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Mines (Notice of Abandonment) Regulations 1998

Lord Howie of Troon asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): We are today laying before the House, the Mines (Notice of Abandonment) Regulations 1998. The regulations will come into force on 1 July 1998. On 4 March, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Angela Eagle) made the necessary commencement order to bring the remainder of Sections 58 and 60 of the Environment Act 1995 into force on 1 July. This period of notice will allow mine operators time to put in place the necessary

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steps to avoid a criminal liability for failing to notify the agency of a proposed abandonment.

These regulations are being introduced following extensive consultation with interested parties. Copies of the responses received are available from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions libraries. The regulations will help the Environment Agency ("the Agency") avoid an unexpected minewater breakout resulting in serious contamination of controlled waters by enabling the agency to identify appropriate action to prevent pollution or treat minewaters when a mine or part of a mine is abandoned.

The regulations require mine operators to notify the agency at least six months before abandoning a mine or part of a mine and to publish a notice in at least one local newspaper where the mine is situated. They set out the precise contents of both the notice to be given to the agency and the public notice in a local newspaper. The notice for the agency requires the operator to give an opinion as to the consequences of the proposed abandonment with relevant supporting information. Variations to the timing of the notice will apply where abandonment follows an emergency, and in some cases of insolvency. Where a phased programme of abandonment is planned, this could be notified to the agency and published in a local newspaper at one time, so as to reduce the burdens on the operator.

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Angela Eagle) has also brought into effect the remainder of Section 60 of the Environment Act 1995. This removes the statutory defence against prosecution from the owners and former operators of mines abandoned after 31 December 1999, where a polluting discharge is "permitted" to flow from an abandoned mine or part of a mine.

M.6 Motorway: Speed Limit

Lord Rowallan asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why there is a 50 mph limit on the M.77 and M.8 motorways as they go through Glasgow but no such urban motorway restriction on the M.6 motorway as it goes through Birmingham.[HL1224]

Baroness Hayman: I have asked the Chief Executive of the Highways Agency to write to the noble Lord.

Letter to Lord Rowallan from the Chief Executive of the Highways Agency, Mr. L. Haynes, dated 1 April 1998.

The Minister for Roads, Baroness Hayman, has asked me to reply to your Question about the different speed limits in operation on the M.6 motorway in England and the M.77 and M.8 motorways in Scotland.

The Scottish Office is responsible for motorways and trunk roads in Scotland, whereas the Highways Agency is responsible for the operation of the motorway and trunk road network in England. Colleagues in the Scottish Office have advised that the M.8/M.77 passes through the centre of Glasgow and that it was designed to cater for the needs of urban traffic. The junctions are

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less than a kilometre apart in some places and bends are tighter than those found on present day motorways. The 50 mph speed limit is therefore necessary to ensure the safety of road users where traffic is constantly joining or leaving the motorway through the city.

In contrast, the M.6 motorway, to the north of Birmingham, was designed to 1970s motorway standards. The junctions are farther apart and consequently a 70 mph limit is more appropriate. There are times, though, when the very heavy flows of traffic lead to severe congestion. We are currently considering the possibility of adopting controlled motorway technology, similar to that already in use on parts of the M.25, so that the maximum permitted speed can be varied to make best use of the network.

I hope this is helpful.

Genetically Modified Crops

Lord Kennet asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, in the event of ill-effects being discovered to flow from genetically modified crops, they, or the firms marketing the plants, will be liable in law for damages, and whether, if the former, they are themselves taking out insurance against this eventuality, or, if the latter, requiring the firms to do so.[HL1258]

Baroness Hayman: Civil liability for damage caused by genetically modified organisms is governed by the common law as developed by the courts. Depending on the facts of the case, a public authority regulating the marketing of genetically modified organisms may be liable if it acts negligently. On the basis of common law principles, a firm marketing the genetically modified crop may be liable in law for any damage arising from ill effects attributed to the crop. There is no requirement placed on firms to take out insurance against this eventuality. Depending on the facts of the case, the statutory regime for product liability may also be relevant.

Concrete Deterioration

Lord Monkswell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What problems are associated with the thaumasite form of sulphate attack on concrete.[HL1352]

Baroness Hayman: During recent strengthening operations on two of the older overbridges on the M.5 in Gloucestershire, an unexpected deterioration was noted in some of the concrete columns below ground level. Consultations with the Building Research Establishment (BRE) identified this as the thaumasite form of sulphate attack. Foundations on a further three bridges were examined and were found to be exhibiting similar deterioration.

The Highways Agency's view is that this does not pose a threat to the structural stability of the bridges, nor is there any risk to the safety of road users. The agency is drawing up a programme to identify which

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bridges might be subject to this form of problem and to investigate those bridges.

