HC Deb 27 October 1989 vol 158 cc1355-64

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

2.29 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

This debate is the story of two opencast sites, one of which was proposed before the last general election and which was to be near the villages of Clowne and Barlborough in my constituency, known hereafter as the Slayley site. The second one is the subject of another application by the Opencast Executive of British Coal for further opencast mining in part of Barlborough but in the main in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes).

We all know that in the past few years there have been many pit closures. We also know that the nation has enough deep-mine coal for 300 years and that it can be used by the nation to offset balance of payment deficits and to support the economy. As a result of pit closures in the past few years, much of that coal has been sterilised because when pits are shut and people are thrown on the dole, the opencast mining that is allowed strips off only about 25 per cent. of the total amount of coal available. The remainder of that coal could be made available by deep mining.

That is not the only problem with opencast mining. It affects the environment as well. We hear much talk in the House about the environment, but my constituents are fed up to the back teeth with the Opencast Executive being granted permission by the Government, even after appeals, to opencast in and around rural villages causing dust and noise and massive movements of lorries. There is also a loss of jobs.

In December 1986 Derbyshire county council turned down an application for the Slayley site. It was supported by Bolsover district council, Clowne parish council, Barlborough parish council and parish councils in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East. All the communities in north Derbyshire and Bolsover opposed that application. Local democracy got to work and meetings of several hundred people took place in the villages. They talked about what would happen if the opencast mining application was granted. It would have meant the extraction of 300,000 tons over 200 acres and 100 lorry movements every day. The Monnies ancient burial site would have been ripped apart and it would have destroyed the wildlife and fauna in the vast areas around Barlborough, Clowne and Renishaw. The noise would have been horrific throughout the five years of extraction and over the period of the second five years when they started to take the clay.

Opencast mining makes a great big hole and creates vast profits, principally for the contractors. Many people within and outside the country, some of them with great big tankers, are only too anxious to fill those holes with toxic waste. That is why Derbyshire county council was careful to say in its objections that not only would opencast mining be detrimental to the amenity and the environment, but that the exposed clays which underlie the coal might be considered as a possible site for the dumping of nuclear waste. Therefore, we had a multitude of reasons for opposing the application. I opposed it and so did all the people in the community. Not only would it cause much environmental change but it would also create a possible site for toxic waste or become a nuclear dump.

We had an inquiry because British Coal decided to appeal against the decision of Derbyshire county council and the other local authorities. We went to the inquiry with a great deal of confidence. People from the villages turned out in their hundreds and put the case before the inspctor who was sent from the Department of the Environment. After several days the report went back. The inspector's report said that because this was a relatively built-up area, the noise levels would have to be such that British Coal could carry out opencast mining for only 11 seconds per day. Naturally, British Coal said that it could not mine coal on that basis because it was uneconomic, so the villagers and local democracy in the area of Bolsover and north-east Derbyshire triumphed. That was in July 1987 and the report was issued shortly afterwards, to the villagers' jubilation. Then the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, was replaced as Secretary of State for the Environment in the Cabinet reshuffle—not the one yesterday but the one in July this year—by the so-called green and friendly Environment Minister, the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Patten). Meantime British Coal asked for the conditions to be varied so that it could opencast the site and get ahead with this massive operation. The previous Secretary of State accepted his inspectors' report about allowing mining for only 11 seconds per day. What did the new Secretary of State do in his first week in his job? Contrary to all the talk on the television and articles that have been written about him, the new, green Secretary of State overturned the decision and allowed British Coal to opencast despite the conditions that had been put on it. That was a savage decision. In view of his reputation, it would have been decent for the Secretary of State to have said, "No, I shall send this back for a further appeal. I intend to have this examined so that local democracy can play a part in the new decision before I agree to British Coal's variation of the conditions." Instead, he trampled all over the civic rights of people in Barlborough and Clowne. No inquiry was allowed and the so-called green and friendly Secretary of State, despite all the talk that we have heard about him, allowed British Coal to go ahead.

It is time that we spoke the truth in this place. We hear a lot about the environment and about the new society of the 1990s. We hear how the Government intend to look after the interests of those who live in the green belt, but this is part of the green belt. It is one thing for the new Secretary of State for the Environment to overturn decisions about the green belt in Tory-held constituencies and get praise from Tory Members. Yet in Labour-held constituencies such as mine and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), it is a different story altogether. He is not worried about the green belt in Bolsover, Barlborough, Clowne, Renishaw, Killamarsh, Slayley and in my hon. Friend's constituency. He is happy to let British Coal take its massive machines into those areas and create all the noise and dust possible.

