Quarries (Planning)

– in the House of Commons at 2:23 pm on 1st December 2021.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education) 2:39 pm, 1st December 2021

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to introduce a presumption in planning decision-making against approving quarry development in close proximity to settlements;
to require the risks of proposed quarrying sites to health and the environment, including through silica dust, to be assessed as part of the planning process;
to make provision about the use of quarries for waste disposal;
and for connected purposes.

I appreciate that legislation that seeks to shift the presumption in planning law against quarry development in the health interests of local residents may, at first glance, seem like a parochial issue. However, when planning decisions concern proposals that would have a substantial impact on the local community, central components of democracy—accountability, public health and local representation—are all at play.

Across the land, a great many communities face the prospect of permission being granted for quarries that will not just blight their areas but bring significant risks to human health, while at the same time being, in certain cases, surplus to requirement. As I aim to make clear, a local planning application in my constituency—specifically, in relation to a proposed sand and gravel quarrying site near the villages of Barford and Wasperton—demonstrates the point. It is the issue that originated the community campaign and has motivated me to stand here today and push for a change in the law.

The broader issue lies with existing legislation under the Town and Country Planning (Local Planning) (England) Regulations 2012 and the 2012 national planning policy framework, under which local authorities are legally bound to prepare minerals plans with 15-year horizons. On the one hand, that makes eminent sense, but it is of course dependent on realistic housing and planning projections, and many Members from all parties were victims of the Government’s original malgorithms. On the other hand, it should give due importance to local amenity and public health but, as I will explain, it fails to acknowledge the latest science on air quality and the threat to human health.

Air quality has long been talked about as an issue. The Clean Air Act 1956 addressed the evident shocking risks to human health at that time. The threats were clear for all to see—or not, given the smog of the first part of that century. We should now be alive to the hidden threats of invisible particulates and noxious gases.

In April this year, a coroner concluded that the tragic death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah was triggered by poor air quality in her community due to vehicle emissions. She had endured 28 visits to hospital because of breathing problems. Following the case, the coroner wrote a prevention of future deaths report that urged the Government to introduce legally binding limits as regards air quality based on World Health Organisation guidelines. That case alarmed the public and should certainly have caused alarm among the Government. While PM10 and PM2.5 are now part of our lexicon in addressing air-quality issues, there are wider issues that urgently need legislation; hence this Bill, which is, in essence, about minimising the impact of emissions on residents’ health, and particularly children’s health.

The science is extremely concerning and there is much research on the issue. On air toxicity, the Environmental Working Group, a US-based body specialising in research and advocacy, has stated that

“none of the air quality standards for silica are adequate to protect people living or working near sand mining sites. The danger of airborne silica is especially acute for children…Silica air pollution has become a danger for residents near open sand mining and processing. Children, older adults and others with existing disease are especially at risk.”

As a result, the group has concerns for any resident living within 1,500 metres of any excavation site, because of the dissipation of dust particles. According to its evidence, gathered in open sandmines in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the silica levels were at least 10 times higher than the recommended limit of 3 micrograms per cubic metre. I can see no reason why that would be much different from levels found in areas that border sand and gravel quarries in the UK.

Let me turn to the proposed Barford and Wasperton quarry. I could refer to many of the other quarries, proposed and in situ, that concern colleagues from all parties, from Alyn to St Albans and a great many communities in between, but Barford is symptomatic of the problem. Warwickshire County Council identified the proposed quarry site as part of its minerals plan. The purpose of the site is the excavation of sand and gravel. Put simply, the site is enormous and almost dwarfs the village. It covers approximately 85 hectares of arable farm land, about 50% of which is high-grade agricultural land, graded BMV, or best and most versatile.

Under the current plan, work at the quarry will take place just 350 metres from the southern edge of the village. Although the county council has proposed measures to reduce dust, that will not prevent the prevailing winds from carrying dust over the village—a point borne out by the US research that I referenced. The dust from the quarry will contain silica, which can be extremely harmful to young children and the elderly. Silicosis, which originates from silicate particles entering the lungs, is best described to a lay person as like asbestosis: it is a killer. The proximity of Saint Peter’s Primary School to the proposed site will put 170 students at particular risk. As I say, the impact of the Barford quarry is not limited to residents but will affect the local environment.

