Anger as judge stops opencast mine scheme

Date:

22/12/2005

Author:

Martin Shipton

Source:

Western Mail

Matter:

Condron - Ffos- y-fran mine

A HUGE row could now break out between the National Assembly and Whitehall after an anti-opencast mine protester won a landmark court ruling yesterday.

Elizabeth Condron of Merthyr Tydfil launched a judicial review of the Assembly's decision to grant planning permission to extract 10 million tonnes of coal from the Ffos-y-Fran site near her home over 17 years. Developers Miller Argent claim the scheme would bring 200 jobs and transform derelict land.

Yesterday a High Court judge quashed the Assembly decision, saying it was possible Assembly Environment Minister Carwyn Jones was "biased" in favour of the scheme. He told the Assembly to reconsider its position.

But last night the Assembly Government said Mr Jones had not been asked to provide a statement for the court. If he had been, he would have denied an allegation that he made inappropriate comments to a protester. The Assembly's legal case was handled by the Treasury Solicitor's Department in London.

Opponents had said they would suffer noise, dust and vibration problems from one of the biggest opencast sites in Europe, with 20,000 tonnes of coal extracted each week.

The judge decided in Ms Condron's favour as a result of comments alleged to have been made by Mr Jones ahead of the meeting he chaired at which the scheme was approved.

Mr Justice Lindsay said retired civil servant and objector Jenni Jones had claimed Mr Jones had told her the day before the meeting he was "going to go with the inspector's report" backing the scheme.

The judge said there was no clear denial in respect of the alleged statement, and he concluded there had been an "unacceptable possible pre-determination" on the part of Mr Jones.

The judge said, "A fair-minded observer, hearing the words which Jenni Jones attributes to Carwyn Jones AM on learning that the minister was to be chair (of the committee) dealing with the application the next day would, in my view, conclude that there was a real possibility that that member... was biased.

"He would think that member would be approaching the question of permission with a closed mind and hence also without impartial consideration of all relevant planning issues.

"While I recognise that this is a very large consequence for a very small remark, I see no reason not to set aside the permission of April 11."

Plaid Cymru AM Jocelyn Davies, who had backed the residents' campaign, said, "This judgment now places a huge question mark over Carwyn Jones' competence and judgment."

But an Assembly Government spokeswoman said, "The Minister for Environment, Planning and Countryside has already been cleared by the independent Commissioner for Standards of any misconduct relating to this case. He was not advised that a witness statement from him was necessary, and as a result did not have the opportunity to comment during the case.

"The Minister is adamant that the comments attributed to him were never made, and is disappointed that he did not have the opportunity to state this to the court."

Tory finance spokesman Glyn Davies said, "The costs involved here could run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

"We have a situation where the Minister is stating publicly that he did not make the comments attributed to him, but that the Treasury Solicitor's Department did not ask him to verify that in a statement. It seems that, as a result, the Assembly has lost the case.

"There are serious questions to ask about who should pick up the bill in these extraordinary circumstances."