British Coal, not content with asking for the conditions to be varied and agreed by the Government, decided to use a further application called the Pinnock application. Pinnock is mainly in my hon. Friend's constituency. He, like me, opposes opencast mining. He had a discussion with me and one or two others and we brought a massive petition to the House some time ago objecting to the application. Nearly everybody in the area objected and both my hon. Friend and I objected as Members of Parliament.

We want this deputy Subbuteo who has been sent to look after the Secretary of State's interests to go back to the Secretary of State and tell him, "You did wrong to allow the conditions to be varied. You have not played the game by the people living in Barlborough and Clowne. You ought to do the decent thing and turn down the Pinnock application when it comes to the Department, as it will after it has been to the appeal and the inspectors." He should say that despite the decision made in July in respect of Slayley, the job has not been done properly. The Government should allow the people in the villages to take part in the Slayley decision rather than proceeding in such a heavy-handed and bureaucratic manner.

We have the Pinnock site, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East will refer if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a massive site. There are about 40 million tonnes of coal stocked in Britain, so there cannot be such a great need for more coal. However, the Government want to line the pockets of their friends and so they are engaged in opencast mining.

We are seeing the prelude to privatisation. If the Conservative party is successful at the next general election, which is unlikely after yesterday's debacle, what better can it do than to say to its friends that the Government will privatise the coal industry where it matters—not all of it—and give them the juicy bits? They will be able to say that their green and friendly Environment Minister has allowed applications for opencast mining in all the coalfields of Britain in the past few months, including north Derbyshire.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

And my area.

Mr. Skinner

Yes, Nottinghamshire too.

British Coal is in league with the Government and is piling up a list of applications for opencast mining so that their friends can make money hand over fist. I am talking about the large combines that make money out of opencast operations. When that part of the industry is privatised, it will be a much juicier operation.

We have a new application for Pinnock. What does it mean? It means another 15,000 tonnes of coal. With a 66-hour week, a 32-tonne load will be leaving the site every eight minutes of the 12-hour working day. There will be a further 200 lorry movements on the Worksop road, which runs through my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East.

The game is all about making money without taking any notice of the environmental concerns of those who live in the areas affected. The game also includes privatisation. Despite all the unco-ordination between the Prime Minister and the Treasury, the Departments of Energy and of the Environment are working hand in glove.

We know that a short while ago the conditions were varied for applications for opencast mining. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East will remember that the rules were changed and district and county councils told that when they received planning applications for opencast mining they should take into account market requirements as well as lorry movements and normal planning conditions. That was part and parcel of a plan to shut more deep mines and to introduce opencast mining on a fairly massive scale. This means short termism. It is easy to exploit opencast coal, but that means that 75 per cent. of the coal, which would otherwise be mined by deep-mine methods, will be sterile for ever so that instead of 300 years of coal we shall be talking about 50 or 60 years.

The Minister has been sent here to do the dirty work on behalf of his gaffer. We say that he should refuse the Pinnock application when it arrives on his desk, assuming that an appeal takes place. We have harnessed local opinion at parish, district and county level. My hon. Friends and I have canvassed all the local authorities. We are asking them to understand that there is plenty of coal in Britain and that they should respect the civic rights of those who live in the area of Barlborough and Clowne. The Minister should remember that there is a green belt in north Derbyshire and other coalfield areas, just as there is in Surrey and other posh areas of suburbia. The Minister must recall the Slayley application, despite the decision taken in July, and reject it. The issue should be referred back to the people who live in the area and who will be affected.

The Minister will have his say shortly, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East wants to say something, too. I have no doubt that my argument could be repeated by almost every hon. Member who lives in a coalfield area. We are fed up to the back teeth with opencast mining. In my constituency alone, there are about half a dozen rubbish dumps and potential toxic waste and nuclear dumps as a result of opencast mining developments. When they extracted the coal at Morton, they dumped dioxins. In other areas they use opencast sites for all kinds of other toxic waste. A firm in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East which deals in toxic waste is all too ready to dump it in opencast holes. People will make money out of opencast mining and even more money by filling the holes with toxic or nuclear waste.

The Minister has a duty to the nation, not just to the plush parts of Surrey and Sussex where the Tory constituencies lie. I know that Tories in those areas are trying to save the necks of their Members of Parliament but Ministers are supposed to be national Ministers and look after interests throughout the land. The Minister should begin by accepting the conditions and proposals that I have advanced today.

