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Mr. Ronnie Campbell : I have participated in previous debates on opencast mining. I have said this before and I shall say it again : it does not matter what the Government do--they intend to dig as much opencast coal as they can get their hands on, especially in the north-east of England. If one lives in a Tory constituency, or if one is a Tory Member, one may get away with an appeal if one gets the ear of the President of the Board of Trade. However, if one lives in my constituency, which has never won an appeal, or in the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) or of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), one cannot win an appeal about opencast mining. Whatever is on the table does not make a blind bit of difference.
Column 727In Northumberland, we have applications galore. Indeed, at the last count, the county council had at least 15 applications for opencast mining. It goes beyond the imagination when one thinks that the Government are trying to convince us and the people out there that they are restricting opencast mining. I should like to hear hon. Members talk about the need for coal and the country's coal needs. It is not a question of what the country needs.
I know what the entrepreneurs who want to opencast will do with the coal : they will export it. They will put it on ships. A ship takes opencast coal abroad from my town. That is what the entrepreneurs will do with the coal. They are coming to this country because opencast coal is cheap. That is the idea.
I do not believe for one moment that this or any other amendment will make any difference to opencast mining and the Government's intention to restrict it. As the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey said, the Government will rape and pillage wherever they can get the coal. Indeed, they would dig up my back garden if they thought that they could make a quick buck. That is the trouble with the Government.
I shall refer briefly to Ellington colliery because it has been mentioned with regard to deep mining. Ellington is the only colliery left in the north-east. We hope that it will reopen. We think that it will because the entrepreneurs have made a bid for not only the colliery but the opencast that surrounds the colliery. That raises a good question.
At present, Ellington colliery has two faces that could be manned and in production within a fortnight. Another face could be won out quickly and away within a matter of months. We also have the undersea reserves and the Amble seam with millions of tonnes of reserves. I must ask the entrepreneurs who are bidding for the colliery and the Minister whether the Amble seam will be developed. Will it simply be a case of raping the colliery, selling off its assets and then handing over the opencast mine so that it can be used, as was the original intention ? If that is the case, it would be much better to shut the colliery and pull it to the ground, as the Government have done with every other colliery. That is what I believe the Government and the entrepreneurs are about. In Northumberland, all they are interested in is opencast mining--I shall be proved right before too long.
Mr. Hardy : I shall try to be brief, not least because the Minister has heard me speak on this subject on numerous occasions. However, there are some important points to make.
In the coalfield areas, there is bitterness because coal will be locked away for ever and our pits closed prematurely when two or three miles away someone will come along and make a considerable nuisance of himself on an opencast mining project that might take 10 years. We are talking about huge civil engineering exercises. I have supported, and will continue to support, opencast mining where the dereliction that it causes does not present an appalling nuisance to people who happen to live in close proximity to the site. Any hon. Members who look at areas to the east of Sheffield will see some superb sites which have been opencast for the benefit of the local community. The exercise did not cause an enormous nuisance to the community.
Column 728In some parts of the country--my area is one --there are attractive green-field areas and substantial coal reserves which are accessible for opencast mining. However, opencast mining can take place in those areas only if it causes an enormous nuisance to people in the vicinity. We are talking about the capacity to go very deep. I believe that the deepest opencast mining site in the British Isles today is about 850 ft. Such a project must operate on a considerable scale and exist for perhaps 10 years. After the war, there were opencast mining schemes in my area which went down to 250 ft. We marvelled at that ; we used to go and look at them. The area looks rather nice 50 years later, but farmers cannot grow root crops there. The range of agricultural activity is still, and will for ever be, restricted. I discussed this matter with farmers in my constituency only a couple of weeks ago.
I must ask the Minister to go a little further about the parliamentary answer that we were kindly given this afternoon. We have been given an assurance that such schemes will not go ahead unless they are environmentally acceptable--but environmentally acceptable to whom ? Reference has been made to landowners, but who has made reference to local residents ? If a landowner in my constituency decides that he will not sell his land or allow opencast mining to take place in response to the representations of his neighbours, who do not want to bear the banging, noise, nuisance and dust of an opencast operation, will he be regarded as acting unco-operatively or unreasonably ?
