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In north-west Leicestershire, we are hoping for a new midlands forest which will stretch from the Charnwood forest across Derbyshire to Staffordshire. That is a delightful concept, which has my total support. What is really needed is a policy from the Department of Energy and from British Coal that includes the concept of a forest, bearing in mind the requirements of the Department of Energy and the environmental effects. We should apply the concept that the dirty, noisy, nasty extraction can be carried out in a way that is acceptable environmentally and to everyone. If we do that, we shall be successful.
It is no good for an area to have an opencast mine such as Coalfield north in the Ravenstone area--a large opencast mine which operates for 10 or 12 years and causes great upheaval. When there are explosions, the houses shake and that causes damage, although British Coal always says that it is not responsible, despite the fact that the damage always occurs after an explosion. British Coal continually denies responsibility. One could put up with one opencast mine, but having suffered 12 years of one site as soon as that site is finished there will be another one right next door to it and then there will be another, until they encircle the entire area. We can never get away from it.
If we are to allow opencast mines of such a size, extracting 250, 000 tonnes, there has to be only one licence per area at any given time. When that licence has been exhausted, the area must have a chance to rest and the people who live there must be given the opportunity to live a normal life away from opencasting. There should be a gap at least 20 years before there is another series of opencasting in the area.
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The friends of the hon. Member for Bolsover on Leicestershire county council take the view that the coal is there, and that the sooner it is extracted the better. That means 50 or 60 years of absolute hell for the people who live in north-west Leicestershire, and presumably it will be heaven for our grandchildren. But no doubt there will be something else to be extracted when the coal is finished and the hon. Gentleman's friends, if they exist then--I doubt that they will exist, given the current political climate--will insist--
Mr. Barron : The Labour party does not control North-West Leicestershire district council, but the hon. Gentleman is making all those accusations. Surely he should be levelling his accusations at the Department of the Environment, which changed the regulations for opencast coal, giving people the right to mine coal before there is any development on the land. The Government whom the hon. Gentleman supports have done all the damage.
Mr. Ashby : The hon. Gentleman has got it absolutely wrong. The Labour party, together with its Liberal allies, absolutely controls Leicestershire county council. The Labour party also controls North-West Leicestershire district council. The Conservatives do not control either council, so the hon. Gentleman's friends are responsible all the way along.
It is really a question of long-term planning and taking into account the history of an area--how much opencasting there has been in the past and how much devastation has occurred--and deciding what should be done in future. It is important to have long-term plans and to consider the past and the future. In that way, people can just about live alongside opencast mining. It is absolutely essential that long-term planning should take into account past planning, that there should be only one opencast mine at a time and that there should be environmental preparation for a given opencast site before such a site is allowed.
Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) : Having listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Ashby), I trust that he will be with us in the Lobby tonight. He could go at least that modest distance, as our amendments are modest compared with many of the problems.
In one month last summer, British Coal, supported by the Government, closed two pits in my constituency--two of the six pits that have been closed in the past 18 months in a 25-mile radius. In the same 18 months, British Coal and private opencast operators have proposed to dig up both sides of my valley and the neighbouring valley. The communities put up with many of the problems of deep-mine pits in our valleys, because we believed in those jobs. Having closed those pits and sealed off millions of tonnes of reserves by capping the shafts of Merthyr Vale
Column 220colliery within a month of the closure, the very communities that supported the industry and sacrificed their environment are not willing to sacrifice it any longer.
The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester)--99 per cent. of whose speech I support--spoke about the green field sites. I should tell him that the existing coal mining valley communities also want to join the environmental protection society as much as those who are threatened.
There is coal in every one of my hillsides. There is no doubt about that. They do not need much drilling, although drilling is already taking place. There is coal in all our hillsides--tonnes of it--but the communities have had enough.
We accept the need to diversify our economy. One of the clearest contradictions of the clause which we seek to amend is the economic contradiction of the lessons that we are being taught by the Government. The Prime Minister, in a rare visit to a Welsh mining community recently, told the people to cheer up, to consider the change in the environment and the need to diversify economically, to create light industry and to develop the service and tourist industries. Before she came, and even before the present Secretary of State for Wales came, we had been doing just that. We had recognised that we had to change the basis of the economy and get away from the dirty, extractive industries to a high-tech industrial service sector. We are in the process of doing that, supported by the Secretary of State for Wales in his valleys initiative.
