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Mr. Alexander : I thank my hon. Friend for responding to concerns expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. His remarks deserve further study, and it may be appropriate for them to be discussed in another place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Clause 46 --

The subsidence adviser

Amendment made : No. 32, in page 41, line 12, at end insert (5A) The provision that may be contained in regulations under this section shall include

(a) provision for any matter to which the regulations relate to be determined by the Authority in such manner, and by reference to such factors, as may be described in the regulations ; and

(b) provision, where any expenses are to be met by the Authority in accordance with the regulations, for amounts in respect of those expenses to be recoverable by the Authority from other persons with responsibility for subsidence affecting land.'.-- [Mr. Eggar.]

Clause 47 --

Disputes etc. as to subsidence matters

Amendment made : No. 33, in page 42, line 28, at end insert (6A) The provision that may be contained in regulations under this section shall include

(a) provision for any matter to which the regulations relate to be determined by the Authority in such manner, and by reference to such factors, as may be described in the regulations ; and

(b) provision, where any expenses are to be met by the Authority in accordance with the regulations, for amounts in respect of those expenses to be recoverable by the Authority from other persons with responsibility for subsidence affecting land.'.-- [Mr. Eggar.]

Clause 51 --

Additional rights in regard to underground land etc.

Amendments made : No. 49, in page 46, line 37, after actionable' insert in England and Wales,'.

No. 50, in page 46, line 42, after question ;' insert

( ) the doing of any act which, apart from this section, would be actionable in Scotland by virtue of

(i) any real burden (including a real burden ad factum praestandum ) ; or

(ii) any statutory prohibition or restriction, which adversely affects the land in question ;'.-- [Mr. Eggar.]

Clause 52 --

Opencast operations

Mr. Alexander : I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 47, line 19, leave out after 31st December 1999' and insert

except in respect of land for which a valid planning application for coal mining has been received by the relevant local planning authority by the date on which this Act received the Royal Assent,'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : With this, it will be convenient to discuss also amendment No. 6, in page 47, line 34, leave out

in relation to the period before 31st December 1999'.

Mr. Alexander : I am aware that it is getting late, so I shall be as brief as possible.

The amendments have cross-party support, and recognise the continuing concern that exists in another area. In the Bill, the Government propose that, until the end of 1999, private sector mining operators should have recourse to compulsory powers, through the Coal

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Authority, to gain access to land for opencast or drift mining. Those powers are quite extensive and deserve a little more debate before being approved.

The amendment seeks to put the privatised coal industry in the same position as any other private mineral industry, while ensuring fair treatment to anyone who has made commercial commitments on the basis of the current law. There is no obvious reason why private coal operators should be in a better position than other mineral operators whose land or rights they wish to acquire. The Government recognise that by limiting those rights to 1999. I fully understand the need to safeguard existing commitments, but the proposed period goes beyond that.

The amendment proposes, therefore, to limit the rights to those who have made serious financial commitment to any project, as demonstrated by the submission of a valid planning application. I use the word "valid" to exclude anyone who has merely sent a letter or expressed concern or interest.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Minister said that the five-year period had been adopted to allow time for a review of access to all mineral resources. If the intention is to produce a uniform set of procedures for accessing all minerals, and those procedures are unlikely to include compulsory acquisition powers, it is difficult for us to see why they need to be extended now to the private sector for coal alone.

My hon. Friend claims that as the ownership of coal vests in the nation, the nation has the right to have access to it, but many mineral rights are vested in people other than the landowner and access has to be negotiated in the marketplace commercially in the normal way. Why should coal be any different ?

Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North) : Are not the rights being continued because they make the share value of British Coal's opencast executive that much higher and provide just enough time for British Coal to exploit all those areas currently being prospected ?

Mr. Alexander : I do not wish to speculate along the same lines as the hon. Gentleman, but my hon. Friend the Minister has heard that observation and will no doubt wish to comment when he replies to the debate.

