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that such a consultation involves not only consultation with members of the public and others who have been asked to submit their views? It should be a proactive examination of all the issues involved. Will she ask the Environment Agency to visit those areas that have already seen such works, such as Risebridge in Romford, and Nottingham, to get a fuller picture of what such dumping really means?

I realise that the hon. Friend the Minister cannot answer for Local Government Ministers on the issues I have raised regarding the decision-making processes, but will she pass on my comments to the appropriate Minister, so that we can see whether the current guidelines give sufficient clarity and advice?

I appreciate that although my hon. Friend the Minister is responsible for many things, I cannot hold her responsible for the decisions of Basildon council. However, given that such dumping on such a level is becoming more widespread, I would be grateful if she was able to answer the following questions—it will be perfectly satisfactory if she writes to me. How many waste licences have been issued since 2005? Is it possible to identify how many and which were for golf courses? How many involved paragraph 19 exemptions? What are the monitoring arrangements for ensuring that the licences and exemptions are
24 Apr 2008 : Column 1578
adhered to? It appears that some local authorities merely give the DEFRA hotline number. Surely the local authority has some responsibility, too. How many licences or paragraph 19 exemptions have been withdrawn either temporarily or permanently? If a developer is granted a licence or an exemption for one purpose, can they change the reason once it has been issued?

My next point might be an issue for the Treasury, but I am sure that the Chancellor will welcome the opportunity to close any loopholes. Has any estimate been made of the amount of landfill tax receipts that would be generated if just a quarter of the waste exempted from the tax was not exempt?

Basildon council’s intransigence on the issue means that the only option for local residents has been to raise their own money to fight the case through the courts. The fear is that unless the issues are widely publicised, the same thing will happen again and again. The Friends of Basildon Golf Course now has a network across the country and can offer advice and support.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the matter today. I will continue to work with and support my constituents in opposing these appalling, damaging plans. Basildon council’s decision is utterly incredible and incomprehensible. It is just plain wrong. I regret that poor decision making has been allowed to go this far, causing distress and expense to the residents and council tax payers of Basildon.

6.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Joan Ruddock): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) on securing this important debate and on the excellent way in which she has presented her case. It is clear that despite her other onerous duties in the House she takes seriously the concerns of her constituents. She has obviously given great support to the Friends of Basildon Golf Course in their campaign. I fear, however, that she will find my speech rather less spirited than her own. This is one of those occasions on which I can say very little directly about the case in hand, but must explain the context and processes that surround its consideration.

As my hon. Friend explained, the development of sites involving the importation of waste, such as the Basildon golf course, is controlled by both the planning system and the environmental permitting system. I understand that Basildon council did not require the planning application for the development to be accompanied by an environmental impact assessment. Clearly, her quarrel is with the council.

Next Section Index Home Page