Thursday, December 20, 2001

THE government minister in charge of the Millennium Dome project has recommended that Parliament should have "fast track" powers to vote through major planning issues such as a nuclear waste dump for West Cumbria.

Plans for the "fast track" approach to planning big projects were announced, on Monday, by Lord Falconer. If the new approach is approved by Parliament, major projects such as a nuclear waste dump would no longer be left to county councils to decide.

The changes are being considered just as the environment minister, Michael Meacher, told MPs, at Westminster, that a nuclear waste dump would spark less outrage in West Cumbria than elsewhere in Britain. Mr Meacher claimed Cumbrians were more likely to accept a waste repository on their doorstep because of the thousands of nuclear jobs at Sellafield. His controversial comments raised the spectre of a fresh attempt to bury Britain's nuclear waste stockpile near Sellafield - almost five years after Nirex's plan for a dump for medium level waste at Longlands, Gosforth, was thrown out.

Mr Meacher told a Commons environment select committee that "Not In My Back Yard" was the common attitude towards nuclear waste. But he said: "There is no doubt that the Cumbrian people have accepted the benefits of the nuclear industry in terms of jobs and in other ways. There is a different attitude there to other parts of the country."

Mr Meacher, who is in charge of the government's consultation on future options for storing nuclear waste, said that public acceptance as well as good science would inevitably be a factor in deciding where to store waste. He stressed that a final decision was five or six years away.

Mr Meacher said he believed the nuclear waste, estimated to reach 500,000 tonnes later in the century, should be stored in a way that was "retrievable and monitorable," suggesting that burial, deep underground, was no longer favoured.

Copeland councillor, John Henney, said of Mr Meacher's remarks: "Nirex were given the impression by advisers that because the people of Copeland had lived with the nuclear industry for 50 years they would just roll over. That simply was not the case then and it isn't now."

nTony Blair called for the so called fast track proposals to try to banish the impression that Britain was slow and indecisive in approving major infrastructure developments such as a nuclear waste dump. For example, it took eight years for Terminal Five at Heathrow to be approved, despite neither party in power during that time being against it, in principle.

The consultation paper published by Lord Falconer, Mr Blair's confidant and planning minister, proposes that in future ministers would first decide whether a scheme fitted the criteria to be considered under the new fast-track planning procedures.

A minister would make a statement proposing the development, at which point detailed plans would be published. Objectors would have 42 days to send comments.

Hugh Ellis, planning campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "The government has completely caved in to industry.