I will give one classic example in my constituency to illustrate the contradiction in the clause. We are building a new business park in Pentrebach in the middle of the Merthyr valley. It will be a beautiful development with modern factories. At the centre of the business park are the business headquarters of the Welsh Development Agency. The site looks good. It will be a prime valley industrial site for light industry and other commercial development. Within the last week or two, there has been an application by a private opencast contractor to claim 40,000 tonnes. That is the interesting figure ; he is already jumping the gun set by the 25,000 tonnes. He has obviously read the Bill or understood months ago that this provision was on its way.
Where is the development proposed? It is immediately in the vicinity of the new business park. There are coal tips which we can clear. There is tremendous support for land reclamation such as we have done since I, as a junior Minister in the Welsh office in 1969, helped to set up the original derelict land unit. We have done an amazing job. We have cleared tips and altered the landscape by developing grassland. Now there are proposals to dig up the virgin countryside and copses of trees which create a good backdrop to the new business park at Pentrebach.
If my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) does not mind me saying so, I think that he was too kind to British Coal in his opening remarks. The amendments do not go far enough in regard to the existing operations of British Coal in south Wales. It was British Coal opencast executive that dug one of the largest holes in Europe in my constituency. The Trecatti site is 600 ft deep. It took 20 years at Dowlais Top to do it. The people of Dowlais Top suffered blasting, noise and dust for 20 years. Then it all came to an end. There was a genuine sigh of relief. With the skills that we have to grow grass on our hillsides, even on reclaimed waste land, within six months we had magnificent green grass, with sheep grazing on it.
Column 221What happened? Within months of the appearance of the new environment, British Coal wanted to develop the area next to it. That means ravaging part of the restored and reclaimed site. When pits are being closed, bringing the loss of jobs that we wanted to maintain, one can imagine the reaction when British Coal at the same time wants to destroy the environment. When people in the area have put up with an environmental handicap for 20 years, hon. Members can imagine their anger and frustration.
There has been reference to existing planning consents. I can give another illustration, which reinforces the point about the impact that ill-thought- out schemes can have on the immediate environment. The residents came to see me about it only last Saturday. For years, the people of Rhymney had to put up with an existing consent for opencasting. One consequence was a change in the watercourses on the hillside. One night, suddenly all the houses were flooded. That had never happened before. When the opencast site was complete, the hillside was redrained.
A few weeks ago, drilling rigs from British Coal turned up and started drilling within 60 yards of the houses. British Coal is prospecting for more coal on the very hillside where it caused problems which led to the flooding of the houses. The drilling did not require planning permission or any consultation with the community. British Coal is still drilling. I want a message to go out loud and clear from the House : we cannot stop British Coal drilling but it will not get planning consent from any district or county council to reopen the hillsides of our community.
I support the amendments. My community, which for 200 years sacrificed the environment for economic development, has been told to learn different tricks, different economic arts and a different basis for the development of its economy. We wish to change faster, because the job gains are not matching the job losses, but we are not willing to suffer again the ravaging of our hillsides and the raping of our mountains. The Secretary of State for Wales has a fine environment in his constituency of Worcester, and has been supporting developments such as I have described in my constituency and in his valleys initiative. When county councils and district councils refuse to give planning permission for opencast development, whether to British Coal or private contractors, we shall expect the Secretary of State for Wales to stand up for our environment.
I support the amendments, but we need to go further. We should send out a message loud and clear from the House that environmental protection applies not only to marvellous countryside but also to communities that have sacrificed their environment in the past but are no longer willing to do so.
Mr. Rost : I want to add my support to the concern expressed on both sides of the House about opencast mining. While I am in sympathy with the amendments tabled by the Labour Members, I think that they are asking the impossible. They are really demanding that British Coal, a commercial producer which is anxious to produce as much coal as possible, should also act as regulator. That is impractical. It is like expecting the nationalised water boards to regulate and prosecute themselves.
