12 months ago I was asked if I would be able to assist Hanson UK and provide evidence relating to on the Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015 at their forthcoming Section 78 Inquiries and the interrelationship with planning decisions.
Craig yr Hesg is a quarry a little way north of Pontypridd in Rhondda Cynon Taff in South Wales. Rhondda is where I was born and brought up and I went to school close to Pontypridd. Rarely do I get to work so close to home.
Hanson were seeking planning permission to extend their long-established quarry operations to extract 10million tonnes of high specification aggregate; this would reflect the development plan status of the quarry. Having had this first application refused, they then sought to extend the life of the current permission to extract the remaining amount of mineral already permitted by the Council.
Craig yr Hesg has one of the highest polished stone value in the UK that have been used for some of the most important infrastructure projects nationwide. Minerals Planning Policy affords a special importance to this resource because of this attribute and recognising that they can only be worked where they are found. Meanwhile, having refused Hanson’s applications the Council had an effective mineral land bank of nil, contrary to MTAN and the Regional Technical Statement which they were de facto a signatory to.
Having read the papers, including the Officers Reports, which four times recommended the planning permission be granted, I joined the team of hardened minerals and quarrying experts (including I later discovered an internationally renowned explosives expert with a resume that would comfortably be home at International Rescue as much as a planning inquiry) and eminent Leading Counsel and a very capable Junior.
(A short while after accepting the Hanson instruction I was approached by the LPA asking the same question, but by then I was cup tied. Being recommended by leading Counsel is always a complement; being recommended twice for competing sides is, at least in my experience, unprecedented. It very much felt like all eyes would be on me at some point!)
The Planning Committee Members’ reasons for refusal alleged that the health effects of continuing to quarry would conflict with the Welsh Government’s Well-being Goal of a Healthier Wales. No conflict with any development plan policy was cited in the reasons for refusal, not even those concerning amenity. Public Health Wales, the Health Board and the Council Environmental Health Officer did not consider that there would be adverse health effects.
The site visit was a unique event in itself; held as storm Dudley arrived we were ferried around the quarry in SUVs dwarfed by the enormous machinery that operates in the base of the quarry. Soaked to the skin and so buffeted by the wind that my hard hat blew off, I was genuinely pleased my drive home was no more than 10 minutes!
The inquiry was held at Sardis Road – home of Pontypridd RFC, where I had spent some time as a youngster. The much-improved playing surface of the house of pain shone in the height of summer, but the function room underneath the main stand was somewhat uncomfortable as the heat wave endured over the summer months. The appellant’s team had use of the Players Bar, which we all speculated had seen some high jinks over the years.
So close to home was the inquiry that the translator employed by the Council and I are members at the same gym. (I’ve not asked her what she made of the opening day!).
Here is not the place to explore the merits of the evidence, suffice to say they can be found in the Inspector’s report that recommended that both appeals be allowed, the Welsh Minister’s decision that agrees with the Inspector and the costs decision which made a full award in favour of the appellant.
So what was the relevance of my evidence?
The Act places a duty on all public bodies to carry out sustainable development. It sets seven well-being goals and five ways of working. In her book, Lessons from a Small Country the former Minister and architect of the Act, Jane Davidson, refers the goals as the what and the ways of working as the how.
Each public body is to have well-being objectives and in exercising its functions it needs to take all reasonable steps to achieve these. The Welsh Government’s Well-being objectives include better places. An inescapable fact is that mineral supply contributes to infrastructure that underpins this objective.
Also enacted at a similar time was the Planning Act 2015. Section 2 of that Act requires planning functions to be exercised, as part of carrying out sustainable development in accordance with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, for the purpose of ensuring that the development and use of land contribute to improving the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales.
Neither of these relatively new pieces of legislation alter either S70 of the 1990 Act or S38(6) of the 2004 Act; the primacy of the development plan remains.
Since both pieces of legislation were enacted, PPW has been updated several times, the most recent being Edition 11 in 2021. PPW is framed by those Acts, and therefore as an expression of WG policy, is consistent with them. PPW underscores the presumption in favour of sustainable development in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise to ensure that social, economic, cultural and environmental issues are balanced and integrated. Elsewhere, PPW refers to balancing the benefits of development against its negative effects.
The thrust of the case by the LPA was that impacts of dust, noise and blasting resulting from the proposals will adversely affect the mental well-being of local communities and, therefore, the well-being goal of a healthier Wales would not be achieved; stress, fear and anxiety caused by the quarry and continuation of quarrying would add to health issues in this deprived community.
The Inspector rightly acknowledged those concerns, but considered the weight to be attached to such submissions in the planning balance should be determined by the extent of the evidence advanced on that particular issue, which is a matter of planning judgement.
No objective or expert evidence was tendered in respect of these matters by the LPA. Rather the evidence before the Inspector was that the no technical measurements or environmental thresholds were breached. This led the Inspector to conclude that the proposals would not cause unacceptable adverse amenity impacts and any impact on local communities can be minimised to an acceptable level. Therefore, the proposals would accord with the LDP’s amenity policies and PPW’s approach to minerals development. The Inspector underlines the long-established premise that planning decisions should assume that pollution control regimes will operate effectively.
In terms of the well-being goals, the Inspector draws attention to the fact there is no dominant or hierarchy of goals and they must be considered as an integrated set of seven. “To my mind achieving the goals set out in the WFGA and the exercise of the planning function is not just about balancing impacts; it is working towards a win-win solution and identifying the multiple benefits where they exist.”
The case advanced was that:
- Allowing the Appeals would enable the mineral resources to be used effectively and economic benefits would be maintained, supporting a productive society.
- Conversely, there would be detrimental economic impacts if the Appeals are dismissed, and quarrying was required to cease whilst there remain unworked minerals.
- The proposed developments do not result in adverse landscape or ecological or hydrological effects and there are benefits that can be achieved from the Extension Appeal to woodland management, new planting and habitat creation.
- The proposed developments can be undertaken without unacceptable adverse effects on health and well-being and within acceptable limits, consistent with the tests in the Local Development Plan and PPW for mineral development.
- The Extension Appeal provides a recreational route that would encourage use of the wider footpath network and allow access to the countryside.
- Hanson has previously made investments in the local community and would continue to play an active role in supporting local initiatives.
- The proposed developments protect cultural and heritage assets and would not harm the Welsh Language.
- The Schemes enable mineral reserves to be worked efficiently and appropriately, contributing to the economic health of the country by ensuring that the construction industry is provided with an adequate supply of the minerals it needs.
- Were the winning of minerals to cease and the reserves sterilised, this could only be described as an inefficient use of natural resources. Whilst this may be justifiable in instances where the effect of continued quarrying is beyond an acceptable limit so as to warrant that, plainly that is not the case in this instance.
- Investment has been made by the Applicant at Craig yr Hesg based on the extent of the minerals permitted to be worked and the reasonable anticipation that planning permission would be granted for quarrying in the “preferred area” for future mineral extraction. If winning of minerals were to cease, the lifecycle costs of those investments would not be fully realised and this would represent an inefficient use of resources.
The LPA had no fundamental disagreement with this assessment, other than in respect of health.
In turn, the Welsh Minister accepted that the proposed developments did advance achievement of the well-being goals and, recognising planning policy, granting planning permission would correspond to the ways of working.