Clause 21 - Bringing business and commercial projects within Planning Act 2008 regime

Growth and Infrastructure Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 4th December 2012.

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Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 11:00 am, 4th December 2012

I beg to move amendment 101, in clause 21, page 25, line 23, after ‘may’, insert

‘subject to regulations excluding sites of special environmental or historic importance,’.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 103, in clause 21, page 25, line 33, at end insert—

‘(aa) the development does not involve surface mineral extraction or quarrying.’.

Amendment 109, in clause 21, page 25, leave out line 33.

Amendment 110, in clause 21, page 25, leave out line 43.

Amendment 111, in clause 21, page 26, line 10, leave out from ‘project)’ to end of line 11.

Amendment 112, in clause 21, page 26, leave out lines 12 and 13 and insert—

‘(5) In this section, “business or commercial project” means a project which consists of any of the following—

(a) offices and research and development facilities;

(b) manufacturing and processing proposals;

(c) warehousing, storage and distribution facilities;

(d) conference and exhibition centres;

(e) leisure, tourism and sports and recreation facilities;

(f) extractive industries (mining and quarrying); and

(g) mixed-use developments, including one or more of the above uses but not retail where it is the main or predominant use or housing except where it is incidental.

(6) The Secretary of State may by order, subject to consultation—

(a) amend subsection (5) to add a new type of project or vary or remove an existing type of project;

(b) make further provision, or amend or repeal existing provision, about the types of project which are, and are not, within subsection (5).

(7) An order under subsection (6)(b) may amend this Act.’.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Clause 21 seeks to bring new types of project into the major infrastructure regime established by the Planning Act 2008. Although I am pleased that the Minister recognises that the Act, introduced by the previous Labour Government, is working well, I have to say that that is unusual for him.

A number of points in the clause diverge significantly from the aims and processes established by the 2008 system. The first is the inclusion of business and commercial projects alongside the existing and more narrowly defined categories such as energy and ports, without national policy statements underpinning them. We were pleased to see the publication of the consultation document last week, which, as I have said, was done somewhat sooner than other consultations relating to the Bill. It is none the less worrying that a clause that will lead to such an enormous change in planning policy has been included in the Bill before any consultation has been done on it, including on whether the clause is necessary. There is a significant amount of concern about what will be captured under business and commercial, and whether sending such projects directly to the Secretary of State where the applicant chooses will speed up decision making.

The amendments look in different ways at the scope of business and commercial and at whether the term will be efficient in identifying nationally significant projects and promoting growth. We will return later to the issue of whether the measures in the Bill will promote growth.

Amendment 101 would ensure that environmental and historic protections remain in place and that the major planning regime does not become a tool to bypass proper protections. The amendment would do that by including a reference to

“regulations excluding sites of special environmental or historic importance” in proposed new section 35(1). The areas to which that exclusion would apply would be few. However, there are areas where unconstrained development not only would be bad for the environment and residents, but could be detrimental to the economy. A seaside town that is largely dependent on tourism for its income may, for example, be better off without a giant warehouse on the outskirts of town.

I am sure the Minister can appreciate the need for some protections for particular areas, given the extent to which he intends to increase the scope of the major infrastructure regime. Protection is particularly necessary when no national strategy is being offered to help guide where major developments should take place and how they will fit in with other projects. Later in the Committee’s  deliberations, I will return in more detail to a specific amendment on the need to underpin clause 21 with national policy statements.

Amendment 103 is more specific about the types of application we seek to exclude by adding that business and commercial projects should not include quarrying or surface mineral extraction, such as open-cast mining. Evidence submitted by the Loose Anti Opencast Mining Network shows that on the basis of current applications, the 100-hectare threshold set out in the consultation document would capture a third of open-cast mining applications currently in the public domain or under consideration. That is a huge proportion to be taken out of the control of the local authority and local people.

There is also a risk that applications close to the threshold would upsize in order to bypass local consultation. For example, the Ferneybeds application near Ashington is for an open-cast mine of 95.6 hectares. The developer might consider increasing the size of the site so as to avoid the local authority’s scrutiny of the application, which would enable a lot of the resistance in local communities to open-cast mining to be taken into account. That is worrying, because as the Loose Anti Opencast Mining Network states:

“The larger the site, the more sensitive is the issue of the impact that the site will have on the local communities and the more people it will affect.”

