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Minerals Mining (Barford)

Volume 667: debated on Tuesday 29 October 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Marcus Jones.)

On a personal note, may I say, as you leave the Chair, Mr Speaker, that it has been a pleasure to serve briefly under you in this debate? I welcome the Deputy Speaker to his place.

I should clarify the issue I wish to raise this evening, as earlier today the Annunciators displayed the topic wrong, describing it as “mineral mining in Bradford”. I hope that the Minister has been duly informed that this is about mining in Barford, in my constituency. I do not want to disappoint anyone, but that is exactly what I will be speaking about.

This is not a parochial issue; it is an issue of principle, relating to a village, Barford, of 1,500 people in my constituency. It would be easy to consider that this is a one-off debate and issue, which may be parochial for that particular village, but it is about principle. Much of today, as with yesterday, last week and the months before, was spent discussing Brexit, and I am sure many people would like a break from that, but the issue I am about to elaborate on relates to environmental standards as much as it does anything else. Many of us on these Benches have been speaking out about how we wish to defend environmental protections and how important it is to us to ensure that they are maintained at the highest level and that we have dynamic alignment with European regulations.

The proposals are for the quarry site to be in a little hamlet called Wasperton, adjacent to the village of Barford. It has been identified by Warwickshire County Council as part of its minerals plan. The purpose of the site is the excavation of sand and gravel. For more than a year, I have been supporting the community in its campaign, because the site is huge. It almost dwarfs the village; the area is an level area of approximately 85 hectares of arable farm land, about 50% of which is high-grade agricultural land—BMV, or best and most versatile”, land. The land is currently owned by St John’s College and the proposed quarry site would lie just 350 metres from the edge of the village of Barford. The location is important because, of the identified sites across the county of Warwickshire, site 4, near Barford, is the only one with a large village and a school nearby. Under the current plan, work at the quarry would take place just 350 metres from the southern edge of the village. The proposals are due to be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for consideration in a few weeks’ time. We expect a report on the outcome of deliberations in spring 2020, and for the plan possibly to be scheduled for adoption in December 2020.

I recognise that there is a need for such minerals. For all authorities up and down the land, it is a challenge to find the sand and gravels needed for the construction industry. In its plan, Warwickshire County Council states that

“the main issue for this plan to address is the shortfall in sand and gravel. Without adequate sand and gravel, there will not be enough aggregate to serve the construction industry in the County and the sub-region.”

Of course, the premise for that is a calculation based on need, and assumptions are the basis of that calculation. Fundamental to that is how the calculation has been arrived at.

The construction of housing has already been identified as overstated. The local five-year housing supply figure identified 17,000 homes for construction in Warwick district, yet the Office for National Statistics forecasts a need for half that figure. There are other parts of the country where that overstatement is reflected, although maybe not to the same scale. That overstatement is a critical part of my argument, but there are also other issues to address.

There is the matter of access to the site. As the council’s plan states:

“Generally, mineral extraction sites are not approved if they require lorries to travel...on minor roads and centres of population including both towns and villages. Any site submissions with predicted transport/highway problems will be rejected unless it can be demonstrated that the issues can be satisfactorily mitigated.”

At the first public consultation stage, eight allocations were required, to deliver 8 million tonnes. Following a further decline in sales, the plan required only 6.5 million tonnes, which could be delivered through six allocations. The sites are spread geographically across Warwickshire, but two sites have been withdrawn—one much further to the south, nearer Stratford-upon-Avon, and another immediately south of the proposed site.

The council claims that the Wasperton site should serve Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick and Leamington in terms of its development needs, but I am not convinced, and neither is the public. I would summarise the situation in the following points. First, there is an excess to the actual need for housing, as I have already pointed out; according to the ONS, there is an over-supply of houses. Secondly, the site is 350 metres from the village. Thirdly, there is the site’s proximity to the village school. The site is directly to the south of the village, so the village is threatened by dust and silicates blown over by prevailing winds, from the sand that would be excavated.

That fundamental question of whether the site is actually needed is perhaps the most concerning issue, but there is also the role of the landowner, St John’s College, Oxford. I wrote to the president in the late spring and I was not particularly pleased by the response I received. The college is the wealthiest in Oxford—it does not need the money. Why has it put forward this site for development, when it will be so harmful to the lives of all the residents—the children—of Barford and Wasperton? There was a disingenuous claim that it was making the land available for housing development; it was not. This land will be opened up and dug up. Despite being high-grade agricultural land, it will become an eyesore, open for the extraction of sand and gravel. Even the student body at St John’s College passed a motion to stand against the project. There is widespread concern and dismay that a college with the wealth of St John’s should be allowing this to happen. It does not need to be conceding to sell the land to allow this mining. The national planning policy framework states that MPAs should make provision for a sand and gravel landbank of at least seven years of permitted reserves, but, as I have already said, there is sufficient landbank. It currently stands at eight years, but the numbers in the calculation of how many houses are required do not suggest that it is needed at all.

