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19 May 1997 : Column 480

Opencast Coal Mining

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Jane Kennedy.]

10.24 pm

Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the concerns of Wentworth constituents about opencast coal mining, and I am particularly grateful for the chance to combine this debate with my maiden speech.

It is a great honour to be elected to represent the people of Wentworth. It is a special privilege and responsibility as it brings together a unique mix of the political and pastoral duties of a Member of Parliament. I remember words from the book of Luke:

I hope to serve in that spirit.

May I begin by paying a warm tribute to Peter Hardy? He had been a Member of this House since 1970, representing first Rother Valley, then Wentworth when the constituency was formed in 1983. "He is part of this area", an old newspaper editor once told me, "a very big part". He has been a dedicated local Member of Parliament and I am conscious that he is a hard act to follow--conscious that I can succeed him, but not replace him.

The Wentworth constituency comprises a string of communities. Many were pit-based and all still retain a strong local identity. The parishes of Bramley and Wickersley lie to the east, next door to Dalton, Thrybergh and Sunnyside, which surround the site of the old Silverwood colliery. Rawmarsh, Swinton, Brampton Bierlow and Wath-upon-Dearne are our other major towns. The whole constituency now lies within the Rotherham borough, but the north also remains a proud part of the Dearne valley, with strong links to Barnsley and the town's successful football team.

The constituency's history has been closely tied to mining, a dependence which has always been a mixed blessing. The first record of coal mining in the area is at Abdy, near Wath, in 1606. It is the first record of a mining death. Twenty years ago, the constituency still had six pits employing nearly 5,000 men. At Manvers, we also had British Coal's South Yorkshire headquarters, its regional science laboratories and the largest coking plant in Europe. The last pit in the constituency, at Silverwood, was closed in 1994 after breaking all production records for two years on the trot.

In a typically British touch, however, the constituency draws its name not from coal but from the home of an 18th century aristocrat. Wentworth Woodhouse and the village of Wentworth lie on the far western edge of the constituency and were home to the first Marquis of Rockingham. It was there that the Whigs plotted the downfall of the Government of their day, although defeat was never on the scale of 1 May 1997.

Wentworth is a constituency within a county that has suffered terribly under the Tories. Since 1985, 50,000 coal and steel jobs have been lost in South Yorkshire; one in three of our young people are neither working nor training; and unemployment is the highest in the whole of the Yorkshire and Humberside region. New jobs--where they exist--are part time, poorly paid and insecure.

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Last month, a new European Union report showed that South Yorkshire is now bottom of the prosperity league in Britain. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister shares my concern about the county's future.

That is the legacy of the old Conservative Government and the challenge for the new Labour Government. The events of 1 May lifted spirits across the constituency and throughout the country.

I am proud to be part of a party committed to govern in the interests of the many, not the few. It is right that we reflect the concerns of middle England, but our greatest responsibility as a one-nation Government is to close the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. Our biggest challenge is to bring new opportunities to those who have been left out or overlooked.

We must not take for granted those who have stayed loyal to Labour through the dark decades. They are looking to Labour for a fresh start. They are looking to us for a fair deal. My job is to help to make sure that a change in Government brings change in the lives and prospects of people in Wentworth.

The foundations for change in the constituency are already in place. In the Dearne, we have new industrial sites from Cortonwood to Wath Manvers, we have an enterprise zone and a flagship facility in the new Dearne Valley college. Closer to Rotherham, the Retail World complex is flourishing and the Hellaby industrial estate is a model of its kind.

It is time to talk up the area. It is time to look forward. We want to bring modern industries and jobs with a future to Rotherham and the Dearne. The coal era has ended. We want to put that period behind us. That is the wider community view within which plans for opencasting in Wentworth must be understood.

I shall deal first with the specific case of New Stubbin in Rawmarsh, and then with opencasting in general.

The application of the Chesterfield-based company, Coal Contractors Ltd. to opencast at New Stubbin was rejected by Rotherham council. The company appealed and the inspector's report is due any day on the desk of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

New Stubbin is a beautiful bowl in the green belt, overlooked by bungalows, school playing fields and the local cemetery. It is open space next to dense residential streets. The deep mine on that site was closed 20 years ago and the area is now naturally revegetated. There is a wide variety of wildlife and the area is popular with local people for walking and picnics.

The opencast plans cover just 40 hectares, worked for four years to produce 270,000 tonnes of coal--the amount that the Selby complex can produce in little more than a week.

I support the 810 Rawmarsh residents who petitioned against the scheme going ahead. The workings will be within a couple of hundred yards of local homes. Dust, noise and blasting will cause severe disruption to local people. Heavy lorries will cause havoc on local roads such as Rawmarsh Hill, which is a busy, narrow shopping and residential street with parked cars and pedestrians.

There is a case for opencasting. Opencasting can restore derelict and contaminated land, but not at New Stubbin, where the bulk of the area is agricultural land and sports

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fields, and less than a quarter is classified as the old colliery site. Opencasting can contribute to the commercial viability of deep mines through coal blending and commercial integration, but not at New Stubbin where the low sulphur, low chlorine Barnsley seam will yield a quick profit for the company and little long-term investment in the industry. Opencasting can bring new jobs to employment black spots, but not at New Stubbin where the promise of

    "20 to 30 very well paid jobs for local people"

in the planning application was severely pruned by the time of the inquiry. Opencasting can bring company support for local projects, but not at New Stubbin where the

    "budget of at least £50,000 . . . to support local projects"

in the application was no longer on offer at appeal.

The case of New Stubbin highlights six key problems with the opencast system at present. First, companies are coming for green-field sites, and just 10 per cent. of new applications now propose to deal with derelict or contaminated land. Secondly, there must be provision for rejecting applications where opencasting may prejudice efforts to attract other investment to the area. Thirdly, despite improvements to MPG3 in 1994, there needs to be a stronger requirement to show clear benefit to the local environment and to local communities. If local people want it, fine; but if they do not, the local councils should not be cowed by the cost of appeal from backing local residents.

Fourthly, the presumption against development in green belt areas should require all opencast applicants to prove that their scheme is compatible with green belt objectives--to keep land permanently open, to retain the attractive landscape, and to maintain land in agricultural or forestry use. Fifthly, Government research into the advantages and disadvantages of opencasting promised by a former Minister, the present hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford), in the House on 5 July 1995 has still not been published. Sixthly, the proportion of all coal mined in the United Kingdom by opencast continues to increase. It was 12 per cent. in 1980, 19.5 per cent. in 1990, and more than 31 per cent. in 1995. As electricity generating contracts are renegotiated, this competition between opencast and deep mine coal can only increase and the pressure to open up new opencast sites can only intensify.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows well that many hon. Members have opencast applications in their constituencies, and that Labour's 10-point plan for opencasting commanded strong support with the public before the election. We are anxious to see action, but we appreciate the difficulties of translating a pre-election campaign into public policy post-election. However, I urge the Minister to review, and to act rapidly to change the present system--especially the operation of MPG3. I also ask him to meet those hon. Members who have a constituency concern about opencasting.

Finally, should my hon. Friend decide that primary legislation is required to strike a better balance between coal companies and the local community, there will be a large lobby of Members of Parliament ready to back him and there will be strong public support for such a move.

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