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11 Feb 2011 : Column 638

My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire had talked about the Welsh Grand Committee, and the hon. Member for Rhondda made a very telling comment-I am sure that he will correct me if I did not hear him correctly-when he leapt to his feet and said that the Committee was otherwise known as the Welsh grandstanding Committee. I think that that is what he called it; he is not demurring. He said that if that was the solution, we were not asking the right question. I wanted to ensure that I had heard him correctly, and to put on record that he thinks the Welsh Grand Committee is a grandstanding Committee. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will bear his opinion in mind when Welsh Labour Members are making bids for issues to be considered by the, as he called it, Welsh grandstanding Committee. I am sure that she will find his intervention extremely helpful.

Ian Paisley: I am slightly confused. Did the hon. Member for Rhondda mean that it was a grand Standing Committee or a grandstanding Committee?

Mr Harper: In view of what I think the hon. Member for Rhondda was saying about the way in which the Committee had behaved from time to time, I think he was making it clear that he felt it was a Welsh grandstanding Committee. I think that it is helpful to get that point on to the record.

Chris Bryant: Well, this is a grand debate, isn't it? The truth is that, all too often, the Welsh Grand Committee has been a pretty futile body. It is all the more futile when the Government give it matters to discuss that its members do not want to discuss, and when those decisions are made only by the Government and not by the Committee's members.

Mr Harper rose-

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I have let this run a little bit, but I think that we should now return to the Bill. This is not a debate about the Welsh Grand; it is a debate about the hon. Lady's Bill, and I would like the Minister to return to that subject.

Mr Harper: I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I detected that the House probably felt that that part of the debate had run its course.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) made a powerful speech in favour of the Union, but he cautioned about the reason why we should answer the West Lothian question. He noted that in last year's general election, the Conservative party had a majority of seats in England and that if our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had not led in such a bold fashion to put together this coalition, an alternative might well have caused a constitutional crisis. That suggests how important it is for the Government to deal with this issue now. It is better to deal with the question and provide a possible solution, however complex that be, in an atmosphere of relative calm rather than to solve it hurriedly in an atmosphere of crisis. I hope that all those of a Unionist inclination-probably every Member in the House today-will agree that it is better to look at these matters sensibly and implement solutions calmly rather than wait for the crisis to happen, when
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significant pressure might come from English voters to solve the problem, making it more difficult to resolve it calmly and sensibly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South referred to the opportunity cost of doing nothing, which might ultimately put the Union at risk. He ran through a number of what he called "perfect"-perhaps better described as "tidy"-solutions, but noted that there were good reasons to believe that they would not work. He suggested-I think it was the same conclusion as that put forward by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington-that there is no single tidy solution, but that a number of imperfect solutions could deal with the nub of the issue. I believe that a number of my hon. Friends reached the same conclusion.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) also rightly drew attention to the fact that there is no simple solution. He ran through a number of solutions and noted some concerns about them, including about the solution of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, which my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset believed might face some difficult procedural problems. His key point was that people must think that any proposed solution is fair-fair to all parts of the United Kingdom. He also flagged up the potential risk of an election result in which a majority party in England was not the same as the Government at Westminster. He correctly put his finger on the fact that that would indeed constitute a risk to the Union. He argued in favour of a classic British fudge, suggesting that a party that did not have a majority in England but was in government at Westminster would need a self-denying ordinance. Perhaps some solutions could be put in place along those lines. All the issues show how complicated the problem is.

The Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire puts forward a number of solutions. There are two new duties on any Minister publishing legislation in draft. Clause 1 deals with the first duty, which is to

The second duty, in clause 3, is to "make a statement" that the Bill is

if the Bill is not compatible with them, to make a similar statement where

This is my hon. Friend's attempt, I think, to set out clearly in the Bill that the Government must make those judgments so that the Chair would not be drawn into controversy. The principles of legislative clarity are set out in clause 4, which states that

and that hon. Members of this House

I believe those are sensible principles, but I hope to persuade the House and my hon. Friend that her Bill is not necessarily the best way of advancing those objectives.

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My hon. Friend has sensibly made the Bill apply only to draft legislation, to preserve the independence of Parliament from the courts, and to protect its exclusive cognisance. Had she attempted to set down in legislation how actual Bills were presented to the House, that might have opened up the opportunity for courts to involve themselves in our legislative procedures. She has avoided that danger, but the flipside is that her Bill will affect only draft legislation and, therefore, it will not affect every Bill brought to the House. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset highlighted an alternative, non-legislative solution, which is to deal with such matters in the Standing Orders of the House. He also noted the difficulties in that approach, such as not being able to entrench the provision.

By mirroring the provisions in section 19 of the Human Rights Act, which requires Ministers to make a statement of compatibility with the convention, the requirement under clause 3 of the Bill is carefully drafted so as not to fall foul of the exclusive cognisance principle. The duty is on Ministers, rather than being a legislative requirement. The flaw is that the Bill imposes requirements on Government that are already in place and with which the Government should comply. As has been noted, the Cabinet Office's "Guide to Making Legislation" already provides that the territorial extent and application of legislation should be set out in a statement at the beginning of the explanatory notes, in whatever form of words is appropriate to the Bill. In addition, it provides that where a Bill makes different provision for the different nations of the United Kingdom, that should be outlined in the explanatory notes, setting out the territorial extent of each part of the Bill separately if necessary.

Harriett Baldwin: I thank the Minister for his perceptive comments about what I have tried to avoid in drafting the Bill. I am glad that he accepts that the principles of the Bill are sound, even if its wording might be modified by the Government in Committee, which I would welcome. The Bill moves civil service guidance on to a statutory footing, thus strengthening the whole process.

Mr Harper: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification. It comes back to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset that the Bill does nothing harmful, but nor does it take us much further forward. I start from the position, as do the Government, that we should not legislate for unnecessary matters that do not add anything.

Chris Bryant: A clear example is to be found in the explanatory notes to the next Bill that we will consider. In relation to the territorial extent and application, the notes state:

Often, there is not the clarity that an ordinary person might want and seek, even when we put something on the face of a Bill.

Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the fact that, even when something is required, it is not always executed brilliantly. Even if the requirements
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in the Cabinet Office guidance on drafting legislation were put into statute, that would not necessarily mean that they would be better executed than they are currently.

In practice, the financial aspects of the Bill would also have little consequence, because the present arrangements already require all new UK-wide legislation to specify the financial impact and to be drafted within a Department's existing funding plans. Therefore, no new Barnett financial consequentials would arise, as a matter of course. Bills that deal with reserved matters have no Barnett consequentials attached and do not have significant impact on different Administrations.

In relation to how legislation is drafted, the Bill does not take us much further forward. Effectively, it puts into statutory form what the Government currently intend and do, thus losing a little flexibility. However, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset put his finger on it when he observed that the West Lothian question was complicated. While the Bill may lead us to a potential solution, it may not be the one that the commission comes up with.

Finally, let me do what I was invited to do by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), and remind the House that the Government have made a commitment to set up a commission to examine the West Lothian question. Although the coalition parties approach the issue from different angles, they have made a common commitment to resolve the question. In the Conservative party manifesto, we promised to

The Liberal Democrats' manifesto said that they would

Although the coalition parties came up with very different solutions to the West Lothian question, both parties consider it important to attempt to answer it, and neither party believes that it is possible to answer it by ceasing to ask it. We consider it a serious question that will be best tackled when we can tackle it in a calm and reasonable manner rather than waiting for a crisis.

I can confirm that we will set up the commission this year, as, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire established through her perceptive questioning. We had hoped to make announcements to the House at an earlier stage, but I look forward to making them in the not-too-distant future, and the commission will then be able to consider the ideas that have been advanced today. Hon. Members have effectively made bids to participate, either as members of the commission or in giving evidence to it. I hope that it will arrive at solutions that we can subsequently debate.

I urge my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire to withdraw her Bill, to participate in the commission in whatever way proves appropriate, and to continue to take part in this important debate. The Government are keen to answer the question and deal with this important matter, but I am not sure that my hon. Friend's Bill provides the right way of going about it, and I think it right to test the opinion of the House.

12.22 pm

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I had not intended to speak in the debate, but I must say that I am disappointed that the Minister was not more
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forthcoming about the commitment in the coalition agreement to establishing a commission. As he and other Members have observed, this issue is extremely complicated, so why are we now delaying even the appointment of the people who will consider it? We have already delayed for far too long. The original commitment was that the commission would be established before the end of 2010, but the Minister now expects us to accept as a big deal the information that he will make an announcement before the end of this year.

One great virtue of the Bill is that if it is given a Committee stage, members of the Committee will be able to maintain pressure on the Government to fulfil their commitment to do something. The Minister tells us that the cost of doing nothing about it is putting the Union at risk, which is pretty serious stuff, but at the moment the Government are doing nothing about it.

I would not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on what I am about to say. Indeed, the reason I am able to speak after him is that he will not be able to comment on it. I think that the Deputy Prime Minister, who is in charge of my hon. Friend's Department and is the person who can give the yea or nay to whether the commission is to be set up and when, has not got his heart in it. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell the Deputy Prime Minister that in the extra time that he will have next week, now that he has cancelled his trip to South America, he should give serious consideration to getting on with working out who will be on the commission and what will be its scope and remit. Surely the commission should be set up now, so that it can get to work before all the other stuff that is coming along is before the House. The last written answer on the issue says:

Some of us were not born yesterday. It is obvious that this is a stalling exercise by the Government. There was an unholy compromise in the coalition agreement but the Deputy Prime Minister is not even delivering on that compromise. He may realise that it could have implications for his party. There is no point, if the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have different views on the matter, trying to paper over the cracks. Why do we not get on and appoint the commission? Perhaps the coalition cannot even agree who could be on it, or what its scope and remit would be.

The written answer goes on to say that the commission

Well, what has happened to those? We were told that a draft Bill would be published before Christmas. We have not seen that yet. We might be waiting another year or so before those proposals emerge.

The written answer goes on to say that the commission will need to take account of

There will be further changes to the way the House does business when the Backbench Business Committee is able to look at both Government legislation and Back-Bench business, and we are told that that will not start until the third year of this Parliament-another recipe for delay.