The existence of the compulsory purchase powers will distort the value of the land concerned and favour the mine owner over any other private interests. In 1975, when it first came about, it might have been tolerable in answer to a national need--and there was certainly a need for coal in the mid 1970s--but in a free market with no overriding national interest at stake, it seems oppressive and unusual and I ask my hon. Friend to justify it a little more before the House accepts it.

Mr. Alison : In support of my hon. Friend's amendment, I should like to place on the record my view that in the new, privatised environment, normal private treaty negotiation should be the order of the day between private licence holders and private landowners and the compulsory rights order procedure should be made redundant. I am reassured in postulating that general principle by the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister has already conceded the validity of that proposition by setting a clear terminal date--the end of 1999--after which the compulsory rights order procedure will be made redundant and removed from the statute book. The fact that it has

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been conceded as temporary and short-lived is a good reason for asking my hon. Friend to agree that it should be further accelerated and CRO procedures dropped forthwith.

My hon. Friend the Minister sought to reassure some of us on the matter, in particular a colleague of considerable distinction, my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), to whom he wrote a letter on 14 January this year. My right hon. Friend has been kind enough to allow me to refer to that letter. My hon. Friend the Minister was at some pains to reassure my right hon. Friend that, during the short-lived, interim, twilight existence that the compulsory rights orders procedure is to enjoy, it would be subject to decisions by the Coal Authority. He said not only that the procedure would be operated by the Coal Authority--it is a public body, so that might reassure people--but that that procedure would be subject to confirmation by the Secretary of State for the Environment.

One may think, therefore, that those two double fail-safe mechanisms will ensure that the CRO procedure will be benign, but it does not quite work out like that. Certain ramifications, involving the scope and activities of the Coal Authority, will make it almost unavoidable for the authority to confirm a CRO. The Coal Authority will grant a licence to an operator. Once that has occurred, the operator will take his licence to the Secretary of State for the Environment to obtain planning permission for coal extraction, for which it has obtained a licence.

Under those circumstances, is it likely that the Coal Authority , which has given the operator a licence, and the Secretary of State, who has given planning permission, will suddenly say, "Oh yes, we have cheerfully given you a licence and planning permission, but, bingo, we have suddenly decided not to give you a compulsory rights order" ?

As night follows day, after the authority has given a licence and the planning authority has given planning permission, they will not then refuse to give an operator a CRO. It is self-defeating to give those powers to the public bodies, even if the idea behind it is to reassure the public. The mechanism is not fail-safe, but fail-foul. It will result automatically in CROs being granted when the Coal Authority gives a licence and the planning authority gives planning permission.

It is for those reasons that I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider carefully whether he needs to extend the life of the procedure and whether it would not be better to cut its throat here and now and move into the environment of private enterprise and normal private treaty negotiations between private organisations. I hope that my hon. Friend will at least consider the matter and perhaps alter it in another place.

Mr. Hardy : I am glad that the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) referred to cutting the throat of this evil proposal. If I had said it, it would have been regarded as distasteful. He is right, and I wish many other throats could be cut as far as the Bill is concerned.

The issue is important because it gives Conservative Members the opportunity to examine what the Government are doing. They are committed to free market forces and they are giving compulsory purchase rights to private businesses.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) : It is unbelievable.

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Mr. Hardy : It is an incredible development. If Conservative Members want to be able to claim that they possess political consistency, they should agree with the comments of the right hon. Member for Selby.

I feel strongly about opencast mining. I want Conservative Members to put themselves in the position of people who live in coal regions, who may have seen their deep-mined pits destroyed, with the attendant devastation and dereliction. They have to face the prospect of green fields and a decent environment being destroyed by the new technological capacity of the opencast miners. In the 1940s and 1950s, there was opencast mining to a depth of about 200 ft in part of my constituency, but some opencast sites now go down 600 or 700 ft. Opencast mining schemes can last for a decade. Would any hon. or right hon. Conservative Member care to live near an opencast site if mining was going to last for 10 years ? Would they want to listen to the empty lorries banging along the pavements for 10 years, and making more row when they are empty than when they are full of coal and spoil ?

9.30 pm

In Committee, I talked about seven lean years followed by seven fat ones. One or two Conservative Members will recognise the origin of that phrase. For people who live near opencast sites, it is seven lean years with no reward, because the profits flow away from the coalfields.

