HC Deb 04 November 1992 vol 213 cc273-6
8. Mr. Lewis

To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will presume against the granting of further opencast coal licences during the period of the moratorium on deep mine closures.

Mr. Eggar

It is for the planning authorities, taking account of all material matters, to determine whether individual applications for opencast mining should be approved.

Mr. Lewis

Given the problems of the Government's own making in the coal industry, should not the Department of Trade and Industry take a more hands-on approach? The people whom I represent who are threatened by the huge Lomax coal application in Greater Manchester consider it stupid and crass to be ruining communities in deep mine areas while expanding opencast mining and ruining the lives of people who are threatened by that intrusive method of winning coal. We need a sensible overall policy which satisfies the needs of opencast and deep mine coal communities.

Mr. Eggar

I am aware of the concern about opencast mining in many parts of the country, but I am also aware that in some parts of the country, such as Scotland and the north-east, opencast mining is critical to the survivability of deep mines, so it is a complex matter. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the particular matter to which he referred is currently before the planning authorities. As I understand it, the precise proposal is to opencast some 470 hectares, of which 77 hectares have been described as the biggest coal spoil heap in Europe, and there are some who see considerable environmental benefits from that operation. However, it is a matter for the planning authorities.

Mr. Alexander

Does my hon. Friend agree that, contrary to the view of the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis), opencast mining must be part of the general coal scene, and it is no part of the survival of the general coal industry to start being restrictive about a profitable part of it? Therefore will he resist the temptation offered by the hon. Gentleman's question?

Mr. Eggar

This must be a matter for the planning authorities. It is now widely recognised throughout the House and among people who take an interest in mining matters that there is a role for opencast mining both in reducing the average cost of British coal by reducing its sulphur content and in blending. Overall, it improves the long-term competitiveness of a number of deep-mined pits rather than harming it.

Mr. Tipping

The Government and British Coal are closing down five of the 12 collieries in Nottinghamshire and there is a world energy surplus, yet British Coal is tearing up green fields, hedgerows and trees on the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire border. Does not that reflect a dereliction of duty by the Government and the lack of an adequate energy framework?

Mr. Eggar

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that a blend of methods is required. The precise question that I was asked related to the planning application system and the exact procedure for that is well known. The hon. Gentleman knows that a high proportion of planning applications for opencast mines are turned down.

Mrs. Peacock

Any opencast coal licences which are granted by the Government will not be well received in Yorkshire, particularly in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend discuss the matter with his colleagues in the Department of the Environment?

Mr. Eggar

That is clearly a matter for the planning authorities. A number of applications are in the pipeline, but it goes without saying that part of the review on which we have embarked will inevitably consider the role and level of opencast mining, just as it will consider other sources of energy and the specific 21 collieries that are part of that review.

Mr. Barron

Last week, the Secretary of State for the Environment told the Energy Select Committee that he was currently revising the mineral planning guidance relating to opencast coal, and that he would report to the House within four weeks. Given that he also said that he had had discussions with other Departments, is it likely that we shall have more opencast coal in Britain next year, or less?

Mr. Eggar

That point, along with others, will be considered in the review. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, however, that most predictions suggest that an increase in production from opencast sources is not likely; the general consensus is that, if anything, the trend will be downwards. There is also a general consensus, however—with which I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree—that we still need a significant level of opencast production to enhance the general competitiveness of deep-mined pits.

Mr. Dickens

Does my hon. Friend accept that this is not a local planning matter? Green-field sites are seldom dealt with locally; the material relating to them arrives at the Department. I think that the Opposition's request for a stop on any licences for opencast mining while a review is taking place is very reasonable. My hon. Friend may like to consider gas licences at the same time.

Mr. Eggar

The Government have announced that the issue of gas consents under section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989 will be a matter for the review to consider, and that no licences will be granted until the review itself has been considered. The specific question raised by my hon. Friend is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who is currently examining possible revisions for mineral planning guidance note No. 3. I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to make a judgment from the Dispatch Box on planning applications that are currently in the pipeline.

