HC Deb 20 January 1986 vol 90 cc161-6

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

1.19 am
Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe (Leigh)

First of all, may I place on record my gratitude to the Minister for responding so quickly to what is in essence an emergency debate. I apologise to the House on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis), who is ill with influenza and unable to be here. I managed to bridge the gap and I shall speak on opencast mining and the 10-year draft plan of the National Coal Board for the greater Manchester area.

I have a special interest in this debate because I am the chairman of the miners' parliamentary group and a member of the national executive of the National Union of Mineworkers. I am also the energy Whip of my party. I want it clearly understood that I shall be speaking first about the adverse effects opencast mining has had on the lives of ordinary people in the greater Manchester area for something like 150 years. I shall also speak about whether opencast mining has a useful part to play in the energy requirements of our nation.

It is known that during the unfortunate period of strife and trauma that the mining industry recently endured, some people took the view that it would not have come about if the Government's energy policy had fully taken into account that we have in coal an indigenous fuel with a potential of some 300 years' supply. That could be used at the proper time for our energy requirements. It is a vital natural resource and should be safeguarded and used only when it is necessary to do so.

The Minister will know that opencast mining was an emergency undertaking that complemented deep coal mining after the second world war. From about 1946–47 it found its place within our global target of coal production in the nationalised industry run by the National Coal Board.

Opencast mining was never meant to be a substitute for deep coal mining. Unfortunately, it is now considered an asset, not in the sense that it is considered imperative that we get the coal, but in the sense that it is a cheap form of fuel that is quickly mined and, as we say, in the wagon, with the money in the bank in a few days or a few weeks. I am a former mining engineer and I know that eight to 10 years is required to sink a pit. Before it becomes economic and fruitful it needs a considerable amount of planning and deep coal mining is much more expensive than opencast mining.

I do not believe—nor, at times, do the Government—that we have a rational national energy policy that considers all types of fuels in the context of global requirements. Thousands of ordinary householders are suffering because of this great intrusion into their lives which is causing, in their opinion and that of my colleagues, wholesale havoc and devastation. Visual amenities, repairs to services, local infrastructure—roads, sewers, and so on—and rural areas have been affected. Partly rural areas have been spoiled, as we noted during the long public inquiry on behalf of a Member of the other place. It was conceded at the end of the inquiry that the environmentalists were half right and that the applicant was right also.

There is no doubt about the disturbance, noise, dirt and constant problems where opencast mining occurs in residential areas. I should like to make some suggestions which might mitigate some of the hardship suffered. Properties are sometimes affected by large schemes for as long as 15 years. That is an inordinate period during which householders have to put up with the problem. When they purchase their houses, they often do not dream that they will become the victim of such an environmental intrusion into their lives.

I shall give a classic example of one development which affects three sides of my constituency—the Leigh, Atherton and Tyldesley townships. The project involves 11 years of excavation and five years reclamation. People at the end of the site, as are some of my constituents, expect to be adversely affected for 16 years, if the NCB's targeted time scale is met. That is unreasonable. Through no fault of their own, my constituents are the victims of this cruel series of events.

There is a 10-year plan which involves a strategy plan, based on identified sites and areas of search in the mining communities. The sites suggested in the draft mineral local plan for the greater Manchester area basically surround the perimeter of Wigan and adjoining authority areas and penetrate into greater Manchester. They do not include potential opencast sites that have already been identified. This means that the areas have been identified by the NCB opencast executive as "areas of current interest", which is not quite the same as "identified sites". Obviously, this causes extreme concern to the residents, and all the protection groups that have formed in that vast area of search. They are worried that, some 40 or 50 years afterwards, they could be landed with opencast mining for the next half century. I am being quite logical about this point, and I am not being speculative, because I know the area. Such a proposition would be a nightmare to ordinary people. There are examples in the area to show that this has happened before.

One of the problems is that the weak substrata could be in residental areas. Neither the Government nor the local authorities have ever commissioned a proper, in-depth, independent geological survey of the areas built on such substrata. This evening I was looking at the history of a pit in my constituency, dealing with what happened there 198 years ago. I shall not bore the House with the details of what happened. However, one third of the pit is within the site about which we are talking, which will produce about 2 million tonnes of opencast coal within the next 16 years.

