HC Deb 15 November 1976 vol 919 cc1069-82

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

11.16 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

I am grateful for the opportunity of having a short debate on a problem that is very serious both for my constituents and nationally—a problem that the House will have to consider at some stage.

The debate is concerned with the huge reserves of coal, currently estimated at about 450 million tons, which have been fully prospected beneath the Vale of Belvoir in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, partly under my constituency and partly under the constituencies of Melton, Grantham and Rutland and Stamford.

The reactions to this huge discovery of workable coal have already indicated the unfortunate dilemma between conflicting interests which faces those who have to make the decisions on the exploitation of coal.

There are those who welcome the discovery of this huge quantity of indigenous energy as a valuable resource for this country and make comparisons between it and the Forties oilfield, claiming that great advantages will flow from its successful exploitation.

Unfortunately, the coal lies beneath the Vale of Belvoir, which is an area of considerable natural beauty. To those hon. Members who do not know it—and one of its charms is that it is not well known—I can say that it comprises many small villages, such as Granby, Upper Broughton, and Hickling, whose very names give an accurate impression of the sort of rural charm they represent.

There is also very valuable agricultural land, which is a shrinking asset in this country as well as a considerable source of recreation and pleasure for those who live in the nearby towns.

So we have this great new source of energy, but it lies in an area of great beauty and value which gives recreation and pleasure to many people.

We know how this country has faced the problem before. The issues raised by the problems of the Vale of Belvoir put it on almost the same level as the Channel Tunnel, Maplin Airport and the motorway network. I see this debate as a preliminary public discussion of the procedures to be used to sort out this dilemma successfully and to find out what will be the procedures in making decisions in the national as well as the local interest. I want to ensure that the procedures will be good enough to discover who will be responsible for making decisions at each stage and to learn what opportunities there will be for public participation.

I am grateful that there will be a ministerial reply and also that my hon. Friends the Members for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) and New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson), who speak for the Opposition on these matters, are here to consider the problem.

The first question to ask is whether there is an economic case for spending large sums of money on the exploitation of this coal. There must be a limit to the amount of coal required, though I recognise that a new future is emerging for it in present circumstances. Who will decide on the economic case for the exploitation of the coal? Will it be the National Coal Board alone? I assume not. Will it be through collaboration between the Board and the sponsoring Minister? If so, will he be answerable to the public through this Parliament?

If, but only if, the answer to the first question is "Yes"—that there is a case in the national interest for the exploitation of this coal seam—we have to consider the environmental questions.

Obviously, if the Board decides to go ahead a planning application will be made. I assume that the issues are too great for the ordinary procedure and that the Minister will call for a full public inquiry, and that the local authorities and our constituents can then make their representations. But that would be a procedure relating only to the environmental issues.

I should like to be assured that at some stage we can devise adequate procedures and adequate means of debate for weighing the energy questions and the environmental questions together, so that the matter can be looked at and assessed as a whole. It may be, for instance, that the energy advantages to this country will be so overwhelming and the environmental damage so slight that it will be quite a straightforward matter to proceed with the exploitation of the coal. But if, as many of my constituents fear, it turns out to be a marginal and somewhat speculative advantage for the energy needs of this country, and involves disastrous, ruinous and irreversible damage to the environment of the area, somebody has to decide when the balance lies in that way.

Who will decide the balance? The National Coal Board will decide on the coal position. The Department of Energy must take a view of energy needs. The Treasury, I hope, will take a view on the investment and the vast borrowing by a public corporation that is envisaged. The Department of the Environment will have its planning rôle. My hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham)—if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—will put forward ideas on a form of inquiry that will encompass all these questions. Public debate must take a view of the whole picture. The final decision must be a Government decision for which Ministers are answerable to the House, because of the great importance of getting these issues correctly decided.

Why do I say that the decision must be taken on this scale? What can be the doubt about the value of the coal and the wisdom of the Board in deciding to exploit it? Why do I not regard it simply as black wealth and assume that the experts will decide how best to exploit it? Why should there be planning supervision or interference, even if it is on behalf of constituents, in terms of saying "Pause a moment and let us see whether the case can be made out"?

I say that it cannot just be left to the National Coal Board, because the Board is obviously completely committed to the furtherance and development of the coal industry. I should be shocked if it were not. It is the Board's duty to be totally committed to the maximum development of the industry in this country. It is not the Board's primary duty to look at the alternatives or to consider the interests of rival views or the wider national interest. It has its "Plan for Coal" for the next 10 years. It has its plan for 150 million tons by the end of the century. The Board wants to replace the old, narrow seams with new pits and new seams. Its ambition is boundless.