The Minister for Energy said that Labour-controlled councils in coalfield areas were not helpful and that they were resistant to opencast mining. I hope that many of them are. In the interests of democracy and the people whom they represent, they do not want to give permission for mining on green-field sites.

The Minister should understand that there is a place for opencast mining-- in an area where it would clear dereliction and devastation. That proviso should be the principal, and perhaps the sole, determinant of a favourable position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) will understand why I asked the Minister's colleague whether, the next time that he visited his constituency, he would go a little further north and turn off the M1 to visit the Rother Valley country park, which came about because of a large opencast mining scheme. That scheme was not a nuisance to local residents because they knew that they would benefit at the end of it. What benefit exists for people who have to live near some of the schemes that are envisaged ? I suggest to Conservative Members that, while our responsibilities are to our constituents, we must have some regard for other people. I trust that Conservative Members who may feel that they are not in danger of being exposed to opencast mining will consider those who are.

During the passage of the Bill, I harassed the Minister on several occasions to tell us where the accessible coal reserves are. He eventually produced a map to show those areas. On Monday, I tabled a question to ask the Minister to list the 15 counties where accessible coal reserves are detectable and to say at what depth the most shallow seam lies. The Minister's answer was evasive and he said that that information was not available. If the old statement that our island is surrounded by fish and built on coal is at all accurate, there must be many areas of Britain where modern technical capabilities and opencast operations can reach coal reserves.

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In fun, I suggested that we should set up a Henley opencast mining company, to take advantage of the arrangements to get compulsory purchase orders until 1999, so that we could turn over the constituency of the President of the Board of Trade. I would rather that they had opencast mining in Henley than in my constituency, but I want to be charitable and I would not wish a large, noisy, opencast, operation on a green-field site in any part of our island, especially if the local community deplored the idea.

The Minister has so far been unable to deny that the Government have been disposed to allow opencast developments to take place against the wishes of local communities, which are harmed and ravaged by such developments far too often. It is vital for the Minister to guarantee that the powers granted to him in the Bill will not be allowed to drive people to despair through the excessive nuisance that some of his hon. Friends seem to favour.

Mr. Lester : The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) spoke as if many Conservative Members do not represent coalfield constituencies where there is a potential for opencast mining, but most of the Conservative Members sitting here fall into that category. The amendment gives the wrong signal. The Government and the Department of Trade and Industry are giving the wrong signal over compulsory use of powers, at a time when the Department of the Environment is concerned to revise the planning regulations that affect opencast mining. The description given by the hon. Member for Wentworth was entirely right. A potentially major scheme, Robinette, in my constituency could last 15 years, never mind 10, on a green-field site in the most beautiful part of the constituency. Already, compulsory notices are closing footpaths even before planning consent has been obtained. That gives rise to many rumblings among constituents when they find notices on footpaths that they have traditionally used saying that there is the potential to close them. I want my hon. Friend the Minister to understand how deep are feelings in coalfield areas in which pits with workable reserves are closed, when planning consent for opencasting is given in the same area. It is obscene that pits equipped with valuable machinery and with plenty of workable coal are closed while green-field opencast sites, which cause despair and difficulty, are opened.

As it is late, I will not develop my argument, but I want my hon. Friend the Minister to appreciate the depth of feeling among residents of areas potentially affected by opencast mining when it is not necessary or required to meet the market.

Mr. Beith : Over the years, my constituency has produced as much opencast coal as any other in the country. Many of my constituents say, "Just a minute. Hang on--isn't it time we had more control over our county ?" The same is true of south Wales and other parts of the country, where deep mining has ended and large opencast tracts are threatened. Residents are seeing the extension of compulsory powers to private companies, even if for a limited period, that are totally inappropriate when there is no overriding need for opencast coal. They see also the closure of deep mines, leading to opencast supplies being sought, and the abolition of the ceiling on the size of private opencast sites.

