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Basildon Golf Course

Volume 474: debated on Thursday 24 April 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Alison Seabeck.]

I welcome the opportunity to raise the issue of Basildon golf course. As Members may know, the Friends of Basildon Golf Course has secured the right to a judicial review of the council’s decision to grant planning permission. I appreciate that that places a constraint on what I can say, and will also constrain the Minister’s reply. I assure the House that I will not trespass on the areas covered by the judicial review, and that all the information that I shall give is already in the public domain.

I thank the Friends of Basildon Golf Course for the tenacity it has shown in its campaign, and for the forensic and professional way in which it has conducted itself—particularly Mick and Janet Toomer and John Toplis, although I do not mean to overlook the contributions of many others. I am also indebted to the well-known local naturalist Rod Cole for information that he has supplied. The nearest that I have got to playing golf is crazy golf on holiday, and friends who have seen me putt on a crazy golf site might well be amused by my choice of debate this evening; but I intend to illustrate why the development or, more accurately, the destruction of Basildon golf course as we know it has incensed more people than just those who play golf.

Basildon golf course has been a municipal course since 1967, and before that had been cultivated land for hundreds of years. When Basildon development corporation created Basildon new town, it respected this valuable asset and planned its long-term protection by creating a golf course on the site, and placing covenants on the land so that it could only be used as a golf course or for farming or recreational purposes.

Much of the 164-acre site is located within a mile of Basildon town centre. It really is a green lung. It is popular with golfers, walkers and dog walkers, as well as those who just enjoy it and value its biodiversity. It would be possible to make an entire speech about that aspect alone, but I want to single out a few valuable nuggets of helpful information.

This is one of the few places in the new town where birds of prey are regularly seen. It is widely used by wild birds, including some rarities. We see badgers, weasels, foxes and grey squirrels, and even adders and lizards are known to inhabit the site. There are three scarce species of bumble bee—which is remarkable in south Essex—two of which are UK biodiversity action plan species, and no fewer than 28 species of butterfly are known to be on the site or immediately adjacent to it. However, even for those who do not share this enthusiasm for nature, it has to be said that it is a beautiful site and it has retained its beauty as the town has developed.

Basildon district council decided that the course should be leased for 99 years to a new company that is part of the Jack Barker golf group. There was real public concern about that, but the council is certainly within its rights to do that if it believes that it would be in the interests of Basildon residents. That decision on its own, although not universally welcomed, is not the reason why there has been such a huge public outcry. Personally, I would have preferred to have seen greater efforts made to keep this facility public and in the control of the council, and accountable to residents.

The origins of the decision to lease the course appear to be financial, as income from the course was not meeting council targets. Following a competitive bidding process, the Jack Barker golf group was awarded the lease, and I am told that at no stage in the process did the company mention the importation of landfill, let alone in the quantities that have since been agreed.

In September 2007, planning permission was given for 120,000 cu m of landfill to—it was claimed—“improve” the site. I have to admit that I am not an expert on golf courses, and I have no doubt that it is perfectly possible that the course could benefit from improvements. I would have no objection to some landfill being used for those improvements and for re-profiling, but not 120,000 cu m. Depending on the size of the lorries carrying the waste, there would be between 8,000 and 12,000 lorry loads of waste over a six-month period. I should add that this is only phase one of the development, and that the total plans are for 321,000 cu m of waste.

Aside from the huge amounts of traffic thundering through Basildon streets, we must wonder what the implications of this will be. I have tried to visualise what 120,000 cu m of waste actually looks like. If we think about a wall being built that is 1 m high and 1 m wide, we could rebuild Hadrian’s wall, or there could be a wall from Basildon to Westminster and back again with some left over. That is the scale of the dumping there will be on this site.

