I shall begin the debate by making it clear that this is not another not-in-my-back-yard debate about quarrying. My constituency has many quarries within it and my constituents are used to the problems that are associated with quarrying. They are used to making sacrifices that they regard as part of their civic duty. They know that road building, for example, is an important part of improving the country's infrastructure.
I initiated the debate because I feel that a genuine injustice is being done. If the letter of the law has not been broken and if procedures have not been wrongly conducted, at least the spirit of the law has been ignored.
It will perhaps be useful for me to put on the record a brief history of Conygar quarry in Clevedon. It is a 19-acre sandstone quarry, which was worked during the 19th century. Permission was registered under an interim development order in 1947. It ceased production in the late 1950s, incidentally with a maximum recorded output of 17,000 tonnes per annum. Tipping permission for inert waste was granted in 1962. As a scrap yard, the quarry was used until 1989.
In 1990, the site was purchased by Tasplot Ltd., which took Woodspring district council, as it then was, to the High Court in that same year for denying knowledge of the planning permission. In an undefended action, Tasplot obtained £2,000 in damages, a full-page apology twice in the local newspaper, the Mercury, and a declaratory judgment on the basis that no evidence was offered by the district council and so it had to accept anything that Tasplot demanded.
Tasplot, as many of the owners of the quarry mysteriously have done, went into receivership in 1992, owing over £800,000. After much action group lobbying, the quarry was registered as dormant under the Planning and Compensation Act 1991. An appeal against that registration was rejected by the then Avon county council, which thankfully we managed to abolish shortly afterwards.
In 1994, an application by Federated Aggregates Ltd. to reopen the site with a new road across the Gordano valley was requested. Avon county council allowed extraction of only 40,000 tonnes per annum. That restriction was accompanied by 100 generally acceptable but not universally popular, by any means, working conditions.
Federated Aggregates Ltd. lost interest, as did many companies before them, and Conygar Ltd. obtained control. Recently, a local farmer, in conjunction with Conygar Ltd., appealed against the conditions. Then came the inspector's bombshell.
This is a major local issue. It affects those near the quarry and all those living in Clevedon, the largest town in my constituency. It took a recent trip by air from nearby Lulsgate airport for me properly to appreciate the sheer scale of the quarry. The sight from the air of the number of residential properties adjacent to the quarry, the development that has taken place since it was opened and, not least, the school close by, has to be seen to be believed. Hon. Members will agree that an issue's importance can be measured by the size of one's postbag. I dealt with about five times as many letters about the quarry as about hunting.
Avon county council's conditions were not welcome, but they were accepted. That says much for the patience and understanding of the people who live nearby. They were willing to accept the conditions. The town council accepted them; the district council accepted the situation. As the Member of Parliament representing the wider area, I was willing to accept it. I pay special tribute to the action group, whose determination has achieved so much in bringing the issue to public prominence. The inspector did not share the democratic view, and it is to a point of democratic deficit that I should like to return.
I told the Minister that I would mention the environmental setting of the quarry, because the Government talk of having a new priority for the environment. Let me tell them about us. We are a seaside town. The quarry lies at the edge of the Gordano valley, which contains priority landscape and wildlife conservation and historic landscape areas. It is a site of special scientific interest and lies within the Bristol green belt. Those facts have either been ignored or are considered irrelevant. It is important not only for the quarry in my constituency but for the situation beyond that such factors are taken fully into account in the decisions of faceless bureaucrats.
One of my biggest worries, having also been a general practitioner in a nearby town, is safety. The quarry opens into the narrow Norton's Wood lane. The matter was put well in a letter from a constituent, Dr R. J. Pring, who said:
The lane onto which the quarry fronts is narrow (too narrow for two lorries to pass) with no footpath, is part of the local cycleway and is used by horseriders. The lane itself then exits on to a 'B' road almost opposite the road serving the comprehensive school. Travelling the opposite way, the lane narrows, and lorries would either have to negotiate about four miles of narrow lane until reaching a road for Portishead, or take a left hand turn passing through another small village and emerging onto the 'B' road at a blind crossroads.
Since the quarry reached its maximum output in the 1950s, Clevedon comprehensive school has been built. There is a busy and dangerous junction. I had forgotten how dangerous it could be until I had a narrow miss on Saturday morning while visiting the quarry site. Some 1,500 local school children aged four to 18 use the same roads. If anything happens because of the increased traffic that will result from permission to quarry an unlimited amount, more than a small amount of blame will lie with whoever's signature lies on that permission. It would be almost comical, if it were not true, that a cemetery was not allowed by the highways authority for safety reasons, but we are to have unlimited quarrying and an unlimited number of lorries on our narrow lanes.