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) : Some of the landowners in my constituency are trying to use opencast as part of the set-aside scheme that the Ministry of Agriculture operates. Opencasting is being promoted as a way of filling the quota of arable land taken out of production. Despite opposition from the whole community, opencasting will be allowed on green belt land. It is a serious problem, in which Government Departments are colluding so as to obtain benefits under the common agricultural policy. In that collusion, environmental matters are put completely to one side and the short-term gains from reaching targets for set-aside are put first. Unless the Minister gives a clear commitment that inspectors will not be allowed to use set-aside as an excuse, there will be large-scale, long-term opencasting in areas of high agricultural production for the purposes of taking land out of agricultural production at the expense of the environment and the community. 6.30 pm
Mr. Hardy : I am delighted that I was able to give my hon. Friend the opportunity to make that point. I should have thought that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would not allow people to gain a double benefit by obtaining a set-aside grant as well as money from opencast mining. That would seem to be a fairly simple thing and one which even this Government could control.
My hon. Friend might like to know that during the Minister's speech the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) kindly gave out the answer to a question of enormous significance. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I again ask the Minister what is meant by the phrase "environmentally acceptable" ? Does it mean what I hope that it means ? Does it mean that the project has to be environmentally acceptable to the local community and the local authority ? Does it mean that the Minister will no
Column 729longer overturn local authority planning refusals for opencast mining ? I am delighted by this development. I wonder whether there is a slight chance that the suggestion that I made in Committee had some influence.
At the time of the Committee proceedings and subsequently, I contacted the British Geological Survey and asked a number of questions to establish where coal reserves were. I wanted to point out that opencast mining might not be entirely restricted to existing coalfields in future. The hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) blandly said that there was no coal in Norfolk. However, there are coal reserves along, and close to, the Norfolk coast. I am not sure where the boundary of the hon. Gentleman's constituency is, but perhaps he will not be there to defend it should someone come along to extract the coal.
I must tell the Minister that I took great care to find out whether there was any coal in the area around the home or constituency of the President of the Board of Trade. If there was, a number of people might be eager to set up a company, to be known as the Henley Opencast Mining Company, and to apply to Henley local authority to serve a compulsory purchase order on the President of the Board of Trade so that he could have the opportunity to experience the dust, noise and degradation that might well follow that exercise. Unfortunately, at this point, I have been unable to find any viable coal reserves in Henley. However, those researches led me to establish that in the green-field areas in the constituency of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Oxfordshire and the constituency of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, there are such reserves. Perhaps the Minister's colleagues have taken the view that they had better insert the phrase "environmentally acceptable" in the Bill. I welcome the insertion, but we shall need some clarification from the Minister and his colleagues before very much longer.
Mr. Tipping : Opencasting has been a major theme in the debates on the Coal Industry Bill. I shall return to it briefly. Many of us are worried about the balance between deep-mined coal and opencasting. Perhaps, if I can catch the Minister's eye, he will listen to what the private companies have been telling him. Those companies which have pre-registered have seen the profit in opencasting, but there is a view among the potential private owners that there is no profit to be made from deep-mined coal. They believe that, in the central coalfield perhaps, there is no profit in deep-mined coal and the real profit lies in opencasting. Therefore, some of the private sector companies are falling away. Perhaps the Minister will comment on a rumour which is widespread in the industry that, in the light of that disappointment, documents have been sent out to companies such as Hanson which have not pre-registered. In the past they have not shown an interest, but they are now being encouraged by the Government to buy the industry. Will the Minister confirm or deny that rumour this evening ?
I welcome the announcement this afternoon that national interest will not be taken into account in opencasting. That is significant for coal mining areas. It sticks in the craw of people in Nottinghamshire that our pits are being closed down at the same time as permission is being sought for opencast mining in west Nottinghamshire. That is the landscape of the Robinettes sites, the Cossall site and the Moorgreen site, that D.H.
Column 730Lawrence loved or, as people put it, made love in. They are important sites which should not be destroyed. I hope that issues surrounding opencasting will be discussed and decisions made at local level rather than at national level.
Given the announcement made this afternoon, why will not the Minister accept Lords amendment No. 38 ? In the other place Lord Strathclyde said that compulsory rights orders would be used only in the most exceptional circumstances. Lords amendment No. 38 defines those circumstances. It limits compulsory rights orders. If the Minister still wants to make friends in coalfield communities, he will accept amendment No. 38.
Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South) : I wish to make one point which was prompted by what the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said. He said that we should dig up all the deep- mined coal and worry about opencast coaling afterwards. I must confess to a bias on the matter. When I was Minister for Coal I was alone one day in between Secretaries of State in the Department. I managed with the assistance of the admirable civil servants to sign the orders to liberalise opencasting and increase it to the present level of 250,000 tonnes.
The point I make to all those who argue against opencast coaling is that they should bear in mind that if we are truthful, we will admit that deep- mined coal in Britain, especially if one takes into account the environmental considerations such as the sulphur content and so on, is not truly economic under almost any circumstances compared with imports. That has been the position of the unions for many years. That is the truth of the matter if one takes into account the genuine cost of raising the coal and the total costs associated with doing so.
Mr. Clapham : Will the hon. Gentleman give way ?
Mr. Spicer : In a moment. I wish to make one point. Then I will certainly give way.
The only way in which we can make British Coal in its wider sense competitive is by blending deep-mined coal and opencast coal. That is due to two factors. One is that opencast coal is mined at half the cost of deep -mined coal. The other is that opencast coal is sulphur and chlorine-free and, therefore, a clean form of coal. So if we are to have any competitive coal industry in Britain, there has to be an opencast coal industry.
Amendment No. 38 deals with a fairly marginal matter. Compulsory rights orders are not made very often. Nevertheless, people such as the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey hide behind such amendments. They say that it would not matter if we accepted the amendment because what they really want to do is stop opencast coaling. They should be honest.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell : Will the hon. Gentleman give way ?
Mr. Spicer : I shall give way to the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). Then I will certainly give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Clapham : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that we are closing down collieries that produce at 88p per gigajoule, which is level with market prices ? Does he agree that if we opencast for technical reasons such as sweetening because of chlorine content and so on, all that we need is about 5 million tonnes ? I use that figure because when the Trade
Column 731and Industry Select Committee examined the issue it suggested that opencast mining should be reduced to 10 million tonnes. That was within a market of about 60 million tonnes. We are now down to a market of 30 million tonnes, so all that we require is 5 million tonnes of opencasting. That would mean that we could tackle it in a reasonable manner and not need CROs.
Mr. Spicer : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable about the details of the costings of British deep-mined coal. Suffice it to say, and without going into too much detail, that those costings are often not very transparent. If one takes, for instance, a pit such as Selby, the way in which the sunk capital is computed into the pricing and costings is very dubious indeed. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would dispute the fact that there are massive hidden costs within the industry which somebody will have to account for one day.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell : The hon. Gentleman will remember that, when he was Minister, we had in the north east of England--if my memory is right-- only 17 deep-mined coal pits. At least half of them took in opencast coal, and we did not argue against that. The hon. Gentleman was right when he said that it sweetened deep-mined coal. We do not have any deep-mined coal in the north east now but, by God, we have plenty of planning consents for opencast coal at the moment. It is sweetening nothing.
Mr. Spicer : The sweetening point is important, but the other important thing is the financial sweetening. Opencast coaling can be produced on average at half the costs of deep-mined coaling if we take into account the proper costing.
I make my point in response to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey and in support of my hon. Friend the Minister. It is nonsense to say that there should be an amendment which in effect makes a CRO totally impossible --that is what the effect of the amendment would be--because of the undoubted value to this country of opencasting.
An obvious qualification is that it must be done properly from an environmental point of view. The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) acknowledged that nowadays, in most cases, the long-term environmental effects of opencast coaling are being properly addressed.
Mr. Simon Hughes : I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument. The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) made the point that there are occasions when there is an acceptable proposal for opencasting, and there are places in the country where proposals have been accepted. The debate is that when there is not an acceptability within the local community, there can be a compulsory power to go ahead. In that case, there should be a test asking if there is an alternative. I understand that sometimes opencast coaling is needed, but the community must accept it.
