HC Deb 15 March 1990 vol 169 cc778-84

Lords amendments considered.

Lords amendment No. 1 agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 2, after clause 4, insert the following new clause— Opencast coal working: conservation requirements For section 3 of the Opencast Coal Act 1958 (preservation of amenity) there shall be substituted—

Preservation of amenity

3. In formulating any proposals as to the working of coal by opencast operations or the carrying out of operations incidental to such working or the restoration of land affected by such working or by such incidental operations, the British Coal Corporation (in this Act referred to as 'the Corporation') or any person who holds or is applying for a licence under section 36(2) of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946

  1. (a) shall have regard to the desirability of preserving natural beauty, of conserving flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features of special interest and of protecting sites, buildings and objects of architectural, historic or archaeological interest; and
  2. (b) shall so far as possible ensure that the proposals include measures to mitigate any adverse effect which the proposed activities may have on the natural beauty of the countryside or on any such flora, fauna, features, sites, buildings or objects."

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment—[Mr. Baldry.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendment No. 31, in the title, line 5, at end insert and the preservation of amenity in connection with opencast coal working".

11.35 pm
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

The amendment has a history. On Report in the House of Commons, my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said: If the Government purblindly and stupidly insist on going ahead with a tenfold increase in the maximum size of opencast private workings, there should be parallel strengthening of the planning laws to protect local people."—[Official Report, 16 January 1990; Vol. 165, c. 211.] My hon. Friend was told by the Minister to leave the matter to the planning authorities and that such amendments were superfluous.

It was then argued in the other place—quite well, as I understand it—that, if the Government intended to allow for a massive expansion of opencasting in the private sector, they should ensure that the private sector operates within the same framework as British Coal. Even in the other place the Government argued that environmental failures were the fault of a lack of enforcement of planning conditions. I am pleased to say, however, that when the vote was taken in the other place, the Minister's noble Friends disagreed with him. Tonight the Government have returned to the House with an amendment that they rejected in principle in January.

It is essential that the good practice of the British Coal opencast executive is extended to the private sector. I am well acquainted with examples of the good practice that the executive has adopted for many years in my constituency, where we have what might be regarded as a flagship project—the Rother Valley country park, which provides recreation for many people in the area. Before the site was opencasted, the initial plan for Bedgreave mill, a medieval mill in the middle of the site, was that it should be destroyed, so that the opencasting could be carried on without interference. I am pleased to say that the arguments advanced at the time—long before I became a Member of the House—were won. The mill was kept and they opencasted round it. It now serves as a very good visitors' centre for the country park, and many school-children from my constituency and others use the mill for educational purposes.

Next to country park is an opencast mine on the site of Brookhouse colliery, which closed late in 1985 after the miners' strike. The work taking place there relates directly to the Lords amendment—the one that the Government told us we did not want. A very good ecological experiment has been taking place. Reeds have been moved out of some ponds on that site and placed, at the right time of year, in some neighbouring ponds about half a mile away. That has been done to protect newts' eggs laid on the leaves of those reeds. [HON. MEMBERS: "Really?"] I see that hon. Members are interested in this. The ponds contain crested, smooth and palmate newts. The opencast executive has moved the plants—and the eggs on them—so that those species will survive and can be brought back to the site when it is restored.

Other sites in close proximity are being treated in the same way to save their habitats. At the Tinsley Park site in Sheffield, the executive is moving some acid heathland soil and resettling it about two miles away because it contains the seeds of many varieties of plants that grow in that area and in no other in industrial Sheffield. The soil has been relaid on a nature reserve by the ecology unit of Sheffield city council—a well-known good Socialist council.

Those actions have been taken by British Coal to protect and preserve the environment as best it can. They are the result of years of expertise in such work. However, in the early stages of the Bill, we were confronted with expansion in the private sector, where there is little expertise in looking after the environment and related problems. The rapid expansion of the private sector allowed in the Bill would rely on an expertise that it does not have at present.