Communities up and down the country face the same challenges. The plans to build on the edge of Attenborough nature reserve—represented by my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood, who was kind enough to put her name to my Bill—could lead to even more substantial interference with nature than the quarry in my own constituency. We see the same issue in respect of Lea Castle Farm quarry in the constituency of Mark Garnier. The site is situated bang in between two—possibly three—villages, with Wolverley to the west and Cookley to the north. The fact that there are four schools within a mile of the centre of the site demonstrates the seriousness of this country-wide issue.

Elsewhere, there are issues with the release of noxious gases from landfill sites—such as Walley’s quarry at Silverdale in Staffordshire and Parry’s quarry in Alyn—that are close to communities, harmfully impacting the quality of life for residents. The Environment Agency has previously shown that hydrogen sulphide levels recorded at the Silverdale site have at times exceeded World Health Organisation guidelines. For the record, hydrogen sulphide is, of course, a poisonous, corrosive and dangerous gas. Children living just half a mile from Walley’s quarry complain of chest problems, bronchiolitis and consistent coughs. Many more complain of severe irritation to their eyes, which is understandable if an acidic gas comes into contact with them.

Let me be clear: I am not against quarries; I am for legislation that ensures that all quarries and landfill sites are located a safe distance from our communities, villages and towns throughout the country, not at locations that favour the businesses or authorities that approve them. We need to ensure that the future need is precisely that. We know that we need to use recyclates more and that we need to use more sustainable materials in construction, so why are we continuing with plans based on the wrong methodologies and old technologies? The Office for National Statistics says that my constituency does not need the housing that my local council and the Government claimed we needed—in fact, the ONS forecasts our need as just half the original figure. I appreciate that any consideration of future planning contains an element of estimation, but it can always turn out to be either too conservative or too liberal. In that respect, the provisions in the Bill would have real force.

In summary, the Bill has three objectives: to create a presumption against granting permission for quarry developments in close proximity to settlements; to impose a requirement to assess the risks of proposed quarrying sites to health and the environment, as part of the planning process; and to make provisions related to the use of waste disposal of quarries. The first objective would, in essence, act as a safety valve for an over-liberal estimation of population sizes and settlement planning. At the same time, it would protect the current residents of neighbouring towns and villages. The provision is inspired by the actions of other countries: in Canada, there is a requirement that quarries have to be 600 metres from settlements, and other countries have introduced minimum distances. We now need to act. Given the science, I believe that the minimum distance should be set at 1,000 metres at least for silicates and noxious gases, as recommended by the research.

There is clearly a need for legislation to address this issue. In an Adjournment debate on this very issue that I secured in October 2019, the Minister who replied—the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Rebecca Pow—concluded by admitting that she was

“unable to address the specific concerns”—[Official Report, 29 October 2019; Vol. 667, c. 344.]

that I had raised. That was no fault of the Minister at the time, but it was the fault of an ill-equipped planning system that fails to provide avenues for local residents to raise legitimate concerns about locally approved quarries. The Bill seeks to close that gap. Given that the World Health Organisation updated its guidance in September, I urge the Government to take the Bill extremely seriously.

In my final remarks, I wish to thank all the teams throughout the country—including the Eykyns, the Steels, Charlotte, Claire and many others—who are campaigning against planning applications. I am proud to promote this Bill and hope that it will be one step further towards protecting the health and wellbeing of local residents up and down the country against ignorant planning systems that do not align with local democratic wishes or recognise the health risks as we understand them today.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Matt Western, Mark Garnier, Bob Seely, Daniel Zeichner, Dr Julian Lewis, Matt Rodda, Daisy Cooper, Mark Tami, Lilian Greenwood, Derek Thomas and Rosie Duffield present the Bill.

Matt Western accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the first time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 January 2022, and to be printed (Bill 208).