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Lea Castle Farm Quarry

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:13 am on 17th March 2020.

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Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 11:13 am, 17th March 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, I think for the first time, but it is an even greater pleasure to respond to the debate that my hon. Friend Mark Garnier introduced. He said that the Chamber lacks quantity, but I do not think it lacks quality while he sits here. He is absolutely right: it was 16 years ago one Sunday afternoon when he defeated me in the selection for the Conservative candidacy in Wyre Forest. He also knows, though he did not choose to tell you, that he beat me by one vote, although I suspect that after 16 years of his candidacy and some other years as Member of Parliament, and after his performance today on behalf of his constituents, were I to stand against him again, he would defeat me by a landslide. He is a doughty campaigner and champion for his constituents.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that there is a due and proper process to be followed in the consideration of planning applications for mineral development, in this case by Worcestershire County Council. Although the Secretary of State’s quasi-judicial role in the planning system means that I am unable to comment on the merits of individual planning applications, he is right that there is much upon which we can agree, for example, the importance of building the right sort of new homes, which are appropriate and sensitive to their location and surroundings, and the means by which those homes are built.

Determining planning applications is a matter, in the first instance, for the local planning authority to carefully consider and decide in accordance with proper planning and legal requirements. All planning applications have to be determined in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. I want to stress at this point that the local planning authority is best placed to determine local development proposals. Residents must have confidence that their local council will consider and determine this application in a fair and open manner, as is its duty. The planning application for mineral extraction at Lea Castle Farm quarry is currently, as my hon. Friend has said, being considered by Worcestershire County Council and is, I understand, of a type and scale that requires it to be subject to an environmental impact assessment and have an accompanying environmental statement.

The aim of the EIA is to protect the environment by ensuring that a local planning authority, when deciding whether to grant planning permission for a project that could have significant effects on the environment, does so in full knowledge of those likely effects and takes them into account in its decision-making process. The environmental statement accompanying the planning application assesses a range of environmental effects, including issues such as air quality, dust, health, traffic, noise, heritage, biodiversity and visual impacts, as well as many other matters, some of which are of particular concern to local communities. It is for the mineral planning authority to assess the adequacy of the information provided in determining the application, taking into account all relevant material considerations, including the views of local people, local stakeholders and, of course, the local Member of Parliament.

The Government’s view, as set out in the national planning policy framework, is that the planning system should be genuinely plan-led. It is important we have succinct and up-to-date plans to provide a positive vision for the future of each area; a framework for addressing housing needs and other economic, social and environmental priorities, including making sufficient provision for minerals; and a platform for local people to shape their surroundings. Our policy states that it is essential that there is a sufficient supply of minerals to provide the infrastructure, buildings, energy and goods the country needs.

Mineral planning authorities are charged with providing for the extraction of mineral resources of local and national importance. They are required to plan for a steady and adequate supply of aggregates, including crushed rock, sand and gravel, by designating specific sites, preferred areas or areas for search. In my constituency, there are several such aggregate sites. Staffordshire, like Worcestershire, is a major provider of aggregate, so I am familiar with some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised.

Unlike other developments, however, minerals can be worked only where they are found. They are temporary in nature and a finite natural resource that needs to be made best use of. That creates unique challenges for local areas of how best to meet local and wider mineral needs while ensuring that mineral operations do not have unacceptable adverse consequences on the natural and historical environment or on human health. Given that I come from a similar constituency with a similar background, I understand some of the points that my hon. Friend raised.

My hon. Friend mentioned Canada. He is right to say that Canada has a very different geography from that of the United Kingdom. The open spaces in Canada are somewhat more significant than those in the UK. However, I of course recognise the challenges that he has identified. The national planning policy framework is regularly reviewed, and this is an issue that he will bring to me again and again, and I am very happy to consider his points.

I fully understand the concerns of local communities such as the ones my hon. Friend mentioned—Wolverley, Cookley and Broadwaters—about the proposed Lea Castle Farm quarry, particularly concerns about any adverse impacts on homes, businesses and the local environment. He mentioned a riding stables. High Speed 2 cuts through my constituency. I also have a riding stables and horse training centre in my constituency, run by Eddie McMahon, which is similarly affected. So again, I understand the challenges that my hon. Friend’s local businesses face.

My hon. Friend mentioned in passing his concerns about future extension plans for the quarry. I remind him that any future extensions will be subject to further planning permission, and have to be judged on their merits at the time. It is not the case that the quarry can simply extend and extend beyond the permissions that have already been granted.

As I explained earlier, given that this is a live planning application under consideration by Worcestershire County Council, and that there is a submitted local plan undergoing examination by the Planning Inspectorate, I am not in a position to directly address the specific concerns raised by my hon. Friend’s constituents. Nevertheless, it is vital that people’s concerns are heard and that local residents are listened to. That is why all steps of our planning system are supported by a public consultation process, through which people can consider the proposals and the applications.

Worcestershire County Council submitted its mineral local plan for examination to the Secretary of State on 17 December 2019. I have to say that it was rather overdue, because I think that the plan, as currently adopted, was constituted in 1997. So it is important that an up-to-date plan is in place. The Secretary of State has appointed an independent planning inspector to assess the soundness and legal compliance of the plan. The inspector will consider the evidence provided by the local planning authority to support the plan and any representations that have been put forward by local people and other interested parties, including, of course, my hon. Friend. The examination hearings are due to open on Tuesday 5 May and the second week of hearings will be held in the week commencing 1 June, if necessary. Those hearings are an opportunity for people to voice any concerns or anxieties that they have.

I am pleased that the Planning Inspectorate’s procedural practice encourages Members to participate in examination hearing sessions, and that the Government also encourage Members to involve themselves in this way. I do not suspect that I will need to encourage my hon. Friend very much further in that regard.

Unfortunately, because of its very nature, new development will have some effect on the local environment. It is for that reason that there are clear and defined measures by which development proposals and their potential impact on residents, local communities and the environment are assessed. Of course, the NPPF includes a requirement for local plans to be accompanied by a sustainability appraisal, which allows the potential environmental, economic and social impacts of the proposals to be taken into account systematically, and such plans should play a key role throughout the plan-making process.

The sustainability appraisal plays an important part in demonstrating that the local plan reflects sustainability objectives and has considered reasonable alternatives. A sustainability appraisal and a habitats regulation assessment has been undertaken for the Worcestershire minerals local plan, and those will be before the planning inspector.

I appreciate that I have not been able fully to address some of the specific concerns expressed by my hon. Friend and his constituents. However, I hope that my explanation of the system has provided some reassurance to him and to residents that their voices are being heard—they are being listened to and will be taken into account before any decision is reached. I encourage him to continue to champion his constituents and their concerns. I look forward to his further representations, and I am absolutely sure that he will not be inviting me back to Worcestershire and his local association because he would not impose on me the humiliation of being defeated by such a huge margin.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.