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Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) : As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said, the hon. Members for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Ashby), and for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester), who is not in the Chamber at the moment, both spoke passionately against opencast mining. It will be extremely interesting to see whether they have the courage of their conviction in following their voices into the Lobby.
Mr. Ashby : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that what I said was that it is inevitable that the coal will have to be extracted, but that it must be extracted under strict conditions, taking full account of the environment? That is what I said, and that is what the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) failed to understand. The coal is there and has to come out some time, but only under the strictest of conditions.
The ground on which the hon. Gentleman and the Member for Broxtowe criticised opencast mining was the destruction that it caused to the rural environment and to beautiful places. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) and others talked about the destruction that is caused to communities. I wish to make a short contribution about the damage and destruction that opencast mining can do to urban areas in the middle of our cities.
At present, the opencast executive has an application to mine 650 acres right in the middle of the city of Stoke-on-Trent on a site called the China site, which is
Column 233surrounded by thousands of homes. It is right in the middle of one of the largest cities in this country. The devastation to that community and to the city will be great. That is why I am speaking against the extraordinary tenfold increase in the licences from 25, 000 tonnes to 250,000 tonnes, and against opencasting in recreational and enclosed land. Those 650 acres comprise scrubland that has always been open land, right in the heart of our city. It is one of the few lungs in our city, but the opencast executive now proposes to take 3 million tonnes out of that site, which I repeat is in the middle of one of this country's largest cities.
The executive will work to a depth of over 300 ft. At present, there is no road access to the site. It is proposed to take 3 million tonnes of coal out of the site by road, right through the heart of Stoke-on-Trent. When the project was announced 12 months ago, the opencast executive said that it was willing to go ahead only because it had a willing partner in the local city council. When it leaked its plans, it met, not surprisingly, with total opposition from every resident of the city, from everyone who was interested in the environment and from both the district council and the county council. The executive could not find a single supporter for its plans in north Staffordshire.
In spite of the assurance that the director of the opencast executive gave to me, that he was going ahead only because he believed that he had a willing partner, the plans will proceed. The day after tomorrow, the executive will launch a slightly modified plan for only 165 acres over the next four years and a mere 1 million tonnes. It is interesting to note the relationship between that decision and clause 4.
There will be public consultation about the plans and, again, they will meet total opposition. I ask the Under-Secretary of State to make several points clear when he responds to the debate. Is it not significant when everyone in an urban community such as Stoke-on-Trent is completely opposed to a project? Should not those voices be taken into account? Should not it be taken into account that both local authorities reject the plans? Is the middle--not the edge--of one of the largest cities in the country a suitable site for extracting 3 million tonnes of coal?
If that were planned for the middle of London--for example, in Hyde Park-- would the Government give permission to go ahead? If it were the middle of Manchester, Southampton, Bristol or Winchester, would the Government say that it was perfectly all right to extract 3 million tonnes of coal, although the site is surrounded by residential areas on three sides and by commercial, industrial and retail developments on one side? Is it reasonable to take 3 million tonnes of coal from under people's homes? It is proposed to go right up to the edge of people's gardens.
Opposition Members understand anxieties about the environment and about destroying the green and beautiful parts of the country. To work 3 million tonnes of coal right in the middle of a city in this day and age is equally appalling.
In Stoke-on-Trent we have paid our dues in coal. We have done enough. The whole city is built on a seam and is undermined. The major pit in Stoke-on- Trent, Hanley deep pit, had its main gates on the opposite side of the street to the main department store until the second world war.