The written answer says that the commission will have to consider

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We know that a referendum will be held shortly in Wales, but why do we need to wait for the outcome of that before we set up the body that will look into these complex issues? There is then a reference to the fact that there is

The written answer concludes; it is similar to what my hon. Friend the Minister has said today:

It does not even say that the commission will be set up later this year.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) for having a stab at what is an extremely complex issue. People perhaps more learned in the law than she is, such as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), had a go at the issue. More than 100 of us came to support him when his Bill had its Second Reading debate to ensure that it could get into Committee. It was then kicked into the long grass. That shows for how long the issue has been discussed.

I remain suspicious about the motives of the Deputy Prime Minister. I think that he is stalling seriously on the issue. If the Bill goes into Committee it will give all hon. Members the opportunity to keep the pressure on the Government to meet what was a pretty meaningless commitment in the coalition agreement anyway. At least it would be something.

Mr Harper: I know that my hon. Friend is not perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of the coalition Government but I think that he sees mischief where there is none. The clear message from the thoughtful speeches of all Members today is that the issue is complicated. If the Government are to deal with it calmly and sensibly and in a manner that does not put the Union at risk, we must proceed thoughtfully and properly. However, I have given a clear commitment that we need to deal with the matter and answer the question. Therefore, I urge him to be a bit more generous in spirit.

Mr Chope: I am generous by nature but I would be even more generous if my hon. Friend had explained why it has turned out to be impossible for the Government to appoint the commission before Christmas, as they originally intended.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: May I come to the support of the Minister, and on a constitutional issue, which may surprise him? Our consideration of the earlier legislation on the alternative vote, parliamentary boundaries and fixed-term Parliaments was desperately rushed, and therefore its measures were not necessarily very well thought through, which is a great shame. In contrast, the progress we are making towards considering the West Lothian question in a deliberative and thorough way is in the best traditions of high Toryism.

Mr Chope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think that these deliberations should be conducted by the commission itself, however, rather than by the Government, and I do not want the Government to be agonising over whether there should be a commission and, if so, who
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will serve on it. I do not think my hon. Friend and I are very far apart, as I believe the commission must be given the maximum amount of time to go into the details of this topic. However, if we are going to get this sorted out before the end of this fixed-term Parliament, why have we not got on with it already? What is the reason for the delay? It seems to me that the justifications for delay put forward thus far are specious in the extreme, and we have learned from experience that if a Government have not got a proper explanation for delay, the reason is usually that they intended to delay matters, as is the case now.

Ian Paisley: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept, however, that he cannot have both sides of the argument? He cannot claim that this is a very complex and complicated issue to resolve, but also say, "But here's an easy way to get it sorted out." Does he not recognise that there are two ways to skin this rat, as it were, and that the commission offered today is perhaps one of those ways?

Mr Chope: I think the hon. Gentleman is on the same side as I am on that, because I am saying not that this is an easy issue to sort out, but that the coalition Government agreed to set up a commission to consider it, yet until the commission is set up it cannot start considering it. I cannot understand why the commission has not yet been set up and why my hon. Friend the Minister cannot give a commitment that it will be set up sooner rather than later. Instead, he just talks vaguely about something happening towards the end of this year. That will be one and a half years into this Parliament, and it would mean that if the commission were to come up with legislative proposals, the chances of being able to get them through in this Parliament would be significantly reduced unless the commission concertinaed its work into a very short space of time.

That is what leads me to conclude-I think any rational observer would conclude this-that the Government have not got their heart in this. They are hopelessly split between the Liberal Democrat agenda and the Conservative party agenda, which was clearly set out in our manifesto. We compromised on that in the coalition agreement, and we have given the tools whereby that compromise might be taken forward, namely the setting up of the commission, to the leader of the Liberal Democrat party. I do not think he has got his heart in trying to achieve any progress on this matter, however. I sympathise enormously with the Minister, but I hope that by getting the Bill into Committee we will be able to maintain the pressure. That is why I support the Bill.

12.33 pm

Harriett Baldwin: I thank all Members on both sides of the House for their excellent contributions today. The debate has been extremely interesting, and we have heard widespread support for the Bill's intentions. We have also heard a range of objections, however, such as from the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), but I think his fears are unjustified; we are on his side here. By not talking about this, we would run into as many difficulties as we might through some of the solutions he fears. I urge him to support the Bill on Second Reading, as I think that if it progresses that will serve to get some of the issues out in the open, and not bury them, which I think would be worse for his case in the long term.

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The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), put up a series of straw men-or ghouls and ghosties-that do not apply to the Bill. I therefore feel sure that he will support the Bill- [Interruption.] I may have misread his intentions, in which case I ask him to forgive me.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) made some supportive comments, but he also rightly raised concerns about some of the subsequent issues that this House might still have to grapple with. I am not, by any means, pretending that this Bill solves all those issues, but his description of it as "pointless" rankles. The very fact that we have had this excellent debate shows that it is not pointless. It would provide much greater clarity and put that on a statutory footing, and would prevent the Speaker from possibly being put in a difficult position.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I apologise if I implied that I thought the Bill was pointless. I was concerned that if it did not lead to anything else, it would be pointless, and therefore I thought it needed to go on to the subsequent events.

Harriett Baldwin: I thank my hon. Friend very much for that clarification. In an elegant speech, the Minister made similar points, saying that the Bill was good as far as it goes but that we need to go much further. I would have been much more sympathetic to his desire for me to withdraw the Bill today if he could have made some announcements or put some measures on the table that would give me confidence that his urgency on the issue was similar to that expressed by colleagues on our Benches. Having considered his kind invitation for me to withdraw the Bill, I have decided that I do not wish to do so and I ask that the Question be put.

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Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The House divided: Ayes 19, Noes 17.
Division No. 200]
[12.36 pm


Afriyie, Adam
Baldwin, Harriett
Bottomley, Sir Peter
Bridgen, Andrew
Bruce, Fiona
Byles, Dan
Chope, Mr Christopher
Crouch, Tracey
Davis, rh Mr David
Hart, Simon
Hoey, Kate
Hollobone, Mr Philip
Latham, Pauline
Leadsom, Andrea
Mills, Nigel
Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm
Stewart, Iain
Vickers, Martin
Wheeler, Heather
Tellers for the Ayes:

Bob Stewart and
Damian Hinds

Beith, rh Sir Alan
Blackman-Woods, Roberta
Bryant, Chris
Campbell, Mr Alan
Clarke, rh Mr Tom
Dobbin, Jim
Dromey, Jack
Hodgson, Mrs Sharon
Johnson, Diana
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
McKinnell, Catherine
Paisley, Ian
Pound, Stephen
Rees-Mogg, Jacob
Spellar, rh Mr John
Watson, Mr Tom
Wright, Mr Iain
Tellers for the Noes:

Jeremy Wright and
Mr Shailesh Vara
Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).

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Planning (Opencast Mining Separation Zones) Bill

Second Reading

12.48 pm

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

May I begin by saying what a privilege it is to be able to introduce a Bill on a matter that I campaigned on before and after the last general election? This issue is very close to the heart of a large number of my constituents in North West Leicestershire, both now and historically. Indeed, I am following in a rich tradition of Members of Parliament for North West Leicestershire, all of whom have raised the issue of opencast mining in the House at one time or another as an item that has blighted my constituency and the lives of my constituents for decades.

It would be best to start by setting out the rationale behind the Bill. Back in February 2010, along with other parliamentary candidates, I was asked to speak and debate at a hustings organised by the Minorca opencast protest group, which I will take this opportunity to thank and pay tribute to for all its hard work in campaigning against a proposed opencast mine in my constituency, near the village of Measham. While researching the subject for the hustings, the question of a buffer zone arose. Such a zone is a legally enforced gap between an open-cast mine and a residential settlement. I found that, in the 1990s, East Ayrshire council in Scotland became the first UK local authority formally to introduce a 500-metre buffer zone between open-cast and surface mining sites, and areas of settlement. After much lobbying and protest, that eventually led to the incorporation in present Scottish planning policy, which was published in February 2010, of guidance on a 500-metre buffer zone.

I also discovered that the most consistent public request about open-cast mining in the past two years has been for the minerals technical advice document to include a 500-metre buffer zone. Interestingly, the Welsh Assembly Government have put in place a policy of introducing 500-metre buffer zones between areas of settlement and open-cast mines. However, in September 2009, when my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) questioned the previous Government about the introduction of such zones in England, he was told:

Poor old England suffers again.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to one of us hard-working Ulstermen. I wholeheartedly support the Bill. We face a similar situation even in my constituency, because there is a proposal for a lignite, open-cast, filthy mine in Ballymoney that would tear up swathes of Ulster and North Antrim right to the causeway coast and the middle of a tourist zone. Such a Bill would help to prevent that, so I give him my support.

Andrew Bridgen: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support.

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The Bill would offer protection to communities not only in North West Leicestershire but in dozens of constituencies in former coalfields throughout the country, hopefully including in Northern Ireland. A study carried out by the Minorca open-cast protest group showed that 29 open-cast sites in England are being worked now, have received planning permission, or are in the planning pipeline. It also found that development could take place in the near future on a further 34 sites scattered across the counties of Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire and, of course, my own county of Leicestershire. Figures from the Coal Authority that were produced in March 2010 show that whereas buffer zone-protected Scotland and Wales had known reserves of open-cast mined coal of 75 million tonnes and 147 million tonnes respectively, unprotected England has 516 million tonnes of reserves, much of which lies within 500 metres of residential settlements.

Since the Bill was announced, I have received messages of support from groups and individuals throughout the country whose lives have been affected by the blight of open-cast mining. An application has been made for an open-cast mine in the north-east, and a member of the public who lives near the proposed site contacted me about the

The Minorca site in my constituency is only 100 metres away from residential settlements. It has the potential to have a devastating effect on the quality of my constituents' lives, and I am sure that many hon. Members in the Chamber will have heard appeals for help from communities facing the prospect of open-cast mining happening effectively in their backyards.