That is the very reason why I have argued that the whole licensing system must go back to the Department in
Column 222the same way that oil and gas licensing is in the hands of the Department. Before an oil company is granted a licence to explore or develop for oil or gas, onshore of offshore, the Department vets whether it is a suitable area and imposes conditions which have to be complied with if the operator is allowed to go ahead. Until such time as the coal reserves are vested again in the Department of Energy on behalf of the State and are then licensed under a vetting system, there cannot be any sensible national planning policy.
It is quite unreasonable to expect British Coal to do other than grant whatever licences it thinks it can get away with, and it is unreasonable to expect independent planning inquiries to protect the interests of a local community or wider environmental issues. I argue that the amendments should go much further. The Department should be responsible for the licensing process, so that there can be a pre-vetting system and a national strategy for opencast mining. Applicants for licences would know that they are being granted licences for opencast mining only when the Department, with its independent monitoring team, can assure itself that it is a satisfactory and suitable area for opencast mining. They would be subject to the criteria of planning approval and of the licence, such as restoring the site properly and environmental protection, which would lead to a far more orderly system of opencast development that is far more acceptable to the communities most affected by it. 8 pm
Mr. Hardy : At various times in their political careers, all Conservative Members have demanded that we uphold the law. I was particularly interested by the speech made by the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby), in which he referred to the law and the limit of 25,000 tonnes. About 18 months ago, I discovered that clause 32 of the coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 imposed the limit of 25,000 tonnes and raised the matter in a parliamentary question. Some people in British coal and some private contractors were not very pleased with me at the time, which may be one of the reasons why the Government have decided to bend over backwards to facilitate those who previously were helping themselves. The speech made by the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West suggested that he will approve of my speech, because I also will ask the House to uphold the law.
Amendment No. 4 may seem rather odd, but it is extremely relevant. I shall give a few historic details so that the House can appreciate the context in which I present it.
The enclosure of our common land proceeded until 1840, and 4,000 Acts of Enclosure were passed, almost all of which were for the lowlands of England. I obviously have not read all of them, many of which are kept on long rolls in the other place. After 1840, enclosure procedures were covered by a general Act, but before then there were 4,000 of them. Some referred to relatively small areas of common land, but others covered substantial areas.
My attention was first drawn to those Acts in 1980, when I was seeking to protect the hedgerow. In their greenery, the Government have blocked every attempt to protect hedgerows. My attention was drawn to the fact that, invariably, private Enclosure Acts required that the common land enclosed when fields were established be protected by hedgerows in perpetuity. This is a serious matter, because those Acts have never been repealed. It
Column 223would suit me if the Government decided that they could ignore those laws and that the terms of the enclosure legislation were no longer legal, because I could say, "Very well, we will return the land to the people." We could restore the common to the descendants of the owner of the goose in the doggerel quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson).
I should find that a matter for rejoicing, but the Government will not agree to such a dramatic change.
It is interesting that commons were enclosed largely because of the argument that as the population of England swelled in the industrial revolution, food production had to increase and agricultural efficiency had to be achieved. Yet now, we are talking about reducing agricultural production, so perhaps there is a case for the repeal of the commons legislation.
In amendment No. 4, I am being perfectly reasonable--I hope that the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West will not say that I am being subservient--in merely asking the Government to uphold the law. I first raised the matter in a question to a Minister of Agriculture. I can recall that Minister--I have spoken to him today--leaning on the Dispatch Box and confidently saying, "I have reason to believe that these old measures no longer apply." I took up the matter and correspondence ensued. I established that the last case on the subject was Pratt v. Garnett in 1928. The law was upheld in that case. I pointed out to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that, over the previous 30 or 40 years, millions of pounds of ratepayers' money had been spent on grants for farmers to grub out hedgerows. The Ministry had never bothered to check on that, but I said to the Minister, "You must accept that a huge amount of ratepayers' money, under successive Governments, has been given in grants to grub out hedgerows, which are required to be maintained under the Enclosure Acts."
I found the correspondence with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods entertaining. The Minister said, "It is not our fault. If someone has been given a grant for grubbing out a hedgerow, we could not have been expected to be aware of the Enclosure Acts ; he should have been aware of them, in which case we shall have to recover the full amount of grant that has been paid."
