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Planning Decision, Thurrock

Volume 645: debated on Wednesday 26 July 1961

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

9.59 p.m.

I am going to talk about the threat to Rainbow Shaw. That is the pleasant name of a very pleasant place.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

"Shaw" is an old English word for a copse, a thicket, or a small woodland.

This woodland is situated on high ground near the village of Linford in Thurrock, Essex. It is an old and beautiful wood, much appreciated by people in the neighbourhood and indeed by many people outside. It used to be very much larger. Much of it has been destroyed, and in its place there are sand and gravel pits which are hideous to look at, and dangerous to children.

The last remaining portion of Rainbow Shaw is threatened with similar destruction. The wood is owned by the Orsett Estate Company, and in May, 1960, this company applied to the Thurrock Urban District Council for permission to fell the trees and dig for gravel and sand. The council rejected the application, whereupon an appeal was made and a public inquiry was held, presided over by one of the Ministry's inspectors, who advised the Minister that the trees should be felled and that gravel and sand should be taken out.

The council objected on two simple grounds. First, that this was one of the few remaining natural amenities in this district which had been heavily industrialised. Secondly, the area was so small that it would not matter economically whether it was exploited or not. The council was, and still is, supported by all the societies in the area and in the county who are interested in wild life, bird watching, trees, and the preservation of rural England.

Some weeks ago I asked the Minister to reconsider the decision to have these woods felled. The Parliamentary Secretary replied that he would not do so. I am therefore asking him again tonight to reconsider this decision. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary will tell me that a full inquiry was held, that all the interested parties were given a full and sympathetic hearing, and that the inspector, having weighed all the evidence, came to a wise decision, but I should like to draw his attention to a rather curious aspect of this inquiry.

The first main point made by the Orsett Estate Company at the inquiry was that Rainbow Shaw was to be felled this year in any case. The inspector in reaching his decision made the same point. He wrote;
"This case must, I feel, be considered in the knowledge that this woodland will be felled in the near future in accordance with the agreement with the Forestry Commission."
Since the inquiry however, correspondence between the Commission and the Orsett Estate Company and between the county planning adviser and the company has come to light which indicates that the trees would be felled only after consultation with the Thurrock Urban District Council.

In a letter dated 5th February, 1959, to the Orsett Estate Company, the county planning adviser said;
"This of course"—
this being the application to fell the trees and develop the place for sand and gravel—
"would require a planning application which would have to go through the usual procedure, including consultations with interested parties, viz., the Thurrock U.D.C."
Later on the letter says;
"I would also advise my Committee not to grant a planning permission for mineral extraction until an agreement had been reached with the Orsett Estate Company to plant elsewhere, and subject to the views of the Thurrock U.D.C."

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government
(Sir Keith Joseph)

From whom was this letter? I missed the hon. Member's reference to it.

The county planning adviser. I will let the hon. Member have photostat copies of the correspondence. I thought that he might have had them already. The letter was sent by the Conservator, Forestry Commission, Block D., Government Offices, Brooklands Avenue, Cambridge. Less than a week later a letter was sent to the same company from the Forestry Commission, from which I extract one sentence;

"I am advised that the planning authority is likely to view favourably such an application, subject to consultations with the Thurrock U.D.C."
There were no consultations with the Thurrock U.D.C. There were no consultations between the county council and the urban district council, so the first point made both by the company and the inspector would appear to be quite invalid. That being so a fresh inquiry would seem to be called for.

The second request I make to the hon. Member—and I indicated in my supplementary question to him some weeks ago that I would make it—is that either he or his right hon. Friend should visit the district to see for himself what the results would be if his decision were carried out, and to realise the enormity of it. He may well answer that he cannot grant my request to make this visit, because if he did so he would have hundreds of similar requests from all over the country, which would be intolerable. I can see the force of his argument, but I stress that in this area the conditions are rather unusual. The people who live there suffer unusual disabilities arising from the local industries.

