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Environment Agency Permits

Volume 655: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Environment Agency permits.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I count myself very lucky to be the Member of Parliament for East Surrey, an area characterised by beautiful rolling countryside and vibrant towns and villages, all within easy reach of London. The north of my constituency even falls within the M25, although, with all the green space, people would be forgiven for not realising it. East Surrey is the epitome of what makes England unique. We know how fortunate we are, and we take very seriously our duty as custodians and protectors of our stunning local environment for future generations. I called for the debate because I am concerned about our ability to protect the environment for our children and grandchildren, but I am hopeful that is something that can easily be rectified by the very able Minister.

If hon. Members indulge me, I will tell them about the constituency case that has prompted the debate. Oxted quarry, regulated by the Environment Agency, has been problematic for a number of years. My predecessor, Peter Ainsworth, was doing battle with the side-effects of the quarry as far back as 2005, if not before. The leader of Tandridge District Council, Martin Fisher, who is in the Gallery, has also been doing battle with the issue for several years, on behalf of residents.

The quarry has two functions: chalk extraction and waste infill. However, the problems for the local environment stem from the volume of heavy goods vehicles that end up on East Surrey’s country roads, because a working quarry needs to transport its materials. We have long had issues with HGVs thundering through small villages and along narrow lanes, causing distress to residents and costly damage to the highways. I am sure colleagues in rural constituencies and my Surrey neighbours will recognise that.

The latest chapter in the story of Oxted quarry began in 2005, when the Environment Agency granted permission for the operator to infill the quarry with 100,000 tonnes of inert material a year. That was in addition to the 18,000 tonnes of chalk that has been extracted annually since the 1930s. Why was that a problem? Before the licence was granted, only four or five HGVs made return trips each day, which was some 10 movements. After the licence was granted, there was a dramatic increase in HGV movements: local authority records show that at their peak, in 2008, an average weekday saw 150 HGV movements. On six days, there were in excess of 216 HGV movements, which meant roughly one vehicle every three minutes.

To put this in context, the access road to the quarry that HGVs must use is a narrow category C lane, known as Chalkpit Lane. I am sure that hon. Members can picture what kind of road it is. North of the quarry is a steep hill with an HGV restriction, which is often breached. The correct route in and out of the quarry passes rows of cottages without footpaths and pavements, and goes under a railway bridge and through a residential area with mainly grass verges. At some points, it is nearly impossible for an HGV and another vehicle to pass each other when travelling in different directions. It is not a road that can withstand such huge volumes of HGV traffic. It is damaging to the road itself, but more importantly it is hugely dangerous to residents and pedestrians, some of whom use the lane to get to local schools.

Fast forward through a time of some respite in the area, when the quarry paused operations, to 2016, when the operator sought permission to double its infill to 200,000 tonnes per year and the Environment Agency was asked to make a further decision. Permission was granted, which caused distress locally. The decision set in motion a two-year battle between Surrey County Council as the mineral planning authority, the quarry operator and local district councillors, led by Martin Fisher, to ensure that strong limits were placed on vehicle movements and to stop the narrow, country Chalkpit Lane becoming akin to an HGV highway.

When discussions began, the operator wanted the limit to be set as high as 200 movements a day. They had a licence for 200,000 tonnes of infill, which needs a lot of lorries. After discussions with the operator—and while facing the threat of legal action for potential loss of revenue should restrictions be brought in—Surrey County Council officers recommended a limit of 156 movements. Fortunately, due in large part to my hard work and that of local councillors, the limit settled on by the Surrey County Council planning committee was much lower, at 112 movements. I thank Tandridge District councillors, led by Martin Fisher, for their hard work. The limit was an improvement and the best we could have hoped for in the circumstances, but ultimately Surrey County Council should not have been in the position of making this decision.

I have talked a lot about roads and mentioned the Environment Agency briefly, but I am sure the Minister is wondering why I called a debate on Environment Agency permits. I hope the Minister will agree that the reason why HGV movements had to increase, and why Surrey County Council was put in a position where it had to allow over 100 movements on a narrow country lane not designed for lorries, is because the permit was granted. The Environment Agency’s procedures meant it had no reason not to grant the permit. It was not just Surrey County Council that had its hands tied, but also the Environment Agency, whose representatives informed me at a meeting that legislation restricts them to considering whether only the site itself and the environment on the site can cope with the permit arrangements.