Column 234For 200 years we have lived with the devastation that coal dust can cause in a community. Virtually every man in Stoke-on-Trent either has white dust on his lungs from pot banks or black dust from working down the pit. In the ward abutting the proposed opencast pit, with which the executive is determined to proceed, 50 per cent. of the men do not live to pick up their pension. We have paid our dues, and many people have paid with their lives. We are now being asked to have a 650- acre opencast mine in the middle of our city. That touches a raw nerve in the people of Stoke-on-Trent and they will not tolerate it. The Under- Secretary should understand that the changes in clause 4 imply not only the destruction of the countryside and a complete abnegation of the Government's commitment to a green and pleasant environment, important though that is, but the destruction of urban environments. The Government talk about inner-city regeneration. Is it inner-city regeneration to mine 3 million tonnes of coal in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent? The Minister cannot mean that. He should examine the plans and reject them as surely as everyone in Stoke-on-Trent and both local authorities reject them. We have paid enough. That is the reality of the Bill. I hope that the Under- Secretary will understand that when he replies to the debate.
Mr. Harry Barnes: My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) mentioned north-east Derbyshire in connection with both the Pinnock site--which affects his constituency and mine--and Tom Swain, who formerly lived in Stanfree in his constituency. Stanfree is to be subject to an opencast development. It is a pity that Tom Swain did not live and had that unfortunate accident. He would have been solidly behind the fight to ensure that the opencast mining development does not go ahead.
The Pinnock site has been mentioned previously in the House. It was the subject of an Adjournment debate introduced by my hon. Friend and of a petition that I presented to the House from residents of Mastin Moor on 13 June 1988. Those people live next to the proposed Pinnock site. The usual arguments against opencast mining, such as the disruption that it causes and its dangers, were presented earlier in this debate and were listed in the petition. The petition was responded to by the Department of the Environment, but such petitions should also be examined carefully by the Department of Energy, because such opencast sites will be affected by the Bill. Opencast developments face a problem, in that the conditions for such developments have already been weakened in a circular issued 18 months ago by the Department of the Environment in connection with planning permission. It has become increasingly difficult for local authorities that have objections to granting planning permission for opencast mining, to act within the rules to block applications. There have been attempts to ensure that planning permission is squeezed through at local level and does not go to appeal or a planning inquiry, which in many cases overturns the local planning decision. In an earlier debate I mentioned the problems with opencasting that arise from the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill. In order to compete with foreign coal, the Coal Board and the private sector companies will promote a smaller number of deep mines and super pits at the expense of other pits. They will also go over to opencast mining developments in a cavalier manner.
Column 235That is particularly the case in the areas that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover represent. My constituency has an odd structure, the eastern side being similar to the constituency of Bolsover and the western side being more like the constituency of Derbyshire, West in its rural aspects and in its towns. It is divided politically, the western side being more strongly Conservative and the eastern side more strongly Labour.
However, the opencast issue is a great unifying force. The opencast executive has given me a huge map of the area showing how opencast mining will be developed. Those developments will be similar to those described by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover. Pits such as the Renishaw Park pit, in former industrial areas, have been closed, and sites such as the Pinnock site will, when it is developed, take coal that would otherwise have been taken by the Renishaw Park pit. However, the western side of my constituency, with its agricultural land and commuter towns, also has fantastic potential for opencast mining. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was full of cutrills and drift mines. The map that I have shows not only the areas already mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover, but many others in both our constituencies, with fantastic potential for opencast development.
Dronfield in north-east Derbyshire is separated from Sheffield by a small strip of land known as the green belt, but that is all on coal, so it could soon become a black belt, with a host of transport problems and other forms of disruption for the communities in the area.
I could travel round my constituency from parish to parish showing the extent of the problems in the two regions that I have described. I will do everything that I can to stop opencast mining being developed by British Coal or its successors, or by private developers, ripping open my constituency and causing problems for north-east Derbyshire, such as those that existed in the constituency of the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby).
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Tony Baldry) : This has been a lengthy and interesting debate upon this group of amendments on opencast mining in which hon. Members on both side of the House have taken part. I want to make it clear to each and every one of them that the Government believe that opencast mining must strike a proper balance between national economic needs and environmental concerns. That is clearly paramount.