The issue is especially pertinent, given, as we will discuss in more detail later, the loss of primacy for the local plan under the system and the Minister’s refusal to consider national policy statements. That entirely undermines democratic accountability in the system, and drowns the voice of the affected community. It is therefore important that we exclude the practices that are likely to cause the most anger and distrust in the system and guarantee that applications will be decided by democratically elected people who understand local concerns.

The point was supported by Dr Ellis of the Town and Country Planning Association, who not only talked about democratic accountability but argued that the system works well as it is. In his evidence to the Committee, he said:

“Speaking as someone who has done a bit of minerals planning, there is no problem, for example, with the minerals planning regime in England. It is an effective regime. It does not need to be drawn out of town and country planning, but it is a controversial regime in some areas. Given its controversy, it works remarkably well. Whether that is the intention or not, I worry whether a message is being sent that drawing to the centre critical decisions is somehow a way of dealing with the long-standing problem on the ground. For me, it would be about a different, perhaps positive, attempt to rebuild that relationship with communities.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 19 November 2012; c. 104, Q247.]

In 2011, I took part in a debate on the private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), which sought to introduce a buffer zone of 500 metres between any open-cast mining site and residential dwellings. Few members of the Committee attended that particular debate, but I am sure that many Members on both sides would support the aims of the Bill, which, in the words of the hon. Gentleman, sought to

“offer protection to communities not only in North West Leicestershire but in dozens of constituencies in former coalfields throughout the country.”

Debates on private Members’ Bills are not always the best attended parliamentary occasions, but what was interesting about that debate was that most of the people who were there to present and support that Bill were Conservative Members of Parliament who were desperately concerned about the impact of open-cast mining, or the potential of open-cast mining, on their communities. I urge the Minister to read the Hansard coverage of the Bill’s deliberations because there were lots of different examples of the way in which open-cast mining had seriously impacted on local residents not only as a result of the dust and noise but because of the hours of work which saw local communities disturbed very early in the morning and sometimes late at night if some of the quarry was being moved for a special order.

If the Minister is going to criticise us for raising this as a real concern, he must take on board the views of a number of Government Members, because they supported that private Member’s Bill. There were also a number of Members who supported it because of the concerns in relation to their constituencies. We are very concerned that if a request for an open-cast mine or quarry site can bypass the local community for determination, issues such as the proximity of the site to local residents or what particular residents feel about that application may not be taken into consideration sufficiently. I am sure that the Minister will say that, under the process, there will be public hearings and attention given to the local community, but the drive of the clause is in the wrong direction or, in relation to mining or quarrying, it is a step too far.

Like other hon. Members, I have seen applications for open-cast mining, because I represent an ex-mining community. They are not all successfully resisted and, at times, with proper safeguards in place, it is possible to persuade a local community that the economic benefit of open-cast mining overrides the environmental impact. However, that happens only in circumstances where the community can strongly argue its case with the developer, often with the local authority being onboard and supporting the residents, and with elected representatives being very familiar with the area affected by open-cast mining or quarrying.

I am concerned that the clause will compound the problem of communities feeling disempowered by attempts to change legislation and deny them a say in whether they should have open-cast mines in their back gardens. That is not ridiculous; it is not hyperbole. Some open-cast mines and sites impinge hugely on local residents. The clause is not right, and mining and quarrying should not be included in consultation documents. The very intrusive nature of such developments and how they can impact so negatively on local communities means that this is not the correct way forward. Will the Minister consider whether it is essential for increasing growth to have projects that, if they are not considered carefully, can damage the environment as much as open-cast mining and quarrying?

I hope that the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove will support the amendment. In his previous ministerial capacity, he responded to our debates on the private Member’s Bill. He did not give it Government backing, but he said:

“Although most people see my constituency as a leafy suburban area adjacent to a national park, it has the same coal beneath it as is under the constituencies of the hon. Members for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) and for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), so I fully understand the high level of public concern about these applications. The concerns about the environmental protection lost as a result of the intrusion of these developments and about the dust are often well justified.”—[Official Report, 11 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 648 and 661.]

The Committee should note that and take it on board in our discussions. Our concerns are justified, so I hope that the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove and his hon. Friend the Minister will support the amendment to ensure that local people have a say over applications relating to mining and quarrying.

Amendments 109, 110 and 111 would remove references to business and commercial projects of a description prescribed by the Secretary of State. From the consultation documents, we know that that prescription will presumably fall in line with what eventually emerges as the list of types of projects to be included.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.