Local residents and the wider community are understandably concerned about the impact of the proposed development on local traffic congestion, particularly outside Basildon university hospital, which treats 77,000 people a year and has one of the busiest accident and emergency units in the country. They are also concerned about the noise, dust and finer particulates that will be generated. Fine particulates are potentially carcinogenic and can be hazardous to those with respiratory problems. Older residents also fear a recurrence of the flooding that occurred in the 1960s, when homes were flooded by water running off the golf course after a storm. These fears may be unfounded, but what concerns residents is that there does not appear to have been a full assessment of all the possible implications, so residents have been unable to obtain the reassurances they need. For a number of homes overlooking the golf course, the view of trees and open space will be lost forever. Let us imagine what it will be like to see, instead of those trees and that green space, a 24 ft high wall of inert waste. It is no wonder people that are distressed. Basildon university hospital is located on a very busy roundabout close to the golf course, alongside St. Luke’s hospice and Thurrock and Basildon college.

Despite council claims that it, local schools and the primary care trust were consulted over the plans, it appears that that was not the case. Therefore, given all these concerns raised by residents, how did this development and waste dumping get planning permission? It should be noted that there was not a unanimous decision. The only two opposition committee members—Labour councillors Lynda Gordon and Danny Nandandwar—were unconvinced by the arguments and felt that not all their concerns had been addressed. They voted against planning permission. One councillor, Frank Tomlin, after voting in favour of the plans had a letter published in the local paper, the Echo. Somewhat surprisingly, he stated:

“Your report incorrectly describes me as a supporter of the scheme”.

He went on to explain that he had

“no great enthusiasm for the proposed development”

and also said:

“It is highly likely that there will be unsightly heaps of material during the construction process. It is highly likely Jack Barker will make money from the development. If we could and did refuse planning permission because an applicant would gain financially, nothing would ever be built. The law does not allow us that option”.

Does he really believe that those opposing planning permission do so only because there will be a mess during construction and the company will make money? In fairness, I think that if councillors had seen some of the information that I have now seen, there would have been more questions asked and greater examination of the detail, and permission might well have been refused.

I have made it clear that I am unable to discuss some issues today because of the judicial review. However, I can tell the House that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is investigating whether an adequate assessment of the impact on those with disabilities has been carried out and that the local primary care trust is considering undertaking a full assessment of the health implications, particularly those arising from dust and finer particulates.

A key part of the planning process is consultation. The result of the consultation with Natural England was reported to the committee thus:

‘“No objections in terms of legally protected species, subject to mitigation measures, but recommends appropriate measures be put in place to protect populations of glowworms and their grassland habitat”.

However, Friends of Basildon Golf Course has obtained a full copy of Natural England’s letter to Basildon council dated 17 April 2007. Its first paragraph states:

“The application site lies close to Basildon Meadows Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Based on the information provided, Natural England has no objection to the proposed development on the basis of impacts on Basildon Meadows SSSI, subject to the proposal being carried out in strict accordance with the details of the application. The reason for this view is that we consider that this proposal in isolation will not have a significant effect on the interest features of Basildon Meadows SSSI. However, we are aware that this application is linked to the developer’s aspiration to develop a much larger area of the golf course. The impact of this larger scale of development, including the proposals within the current application, would be likely to result in significant adverse impacts upon Basildon Meadows SSSI. These impacts would include significant hydrological change as a result of landscaping and air pollution impacts caused by increased road traffic, therefore, based on the currently available information, Natural England would object to such proposals”.

I accept that it is legitimate for councillors not to have information on a subsequent development that is not before them at the time; every application has to be assessed on its own merits. However, Natural England’s submission refers to:

“The impact of this larger scale of development, including the proposals within the current application”.

Furthermore, on page 9 of the planning application it is stated:

“The application represents the first stage of proposals for the Golf Course and a subsequent application will follow for the remainder of the site”.

I therefore query whether it would have been appropriate for this information to be formally reported to the members of the development control committee.

Another consultee was Sport England, and the result of that consultation was reported to the committee thus:

“Whilst not a statutory consultation, support for the principle of the planning application.”