The House should recall that Britain's opencast industry is an important natural resource, producing coal of excellent quality, low in ash and chlorine. A substantial proportion is used for blending with deep-mined coal that would otherwise be unusable. Several major coal consumers have tight specifications that can be met only by opencast coal. Their business would otherwise go to other fuels or to imports.
Opencast coal is also one of the cheapest forms of energy available to Britain. Its costs are, typically, a third less than those of deep-mined coal, which means that it can compete with anything on the international market. That
Column 236source of energy is a real import beater and any Government who turned their back on it would be irresponsible.
However, I fully recognise that an environmental penalty is attached to opencast coal. That is why the Government introduced new planning guidelines on opencasting 18 months ago which spell out more fully and more tightly than ever before the environmental criteria that operators must meet. The mineral planning guidelines then issued spelled out more fully than ever before the environmental criteria, including restoration, that have to be met, and the Government have also insisted on full environmental impact assessments on all but the smallest sites.
The new guidance represents a proper and durable balance between the interests of energy supply and the environment. Tighter regulations also prevent time wasting in the planning process because environmentally unacceptable applications will not be put forward. We should recall that in the case of small sites that have traditionally been worked under licence, the present 25,000 tonnes statutory limit on their size has led to a piecemeal working of opencast deposits. That small surface area has limited operators' ability to adopt imaginative schemes of restoration. The Bill lifts that obstacle and thereby reduces the period of disruption to the community and gives greater scope for even higher standards of restoration. I am glad to tell the House that local authority representatives in Scotland and England have welcomed the new, tighter guidance.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) : Does not the Minister recognise that when there are larger opencast sites there will be more transport on the road because transporters will be in use? The bigger the output, the more transport there will be on the roads.
Mr. Baldry : The fact that opencasting is subject to full planning procedures seems to have been missed out of the debate. It is important for the House to recall why we have been discussing this group of amendments on opencast mining. Doubts were expressed, initially by the Select Committee on Energy in its report in 1987, about British Coal's practice of licensing opencast sites of up to 35,000 tonnes, against the statutory limit of 25,000 tonnes or not greatly in excess of 25,000 tonnes. The Government have taken the first legislative opportunity since that report to remove any doubt by raising the limit to 250,000 tonnes. The Bill retains the flexibility for British Coal to issue licences for amounts not likely to exceed, or greatly to exceed, 250,000 tonnes. Such flexibility is needed because we can never be precise about how much coal is available in a particular site.
Mr. Baldry : It was because the Select Committee drew attention to the fact that there was uncertainty about how licences were being issued that we took the first legislative opportunity to clarify the position. I hope that that clarification will be much welcomed by the House.
Some hon. Members expressed concern about the issuing of consecutive licences. I would not expect British Coal to issue consecutive licences in the same deposit. Where a licence for up to 250,000 tonnes in a large deposit
Column 237of coal is being considered, I would expect the corporation to have regard, among other factors, to the likelihood and desirability, under current mineral planning policy, of the deposit being extracted as a whole under a single operation.
Each of the amendments in the group is interesting. However, for reasons which I hope I shall make clear, they are all superfluous and unnecessary. Amendment No. 4 was first raised in committee by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) when he asked my predecessor, now the Minister for Housing and Planning, for an assurance that approval for an opencast site would not be given if the site was covered by a pre-1840 private Enclosure Act. I cannot give such an assurance. Even if the condition relating to hedgerows, which the hon. Member for Westworth has discovered in some pre- 1840 Acts, is to be found--it is far from clear that it is to be found--
Mr. Hardy : I have made the point--but the Minister appears to be disregarding it--that obviously, I have not studied all 4,000 private Enclosure Acts. However, I have studied, or had studied for me, a substantial proportion, dealing with various parts of the country. They all contain the clear, perpetual requirement that those hedgerows enclosing the fields and taking over the common land should be maintained for all time. The Government cannot have their cake and eat it. Either they respect the law or they do not. If the Government respect the law, the Minister cannot continue to maintain his evasiveness.