We are pleased that the Government decided not to throw out the amendment made in the other place. We recognise that, while opencast coal mining is sometimes necessary, the environment needs to be protected.

I congratulate the Government, because this is one of the few occasions when I have seen them show some common sense, even if it was forced on them in the other place by some of their hon. Friends. We gladly accept and support the amendment.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I welcome the Government's acceptance of the Lords amendment, as it sets new standards for the opencast executive's working practices for the natural environment.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) has said, British Coal has a good reputation in that respect, but it is useful and important to extend the legislation in this way.

I am anxious to find out from the Minister tonight, when he replies to this short debate, whether the new standards set for this aspect of opencast coal mining—the natural environment—by the Lords amendment and the attitude that it reflects will permeate the Department's thinking about opencast coal mining in general. Will planning applications for new opencast sites be considered in the light of that new attitude?

The Minister will know that British Coal is proposing to develop an opencast site of 350 acres in my constituency. There are 3 million tonnes of coal there and British Coal is proposing to develop 1.25 million tonnes. The site is right in the middle of Stoke-on-Trent, within half a mile of the city centre, surrounded by housing, industry and commerce. I believe that it is a precedent for British Coal to attempt to develop an opencast site in the middle of one of the largest cities in the country, and it is a precedent that is entirely wrong. I gain some hope from the amendment and from what I take to be a new attitude.

Although the site is in the middle of a large city, it is also an important natural habitat—a green site of some 650 acres, surrounded by housing and close to the city centre. It is heathland, with wildlife of various kinds—flora and fauna. People walk and jog on that land and exercise their dogs. It is an important part of their life.

If the thinking behind the Lords amendment begins to permeate the Department's thinking, and that of the Department of the Environment when planning applications are considered, it will be impossible for British Coal successfully to pursue this opencast application in Stoke-on-Trent. All the 250,000 people in Stoke-on-Trent are totally against that opencast site. No hon. Member would like to be faced with a planning application for such a site in the middle of a large urban industrial area. All hon. Members would object to it and would take some encouragement from the Lords amendment, which sets new standards and provides people with some hope.

11.45 pm

I do not know whether the Minister can respond at this stage. Although the Lords amendment helps the case that my constituents will be fighting with regard to the natural environment, the other half of their case against the site in Stoke-on-Trent is that it is in the middle of the city, that it is surrounded by housing and that it would traumatically affect transport on the roads of Stoke-on-Trent. Some Ministers know the city well. I am being reassured that it will not happen, but my constituents will not be satisfied until British Coal reconsiders its plans and develops other sites. I regret, therefore, that the Lords amendment does not go one step further and impose the same high standards as regards the human environment as it imposes for the natural environment. We need that double protection if Stoke-on-Trent is not to be subjected to opencast development.

The city is built on a coal seam. Its economy has been built on coal. We have paid our dues to the country, through the living and working conditions of the people of the city during the past 150 years. The city has gained a great deal from that industry; it has also lost a great deal. During the past 30 years, we have worked extremely hard to re-green our city and to create living conditions that provide hope for the future.

It would be a disastrous step backwards if this opencast site went ahead. I hope that the Lords amendment will give some hope to the people of Stoke-on-Trent that the Department will pay more attention to environmental matters. The Minister has already received many representations from the people of Stoke-on-Trent. I can assure him that he will receive many more unless British Coal withdraws its application. However, for the time being, I derive some hope from the Lords amendment. I thank the Government and congratulate them on accepting it. It is a good step forward.

Mr. A. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

As well as having the largest deep mine in the northern coalfield, my constituency must have about the largest commitment to opencast sites, both large and small, and many more are planned.

I welcome the amendment, not least because it will help to deal better with some of the applications for sites that are far away from the main opencast mining area. I am thinking particularly of the Wandylaw site, north of Alnwick, where an area of open moorland has become an opencast mining site. That was extremely controversial. It has not allayed the fears of those who feel that mining at that site should not have been permitted. There will be applications for sites in other rural parts of the constituency. Those applications should be tested against the amendment, which sets much stricter criteria.