In subsequent correspondence, Friends of Basildon Golf Course learned that Sport England was supporting only the principle of a new clubhouse and the principle of a new driving range forming part of the facilities, and no more. It was not endorsing the detailed design, the precise location, the importation of landfill, the cutting down of trees or any other aspect of the environmental impact. Importantly, it was also not endorsing changes to the design of the course. Again, it would have been helpful if councillors had been given that information.

Shortly after the initial agreement to lease Basildon golf course to Jack Barker Golf Ltd for 99 years, the Conservative administration on Basildon council agreed changes to the local plan and the removal of what were considered to be restrictive guidelines. The rules calling on councillors to resist the building of large-scale clubhouses and to scrutinise closely the installation of driving ranges in the district have been jettisoned in the latest local plan. The council’s cabinet member for regeneration, Stephen Horgan, freely admitted that councillors had had Basildon golf course in mind when deciding to scrap the guidelines. He said:

“It would be a bit silly to give the contract to a company who want to redevelop the golf course and then produce a plan that would restrict what they could do there.”

One of the changes deletes the following commitment in the plan:

“Proposals for golf driving ranges will be closely scrutinised to ensure that they have a minimal effect on the visual and residential amenities of the area “.

That goes back to the 24 ft-high wall that I mentioned. Although changes to the plan were drafted, they were not ratified by the time the planning application was considered by the committee. Councillors who were making the planning decision were not told about the local plan or the issues it raised about how the proposals should be assessed.

I am also quite clear about the fact that councillors and the public were unaware of the extent of the dumping and the impact it would have. That is not surprising, given that some proposals were never put online as the files were said to be too big. In addition, the plans showing the contours of the height of the driving range—the range will be directly adjacent to a residential area—were not submitted to the council until 15 May. The closing date for consultation responses from the public and those affected by this proposal was 18 April. That is almost a full month before things were submitted to the council. So those people whose homes look out on to trees and a green area—they will now be faced by a 24 ft bank that holds a driving range with associated lights and so on—were not given any opportunity to object to the proposed height of the driving range.

A further issue of some confusion at the council—although I do not think it was the council’s fault—was whether the waste being dumped fell under the terms of a paragraph 19 exemption or whether a waste management licence would be needed. It was finally decided that a no licence was required because the waste would not be stored but would be dumped where it would be used, so no landfill tax applied.

I disagree with my local council from time to time, although at all times I try to be co-operative and helpful and to work in the interests of local residents. Even in this case, I wrote to the leader of the council, and met him, to point out a number of my concerns. I asked him to delay progress so that the issues could be further examined and fully investigated. I assured him that he would face no criticism from me—in fact, I told him that I would praise him for being willing to consider some serious issues. He refused.

I have concentrated on Basildon, but it is not the only place where such dumping goes on. My hon. Friend the Minister made a welcome commitment in response to a question from the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) when she announced that the Environment Agency will look into the dumping of waste and will consult on the subject.

I appreciate that because of the time scales involved, and because of the opportunity for new legislation, it might take some time before any new policy comes into effect. Nevertheless, action is needed and I urge that there be no unnecessary delays. May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that such a consultation involves not only consultation with members of the public and others who have been asked to submit their views? It should be a proactive examination of all the issues involved. Will she ask the Environment Agency to visit those areas that have already seen such works, such as Risebridge in Romford, and Nottingham, to get a fuller picture of what such dumping really means?

I realise that the hon. Friend the Minister cannot answer for Local Government Ministers on the issues I have raised regarding the decision-making processes, but will she pass on my comments to the appropriate Minister, so that we can see whether the current guidelines give sufficient clarity and advice?

