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Buncefield Explosion

Volume 697: debated on Monday 17 December 2007

My honourable friend the Minister for Local Government (John Healey) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 12 June 2007, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made a Statement to the House in which she outlined the independent investigation procedure that was taking place into the incident and the availability of reports produced by the investigation board, including recommendations relating to the design and operation of the fuel storage site. She said that a report with recommendations on emergency planning, response and recovery was in preparation.

In response to a recent request (Business Questions on 6 December) from the honourable Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), the Leader of the House has asked for a further Statement on progress.

The Buncefield Major Incident Investigation Board published its report and recommendations on emergency preparedness for, response to and recovery from major incidents on 17 July. It has also published a report on safety and environmental standards for fuel storage sites, and one from its Explosion Mechanism Advisory Group that advocates a joint industry research project be initiated to explain the severity of the explosion that occurred at the site. Copies of these, and other earlier reports, are available from the official investigation website at www.buncefieldinvestigation.gov.uk.

The report published on 17 July made a number of recommendations in four areas: reassessing major incident scenarios; managing major incidents on-site; preparing for and responding to major incidents off-site; and planning for recovery from major incidents.

Although set in the context of the Buncefield incident, the recommendations, particularly those relating to emergency preparedness and response, can be applied beyond fuel storage and distribution sites. Many of these are complex and far-reaching. They need to be considered at a wider, national level and reflect the co-ordinated views of the different departments, and the devolved Administrations, that have responsibility for them. The Government will be responding formally to these recommendations in due course.

I can comment on some issues that are specific to the Buncefield depot.

The report recommends that all relevant organisations should be involved with recovery at an early stage. Such joint working has already delivered financial and practical support to aid recovery through the Bellwin scheme (which was extended beyond its usual duration), and ongoing support from the East of England Development Agency which has also provided financial assistance of £4.4 million to date.

The East of England Development Agency is also working closely with stakeholders developing proposals to designate the area as a new town improvement district. Under this programme local partners aim to bring together a combination of funding mechanisms that could help finance some of the major improvements identified in the Maylands Business Park masterplan.

Hemel Hempstead is one of 21 urban areas identified in the Secretary of State’s proposed changes to the East of England Plan, the regional strategy, as key centres for development and change at which additional development will be focused. The proposed changes include a requirement for an additional 12,000 homes in Dacorum, including expansion of Hemel Hempstead.

As part of the Comprehensive Spending Review outcomes, the Government announced £1.7 billion of investment in the growth areas, growth points and eco-towns over the CSR period. Local authorities in existing growth areas and growth points were invited to prepare programmes of development setting out what additional infrastructure and other funding they sought from the Government to support housing delivery over the next three years (2008-2011). In view of the housing targets set out in the Secretary of State’s proposed changes Dacorum Borough Council was invited to submit a programme of development for the support it would require to deliver the proposed housing growth, with the intention that, subject to the final RSS, Dacorum would be brought into the growth areas programme to allow it to receive infrastructure and delivery support from the growth fund.

On 4 December, my right honourable friend the Minister for Housing announced £732 million for local authorities in growth areas and growth points for infrastructure to support housing growth. Based on its submitted programme of development, Dacorum Borough Council has received a provisional award of £2,554,062 capital and £159,377 revenue in 2008-09, and an indicative provisional award of £3,575,687 capital and £239,034 revenue for the period 2009-10 to 2010-11. In line with local government White Paper principles, the Government’s new approach to growth funding gives local authorities flexibility in how they use the funding they receive, so it can be used where they judge it will be most effective. This provisional funding award is subject to Dacorum being brought into the growth areas as a result of the final form of the regional spatial strategy.

The honourable member for St Albans (Anne Main MP) recently asked about the reopening of the Buncefield site. In his reply the Minister of State for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform stated that the Buncefield site is of strategic importance for the supply of aviation fuel to Heathrow and Gatwick airports. He stated that a number of applications for planning permission to restore operations at the Buncefield site had been submitted to Dacorum Borough Council and that at these had yet to be determined. (Hansard 26 November 2007, col 119W)

On 29 November, Dacorum Borough Council’s Development Control Committee considered these applications. The committee resolved that decisions on five of the six applications considered should be delegated to officials with a view to planning permission being approved, subject to completion of a planning obligation under Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Approval would be for storage and supply of aviation fuel only. The planning obligations would restrict storage and supply of ground fuels until a future date. Negotiations on the planning obligations are a matter for Dacorum and the oil companies, on which it would be inappropriate to comment. Similarly, the future use and development of the Buncefield site is matter for the oil companies and, in the first instance, Dacorum Borough Council to whom applications for planning permission would be made.

The Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency are statutory consultees in the planning process and will ensure the planning authority has expert advice should applications be made. They are also joint competent authorities for major hazard sites, regulated under the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations, before operations were able to resume the site operators would have to satisfy these authorities that the site would adhere to the highest operating standards.