Mr. Spicer : I do not want to prolong the debate, and I do not think that there is much between the hon. Gentleman and I on that point, except to say that there will perhaps be circumstances in which a CRO is appropriate. The
Column 732amendment might make it completely impossible to introduce CROs and, for the reasons I have given, I think that that would be a bad thing.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : There has been a massive run-down in the coal industry because of the fix in fuel market prices. It has always been my contention that if arrangements could be fixed, they could be unfixed later.
During the previous Session, I introduced a Bill which would have unfixed the arrangements. If I could do that, I am sure that the Government will be able at some stage to introduce measures which mean that the getting of coal is more economically viable than in the present circumstances. A massive resource exists throughout the country which will lead to fortunes being made by certain people. That will be done by opencast techniques which will have serious environmental consequences, as many hon. Members have stressed. In my constituency, there is a stark distinction between the western and eastern sections. The western section is a rural area where mining goes back to the 16th century, and there was certainly a great deal of mining in that area in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are massive amounts of coal in that area not far from the surface.
The eastern side is where the pits were shut, and there are no pits left now in Derbyshire. In that area, the disgraceful activity of further opencast developments will take place, and already opencast developments have been accepted in those areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) referred to the parliamentary question which we managed to table, and he said that the Minister had kindly supplied us with the answer. I do not look upon the question in quite the same way as that. I think that it is disgraceful that a matter concerning opencasting should have been presented by planted answers.
It came out at half-past three today, and nobody in the Chamber knew about its existence until the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) scurried along the Benches and dished out the pieces of paper so we could see the answer. I found out about it a little earlier because a Lobby correspondent met me outside the Chamber and asked me what my views were on the press release from the Department of the Environment.
When we have opencast provisions in the Lords amendments, and a whole series of Government amendments, the House should know in advance what the position is. Furthermore, I think that the answer tells us that the final guidance arrangements--the new mineral planning guidance--will be available to us only just before the summer recess. That is not acceptable. The House is considering Lords amendments and the Government's counter-proposals, and an argument is taking place on the planning agreement provision. That has knock-on consequences for what we think should be put forward in the legislation.
Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck) : I must apologise to the House for the fact that I was called away to an important meeting for the last half hour, and I missed the beginning of this debate.
I think that the impression which might be created that the Opposition are totally opposed to opencast is not accurate. My experience of opencast in my constituency
Column 733goes back to the mid-1940s when it was essential to get coal to keep the war effort going. There was no opposition at that time, and it was recognised as a national issue that it was important to get that coal out.
The opencast exercise at that time was very crude. There is a golf course in my constituency which is on the remains of an opencast site which was developed in the 1940s, and it is impossible to play on. It is certainly impossible for me to play on, and I think that the condition of the ground is the problem, and not my playing. When I was involved in local government in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we had an arrangement in my county council in
Northumberland--which probably has the biggest potential opencast field anywhere in Britain--with the then National Coal Board opencast executive and then the British Coal opencast executive where there was a 10-year rolling programme. The executive came to the planning authority with proposals for projects which were 10 years ahead. We then sat down calmly and talked through the proposition. We adjourned the meeting, and came back after three months to talk about it again. But we had a reasonable and sensible programme based upon the national target throughout those years of 15 million tonnes per year being obtained nationally from opencast. The matter was dealt with reasonably.
Obviously, there were problems. There were complaints and resistance to opencast sites being developed, but in general it worked extremely well. The real problem arose in recent years when freedom was given to almost anybody for opencast sites. One site was developed in my constituency a quarter of a mile from a pharmaceutical factory, and that caused all sorts of problems because of the environmental effects. There was even a mild threat that the factory would close because of the small opencast site.
That is the sort of problem which we are facing at present and which, in my view, will be aggravated by the privatisation of the industry and by the free-for-all which will exist in terms of opencast site development. We shall not have the right balance in terms of local or national interest. It will be a free-for-all and if someone can sell his coal at a lower price than the guy along the road, he will prosper. That is not how I want my county to develop. I hope that the amendment will be accepted because it will ensure the right proportion of opencast coal mine development.
Mr. Eggar : I seem to spend a lot of time putting to rest scurrilous rumours which the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) mysteriously hears about and then repeats in the Chamber. His comments have no substance whatever. He knows perfectly well, because I answered a parliamentary question on the matter, how many people have applied for qualification. I assure him that no more information has been sent out to people who have not pre-qualified.