BRE has been conducting research into this form of sulphate reaction since 1990 for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, but, until the cases on the M.5 were discovered last week, only three such incidents of damage to concrete foundations had previously been identified in the UK. It appears that compliance with standard design guidance on protection against sulphate attack does not guarantee protection of concrete against the thaumasite form of reaction. At present, BRE is undertaking both laboratory and long-term field studies into this phenomenon. These studies have led it to the conclusion that this form of sulphate reaction can only occur when there is a combination of:

    (a) A source of sulphates, as commonly found in clay soils;

    (b) Very wet, cold conditions; and

    (c) A source of calcium carbonate in the concrete (limestone aggregate in the cases investigated).

The expert independent advice received from the BRE is that, while it believes that its initial findings indicate the need for wider study, it is strongly of the view that any damage to buildings would be gradual and there is no danger to people in buildings.

In the light of the problems discovered on the M.5, we have today appointed Professor Leslie Clark to chair an expert group to study the phenomenon further and to report to me as soon as possible. The group will develop guidance and advice on any implications for existing buildings and structures and on the design and specification of new construction.

Housing Planning

Baroness Young of Old Scone asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How they intend the new approach to planning for future housing requirements to be taken into account in existing reviews of regional planning guidance and development plans.[HL1353]

Baroness Hayman: The statement Planning for the Communities of the Future (Cmnd 3885) points out, in paragraph 33, the need for an orderly transition from the old to the new policy. The new approach will be introduced as soon as possible, through reviews of regional planning guidance. We will discuss with the regional planning conferences how far it will be possible to introduce the new arrangements into existing review processes, some of which are likely to be completed next year. In the meantime, where development plans are being replaced or altered, they should continue to have regard, inter alia, to existing regional guidance. However, in considering whether to object to proposals put forward in development plans, the Secretary of State will treat each case on its merits, taking account of national policy, including that in the statement. A more detailed note on the transitional position has been placed in the Library.

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Water Charging

Baroness Young of Old Scone asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will publish a consultation paper following the review of water charging in England and Wales.[HL1354]

Baroness Hayman: My right honourable friends the Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions are publishing today water charging proposals. The driving principles behind our policy on water charging are to have a system which provides for fair water charges and gives customers more choice in the way they pay for water. That system has to look after vulnerable customers. It also has to help ensure that water is used efficiently. We propose four key measures:

    (i) Those who currently pay on an unmeasured basis and use water only for essential domestic purposes should be able to continue to do so in their present home.

    (ii) We should remove the threat of disconnection from domestic customers.

    (iii) Domestic customers should have the choice of a meter, free of charge, if it suits their needs.

    (iv) Targeted help should be available for consumers with special needs.

For the foreseeable future, the majority of customers will pay their water charges on an unmeasured basis. We remain firmly of the view that customers should not, in future, be obliged to start paying for water in their present home on a measured basis where they are not using significant amounts of water for non-domestic purposes like garden watering using a sprinkler. To allow this, we propose a change in the law to allow rateable value charging to continue beyond the year 2000.

We also propose to remove the powers of water companies to disconnect domestic water supplies in the event of non-payment. This will be particularly reassuring to those who are most vulnerable. Access to water is essential to the maintenance of general good health and well-being, and the water charging arrangements need to reflect that. Of course, water companies are entitled to be paid for the services they provide, but other debt recovery procedures are available to them. Our concern about public health demands that we maintain the flow of water supplies to households in all circumstances.

Measured charges may, in the right circumstances, encourage individual customers to use water efficiently. Some consumers, such as single people or pensioners in larger properties, will see an advantage in moving to a measured charging basis for their bills. We propose that in future customers should have the choice to have a meter fitted, free of charge. But those who choose a meter should also have the opportunity to revert to an

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unmeasured charging basis within a year if metering does not suit their needs.

Companies should draw up imaginative new tariffs which increase customer choice. Those should bring benefits to customers who have not previously seen any point in being metered. And tariffs can also be designed to give customers strong incentives to economise on water for discretionary purposes without discouraging essential use. It must be for the companies to take the lead in developing such tariffs, but we look to the regulator to see that they do so. In particular, we see a strong case for ending standing charges for metered customers, which can be a particular problem for people on low incomes with low water use.

For new homes, and those substantially altered since 1990, there are no rateable values. We do not believe that any of the unmeasured charging options for these homes are attractive. We therefore propose that metering should continue to be the normal charging method. But we will consider constructive proposals for alternative charging options which consultees wish to put forward, including possible unmeasured options for new houses.

A particular concern of this Government is the position of vulnerable customers. So we propose that households on low incomes, particularly large families, and those with special medical needs who live in houses with a metered supply should have the right to opt for a charge based on average use rather than their actual meter reading. This should provide targeted and effective assistance to the groups who could be most disadvantaged as a result of metering.

Copies of the Government's consultation paper, Water Charging in England and Wales--A New Approach, on which responses have been requested by 14 May, have been placed in the Library of the House.

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