Mr. Baldry : Even if the Enclosure Acts contain conditions relating to hedgerows, it is questionable whether any persons other than adjoining landowners could ever enforce them. That matter is for the planning authority to take into account when issuing the planning consents that all opencast sites require. If the hon. Member for Wentworth contends that the Enclosure Acts continue to have legal force, amendment No. 4 is unnecessary. If they have no such effect, it would be improper to extend them in the way that the hon. Gentleman proposes. In either case, amendment No. 4 is superfluous. As to amendment No. 5, I emphasise that proper and responsible restoration of opencast sites is of paramount importance and should be a fundamental consideration when appraising any proposal for opencast mining. Amendment No. 5, which requires applicants for exploration and production licences to make undertakings relating to site restoration is, again, unnecessary and superfluous. Such requirements are already dealt with in planning legislation. A local planning authority can, and generally does, attach restoration conditions to any planning consents. The authority also usually requires an applicant to provide an environmental impact assessment. The Government's current planning guidelines deal specifically with restoration standards.
As British Coal does not issue production licences unless prior planning consent has been obtained, no purpose would be served by including restoration requirements in the licence, and to do so could cause confusion if they were inconsistent with conditions stipulated by a local planning authority.
British Coal also requires licensees to deposit a bond to ensure the fulfilment of restoration requirements. The current practice, whereby British Coal issues a licence on condition that planning consent conditions are met, is perfectly satisfactory. It places planning issues where they
Column 238belong--with local planning authorities--and avoids the risk of confusion by requiring only one set of restoration conditions. It is a matter for local planning authorities to ensure compliance with any conditions that they attach to consents.
Amendment No. 1 requires applicants for production licences to deposit a bond with local authorities to cover estimated restoration costs. Such a provision is also unnecessary and superfluous because local authorities can effectively already require such a bond to be lodged with them as part of the planning consent process. As, again, British Coal will not consider an application unless the applicant for a production licence has prior planning consent, there is no need for any amendment.
In view of the proper balance that the Government have introduced in respect of opencasting, and having heard my explanation as to why the amendments are unnecessary and superfluous, I hope that the Opposition will feel able to withdraw them.
Mr. Dobson : I should have welcomed the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) to his new job earlier. I may add that he has proved to be a bit of a disappointment already. We had hoped that Baldrick would come up with a cunning plan, but he has failed us.
Our amendment would require any applicant for planning permission to place a bond with the local authority against the possibility of going broke or deliberately not restoring the land properly afterwards. The bond placed with British Coal does not do that, because British Coal has other financial relationships with those private opencast operators and may use the bond for those purposes, rather than to look after the local environment and neighbourhood. The Opposition think that amendment No. 1 is a sensible amendment and we do not understand why the Government cannot accept it. All the Conservative Back-Benchers who spoke thought that it was a good idea.
We think that it is a good idea and we want to put amendment No. 1 to the vote.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment proposed : No. 1, in page 2, line 27, at end insert-- (1A) After subsection (2) of that section there shall be inserted
"(2AA) Applicants for a licence under subsection (2)(c) above shall undertake to deposit a bond, with the relevant local authority, sufficient to cover the costs of the restoration of the land affected by operations under that licence as estimated by that local authority.".'-- [Mr. Dobson.] Question put, That the amendment be made :--
The House divided : Ayes 161, Noes 229.
Division No. 37] [9.15
Abbott, Ms Diane
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Column 239Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Hoey, Ms Kate (Vauxhall)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Mo n)
Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Macdonald, Calum A.
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Mahon, Mrs Alice
Marek, Dr John
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Moonie, Dr Lewis
Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Pike, Peter L.
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Quin, Ms Joyce
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Smith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)
Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)
Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Tellers for the Ayes :
Mrs. Llin Golding and
Mr. Martyn Jones.
Alison, Rt Hon Michael
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)