There have been two strands to this debate. First, a number of Opposition Members and one or two of my hon. Friends who have not spoken are basically anti-opencast. They are determined to use whatever mechanism is available to stop whatever opencasting may be contemplated. Secondly, my hon. Friends who spoke in the debate wished, in some way, to give landowners the value of the coal. In fairness to the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) and my hon. Friend the Member for
Column 734Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), they recognised the balance and the fact that there is a place for opencasting, given the correct environmental and other controls.
The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) is very much involved in these matters. But it is for my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment to expand on the issues which he raised. He kindly recognised the fact that the debate had moved on as a result of the answer to the parliamentary question.
I was surprised at the point made by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North- East (Mr. Barnes). After all, the Government could easily have held this debate without making the announcement. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Planning and I thought that it would assist the House if we made that announcement, even though we could not make the full announcement on MPG3. Hon. Members, with the exception of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East, who has not been present for most of our debates, will recognise that, throughout the discussions in Committee and subsequently, I have been extremely forthcoming with the documents and have always responded to requests from hon. Members on both sides of the House. It therefore annoys me to hear the churlish response that we have had from the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Barnes : Could not we have had the answer 24 hours earlier, as that would have provided a framework for our discussion ?
Mr. Eggar : The fact is that we had the answer in time for the debate. With the exception of the hon. Gentleman, all hon. Members present welcomed that.
Mr. Redmond : Does the Minister agree with the answer in relation to the document that has been discussed ?
Mr. Eggar : Of course I agree with the answer given by my hon. Friend.
Some of my hon. Friends argued that more of the value of the coal should, in some way, accrue to the landowners. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has followed this issue carefully. He was, however, less than objective in assessing how the Government have responded to the interests and genuine concerns of landowners. May I spell out exactly what we have done ?
The power to initiate CROs no longer lies in the hands of the mining industry. In the future, it will lie in the hands of the Coal Authority. My hon. Friend did not recognise the fact that we have set out the intended policy of the Coal Authority to make CROs only in the last resort and after all reasonable efforts to obtain the landowners' agreement has failed. The Coal Authority will also ensure that any reasonable requirements for appropriate financial security are met. Once that has been done, the orders will be made, subject to confirmation by the relevant Secretaries of State. The Bill also sets out an absolute limit of 31 December 1999 for the continuation of those compulsory rights orders. At the same time, we have announced that we are initiating a comprehensive review of compulsory access powers for all minerals.
As if that were not enough, since the Bill's introduction we have accepted the principle that compensation should be based on market value. We have agreed that there should be notification of all applications for coalmining licences and the transfer of existing licences. We have
Column 735introduced a mechanism to ensure that landowners can revert to the operator's best offer, even at the last possible stage, and compensation for non-coal minerals has been given in coalmining operations. So for my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough to say that we are not taking account of landowners' genuine interests is--I am being charitable--not putting the whole debate in context. On my hon. Friend's comments on the drafting of the Bill, I agree that we should all strive for clear drafting. It is a technical matter that relates back to the 1958 Act. Although its clarity may not be ideal, it is more understandable than my hon. Friend led us to believe.
May I tell my hon. Friend bluntly that the Government have always made it clear that we shall not give the value of the coal to the landlords. The net effect of his amendment is that a significant proportion of the coal's value is likely, as a result of market negotiations, to lie with the landowners. It has always been made clear to my hon. Friend, representatives of the Country Landowners Association and others that we will not do that. I am sorry that he does not accept that, despite the fact that I have explained to him, and again in my opening speech, that that was the effect of his amendment.
I recognise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South about CROs. The absence of any CRO power, ahead of the review of compulsory access powers for all minerals, has the same potential effect in terms of giving additional value to the landowners. We have listened carefully to the landowners' wishes and consulted widely, but we have always drawn a bottom line. We are simply not prepared to go below that line.
I hope that I have dealt with all the issues that arise from the amendments and that we can now move to a Division, should that prove necessary.
Question put, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment :--
The House divided : Ayes 291, Noes 223.
Division No. 274] [6.58 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)
Allason, Rupert (Torbay)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Beresford, Sir Paul
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Body, Sir Richard
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Carlisle, John (Luton North)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)