The problem is that no one is responsible for seeing what could happen when an area that has been honeycombed for the past 200 years with 300 mineshafts within a radius of five miles is worked again. One of the problems is that no direct geological survey is made. It is possible that geological movements would be triggered off from the dozens of old mine workings.

I understand the problems. The Minister came to help out in haste, and some of the blame lies with the Department of the Environment, and is not his responsibility. It is fair, sensible, and should be obligatory, that all those who apply—whether it is the National Coal Board or any private applicant—for permission to mine an area, should present to the authority an independent geological survey of the area. It will then be up to the local authority, the councillors of which will be briefed on the data available, to make its judgment on an application. That would be a more fair and honest method. A judgment could be made more rationally and soundly. The NCB, which is the main applicant for planning permission to mine such areas, will then be responsible for those areas.

The NCB always uses the phrase, "There is no evidence to suggest." On the other hand, there has been no positive planning identification by the National Coal Board that allows it to say, hand on heart, that old mineworkings in that area will not cause disturbance.

New arrangements were introduced in 1984. They are the subject of circular 3/84 from the Department of the Environment. It places opencast mining fairly and squarely within the planning system and all that flows from that. Compensation should be paid to those communities from whose area coal is removed. Financial recompense should be made to the communities that have borne the brunt of mining operations. I have already described the adverse effects of opencast coalmining, which are fully acknowledged in paragraph 20 of the Government circular. It says that local planning authorities will need to consider how best high standards of management and operation of sites might be achieved through measures agreed with the industry. It states that the agreements provided for in section 52 of the Coal Industry Act 1971 are to be enforced by means of the planning conditions. It is, however, clear that the possibility of securing compensation cannot be dealt with in that way. Therefore I implore the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy to consult the Department of the Environment and to suggest that, where mining takes place, an amount should be calculated, as compensation to the local authorities and to the areas and communities concerned, as a percentage of the value of recovered coal. I believe that that would be an honest criterion. If opencast mining must be imposed on the population in this area, compensation should be paid to them.

The National Coal Board should agree in principle to accept its responsibility to help local communities. If such an agreement could be obtained, we would be on the first rung of the ladder towards the introduction of legislation to provide protection and some degree of recompense for the great environmental intrustions caused by opencast mining.

I stress again that the extent of underground mining activities in areas such as these has been so great that much of it is unrecorded, while other records no longer exist. An area that had been subject to subsidence but which appeared to have been stabilised was considered by the planning authorities to be suitable as building land. Residential and other types of property now stand upon that land. These are worn-out areas. We are referring to areas which for 250 years have been subject to the kind of activities that I have described. It is only right, when our national energy resources are being planned, that relief of some kind should be provided. Either monetary relief or better planning conditions should be introduced to safeguard the interests and the environment of these communities. I commend to the House and the various Departments my suggestions about trying to help and to grant some kind of sustenance, especially to those who, unfortunately, have to suffer that type of ordeal.

I mentioned long periods of perhaps 15 or 20 years, but an average is about five to 10 years. Nevertheless, there are exceptional circumstances and I hope that the Minister will consider my arguments carefully.

1.40 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. David Hunt)

I join the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe) in saying how sad we are that the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) is unwell. I hope that he makes a speedy recovery to full health.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leigh on his ingenuity and skill in securing this debate at short notice. He mentioned his various qualifications—chairman of the miners parliamentary group, member of the National Union of Mineworkers national executive and a Whip. He has had a distinguished career in the coal industry and has a breadth of experience and expertise that I respect.

The Government's energy policy has been clearly stated on many occasions. We recognise that this country is fortunate to have the four major options available—oil, nuclear energy, gas and coal. Our policy is to keep each of those options active and developing.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the question of opencast coal because that has a vital role to play in securing a healthy future for the coal industry. At one stage the hon. Gentleman sought to suggest that we should cut back on opencast coal in order that it may be replaced by more deep-mined production. However, that makes no sense from either an operational or a financial point of view. When I visited the opencast executive in Mansfield last year, I was impressed by its operations and by the people that I met. The opencast arm of the NCB has been operating effectively and profitably for many years. The NCB needs the coal that it produces. The private opencast sector also has an important contribution to make. I emphasise that the NCB's deep-mined and opencast operations are not competing with each other but are complementary. The quality of coal in some deep mines is such that they would simply have to close if there were no opencast coal to blend with it.