I appreciate that although my hon. Friend the Minister is responsible for many things, I cannot hold her responsible for the decisions of Basildon council. However, given that such dumping on such a level is becoming more widespread, I would be grateful if she was able to answer the following questions—it will be perfectly satisfactory if she writes to me. How many waste licences have been issued since 2005? Is it possible to identify how many and which were for golf courses? How many involved paragraph 19 exemptions? What are the monitoring arrangements for ensuring that the licences and exemptions are adhered to? It appears that some local authorities merely give the DEFRA hotline number. Surely the local authority has some responsibility, too. How many licences or paragraph 19 exemptions have been withdrawn either temporarily or permanently? If a developer is granted a licence or an exemption for one purpose, can they change the reason once it has been issued?

My next point might be an issue for the Treasury, but I am sure that the Chancellor will welcome the opportunity to close any loopholes. Has any estimate been made of the amount of landfill tax receipts that would be generated if just a quarter of the waste exempted from the tax was not exempt?

Basildon council’s intransigence on the issue means that the only option for local residents has been to raise their own money to fight the case through the courts. The fear is that unless the issues are widely publicised, the same thing will happen again and again. The Friends of Basildon Golf Course now has a network across the country and can offer advice and support.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the matter today. I will continue to work with and support my constituents in opposing these appalling, damaging plans. Basildon council’s decision is utterly incredible and incomprehensible. It is just plain wrong. I regret that poor decision making has been allowed to go this far, causing distress and expense to the residents and council tax payers of Basildon.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) on securing this important debate and on the excellent way in which she has presented her case. It is clear that despite her other onerous duties in the House she takes seriously the concerns of her constituents. She has obviously given great support to the Friends of Basildon Golf Course in their campaign. I fear, however, that she will find my speech rather less spirited than her own. This is one of those occasions on which I can say very little directly about the case in hand, but must explain the context and processes that surround its consideration.

As my hon. Friend explained, the development of sites involving the importation of waste, such as the Basildon golf course, is controlled by both the planning system and the environmental permitting system. I understand that Basildon council did not require the planning application for the development to be accompanied by an environmental impact assessment. Clearly, her quarrel is with the council.

It is a fundamental principle of the planning system that each application must be decided on its individual planning merits following consultation, as my hon. Friend said, with those potentially affected. The decision on the suitability of a site for a particular development rests with the relevant planning authority or, on appeal, with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. As my hon. Friend said, proceedings for a judicial review on the planning decision have been issued by solicitors acting on behalf of the protest group. As a result, I am sorry to say that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on individual planning issues at the site. I am unclear about the extent to which Basildon council consulted the county council. However, I understand that Essex county council has expressed disappointment that it was not fully consulted on whether the development should be considered as a county matter.

I have heard with concern what my hon. Friend said about the position of Natural England, and as the Minister with responsibility for biodiversity, I shall undertake to look into that further. For all the other reasons stated, I shall draw the matter to the attention of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), who has responsibility for housing and planning.

Waste recovery and disposal activities are governed by a system of permits designed to protect the environment and human health. European legislation provides member states with the discretion to provide for exemptions from the need to have a permit for recovery operations. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon asked how much landfill tax could be raised if a quarter of the waste that is currently exempted from the tax were not exempt, but we aim to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill and encourage the bona fide reuse, recycling and recovery of waste wherever it is legitimately possible.

To that end, the Government make extensive use of exemptions in order to apply a light regulatory touch and to encourage low-risk recycling and recovery operations. When the deposit of waste constitutes recovery, golf courses and other landscaping developments can benefit from one of the exemptions currently provided for, which my hon. Friend now knows are called paragraph 19 exemptions, after the relevant part of the regulations from which they derive.

The exemptions are valid only if the works in question are carried out in accordance with planning legislation, and it is limited to the types and origin of wastes detailed in the regulations. It is required that the operation be registered with the Environment Agency. Registration of an exemption is a much simpler system than permitting and does not in itself require consultation. A notification of an exempt activity at the site in question was received by the Environment Agency on 19 December last year. From the information supplied, the Environment Agency is satisfied that the proposal meets the terms of the exemption.

