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Lea Castle Farm Quarry

Volume 673: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Lea Castle Farm Quarry.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and to be in Westminster Hall, even as it evacuates so only the three of us are left, alongside you and your good team. I completely understand, as this very specific local issue of the Lea Castle quarry in my constituency is not of huge interest to other people.

It is quite ironic to have this Minister here responding to this debate. I look back on a January Sunday afternoon in 2004, when he and I were in the final of the Wyre Forest Conservative Association competition to become the parliamentary candidate for the constituency. I beat him, but it could easily have been the Minister standing here, championing the cause for his constituents— as I know he does very well—and me elsewhere.

This is a highly specific issue and I appreciate that the Minister cannot necessarily go into details because of the planning application, but the strength of feeling about it in my constituency is incredibly strong. Basically, the application is to excavate 105 acres of Lea Castle farm in my constituency, bang in between the villages of Wolverley and Cookley and to the north of Kidderminster. The quarry, as I say, is 105 acres and is set to be excavated over a 10-year period, with a requirement to restore the land to its original agricultural use at the end of that period. The family who own Lea Castle farm have entered into an agreement with NRS Aggregates, which will undertake the excavation.

Before I get to the meat of my points, I want to talk about a few points of agreement, because there are certain things that I do agree with. First, I completely agree that we need to quarry; it is essential that we can dig out aggregates and building materials to meet the Government’s target of building 300,000 homes over the period of this Parliament, and 1 million over the complete forecast period. The materials have to come from somewhere, and holes in the ground are as good a place as any, although it is worth bearing in mind that recycling aggregates is something we should do.

Secondly, I understand that, to lessen the impact on the environment, the nearer a quarry is to any development, the better; fewer miles driven by lorries lowers damage to the environment. The Wyre Forest local plan sets ambitions for around 5,400 homes between now and 2032, the vast majority of which will need aggregate resources.

Thirdly, the planning application is designed to be sensitive. It proposes a phased process, with a central plant being established for the full 10-year period, and five processes lasting, I guess, two years each, with each successive phase being required to infill the previous phase to reduce the impact on the local area. It is also worth bearing in mind that there are requirements to have a left-only exit from the site, thereby avoiding the village of Wolverley and all the schools in the locality.

Fourthly, there are the community benefits from £2 per tonne local community tax, known as the aggregates levy. That is fantastic; it was brought in in 2002 and mitigates the impact on the local community, so that the community can benefit from it. However, I would say that the Government made a mistake in 2010 when as a result of the spending review they ended the aggregates levy sustainability fund. That fund brought together industry, environmentalists and local communities to restore areas affected by extraction and to transform degraded sites back into areas that could be used by the local community.

Those are the areas where I broadly agree with the Government’s position, but there are many areas of contention. First is the location of the quarry, which is bang in between two villages—Wolverley to the west, directly on its western extreme, and Cookley to the north; to the south is Sion Hill, a suburb of Kidderminster. There are four schools within a mile’s distance of the centre of the site: Wolverley Church of England Secondary School is 0.9 of a mile away, Cookley Sebright Primary School is five eighths of a mile away, St Oswald’s CE Primary School in Kidderminster is just over half a mile away and Heathfield Knoll School’s nursery is on the other side of the road from the edge of the second phase of the site. Wolverley Sebright Primary School is just over a mile away, but, as I say, that is measuring from the centre of the site; the full extent of the 105 acres means that the site it is much closer to some of those schools.

Within the immediate locality are three communities: Cookley has 2,034 people on the electoral roll, with 1,114 homes; Wolverley has 1,820 people on the electoral roll and Sion Hill has 760. A lot of people live very close to this site, and despite the proposal’s being low impact, it is inevitable that they will suffer from noise pollution, dust pollution and the impact on highways. Of course, I completely understand that there is an enormous amount of legislation surrounding, for example, the pollution put up by silicates as they come off these sites, and there is a requirement to suppress them. One would hope that NRS Aggregates would comply fully with that legislation, and I expect it to do so, but it is possible that there will be accidents. While accidents are wholly to be avoided, and any punishment is the right thing to do, the problem is that, while it is possible to get away with an accident in an area with nobody living around it, the middle of a highly populated area is a really bad place to have one. That creates a greater threat to the local community.

Finally, we have a riding stables, which is privately owned, right in the middle of the site. The riding stables will be quarried all around over the 10-year period. Their lives will be appallingly badly affected. The whole planning application has profound impacts on the local community and the local community is very heavily against it.

Looking to the future, the planning application is merely for a 10-year period, to extract 3 million tonnes of aggregates from a 105-acre site. I recently met Mr Louis Strong, who seemed a perfectly reasonable and nice chap. He is the son of the site’s owner; he is 36 years old and wants to be a farmer. The site has been in the family for three generations, and while his father is a successful entrepreneur doing land deals who now lives in Jersey, Mr Strong strikes me as being a very sincere individual who genuinely wants to farm. I think his wishes are at odds with his father’s. His father previously applied to secure planning permission for the site to be a golf course; although planning was approved, the plans were shelved for one reason or another. The farm is around 250 acres, and although they farm one or two other sites locally, the farm seems only marginally viable. Louis Strong is understandably seeking alternative cash generation schemes from his farm. Farm diversification is a wholly understandable and desirable option, and Mr Strong wants to continue farming the site once it has returned to agricultural use.

I used to be an investment banker. Among other things, I used to invest in and study aggregate companies and extraction companies. I am absolutely convinced of the sincerity of Mr Strong’s desire to be a farmer, but the key principal in the application is NRS Aggregates Ltd, which in this case—it does a number of different things—is entirely in the business of extracting value from the ground. I know the company will be eager to secure the maximum output from the quarry. To deliver its fiduciary duty to shareholders—having secured the big heave of getting the initial planning permission across the line— it will almost certainly seek to maximise the output beyond that stated in its initial low-impact intentions.

