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Derwent Valley (Open Cast Mining)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Coaker.]

6.2 pm

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): This debate will focus on what I believe to be one of the greatest places on earth, but it would be ill-advised of me not to say a few words about what has happened in London today. The thoughts of the House are with the people and the emergency workers who do such a magnificent job in the city.

I have spent most of my adult life campaigning on behalf of the coal industry and for full employment. I speak today in the very strange circumstance where I will be arguing, to some extent, against both those causes. I do so not because I am not still convinced of the need for this island of ours to stop turning its back on one of it greatest national assets. Neither have I given up, and I never will, on the demand for full employment.

I am the product of a long line of people who dug coal up and down this country and beyond, and I still remember the hard days when my father was out of work. I have no romantic notions of the life of miners. Indeed, one of my lasting memories is of my father telling me that, in the hungry 1930s, he and his fellow miners were "treated like slaves." They were treated that way because the alternative was a life on the dole.

Against that background I shall speak against the proposal to rip open the beautiful Derwent valley in my constituency, Blaydon, and take out a paltry half a million tonnes of coal. The proposal would give us much needed home-produced energy and provide a number of jobs in an area where we are still, sadly, below the average employment rate. But we are not in the hungry 1930s any more. We have moved on—many of us against our will. We have turned a corner in the north-east of England, we look to new opportunities and developments to embrace a new millennium, and we have more respect for our environment than we were ever allowed in the past.

The proposed development will mean three years of inconvenience, traffic chaos, noise and air pollution, visual pollution and serious disruption to the ecology of the area. It will affect our efforts to attract tourism to the north, but particularly to the nearby National Trust property at Gibside, an absolute gem of a place. Gibside is 500 acres of beautiful countryside owned and managed by the National Trust in the shadow of the proposed site. Its grounds include scheduled ancient monuments and listed buildings.

Restoration in recent years has seen the park brought back to a standard laid down over 200 years ago, with the recent restoration of the orangery and the stables to their original state in 1857. For the 100,000 visitors a year who come to Gibside this will mean a chance to see again the splendour of the Palladian chapel, Gothic banqueting house and landmark column celebrating liberty.

In the last seven years visitor numbers at Gibside have risen fourfold, and at the same time permanent staff numbers have risen from three to 15, with 12 seasonal employees and over 50 volunteers. That is the new face of the Derwent valley. Gone are the collieries and the
 
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coke works. The restoration of Gibside however is not just about buildings; it is a living thing. A cursory glance through the programme of activity for this year reveals events ranging from brass band concerts to a Georgian Christmas dinner via a bat watch and a performance of Shakespeare's "A Comedy of Errors"—how very fitting.

This superb venue that so many people have worked hard to retain and restore will be overshadowed by activity on the open-cast site, and if, as we suspect, the developers seek an extension of their permits, it could be a shadow that is cast for many many years to come. Gibside combines history, religion, culture, a respect for nature and just pure natural beauty, and it will all be at risk if these plans are not halted.

Gibside is so much more. It is proposed to develop the stable block as a short-term residential facility for young people's projects, for school parties and for further and higher education use. It is a venue for a community project for people coming from the inner cities of Newcastle and Gateshead to engage in the countryside with the National Trust. It is an opportunity to help people into work in areas that they would never have thought about before. Finally, it is used as an orienteering project by over 40 groups from the same inner-city schools and youth clubs.

It is not just the impact on Gibside that worries us in the north; it is also the impact on wildlife. Only two weeks ago we released a second batch of red kites into the wild after they were driven out from the north over 150 years ago. What have we released them to face? Blasts from explosives, dust from excavation and noise from the heavy duty machinery, which typifies open-cast sites. Forty-one of those beautiful birds will be released this year into the valley, and it is not being done here by accident. It is happening here because of the high quality of the landscape, which provides a real mosaic of different but complementary habitats.

It is not just the fate of those beautiful birds that concerns us. In recent years otters have returned to our rivers, which is unheard of. Kingfishers and heron compete side by side in the becks, burns and rivers of our countryside. Tawny owls swoop silently through the night air. Red and fallow deer criss-cross the land, watched furtively by badgers and foxes. Grass snakes, adders and slow worms all form part of the natural habitat alongside great crested newts, which we believe have already suffered from the nearby working at a proposed landfill site.

Those are the main reasons why we are so strongly against these plans. In our part of the world we have seen too much of this activity. As I speak, residents in my community are still challenging the right of multinational companies to dump waste in a landfill site to the north of these proposed workings. Gravel pits, sand quarries, coal mines, coke works—you name it, we have had it. We want to move on. We want to use the fact that we are a site of special scientific interest to attract people to our valley and the surrounding towns and villages. We want a renaissance in the north. It is our time for a moment in the sun. We know that wildlife can exist in the harshest of conditions, but why impose problems when the rewards are so small? In the classic words of soulless economists, we have done the cost-benefit analysis and it simply ain't worth it.
 