The inspector's report must be seen to be believed. It is almost as though the report was written by one person and the conclusions by someone else who had not only never visited the district but not read the report in the first place. Paragraph 43 states:
Although I have little evidence on the economic structure of the operation it seems to me that to prevent access from 1.00–2.00 may be unduly onerous. Nevertheless, I appreciate that the view could be taken that there would be unacceptable risk to school children at lunchtimes".
The inspector accepts that there may be unacceptable risk but, lo and behold, in the conclusion, the unacceptable risk becomes acceptable. The previous restrictions that safeguarded our children at the local school simply disappear.
The inspector states:
I consider it unlikely that large numbers of primary school children would be out at lunchtime".
There is no mention of the quarries opposite the secondary school, where a large number of pupils are out at lunchtime—pupils who deserve our protection.
Paragraph 40 of the report states:
Delivery vehicles are most likely to have difficulty negotiating the (Walter Road) junction. I am convinced by the written and photographic evidence and by my inspection, that the junction is potentially dangerous and that there would be harmful effects on safety and amenity resulting from the use by heavy vehicles of the narrow lane. Most danger would be caused to those on foot and on bicycles.
The report concludes that an unlimited number of lorries would use the junction, and that—in the inspector's own words—that would be dangerous.
I could go on and on—I could give example after example—but let me just say to the Minister that there is a democratic deficit. I was aware of it when my party was in government, and I do not pretend for a moment that that was not the case; but if Secretaries of State simply sign the recommendations that inspectors give them, and we as a democratic body have no way of redressing those decisions, what is the role of democracy in the process?
The decision is ultimately being made by a faceless bureaucrat who, on the basis of one visit to my constituency, is able to overturn what I think and what my district council, my town council, local people and the action group think. Everyone's view is irrelevant: all the rounds in the planning inquiry are meaningless except the last round. As long as the last round is won, that is enough. The Secretary of State will sign, and that is it. We as democratic politicians have no locus, and that cannot be right. What will be the Government's response to a situation that allows lorry movements to increase from 20 a day to an unlimited number, an increase in extracted tonnage by 300 per cent. to 125,000 tonnes, no lunch-time lorry restrictions, unlimited blasting and earlier starting times? All that will be to the detriment of our local environment.
Let me make this clear to whoever owns the quarry, or will own it in the future. We understand that time is money, and we know the value of delay. I shall use my offices to investigate any way, any device and any project to make the quarry unviable. I look to the Government to help to prevent an act of unsafe, unfounded vandalism. The people of my constituency—people in Clevedon and in north Somerset generally—are slow to anger, but that should not lead us to understate their determination. They have shown admirable resilience and courage in their battle over the quarry. They have my admiration, and, for as long as I represent them, my total support.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) on securing the debate, and on his speech. I know he will understand that my response must necessarily avoid comment on the details of the case, because the Secretary of State no longer has any jurisdiction in the matter. Indeed, the legal processes in the case are complete. However, I want to make it clear at the outset that the Government recognise and understand the real concerns raised locally by quarrying and its impact on the environment. Successive Governments have sought to respond to those concerns, and to achieve a sensible balance between the interests of the economy and the construction industry and those of the environment. That is reflected in primary legislation.
I shall return to the planning processes of the Conygar quarry case shortly. For the avoidance of doubt, it is important to set out the stages through which the consideration of the quarry has passed. First, however, I shall set out the legislative position in some detail, as it is important to explain clearly the purposes of the reforms of recent years.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, successive Governments have accorded the reform of old quarrying permissions considerable priority in recent years, and I want to remind the House of the progress that has been made.
The modern reform of the mineral planning system began as far back as 1976 with the publication of the Stevens committee report. Its recommendations formed the basis of the Minerals Act 1981, which is now consolidated in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, and is the cornerstone of modern mineral planning legislation. The 1981 Act introduced a duty on mineral planning authorities—in current terms, the counties, unitaries and national park authorities—to review and make orders updating mineral permissions, and established that the minerals industry should bear part of the costs under the polluter pays principle.
However, the provisions in the 1981 Act for review and updating of conditions did not work well in practice. Mineral planning authorities were reluctant to risk incurring compensation liabilities, which were difficult to assess, in advance of using their order-making powers. The shortcomings of the 1981 Act were recognised, and, as a result, two further pieces of legislation were enacted to deal with them.
The first was the Planning and Compensation Act 1991. The then Government legislated to reform interim development order planning permissions. They were the earliest remaining mineral permissions in the United Kingdom, and were granted under interim development orders between 1943 and 1948, chiefly to meet wartime needs and the demands of post-war reconstruction. Conygar quarry is one of those IDOs, and received its permission in 1947.
