§ 4. Mr. Raffan
asked the Secretary of State of Wales when he will next meet the chairman of the National Coal Board to discuss opencast mining in Wales.
§ Mr. Raffan
Will my hon. Friend seek a meeting to dissuade the NCB from again applying to start opencast mining at Pont Einion Northop, on high-quality land in an attractive rural area? Will he take the opportunity to 646 remind the chairman of the NCB that the last application was rejected on the gound that need had not been demonstrated? Does my hon. Friend agree that one would be hard put to prove that need now that coal stocks are higher and oil prices have collapsed?
§ Mr. Roberts
It is for the NCB to decide whether there has been sufficient change in circumstances since the earlier decision on the Pont Einion site to warrant its making a fresh application. I cannot comment on the merits of the case, because the matter may eventually come before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for decision. The procedure on applications for opencast mining has changed since March 1984. Such applications are now dealt with as part of the normal planning procedures.
§ Mr. Coleman
Will the hon. Gentleman be careful in handling the applications, especially in view of the sensitivity in many areas of south Wales about opencast mining? Will the hon. Gentleman take care in granting applications by the NCB, in the face of often strong local opposition?
§ Mr. Roberts
I am well aware of that position. That was part of the purpose of changing the procedure, to which I referred in my previous reply. The Housing and Planning Bill provides for a simplification of the opencast procedures by abolishing the need for ministerial authorisation. Planning permission will still be required. We shall ensure that any proposals that come before us for decision are publicised and that full opportunity is given for representations to be made by interested persons. That is, in any event, our current practice.
§ Mr. Livsey
Will the hon. Gentleman do all that he can to encourage the NCB to become involved in deep mining, which is labour intensive, instead of opencast mining, which tends to be capital intensive and is highly destructive of the environment and the community in south Wales?
§ Mr. Roberts
Again I must stress that that is a matter for the NCB. Obviously opencast coal is not only cheaper but has a much lower ash and chlorine content than deep-mined coal, but the health of many deep mines depends on opencast coal for blending to provide an acceptable product for customers. Opencast mining and deep mining are complementary rather than competitive.
§ Mr. Barry Jones
We look to the Under-Secretary of State to assist the House, especially with the position in Wales as described by hon. Members. Does the hon. Gentleman know that in my constituency, in the Ewloe area, there is widespread condemnation of proposals to undertake opencast mining close to a primary school and housing development? The hon. Gentleman said that deep mining and opencast mining are complementary. Will he therefore tell the chairman of the NCB that, if the Bersham colliery in north-east Wales closes, the economy of north-east Wales will rock on its heels following the Courtaulds closure? Will the hon. Gentleman assure the House that, in spite of the steep drop in oil prices, there will be no new proposals for pit closures throughout the south Wales coalfields? I remind the hon. Gentleman that one in four men in the Welsh valleys is unemployed? That is far too high.
§ Mr. Roberts
The hon. Gentleman has asked a number of questions. I think I have said sufficient to show that 647 opencast mining is complementary rather than necessarily an alternative. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Bersham colliery. Of course, it is always a matter of great concern when a pit has to be closed. If such an agreement is reached on Bersham, the board is confident that it can offer alternative jobs to those wishing to remain in the industry. There are generous redundancy terms for those who choose to leave. It is too soon to judge the longer-term effect of the current movement in oil prices, but lower oil prices obviously emphasise the need for the NCB to be competitive and make every effort to improve productivity.