Some Conservative Members think that the Labour party does not like farmers, which is quite untrue. I recognise that such a burden and blow to an agricultural practitioner could be almost ruinous. I did not wish farmers to be bankrupted, so I drew the matter to the attention of the National Farmers Union.
I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Energy on his appointment. He sat through the Committee's proceedings on the Bill last week. He will recall that last Thursday I gave him notice of this matter. The fact remains--the Minister must confirm this--that the law stands. A private Act of Enclosure is almost certain to include a requirement that the fields established shall be surrounded by a thorn fence and that it shall be maintained in perpetuity. Amendment No. 4 is entirely in accordance with the law of the land. I am aware of a case in Lincolnshire--this applied in many parts of the eastern counties--where the persons enclosing the land were required not only to plant
Column 224and maintain a hedge in perpetuity but to protect it by oaken fencing three rails high. An area in Lincolnshire was turned into a Royal Air Force bomber command station during the war. No one then could have put the interests of the Enclosure Acts and the environment before the needs of the nation, but now we are talking not about the needs of the nation, but about money sharks who want quick investments and to cook the books, to make a quick profit, to rape the countryside and to destroy communities. I do not believe that our historic law should be ignored so that a few sharks, who will have more friends among Conservative Members than among Labour Members, can make a lot of money.
I have been involved in conservation for a long time. I recall that when we established the position about enclosure, I said to conservation bodies that we should establish a test case and that it would be useful to fund such a case. In all the cases known to me in the past three or four years in which a farmer was about to grub out an enclosure hedgerow, and was warned that he would be breaking the law and that action would be taken, he retreated.
In my own constituency, for example, I learned a couple of years ago that a landowner was proposing to take out some hedgerows. I sent him a courteous note and said that I was sure that he would be aware that the area concerned was enclosed common land and that the local enclosure award required the perpetual maintenance of the hedgerow. He replied immediately, saying that I was aggressive and threatening. I said that I was merely telling him what the law of the land was. I said that I thought he held a copy of the enclosure award, but that if he was in doubt, there was a copy of it in Rotherham library. In fact, copies of most of the enclosure awards for the area can be found in Rotherham library and every one of them has a requirement for the perpetual provision of hedgerows.
The other day, a little girl called Charlotte Bowen from Rawmarsh wrote me a splendid letter in which she expressed her concern about a small pond, which is served by Colliers brook. I wrote to the borough council, which said that the problem was that it did not know who owned the pond. It pointed out that British Coal might wish to carry out opencast mining and to destroy the pond, which Charlotte showed me a few days ago. However, the area was covered by an Enclosure Act ; in fact a considerable area in South Yorkshire is covered by Enclosure Acts.
I must tell the Minister that, as a law-abiding, constitutionalist Member of Parliament, I am not prepared to see the law ignored for the purposes of greed or for the environment in my area to be subject to the strains that we thought we had seen the last of in 1950. There was opencast mining around the villages of Wath upon Dearne and Wentworth in the 1940s and 1950s. Much attention was paid to that in the national press at the time and we were assured that everything would be restored properly. However, the farmers in that area still cannot grow potatoes half a century later. I made that point to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) in Committee the other day.
The problem is that although there was a great deal of upheaval in the 1940s and in the 1950s from the opencast operations there, we now see greater engineering capacity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) reminded us. Opencast mining
Column 225can now go deep. No area in the existing coalfield is likely to be free from the attentions of the private money- grabbing opencasters. The opencast mining in my area in the 1940s and in the 1950s took out two or three seams of coal near the surface, but there are another four or five seams of coal that are accessible to opencast mining on a large scale. I am not prepared to see an area such as mine, where pits have been closed and where there has been complete disdain and disregard of local needs by half the members of the present Government, treated in that way.
I am sorry to have to refer to this matter on successive days in the House. An area of my constituency spills over in the west into the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) and in the east into the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay). Every pit in the Dearne valley has closed, as have the glass works and the coking plants. What was once the largest railway coal concentration yard in Europe has closed.
In the middle of that area, there are 2,711 drums of toxic waste, about which the Government do not seem to be the slightest bit concerned. As I said yesterday, had those drums been in Surrey or in Finchley--would that they had been--the Government might have taken action. It is not acceptable for us to have that amount of dereliction to our north and then to face the risk of environmentally destructive opencast mining to the south.