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The sale of British Coal's opencast resources arises from the Bill, and it is proposed to revise the mineral planning guidance note, which still contains the words "national interest"- -albeit in a slightly different phrase. No "national interest" exists that requires opencast mining. There is a commercial interest, and sometimes an employment reason or the possibility of restoring derelict land through an opencast operation--but there is no "national interest" to say that we need opencast resources.

The country has more coal than British Coal knows what to do with, and deep mines are being closed on a ludicrous scale. There is no overriding demand, as my constituents and those of Conservative Members know perfectly well. They are not fooled or in the least impressed by being told at an inquiry that the inspector must take into account that it is in the national interest to have access to opencast resources.

The dice are too heavily loaded against proper planning consideration of opencast operations. They are loaded by the existence of compulsory powers, and by existing and possible future planning guidance.

Containing and limiting the role of opencasting is reasonable and sensible, now that we have ample supplies of coal and are closing deep mines far faster than many of us feel is right. The planning situation should reflect that, and so should the powers made available. That is why I press the Minister to accept the amendments.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale) : My attention was first drawn to the problem of compulsory rights orders and their effect in the Bill by the Country Landowners Association. I declare my interest, as I have many times before, as a member of that organisation--although I am glad to say that I am not aware of coal being anywhere near my farm, which is a blessing.

I am extremely anxious about the provisions that the amendment addresses. I share the dislike of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) for opencast mining. My mind goes back to memories of his own area--the hon. Gentleman will recall that I once stood for Wakefield in the West Riding--and to a day, many years ago, that I spent campaigning in West Virginia with Senator Joe Rockefeller. I saw the total ravages that had been created in that state by strip mining, which Joe Rockefeller quite rightly said that he would bring to an end. I agree very much with what the hon. Gentleman said, but the amendment is not so much about opencast mining as compulsory rights orders.

My hon. Friend the Minister was kind enough to write to me earlier in the year, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) referred to that letter. I remain very anxious about the provisions of the Bill. I agree very much with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby. I hope that, when replying, my hon. Friend will look sympathetically at the terms of the amendment and will seek to amend the Bill in another place.

Mr. Hood : I know that hon. Members are keen to rush their contributions tonight, as I am, but opencast mining is just too important a subject to speed through the House without proper examination. I am sure that the Bill was thoroughly examined in the Standing Committee--I make

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no criticism of that--but I am a bit wary of rushing it through tonight without making a few points that need consideration. I come from a mining background. In my political life, I have been very much involved in the British coal industry. All my views have been shaped on issues concerning a British coal industry. But I am also conscious of being a Scottish Member of Parliament. The Bill threatens what is left of the Scottish coal industry. If--there is bit of hairiness about it--the Scottish coal industry, vis-a-vis deep-mined and opencast, is sold separately, it is my considered view that that would spell the death of what is left of the deep mines in Scotland. It is important that we have some answers from the Minister about that.

I speak also as a Member with one of the biggest--if not the biggest-- opencast sites in Europe in my constituency. Some hon. Members may be aware that Clydesdale is a large urban-rural constituency of more than 500 sq miles. It is an area with no deep mines now, but in my earlier years, in my father's time, there were many deep mines in the area. It has a history of involvement in the mining industry. In comparison with the deep fields of Yorkshire and the midlands, it is an area of shallow coal. I have said before that one can walk over the moors in my constituency, kick over a sod of grass and find coal. It is rich with shallow coal. It is said that there are 140 million tonnes of reserves in the Douglas valley alone. Therefore, I am concerned with what the House does about opencast. The Clyde valley starts in my constituency.

Those who have heard "Song of the Clyde" have heard Kenneth McKellar or, before him, Robert Wilson say that the Clyde starts from lead hills and flows all the way to the sea-- [Hon. Members :-- "Sing it."] I am very much tempted to ; I am sure that the House would be appreciative if I did. I have been a bit of a crooner in my day, but will relieve the House from my "Song of the Clyde".

9.45 pm

My constituency is very much a rural area ; it is one of the loveliest parts of Scotland to come to on holiday or for a visit. Hon. Members are welcome to come there any time. Clydesdale now relies heavily on tourism for its employment because, thanks to the Government, much of our manufacturing industry has been destroyed, so tourism is a major employer. We must protect our environment to protect the jobs in tourism.

