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7.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) on securing this important debate. I also thank him sincerely for his

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courtesy in giving me such detailed notice of the issues that he wanted to raise. I shall do my best to address as many of the points that he raised as possible. First, however, I should explain why fuller's earth is an important mineral resource.

Although fuller's earth has been extracted from the Woburn area since 1952, only one site is currently operating. It is, as the hon. Gentleman identified, operated by Steetley Woburn Bentonite Ltd. That site is expected to run out of permitted reserves by 2004. The company applied on 3 April 2000 for planning permission to extend its workings to a nearby site at Wavendon Heath South.

Bedfordshire county council considered the application. Its views are set out in the special development control committee report of 1 February 2001. The council refused planning permission on the basis that the applicant had not demonstrated an overriding need or economic benefit arising from the proposals when set against the significant environmental impacts of extraction. I understand that an appeal has now been lodged against that decision. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot comment on that appeal because there is a legal need for impartiality on the part of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I am absolutely certain that the hon. Gentleman understands the extreme caution that I have to exercise in the quasi-judicial position that I hold, which explains why no statement of support or opposition will be made by Ministers. However, within those constraints, I want to try to answer the two specific questions that the hon. Gentleman put to me.

First, the hon. Gentleman asked for confirmation that no statement had been made by a Minister or official which Steetley could, as he put it, pray in aid. The most precise answer to that is that the local council asked the Department of Trade and Industry to comment on the economic importance of the application. The DTI said that the development would make a positive contribution to the economy, but did not indicate that the development was of national importance.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asked me whether in the last resort the Secretary of State would call the application in. Again, the most precise answer that I can give to that question is that Parliament has given local planning authorities the responsibility for development control in the first instance. The Secretary of State is therefore very selective about calling in applications to determine himself. However, it is open to the public to ask him to do so. If such a request is made, the Secretary of State will consider the particular circumstances of that case in reaching his decision.

I hope now that it will be for the benefit of the House if I try to place this issue in its economic, environmental and planning context. Bentonite produced from Woburn fuller's earth is used almost exclusively by the paper industry. Steetley Woburn Bentonite Ltd., which produces the bentonite, sells almost all of it to Ciba Speciality Chemicals for use in two of its patented products. Ciba, in turn, exports bentonite to the paper industry worldwide. Woburn bentonite is currently used in about one sixth of total UK paper and paper board products.

Fuller's earth has other industrial and even domestic applications, however. It is a bonding agent for silica sand used in foundry moulds. It is a suspension agent for

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oil-well drilling muds and agricultural sprays. It has various civil engineering applications, for instance supporting excavations. It can be used to refine edible oils and fat. Its domestic applications include face packs. In some countries, such as the United States, clumping pet litter is a growth market, now worth more than $700 million each year. Use of part of the production as pet litter is often emphasised by those who oppose extraction of this mineral, but the important industrial and construction uses should not be understated.

Fuller's earth has been extracted in small quantities since Roman times for cleaning and de-oiling wool. The 20th century saw an expansion of uses. Between 1970 and 1990, the UK was producing about 200,000 tonnes each year to supply both the domestic and export markets. Production has been falling since 1994, possibly reflecting the exhaustion of permitted reserves. In 2000, production was estimated at only 70,000 tonnes.

Fuller's earth and natural bentonite are also imported, partly because of the range of qualities that need to be met for specific purposes, and perhaps partly because of lower domestic production. The amounts have been variable over the past decade, from less than 2,000 tonnes to over 75,000 tonnes in 1999.

There were five operations in 1991. Since then, permitted reserves have been exhausted in east Surrey and in Kent. Three quarries were left in 1999, at Aspley wood near Woburn, Clophill in Bedfordshire and Baulking in Oxfordshire. The Clophill quarry has since closed. The Woburn site has sufficient reserves to support production until 2004. The Baulking site has permitted reserves sufficient for about eight years. It is within this context of declining permitted reserves that a new planning application was lodged.

Where are fuller's earth resources located? Minerals can be worked only where they are found, so we must turn to geology for the answer. The deposits are very localised and occur only in Bedfordshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Kent and North Somerset. It is likely that economic resources remain only in east Surrey, where about 1.6 million tonnes of economic reserves lie adjacent to an area of outstanding natural beauty and within the metropolitan green belt, and near Woburn, Bedfordshire, where perhaps 320,000 tonnes at Wavendon Heath lie within a locally designated significant landscape area. Therefore, there are limited options for the future extraction of fuller's earth in the UK.

Because fuller's earth is a scarce material with special economic value, in 1951 the Minister of Housing and Local Government set up the fuller's earth regional conferences to ensure that resources were not sterilised by other forms of development. In 1952 the south-west regional conference expressed concern about how quickly those resources were being depleted and planning authorities were asked to protect potential reserves as far as they could. The national importance of fuller's earth was recognised in that, for example, the M23 road line in east Surrey was amended to avoid sterilising some of that mineral resource.

Between 1970 and 1991 there were five applications to work fuller's earth: one in Oxfordshire, two in Bedfordshire and two in east Surrey. All were refused by the relevant mineral planning authority and each went to appeal. One Woburn site and the Oxfordshire site were permitted on appeal. Following the dismissal of one of

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the Surrey appeals in 1988, the then Secretary of State commissioned the British geological survey to undertake the appraisal of fuller's earth resources in England and Wales. That confirmed that the availability of fuller's earth and options for future extraction in the UK were very limited.

Since the 1970s, noise and, in dry weather, dust have been recognised as the main environmental effects of working and processing fuller's earth, especially because large volumes of overlying material have to be dug and then replaced. There have been significant steps forward in site management practices since that time and my Department is currently preparing and consulting on new guidance on the environmental effects of mineral extraction to improve performance further, with noise and dust in the first instalment. Some concerns have been expressed that extraction might have an adverse effect on groundwater resources and quality if adequate operational and mitigation effects cannot be imposed. Other relevant factors may include the effects of traffic both within and outside the site and visual intrusion on the landscape, especially in sensitive areas.

All those factors can be considered only in relation to specific sites for which planning permission for extraction has been sought and they have to be balanced against the economic need for the mineral. The need to handle large quantities of overburden creates some environmental problems, but return of the material to the pit allows restoration close to original levels without bringing additional materials on to the site. There are good examples of restoration of fuller's earth sites to uses such as sports fields, nature conservation areas and forestry.

Minerals are important natural resources. They make an essential contribution to the nation's economic and social progress and thus to the quality of life. We are concerned to promote the development of indigenous natural resources as an activity that promotes economic growth, saving imports and encouraging exports--but not at any price. Sustainable development requires proper attention to the environmental and social aspects of decisions, as well as economic issues.

Current policy for the working of fuller's earth is set out in general minerals planning policy guidance note 1, published in 1996. In their development plans, mineral planning authorities should set out clearly where mineral extraction is likely in principle to be acceptable and where it is not likely to be acceptable, having regard to the objectives for sustainable development. Resources of economic importance should be safeguarded from surface development. For particular scarce and limited resources such as fuller's earth, local authorities should consider the national importance of those minerals and put in place appropriate provision for their future supply. Those are factors that may influence the content of the minerals local plan, which is an important element of the plan-led system.

Local authorities must also protect sites with environmental and nature conservation value, which may range from European sites down to those of local importance. Therefore, there may be a conflict between safeguarding our natural heritage and extracting minerals. It is a responsibility of the mineral planning authority to consider such issues when considering applications for planning permission.

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