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Mr. Dave Anderson (Blaydon): I start by wishing a merry Christmas to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Speaker, the staff and the Members, particularly those who have stopped here for the graveyard shift this afternoon. I especially want to wish a merry Christmas to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). I hope that he has a nice day here tomorrow; I certainly intend to be getting off a train in Durham before 10 o'clock tonight.
I want to return to a matter that I first raised in the House in the summer recess Adjournment debate in 2005. I expressed genuine concerns about plans that had been put to Gateshead borough council to allow a local contractor to mine open-cast coal from a site in my constituency known as Skons Park. I do not intend to recall all the points that I made on that occasion, but I want to state on the record that the issues raised that day are at least as relevant now as they were then. To some extent, this is an update, but for the vast majority of people in my area, it is an update that they would rather not have.
Following my debate and with the support of thousands of people in the area, the local council, in unanimous agreement, threw out the application in March 2006. The relief and joy at that decision was shared not only by thousands of people living in and around the Derwent valley, but by the National Trust, which owns the nearby Gibside estate, of which more later. Gateshead council, Derwentside council, Durham county council, English Heritage, local political parties, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Wildlife Trust, the Woodland Trust and Friends of the Earth were all opposed to the application.
Special mention should also be made of the campaign run by the group DRAMA, Derwentside Residents Against Mining Application, led by local man Eddie Stringer, and the Derwent Valley Preservation Society, led by Alderman Pitch Wilson, a man with a hugely impressive track record in defending our corner of this green and pleasant land going back well over 30 years and, coincidentally, in that time seeing off nine open-cast applications.
Sadly, the relief and joy that we felt was short-lived. I wrote to contractors asking them to accept the unanimous decision of Gateshead council, to reflect on the massive public outcry backed by the various bodies I have mentioned and not to pursue their application. But there is coal in them thar hills, and the contractors want to get their hands on it. More worryingly, local campaigners are convinced that Skons Park is nothing less than the thin end of a very thick wedge - a wedge that would see the exploitation of the land in the valley and open-cast pits popping up the length and breadth of one of the most important green areas in the north of England.
The Derwent valley is one of the green lungs of an area that has at one end the foothills of the north Pennines and at the other the A1 western bypass, the biggest shopping mall in Europe and the whole Tyneside conurbation. It is a genuinely green lung, feeding our region in a way that all the promises from the contractors of successful reclamation will never achieve. We are convinced that if the planning inspectorate in its wisdom overturns Gateshead's decisions, and if the Secretary of State accepts that position, our valley will become a Klondike for open-cast coal operators.
I believe that if the inspectorate and/or the Secretary of State applied in full the principles of sustainable development as laid out in minerals planning guidance note 3 regarding national land use policy considerations, they could not overturn Gateshead's decision. From the so-called evidence put forward so far by the contractors, I do not see that they can show, as the document states, that their proposal is environmentally sound or that it can ever be made so. Likewise, hardly anyone in the local community believes that the proposals would in any way outweigh the detrimental impacts inherent in the scheme.
Further, we have as yet seen no acknowledgement from the contractors of the very existence of a site of special scientific interest, let alone any details of how they would intend to meet their obligations in regard to the SSSI at Leap Mill burn. However, this is the main lesson of my steep learning curve in trying to make sense of planning policy in this country: any organisation can make an application to exploit a piece of land which would have a drastic impact on the environment, on the rapidly developing tourist industry, on an intricate web of interlinking wildlife areas and on one of the great historical treasures of our nation, and it can do so without putting forward real evidence to deal with the genuine concerns expressed by local people and organisations committed to the region.
Companies go through the initial stages of the process, and I cannot for the life of me begin to understand why we allow them to make such serious applications without having full and detailed evidence to back up their claims at the local council level. The fact that companies effectively view the application process at council level as little more than an inconvenience that has to be put up with before they give the real story at a national level is an insult to local people, a massive burden on already overstretched public sector workers and a massive waste of public money.
Let me be clear: if contractors cannot produce high-quality evidence at a local level, they should not be allowed to proceed further. If it is good enough for the inspectorate, it should be good enough for the council and local people. The situation also means that any persons or organisations wanting to resist the application are playing catch-up in their attempts to find and challenge the applicant's evidence.
I use as an example the submission of a case put forward by the National Trust. As the National Trust states:
"It is our duty to protect our holdings for ever, for everyone."
That is a very strong remit. I firmly believe that no organisation or contractor should hold back facts or evidence or be slow in coming forward to give information in relation to any planning application that may impact on National Trust property, but the following quotations about the Gibside estate and the hassle that the National Trust experiences in meeting its commitments show that, sadly, that is not the case.
