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Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [28 February],

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

Line 31, at end add--
'( ) The committee shall have power to appoint a sub-committee, which shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, and to report to the committee from time to time.
( ) The committee shall have power to report from time to time the minutes of evidence taken before the sub-committee.
( ) The quorum of the sub-committee shall be three.'.-- [Mr. Betts.]

Hon. Members: Object.


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [31 January],

Hon. Members: Object.


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [23 January],

Hon. Members: Object.

8 Mar 2001 : Column 517


Motion made,

Line 40, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 50, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 52, at the end insert the words:--
'(4A) notwithstanding paragraphs (2) and (4) above, where more than two committees or sub-committees appointed under this order meet concurrently in accordance with paragraph (4)(e) above, the quorum of each such committee or sub-committee shall be two.'--[Mr. Betts.]

Hon. Members: Object.

8 Mar 2001 : Column 518

Fuller's Earth Mining (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Betts.]

7 pm

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): Nothing that I have to say this evening will surprise the Minister because I have given him a copy of what I intend to say. This discussion has been going on between his Department and myself for the past three years. It concerns the plans of Steetley Woburn Bentonite Ltd. irrevocably to despoil the landscape of one of the most attractive parts of Bedfordshire so that its foreign parent company can make marginally more profit.

Ministers have told me that they cannot interfere and that it is for Bedfordshire county council to determine the matter. The council has acted: it has rightly refused Steetley's application to surface quarry in one of the most attractive parts of my constituency.

Bedfordshire county council's refusal stated:

I have read a number of planning refusals in the past, but rarely one so comprehensively damning. Steetley's application is in conflict with the minerals and waste local plan, the Bedfordshire structure plan and the Mid-Bedfordshire local plan.

We now hear that Steetley is to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate and will plead that all these planning policies can be overturned because it can prove that there is a need for fuller's earth and that it is in the national interest to quarry it. I am also told that it will claim DTI support for such an assertion.

First, will the Minister confirm that no statement has been made by a Minister or official which Steetley could pray in aid? Secondly, I intend to show that no such statement should be made. I then hope, in the light of this evidence and the county council's decision, that the Minister will feel able to confirm that no support will be given to Steetley in future and that in the last resort the Secretary of State would call the application in.

Steetley is a wholly owned subsidiary of a private Spanish-owned minerals and mining company, TOLSA S.A., to which the profits revert. Another player in this saga is Ciba Speciality Chemicals (UK), formerly Allied Colloids--a Swiss-owned company.

The product that Steetley wishes to surface quarry is fuller's earth, which is processed with other materials into bentonite. It then has a number of applications, including being used for cat litter. Fuller's earth has been extracted locally continuously since the 1950s and the quarry was most recently extended in 1993 on a marginally won appeal. However, that work took place in an area that was not visible to most people.

8 Mar 2001 : Column 519

The current application, however, is for a site of 58 hectares--146 acres--of highly visible open farmland. It would remove the whole of a wooded ridge between Woburn and Aspley Heath and Woburn Sands, and it is part of the famous Greensands ridge. It is greenbelt land, designated as an area of great landscape value--an AGLV--and it is close to two sites of special scientific interest. The nearest residential property is only 10 metres away. [Interruption.] I am delighted that I have been joined by many other Members, who have come from the Standing Committee that is considering the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. That shows just how important the issue is, not just to my constituents but to the House.

The effects of the excavation would be profound. Some years ago, in the view of the inspector, the need for the mineral marginally outweighed the effect on the AGLV, but he said:

He continued:

Those were his comments on the refusal of the Laporte application in 1988.

Things are different now. First, there is not the need for the site, as I will show; secondly, there are alternatives, as I will prove; and, thirdly, the damage that will be caused will be highly visible, catastrophic and irreversible, and that is not in the national interest.

Let me provide some background to the issue. The total world production of bentonite is 15 million tonnes per annum. Woburn processes just 30,000 tonnes--less than one third of 1 per cent. of that. Some 92 per cent. of Woburn fuller's earth is processed to form bentonite and sold to Ciba, and 94 per cent. of this product is exported for use in overseas paper mills. Only 12.6 per cent. of United Kingdom paper production uses Woburn bentonite; 87.4 per cent. does not.

Ciba obtains 70 per cent. of its bentonite from other sources because Woburn bentonite is not the preferred material in all its applications. The other sources in Europe and the USA insist that the performance of their material is in no way inferior to that of Woburn clay and they insist that they have the capacity to meet any increase in demand from Ciba. Their general claim is that they can beat Woburn on performance, but not always on price. Ciba itself admits that it has

It adds that it needs it

Therefore, we know that the definition of the word "need", as used by Ciba, means marginally more profitable. However research shows that Ciba has access to alternative, comparable and superior technology, which has been developed over the past few years and is used in paper making worldwide. Microparticle retention using bentonite systems is giving way to newer, cheaper and more efficient technologies. These synthetic water-soluble polymers have no environmental disadvantages. In an advert dated 1997, Cytec described its polyflex

8 Mar 2001 : Column 520

micropolymer as "Better than Bentonite." It is used on four continents and lowers the cost per tonne of paper by 30 to 40 per cent.

In September 2000, Ciba bought Cytec's retention and drainage acids, including the polyflex micropolymer, so it believes in the system. Ciba, which at the time was Allied Colloids, has a patented formula called hydrocol, which, when taken out in 1986, referred only to bentonite. In 1998, it extended it to include colloidal silica. A more recent patent extended it again to include "other anionic bridging coagulant", thus widening Ciba's options still further to include the possibility of an organic microparticle akin to the Cytec micropolymer polyflex.

Steetley says that its product is unique, but the facts deny that. Laporte Industries, which is about to mine 176,000 tonnes at Baulking in Oxfordshire--enough for the next decade--maintained in May 1999 that those deposits


So much for the argument about need.

The next Alice-in-Wonderland argument that Steetley may adduce is that of the environment. It may claim that bentonite makes the recycling of paper more efficient. In its site visitors' guide, it states:

To achieve that, it wants to dig up thousands of tonnes of soil, chop down a 260 m band of thousands of trees, cause dust, noise and pollution for 20 years and blight the countryside and the lives of thousands of people.

What of the national interest? We know that only a fraction of fuller's earth is used in United Kingdom paper making and that alternatives are available. The majority is exported, so there can be no national interest. Nor are the sums involved so large that their loss would even be noticed. The despoiling of Woburn would be worth £2 million a year to Steetley's parent company, but its effect on Woburn would be profound in terms of noise, dust, loss of amenity, disturbance of roads, destruction of the landscape and loss of jobs.

Woburn is the second-largest tourist destination in Bedfordshire. Walking in the area is a major visitor attraction. Anything detrimental to the visual attraction of the area will deter visitors. Eight circular walks through the area that is covered by the planning application begin and end in Woburn, and there is a new millennium walk. Whereas only two Woburn residents depend on Steetley for their livelihood, 170 Woburn residents are employed in tourist-dependent businesses.

There is no need for the site, as I have shown, and there is demonstrably no national interest at stake, as I have proved. I await the Minister's assurances that this shoddy, shabby and selfish campaign by Steetley will get no help from a Labour Government.

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