The stark reality of the situation was brought home to me when I read the following account of the impact of open-cast mining:

The Bill would also have a positive impact on planning policy. I have received support for it from a planner, who commented:

So it is not only open-cast mining but the mere threat of it that hinders the economic development of coalfield areas. That case clearly illustrates the need for the certainty that a defined buffer zone would provide-a need also illustrated by a case in Wales. As the environmental correspondent for The Guardian wrote on his blog, before the buffer zone

Well, the Governments of Wales and Scotland decided that no one should have to put up with it, and imposed a 500-metre buffer zone, but in England, despite vocal campaigns, there is still no minimum distance between open-cast coal mines and people's homes-a clear case of discrimination.

There is an argument that the anomaly of England being deprived of a buffer zone of the kind that Scotland and Wales enjoy is a breach of English people's human rights. That was an argument put forward by a group of residents who fought hard to try to prevent the opening of the Huntington lane site in Telford. They argued that when the UK signed the Human Rights Act 1998, it signed as the United Kingdom in its entirety, not as three separate entities, and that was enshrined in law in 2000. However, the planning application was approved under the previous Government by the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government after a public inquiry.

A detailed health impact assessment was demanded by Telford's local public health director, but was subsequently disregarded by the inspector and the previous Government, despite the fact that that seminal document was believed to be the only such assessment undertaken before the opening of an open-cast mine. The Secretary of State's closing comments in the decision paper sent from the Planning Inspectorate were:

Of course, one reason why that has become a major issue is that in the past 10 years a large majority of open-cast applications in England have been approved by the Secretary of State, in spite of opposition from parish, district and county councils. Hon. Members will note that the Localism Bill specifically excludes mineral policy; there will be no protection for local communities through the Localism Bill.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that
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with a buffer zone it would be easier for local people to accept some of those developments because they would know that they were protected?

Andrew Bridgen: I thank my hon. Friend for his comment, which is absolutely right. I shall bring it out further in my arguments.

It has been argued that the open-cast industry has relied on what could be described as "hired gun" expert witnesses, to gain permission that mineral planning authorities have neither the expertise nor the resources-money, mostly-to contradict. Those hired guns regurgitate the same rhetoric at every application and inquiry, following Government guidance that actually tells them what to say. The fact that mineral policy will not be covered by the Localism Bill makes a buffer zone even more essential.

Since 2005, owing to extreme industry lobbying and the argument based on need-industry need, not national need-being introduced as part of the planning guidance, "independent" planning inspectors have chosen to take the word of these "experts". That subverts the empirical evidence of communities who have seen more open-casting than the inspector, expert witnesses and most members of the contemporary open-cast industry.

Each application that is passed weakens the position of local residents through the precedent set in planning case law, despite the fact that the supposed primary guidance, MPG3 (1999), which states that local authorities and local people are in the best position to assess the acceptability of an application, remains on the books. It seldom works. Under the last Government, the last 14 appeals on open-cast sites were all passed in the face of vocal local opposition. That gives the Secretary of State, who should be the last line of defence for local people, the perfect excuse to say, "I have to go with the experts."

The position has become so bad that most local authorities simply wave through applications in England, whereas 10 years ago they would have been fought tooth and nail after being judged utterly unacceptable by local residents.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What local authorities often do, certainly in Northumberland, is prefer to set conditions, rather than refuse, because then they have more control of the situation. But if a buffer zone was there anyway, it would give them rather more leeway. A degree of separation is sometimes one of the conditions that they try to set while they still have some control of the situation because they are granting permission.

Andrew Bridgen: I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution.

There is an argument that open-cast mines generate local employment, but in many cases the effect has proved to be virtually zero for the affected communities. The employment is low and generally outsourced, and contributions to the affected local economies are minuscule. The social and environmental costs are borne by local residents, with no real benefit in return.

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The Campaign to Protect Rural England agrees. It states that

My earlier point about the uncertainty in planning policy explains that. The certainty that a buffer zone would bring would be an improvement on the current situation for rural England and its residents. The Campaign to Protect Rural England also notes that open-cast coal mining has undergone a recent resurgence in the UK, mainly due to the increase in global coal and gas prices. However, it also states:

I will now move on to that last issue, for there is an environmental case for the buffer zone.

It has been calculated that each tonne of coal used for power generation produces more than 2,000 kg of carbon dioxide. The Confederation of United Kingdom Coal Producers, an industry group, has been reported as stating that

Based on the figures provided by the Coal Authority, that is equal to between 48% and 97% of known surface-mine coal reserves in England, which, as previously stated, amount to around 516 million tonnes. If each tonne of coal burned for power generation produces 2,215 kg of carbon dioxide, preventing 250 million tonnes of coal from being burned would prevent them from becoming 550 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. In that way, by passing the Bill, Parliament can make a major contribution to reducing climate change risks.

To put the figures into a meaningful perspective, the average amount of coal consumed by power-generating companies in the UK between 2005 and 2009 was approximately 50 million tonnes per annum, which is equal to emitting an average of 111 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. By passing the Bill, Parliament would permanently put the equivalent of five years' worth of CO2 production from UK power generation beyond reach and further stimulate the need to find alternative sources of energy.

In view of that, I have also received backing for my Bill from Leicester Friends of the Earth, which stated:

What is the need for those open-cast sites? England currently has 14 coal-fired power stations, five of which will close by 2015. Only two new coal-fired stations are planned. By 2015 we will need 3.4 million tonnes less coal for English power stations, which is 1.6 times the amount of all English open-cast coal mined in 2009. It could be argued that we are tearing up the countryside needlessly and using our emergency reserves when there is no emergency-the number of coal-fired power stations is falling.

There are many reasons why the Bill should receive a Second Reading. It would clarify planning, bring English law into line with Scottish and Welsh law, about which
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we have already heard much today, help the country to take a significant step to meeting its environmental objectives and, most importantly, protect communities against the intrusive, defacing vandalism of our countryside.

Do the residents of England not deserve the same protections as people in Scotland and Wales?

1.7 pm

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) on introducing the Bill. The Bill is extremely relevant and timely for my constituents, and I support it. I also thank him for mentioning Durham in his speech.

The Bill is relevant for my constituents because they are currently facing a significant plan to develop two open-cast sites right on the northern boundary of my constituency. A number of the residents' concerns would be addressed by implementing the 500 metre buffer zone outlined in the Bill, which would give residents much greater protection.

It must be the right time for the House to consider updating "Minerals Planning Guidance 3: Coal Mining and Colliery Spoil Disposal", which was implemented in 1999. That contains a number of sensible measures, but as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, a lot of planning case law since then does not seem to pay enough attention to the views of local communities. It must now be time to look at that and consider strengthening the legislation.

The hon. Gentleman also made the excellent point that it is important to align our legislation with that in Scotland and Wales. Certainly residents in my constituency are looking to legislation in Scotland and asking serious questions about why they are not offered the same protection as people living less than 100 miles away. That is another matter that the House needs to look at seriously.

It might be worth spending a couple of minutes considering why the proposed change is so essential for local communities, particularly those faced with planning applications or proposals about which they have major concerns. I want to take a current example from my constituency, in the village of Pittingdon. In doing so, I want to pay tribute to the local parish council, including Councillor Bill Kellet, and the local residents, who have orchestrated an excellent campaign to demonstrate their concerns. One of the proposed sites abuts housing along one long boundary, just a few metres from a range of properties. Any workings, should they subsequently be approved, would inflict environmental pollution on residents in a number of forms. There would be dust, first from the extraction and removal process, and later from the infill operations. Obviously there would also be noise pollution; that would be inevitable given the digging that would be required. Even though measures could be taken to reduce the noise, it would not be possible, because of the close proximity of the workings to the houses, to minimise it to an acceptable level for residents. There would also be dirt from the wheels of vehicles transporting materials, and from the materials themselves that are associated with open-cast operations.

In addition to the effect on residents, the proposed site is in close proximity to an ancient church. All the people associated with it are very concerned about any
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impact on that church, and also about any impact on a site of special scientific interest. There could also be effects on the water table, from which water is drawn for local residents, and that is without taking into account the wider issues of the additional traffic and air pollution that could come from such workings. There is therefore a whole range of serious issues for local residents. Although those issues would not be dismissed entirely by a 500 metre buffer zone, they would certainly be ameliorated to a large extent. That is what is so helpful about the Bill.

I want to raise some other points about any possible infill. I do not want to make this afternoon's debate a discussion about the value of open-cast mining per se. It is probably possible for some open-cast mining sites to be developed throughout the country, provided that they are chosen sensitively, and provided that whatever restoration is carried out afterwards is an improvement on what currently exists. Indeed, that is another matter that should be considered, because many footpaths and walks for local residents on the proposed site in Pittingdon would be disrupted by open-cast mining works, but not necessarily restored in any subsequent works, which is worth bearing in mind.

I am extremely happy to be able to support the Bill. In general, planning processes should take more notice of local residents' feelings, pay more attention to what they say and act on their concerns. I very much hope that our concerns will be listened to this afternoon, and that the House will give its full backing to the Bill with some alacrity, so that those of us who are waiting for the debate on the Apprenticeships and Skills (Public Procurement Contracts) Bill will get the chance to support that one as well.

1.15 pm

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour, the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) on bringing his important private Member's Bill to the House. It is also a delight to follow the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods).

My constituency abuts that of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire. The open-cast mining that has been going on in South Derbyshire for the past 20 years has finally come to an end, and I can talk from great experience about the atrocious blight that such mining causes for residents. My hon. Friend has planning applications coming along, and it is important that the Bill should be successful so that some clarity can be brought to the process and the Government can help with statutory instruments or planning guidance notes, whichever view they take after this debate.

It is interesting that, in the past, open-cast mining has been described as a beneficial economic asset to our country. That might be true, but I do not think that anyone living in the same neighbourhood as such a mine would agree with that assessment. The Bill is incredibly reasonable, because it talks about exceptional circumstances. I can attest to the fact that, when the properties across the road from us were being developed, the coal was dug out to ensure that those properties were safe when they were built. Of course everyone accepted that that needed to be done. There are now seven excellent properties that we would not have had if the reasonableness test had not been taken into account.

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Mr Deputy Speaker, please accept my apologies for being unable to stay until the end of the debate. I have been invited to meet the Kashmiri women of Pakistan this afternoon, which will be slightly different from discussing open-cast mining. One takes one's opportunities where they arise. The Bill is short, discreet and reasonable-

Andrew Bridgen: Just like me!