Those permissions had few, if any, planning conditions attached, and in many cases records of their existence had been lost. Under the 1991 Act, IDO permissions had to be registered with local mineral planning authorities and then submitted to them for updating of their working and restoration conditions.
All IDO permissions remain valid and cannot legally be revoked without compensation. That is consistent with the wider general principles of planning and property law. There is no compensation for the cost of complying with new conditions, but our planning guidance makes it clear that conditions imposed on active sites should not
fundamentally effect the economic structure of the operation.
For dormant sites—sites where there was no substantial working for the two years between May 1989 and April 1991—full modern conditions may be imposed without compensation. Full planning guidance is given on the operation of the 1991 Act in mineral planning guidance notes 8 and 9.
On the whole, those reforms have worked well over the years, and are delivering real benefits as older quarries are brought up to modern environmental standards. In recent years, the responsible members of the quarrying industry have taken steps to be good neighbours, and to reduce the environmental impact of their operations. As society looks towards higher environmental standards, the industry's standards will also have to rise. I look to the industry for a positive response in cases of difficulty, so that local harmony and good relations between quarry operators and local populations can be sustained.
The Environment Act 1995 built on that earlier success and made provision for similar reforms to deal with permissions that were granted between 1948 and 1982. The details of that legislation are not relevant tonight, except in one important aspect.
It is very important that, once modernised, mineral permissions do not slip back again. None of us wants to be continually confronted with this issue. The Environment Act 1995 therefore provides for periodic reviews, at 15-year intervals, of all mineral permissions, irrespective of the date on which they were granted, to ensure that, once modernised, they are kept in line with current environmental standards and best practice. This is a particularly important aspect of the reforms, and has clear benefits.
The overall aim of the review process, which successive Governments have supported, is to ensure environmentally sound outcomes while not prejudicing economic viability. The hon. Gentleman made that point.
I want to outline the sequence of the planning processes involved in the Conygar quarry case, so that the Department's role is clear and transparent. Conygar quarry received its planning permission in 1947. It was registered as a dormant site under the Planning and Compensation Act 1991 by the then Avon county council. The mineral planning authority for the quarry now is North Somerset district council.
An application to reactivate the quarry was made by Conygar Quarry Ltd., and was the subject of an appeal to my Department. A planning inspector visited the site on 2 July 1996 and, after a thorough and independent consideration of all the issues, reported to the then Secretary of State on 22 November 1996. As no decision had been issued before the general election, the matter fell to be determined by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. He agreed with the inspector's recommendations on the conditions to govern this case and issued his decision letter on 25 June 1997.
The recommendations included conditions on traffic, time limits on blasting, and vibration limits in line with Government guidance. As the hon. Member for Woodspring raised some of those issues in his speech, I should like to respond briefly on each. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that in the decision letter and in the inspector's report, considerable attention was given to conditions regulating traffic weights, access and signing. The hon. Gentleman referred to passages from the inspector's report.
The report included conditions governing automatic wheel and chassis washes, and the sheeting of lorries to provide for the cleanliness of roads leading to and from the public highway and of vehicles leaving the site. Traffic conditions were also included to control access to and from the highway, to provide for the display of on-site signs showing recommended vehicle routes, to warn HGV lorry drivers visiting or leaving the quarry about local schools, and to prohibit night-time working.
The inspector gave careful consideration to the issue of output from the site in paragraphs 114 to 122 of his report and produced firm recommendations. Indeed, he recommended a shorter period for controlling the average output from the site and allowed for more frequent monitoring. He considered that this
would prevent the possibility that a long high peak in production could lead to very high levels of traffic over a protracted period.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State saw no reason to disagree with that, and imposed conditions accordingly.
As the hon. Member for Woodspring referred to two passages in the inspector's report, it is right that I should refer to the relevant recommendations. I shall quote from paragraph 40 of the inspector's report because the hon. Gentleman quoted from it and spoke about potential danger to schoolchildren. The paragraph ended with the following words which the hon. Gentleman did not quote:
I am satisfied, therefore, that there is a need for a condition preventing the distribution of stone at times when the lorries are most likely to come into conflict with other road users.
In paragraph 44 of his report the inspector turned to the subject of the safety of schoolchildren. He states:
In my experience, the peak time for arrival at schools is short and well defined. On the specific evidence, it seems to me that a period of restriction from 8.30 to 9.15 would not be unreasonable".