If there is any relaxation of planning legislation on opencast--there is a hint in the Local Government (Scotland) etc. Bill that that may happen--and local authorities are less able to protect the environment from the ravages of opencast, great damage will be done to our communities.

My constituency is one of the largest rural areas to deliver a Labour Member of Parliament--at least, it is one of the largest at present. Of course, many rural areas will deliver Labour Members of Parliament in the not too distant future. But if Conservative Members think that they can sit there in their nice wee rural areas with coal 300 ft or 400 ft below them, and not have their areas ravaged by the powers given in the Bill before us and by other Bills affecting local government, they are kidding themselves.

My local authority has recently opposed a planning application to mine coal in my constituency. It has opposed the application so far, and it will continue to do so unless the Bill takes away its power to do so. If that happens it could have a devastating effect on my constituency. I bring

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that fact to the attention of hon. Members, especially Conservative Members, because I am sure that Opposition Members are already well aware of it.

The present mania for pit closures has raised another environmental question--water pollution. I discussed the matter today with a young student doing research on the effect that the massive pit closure programme will have on water pollution. Opencast mining is a great water pollution threat, too. The hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) seems to be shaking his head, as if to say that that is not true. Clearly there is no opencast mining in his area ; he probably has more experience with sheep than with opencast coal. Water pollution is one of the first problems that any opencast site causes to our communities. It is certainly a problem in Scotland, and in the north-east of England Easington colliery, which was the last pumping station treating water, has recently been closed. I do not know--I hope that the Minister can tell us--what will happen where water used to be treated and pumped by British Coal. Who will accept the responsibility ? I do not think that the Government have thought about that problem.

If the Government say through the Bill that they will be satisfied for the pumps to be switched off and the rivers to be polluted, that will spell serious problems for every community that will be affected by water pollution--and serious problems for the Government, too. I suspect that, at this delicate point in their negotiations with the European Union, the Government will fall foul of EC directives. Therefore, it is most important that when we deal with the opencast issue we know what powers are being given to the bodies that seem able to walk away from the problem.

Some of the comments that we heard earlier about the attempt to give powers involving compulsory purchase orders to mining companies who buy up land frightened me. We are living in a time when the Government are centralising power. They are giving power to the Executive, to quangos, to unaccountable local authorities, to health boards, to trusts, and so on. The Bill takes us further down that road and will give powers of compulsory purchase to private enterprise, which will be driven by profit. That is not a power that the House should give freely.

I hear Conservative Members talk about the European Union and the Community and about the House giving up sovereignty to unelected bodies in Brussels, yet the Bill gives powers to people in our country who are not accountable and over whom the House will have no control. It is a serious question and I am sure that the Minister knows what we are talking about, but I doubt very much that he will address it.

Mr. Skinner : Several Tories have spoken on the question of opencast mining. I get the clear impression that if we voted on a well-drawn amendment to suit those Tories and if their votes followed their speeches

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West) : I have a well-drawn amendment.

Mr. Skinner : The hon. Gentleman has one ? That is good because one thing is certain : we need to stop opencast mining. We cannot allow the idea of opencast to be acceptable on the basis put forward in the Bill when so many Labour Members and some Conservative Members are opposed to the very idea.

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Everyone knows that getting coal by opencast is relatively easy now. In recent years many people who live in coalfield areas where pits have closed have rallied against the idea of opencast and, on some occasions, have been victorious against the proposed opencaster and British Coal. Sadly, however, at the very time at which it is becoming a little more difficult for British Coal to get away with opencast because of opposition from villagers and others, the Bill proposes to make it a lot easier. My policy in Derbyshire for the past 20 or so years has been not to support opencast applications at all, even where they were of so-called benefit to the villages. I took a principled view against all opencast applications in my area. A few years ago, a village in my constituency, Arkwright Town, was nearly blown up because methane was coming out of the old coal mine, which had been closed. British Coal came along with a proposition to opencast the whole area and said that it would move the village of 232 houses to the other side of the road provided that the residents accepted opencast. I objected. Finally, British Coal received approval. Now that the privatisation Bill is going through, some of those villagers who were promised a new house on the other side of Arkwright Town are beginning to wonder whether they will get the opencast but not the houses.