Heather Wheeler: I could not possibly put that in Hansard. I will leave that to my hon. Friend.

I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will take the Bill on board. Having sat through this morning's debate on the West Lothian question, I believe that the time has come for fairness, and I hope that this reforming Government will bring fairness into the future.

1.17 pm

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) on bringing forward his Bill. He made a very persuasive case for the need for these measures in his own constituency and many others around the country, and that case is no less strong in my constituency, which is in the heart of the old Derbyshire coalfields and has a long history of deep and surface mining. We currently have one operating surface mine, which was approved on appeal, the application having been turned down by the county council about six years ago. An application has been made to extend the site further, and a second application has been made in relation to a site only a couple of miles away from the existing one.

It is important to note that the Bill does not seek to ban open-cast mining across England, although many people would like that to happen. Instead, it seeks to protect people from some of the worst aspects of the blight that could arise if they were unlucky enough to have an application for an open-cast mine near to where they live. The planning system always seeks to strike a balance between allowing what some people regard as an essential activity and protecting the needs of those who live nearest to that activity and have to put up with it. Most hon. Members would probably agree that we have not yet struck that balance in English planning law and guidance on open-cast mining, but we believe that our colleagues in Scotland and Wales have addressed the problem by introducing a 500 metre buffer zone. We have spent most of today debating the need for fairness for England in relation to Scotland and Wales, and perhaps this Bill represents an extension of that principle. If that is right planning policy in Scotland and Wales, I fail to understand why it is not the right planning policy for England as well.

Before I turn to deal with the detail of the Bill, it is worth going over some of the reasons why we need this measure. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) mentioned that the previous Government tried to tighten up the planning guidelines in the late 1990s. That had some success for a few years, but as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire alluded to, as time moved on there were more and more successful appeals, including one in my constituency, which showed that the current guidance was not strong enough to achieve what we wanted it to achieve. We thus need to strengthen it.

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Having the buffer zone will improve the position in two main respects-the impact of noise and the impact of dust from the sites on people who live nearby. There are planning annexes on both noise and dust, published by the previous Government, which are worth looking at. The noise annexe to minerals policy statement 2 includes the comment that

but there is no definition of the buffer zone. Paragraph 1.1. of the dust annexe states that

and paragraph 1.36 says that

but again there is no definition of the stand-off area or the buffer zone.

On meeting the planning authorities that are dealing with an application, we might say, "Can we have a separation zone and stop the site going 50 metres or 70 metres from the nearest property; or can we have a limit of 500 metres?" The planning officer is likely to say, "Well, why 500 metres and not 450, or why 450 metres and not 400?" It is easy to get into a horrible spiral in which no matter what buffer zone is thought to be right, implementing it cannot be justified. That is why it is so important for us to set guidance specifying a 500 metre separation zone.

Those who have dealt with applications will know that guidance often says that the applicant must take steps and provide measures to ensure that noise is not increased by more than 10 dB over the previous ambient noise level. However, anyone who has dealt with the planning process will also know that, typically, noise is measured at a very strange time for determining loudness or on a day when the weather is most suitable for a low measurement. There is also the well-known trick of carrying out traffic studies at half-term, when half the traffic is not on the road. Then there are assessments that a 6 metre-high noise bund will stop huge amounts of noise, when there is no real way of disproving it-consultants often say different things. We end up with a situation in which the wind blows the wrong way and the noise is incredibly higher than the 10 dB level.

All those subjective tests with which the planning authorities have to wrestle are not achieving the right balance and they are making it hard for planning authorities successfully to turn down applications. The mining companies with the threat hanging over them might say that if the application is turned down they will appeal, have a public inquiry or go to the Secretary of State. Some have even threatened to seek costs against the county council. The situation is not fair; it needs to change.

The 500 metre buffer zone will not resolve all the issues that residents face. There are two applications current in my constituency. The residents of Smalley already have to contend with a site that has been going for a couple of years, and they are now faced with several more years of it. They face the blight of 90 lorries coming in and out and of the blasting and the noise from the mine, perhaps within 70 metres-under the new application-of some of the houses. The residents
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of Denby village face the same problem within 50, 60, 70 or 100 metres of their houses. They, too, would be protected by the proposed measures.

The Bill is not a panacea; it will not improve every problem that residents face, but it will give them the assurance that such developments cannot encroach within 500 metres of their homes. It will help to take out some of the noise and the dust. I wholeheartedly support the Bill. I hope that it will proceed through its stages. I cannot imagine why the Government or the Opposition would not want it to succeed. It is an effective measure in Wales and Scotland, so let us have it in England, too.

1.24 pm

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I welcome the initiative of the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) in bringing this Bill forward. It has a valuable contribution to make to dealing with the problems of open-cast. My constituency probably has, or has had, more open-cast in it than any other in the whole of the north of England. It has been going on for many years. They used not to bother about buffer zones when they first started open-cast in my constituency; they just removed the villages. That is what happened in Radcliffe and in Chevington Drift. The one benefit, of course, was the people got new houses, albeit in places a little distance away.

A secondary benefit was that in some cases derelict land was restored by the open-cast process. To this day, employment is generated by open-cast mining. Some of that employment is mobile, as contractors bring workers from other sites, but it is still significant. In more recent years, we have secured the community benefit of significant amounts of money and new community facilities in some of the villages as a result. As other hon. Members have pointed out, however, the residents living closest to the activity experience noise, dust and the loss of the attractiveness of the surrounding environment, often for the rest of their lives. That especially affects retired people, the remainder of whose lives, in which they had hoped to enjoy their garden quietly, is blighted by the presence of open-cast.

Some of the communities have already been affected, and to some extent scarred, by deep mining. That is true in Ellington, for example. In such areas, it is not just a question of one application and one open-cast site; when that is over, another comes along, and then another. Of course, that provides continuity of employment, but it also provides continuity of disturbance, noise, dust and all the other problems. The communities of Widdrington village, Widdrington Station and Stobswood have been encircled by open-cast, which continues, with further applications into the future. The least that those people deserve is recognition that there should be a protective distance between their homes and open-cast sites, and certainty, when people buy houses in the area, that there will not be an open-cast site at the bottom of the garden. That is a serious worry for people who think that at some point they will have to sell their house and move, or for those who would like to move away from open-cast, having had 20 or 30 years of it, to an area where it is not present, and who want the opportunity to sell their home.

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), who is answering the
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debate and taking forward Government policy, will recognise that we all understand that there must be a balance between the nation's energy requirements and the consequences for communities of meeting the requirements for deep mining, open-cast mining and power generation. However, those areas that have had constant open-cast mining over a period deserve a recognition that the time has come when the industry must move on to other areas, and a more immediate protection from the threat of open-cast mining close to their homes. I hope, therefore, that the concept of the buffer zone can be built into our planning as it is in Scotland and Wales.

1.27 pm

Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) on his Bill. His constituency neighbours mine, and the areas that he has discussed, such as the village of Measham, are very close to the border with my constituency. We have issues in common. My constituency of North Warwickshire also has a mixed history with open-cast mining-I say "mixed" because the area is traditionally a coal-mining area, and deep mines and open-cast coal mines have provided sources of employment and been a fundamental part of the community in such areas for many decades.

However, the impact of open-cast coal mining on the environment of towns and villages such as Polesworth, Dordon and the surrounding area, has been enormous. Thankfully, open-cast coal mining no longer takes place in North Warwickshire, and I assure the House that there is no appetite locally for it to return. In the past few years, however, there has been a fear that it might rear its head again. I believe that to be a broadly misguided but understandable fear, which is a result of Warwickshire county council consulting on a new minerals core strategy. The council is obliged by law to consult on the minerals core strategy-it cannot simply ignore the coal underneath the ground-so the consultation was required. That was taken by some local people as a sign that the county council was looking to welcome open-cast back, and I received some letters suggesting that it was inviting UK Coal to come in and start open-cast coal mining. I assure people that that is not the case. As the consultation is going-it is not yet over-I am pleased that it looks as if the coal in the ground around the village of Shuttington, in particular, is likely to be safeguarded. That means, of course, that the risk is still there, but it is no higher than it was last year, five years ago or earlier. At the end of the day, the coal is under the ground and we cannot do anything about it. The best that we can hope for is the safeguarding of the coal. The uncertainty and the blight remain, because there is always the possibility that one day someone will come along and try to dig out the coal using open-cast methods. That is why I consider the Bill so important.

Some people have said to me that 500 metres does not sound very much. Let me remind the House of the brief history that we were given by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire of the situation in Ffos-y-Fran in Merthyr Tydfil, where there are houses 36 metres from the edge of the open-cast pit. As we heard, Wales now benefits from the protection of a
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500-metre buffer zone. Unfortunately it was introduced after the development of the Ffos-y-Fran site, too late to help the people of Merthyr Tydfil, but the fact is that it is entirely wrong for the people of Wales and Scotland to have that protection when the people of England do not. I hope that the Bill, together with planning reform and the developing localism agenda-although the current Localism Bill does not cover this issue-will bring an end to the trampling of local communities by central Government.

In 2004 the then Energy Minister-coincidentally, my predecessor as Member of Parliament for North Warwickshire-wrote to the Welsh Assembly urging its members to impose an open-cast coal mine, against the wishes of the people living near Ffos-y-Fran. In his letter, dated December 2004 and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, he wrote:

I do not want to see Ministers in London overrule local councils and local people and impose open-cast coal mines 36 metres from people's doors, and I therefore hope that my hon. Friend's Bill will be passed.

1.32 pm

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) on his Bill, and offer it my wholehearted support. I shall not rehearse all the arguments that have been presented so ably by so many Members, but it is clear to me that there is cross-party agreement not only on the buffer zone but on the horrors of open-cast mining, of which many Members who are present have experience. It is to be hoped that, if nothing else, an all-party group will emerge from this, so that together we can try to ensure that our communities who are working so hard to oppose open-cast mining benefit from all the support, advice and experience that can be brought to bear.

The Bill is relevant to my constituents, who currently face the third application from UK Coal to develop an open-cast mine near the villages of Cossall and Trowell. Mercifully, both my predecessors were successful in spearheading the campaign against other applications, and I hope to repeat their success. The application is to mine 1.275 million tonnes of coal and almost a quarter of a million tonnes of fire clay over an area of 130 hectares.