When the Secretary of State spoke to this House on 19th February 1975 he said, at column 1348, that he was envisaging an investment of £600 million for the next 10 years under the "Plan for Coal". A recent report in the Daily Telegraph forecast investment of £6,000 million by the end of the century in the development of the coal industry. The Board has Selby, Belvoir—which it expects to develop—and new finds in the Firth of Forth. It is committed to the maximum exploitation of these huge coal resources that it is finding.

I am not anti-coal; I represent part of Nottinghamshire, which is a coal mining county. My father worked down the mine and I know many who do. I have always had constituents who are miners or who work in the coal industry. But someone must question the sole judgment of the Board, and I want to be reassured by the Minister that he and the Department of Energy are weighing up the possible alternatives.

We must also take into account the position of the gas industry, the oil industry and the nuclear power industry. I listened to part of the earlier debate on the JET project and heard the Minister assure us that he is working towards an energy policy. I realise that that involves a great deal of forecasting of long-term energy needs. This is a notoriously difficult business, because most of the forecasts in this field have turned out to be wrong. But on all views at the moment we expect this country to be self-sufficient in energy by the early 1980s. Thereafter, the Board expects that as oil and gas are developed there will be a shortfall which will enable it to increase its market share. My constituents and I need to be persuaded of that. We need to know whether there is a safe basis for investing so much money when ever-increasing reserves of oil are being discovered in the North Sea.

The finds of natural gas have consistently been underestimated. I understand that recent reports indicate that there is at least half as much again as was first anticipated. We also have a huge oil potential with the new oilfields that have been discovered. Our nuclear energy potential was discussed in the preceding debate.

The Board must make out a case, and the Department of Energy must decide whether it has made out a good case before giving the go-ahead. We must be satisfied that coal will increase its market share after the 1980s and that there is a need for the Belvoir reserves.

The Board, when pressed, referred to the export potential of coal. I must say that I find that difficult to accept. My eyebrows went up at the thought of a revival of the coal trade. The Belvoir seam lies in deep, heavy water-bearing strata. Out deep-mined coal is expensive to produce. Cheaper mined coal can be obtained from Australia, America and, potentially, Brazil and Botswana, which, by the end of the century, will be competing effectively from their own indigenous supplies.

I should like to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Melton, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I have indicated my views on this matter. The Board has not produced its final feasibility studies or committed itself to going ahead, but clearly it will do so. Before we charge ahead with this great investment and before the Board produces ambitious plans and we get to the environmental and planning stage, I want to be reassured that the Government will want to be satisfied that this investment is justified, not speculative, and that nobody will rush into a decision that may do irreversible damage to a beautiful and attractive part of the country for reasons which may turn out to be specious by the time that the future contemplated by the Board has arrived.

11.28 p.m.

Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) for allowing me a few minutes to intervene in a debate on a great environmental and in no way party matter. I believe that we are likely to see a row arising out of this matter which will make Cublington look like a tea party, so it is important to get these facts firmly on record.

I should like to make four brief points. First, the people of the Vale of Belvoir are overwhelmingly opposed to a coal mine there. The Vale of Belvoir Parish Councils Association has held 15 public meetings at which the National Coal Board's plans have been fully explained. The meetings have been packed to the doors, and there has been virtually unanimous opposition to this proposal. If consultation means anything to the NCB, it should take account of that reaction. Indeed, 50 members of the constituencies of myself and my hon. Friend have come to listen to this debate this evening.

Secondly, there is a need for Department of Energy Ministers to be seen to be impartial in this matter. I had to pick up the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes), when he was Under-Secretary, on remarks that he made in Leicester recently, following which he wrote to me on 17th August saying that the Department was not committed to the mining of coal in the Vale of Belvoir or in any other specific area.

I also had occasion to query remarks made in the House by the Minister of State on 25th October, following which he wrote to me confirming that the Department stood by the undertaking given by the hon. Member for Widnes. In view of his own remarks in Nottingham recently, I hope that the Under-Secretary will repeat that assurance tonight.

We cannot permit there to be any suspicion in the minds of the public that a deal has already been done with the NCB and the Department of Energy to mine the coal, and that any planning inquiry will be a farce. Energy Ministers ought to have an invisible profile on this matter. They should remember that the Ombudsman and the courts are available if there is any reason to suppose that the quasi-judicial functions of the Department of Energy are being usurped. If the NCB has been sending written timetables of its proposed development or any other information to the Department of Energy, Ministers might remember that the Ombudsman is able to look at any such files in retrospect. Of course, I assume that the Ministers themselves have never given any encouragement, formal or informal, to the NCB to proceed with the project. That would be quite improper. Doubtless the Minister will confirm that no such action has been taken.

Thirdly, I have expressed the need for a planning inquiry commission to be set up under Sections 47 and 48 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. I made that proposal to the Secretary of State for the Environment on 4th October. After all, the doubts expressed by British Gas and others about a so-called energy gap represent a new and important dimension in the energy argument which needs full public examination.