There are too many variables that could change decisions over the coming 10 years. As we know, extraction rates are determined by market demand, and the cost to developers of sand and gravel are a function of market price and delivery cost. We are proposing in the Budget to increase the demand for aggregates by encouraging the building of 300,000 houses per year over the next few years. That can result only in an increase in the price of the aggregate and a subsequent increase in quarrying. Although the argument is that local demand means there is a local market, it requires the demand locally to match in every way the continuous extraction of 300 tonnes per annum. How can anyone predict at this stage the exact flow of local demand? It requires synergy for a decade, which is very unlikely to happen.

Should there be a period of low development locally, the quarry will have to find markets further afield or slow production. That would bring into question the end date of the process. Similarly, if demand is high, will the quarry beef up production and seek to vary its planning permission in order to excavate at a higher, and thus more aggravating, rate? That will cause greater concern and upset to the local community. If market rates for sand and gravel continue to rise, there will be a greater imperative to dig more. If the company seeks to change the planning grant to extract more aggregates from the area, it will create more hassle for my community. In any event, the average six-room home requires around 100 tonnes of sand and gravel—in Wyre Forest, that equates to a total demand for 5,400 tonnes of sand and gravel, compared with 3 million tonnes being excavated. The vast majority of the quarry’s output will actually have to go out of the district.

Looking at the green issues, the local plan has a variety of sites across the district. Meeting low-emission targets for delivery could easily result in a subsequent application to change the left-only exit policy from the site, meaning that lorries would drive past a number of schools and through villages. On this particular argument, the environment’s interests are at odds with those of the local community. Did I mention that the quarry is smack in the middle of the green belt? It is quite offensive in terms of the green belt legislation.

There are plenty of examples of quarries that have submitted subsequent planning applications to enhance their size. Clifton quarry in Worcestershire was extended in 2016. In 2017, Willingdon quarry sought to enable the production of a further 2.07 million tonnes of sand and gravel. There was a proposed extension to restore Chadwich Lane quarry in Bromsgrove. There was an extension to Barton Quarry Western to extract 6.3 million tonnes of sand and gravel over a period of 10 years. These are all extensions, not the absolute planning. At Newington quarry there was a proposal for an extension to sand and gravel extraction. The Norton Bottoms quarry applied for a four-phase extension, Hints quarry for a variation of conditions, and Methlick quarry for an extension for a further 10 years—and on it goes. Quarries change their planning applications because they want to extend what is going on. Lea Castle Farm quarry is already hideously offensive to the local community. What will it become if NRS Aggregates decides it wants to maximise the output from this opportunity?

The application is due to go before Worcestershire County Council’s planning committee later this year, possibly in May. Officers are committed to ensuring that planning law is upheld. It may well be that they recommend approval. All of us know that planning committee members are prevented from predetermination, so I have no idea how the planning committee will vote, but I think that if its members take the recommendation of the officers, it is not impossible that this may get passed. If the application fails, the refusal will almost certainly be challenged. I warn the Minister that, in the event of a successful appeal and the inspector passing the application, I will ask him to call in the decision to get the Secretary of State to look at it.

There are plenty of examples where planning has been refused in the past. For example, a proposed expansion of Wangford quarry in Suffolk was blocked given its location in an area of outstanding natural beauty. The planning inspector found that there were no exceptional circumstances to justify the expansion of mineral extraction on the site. At the Thrislington quarry in County Durham, residents fought Lafarge Aggregates’ proposed extension to the quarry. Officers had recommended that the planning committee did not object to the development, but councillors blocked the quarry due to the unprecedented level of objection to the scheme, with 1,366 individual letters and objections. It is entirely possible that at Lea Castle Farm quarry, an application may have a similar number of objections.

At Bengeo quarry in Hertford, campaigners were fighting plans to quarry an extra 1.25 million tonnes of sand and gravel from its field. The planning inspector rejected plans for the quarry, and the developer appealed to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State backed the views of residents and the planning inspector decided that the quarry had the potential to threaten water supplies and loss of amenities. More important, and very similar to what we face at Lea Castle farm, his concerns were also raised due to health risks from silica dust in the air and significant damage to open space and the green belt. Similarly, at Fullamoor quarry in Oxfordshire, an Oxfordshire based company, Hills Quarry Products, wanted to use land over 12 and a half years to extract 2.5 million tonnes of earth. The application was finally rejected in 2017. The company reapplied in 2018 and the council again turned the application down, concerned about the green belt and severe highways impact; that was for a smaller and lower impact development.

I am not against quarrying, but I am against quarrying in people’s backyards in semi-urban areas. Canada has a rule forbidding quarrying within 600 metres of schools and residences. I know there is an argument that there is more available space there, but none the less the point is still well made. No part of this quarry is not within a 600-metre radius of a school or property adjacent to this site.

Today, I want to make the Minister aware that, if the planning inspectors put the application through, I will ask him to call it in and give all his support to help the Secretary of State come to a sensible decision—in case of doubt, “sensible” means backing my constituents. I also want to ask the Minister to review planning laws on quarries. I completely accept that we need quarries, but we cannot have quarries so close to people’s private residences, businesses, and schools. It does not make any sense. If Canada can have a 600 metre rule, why can we not have something similar here? I look forward to hearing how the Minister would have dealt with this had he been elected Member of Parliament for Wyre Forest all those years ago.

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 the Member for Wyre Forest (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.