It was proposed to build 232 houses on the other side of the village. The villagers were to have a pub, a school, a miners' welfare and all the various community facilities. The opencast has begun. I want the Minister to answer the question that all those people have asked me to put to him : has British Coal given him the assurance that, notwithstanding the provisions of the Bill, when the Coal Authority takes over, those village facilities and the 232 houses will be built for the people who will have to put up with 10 years of opencast mining ? I hope that he can give that assurance tonight. I opposed the proposal, but the villagers believe that, if they have to put up with 10 years of opencast, they have a right to the houses that were promised in the first place.

I hope that, before the Bill finally becomes an Act, we shall be able to get all the Tories who are opposed to its opencasting provisions to vote against them, either when the Bill returns from the other place or on some other occasion. That will ensure that we stop private companies imposing compulsory purchase orders to enable them to decide on and, in many cases, exploit opencast sites. Everyone knows that 10 years of opencast mining results in great big holes and that toxic waste is dumped in them.

The Government will make money out of the opencast mines. They will shut the deep mine pits--as they have done--and then they will make a ton more money by dumping toxic waste from ports in Britain, Germany and God knows where else. Someone will make another big killing. People in Britain do not want opencasting. In every coalfield area, people want us to oppose the proposals. I hope that the Minister, too, will find them unacceptable.

Mr. Mike O'Brien : The Government's decision to extend compulsory rights orders to 1999 gives an unprecedented advantage to companies that seek to exploit opencast mining. It is done to ensure that the share values for the sale of British Coal are as high as possible. It will encourage the exploitation of areas that have already been

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prospected by 1999 ; companies will be encouraged to exploit the areas by 1999 because their unfair advantage and the compulsory rights orders will end at that time.

The Government's decision will enable private companies to blight coalfields and my constituency of Warwickshire, North by making opencast mining applications for as long as compulsory rights orders can be obtained. The Government are giving opencast mining companies unfair and deliberate advantages in making applications and sacrificing coalfield communities and the environment on the altar of privatisation, ideology and greed. That is what the Government are doing and that is what will happen to every village in every coalfield area where there is the prospect of opencast mining. The amendments seek to change that.

I can tell the House from personal experience in my constituency the sort of attitude that the Government have displayed to opencast mining. In 1991, there was a public inquiry in my constituency over the Birch Coppice site. Birch Coppice is a former pit ; it was closed a few years ago. Beyond that pit is another pit, Baddesley. That pit was closed a few years ago but there is still coal on the site. The opencast mining executive of British Coal decided that it wanted to exploit the Baddesley site, so it made an application in 1990. Mineral planning guidance 3 was in operation at the time. A public inquiry took place in July and August 1991 to consider the application on the basis of MPG3, which gives enormous advantages to the opencast mining executive in making an application.

The application for opencast mining threatened the villages of Baddesley Ensor, Dordon and Grendon and directly threatened about 10, 000 people. If the application had been granted, the threat would have extended to other villages and about 20,000 homes would have been affected. It threatened the environment, the quality of life of people in those villages and the value of their homes.

A few months after the public inquiry, the Government published interim planning guidance with regard to opencast mining. Two years later, I was still writing to the Minister and the Secretary of State for the Environment asking why there was no decision about the Birch Coppice opencast site : why had we not had a decision after two years even though homes were blighted ? On 2 August 1993, we had the publication of the report of the inquiry in favour of granting opencast mining. But the Secretary of State overruled the public inquiry and on 2 August he decided that there would be no opencast mining at Birch Coppice. We were absolutely delighted that he made the right decision ; although he had taken two years to do it, we could forgive him.