As the Secretary of State for Energy himself said to the Select Committee considering the SGHWR programme, One of the most interesting things that came out of the Energy Conference—not new to those who follow it carefully—was a direct attack by the gas industry on the concept of an energy gap. Certainly, if we are to develop, as I intend to do, a national energy strategy, there has got to be an agreement, at any rate about broad forecasts, within certain parameters, so that we know exactly what the gap is, when it will come and how we might fill it. If that is the present state of ministerial knowledge—and I accept that the Minister was very open and frank with the Select Committee—it is all the more important that this matter should now be fully aired by a planning inquiry commission.

Finally, may we clear away the argument that resisting the Vale coal mine, as we have been doing, means unemployed miners elsewhere in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire? When I asked Sir Derek Ezra, recently, for a full list of the life of each of the pits in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire, he replied that the Belvoir pit was not linked to the closure of specific collieries and, indeed, that there was "no programme of colliery closures".

These matters are important. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for raising them. This is the beginning of the public debate. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments.

11.32 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Alex Eadie)

I thank the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and his hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) for their contributions. I am sure that we all now welcome this opportunity to discuss the Vale of Belvoir, and its possible role in our national energy policy.

None of us present can be unaware of the change that has occurred in the fortunes and prospects of the coal industry in the past three years. This change has occurred partly because of the impact of foreign events, but also—and this is an important point—through the determination of both Government and industry to respond positively to these events.

The foreign events to which I refer are, of course, the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 and the subsequent quintupling of oil prices. Coal's response has been the "Plan for Coal". After 15 years of decline, the industry now faces a new future in which it can expand and play a vital part in supplying our future energy needs.

I need scarcely remind the House that this country will shortly have the capacity for a net self-sufficiency in energy. Coal will play a substantial part in this.

Hon. Members know that indigenous energy supplies make an enormous contribution to the well-being of our economy, so I shall not dwell on the benefit to our balance of payments; hon. Members know that already. But they also know that our supplies of North Sea oil and gas are finite: they will not last for ever. By present reckoning, supplies from the North Sea will be diminishing in the 1990s. If we are not, once again, to put too much reliance on imports, probably even more expensive in real terms than at present, we must have a healthy coal industry which is ready to help to fill the gap. Indeed, a prosperous coal industry may be the linchpin of a prosperous British economy in the years ahead.

In 1974, the Government, the NCB and the mining unions agreed the Board's "Plan for Coal" and its production target of 135 million tons a year by 1985. Now, as hon. Members may know, we are already starting to look beyond that—to the rest of the century.

In doing that, it is perhaps worth noting that the objectives of "Plan for Coal" are still seen as valid. The details may have changed—but the target is still expected to be achieved. But, if no further plans are made, production must inevitably decline as pits exhaust after 1985. So "Plan for Coal 2000" will be crucial to all of us.

Coal, like all extractive industries, has to run in order to stand still. Exploration and the exploiting of new reserves are a constant necessity in order merely to replace those which are exhausted year by year.

Already, under "Plan for Coal", we are expanding capacity from existing pits by over 20 million tons. Even so, we have had to reckon on finding a further 20 million tons capacity from totally new mines. If capacity is to be maintained throughout this century, we must continue to invest in new capacity. By next year the Board's exploration programme will have proved all the reserves necessary for "Plan for Coal". But a continuing programme of exploration will be needed beyond then so that decisions can be taken on investment after 1985.

I mentioned earlier that "Plan for Coal" envisages 20 million tons of capacity to be provided by entirely new mines. Decisions have so far been taken on only one major new mine—that to exploit the reserves of coal in the Selby coal field. Work started on the development of that very rich field last month.

Some people have suggested that Selby's 10 million tons of output will be sufficient production from new mines. Many have asked why the Board should wish to create other new mines when we have, at present, stocks of over 30 million tons of coal. Once again, the answer is in terms of long-term need. Selby is expected to take 10 years to reach its full output. One must anticipate a similar time-scale for any other comparable projects.

This is the background against which we must consider the reserves at Belvoir. I commend the interest that the hon. Members for local constituencies are taking, but we must be very careful not to jump the gun.

Suggestions have been made that my Department has prejudged the issue and is exerting pressure to push ahead and mine in the Vale of Belvoir regardless of planning procedures. I have been criticised myself for suggesting that the nation would need the coal from Belvoir—a project that I have heard described as a potential rape of the countryside.

To my critics I would say this: first, let us keep sex out of the coal industry, please. Second, Coal Board investigations have shown that the Vale houses about 450 million tons of coal. That coal—that indigenous coal—is money in the bank for Britain. Third, I am an environmentalist. I am not in any way prejudging the outcome of any future inquiry into legitimate objections to the exploitation of the coal in the Vale of Belvoir. Our democratic system will present every opportunity to people to make their views heard and have them considered.