So why do we need this material—not just the quantity of housing, as I have said, but the materials that are used themselves? The assumption is that we will continue to use sand and gravel in the same quantities as in the past, but that is not sustainable development. It is not sustainable for our environment, because sand and gravel in construction use so much energy—whether it be in the forging of bricks or other materials such as concrete and so on.

I stated that there are other concerns that relate to proximity. They are the concerns that the villages and communities have themselves. Essentially, it is about the dust emissions and the impact on residents’ health and on children’s health. Although the county council have proposed measures to reduce dust, they will not prevent the prevailing winds carrying dust over the village, and the proposals do not offer any guarantee that the quarry will not have negative health impacts. The dust from the quarry will contain silica, which can be extremely harmful to the elderly and to young children. As I said, with St Peter’s primary school so close by, 170 students will be put at particular risk.

At this point, I would like to remark on the fantastic campaigning work being done by the school. It sees the risks. It recognises the threats, and it is determined to ensure that this quarry is never realised. On that point about the toxicity of the air, the Environmental Working Group, which is a US-based body specialising in research and advocacy, says:

“None of the air quality standards for silica are adequate to protect people living or working near sand mining sites. The danger of airborne silica is especially acute for children...Silica air pollution has become a danger for residents near open sand mining and processing. Children, older adults and others with existing disease are especially at risk.”

When we talk about silicates and these very fine materials, we often think about PM10s and PM2.5s. The Minister and I have had exchanges in other debates about the threats of these particles to human health. I believe that she shares with me a real concern about the sort of environment—the air quality—that we should have, particularly for young people. These particulates remind us of those microfibres in asbestos and how damaging they are to our lungs, particularly to developing young lungs and other organs. These particulates should not be allowed to enter into the atmosphere, certainly not within a couple of hundred metres of a primary school.

The Environmental Working Group has concerns for residents living within 1,500 metres of any excavation site because of this dissipation of dust particles. The evidence that it has produced shows that silica levels measured near open sand mining in Wisconsin and Minnesota—there is no difference between those sites in that part of the world to those in the UK—were at least 10 times higher than the 3 micrograms per cubic metre, which is the recommended limit.

Let me turn to the infrastructure and its unsuitability, including the inadequacy of local highways, which cannot accommodate the development and the air pollution caused by 60 heavy goods vehicles accessing the site each day. There are also wider environmental issues—for example, the irreparable damage to high-grade farmland including versatile land, the 400-year-old hedgerows and trees, and three grade II listed properties, the closest of which is just 100 metres from the quarry site.

Let me mention the example of just one of the agribusinesses on this super high-grade farmland—a fine farm that produces top quality salad ingredients, producing two crops a year. We have to protect such farm producers. The alternative is often to have these crops air freighted in from other countries, but we can produce them locally, and that should be encouraged and protected. The situation also gives rise to a social issue, as long-term farming tenants will be displaced as a result of any quarry.

The Government and the Minister should be aware that there have been more than 750 written letters of objection and a further 300 objections registered online—all opposing Warwickshire County Council’s plans. To put that in perspective, there are only 1,500 villagers. The campaign has been relentless and I commend the villagers for their work. I have been determined to support and stand by them throughout. I have written to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to raise planning concerns. I met the county council and many residents of the village of Barford. As I mentioned earlier, I also wrote to St John’s College itself.

The housing numbers on which this plan is predicated are wrong; they have been overstated. The Office for National Statistics has said that they are significantly higher than the required figures. We are assuming that we are going to be using sands and gravels in the same quantities as we ever did to construct housing and buildings in the same way that we have always done. But there is a revolution in the way in which housing is being built, so it is wrong to make that assumption.

I have mentioned the proximity of the proposed quarry site, which is just 350 metres from the village and a little bit further from the school. The huge issue of air toxicity needs to be addressed. In other countries, there is a legally established minimum exclusion zone. For example, the regulations in Canada state a minimum of, I think, 600 metres. Why are we not adopting that idea? These are the sort of standards that we should be including in the Environment Bill, and in how we consider our environmental practices should we leave the EU.

The community are clear in their demands. They want the Government to legislate to restrict the mining of mineral materials that release silica dust to sites that are a safe distance from residential areas, and they would like the minimum distance set at 1,000 metres. This is not difficult. It should be the sort of legislation that the Government are capable of introducing. This is the only site in the Warwickshire plan that is near to a large village and a school, which is why it should be excluded from Warwickshire County Council’s minerals plan. As I said, this land is high-grade farmland. We need high-grade farmland to produce the foods that we depend on so that we have food resilience in this country.

Finally, let me cite—I am sure the Minister will not mind—the Government’s own national planning policy framework, which, I remind her, according to DEFRA, seeks to protect the best and most versatile farmland. This is such a case. I ask her to intervene and ensure that this quarry is not allowed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on bringing this debate to the House. I know that he cares about the environment. He took over from me on the all-party electric vehicles group, so we have a connection in caring about the environment, emissions and suchlike. He is right to raise issues that relate to his constituency.