The National Trust says:
"The information the Trust has been provided with by the appellant to date has been an initial Scoping Report, which did not refer to the impact of the proposal on Gibside Estate; The planning application was accompanied by an Environmental Statement...However, the Environmental Statement did not provide sufficient information to satisfy the Trust that there would not be an adverse impact on the Gibside Estate. Nor did it provide enough information for the Trust to be able to assess the possibilities for mitigation, since no adverse impact was identified.
The appellants then submitted supplementary information documents, which did not provide evidence to clarify any of our initial concerns.
At the time of preparing this statement, no further information has been provided to the Trust by"
"despite the fact that we have, from the outset, asked for proper, detailed information to enable us to fully assess the impacts of this proposal.
Our case at present, in some areas (in particular, hydrology, noise, vibration and dust) is difficult to clarify due to continued lack of information.
We are unable to make a sound judgement on a proposal which provides insufficient information on impacts and mitigation.
The Trust will demonstrate that due to lack of information provided by the appellant, it is impossible to judge the impact of the proposal...on site, and therefore off site.
The Trust will demonstrate that there is not enough information to ascertain the impact on hydro morphology of the area, and therefore, not enough information to judge the impact on the surrounding ecology on the Gibside Estate, including the SSSI, the Leap Mill Burn, and other spring fed and groundwater systems.
The Trust will refer to (given the lack of information provided) the detrimental impact the restoration scheme would have on the Gibside Estate".
On noise, the trust had to report that
"The information supplied by the appellant...has, to date, been insufficient to allay our concerns"
and it said:
"The Trust do not have enough evidence to satisfy ourselves that there would not be a detrimental impact to...Gibside Estate".
That was the position as of the date on which the National Trust had to make its statement of case.
Surely that is not on - the system is supposed to be an open, democratic, accountable way to make serious decisions about the future of our country. There should not be any last-minute gamesmanship, in which contractors pull rabbits out of the hat, and evidence should not be produced so late in the process that there is no time to evaluate it properly.
To reiterate, if in relation to the evidence supporting the claim the application is not strong enough at the initial stage, the application should not go further. We will continue to campaign against the proposal, because it is the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is the wrong thing because it will have a detrimental impact on people who live in the surrounding area. It will produce much heavier traffic on already overburdened roads, and it will lead to disruption to people's daily lives. It is in the wrong place, because it is very close to one of our glorious historical treasures. The place has undergone a transformation, and it currently has record numbers of both visitors and employees. The company has so far failed to give evidence that assures the National Trust that its land and property will be safe, especially from flooding, vibration and noise.
Finally, it is the wrong time, because the North-East is redefining its natural areas, as that is the key to developing its economy for the future. After centuries of putting up with the negative impacts of coal exploitation, both human and environmental, we have turned things around, and we are attracting young people and modern businesses to the area. At long last, we are developing a sustainable tourist industry. For example, in my constituency, red kites have been re-introduced after an absence of 160 years - that is a concrete commitment to preserving our heritage, and we are using our heritage to develop our future. We do not need to destroy our land and way of life for a capful of coal. The project would produce less than 500,000 tonnes of coal in three years.
Mr. Hoyle: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and the sympathy of the House is with him on the issue, because everything in the system is geared for people who wish to rape the countryside - that is what we are talking about - and it works at the expense of the people who live there. Does he agree that there ought to be a better balance, so that local people and organisations are listened to, and does he agree that the power of appeal should be taken away from people who want only to make money from the application?
Mr. Anderson: I certainly agree. As a result of the process, I have learned that, month after month, the contractors got away with not having the information. They could have done the necessary work beforehand; they should have the information when they come before the inspectorate, and when they come before the council. That way, local people could make decisions with all the information before them.
As I say, the project would produce 500,000 tonnes of coal in three years, which is a pittance when we consider collieries in the USA, which now produce 1 million tonnes of coal a month. People will accuse me of nimbyism, and I plead guilty. Our backyard led the world in the industrial revolution, and we are plagued with the scars of sand quarries, steel mills, landfill sites and pit heaps, dating as far back as Elizabethan times. We want to move forward, and the development of the biggest shopping centre in Europe, the opening of world-class concert venues and art galleries, the siting of the icon that is the angel of the north and the planting and expansion of the Great North forest are a testament to our new way forward.
I fervently hope that the inspectorate will see the sense in our case, and will not give in. We will lobby the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government if the inspectorate does not rule against the decision, and we hope that she shows the same grit as her predecessor in the 1970s, when he overruled the inspectorate's decision on the application that was the first foray by coal speculators in the Derwent valley. I hope that we can expose the charade that is being acted out in the name of planning in this country. Local people have to live with the outcome of the decisions, and applicants should be forced by law, if necessary, to produce real evidence at the local stage of the process.
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