Broxtowe contains an abundance of houses, and we do not have much green belt land. The application relates to the heart of that precious land, and it fills many of us with horror, not just because of the dust and noise that many Members have mentioned but because there will be some eight lorry movements an hour. We can imagine the impact that that will have, not just on the residents of Cossall and Trowell but on all the other communities that will be affected. It is surely unacceptable in this modern age to extract minerals such as coal and other substances in that way. It inflicts real blight on our countryside, and it has a direct impact on the quality of people's lives.

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I do not want to go on much longer because so much has been said very ably and I would just repeat those arguments. I fully endorse all those comments. However, I make this plea. It is about localism. Other hon. Members have referred to that, but I hope that the Minister, whatever the Government's attitude might be to this excellent Bill-I hope that they will adopt it-hears what is coming out loudly and clearly from Members and their areas. I do not know of any application that has not been opposed by every parish, borough and county affected-they have done that not just as a group, but individually. Almost without exception, democratically elected representatives in my area and areas represented by other hon. Members on both sides of the House have opposed these applications. Invariably, they go to appeal and unfortunately, as we all know, they are signed off by the Secretary of state. With great respect, that flies in the face of what we say we now all believe in, which is localism.

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that local councils and MPs oppose these applications not because of nimbyism but generally on strong, robust planning grounds that are entirely consistent with planning policy? That is why it is so incredibly frustrating that their decisions get overturned at appeal by the Secretary of State, who seems just to fly in the face of planning policy.

Anna Soubry: I could not agree more. I am grateful for that intervention and I fully support it. It is deeply ironic.

The other important matter to be considered is this. I know from the fight that has been put up in Cossall and in Trowell that local councils and local people find themselves in a battle with UK Coal, which has a number of resources, including the ability to instruct experts. Already our hard-pressed parish and town councils are looking at how they can raise funds. There is just the beginning of an equality of arms, but as my hon. Friend has said, invariably, the county council opposes these applications for sound planning reasons. It is not a question of nimbyism. Many of those county councillors are not affected; they do not represent those areas, but they accept the argument that they should oppose the application on planning grounds. Unfortunately, however, the Secretary of State, after the inquiry, if it goes to an inquiry, takes a different view.

These applications take many years. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire and others have campaigned for years. The process has in effect barely begun. Many years of campaigning lie ahead. We face that in my constituency. It means that for years people have that awful blight hanging over their head. They do not know whether their beautiful, precious, highly treasured countryside will be blighted and scarred for ever by open-cast mining.

I hope that the Government will support the Bill and that the Minister will take from it the strength of feeling among Members on both sides of the House on the issue. The buffer zone may not be a panacea but it would be a great help and assist our local authorities in making planning decisions on such applications.

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1.38 pm

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): The planning regime necessarily needs to strike a balance between development and the legitimate protection of local communities and the environment. I am familiar personally with the issue of open-cast coal mining. May I declare an interest? In my former being as deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, as it was then known, I was responsible for energy policy and the membership employed in open-cast coal mines. In the debates over many years on energy policy, it was right that we should seek-Governments of both political persuasions sought to do this-to maximise indigenous sources of supply and to develop a balanced energy policy, drawing on a wide range of sources of supply, including nuclear, renewables and coal, both deep-mined and open-cast, which are partners, not opposites, in any sensible energy policy. We therefore do not agree with any view that holds that there should be no place for open-cast coal mining. On the other hand, it was an error of historic proportions that our deep-mine coal industry was allowed to decline as it was, not least because we still have 300 years of supply. Coal is an energy source that now comes into its own, particularly with the development of clean coal technology.

Any development-nuclear, coal or renewables-requires permission, and if it is granted, jobs are created. It cannot be right, however, for any open-cast coal mine development fundamentally to disturb a local community's peace and tranquillity. As was said earlier, developers are more likely to be granted permission if they take local communities' legitimate concerns properly into account.

We congratulate the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) on introducing the Bill, which rightly addresses genuine concerns felt by communities across Britain. It is clear from the contributions made from both sides of the House, including by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), that there is broad cross-party support for the Bill.

There are four main reasons why the Bill is worthy. First, the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire is right that Scotland and Wales already have the 500-metre buffer zone between open-cast mines and residential areas. Secondly, the Bill will help to reduce pollution in communities where there are proposals to open open-cast mines. Thirdly, the communities affected by open-cast coal mining universally support the Bill. Fourthly, the Bill will legally define coal operators' obligations to local communities, which is right. The hon. Gentleman was also right to say that the Bill is important not only because there are 29 current open-cast sites, but because 34 sites are proposed for the next stage of development.

Under the Labour Government, some progress in the right direction was made, such as through the planning policy assumptions relating to extraction. That addressed the 500-metre issue, and there was a caveat that ultimately led to successful challenges being mounted to developments unacceptably close to residential areas. We believe this is a worthy Bill, which deserves to be given a fair wind for its next parliamentary stages. It can also be strongly argued that England should come into line with Scotland and Wales, and that local communities in different areas should enjoy the same protection.

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The Bill is particularly well timed because the Committee stage of the Localism Bill is currently commencing. The point was made that the Localism Bill's measures do not satisfactorily address the issues of great public interest and concern that are raised in this Bill. We will support the Bill therefore, and we urge Ministers to respond positively to the strong representations on it made by Members on both sides of the House.

1.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) on his success in the ballot, on presenting his case so cogently and on attracting a lot of cross-party support for his Bill. I must stress at the outset that I cannot discuss the merits of any live planning application because the Secretary of State's role in the planning system means that I would be prejudicing it to do so. A lot of sites were mentioned by hon. Members who were, quite reasonably, advancing the case for the Bill and, in some cases, discussing applications, prospective or otherwise. I am sorry to disappoint hon. Members, but I am not able to respond to those points.

I have a little history on this matter myself. When I was a prospective candidate, as the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire was before he was successful at the most recent election, I appeared at a public inquiry on the application for open-cast coal mining at Towers Farm, near the village of Poynton, on the edge of what is now my constituency. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) is telling the House that he was born there. I am happy to report to the House, as I was happy to report to my electors at the time, that the public inquiry came out in favour of no open-cast coal mining. Although most people see my constituency as a leafy suburban area adjacent to a national park, it has the same coal beneath it as is under the constituencies of the hon. Members for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) and for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), so I fully understand the high level of public concern about these applications. The concerns about the environmental protection lost as a result of the intrusion of these developments and about the dust are often well justified.

Nigel Mills: I think that we all fully appreciate that the Minister cannot comment on individual applications, but may I press him to comment a little on the annoyance that people feel when county councils turn down applications on valid planning grounds and they see Secretaries of State completely override local opinion? Is that approach appropriate? Does he think it might change a little under his Government?

Andrew Stunell: I am glad the hon. Gentleman made that point because during his earlier remarks he stated as a fact that a Secretary of State automatically approves applications that come before him-or her, as was the case in previous Administrations. As a matter of fact, the Secretary of State refused the most recent appeal put before him relating to a site in Yorkshire, so it is not right to say that he takes an arbitrary view that every application should be approved and I would not want the record to suggest that he does. When an application comes before him, he has to adopt a quasi-judicial
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approach that takes account of the different factors in play, and I shall say something about what those factors are in a few moments. It would clearly be wrong for him to have an arbitrary pre-disposition, either for or against every application. So despite what the hon. Gentleman might wish or fear to be the case about the Secretary of State's approach, it has to be objective and balanced. The Secretary of State's approach must take account of all the factors that he ought to take into account and exclude all the factors that he ought not to take into account. I believe that that is the legal phraseology, although I am not a lawyer.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): Will the Minister explain whether the change in government has been accompanied by a change in the Secretary of State's basic application of principles? Does the localism agenda of this Government mean that a Secretary of State may be more willing now to allow the decision to be made locally than was the case in the past?

Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which I shall discuss later. In outline, the Government's approach is that local communities should have greater capacity to influence the nature of their future growth and development, which is why we removed the regional spatial strategies and why we are placing a huge amount of emphasis on the neighbourhood planning system.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), who speaks for the Opposition, and I are currently wading through the Localism Bill, and we will shortly consider the provisions relating to planning. I do not know whether we will reach a common view, because he has perhaps indicated that he is not convinced that localism is the way to go. I look forward to that discussion in the coming week or so.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed asked whether there will be a change in emphasis and balance in the way in which the Secretary of State approaches such matters. When the Localism Bill is enacted, such matters will not be exclusively for the Secretary of State, because some of them will be devolved. In a few minutes, I will discuss the national planning policy framework, which is a development of current national planning guidance. It is clearly important to take that into account in respect of minerals policy and the use of coal.

Several hon. Members have spoken in the debate. I have commented on what my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire said in introducing the Bill. He stood up strongly for one local community, Minorca, which some of us thought was in the Mediterranean but is clearly much closer to home, and set out stories of blight from around the country. He emphasised the widespread support for his Bill.

Andrew Bridgen: I was discussing the Minorca Opencast Protest Group. The old mine is the Minorca site, which is just outside the village of Measham at the southern end of North West Leicestershire.

Andrew Stunell: Coming to Parliament is an educational process, and I am delighted to have learned yet another place name. That protest group has attracted the hon.
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Gentleman's support, which I fully understand. That led him to introduce his Bill, which in turn generated a lot of support from around the country for his cause.

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) made some strong, cross-party points in supporting the hon. Gentleman's case, as did the hon. Member for South Derbyshire, who is not in her place, and the hon. Member for Amber Valley.

My long-standing right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed also made some points. He discussed my first point, which concerns the need to strike a balance between the competing needs of local communities and national policy. In that respect, he discussed the possibility of local authorities developing and implementing buffer zones to provide local protection for communities. I assure him that it is both possible and right for local authorities in developing their planning policies to consider buffer zones on a case-by-case basis.

The separation distance would have to be justified. Of course, some local planning authorities have such buffer zones in place.

Sir Alan Beith: My hon. Friend does not quite get the point. Something is not a buffer zone as we understand it if is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. It is a reasonable expectation in almost all conceivable circumstances that there will be a set minimum distance, which does not have to become a battle ground between the local authority and the developer or on an issue that might be overturned on appeal.