A substantial part of the constituency depends upon opencast coal mining. It provides security of employment. Sites should be opened up on a reasonably planned basis. Many of my constituents have had to contend with the consequences and therefore expect, in compensation, good quality restoration work. We have seen some excellent restoration work carried out by British Coal in my constituency and we hope to see much more. We have also seen an increasing commitment by British Coal to the welfare of the community in the area, and that is most welcome. However, there is no doubt that opencasting operations are a destructive business, and the beauty and attraction that are described in the Lords amendment are disguised from view for quite a long time.

Those who live in the communities in my constituency that are heavily dependent on opencast coal have to be prepared to put up with the disadvantages to find employment. Opencast applications can be very divisive. Some of the applications have divided villages between the areas where people work in opencasting and those where commuters live who see it simply as an intrusion. The areas dependent on opencast coal are often the poorest and most disadvantaged.

I was at a meeting on Monday night in one of the main villages—Widdrington Station—in which many people work in the opencast coal mining industry. That area is one of the most adversely affected by the poll tax in the north of England. As a result of their misfortune in being lumped in with an area that also includes some of the wealthiest outer suburbs of Newcastle, the people find themselves paying a £439 poll tax. A lot of overtime will have to be worked in the opencast industry if there is to be any hope for some of the families to be able to pay an enormously heavy poll tax which has been levied on a community that does not have high wages. The people there will be even more determined to see that there is a future in the opencast industry in the area.

I ask Ministers not only to recognise how important it will be to test new applications against the criteria set out in the Lords amendment, but to see, especially with private contractors, that the obligations implicit in the Lords amendment are carried out. That puts British Coal in a rather odd position. British Coal is involved in the industry as a promoter of opencast coal mining, and I am not sure that the licensing and protective role that goes with that should stay indefinitely with British Coal.

In many ways, I would rather see that handled independently by the Department of Energy, so that moneys held against future restoration work are held by the Department in the interests of the future protection of the environment of the areas concerned. Some of those problems will extend far further than the Lords amendment, which is perhaps the beginning of a more rigorous approach to the granting of opencast planning applications. I hope that that will also involve more rigorous care of the communities that depend on opencast coal mining and require it to be continued so that they can have work, but which have to live with its effects.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

I shall be very brief, but I felt it necessary to have a few words about the Lords amendment. I served in Committee, along with Conservative Members. I was terribly disappointed that, despite pressure by the Opposition to stop the extension of opencast mining, we lost. The disappointment, following on from that, was concerned with the question of clearing up the site and putting it back to something like it was before the opencast mining took place. The Opposition especially—because this is where the miners are—know a lot about the mining industry and know of the experiences that people have had with opencast. We know the way in which the land has been left after the operations have finished.

I want to congratulate their Lordships, who have done a first-class job in the amendments. They are a step in the right direction. I also want to congratulate the Government on accepting those sensible amendments on looking after the areas where opencast mining takes place.

I have been married for a long while and I remember the days when I was courting. We used to walk down the beautiful footpaths of Nottinghamshire. Some of them were wedged between the constituencies of Bolsover, Mansfield and Ashfield. They were beautiful walks. I could stand here all night describing those beautiful scenes.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

D. H. Lawrence country.

Mr. Haynes

Yes. It is the most beautiful part of the United Kingdom. There were crowds down lovers lane, and when the lovers went they left the evidence that they had been there behind them. [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] Some Conservative Members have awful minds.

We may still have to amend the Bill because, with the further expansion of opencast mining and bearing in mind what is happening at present, we live in fear that a lot of cowboys will move in and not do the job properly. I hope that British Coal and the Department of Energy will accept their responsibilities and make sure that, where there is opencast mining, the job is done correctly in the interests of the whole community.

I said that I would be brief and I have been. I simply wanted to put that on the record.