9. Mr. Simon Hughes

To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will meet representatives of the 10 pits threatened with closure before the end of the consultation period.

Mr. Heseltine

Representations are best made to British Coal, as it is currently engaged in the statutory consultation process relating to the 10 pits.

Mr. Hughes

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's reply, but I hope that he will reconsider. Not only would meeting those representatives be the decent thing to do, but they would be able to impress on the right hon. Gentleman the devastating effect that the closures will have on the communities involved. More importantly, the 7,500 miners affected have thought through very clearly their arguments for the viability not just of their own pits, but of the British coal industry as part of the energy strategy. Will the right hon. Gentleman seriously consider meeting the representatives? I think that it would be a very good thing if he did, from all points of view.

Mr. Heseltine

I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. A statutory process is now under way; as the hon. Gentleman knows, the matter is sub judice, and I therefore cannot discuss a number of issues connected with it. However, it would not be helpful for me to agree to the hon. Gentleman's request.

Mr. Oppenheim

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the last time that a Government imposed an energy strategy on the economy. they saddled the economy with the most expensive nuclear power in the free world, with coal at well over world prices, while our competitors shopped around for cheap gas and coal and their economies benefited as a result?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend has made an important point. In the end, we have a responsibility to ensure that British industry is supplied with competitively priced fuel. As the House knows, however, all such matters are now subject to the comprehensive review that is under way.

Mr. Benn

Did the President of the Board of Trade authorise British Coal to issue redundancy notices to all the miners working in the 31 pits? If so, in what sense can the review be held to be open?

Mr. Heseltine

The right hon. Gentleman has raised that question with me before, and I have asserted that the assurances that I gave the House about no compulsory redundancy are valid. British Coal is complying with its statutory obligations so that it can offer voluntary redundancy where miners seek to achieve it.

Mr. John Greenway

Does my right hon. Friend accept that his recent announcement about the closure of the 31 collieries has struck at the heart of this nation, and that people in my constituency, who live many miles from the coal mines, have been greatly concerned about the effects of the closure programme on local economies? When he meets the representatives of the 10 collieries already threatened with closure, will he discuss with them how we can revitalise those economies? Does he further agree that ratifying the Maastricht treaty will help to encourage more inward investment into this country, including the areas where mines are to close?

Mr. Heseltine

As my hon. Friend will have heard me say to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), I cannot undertake to meet representatives of the 10 pits that were in the closure programme and are now subject to statutory consultation—but my hon. Friend can certainly be sure that I shall meet representatives of the miners in the context of the general review which is proceeding. I entirely support my hon. Friend's view that in order to proceed with the diversification of economic activity in the affected areas it is important to attract inward investment into this country.

Mr. Robin Cook

As the President of the Board of Trade will not meet representatives from the 10 pits, may I tell him that, when people see their own pits being closed, there is deep cynicism among the work forces as to whether consultation is genuine? If it is genuine, why are props being removed from the coal face at Grimethorpe? Why has millions of pounds worth of equipment at Silverhill already been buried? Why has equipment at Cotgrave been allowed to buckle under pressure? Would not the best way to maintain the pits be to keep them producing coal? Why not let the miners, who are being paid to turn up every day at the surface, go underground to cut coal?

Mr. Heseltine

As I have explained to the House before, there is no market for the coal that the hon. Gentleman is asking me to produce. The miners know that the coal produced in the past has been added to the stocks at the pitheads and the generating stations, but—[Interruption.] This is an important aspect of what I have tried to do since I announced the review. Several right hon. and hon. Members have suggested to my Department that British Coal is in some way not honouring its commitment to put the 10 pits on a care and maintenance basis, so that if the statutory proceedings determine that the pits should continue in existence, they will be able to do so. I have personally investigated every suggestion put to me, by taking the matter up with British Coal, and I am satisfied with the assurance given to me by British Coal that none of the 10 pits has been prejudiced, should the outcome of the consultations suggest their continued life.