Andrew Stunell: Whether a condition appears as part of a council's adopted and approved local plan-for instance, the Northumberland unitary council development plan-or is imposed by the Secretary of State or, indeed, by legislation makes no material difference. I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the fact that the Scottish and Welsh buffer zones, as they have been described, or bans have been prayed in aid. I also draw his attention to the explanatory notes produced by the Library. They make it quite clear that the policy on open-cast mining in Scotland does indeed have a presumption on 500 metres, but it is subject to some quite important exceptions. They say:

So a number of important caveats relate to the Scottish buffer zone, which has been prayed in aid. As I understand current planning law and what the law will be after the passage of the Localism Bill, it would be perfectly open to Northumberland unitary authority to decide to adopt such a planning approach. Whatever the planning approach -whether it is statutory, as in Scotland, or based on the development of the local planning system-it would of necessity have to take account of particular circumstances.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: I am listening to the Minister with some interest but growing concern. Is he arguing that the measures in the Bill are, in fact, contained in the
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Localism Bill and that this Bill is unnecessary, in which case I would have very great concerns, or is he suggesting that the Government are backing this Bill, which is what everyone wants to happen today?

Andrew Stunell: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Perhaps if I make a little more progress, the factors that we have to take into account when we consider our approach to the Bill will become clear.

Mr Chope: Will the Minister perhaps say whether the Government support, tolerate or oppose the Bill? Why do we need to wait any longer to hear a one-word answer to that question?

Andrew Stunell: Let me set out my case.

Anna Soubry: Just tell us!

Andrew Stunell: I will set out my case. Let us be clear: coal extraction, like other mineral extraction, is different from most other sources of development. The resource can be extracted only exactly where it lies. Coal extraction is not footloose, like housing or retail development. If it is turned down in one field, it cannot simply move to the next field. Such things are not permanent operations. After extraction, the land must be restored to high environmental standards.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Many Members in the Chamber feel passionately about this issue because it directly affects their constituents. Two hon. Members have asked the Minister a direct question: do the Government support, oppose or tolerate the Bill? It seems that the Minister is trying to talk for another half hour, but that would be cowardly and would not answer-

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not mean that and that he will take back the word "cowardly".

Chris Bryant: Obviously I am not saying that the Minister is being cowardly, but if he were to do that, he would be cowardly.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the word "cowardly" in this case.

Chris Bryant: If that is your ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am happy to withdraw the word, but I want the Minister to answer the question directly for the people in the constituencies that are most affected, because otherwise he is a disgrace.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. We should not get carried away. Minister, I am sure that you have heard the points-you carry on.

Andrew Stunell: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I can assure the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that before we get to 2.30 pm, he will understand the Government's view of the Bill. There will no doubt be further opportunities for Members to interrogate me about our decision and the way in which we reached it.

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Anna Soubry: We are all here to help the Minister. We just want to know, please, whether he is for the Bill, against it or neutral. This is the third or fourth time that the question has been asked.

Andrew Stunell: I do not want to irritate the House further, so let me say, in plain words, that the Government do not support the Bill. I shall explain why as we proceed; I would not want to cause any more friction than I might anyway.

The extraction of coal is different from other considerations. The operation is not permanent or long term, and nowadays there are now always requirements for the restoration of land to high environmental standards, which can sometimes involve great biodiversity benefits.

The period of extraction will vary considerable, depending on the availability of resources, but most coal operations last for a far shorter period than stone extraction or crushed rock operations, for example. However, I recognise that three or five years-or perhaps longer-is still a considerable time for local people to put up with such development, which is why environmental effects are properly considered at the outset and monitored throughout the life of a site's operation. It also explains why it is important that we get the right balance between the need for coal on the one hand, and coal extraction's environmental impact on local communities on the other hand. I hope that I have gone some way to demonstrate that I have first-hand understanding of that second point.

Our debate so far has lacked any serious consideration of the role of coal in the United Kingdom's energy mix, although the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington sketched in a small amount of detail. Energy policy is a matter for the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. The Government recognise the need for a low-carbon economy and that any credible strategy for tackling climate change must include a consideration of the country's energy needs.

Jack Dromey: The Minister's prolonged justification of the Government's position is fascinating. As he has set out that position, however, may I press him to bring his remarks to a conclusion before 2.30 pm so that this worthy Bill can proceed to Committee?

Andrew Stunell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, but we have had something approaching an hour's exposition of the local balance; it is only right for me to say something about the national factors, which also have to be taken into account.

The House needs to recognise that coal continues to play an important role in our energy mix and is likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It is a reliable form of energy and it makes a significant contribution to meeting UK energy demand; the figure is about 30%. Coal production in the UK has declined significantly in the past few years, but coal mining is still a significant industry in this country. The indigenous coal industry supplies 35% of our national coal demand.

Chris Bryant: That has nothing to do with the Bill.

Andrew Stunell: It has a great deal to do with the Bill, as the hon. Gentleman will understand in just a moment.

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Dan Byles: The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), told the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change that he did not see a future for unabated coal-fired power stations in this country. There is no working carbon capture and storage coal power station anywhere in the world, and there are many question marks over whether CCS technology with coal will ever be commercially viable. Given that, does the Under-Secretary believe that there is an imminent shortage of domestic coal production in the UK that requires an expansion of open-cast coal mining in the next 10 to 15 years?

Andrew Stunell: I cannot say that I represent the view of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but we are talking not about expending production but maintaining it. It is in the nature of extraction that once a site has had all its coal removed, it is no longer viable for coal production and new sites have to be developed. At the moment, 35% of UK coal consumption is provided for by UK coal extraction. That not only provides jobs-a point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington-but reduces the cost of imports.

To respond to the point about carbon capture and storage made by the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), the coalition agreement outlined plans to support the development of four plants with carbon capture and storage technology, which can reduce emissions from coal-fired power stations by about 90%. I understand that formal proposals are under consideration at the moment. The Government's main policy objective for coal is to ensure that the United Kingdom is able to make the best use of a valuable natural resource where it is economically viable and environmentally acceptable to do so.

Indigenous reserves contribute towards the Government's energy objectives on affordability, and form part of the policy on security of energy supply. The reality is that much of UK's coal reserves lie in England. They have the potential to provide security of energy supply long after oil and natural gas are exhausted, so we need to ensure that we can preserve coal for future extraction.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: That is an exceptionally interesting point: we may need to go back to coal when other fossil fuels have run out. Might the Government not therefore consider it appropriate to have a 550-yard limit, as I prefer to call it, until such time as it is necessary to dig out substantial quantities of coal again?

Andrew Stunell: I have already made the point that, as I understand it, the UK coal industry does not see itself expanding the amount that it extracts; it looks to maintain the amount that it extracts. My understanding from the last time I took a detailed look at UK energy reserves is that we have something like 200 years' worth of identified coal reserves. That is clearly much more substantial than the amount of oil and gas that can be recovered within the confines of the United Kingdom's economic sphere. Existing planning policy already places considerable emphasis on ensuring that the environmental effects of mineral extraction, including coal extraction, are mitigated.

There are specific planning policies on coal in England. Hon. Members have referred to minerals planning policy guidance note 3, which carries a presumption against
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surface coal mining extraction unless the proposal meets stringent tests. That connects back to the points made about the Secretary of State's role. There is a presumption against surface coal mining extraction unless stringent tests are met. Those tests relate to environmental acceptability and the provision of local and community benefits; it is necessary to demonstrate that those clearly outweigh the likely impacts.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does the Minister foresee the issue of open-cast mining being part of the future requirement for local authorities to work together and co-operate on infrastructure planning, as outlined in the Localism Bill?

Andrew Stunell: My hon. Friend is right. The Localism Bill introduces a new duty on local authorities to co-operate. That is designed to provide a framework for local authorities to work jointly on common issues. My hon. Friend could also have mentioned the local enterprise partnerships, which are formed from a number of local authorities working with the private and commercial sector and aim to promote growth and future prosperity in an area. They will want to look at all sources of economic growth in their areas. There will be a framework in which that can take place.

Proposals for open-cast mining in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites designated for nature conservation purposes must meet additional tests because of the serious impact that minerals development may have on the natural beauty of such areas. My hon. Friends the Members for Amber Valley and for South Derbyshire have a combination of community impact and natural landscape value impact to take into account. There is a requirement and expectation that all proposals for coal extraction must be accompanied by an environmental statement. That allows a thorough consideration of all environmental effects and what must be done to ensure that they can be kept to an acceptable minimum.

Dan Byles: I am curious to know whether the Minister agrees with the then Energy Secretary, my predecessor as MP for North Warwickshire, who in 2004 wrote to the Welsh Assembly saying that the need for coal outweighs environmental issues and the amenities of local people?

Andrew Stunell: I hope that my hon. Friend will gain some reassurance from the fact that the most recent application that came in front of the Secretary of State demonstrates that the national test does not outweigh the local environmental test. The Secretary of State could not have-and, the evidence shows, has not had-a closed mind, as my hon. Friend fears.

Current policy recognises that, in individual circumstances, it could be appropriate to have an adequate separation distance between the boundary of a minerals site and the nearest community. Any such distance must be properly justified. I have already said that local planning authorities-in Northumberland, for instance-are free to do that. The coalition Government believe that councils are best placed to make planning decisions for their local areas, and it is right that they should be free to carry on their role with minimal interference.

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Nigel Mills: I struggle with the point that the Minister is making. Does he really think that all the councils that have consistently tried to defeat such planning applications have somehow missed the idea of putting a 500 metre separation zone in their planning policy, and that saying, "Change your policy and put that in," will stand up to scrutiny when applications are made and subsequently go to appeal? We need national protection to support planning authorities that are trying to implement that policy, which they are struggling to do at this point.

Andrew Stunell: The Scottish and Welsh situations have quite often been prayed in aid during the debate. However, in both places the buffer zone is a matter of planning policy rather than of statutory requirement. We believe that councils are best placed to make those planning decisions, just as we are content for the Assembly in Wales and the Scottish Parliament to make those decisions for their respective countries.