At one end of the constituency of West Thurrock we have the cement dust nuisance, and at the other end, at Shellhaven, there is the smell from the oil refineries. On many occasions I have asked successive Ministers to do something about the cement dust nuisance,. This is the responsibility of the Alkali Inspectorate of the hon. Member's Ministry. Every time I ask I receive the same answer, namely, that the inspectors are doing their best—as I have no doubt they are—and are keeping the matter under constant review. This is no very great consolation to the people living in West Thurrock, where all the houses and gardens are always shrouded in grey dust.

Not long ago a man who lives there wrote to me telling me that he poured himself out a cup of tea, and, since it was a warm afternoon, went outdoors to drink it, but before he could get the cup to his lips it was covered with a thick grey scum. At the other end of the constituency there is the smell from the oil refineries. I do not suppose that the hon. Gentleman can do much about that, but he can do something about Rainbow Shaw. It is one of the last remaining amenities, and it should be kept for the local people, who have given up rather more of their amenities than most people for the sake of the industry in the neighbourhood.

I ask the Minister to see this wood for himself. It is easy of access. We could leave after breakfast in a car, make a thorough examination of the wood, and be back in London for lunch. I should be delighted to go with him. He would be very welcome there, and I earnestly make this request to him to come and see our beautiful little Rainbow Shaw.

10.10 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government
(Sir Keith Joseph)

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) has raised, understandable and strongly, a very legitimate point of view. This is a case where there is undoubted conflict between the economic needs of that part of the country and the amenity interests of the immediate inhabitants. No one wishes to gainsay that.

The hon. Gentleman has not spoken of this, but I know that he will not deny that there is a limited amount of sand and gravel in most of the areas of this country, and that if sand and gravel cannot be won in many of the places where it lies then building developments, which I know he will agree are necessary, will have to be supplied with sand and gravel from further afield and, therefore, at higher cost.

This does not mean that I am saying for a moment that all sand and gravel must necessarily be allowed to be dug wherever it lies, but it means that in balancing the economy and the amenity interests of each area the economic need of the community in that area for sand and gravel must be given due weight.

I shall argue that the inspector's recommendation, and my right hon. Friend's acceptance of it, came down on the right side in this particular dilemma, although I am not for a moment denying that there were strong amenity interests on the other side.

I should like to pay tribute to the apparently dynamic vitality of the natural history interests of the local inhabitants of the hon. Member's constituency. I was most impressed to read that at the inquiry representatives of all sorts, of natural history, ecological societies, preservation societies and nature societies, were there making their views known, and no doubt there were others, not represented at the inquiry, who were also equally interested.

This is an admirable characteristic. No one is denying that Rainbow Shaw is, by all accounts, a most attractive patch of woodland and in the area concerned—which has been to some extent devastated by various forms of economic development, valuable though they may be—is an almost invaluable amenity. I hope that on the other side the hon. Gentleman will agree that it was the inspector himself Who pointed out that a large number of the trees in Rainbow Shaw were old. Although I am not a naturalist myself I think that he described some of them as being in poor condition—

—and, therefore, needing replacement. It is pleasant to find a privately owned woodland so publicly accessible, which is a tribute to the owner.

I must make clear that there was a tree preservation order confirmed by my right hon. Friend on this woodland. That order was made in 1953. It was revoked three years later on the application of the Essex County Council. Because the woodland became dedicated to the Forestry Commission by the owner, this tree preservation order was no longer necessary. The dedication agreement made between the owner and the Forestry Commission took into account the need to fell the wood so as to replant it and get new trees. The felling was provided for in the agreement first to take place in 1962–63 and then the date was advanced to 1961.

Naturally, when the application was made for mineral development by the owner of this area there was strong local opposition. The local authority, the Thurrock Urban District Council, refused the application and there was an inquiry. As the hon. Gentleman made plain, after hearing the evidence the inspector recommended that economic interests should prevail in this case despite the clear recognition in his Report of the amenity value of Rainbow Shaw. My right hon. Friend backed his recommendation.