Paragraph 46 makes the following recommendation:
No vehicle in excess of 1 tonne laden weight shall enter or leave the quarry except between the hours of 07.30 am—08.30 am, 09.15 am—3.00 pm and 4.00 pm—6.00 pm Mondays to Fridays inclusive and 08.00 am—1.00 pm on Saturdays. These restrictions shall not apply at times of the year when both the East Clevedon Primary School and the Clevedon Secondary School are not in session.
That obviously reflects the inspector's concern for the safety of schoolchildren.
The inspector also recommended blasting conditions providing for limits on the timing of blasts and on ground vibrations. I accept that these may differ from those desired locally, but the inspector made firm recommendations on the type of blasting conditions that were appropriate and in line with published guidance and, therefore, they were accepted by my right hon. Friend.
I understand that there has been some concern about the end date of the permission. I want to address the end date issue specifically as it is important that it is clearly understood. Many old mineral permissions that were granted planning permission before 1982 were open-ended. That is to say, they had no end date whatever. The Minerals Act 1981 recognised that that was unacceptable, and imposed a time limit of 60 years on all permissions which at that time were open ended.
In the case of Conygar quarry, the 60-year life runs to 2042. I recognise that that date is still considered to be much too long. However, the then Government concluded that it would not be right to change the date. Consequently the 2042 date can be changed only by agreement between the operator and the mineral planning authority. If the mineral planning authority alters the date unilaterally, it risks liability for compensation.
The inspector considered the end date of Conygar quarry, but pointed out that, although the mineral planning authority would have liked to curtail that date, schedule 2(1)(c) of the 1991 Act allowed no scope for that to be done. However, the Secretary of State made it clear in the decision letter that, although the legislation does not permit variation of the 2042 condition, nothing in practice prohibits operations on the site ceasing before the end date.
The operator, the mineral planning authority and any interested third parties had a right to challenge the Secretary of State's decision in the High Court within six weeks of the date of the decision letter—that is, by 6 August. No such challenge was made, the legal avenues are now closed and the Secretary of State has no further jurisdiction in the matter.
That is not to say that no further avenues are open should the circumstances surrounding the site change. As I have mentioned, under the provisions of the Environment Act 1995, all mineral permissions are subject to periodic review. That means that the quarry will be subject to periodic review at least twice more—in 2012 and in 2027—before the planning permission expires.
Furthermore, if North Somerset district council, as the mineral planning authority, considers that action is needed sooner than the next 15-year review—because, for example, the planning circumstances have changed materially since the decision letter was issued—it can modify or revoke the permission using its order-making powers, but it may have to pay compensation to the operators if it does so.
As the law in relation to order-making powers has only recently been reconsidered, it may be helpful if I set out the main features. Mineral planning authorities have order-making powers to act in cases of urgency between normal 15-year periodic reviews, or in cases of technical default. New regulations—the Minerals Compensation Regulations 1997—that modify the basis on which compensation is assessed following such orders came into force on 25 March with all-party support. Those regulations brought the compensation entitlement for such cases into line with that for periodic reviews. The Secretary of State's guidance on the orders and new regulations was published as mineral planning guidance note 4 in August.
If a mineral planning authority makes an order, it is subject to confirmation by the Secretary of State, so I do not propose to go further beyond that outline of what mineral planning authorities can do.
Given that, by 2042, even I will be 81, will the Minister help us with the legal problem in the short term? It seems odd—I am not a lawyer—that we cannot have a cemetery in the lane because it is too dangerous, but that we can have a quarry in the lane, where the lorries are larger than the hearses we might have locally. How can it be that the district council, through the highways authority, can stop the cemetery going ahead, but is powerless to stop the quarry traffic? Will the Minister undertake to ask his Department to get a legal view on what powers the district council has through the local highways authority to restrict traffic on safety grounds?
I regret that I have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. As I have made clear, the matter has now reached the end of the process in which the Secretary of State has any involvement. The legal processes are terminated. The option was there for people who were unhappy with the decision to challenge it in the High Court under the agreed procedures. No such challenge was made. As I have stressed, the legal avenues are closed and there is no further opportunity for the Government to take any role in this case.
That was not my point. I was asking the Minister whether the Government, through their responsibility for the local authority, could ask their lawyers to give us a view on the relative responsibilities of the district council's highways authority and its role in challenging the right of access—for example, to a quarry where permissions have already been given. It is a slightly separate matter from the Government being involved in the permission itself. I would be grateful for that legal view.
As I have made clear, the inspector covered in considerable detail issues of traffic. I have highlighted one or two of the passages in his report to show that he considered matters that the hon. Gentleman implied might have been overlooked. Therefore, the matter has been given thorough consideration. However, if the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me, I will consider any matters relating to hazards that may exist on local highways, and talk to my right hon. and hon. Friends who have responsibility for those matters.