Nigel Mills: The Bill asks the Minister to issue that planning policy guidance for England. If the planning policy sets out the 500 metre mark-in some situations, that could be wider or narrower-we will at least have a decent, robust starting point. We understand that that may be varied in local circumstances, but the problem at the moment is that councils struggle to justify 50 metres versus 400, 300, 200 or 150 metres, ending up with open-cast mines that are 30, 50 or 70-odd metres from people's houses, such as the proposal at Lodge House in my constituency. That is just not acceptable.

Andrew Stunell: Although it is very tempting, I cannot talk about specific cases. The hon. Gentleman has highlighted that a minimum zone ought to be left in any given circumstance, and the appropriate body to take that decision is the local planning authority.

Mr Jackson: If I may come to the Minister's assistance, there is an established precedent in respect of the development of residential accommodation near to major national energy infrastructure such as gas pipelines. That is already established in planning policy guidelines, and it is robustly interpreted by many local planning authorities. It is not beyond the wit of man or beast to extend that arrangement for open-cast mining.

Andrew Stunell: The relevant consideration with gas pipelines is safety. Similar points have been made, and sometimes advanced in private Members' Bills, about high-voltage power lines and things of that sort. There are different considerations, but my hon. Friend quite correctly points out that national policy is appropriate to take account of factors such as safety. However, when it comes to environmental factors and the impact of a development on a local community, the right place for making a decision is at the local level. Local authorities should be free to carry out their role with the minimum of national interference.

That, of course, is exactly the circumstance in Scotland and Wales. Planning is devolved to those Administrations, and they are entitled to have different policies to meet their particular situations-and even now, before the passage of the Localism Bill, so are local authorities in England. That will be even more the case once that Bill becomes an Act.

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The Planning (Opencast Mining Separation Zones) Bill aims to align more closely the policies of Scotland, Wales and England. At the moment, all three countries must have a system where planning applications are decided on their merits after consideration of all relevant planning issues, including the likely effect of the proposed development on the surrounding area. Having different approaches to the same end is exactly what diversity and devolution mean. The passage of a Bill requiring the imposition-if that is the right word-of a fixed separation distance would in fact go beyond the requirement in Wales and Scotland, where that is covered by planning policies.

Dan Byles: I am interested in the Minister's suggestion that somehow this is a localist issue. Can he therefore explain why minerals extraction was specifically excluded from the Localism Bill?

Andrew Stunell: Yes, I can. It is because minerals extraction will form part of the national planning policy framework. In that respect, it is no different from-or, perhaps I should say, it at least starts from the baseline of-the current situation, in that national planning policy covers mineral extraction, whether of coal or other materials, and overrides local planning control. The national planning policy framework will be different, although I shall say more about that in a few minutes.

Dan Byles: I am sorry, but I am now utterly confused. I know that I am new to this place, but is mineral extraction something that needs to be dealt with nationally, as the Minister appeared to say just now, or is he saying that it should not be subject to a national policy, as under this Bill, but left to local authorities? He appears to have completely contradicted himself.

Andrew Stunell: No, there is no contradiction, and I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman. The current position is that decisions at the local level on the extraction of minerals have to be taken with regard to the existing note 3, to which I have already referred, but with safeguards-

Andrew Bridgen: I hate to say this to the Minister, but I think he is digging a big hole for himself on this issue, and we will be back.

Andrew Stunell: The fundamental lay-out of coal, which is not in the control of the Government-it was established about 200 million years ago-means that a 500 metre buffer zone has an entirely different impact on coal extraction in Scotland and Wales. Indeed, the imposition of buffer zones there had little immediate impact on the industry's ability to extract coal, regardless of the environmental impact.

Anna Soubry: The Minister gave way previously just as he was in the middle of explaining the Government's view on whether something was a local decision or whether the national guidelines would override any local decision. I am sure that I speak for many Members when I say that we would be very grateful if he would be so good as to finish that sentence and please explain that point to us. That may be very helpful.

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Andrew Stunell: Okay, probably the most helpful thing to do would be to start the sentence again from the beginning. What is required when a decision is taken is that there should be an appropriate balance between the national factors-which in future will be set by the national planning policy framework and which are currently set by note 3-and, on the other hand, the requirement to protect the environment and the communities where the development is proposed. That is what is tussled over at the moment.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I thank the Minister once again for giving way; he has been remarkably generous and gracious. When talking about protecting the environment and communities, he seems to have left out one key point, and that is the individual. I was struck very much by the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) made about the lady in the Wrekin, aged 87, who suddenly had a mine come right up to her window and who could not go out of her house. Surely Her Majesty's Government and we as Members of Parliament are here to protect individuals. If we are talking about just the environment and communities, that is leaving elderly people in a most unsatisfactory position.

Andrew Stunell: I absolutely agree. As I have said, I am somewhat constrained because I cannot comment on individual applications, but it would seem extraordinary if, in this day and age of environmental impact assessments, it was considered appropriate to site open-cast mining within such a small distance.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I would not ask the Minister to speak to individual cases, but will he lay down some general principles as to how individuals might be protected and how Government policy might develop in that direction, even in the absence of the Bill? Will he also tell us whether compensation could be paid to people such as the lady in the Wrekin? We need to understand that individuals in our constituencies really will be protected.

Andrew Stunell: There are two ways in which that will be advanced from where we are now. The first will involve the national planning policy framework, on which we are currently consulting and inviting views. When hon. Members read this debate in Hansard, they will note that I have reminded them of the opportunity to give us their views on this matter. That consultation will set the level of priority to be given to the national case for the extraction of coal by open-cast mining in England. Set in balance with that will be-and, indeed, are-the social and environment factors that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) has just invited me to comment on.

Dan Byles: At the risk of being called to order for speaking for a community that is not in my constituency, may I draw the Minister's attention to the case of the people of Ffos-y-fran, with whom I have spoken about this issue? I urge him to get in touch with the action group there, and to invite himself down there to stand in the garden of the house that is 36 metres from the open-cast pit, so that he can see for himself the impact that these activities can have on people.

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Andrew Stunell: I would be ready to go there, although I must point out that I would not be able to offer an opinion because of the role of the Secretary of State in these matters. I am in no way dismissing the very strong concerns that Members have expressed in this debate. The Government are not dismissing them either. We are saying that is right and appropriate for local planning authorities to be the people who set the guidelines. If they think it is appropriate to have a buffer zone in their area with a presumption of refusal inside that zone, that is a matter for them. However, such a decision has to be justified on the facts of each individual case and, at the moment, the planning authorities have to balance with that the factors in note 3.

Anna Soubry: I understand the dilemma in which the Minister finds himself, perhaps on many fronts, and I would not ask him to express an opinion, but would he be so good as to come to the villages of Cossall and Trowell in my constituency? There, he would see an historic area of land with a strong link to D. H. Lawrence-indeed, his fiancée's cottage is in Cossall. This piece of our green belt is much loved by many people in Broxtowe, but it is now under threat from open-cast mining. The people there would be grateful to the Minister for coming to the area and at least looking at the issues, if not giving his opinion on them.

Andrew Stunell: I am looking forward to my grand tour. I will certainly consider any invitations from hon. Members to visit their areas.

The national planning policy framework will set out the Government's economic, environmental and social priorities for the planning system in England in a single, concise document covering all major forms of development proposals handled by local authorities. Existing policy areas covered by guidance will be integrated into that document. That will, of course, include note 3. The review will consider the environmental impacts of minerals extraction. This is an opportunity to ensure that we have got the right policy for this country to take account of our particular circumstances.

I therefore ask the hon. Members who have taken part in the debate to offer their suggestions to the Department on which priorities and policies we might adopt-[Hon. Members: "The Bill!"] Well, that is fine. Hansard will stand as a record of Members' views on this matter. However, the national planning policy framework will not be a Bill; it will be a policy framework-

2.30 pm

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11( 2 )).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 28 October.

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Business without Debate

sex and relationships education bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 1 April.

apprenticeships and skills (public procurement contracts) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 17 June.

Contaminated blood (support for infected and bereaved persons) Bill [ lords]

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 1 April.

council housing (local financing pathfinders) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 1 Apri1.

parliamentary standards (amendment) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 4 March .

2.31 pm

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. This morning the High Court ruled on the decision of the Secretary of State for Education to cut the Building Schools for the Future programme, claiming that it was unlawful, unfair and an abuse of power. Have you heard a squeak from the Secretary of State, Mr Deputy Speaker? Is he going to come to this House to explain himself?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): The matter has been raised already, and I have heard nothing further on it.

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Cleveland Fire Authority

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn .-(Jeremy Wright .)

2.32 pm

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): I would be grateful if you, Mr Deputy Speaker, would convey my thanks to Mr Speaker and his office for going out of their way to help me secure what I view as a very important debate for my area.

We should be in no doubt that having an appropriate, effective and resilient fire and rescue service to cope with incidents is a vital part of our economy and society. The tragic death in a fire at his home yesterday morning of former England cricketer, Trevor Bailey, shows all too sadly how fire deaths still occur. The thoughts of the House are with his family, especially his wife Greta, who thankfully survived the fire.

At the start of my comments, may I also pay tribute to all those brave firefighters in Cleveland and elsewhere who, day-in and day-out, week-in and week-out, leave their families and risk their lives in the pursuit of a safe and fire-free society? It is absolutely right and proper to say that firefighters deserve the public's full respect, appreciation and support. I also wish to put on record the fact that my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) had wanted to be here. You will appreciate, Mr Deputy Speaker, that because today is a Friday-always a busy day in constituencies for hon. Members-they are unable to do so.

I know that the Minister in his place on the Treasury Bench is not the Minister with responsibility for fire, but I used to have the same job that he now holds in the Department for Communities and Local Government, so I know from my experience that his diary will be filled by people and organisations coming to see him every single day to say that although they appreciate that cuts and efficiencies have to be made, their particular circumstances warrant special consideration or treatment. In the case of Cleveland fire brigade, I urge the Minister to recognise that this really is a special, unique and nationally significant case.