Three weeks ago, the Secretary of State for the

Environment--undoubtedly after consultations with colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry--decided to set aside the decision reached on 2 August 1993 because he had made a mistake. After two years of blighting the area around Birch Coppice and 20,000 people's lives, the Department decided that it had made a mistake. It has now set aside the decision not to grant permission for opencast and has put the whole thing back into the melting pot.We now do not know whether 20,000 people will have a hole the size of 250 football pitches and up to 600 ft deep next to their homes. The crass incompetence of the Department of the Environment and the Department of Trade and Industry in making this non-decision beggars belief.

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We know now the sort of attitude that the Government have to opencast and to the coalfield communities. It was clear

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No.14 (Exempted Business),

That, at this day's sitting, the Coal Industry Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.--[ Mr. Wood. ] Question agreed to.

As amended (in the Standing Committee), again considered. Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Mr. Mike O'Brien : We now know the attitude that the Government have to the coalfield communities because it is clear. It was clear when the decision was made on 2 August 1993 that it should not have been made in that way. When we approached the civil servants to find out whether they had taken legal advice, we found out that they had not bothered to take proper legal advice. Instead of making the decision based on MPG 3--as they ought to have done--they made the decision based on the interim planning guidance.

They had not given British Coal the opportunity to make representations on the matter. For any lawyer in the House, that was a classic breach of the rules of natural justice. On 2 August 1993, the planning officers at my council knew that, and all the opencast objectors knew that.

We want to ensure that the people in the coalfield communities, and particularly Birch Coppice, get a decent and quick decision which says no to opencast. Local people should have the right to refuse to have opencast in their area unless a derelict site is involved and they want it. They should have the right to say no. The Government have shown absolute contempt for the coalfield communities and I hope that the Bill will not be passed.

Ms Walley : Like the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), I have an interest to declare. I was born and brought up in Staffordshire. I should like Conservative Members to come to Mow Cop where my constituency starts and look at what was the north Staffordshire coalfield. They will see the dereliction of the pits that were closed down because they said that we did not need deep mine pits. They should look at the open green-field countryside and at the proposed opencast sites in Biddulph South and Biddulph West, in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Sir D .Knox), whom I do not see in his place.

The Minister may think that he has got away with closing down deep pits. If the Bill goes ahead and the opencast proposals rip up the whole countryside in the face of opposition from so many people--such as the people against opencast in the midlands group--let him think again.

We do not want the countryside scarred. We want a real commitment to environmental protection, and it is high time that the Government stopped talking about the national interest when it comes to opencast coal mining. It is time that they did something about an energy policy, and that should be taken into account in the new MPG 3 guidance notes.

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Mr. Eggar : Understandably, there has been a debate on the issue because people feel strongly about opencast in general. Of course, the debate on this particular set of amendments is about compulsory rights orders.

The principle of compulsory access is well established. It is not well known, but all mineral developers, including those of oil, gas, and sand and gravel, can get access to land on a compulsory basis. They are able to apply to the High Court for compulsory rights under the Mines (Working Facilities and Support) Act 1966. There is nothing new in the concept of compulsory access.

I suggest to the House that the issue is what the procedures for gaining access and the safeguards should be. In the Bill, we are carrying forward the compulsory rights order regime but are adding two absolutely critical safeguards in recognition of the fact that the private sector, rather than British Coal, would be the instigator.

The first of the two safeguards is that the Coal Authority and not the operator will make the orders. In other words, the operator will have to convince the Coal Authority that an order is appropriate. Secondly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) pointed out, the Secretary of State will have to confirm an order if and when it has been made. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made it clear that he will confirm a compulsory rights order only when it would be in the public interest. My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby, in a slightly uncharacteristically uncharitable assessment of the role that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would be likely to play, suggested that because planning permission would have been given, my right hon. Friend would automatically confirm a CRO. That is not the case. My right hon. Friend would have to consider in each case the separate question whether it was in the public interest for the rights of the landowner to be set aside, albeit in practice temporarily. That is not a decision that he could take lightly because it would be subject to judicial review and other appropriate procedures. He would have to invite representations from all interested parties and the decision could be taken only in the light of careful consideration of the arguments that might be made in those representations.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would have to treat the planning application entirely separately from a decision whether to confirm a CRO. If he did not do that, he would be subject to judicial review.

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