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Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) on securing today's debate. My constituency would be affected by that development, and I have received many representations from local people who are opposed to it. I know that the Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), has received many representations and has met community groups and others in Burnopfield in her constituency, which would be directly affected. I know that she shares the concerns that have been expressed to her.

Durham is rightly proud of its mining past, and the Durham Miners gala, which took place a few weeks ago, shows our rich history. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon has said, we have moved on through developments such as the turning the tide project on the north-east coast, which has been cleaned up and is now an attractive tourist destination, and the reclamation of former colliery sites across Durham in my constituency and that of the Secretary to the Treasury.

Two weeks ago, I visited the site with my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon and Stephen Hughes, the local MEP. The view across the Derwent valley is breathtaking. It was a clear day, and we could see across the valley, through Newcastle and up to the Cheviots. It is a peaceful and tranquil spot, and it would be a tragedy if it were ripped up and scarred.

My hon. Friend has already mentioned the work of Gateshead council, to which I pay tribute, on making sure that that area of outstanding natural beauty is a tourist attraction. I also pay tribute to Durham county council for promoting tourism within Durham. I sit on the north-east tourism advisory board, and the last thing that County Durham needs is a succession of large holes across the county, which is something that we must consign to the past. The knock-on effects on constituencies such as mine are not only the visible impact, nor the fact that it may give developers opportunities elsewhere across County Durham, but the increased traffic flow from the site that will no doubt find its way through the small communities of North Durham.

The Derwent valley is a peaceful and beautiful part of this country. I fear that if this development goes forward—my hon. Friend has already said that only a
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small amount of coal would be extracted—it will be a precedent to developing other sites up the Derwent valley. That would be an absolute tragedy. We are a region and a county looking forward, and this development would certainly turn the clock back many years. Communities that have struggled hard over the past 20 years to regenerate themselves do not want that.

6.20 pm

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) on securing this important debate, not least because it is a high note for him to go out on at the end of his first parliamentary term. He eloquently—indeed, passionately—expressed the concerns of several of his constituents about the potential impact of surface mining in the Derwent valley. Indeed, he described the valley and the area so well and graphically that I am tempted to change my holiday plans, but I will certainly put it in my diary for a visit.

I also listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). North Durham and the county of Durham generally are well represented in the Chamber at the moment, and I am heedful of that.

Let me make it clear that I cannot comment on this particular planning application. I should also emphasise that I am not a planning Minister—at this point, I am rather pleased that I am not—and it would be inappropriate for such a Minister to be here. I am merely the Energy Minister, and my remarks—not about this application, I emphasise again—are intended partly to provide some energy context.

I should like to table a few facts about surface mining in the United Kingdom. In 2000, total UK coal production stood at 30.6 million tonnes. Of that, 17.2 million tonnes was produced by deep mines and 13.4 million tonnes by surface mines; the latter is not an insignificant figure. Annual coal use in electricity generation, which absorbs around 85 per cent. of UK coal production, stood at 46.9 million tonnes. In 2000, UK-produced coal supplied around 55 per cent. of coal-fired electricity feedstock, and more than 40 per cent. of it came from surface mines.

Four years on, in 2004, total UK coal production stood at 24.5 million tonnes—a fall of 20 per cent.—of which 12.5 million tonnes was deep mined and 12 million tonnes was from surface mines. In the same year, coal use in electricity generation reached 50 million tonnes. In 2004, UK-produced coal provided around 45 per cent. of coal-fired electricity feedstock, half of which had been surface mined.

Those figures clearly illustrate the important contribution that surface-mined coal makes to coal-fired electricity generation and hence to total UK energy needs. Energy supply is crucial to our economies, our culture and our local communities. That contribution is under threat. In recent years, surface mine output in Scotland, which has no deep mines, has remained steady at around 7 million tonnes per year. Output in Wales has also remained steady, at around 1.2 million tonnes per year—roughly double its deep-mined output. But output in England has declined sharply from 5 million tonnes in 2000 to 3 million tonnes in 2004. In 2005, it is expected to halve again to around 1.5 million tonnes. In
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2006, on the basis of current planning permissions—let me stress that phrase—it is forecast to reach barely 600,000 tonnes. If that proves to be the case, total UK surface mine production in 2006 could be no higher than 9 million tonnes and that at a time when, despite receiving some £170 million of state aid since 2000, deep mine output is also under serious pressure.

Already this year Ellington colliery was closed by catastrophic flooding. It now appears likely that, despite the best efforts of all concerned, Harworth colliery is to be mothballed. Those and previous closures could bring annual UK deep-mined output to less than 11 million tonnes and total UK coal production, which was 24.5 million tonnes last year, to barely 20 million tonnes in 2006.

The Government firmly believe that there is a future role for coal as part of a balanced energy policy, providing that its potential environmental impacts can be managed, and that there can be a continuing role for UK-produced coal in meeting our total coal requirements. The coal-fired generating sector has demonstrated its confidence in that vision by committing to install flue gas desulphurisation equipment at a number of power stations. However, the vision depends on sufficient supply of UK produced coal, which means coal from both deep and surface mines.

The decline in English output is not due to a shortage of workable reserves. The key planning document for English operators is minerals planning guidance 3, generally referred to as MPG3. It permits a presumption against coal extraction, whether open-cast or deep mine, and against colliery spoil disposal, but only if the proposal is not environmentally acceptable or cannot be made so by planning conditions or obligations. If it cannot be made so, it must provide local or community benefits which clearly outweigh the likely impacts to justify the grant of planning permission. My officials
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continue to work with colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to ensure that MPG3 is properly applied by planning authorities.

The industry has come a long way in recent years. It is subject to stringent controls, especially with regard to site operations, such as hours of work, noise and dust levels, provision of screening mounds and so on. Site restoration requirements may include the recreation of water courses and the replanting of hedgerows and mature trees as well as the careful reinstatement of agriculture land, where appropriate. Where a site has been degraded by previous industrial activity, it may include, for example, untreated waste, abandoned shafts or areas where old underground workings may collapse, causing subsidence or dangerous gas releases. Surface mining will normally remove those hazards and restoration will leave the site in a significantly improved condition. Many developments not only include reinstatement to a previous condition, but also new woodland planting, for example, habitat creation and improved public access. As required under MPG3, such enhancements will normally be taken into account by the planning authority when assessing whether a planning application offers long-term local and community benefits which offset temporary adverse impacts while the site is producing coal.

I repeat that I am not talking about this particular planning application; as Energy Minister, I am trying to create the energy context for these general issues. I hope that with that we can end the debate by once again thanking my hon. Friend for securing this debate and congratulating him on being the penultimate Back-Bench speaker before the recess. I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all colleagues a creative and fulfilling recess.

Question put and agreed to.

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