There are two big factors that massively increase the risk of serious and fatal fires. The first is large concentrations of industry; the second is pockets of social and economic deprivation. The area served by Cleveland fire authority has an abundance of both. My area has the largest concentration of chemical and petro-engineering sites anywhere in Europe. My constituency has a nuclear power station, with the possibility of a replacement to be built in the next few years. There is a gas power station nearby at Wilton. Both facilities generate a significant proportion of the nation's electricity for the National Grid. As for national infrastructure, the Tees and Hartlepool port authority handles more than 50 million tonnes of cargo a year, making it the largest UK port in tonnage terms. The port is growing in importance in distribution to supermarkets and other businesses, making its continuing operation vital to business continuity for much of the retail sector in the north of England and Scotland. Hundreds of thousands of chemical tanker movements take place through Teesside by road, rail or
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sea every day. A major fire incident, which involved loss of service for the power stations, the port or the road network in the north-east heading up to Scotland, would ensure significant disruption costing billions of pounds to the national economy. As for control of major accident hazards, or COMAH, sites, Cleveland fire authority has 34 of the highest top-tier risks and three of the lower-tier sites, the biggest number of such sites in the country. The Cleveland fire authority area represents 12% of the COMAH sites in Britain, the biggest concentration in the country.

To put matters into perspective, the biggest fire incident that the country has seen in the post-war era was at Buncefield, where a number of explosions took place in oil storage depots in December 2005. The incident resulted in a massive fire, which engulfed the site, damaged nearby residential and commercial properties and required the evacuation of many homes and businesses from the vicinity. The fire burned for several days and emitted large clouds of black smoke into the atmosphere. I vividly recall travelling down by train from Hartlepool to the House on the day after the explosion and seeing the black smoke from many miles away.

To put the risk facing the Cleveland fire authority area into perspective, a single fuel storage tank facility in my constituency is 100 times larger than the facilities that exploded at Buncefield. The potential of a major fire incident in my constituency or throughout the Cleveland area, although horrific to contemplate, needs to be identified, managed, planned and, crucially, funded, as comprehensively as possible. Teesside has enormous potential in the next few years to become the country's leader in advanced manufacturing, and to be the national centre of excellence for energy, particularly renewable energy, and in the process industries. The private sector, before pumping billions of pounds of investment into an area or country, will rightly want to assess factors such as skills levels, but will also wish to reassure itself that protection of its investment, in terms of resilience against fire, will be provided. A failure to do so could severely hinder the prospect of economic growth in my region. The Minister should consider that factor.

The second biggest factor in identifying the risk of a major fire incident is social and economic deprivation. A direct correlation exists between the income of a person and whether that person has a higher-than-average exposure to fire risk. Teesside has high levels of unemployment, at about twice the national average, and that jobless total is rising fast as a result of the Government's economic policy. The most recent index of multiple deprivation measure showed that 40% of all wards within the Cleveland fire authority area fall within the worst 10% nationally. The authority must also deal with the problems of crime and anti-social behaviour. I am not proud to say that the Cleveland area suffers from one of the highest arson rates in the country, with an estimated nine out of 10 fires considered to have been started deliberately.

Those factors-high concentrations of industry, important aspects of vital national infrastructure and social and economic deprivation-mean that Cleveland fire authority must be seen as a special, even unique, case. It is imperative that the area has not only a fire and rescue service that is adequately funded, but one that is no less than the best in the world, in order to manage the risk of major fire incidents. Under the Government,
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however, that level of support and funding is not forthcoming. Cleveland fire authority is being asked to find disproportionately high cuts. Under the comprehensive spending review, fire resource expenditure will be reduced in real terms, across the country, by about 13%. The revenue support grant, from which Cleveland fire authority receives about two thirds of its total income, will see a cut of about a quarter.

What is particularly disappointing is that Cleveland fire authority is being subjected to much larger cuts than other fire authorities. Throughout the CSR period, Cleveland is being asked to find cuts of about £9 million from a total budget of about £33 million. In the current financial year the fire authority's budget has risen by 0.5% in cash terms, whereas metropolitan authorities' budgets have has risen by an average of 1.3% and those of combined fire authorities by an average of 2%. In the financial year 2011-12, only one fire authority in the country will experience a greater reduction in funding, while the funding of a quarter of authorities will actually grow, albeit in cash rather than real terms.

Given the unique nature of my area and the challenges facing Cleveland, which I mentioned earlier-high concentrations of industry, pockets of social and economic deprivation, and the need to maintain business continuity for essential parts of the national infrastructure-how is that fair? Surely a risk factor needs to be included in the calculation of any funding formula for fire authorities. The calculation should take into account the special circumstances in my area, and ensure that the best and most effective risk management can be undertaken.

What is also galling is that the fire authority has already risen to the challenge by making efficiencies, streamlining procedure, and being forward-looking and innovative. This is not a fire authority that is rooted in the past. In the last five years it has taken more than £5 million worth of costs out of its organisation, thus becoming the second most successful fire authority in terms of efficiency savings per head of the population.

At the same time, the authority's performance and presence in the community has grown massively. It has passionately embraced the community safety agenda, and has adopted a proactive stance in identifying households at particular risk of fire, such as those of the elderly. Its work in that regard-replacing chip pans and electric blankets and fitting smoke alarms-is increasing exponentially, and has been incredibly successful. It has achieved the greatest reduction in primary fires and accidental dwelling fires in the period since 2001-02, and it has committed the fourth greatest number of hours to proactive fire prevention, being beaten only by three large metropolitan brigades. It is in the community, emphasising fire safety and prevention. However, given the level of the current cuts, such activity-which actually saves money in the long run-will have to stop.

I genuinely fear that the level of these cuts is beginning to compromise public and firefighter safety, and that-given our unique profile, which I mentioned earlier-the ability of Cleveland fire brigade to tackle a major incident on Teesside is being stretched to breaking point. I said earlier that the bigger post-war fire in this country was the one at Buncefield. The second biggest was on Teesside, at the BASF plant in Wilton. In October 1995, 40 appliances from Cleveland fire brigade and 200 firefighters tackled an industrial blaze that took three days to extinguish.

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I fear that the cuts imposed on Cleveland fire authority by the Government are compromising Cleveland's ability to tackle a repeat of the 1995 fire. The fire authority now has only half as many appliances as it did in 1995. With the greatest respect to retained firefighters from the area and from neighbouring Durham and North Yorkshire, who do a fantastic job, they do not have enough specialist technical knowledge to extinguish a complex industrial fire on such a large scale.

I hope that I have made clear to the Minister the special and unique challenges in the face of which Cleveland fire authority must operate. I have outlined my real concern that the cuts being imposed on my local fire service are pushing to the very limits the brigade's ability and capacity to cope with a major incident. The Minister and his Department should reconsider the cuts that are being required, the nature of the grant and its component parts, and the special circumstances of my area. I ask him to reassure me, to reassure Ian Hayton, the chief fire officer, and-most important of all-to reassure the people and businesses who operate on Teesside that future funding arrangements for Cleveland fire authority will allow the firefighters in my area to do their job safely and effectively.

2.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing the debate. Listening to his speech, I thought that we had done a completely unexpected job swap. I hope I will be able to give him some of the reassurances he seeks.

The Government have made a clear commitment to ensuring that the effectiveness of front-line services is protected, but deficit reduction is the No. 1 priority. We are borrowing £400 million a day, or £150 billion this year. Deficit reduction has to be the top priority.

In that context, we gave the fire and rescue service some protection in the recent settlement.

Mr Iain Wright: I apologise for intervening so soon. Is the Minister seriously suggesting that deficit reduction takes precedence over fire protection and safety?

Andrew Stunell: Of course it does not. As I said, we gave the fire and rescue service some protection in the recent settlement. Single-purpose fire and rescue authorities will see a reduction in revenue spending power, taking into account grants from central Government and council tax, of 2.2% in 2011-12 and only 0.5% in 2012-13. It is clear that fire and rescue services will need to increase efficiency and deliver reform. However, we have not ignored their special circumstances. I believe that it is a fair settlement for the fire service in what are undoubtedly very challenging times for the public services in general.

We have back-loaded cuts to fire and rescue services to the last two years of the four-year spending review period. That will give fire and rescue authorities the time they need to make the necessary changes without affecting the quality and breadth of the services that they provide. However, there will still be tough choices to be made and I appreciate that Cleveland is not excluded from that. However, we believe that significant savings can be found by fire and rescue services, including
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through staffing arrangements, sickness management, recruitment freezes, shared services and back-office functions. Other things will be relevant to individual authorities.

The 2011-13 formula grant settlement for Cleveland fire authority was part of what was debated and approved by Parliament on Wednesday. Cleveland's representations were taken into account by the Secretary of State along with all other representations.

On Cleveland's settlement, the reduction in formula grant is 9.5% in 2011-12 and 3.4% in 2012-13, but it is important to consider the other funding that Cleveland receives. All told, the fire and rescue authority will see an overall reduction in spending power of 5.6% in 2011-12 and 2.2% in 2012-13.

The authority has been protected. The hon. Gentleman's points about deprivation and risk have been taken into account. I want to set out how that has been done and the effect of that on Cleveland.

We have struck a balance in the distribution system, protecting fire and rescue authorities from the largest reductions and allowing a settlement that is closely aligned to needs. Nine other single-purpose fire authorities are experiencing the same size percentage reduction as Cleveland. However, I want the hon. Gentleman clearly to understand that Cleveland has received the largest amount of grant per head among all fire and rescue authorities-£36 per head in 2011-12. I asked officials what would be a comparable authority in terms of size and complexity of risk. They suggested that Cheshire would be such an authority; it has many high-risk sites along the Mersey valley and is approximately of equivalent size. Cheshire's amount of grant per head is £18, half the amount per head allocated to fire and rescue services in Cleveland. I therefore hope the hon. Gentleman understands that the formula reflects factors such as deprivation, population density and the presence of high-risk sites. Thus, Cleveland receives greater funding because it has a large number of control of major accident hazards-or COMAH-sites, a low council tax base and problems of deprivation and unemployment, to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention. I want to take this opportunity to assure him that central Government are continuing their investment in Cleveland's fire and rescue services.

Nationally, capital grant funding for the fire service has increased from £45 million to £70 million in the coming year. That is in recognition of the need for fire and rescue authorities to maintain their investment in capital assets, and it provides the potential for making efficiency savings at a time when resource budgets are under greater pressure.

Mr Wright: I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning capital. My understanding is that Cleveland fire authority's private finance initiative bid has been rejected, with no suitable replacement being put in place. Will the Minister advise me on how the authority can best put itself forward for capital schemes, in order to provide efficiencies in the long run?

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