2.46 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak in at least one debate to be answered by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. I hoped to speak on the ways and means resolution on the Football Spectators Bill earlier today but before I got a chance to say anything someone went and moved the closure on us.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) on introducing this debate on a topic that is important to my constituents in north-east Derbyshire. As my hon. Friend said, a large part of the Pinnock development would fall within north-east Derbyshire—to the north of Mastin moor and over to Renishaw, where Renishaw Park pit has just been closed. Mines are being closed and opencast is taking over from deep-mined coal. That is an addition to the danger of coal imports under the Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill—the Humber ports Bill—against whose advance a vigorous battle is being conducted in the House.

On 13 June 1988 I presented to the House a petition from the people of Mastin moor, who stressed many of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover. Those points were not fully answered in the supplement to the Votes and Proceedings, in which responses to petitions are given. On 13 July the Department gave a brief reply to the effect that because the proposal was going through the usual procedures the Secretary of State could not comment as this might prejudice the outcome. We now have the opportunity to hear a response to the points made in the petition.

The petition stressed the danger of subsidence in the area, which has been mined in the past. Opencast developments often upset the land, and that is likely to affect people's homes. Because of the disruption that opencast mining causes, it may make the area unacceptable as an area in which to live, and the value of people's homes will then be seriously affected. The problems of noise, dust and pollution stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover were also of concern to my constituents and they were worried about the effects of the development on wildlife in the area. We are talking about people who live in industrial areas but who at present have access to the green belt which allows them to get away from the collieries and industries in the area. That green belt area would be affected by the development.

In addition to the problems arising from heavy traffic, serious problems may arise from dust. Evidence from Wales shows that people living in areas affected by dust may suffer from lung problems. I have a map from the Opencast Executive showing all the areas in north-east Derbyshire that it finds of interest in terms of development. It shows not only Pinnock but massive other areas, including those which have coal seams but are not the site of former pits. Many rural and middle-class areas would be hammered by the future development that Pinnock would open up.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover mentioned that some sites could be used for the dumping of toxic waste and he described the dangers that could arise. We are particularly aware of that danger in north-east Derbyshire. Leigh Environmental, which operates a plant at Killamarsh, was at the forefront of the attempts to permit the Karen B to dock in Britain and to allow the dangerous materials it was carrying to be dumped in this country—some of which might have been deposited in a built-up area in my constituency while they were in transit. Such matters are of concern not only to my constituents in the Mastin moor area but to other people living in north-east Derbyshire.

2.50 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Colin Moynihan)

I reject the argument made by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that Ministers are unaware of the impact of opencast mining on the green belt and of the problems outside the Surrey countryside. As I represent an inner-city seat—Lewisham, East—suffering from serious socio-economic deprivation, the hon. Gentleman knows only too well that that is not the case.

The hon. Member for Bolsover explained his concern with characteristic vigour, and I congratulate him on bringing the subject before the House—not least because I had the opportunity yesterday to study the matter in detail in Wakefield, where a Labour city council has responded effectively to the environmental problems that are posed by many opencast and derelict sites, and to the need to be environmentally sensitive, in terms of investment and of working effectively with British Coal.

The Government recognise that although mineral working is a temporary use of land, it can have a serious impact on the environment. At the same time, minerals are essential to society and to the national economy, and it is a geological fact of life that such mines can be worked only where they occur.

It is the job of the planning system to strike a balance between the need for the mineral, and the environmental and other considerations involved. The Government's planning policy on opencast coal is explained in more detail in "Minerals Planning Guidance Note 3", published in May of last year. The guidance note sets out the national policy framework within which each application must be considered and it provides advice to mineral planning authorities on the balance that should be struck between the social and economic benefits of that low-cost energy source and the protection of the environment.

As opencast coal is one of the cheapest forms of energy available to the country, it is in the national interest to maximise production, when that can be done in an environmentally aceptable way.

There is no Government target for coal production or opencast output. That is properly a matter for the market place to determine. It is for the industry to decide the level of opencast output that it needs to achieve in any set period, but it is for the appropriate mineral planning authority initially to determine the acceptability of specific projects—having regard both to the benefits to be gained from opencasting and to the environmental and other material considerations relative to a specific site. Ultimately, if the case comes before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on appeal or call-in, he will decide it on its relative merits—as he did in respect of one of the examples quoted in the debate.