In view of the pathetically small sums available for derelict land grants, there is no reason for hon. Members who represent coalfield areas to fall over backwards to accommodate such ruinous developments. I am opposed to them. I am glad that the areas that were enclosed--and a large proportion of lowland England was enclosed--had invariably to be surrounded by fences, thorn fences or hedgerows which had to be maintained perpetually. I want the Minister to assure us tonight that all the people who will be queueing up to opencast, to destroy the environment and to rape our green heritage will be made aware that they must not carry out their opencast mining if it means that hedgerows which the law says must be there for ever are to be destroyed. I am not a lawyer, although I have consulted lawyers about this matter in the past. However, I hope that the Minister will accept that the Enclosure Acts may be old, but that they still have meaning and considerable value in protecting the environment in the coalfields.
Mr. Hood : I am sorry that the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North -West (Mr. Ashby) is not in his place, because I want to comment on his reference to some of my colleagues who were formerly miners and members of the National Union of Mineworkers. He said that over the years, we had been subservient to British Coal. I was a miner for 23 years and I am still a member of the NUM. I can remember many occasions when area directors wanted to speak to me and when colliery managers wanted to remonstrate or to reminisce with me. I can assure hon. Members that the one word that they never used to describe me in 23 years in the pits was "subservient". It was an interesting comment and may prove how much the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West knows about the mining industry.
Column 226Opencast mining is an environmental problem that always excites heated debate, and our debate today has been heated and good. We must always remember that planning authorities are--and must remain--the custodians of the local community and of the environment. When discussing planning applications for opencast mining, they have to balance commercial need and the effect on the environment. Last week in Committee, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) made a comment about previous planning refusals for opencast mining. He had statistics which showed that 80 per cent. of the planning applications that were refused were under Labour authorities. I said that I hoped that he was not trying make a correlation between the authorities that refused permission and the party that was in the majority on them. He said later that that was not the case. The obvious point, as I said in Committee, is that where there are coal reserves, there are usually not many Tory councils, so that point of the hon. Member for Gedling was not relevant.
My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) made an important point, which could apply equally to the Scottish coalfields. There has always been loyalty in Scotland between the local authorities and the coal-mining industry. In Scotland, the deep-mining industry and the opencast mining industry were one. There was always a cross-subsidy, so the deep-mining industry depended on the opencast industry to make it more viable. Our local communities throughout Scotland, almost without exception, had loyalty to mining--that word is not too strong--and tolerated planning applications for opencast mining where they would not normally have done so.
The Scottish coalfield has been devastated since the Government came to office in 1979. It has been ravaged to the extent that we now have one remaining colliery, and have lost 18,500 jobs. Now local authorities are rightly saying that their loyalty has been abused in the past and that they will not allow it to be abused in the future, and we may well find that opencast mining is rightly viewed more critically in Scotland and elsewhere than it has been in the past. The Bill increases the amount that may be mined from 25,000 tonnes to 250,000 tonnes. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred to the abuses that have taken place under the existing laws. In my own area, we have what I describe as plot mining. When the limit was 25,000 tonnes, a firm would be given a licence for that tonnage for one plot, a second licence for another plot, and so on. I can speak with some authority on this, partly because I was a miner for 23 years and partly because I have 140 million tonnes of coal reserves in my constituency, known as the Harpendon coal reserves. My constituency also has the largest opencast site in Europe--the site named Dalquahandy--where we have 20 million tonnes of proven reserves, a figure which, in the opinion of those who know the area well, could be doubled. Sometimes, in the planning process, those employed in some sections of the industry have ended up on the other side of the table. I remember that, when we were dealing with the Dalquahandy opencast planning application, the regional council planning boss seemed to be pushing British Coal's planning application. He left the regional council with a golden handshake and the next we heard of him was that he was employed by British Coal and had managed to get planning permission for highways
Column 227for the construction. I dare say that British Coal and the gentleman concerned would say that that was a coincidence, but not many people where I come from believe in such coincidences. The hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West made an important comment, as did the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester). Opencast mining must be properly planned on a long-term basis. On the Dalquahandy opencast site, development has been started without the proper infrastructure being provided. If we are to allow opencast mining, we must provide the proper infrastructure and long-term planning for dealing with reclamation and restoration. Everything must be in place before we develop sites.