Oxted quarry can cope with 200,000 tonnes of infill—I have no doubt that it is big enough—but the wider environment of Chalkpit Lane and Oxted itself most certainly cannot cope. As I understand it, the Environment Agency has no statutory obligation to consult local authorities or even to consider the wider environmental implications outside the site. It is also unable to add conditions to the permit relating to areas that are the responsibility of other public bodies. In this instance, it cannot add vehicle movement conditions as they are the responsibility of the local authority.

I recognise that the Environment Agency and county planning authorities have different responsibilities, but I believe that there must be stronger co-ordination to ensure that projects that are given the go-ahead are consented to with a full, rounded view of the impact, and not in the current disjointed and piecemeal way. The current approach has meant that Surrey County Council has faced a long battle with the operators, who believe—rightly or wrongly—that they have a right to infill 200,000 tonnes. The local authority was faced with an extremely difficult choice: should it bow to pressure from the operator, cover itself against potential legal action but put residents at risk, or should it do what was in the best interests of residents and run the risk of costly legal procedures, which would have an impact on how much money it would have to spend on the local area?

I called for the debate because it is obvious that there is a gap and mismatch in the legislation, which is causing wider problems. It is one of those cases where things fall between the cracks. I know that the Minister is capable and imaginative, and that the Government can do something about this, which will make a big difference across the country, not just in my constituency. Will the Minister commit to looking at the issue, so that the Environment Agency’s permit procedures are changed, to ensure that local authorities can have a greater say before permits are issued or varied? I appreciate that that might require primary legislation, which could prove difficult in the current climate, but anything that can be done in the interim would be welcomed by residents.

The Environment Agency does a great job in protecting our environment, and does everything it can to ensure that businesses can function in rural communities in a way that protects them from harm. Unfortunately, legislation means that it cannot protect the wider environment around the sites it controls. I hope the Minister will agree that simply joining up procedure and closing cracks would bring enormous benefit to rural areas and ensure that entire communities can be protected for future generations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah) on securing this debate. I must admit that when I saw him sitting on the other side of the Chamber I was worried that he had perhaps left the party, but I am delighted that he is certainly has not. I am sure he will understand that people may be twitchy at the moment.

My hon. Friend certainly has the courage of a lion in championing his constituents; I am sure they will be pleased that he is bringing forward this important matter in debate. We have corresponded previously on this topic, and I appreciate his frustration, but this debate clearly reflects the importance of ensuring we have clear and strong pollution and planning controls that work for environment, for people and for business.

As the Minister responsible for environmental permitting, I would like to clarify the purpose of the permitting framework, and the Environment Agency’s role in relation to permitted sites. It is important to say at the outset that permitting is entirely distinct from planning matters which, as he will be aware, fall to the planning authority, but it is important that all parties involved in consideration of these matters work together openly and transparently at a local level to achieve the best outcome for all.

The development of the environmental permitting framework was designed to make regulation simpler, more straightforward and more proportionate to the risk that it regulates. The objectives of the framework have been to make environmental permitting clearer for businesses while maintaining the same level of environmental protection. Before the framework was introduced, permitting and compliance systems developed largely in isolation and had, often for good reasons at the time, adopted various approaches to controlling different types of polluting activity, even where activities were undertaken on the same site, leading to duplication of regulatory control.

Under the environmental permitting regime, regulation of activities is more straightforward for business and regulators to use and apply. It allows the consolidation of different permits and delivers a streamlined approach to applications, guidance, and inspections. Environmental permits allow for flexibility and prescribing the environmental outcome, but not the way it is to be achieved; for example, a permit might require the operator to ensure that the site is sufficiently secured rather than setting a specific fence height. By cutting unnecessary red tape but continuing to provide protection of the environment and human health, that approach has been largely successful.

Environmental permits are issued for regulated activities carried out at sites. In the case of a permitted landfill facility such as that located at Oxted quarry in Surrey, a permit covers hazards and risks arising from the activities on the site of the landfill itself. Landfill involves the disposal of waste to land, so those risks include waste reception and quarantine, leachate and landfill gas containment and collection, wheel-washing, litter collection and various other operations on site.