The Government aim at encouraging a positive and constructive approach by the mining industry and mineral planning authorities, to ensure that that important energy resource is extracted in an environmentally acceptable way. The guidelines give clear advice on how that should be achieved.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the environmental impact of opencasting. We are concerned that questions of noise, dust, traffic and other effects are fully considered. "Minerals Planning Guidance Note 3" provides advice on how those impacts should be handled by mineral planning authorities. The environmental effects of opencasting can be considerable, and developers need to demonstrate that those effects can be kept down to an acceptable level. The effects of noise, dust, vibrations from blasting and the movement of traffic can be minimised by careful planning of the site layout—for example, by the arrangement of physical baffles and by moving work away from residential areas quickly.

Planning conditions are also important—for example, to control noise aspects. The guidance recognises, however, that in some cases those factors will produce such a severe effect on the environment and the quality of life locally that planning permission should not be given. All those aspects need to be carefully considered by the authority concerned. The acceptability of opencasting will depend in part on the likely environmental impact, and on the extent to which the effects can be minimised.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that sites can be restored to a high standard and, in some cases, can provide positive improvement in the landscape through the clearance of dereliction. The Government take the question of restoration very seriously. Planning permissions for mineral extraction should contain stringent conditions, many of them imposed to ensure a high standard of restoration and aftercare of the site. We recently published guidance for mineral planning authorities on the best practice regarding the reclamation of mineral workings, and the important role that good reclamation can play in securing the environmental acceptability of mineral working.

I hope that the House will forgive me for not having addressed the issue of the green belt in sufficient detail during this brief speech: time presses.

I know that discussions are currently taking place between Derbyshire county council and the British Coal Corporation about an application to opencast coal in an area known as the Pinnock site, and that statutory consultations have been carried out. It is, of course, open to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to make their views on the application known to the mineral planning authority at the appropriate time, and I urge them to do so.

Mr. Skinner

We have done so.

Mr. Moynihan

I am glad of that, because I am sure that the authority will give careful consideration to all aspects of the application, including the representations made by the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. That is essential.

The hon. Gentleman has urged me to intervene in this case. Perhaps it would be helpful if I explained the Government's policy on call-in. It has long been established policy for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State not to intervene in the jurisdiction of planning authorities unless it is absolutely necessary for him to do so. That is an important principle: Parliament has given clear responsibilities to local planning authorities, and it would be entirely wrong for my right hon. Friend to interfere unnecessarily in the development control process.

My right hon. Friend will therefore continue to be very selective about calling in cases for his decision, and applications will be called in only if issues of more than local importance are involved. Such cases may include those which, in my right hon. Friend's opinion, have wide effects beyond their immediate locality that give rise to substantial regional or national controversy, and conflict with national policy on important matters. In this case it seems from the information available to us that the issues involved—while undoubtedly of considerable concern locally, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out—do not raise issues of regional or national importance. Derbyshire county council is therefore the appropriate authority to deal with the application.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I am unable to comment on the relative merits of an individual planning application. There is always the possibility that Derbyshire county council will refuse planning permission, in which event it would be the prerogative of the applicant—the British Coal Corporation—to lodge an appeal, which would come before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for a decision. I can, however, assure the hon. Gentleman that in that eventuality all aspects of the case would be fully considered.

The hon. Gentleman has also raised the important issue of the Slayley site, and has written to my right hon. Friend on a number of occasions about a redetermined noise condition. Planning permission for opencast operations and ancillary works on the Slayley site was granted on appeal by my right hon. Friend on 14 December 1987, in accordance with the recommendation of the appointed inspector who had previously held a public local inquiry. Subsequently, an appeal was lodged with my right hon. Friend for the alteration of the noise condition. In accordance with the normal practice, an inspector was appointed to carry out a site visit, consider representations and prepare a report with recommendations. The inspector recommended that the appeal be upheld subject to altered conditions on noise, and my right hon. Friend issued his decision allowing the appeal on 10 August this year.

Parties are consulted again only if my right hon. Friend wishes to take into account any new evidence. That was not the case with the Slayley noise condition; the noise issue was discussed fully at the public local inquiry. Consultation in such circumstances would have been inappropriate and irrelevant, as there was no appeal by way of a High Court challenge during the six-week statutory period.

I fully understand and appreciate the concern of the hon. Gentleman and his constituents about noise levels from the workings, and I will be happy to respond in writing to the points with which I have not had time to deal today. I am sorry that time has prevented me from doing so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.