The chlorine content of coal increases with depth. Deep-mined coal often has too high a chlorine content for use in power stations. Chlorine can cause fouling and corrosion in boilers and kilns. Opencast low-chlorine coal is being used increasingly to blend with deep-mined high-chlorine coal to make it acceptable to the user, particularly in the power generation market.

A second reason why opencast mining is so vital in this country is that it is an important source of specialised coal. Almost half of the United Kingdom's production of anthracite is extracted by the opencast method. Demand is also just as high for prime coking coal. Although opencast coking coal reserves are limited, production is being expanded as far as possible, because opencast coking coal directly displaces foreign imports. All the qualities of opencast coal—cleanness, moisture and chlorine content, lack of dust—also make it very attractive to a sector that the NCB sees as a very important growth area—the industrial market.

Thirdly, we must not underestimate the significant cost advantages which opencast coal offers over deep-mined coal. In 1984–85, the average cost of production for opencast coal was £28.43 a tonne—considerably lower than the average cost of deep-mined coal. I hope that I have demonstrated to the House just how much, and why, we need coal produced by opencasting. In 1983–84, the pre-strike year, opencasting produced just under 14.5 million tonnes, or about 13 per cent. of the National Coal Board's total output. This year's pattern will be similar. Because of its special characteristics and qualities, the greater part of opencast coal simply could not be replaced by deep-mined output.

The hon. Gentleman referred especially to developments in the Greater Manchester area, and the Lomax site, which includes the Bank House farm opencast site. I understand that the NCB is lodging an application for planning for the Bank House farm site. In the first instance, this is a matter for the local mineral planning authority, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the planning merits of the case. But the hon. Gentleman raised some specific points on procedure, including the lodging of independent geological surveys. It is for the applicant to decide what supportive evidence is required, but equally it is a matter for the local planning authorities to decide whether they wish to employ consultants to carry out independent geological assessments or surveys. But, of course, the hon. Gentleman is right to stress that one must have regard to the overall complications caused by previous mining in the operations in respect of which planning permission is sought.

On the issue of general recompense for the community, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman expects me to hold out any hope of movement in that direction, but I shall consider the points that he raised and draw them to the attention of my colleagues in the Department of the Environment.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned help to communities. Many grants are available to communities that have been hit by previous mining blight—deep-mined or opencast—in the form of derelict land grant and others. This debate comes at a time when, in the Upper Waiting Hall, we have an exhibition by NCB (Enterprise) Ltd, which demonstrates the board's real concern for communities.

It is, of course, equally important to ensure that opencast coal is not produced at an unacceptable cost to the environment. The planning process is specifically designed to ensure that the coal produced from a specific site is extracted with the minimum environmental disruption. Often, when planning permission is granted for an opencast site, careful planning conditions are laid down to ensure that adequate screening and baffling are provided; and the number of trucks visiting the site may be controlled. But, unlike conventional deep mines, which may have lives of up to 100 years, an opencast site can be worked often in only a few years, reducing the periods of disruption.

Opencast sites are restored to a high stnadard by the NCB's opencast executive. This is a complex, thorough going and often expensive process. The contours of the land are shaped by replacing soil and subsoils, and land intended for agriculture has water supplies, drinking troughs, fences and hedges replaced or even supplied for the first time. That is followed by the installation of permanent underdrainage. Often, the site is improved well beyond its original condition. If not required for agricultural use, the land can be contoured to the specifications of the local authority for a wide variety of leisure and recreational purposes.

In 1985, £14 million was spent by the NCB on site restoration after opencasting. That represents a significant proportion of total production costs at such sites, but is regarded by the opencast executive as an essential part of the process of coal extraction by opencast methods. It is almost impossible to tell, in many cases, that only a few years before a major extraction site was present. In this way, the country gets the best of both worlds: not only is a valuable resource extracted cheaply and efficiently over a short time span, but the land is restored or improved so that what might have been environmental costs become tangible environmental benefits.

There can be no doubt that deep-mined coal will continue to provide the main part of the National Coal Board's output. But, equally, opencast coal has a vital, complementary and continuing role to play in the future of the coal industry—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening 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 eleven minutes to Two o'clock.