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There are concerns also about the impact on the area's water systems. This area, as I will explain later, is honeycombed with old mineworkings, most of which are prone to serious flooding. Excavation on this scale could well disturb the balance of the water table, something about which we are very concerned about in our area. There will be different impacts in different parts of my constituency and those nearby. Some 96 lorry movements per 12-hour day are predicted—one every 7.5 minutes. Those lorries will drive through villages that already struggle to cope with the overspill of traffic from the massively blocked A1, which peaks during the morning and evening rush hours. The response from drivers will be to use rat runs around the local villages to avoid the A692. Unfortunately, those roads will lead cars into more congestion as they work their way through busy villages and past a large comprehensive school. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. There is a disturbance beyond the Bar, which is disrupting the debate.

Mr. Anderson: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

There is another consideration. Earlier I spoke of the long history of coal mining in our area. In the view of some historians, coal mining on an industrial scale started on the fells in our area before it started anywhere else in the world. Seams of coal near the river Tyne had been exhausted, and others could not be exploited owing to water problems. The coal on the fellside around Whickham was the nearest workable seam that could be readily drained. The market to London was crucial, and the liberalisation of the rules on mining introduced by Elizabeth I paved the way for the development of coal in the area on a scale never before envisaged. Drainage outlets were driven into the fell, from which water still runs. Dams, aqueducts and water wheels were built, which led to the world's first large-scale coalfield development.

Given the importance of coal to the history of our region, not to mention the rest of the country and the world, it could be argued that instead of ripping the area up we should—as we are trying to do—conserve it, develop it and use it to educate future generations. It is part of our history and heritage and should be seen as such, and as a stepping stone to a new future.

There will be claims that my call for rejection of the proposal is rooted in nimbyism. I hold both hands up to that, and I do not apologise for it. Our back yard has been used and abused for centuries; it is full to overflowing. We have had enough. We still suffer from the economic and social impact of that, and we refuse to allow it to go on any longer. Our area has been poisoned, polluted and exploited for far too long. If the country needs coal so badly, let us really go for it: let us redevelop the vast reserves that are left under the North sea, in Yorkshire, in the midlands, in south-west Scotland and in Wales. Let us use our expertise in deep mines, and reclaim our place as a world leader in clean coal technology. We must not let contractors who do not even live in our part of the world come and spoil our area for years to come, just to produce enough coal to burn in three days. We are talking about three years of disruption for three days' worth of coal burn. We do not want it, we do not need it and we are not having it.
 
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The people of the area, which covers a number of constituencies—some of my hon. Friends who are present will be affected—are united in their opposition to the plans. Different communities will be affected in different ways. The one thing that unites the people is their clear view that we have had more than our fair share of hassle and inconvenience from the exploitation of our area, and we want to move on. The people have consistently, and so far successfully, fought open-cast mining in our area. They have fought nine separate applications since 1971, and each time they had to fight all the way to appeal to the Government of the day.

Thankfully, Secretaries of State as diverse as Tony Benn and Nicholas Ridley had the good sense to support the case put by people from across our constituencies. Just in case the fight is not won at the planning stage, the Minister now knows whom he follows.

Let me refer the Minister to comments made in inspectors' reports over the years. A 1976 report said:

A 1983 report said:

A 1994 report said:

Perhaps most worrying was the 1995 comment that

That is the real worry for the people in the Derwent valley. I realise that there is little that the Minister can do at this moment to address our concerns and understand that the process must take place fully and fairly. I have no hesitation in raising the matter today at the end of my first parliamentary term in this place. If those who have the power to stop open-cast mining do not listen to the voice of the people, it may be too late when we return for the next term.

We deserve no less than relief from centuries of abuse. We have played our part in the industrial, social and political development of this nation, and now we want to play our part in the environmental regeneration of one of the most beautiful corners of this country.

I appeal to the Minister not to let us down. If the people who are pursuing this abhorrent case come to his door, I hope that he remembers this debate. The Minister should come and see the changes that we are striving to make and should not consign us to a role as the dustbin of this nation. We have paid our dues over and over again, and we deserve the chance to advance in a new direction. In the north, we know about paying our dues, and whether it involves our unions, our political parties, our faith groups or society as a whole, and people in my part of the world have never been found wanting. We have never been afraid to make our voice heard, and our voice must be heard in challenging these proposals. We want to see a change for the better and our children to grow up in a better world, which we do not want to be spoiled by get-rich-quick asset strippers.

When I left school in 1969 to start on what I believed to be a lifetime as a coal miner, I was lured by advertisements encouraging me to become "one of the men in mining" and to learn how to use the deep-down
 
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machine-age shovel. Sadly, the men in mining have almost gone, and the deep-down machine-age shovel has been replaced by a monster 10 times its size, which does not work half a mile underground—it works on top of our hills. It rips apart our land and despoils our country and our environment.

There is nothing positive or necessary about these proposals, which fade into insignificance when they are weighed against the impact on the lives on this generation and future generations in and around the Derwent valley. I urge the Minister not to let us down, to support our desire to build a new way of life in our valley and to give us, our kids and our environment a chance to move on. We deserve no less.

6.17 pm


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