I do, however, hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates there is a due and proper process to be followed in the consideration of local planning, and that given the Secretary of State’s quasi-judicial role in the planning system, I am unable to comment on the detail of individual minerals local plans. I am sure he knew that I would say that. The Government are committed to ensuring the independence of the examination process for local plans, and local people must have confidence that the examination of local plans for their communities is fair and open, and that decisions are made impartially. I understand that Warwickshire County Council is proposing to submit the Warwickshire minerals plan to the Planning Inspectorate in the coming weeks. Therefore, neither I nor my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—with whom I know he has had many exchanges on this issue—are in a position to directly address the specific concerns raised by his constituents. Consideration of the Warwickshire minerals plan will be done in accordance with the planning system.

I am, however, happy to discuss the crucially important topic of protecting our constituents, local communities and the environment from any impacts of development. National planning policy and guidance requires mineral planning authorities to plan for a steady and adequate supply of aggregates, including crushed rock, sand and gravel, by designating specific sites, preferred areas or areas of search. Designating specific sites provides more certainty about when and where development will take place. However, I fully understand the concerns that people such as the residents of Barford have when development is proposed in their local area, particularly where these concerns include potential development that may result in environmental impacts on their communities, homes and businesses.

We therefore need to be sure that we have clear and strong environmental regulation and planning controls that work for the environment, for people and for business. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is well aware, the Environment Agency and local planning authorities each have distinct roles with regard to pollution and planning controls to enable this to happen. Anyone with concerns must be confident that the system is designed to listen to those concerns. That is why all the steps of our planning system are supported by a public consultation process through which stakeholders may consider the proposals and voice any concerns they may have to the local planning authority. As we heard, over 1,000 people responded to Warwickshire’s minerals local plan consultation in 2018. Clearly, that is a large number of people for the small area of the village.

Once the local planning authority has prepared and consulted on a local plan, as Warwickshire has done, it is submitted to the Secretary of State, who will appoint an inspector to carry out an independent examination. This process is dealt with by the Planning Inspectorate. The examination will assess whether the plan has been prepared in accordance with the legal and procedural requirements and whether it is sound. The four tests of soundness are set out in the national planning policy framework.

I totally accept that process and how the cogs of local government and so on turn, but my question is actually around the assumptions. Those of us who are quite close to the changes in the whole construction industry and the sorts of housing that we will have in future would say, “Will we be requiring these materials in the same quantity as we have done in the past when modular housing and other forms of construction are coming through and therefore the dependence on and need for sand and gravel will be greatly reduced?”

The hon. Gentleman makes a sound point, but that is all assumption, and we have no data. Councils have to work on data in preparing their five-year plan for housing allocation, as they have to with minerals. That is why we have a system for how these things work. They might change in future, but that is all just supposition, if I might be so bold as to say that.

The planning inspector will consider the evidence provided by the local planning authority to support the plan and any representations put forward by local people and other interested parties. The proposed allocation at Barford will be considered as part of that examination, and the inspector will take into account the issues and viewpoints raised in the representations made, including those from residents in Barford regarding the allocation at Wasperton farm. The residents can make the case about whether this amount of crushed gravel is needed right now, but the council has a process for deciding whether it wants to abide by that guidance.

Unfortunately, by its very nature, new development, whether it be housing or mineral extraction, will have some impact 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. The national planning policy framework includes a requirement for local plans to be accompanied by a sustainability appraisal, which plays an important part in demonstrating that the local plan reflects sustainability objectives. That has to be taken into account.

The sustainability appraisal of the Warwickshire minerals plan incorporates a strategic environmental assessment, which included an assessment of the site allocation at Wasperton farm. A habitats regulations assessment was also undertaken, which considered the potential of significant effects on habitat sites or species located within Warwickshire and the vicinity. The proposed mineral local plan policy for the allocation at Wasperton farm includes a number of requirements in relation to access, environmental matters and phased restoration of the site. Those considerations will all need to be taken into account if individual planning applications are made.

Given that the proposed site allocation at Wasperton farm is pretty large—85 hectares—any future planning application for quarry activities will need to be accompanied by an environmental impact assessment. That process assesses the potential for environmental effects, including those to land, including agricultural land; air quality, which needs to be considered by the local authority against the local air quality plan; dust; the health of local residents; noise levels; transport; the landscape; and local and long-distance views, which I understand was raised by the residents of Barford. It would be remiss of me not to highlight that the process also gives consideration to the potential positive impacts of such a development on the local economy, employment and suchlike.

Similar to the local plan-making process, the environmental impact assessment process requires consultation with stake- holders. That process will allow Warwickshire County Council to determine any planning application, should one be submitted. The local planning authority will also have the power to set conditions to which any approved application must adhere, and the local planning authority can take action if it is deemed that any condition is breached.

I fully appreciate that I have been unable to address the specific concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman and the residents of Barford, but it is right that he is raising those concerns on their behalf, as their Member of Parliament. That is the right thing to do, and I would probably do the same for the residents of Taunton Deane. I hope that my explanation of the planning and permitting system and the measures by which we seek to manage any potential environmental impacts has provided some reassurance.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.