I should like, straight away, to dispose of the legal position and then to meet the other points raised by the hon. Gentleman. My right hon. Friend has an Obligation in these cases to make a decision. Once he has made the decision —the has made a decision in this case backing up his inspector's recommendation—there is no application technically before him. His statutory function is discharged. The hon. Gentleman may say that I am being legalistic, but that is the law. My right hon. Friend has no further function—

Are we being told that if he is certain he has made a mistake the Minister cannot reverse that decision? It seems absurd.

Were my right hon. Friend absolutely satisfied that he had made a mistake—which is not so in this case—but in theory, were that the position, he has a reserve power to order revocation, which might then involve the local planning authority in the payment of compensation.

I was about to explain that when my right hon. Friend is satisfied that his decision is right and, therefore, is unwilling even to contemplate using this ultimate reserve power, it still remains open for the local planning authority to initiate a revocation order which would, in turn, need confirmation by my right hon. Friend. I must say that in most such cases compensation would be payable by the local planning authority. I am stating the legal position.

In this case, my right hon. Friend is satisfied that his decision was right and, therefore, no question can arise of my right hon. Friend initiating revocation proceedings. But, technically, it still remains open to the local planning authority to initiate such proceedings, with the consequences which I have described.

Now I should like to meet the other parts of the hon. Gentleman's argument.

I do not think it necessary, since the hon. Gentleman has not raised the subject, and, therefore, is not even disputing it, to argue the grave need for sand and gravel in the area. That is accepted and I need not go into it.

Of course, we need sand and gravel, but the hon. Gentleman himself has said that that does not mean that we should take the sand from everywhere that we know there is sand. There are sandpits all round this wood and that is a powerful argument for not taking it from this place and disturbing the last beautiful little wood, when there are sandpits all round.

I accept that the presence of sand and gravel does not necessarily mean that it should be won from where it is. In this case, after the inquiry the inspector decided that it should be won and my right hon. Friend thought that his recommendation was correct.

It has to be remembered that the sand and gravel workings wil be dry work-nip. Conditions are attached to the planning permission requiring the ground to be restored and trees to be planted there. The decision as to what trees are to be planted is for the local authority—

In this particular case, once the sand and gravel is taken trees are to be planted. The hon. Gentleman will find it the condition in the report of the inquiry, that trees shall be planted over the worked out area of the site in accordance with such scheme as may be agreed with the local authority—there is a similar provision in the decision letter —and, therefore, this site will again be covered with trees.

The hon. Member and his constituents will say to me, "That is a theoretical argument if ever there was one. There may be twenty or thirty years before the wound is healed. "I agree that there may be many years before the wound caused by sand and gravel recovery will be healed, but I want to look at the alternative. It is necessary when thinking of the alternative to bear in mind that the dedication agreement made between the Forestry Commission and the owner, of which the county planning adviser was fully informed, provided for the felling of Rainbow Shaw in 1961 on technical forestry grounds without any thought of winning sand and gravel.

I shall explain the whole situation and the hon. Member can interrupt me later. I am advised that, had that felling been carried out, the Forestry Commission would have expected replanting to occur, not at once, but, say, within the next five years. This taking of sand and gravel will probably take about ten years at the end of which trees will be planted. So the net result of the sand and gravel winning as opposed to the felling and replanting of Rainbow Shaw that would have occurred if sand and gravel winning had not been allowed will probably be a delay of five years in the re-creation of woodlands.

I quite agree that five years is a long time and that the hon. Member's constituents would have mourned the felling of Rainbow Shaw whether it was felled by agreement between the Forestry Commission and the owner or for the winning of sand and gravel, but that was the alternative. There was no alternative of maintaining Rainbow Shaw as it is. The hon Member would say to me if we were talking this over in private, "That is all very well, but the owner applied to the Forestry Commission to leave Rainbow Shaw standing and to dedicate another piece of ground in his ownership, and the Forestry Commission agreed to that." That is quite correct.