Hon. Members have referred to the activities of individuals and companies engaged in private mining. We all have our own horror stories about the activities of private mining companies that have been given licences by British Coal. Recently, a private licensee came to me complaining that he had had his licence taken off him. When I asked him why, he said that British Coal had been unreasonable. I said, "I'm used to British Coal being unreasonable. How are they being unreasonable now?" He said, "Well, they have closed my little mine down because I owed them £12,000." I asked him, "Why do you owe British Coal money?" He told me that his accountant, had spent £12,000 of the miners' pension contribution. That sum had gone missing, and the poor accountant, who by then had died, got the blame.
We have all heard stories such as that. One mining company in my area--the LAW mining company--has applied for planning permission to drill all over the Douglas basin, where there is loads and loads of coal. That company has been prosecuted many times for dumping in and so polluting our streams and rivers.
Many hon. Members remember the previous chairman of British Coal, Sir Ian MacGregor without affection, although I suppose that some Conservative Members may remember him affectionately. He promised a company that it would get a plot in my constituency known as Townhead near the village of Rigside, with coal reserves of 250,000 tonnes. I give credit to British Coal for insisting that it would not give permission or a licence to mine the Townhead site. It may well be a coincidence that the figure of 250,000 tonnes, promised by Ian MacGregor to the private mining company concerned, is the figure that now appears in the Bill.
I am sure that the Bill will be looked on with horror by villages in my constituency such as Rigside and Ravenstruther. The opencast quarries to which I referred mean that a 32-tonne coal truck goes through the villages every six minutes, 12 hours a day--sometimes 24 hours a day--six days a week. The coal reserves at that site are such that the villages can look forward to 20 years of such harassment and damage to their environment.
The Bill spells disaster for the little villages in Clydesdale. It will do further damage to Rigside and Ravensburgh and other small villages in my constituency. I shall certainly be voting for the amendment and against the Bill.
Column 228those of us from mining constituencies are mindful of the fact that opencastings are destined to increase in our area, particularly where pits have recently been closed. In areas where pits have closed--and closures have been fairly extensive since the 1984-85
strike--opencasting applications have almost inevitably been made in respect of the closed colliery sites. As Conservative Members have said, we are concerned that such applications have now been extended to green field sites, which will be even more devastating to the environment.
The closure programme that has been embarked upon by the British coal industry and supported by Conservative Members has reduced employment in mining constituencies. It is unacceptable to our communities that whereas mines may now employ 900 men--for example, Ackton Hall in Featherstone-- their opencast equivalents employ a maximum of 30 or 50 men. Opencasting is devastating not only to the environment but to employment prospects in coal mining communities. That is the main reason that local authorities may justifiably oppose opencast mining applications. Areas that have suffered such manpower losses will not accept a continuation of such devastation. The Bill would extend the tonnages for opencast sites from 25,000 to 250,000. I draw the attention of hon. Members to a point that I made in Committee. New section (2A) states :
"shall not render unlawful anything done in accordance with such a licence."
Does the Minister interpret that as stating that licences can be issued in contravention of the legislation? The extension to 250,000 tonnes may, by licence, be extended under the Bill. That would add further devastation to mining areas.
The amendments are necessary to cushion the community from the proposals outlined in the Bill. I would further extend the requirement. An application for a licence to mine 250,000 tonnes should be solely for the relevant local authority. If devastation is to be experienced by a community, it ill behoves the Minister, who is not familiar with that community, to override a local authority on planning applications. Responsibility should be in the hands of local community representatives. The economic viability of and justification for a proposed site and its environmental consequences should be weighed by people who are familiar with the area. The matter should not be in the hands of a Minister who may override the refusal of a planning application.
Because of environmental intrusion, I foresee greater opposition from local people. There was enough devastation in the past, even with the restriction of 25,000 tonnes. The Bill will permit far greater devastation. Will the existing licences that were granted under the 25,000 tonne limit be extended under the proposed legislation? Local people were assured that permission was granted for a limit of only 25,000 tonnes. Certain environmental conditions were agreed. However, conditions and promises will be overridden by the granting of new licences.