If hon. Members go to coal sites up and down the country—as I do—they will see what a fine record the NCB has in coming up to scratch from an environmentalist's point of view.

I am an Energy Minister. Of course, I think that leaving 450 million tons of coal in the ground would be wasteful. That position is not incompatible with being on the side of the environmentalists. But I accept that the planning procedures must be observed. The Government, and particularly the Department of Energy, have not adopted a position either for or against mining in the Vale.

But we do, of course, welcome the discovery and proving of the reserves Belvoir's coal could make an enormous contribution to this country's well-being. But this is simply a statement of a possibility and is not a forecast of what will happen. The distinction is important, if only to save the opponents of the idea from wasting their energy in attacking a non-existent enemy.

No decisions have been taken by Government. The NCB itself is still assessing the possibilities of the coalfield and the proposals it might make. There is still every opportunity for open debate. Indeed, the Board has shown itself extremely willing to consult and inform interested parties. I know that it has been in contact with over 40 local authorities and organisations.

Further explorations and provings of the field have overtaken the original feasibility report which it showed to local authorities earlier this year. The Board tells me that, given the greater knowledge of the reserves, it is formulating an alternative scheme for recovering the coal. This illustrates the problem inherent in consultation over such a complex scheme. The Board is anxious to make all possible information available to those with local interests, but if that information is premature it can be falsified by later events and discoveries. This underlines the wisdom of waiting for the Board to finalise its proposals. There will still be ample opportunity for debate thereafter.

This brings me to the nub of the matter in terms of the debate this evening. All of us, whether we feel instinctively for or against the idea of mining in the Vale, would be foolish to pass judgment before even the Board—let alone ourselves—knows what it wishes to do. Safeguards do exist, specifically designed to protect those who feel threatened by activities such as coal mining coming into their areas.

If the Board does apply to mine, it must submit a firm and detailed project setting out its intentions. It must submit itself to the judgment of the planning authority or a planning inquiry. Such an inquiry would not be blinded by visions of vast coal wealth, nor would it be pressured by the Government. It would hear reasoned objections which, no doubt, would be forthcoming, and it most certainly would take an impartial view of the benefits and detriments that would be brought to the area by such a scheme, be they economic, social or environmental.

The Government, too, will have a deep interest in all the arguments put forward. If planning agreement is forthcoming, my Department will be making its own economic judgment of the NCB's proposals and their contribution to our energy needs.

Mr. Stephen Hastings (Mid-Bedfordshire) rose—

Mr. Eadie

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to reply to the debate.

We understand the feelings of those whose lives would be affected by a new mine in the Vale, just as we understand the contribution that the reserves there could make to a prosperous coal industry in Britain if they prove in the final analysis to be as worth while as they seem on the evidence now available. That evidence has to be substantiated by the Board and, if it is, will have to be balanced against the weight of environmental objections at any planning inquiry. It would be wrong of me, however, not to state my conviction that the Board is also deeply concerned about the effects on the environment and would do its very best to meet local objections.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

Do I understand that only after the Board gets planning consent the Government will see whether there is any advantage to the economy of exploiting the coal? Is it after planning consent has been obtained that the Department will make its judgment?

Mr. Eadie

I do not have time to reply to that. The matter is a little complicated. [Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Hastings) will allow me to reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, who is concerned about this matter and has made a constructive speech.

Mr. Hastings

We are all concerned.

Mr. Eadie

The hon. Member for Rushcliffe initiated the debate, and he is entitled to a reply to the constructive points that he put forward. The facts will be considered when planning consent is put into being. Economic judgments will be applied by the Government. There must be an economic judgment. If the hon. Gentleman is in doubt about the matter I suggest that he writes to me, and I shall be only too pleased to reply to him in greater detail than I have time to do tonight.

I am afraid I have not been able to be too specific about Belvoir. That, of course, is precisely because I do not want to prejudge the issue. I can, however, assure the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken tonight that my Department wishes there to be a full and fair debate on the Board's proposals when they are put forward.

I would like to finish by saying that the decision on the Vale of Belvoir, when it is taken, will obviously be one of very great importance—great importance to the nation, and great importance to all who live in the Vale. We are talking here of an enormous potential contribution to the nation's wealth—that is the nation's interest—but we are also talking of the rights of individuals to a full and fair hearing. Great as is the prize of the Vale of Belvoir, and no one can deny that the proving of reserves of 450 million tons does offer a great prize, there can be no question of riding roughshod over the rights of those individuals whose lives and livelihoods will be affected. There are checks and balances in our system and it is right there should be. When a decision is taken about the Vale of Belvoir, I am sure that it will be seen to be the result of an exhaustive examination of all the relevant factors.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fourteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.