The Forestry Commission was approached by the owner to substitute a replacement area for afforestation, and the Commission agreed. Again the county planning adviser was kept informed, but the owner applied for this substitution only in the hope that the application he was making to win sand and gravel at Rainbow Shaw would be allowed and the Forestry Commission agreed only on condition that the owner would restore to the Commission any forestry grant and meet the legal costs of the Commission for the two dedication agreements.

If my right hon. Friend's inspector had recommended that sand and gravel should not be won, or if my right hon. Friend had not come to the same conclusion as the inspector's recommendation—if, in other words, the owner's appeal had been dismissed—the owner's undertaking to fell Rainbow Shaw in compliance with the dedication agreement first made, so far as I can see, would have been automatically carried out. Obviously, the owner would not have gone to the expense and trouble of substituting another patch of land on which he would be due to plant woodland for Rainbow Shaw and meeting the obligation to restore forestry grants already made and pay the Commission's expenses for legal costs if he had not been allowed to win sand and gravel at Rainbow Shaw. He made the offer only with the possibility of being able and being allowed to win sand and gravel there.

I say to the hon. Member, although it will be small comfort to him and to his constituents, that, whether the appeal had been successful or not, Rainbow Shaw would have gone. If sand and gravel had not been allowed to be dug it is true that the residents would have been spared the mechanical misery that I am afraid is inseparable from the recovery of this essential material for ten years. If the appeal had not been allowed it is true that Rainbow Shaw would have been replaced by woodland probably five years earlier than it will be replaced now. I hope that the hon. Member will be satisfied by my argument, which I am sure is correct, and that his constituents will be satisfied that, even if the appeal had been dismissed, Rainbow Shaw would still have been felled. That is why I fear that I can give only this technical, legalistic, academic comfort to the hon. Member —that despite all the efforts of the local people and the undoubted amenity of this piece of woodland, an agreement had been made between the owner and the Forestry Commission and communicated to the county planning adviser which would have led inevitably to the destruction of that woodland on forestry grounds, without any connection with sand and gravel and even if the sand and gravel appeal had not been successful.

It is hard to say to the hon. Member and his constituents that in twenty or thirty years' time the wound will have healed and no one will know. I wish I could say that during those years the wild life which will be attracted to the sand and gravel workings will be as varied and as interesting as that which undoubtedly would be attracted to Rainbow Shaw. If I said that I fear that it would be misleading the House. But I hope that my argument will at least comfort the hon. Member and his constituents by showing that what will happen would in substance have happened in any case. With that, I fear, I must leave the matter.

Could the Minister clear up this point? He has rested a good deal of argument on the statement that in any case, as a result of the agreement betwen the owner and the Forestry Commission, the trees would have been felled, but if I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) aright, that was 'to be subject to the views of the Thurrock Urban District Council. The Minister did not deal with that point.

The hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) is admirable in his attendance at these Adjournment debates and most painstaking in the way in which he listens to them. He is right; I did not deal with that point. I understand that the consultation with Thurrock U.D.C. which was undertaken was about the details of the area and the replanting of the substituted piece of land which the Forestry Commission would have accepted, and will accept, since Rainbow Shaw is to be felled. I do not know to what extent the county planning adviser and the Forestry Commission are consulting Thurrock U.D.C. I have not seen the letters, but the hon. Member undertook to send me photostat copies of them, and I shall be most interested to see them.

Thurrock U.D.C. claims that it was not consulted at all and that there was no consultation with the county council., which is the principal planning authority, although fifteen months elapsed between sending these letters from the Forestry Commission and the county planning officer to the company and the time of its application to fell the trees.

I hope that the hon. Member will send me those letters. I am sure that the county planning officer intends to consult Thurrock. The delegation agreement changed between Essex Council Council and Thurrock U.D.C. in August, 1960, and Thurrock U.D.C. now has no power to refuse mineral applications or tree-planting orders, though it had power previously.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.