Mr. Skinner

This is an important change, which was debated in Committee and on Report. Many people in Britain, not just in the House, believe that there will be a shift towards looking after the environment, and that is reflected in the amendment. The amendment has come too late for many areas, but if it is implemented properly, it will do a lot of good in areas where so far there has been no opencast mining. If it is carried out to the letter, the flora, fauna and historic buildings will be protected, and that will be to the advantage of many who live in the coalfields, as my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) have said.

I have made it plain in the past that I am not keen on opencast mining. I wish that the amendment had been in operation before Slaley went ahead. That site was almost turned down by the former Secretary of State for the Environment. Then, remarkably, it was agreed by the new Secretary of State, who is supposed to be green and friendly, in his first week in office. That has now gone ahead. Given the different arguments that were put forward at the inquiry, I do not think that the Slaley site would have gone ahead if we had had this amendment.

Another site, adjacent to Slaley, is the Pinnock site. That is a big site, mainly in north-east Derbyshire and partly in Bolsover. If and when an inquiry takes place I want the Minister to look into that development, which has been opposed by the local people and the authorities. I want him to look into it carefully in the light of the amendment. If it is interpreted properly, it could be advantageous to many of our constituents in coalfield areas.

12 midnight

I also want the Minister to bear in mind the fact that there are many historic buildings around the coalfield, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) said. I hope that there will not be any opencast mining in the areas around Bolsover castle, or Hardwick hall. Both historic buildings are in the middle of the Derbyshire coalfield, most of which is shut, and ready for opencast mining. The application for an opencast mine at Stamfree has been turned down by Bolsover district council. If there is an inquiry about that decision, and that lands on the Secretary of State's desk, I hope that the Iinister will make it clear that, under the provisions of this amendment, it will be looked at carefully.

We are now paying more attention to the green belt. Some Tory Members have made an impact on this Secretary of State for the Environment and the previous one. It is becoming a matter of concern to Tory Members of Parliament and large sections of the population. That green belt is in the north of England, and in the coalfield areas, too. Notwithstanding the many applications for opencast mines—there will be many because of the pit closures—I suggest that the Minister makes sure that this amendment is not regarded just as a useful measure from the other place that was passed in the night, but is used properly, and carried out to the letter.

The amendment will mean less opencast coal mining. That will be no bad thing, because it might mean that we shall concentrate on deep mining, where we still have an abundance of coal—the estimate is that we have 200 or 300 years' worth of coal left.

This is an important amendment, so I hope that the Minister will tell us how it will affect historic buildings, flora and the fauna, how it will be carried out and how he will ensure that those who object strenuously to opencast mining will be given a fairer crack of the whip than they have had so far. Too often the local authorities in our areas have opposed such applications, only to find that inspectors, and then Secretaries of State for the Environment, have allowed them to go ahead. I hope that the amendment will have a big impact.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Tony Baldry)

I am grateful for the thanks of hon. Members to the Government for accepting the amendment. I am also grateful to the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which this week wrote to Ministers to thank them for the Department's helpful response on the environmental issues raised by the Coal Industry Bill. It was delighted that Ministers were able to respond positively to the new clause, and believe that its final version meets many of its original concerns.

As the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) recognised, the Bill is an important signal to opencast operators that they are expected to maintain high environmental standards at all stages of their planning and operations. I have no doubt that those who need to hear will have heard and will take on board the points made by the hon. Member for Bolsover. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central deserves a full response to the issues that he raised, and I shall be happy to write to him in full with that.

Mr. Barron

With the leave of the House, I should like to thank the Minister for accepting the amendment. Tory Members look rather subdued and tired at this hour, but while we know that there are not 100 of them—as there have not been for the past three Divisions, so they could not close the debate—we are pleased that the Government have accepted the amendment. We hope that the protection of the environment envisaged by the amendment will be carried out on all sites—both British Coal and private sites, the number of which will be increased by the passing of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 3 agreed to.

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