My hon. Friend asked how many such exemptions there are. There are currently more than 2,700 paragraph 19 exemptions registered with the Environment Agency. An exemption allows waste to be used for a range of purposes, not just the landscaping of golf courses. They include noise screens for major roads, foundations for new housing developments and the repair of roads and tracks using waste. I think that she might have wondered how many of the exemptions are for golf courses, but I am afraid that I am unable to tell her.

My hon. Friend asked a number of questions about the monitoring and enforcement of exemptions. The Environment Agency has a duty to inspect any site being managed under an exemption, to ensure that the terms of that exemption are being adhered to. It is also responsible for responding to complaints or allegations of unlawful activity. If the purpose of the activity changes from what was originally registered and does not fit with the allowed purpose of the exemption, the developer is required to re-register the exemption with the Environment Agency.

My hon. Friend asked about paragraph 19 exemptions that have ceased to apply, and I can tell her that just three have been deregistered in the past year. She asked about developments at other golf courses, such as the one at Risebridge park. As a result of concerns raised by the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), I have asked the Environment Agency to look into the activities at that site. I have also been advised that Environment Agency staff in the Thames, north-east area are in the process of setting up workshops with the relevant local authorities to discuss how they can work in partnership with regard to golf course developments.

I believe that work has not yet started at Basildon golf course, but I want to give my hon. Friend an undertaking that, should the project proceed, I will ask the Environment Agency to monitor the site closely and report its findings to me. If the activities are not being carried out in accordance with the exemption criteria, or if pollution of the environment or any risk of harm to human health occurs, the Environment Agency will remove the exemption registration and require the developer to stop the activity or obtain an environmental permit. I am confident that the Environment Agency has sufficient powers and that it will use them to take appropriate enforcement action against any unlawful operators, or against those causing harm or pollution.

This important debate and other communications from hon. Members have highlighted widespread concerns about the sometimes inappropriate use of the paragraph 19 exemption for “sham” recovery to avoid the costs of landfilling. As a result of that and other issues connected with waste exemptions, a review of the exemptions regime is already well under way—something that my hon. Friend suggested should happen.

The minimisation of abuses of the system is a key priority for that review, as is the need to encourage genuinely low-risk and small-scale recycling and recovery operations. A consultation is due to be launched this summer, with a new scheme of exemptions being delivered in October next year. My hon. Friend may want to make some representations to that review.

As part of the review, we have drawn on evidence from the Environment Agency, and on its experience of regulating exemptions in England and Wales. We have also made an assessment of the risks that those activities pose. As a result, our proposals will set out that the paragraph 19 exemption for the use of waste for construction purposes must be tightened significantly. There is currently no quantity limit on the amount of waste that can be used under the exemption—and it is clear that quantity is one of my hon. Friend’s major concerns—but the proposals include the implementation of a very low quantity threshold for the exemption. Projects that are above the threshold—that group would clearly include the sort of operation that she described—will be required to operate under an environmental permit, with the additional regulatory controls that come with it.

I have much more to tell my hon. Friend, such as the fact that we have introduced a mandatory system of site waste management plans that will require those running construction, demolition and excavation projects to draw up plans to reduce the waste that they produce, and to manage properly its recovery and disposal. We have many actions in hand that we hope will contribute to preventing operations that may turn out to be scams. We very much appreciate that there needs to be a better interface between planning and the granting of environmental permits, and work is in hand to produce a protocol for use by planning authorities and the Environment Agency.

I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend for securing the debate. Although I am not able to consider the specific planning issues, I hope that I have been able to make it clear that the Government recognise the problems that are occurring in the sector. They can cause the great distress, which she highlighted on behalf of her constituents, about an amenity that is clearly much valued in her constituency. I hope that I have also made it clear that we are addressing those issues. Legislation is in place to protect both the environment and people, and we need to be sure that it is doing so effectively.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Six o’clock.