People in my constituency were reasonably happy with guarantees of protection. I should like an assurance from the Minister that the figure in the Bill is a maximum tonnage, not a permitted tonnage that can be extended under licence, as set out in clause 4.
Column 229I hope that Conservative Members, and the Minister in particular, appreciate that the Government have embarked on supposedly environmental legislation. I hope that the principles laid down in the Environmental Protection Bill are embraced in this Bill on behalf of people in mining communities.
Many people move to mining communities on the understanding that mining operations have ceased. They will strongly object to a reduction in the value of their properties as a consequence of a proposed licence to extract coal in the near vicinity of their recently acquired properties. Those people will be at the forefront of protests about environmental devastation.
Mr. Skinner : Opposition Members have a fairish chance of winning the vote on this amendment. At least two Tory Members have said that, like Opposition Members, they are very much opposed to the extension of the opencast limit from 25,000 to 250,000 tonnes. I expect the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) to join Opposition Members in the Lobby to support the matters about which he feels angry. Other Tory Members who have reservations now have a great opportunity to declare themselves. They could induce the Secretary of State to vote with them. He does not like the ground in his constituency being disturbed. Of course, it was to do with low-level nuclear waste, but he would not even allow drilling to take place. I have news for the right hon. Gentleman : opencast mining extends over a large area of his constituency. He could accept the amendment, and it would be game, set and match.
We know why there is more opencast mining. It is partly because pits have been closed left, right and centre. Many have been going through occasional or temporary economic problems. The Coal Board has come along, shut the pit and given a nod and a wink to its friends on the opencast executive and its friends in big business and said, "Look here, there is plenty of coal left in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, Scotland"--
Mr. Skinner : --and Leicestershire--"You can get the contractor to come along, dig big holes, and make a lot of money." Of course, coincidentally, the combine is engaged in motorway construction. It is very strange. Suddenly, we find great big diggers digging out large sections of motorway. Work is concluded, and people ask, "Have you heard who has the new opencast?" The same people have all the spare machinery and need to occupy it for a certain time. They move from the motorway and start digging a hole in the opencast area. People talk about market forces. I do not believe that many opencast operations that have taken place in my lifetime, especially since I have been involved in politics, have been carried out on the basis of fair and open competition. It is almost as though people say, "It is your turn for the next one." All hon. Members have heard stories in their constituencies. One firm does one opencast, and then it asks, "Who is going to do the next?" My hon. Friends can recount all the usual stories about how companies move from one area to the next. It has been part and parcel of the pit closure programme. When they have churned out the coal, made large sums of money and left the dereliction behind them, they leave the big hole, and somebody comes along and says, "We will dump some toxic waste in it and make some more money."
Column 230I have continually said that it is important that we do not have toxic waste--low-level or high-level nuclear waste or any form of waste--dumped in those areas. It is one thing for communities to put up with large-scale opencast mining--even more so if the Bill is passed--but there will be even bigger holes in which to dump rubbish. Dioxin was dumped in my area of Morton. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) can no doubt tell another story.
Mr. Hood : I hesitate to mention The Sun newspaper, but there was a report in it only a few weeks ago about the Clay mining company, which had six little mines that were bought for £40,000 and were sold to Lea Waste Disposal Limited for £17 million. That company is to dump toxic waste in those six mines.
Mr. Skinner : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What is more, it is worth placing on record, as my hon. Friend did in Committee, the fact that opencast mining companies use some of the profits that they make out of opencast mining and put them into the Tory party's funds to fight elections. I am referring to companies such as-- [Interruption.] I hope that "World in Action" will do a programme on this matter as well. I will give it some names to start with. The research has already been done. They include Taylor Woodrow, Costain and Wimpey. They are ready and available to grease the palms of those Tory Members who are to support the Bill.
The real scandal is evidenced in some correspondence that I came across today showing that another opencast and private mine is now going to be developed in the centre of a tiny village in my constituency--which has only a few hundred inhabitants--called Stanfree, where Tommy Swain used to live. All my hon. Friends will remember Tommy. The opencast mine will be within 20 or 30 yards of Tommy Swain's old bungalow, and not only that, but 16 old-age pensioners' bungalows will be within spitting distance of the opencast operation, if it takes place.
