The best made plans - planning changes affecting mineral production
Andy Carp, owner of geology and minerals planning consultancy, Resource UK, Staffordshire, reviews changes to the local planning system that affect mineral production.
The planning system for England and Wales is in a state of flux following the introduction of a new network of Local Development Frameworks (LDFs). The frameworks, introduced in 2004, contain policies on all aspects of planning for each individual authority, including minerals. Some planning authorities have adopted their plans while others have only started the process. This has drawn criticism from the Mineral Products Association (MPA), which represents most of the quarrying industry. It believes that the system is failing to deliver the improved speed of determination and certainty of land use planning that was promised. So what impacts will the new system have in the minerals sector?
The ‘new’ system
Before 2004, mineral planning authorities were required to produce Minerals Local Plans – often combined with Waste Plans, as the most common after-use for a quarry was landfill – to compliment the higher tier Structure Plans produced by the county councils.
In recent years, central Government has started a gradual process of introducing smaller, more local, unitary authorities to replace county councils. All authorities where minerals are produced, both the counties still in existence and the new unitary authorities, are required to produce a minerals development framework (MDF) to complement the LDF and replace the minerals local plan.
The MDF should contain several development plans including a Minerals Core Strategy (MCS) to define policy and Site Specific Allocations to show where minerals are intended to be worked, but each authority takes a slightly different approach to what documents it produces and what they are called. The MDFs are guided by Regional Spatial Strategies along with a series of guidance documents, or Planning Policy Statements, covering specific areas such as renewable energy (PPS22), flood risk (PPS25) and minerals (MPS1), which have replaced planning policy guidance notes.
The system encourages and relies on a greater level of public participation than before, and intends to cover a 20-year period (the old system covered 15 years). In both cases, the document should provide for appropriate land banks of minerals to be in place at the end of the plan period.
Playing catch up
In most cases the introduction of the system is behind schedule. The MDFs were due to be in place by the end of 2007, but the MPA reports that 81% of planning authorities have not produced the first key part (of the MCS) and are unlikely to do so in the immediate future. This means that most authorities are two years past the target date. The MPA says the new system is, ‘simply not delivering, making it difficult for mineral operators to plan for the future’. This results in planning authorities operating with out-of-date plans, making decisions based on policies from mineral local plans that have long since lapsed.
In defence of the planning authorities, the delays are partly due to the first two MCSs for Shropshire and Worcestershire, both in the UK, being found to be ‘unsound’ by the Planning Inspectorate. This meant they could not be formally adopted. In its committee report of November 2007, Warwickshire County Council, UK concluded that its MCS was unlikely to be sound and needed to identify strategic sites to meet the required tests. It stated, ‘this is a major change in direction and will require a lot more detailed evidence and site information to be in place’. Both the councils and operators are expected to provide this evidence at their own cost. In the wake of this, other authorities reviewed whether their plans were likely to suffer the same expensive fate.
A further delay was due to central Government not defining the term ‘strategic site’, an essential part of the MCS, leaving each mineral planning authority to decide on its own definition, with no guidance. Ongoing changes required authorities to undertake strategic environmental and flood risk assessments. This led to uncertainty and delay, and, a year and a half later in May 2009, an Inspector concluded that the Leicestershire MCS would only meet the soundness tests if his list of amendments were incorporated into it. The MPA believes the Planning Inspectorate has taken an inconsistent approach to national mineral planning policy.
The formation of unitary authorities, together with changes in the planning system, has resulted in even more delays, such as Cheshire County Council, UK, that was well under way with its MDF, only to be replaced in April 2009 by two unitary authorities covering the east and west of the old county. Existing staff have largely been re-deployed to the new authorities and work is being adapted to the new authority areas, but there will be a degree of repetition.
The new system is excessively cumbersome. In many cases, the planning authorities tasked with introducing the system are under-staffed, have low budgets and find recruitment of good planning officers difficult. Officers often have little practical experience of applying the new system in its entirety. All of these elements contribute to a minerals planning regime that is slow to bring forward the required policy documents, often demands excessive supporting evidence, and takes too long to determine applications. There is inconsistency when applying the regulations, both at mineral planning authority level and from the Planning Inspectorate in determining appeals.
A key aspect of the system is that of stakeholder consultation. This applies at all levels from policy formulation to planning applications. On the surface this appears to be a good thing – a more open and straightforward relationship between mineral operators, planners, statutory consultees and the public should be achieved. The practical results do not bear this out, however, mainly due to the British public’s previous lack of involvement in prior consultation or being expected to contribute positively in the planning process. The UK has traditionally operated an adversarial system, so that forward planning with ‘stakeholder consultation’, which allows everyone to have their say, invariably gives pressure groups advance notice of long-term proposals so that they have more time in which to prepare their case against the development. Indeed, there has been at least one example, to the author’s knowledge, where a local newspaper published a story about a planning application, which turned out to be an area of land being brought forward in the MCS for consideration for a potential extension to a quarry sometime within the next 20 years (tying in with the required time frame).
For the operators, this results in a high degree of uncertainty in forward planning, which will inevitably lead to a shortfall in the land bank of consented minerals. Forecasts show some regions, including the southeast and northeast, to be facing shortfalls in aggregates provision in the short-to-medium term. Planning is problematic, and allocations of land for mineral extraction are becoming more difficult to secure.
In the immediate term, mineral operators and planning authorities continue to struggle under a temporary arrangement, working with out-of-date ‘saved policies’, except for the few councils that have their system approved. The MPA is calling for a thorough review. Its Chief Executive Officer, Nigel Jackson, says, ‘With no improvement in sight, the only solution is a comprehensive and independent review to identify how planning can function in a reasonable and timely manner to enable the minerals industry to meet the future demands of the economy and the construction industry’. The minerals and construction industries are finding that the Government’s aspirations to streamline the planning system are not being achieved. It remains to be seen how central Government will respond to this challenge, particularly as the construction industry seeks to lead the nation out of this recession.
Further information: Resource UK