HC Deb 20 April 1994 vol 241 cc882-4
13. Mr. Gunnell

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many appeals by private mining companies against refusal to agree opencasting by local authorities he has (a) allowed and (b) rejected since the introduction of the present mineral planning guidance note 3.

15. Dr. Wright

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the environmental impact of opencast coal mining.

17. Mr. Bill Michie

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received from local authorities on the issue of the draft mineral planning guidance note 3 on coal mining and colliery spoil disposal; and if he will make a statement.

20. Mr. Mike O'Brien

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on mineral planning guidance on opencast.

Mr. Baldry

My Department's records show that the Secretary of State has allowed 30 appeals and dismissed 17. Opencast coal mining can have a serious environmental impact. That is why we have revised the planning guidelines for coal extraction to ensure that they set tough environmental tests for the industry. The consultation period for MPG3 has only just expired. I will place a list of those who responded to the consultation exercise together with a summary of their comments in the Library of the House in due course.

Mr. Gunnell

Does the Minister agree that the data that he has given to me about the results of appeals show that the present mineral planning guidance very much favours mining companies above the interests of local authorities and local communities? In considering the revision that is going on at the moment, will he examine the needs of areas such as Morley—one half of my constituency—which faces six planning applications: three of which have been granted, one of which is pending, and two in which mining companies have shown an interest? Will he accept that there is a cumulative effect upon communities to which they should have a right to object? Does he understand that when the last planning application was given, local people did not want to see it accepted or the appeal granted by the Minister?

Mr. Baldry

If the hon. Gentleman had looked at the draft new mineral planning guidance, he would have seen that the strong presumption in favour of opencast coal development in MPG3 which did exist is being withdrawn and replaced with a test of environmental acceptability. I should have thought that Opposition Members would welcome that.

Dr. Wright

Is the Minister aware that one of the largest opencast sites in the country is located in my constituency? In making the planning application, British Coal said that it was necessary in order to mix the coal from this site with the coal from Lea Hall colliery, and then Lea Hall colliery was closed. British Coal then said, "We need the coal to mix it with the coal from Littleton colliery" and then Littleton colliery was closed down. Is the Minister therefore aware that all that my constituents have left is a big environmentally unacceptable hole in the ground?

Mr. Baldry

The planning guidelines aim to strike a balance between the economic importance of opencast coal —we should not underestimate the fact that it does have an economic value—and protection of the environment in a way that is fully compatible with the principles of sustainable development. In all these matters, balance is important.

Mr. Michie

I do not think that any of my colleagues are happy with the replies. The planning guidelines contain a loophole so large that one could put an earthmover through it. There is more than planning at stake. Will the Minister make it clear whether the demise of planning control over opencast mining has something to do with the closure of deep-mined pits?

Mr. Baldry

The hon. Gentleman has clearly not listened to either of the answers that I have given. In my role as Minister responsible for planning, I am determined to ensure that the acceptability or otherwise of individual proposals for opencast coal mining depends on the balance between environmental impact and economic gain. That balance has to be struck, irrespective of the ownership of the coal or who is involved.

Mr. O'Brien

Why, having made a decision on the Birch Coppice opencast application on 2 August 1993, did the Minister set it aside on 25 February 1994, thereby blighting thousands of homes in north Warwickshire? When will a further decision be made? Will he now offer an apology to the people of north Warwickshire for the long delay? Is it not the case that, if he had displayed such manifest incompetence in a proper job in the private or public sector, he would long ago have been dismissed?

Mr. Baldry

That question shows manifest ignorance of the whole planning system. The hon. Gentleman must surely appreciate the fact that all planning decisions are subject to the review of the High Court. Ultimately, it is the High Court which determines whether a planning decision is valid. Although I appreciate the concerns felt by the hon. Gentleman's constituents, he knows, but did not seek to make it clear to the House, that the High Court has still to determine the planning application in the matter to which he referred. I am sure that he will appreciate that I am unable to comment further at the moment.