It is the case that environmental permits specifically apply to what happens within the boundary of a site, while other matters such as traffic outside the site fall under wider planning controls. That distinction is important to avoid regulatory duplication; it is not the right thing to have two regulators making decisions over the same issue and therefore coming up with potentially different outcomes.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the county council is responsible for the relevant planning controls because it is both the minerals planning and waste planning authority. The council’s stated aim in those roles is to minimise adverse impacts of minerals and waste-related development on local communities and the environment. As he has pointed out, Surrey County Council has restricted vehicle movements in and out of the Oxted quarry site to no more than an average of 76 daily HGV movements, or 38 in and 38 out, but I am conscious that there is also a maximum capping.

I understand the Minister’s point about seeking to avoid regulatory duplication. The challenge we have is that we want not to duplicate regulation, but to have a more rounded view of the regulatory process. As it happens, it looks as if one arm does not know what the other arm is doing, and it does not take into account all the factors, particularly the impact those factors have on residents. To the extent that any success was achieved in our campaign, it was more through sheer force of will than through the regulatory system working effectively.

My hon. Friend will be aware that there has been a permit in place for the activities at the quarry since 1980. Following an assessment in December 2016, the agency granted a variation, as he has pointed out, to increase the annual quantity for waste from 100,000 to 200,000 tonnes per year. That application was done legally; I think it is fair to say that the variation was lawfully granted and I also think it is accurate to say that the agency has not received any complaints from members of the public about the performance of the site since operations were scaled up in 2016.

When evaluating an application for a permit variation, the EA is required to consider any negative impacts that may result from managing waste within the boundary of the site. Other impacts outside the boundary of the site must be controlled through the planning process. Being transparent and open matters, but just as my hon. Friend cited the challenges a council might face as to why it would not make a decision on traffic movements, I am sure he will accept that the Environment Agency can be challenged on not making a variation to the permit if the environmental impact is not deemed to be negative. Since the scaling up of operations, there have been no complaints about the operation of the site, although I am conscious that the movements are causing concern to people.

The agency has visited the quarry site on a number of occasions in the past year to assess compliance with the permit. Compliance has generally been good, and where the agency has identified minor non-compliances they have been addressed by the operator. I am conscious that on one occasion there was evidence of mud and soil being tracked out of the site by exiting lorries which the company did not clean up as quickly as it should have; it stated that its roadsweeper had broken down.

I am also conscious that at the time of processing the variation of the permit, the Environment Agency did not carry out a wider consultation with the local community. I recognise that if it had been aware of concerns or complaints, that is something that it could have done at the time. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Environment Agency has since committed to consulting more widely than is statutorily required for any future mineral extraction applications in Surrey, but it is important to make clear that the agency can only consider matters raised through consultation that are within its regulatory remit. In the case of the Oxted quarry landfill site it regulates the disposal of waste and requires that Southern Gravel comply with its environmental permit, but it does not have the power to regulate the impacts of HGV movements.

The Environment Agency and local planning authorities each have clear, strong and distinct roles with regard to pollution and planning control. The necessary distinctions in regulatory role and remit can lead to practical issues on the ground. I fully understand that the mindset of local residents and my hon. Friend, who is their MP, is that the increase in permitted tonnage allowed at the Oxted site is inseparable from the increase in HGVs,

Our published guidance makes it clear that where a regulated facility requires a permit and planning permission, the operator should make both applications in parallel wherever possible. That helps the operator, the planning authority and the Environment Agency to join up where that is of benefit to all concerned. The same principle of joined-up regulation should apply to significant permit variations, and I have asked the agency to ensure that it discusses that with local authorities in relation to sites of possible high public interest.

That should be a matter of good practice, which picks up links between planning and permitting responsibilities where they arise. Locally, the Environment Agency has said that it will continue to work with Surrey County Council and applicants to consider the twin tracking of planning and permitting applications where appropriate. That is sensible local co-ordination that can be established on a case-by-case basis, without the need for additional legislative controls.

I am conscious that what I have said today will not necessarily satisfy my hon. Friend. He will recognise that legislation that adds further regulatory barriers to the progress of business is not something that this Government instinctively support. However, I hope that his example shows that the Environment Agency has listened carefully and is trying to work with local authorities, particularly in Surrey, to learn lessons from this. I commend the council for being strict on the number of movements allowed per day. I am confident that both the county council and, as I have demonstrated, the Environment Agency are undertaking their enforcement actions accordingly. This is an important way for central Government and local government to work together.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.