I place it on record here and now in Parliament that I am fully behind the Stanfree pressure group that is to oppose the opencast operation and the private drift mine in that village. Just imagine, the Bill has not yet become an Act--it is not yet law--but it is already being anticipated. Those concerned know that opencast operations can now be extended under private licence from 25,000 tonnes to 250,000 tonnes. They know that private mines can be extended in terms of the people working in them from 30 people to 150 people or more.
Already, people are beginning to say that there is money to be had and no doubt some of the money from the Derbyshire mining company that has some proposals on this will be passed to the Tory party. Even if it is only 1 per cent., there is a lot of money to be had and it will probably finish up --
Mr. Ashby rose --
Column 231question. Is there any difference between opencasting on a large scale by British Coal or by companies in the private sector? It is as bad with both. What is the difference?
Mr. Skinner : None. Frankly, the hon. Gentleman has been trying to split hairs all night. He has a problem and is full of guilt. He wants to be able to tell his constituents what he has done about opencasting, so I invite him to join us in the Lobby. He can get rid of all his guilt. Guilt is riddling his body. All that he needs to do is a simple thing that will take only a few minutes. He can walk into the Lobby with us when my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) seeks to put the amendment to the vote. That is all that the hon. Gentleman has to do. Indeed, he could bring some of his Tory friends with him--those Tory Members who are making all the noise and who have crocodile tears pouring from their eyes every time they make such speeches. All that they have to do is to go back to their constituents and say, "Judge me by what I did last night and not on anything else."
I understand the hon. Gentleman's problem, but both I and my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) have a problem in our constituencies in respect of the Slaley site and the Pinnock site. The Slaley site was a real scandal. We had an inquiry and the Labour-controlled county council opposed the proposal as did the Labour-controlled Bolsover district council and the parish councils. We had a massive inquiry. We fought the Coal Board and its expensive lawyers and we won because the inspector said that the board could mine the coal for only 11 seconds a day, and you cannot get a much better victory than that. They put the flags out in Clowne and Barlborough.
What a great victory, but what happens? The Secretary of State sits on it. We thought, "Right oh, we've won," but along comes the new green and friendly Secretary of State for the Environment and the first thing he does when he gets the job is to look at the Barlborough, Clowne and Slaley application and overturn the decision. "Old Fag Ash" supported us, but this green and friendly one has allowed the opencast to proceed.
Both I and my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East condemn the Slaley proposal because it should have gone back to the people. They should have been allowed to decide. There is now another proposal called Pinnock site, most of which falls in the constituency of my hon. Friend.
There are four opencast applications within the space of four miles in those two constituencies. Three are massive applications. It is an absolute disgrace. All this is combined with the closure of pits in these areas and there will be even more.
However, when the pits are closed, opencast operations will take only about one third of the reserves. Two thirds will be lost for ever because, once opencast begins, it will not be possible to drift or bore a mine. The coal is lost forever. Two thirds of the coal that belongs to the nation will be completely sterilised. That is short-termism. It means that someone can make a quick buck and line the
Column 232pockets of those in the Tory party and the opencast executive, but large areas of coal reserves will be lost to the nation forever. On top of that, there is the problem at Arkwright, a drift mine that was closed recently. Methane gas then poured into the houses in the village and although many families had to be evacuated, British Coal is now saying that it will not pay compensation. I put it on the record before the matter goes to court and becomes sub judice--and this is probably the last chance that I shall have--that I am saying to the Secretary of State, "Look into the Arkwright case." I mentioned this matter several times when the right hon. Gentleman was Leader of the House. Now, in his new job, I am asking him to say to British Coal, "Be decent and honourable and pay out compensation to the families in Arkwright." I repeat that families in my constituency had to leave their homes for weeks because of the methane gas that escaped from that drift mine after it was closed.
There is no doubt that we must vote for the amendment. There is no question about the fact that we do not want Tories coming here, rabbitting on about how much they oppose opencast, but then sneaking away in the night. If those Tory Members really mean it, they have a great opportunity. They can join us in the Lobby and then go back to Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and all the other places before they are defeated in the next general election and say that they used their voices and followed them with their votes. That is the opportunity that is presented to them tonight. I hope that some of them have the guts to take it.