HC Deb 23 March 1994 vol 240 cc377-82
Mr. Ashby

I beg to move amendment No. 60, in page 48, line 5, after 'application,', insert 'there shall be a presumption against opencast mining and'.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 61, in page 48, line 10, leave out 'and' and insert—

  1. '(aa) to the extent of the environmental impact of the proposal on the area;
  2. (ab) to the balance of costs and benefits of the proposal; and
  3. (ac) to the existence of current opencast mining operations or any such operations as have ceased within a period of five years immediately preceding the date of the application, within a radius of five miles of the proposed site of operations.'.
No. 10, in page 48, line 10, at end insert—
  1. '(aa) to environmental considerations prescribed in relevant local plans; and'.
No. 42, in page 48, line 10, at end insert—
  1. '(ab) to the desirability of avoiding nuisance to nearby residents in the form of dust, noise, vibration, lorry traffic, visual intrusion or loss of amenity, and the need to respond to the expressed concerns of those residents regarding the proposed development; and'.
No. 63, in page 48, line 10, at end insert— '(3A) A person who formulates coal-mining proposals shall be required for the purposes of paragraphs (aa) and (ab) of subsection (2) above—
  1. (a) to prepare a full environmental impact assessment, and
  2. (b) to prepare a full cost-benefit analysis.'.
No. 62, in page 48, line 24, at end insert— `(c) to formulate proposals for the compensation of land owners affected by the proposal for any loss of value on their property if sold during the period of opencast mining.'.

Mr. Ashby

Much of the debate in respect of compulsory purchase has taken place during the debate on previous amendments. I did not speak during that debate, but I must say that I can never understand why compulsory purchase orders did not end yesterday—I see no reason to have them in any sector, except in cases of national emergency. That is the stance I have always taken and always will take.

Although I am speaking to amendment No. 60, the gravamen of my case against compulsory purchase and the strengthening of the environmental aspects of compulsory purchase are to be found in my amendment No. 61. I will be seeking the strongest assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister, and if that is not forthcoming I know that I and some of my hon. Friends, as well as some Opposition Members, will seek to divide the House on that amendment.

We have had too little debate about opencast mining during the passage of the Bill, yet it has become the single most important aspect of all coal mining. It is rather sad that we reached this part of the Report stage as late as 9.30 this evening and I know that many of my colleagues wish us to proceed as speedily as possible. However, this is a subject which we could debate for one whole day.

All hon. Members who have opencast mining in their constituencies know how horrific it is and how it causes dirt and filth. They will also know that opencast mining affects those—[interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I hope that conversations will be carried on quietly. The hon. Gentleman is having difficulty in speaking to the amendment, and some of us are interested in hearing what he has to say.

10.15 pm
Mr. Ashby

I am grateful, Madam Speaker. It is difficult.

All of us who represent areas in which there is opencast mining know how dreadful it is and how it affects our constituents. Opencast mining is the single most important issue in my constituency where there are not only applications for opencast mines but such mines already exist. An opencast mine affects not only the immediate locality but the area around it. Some people believe that my constituency is in danger of resembling a lunar landscape.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) hit the nail on the head. For too long, British Coal has had the most enormous powers which stem from the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 and have continued under successive Acts. Those Acts mean that we —the people who live in the area and who object to planning—have to prove that opencast mining should not take place. The burden of proof lies with us—we have to prove that something which has a devastating effect on the character of an area and which lowers the value of property should not take place.

It is an insult that a company such as British Coal should be allowed to say that it wants an opencast mine in an area because it believes that it is in the national interest. Without a by your leave, the matter goes before the local planning authority which is terrified of British Coal and starts finding reasons why it should be allowed to proceed and, in any case, it is up to the objectors to prove that it should not be allowed to proceed. The burden of proof in this instance should resemble the law in other aspects of our life. If a company does something that will destroy an area and lower the value of its property, the burden of proof should be on that company to prove that it should be allowed to proceed.

When the planning application has been made, the full extent of the environmental impact of the proposal should be considered. There should be a full environmental impact assessment—nothing less will do. It is no good my hon. Friend the Minister saying that it is a matter for the planning authority, because all the Acts covering the coal industry deal with planning and, in respect of the burden of proof, favour the Coal Board. It is therefore absolutely right that the planning aspect of opencast mining should be dealt with in the Bill.

One of the problems is that planning matters are often dealt with in various sections of various Acts. The hon. Member for Warwickshire, North (Mr. O'Brien) spoke about the Department's problems in deciding on the legal ways of objecting. It is a minefield, if I may make a slight pun. It is very difficult for legal advisers to decide how to frame objections because they have to consider the provisions of so many different Acts. Perhaps the necessary grounds should be set out in the Bill.

When making a planning application, it is absolutely essential that a full cost-benefit analysis is undertaken. The costs and benefits of any proposal must be examined and must include the need for and price of coal, the cost of extracting it and the environmental cost to the area. It is essential that it should be built into this part of the Bill.

Another aspect should also be built into the Bill. When, as is the case in my area, there is one opencast mine, with another such mine three miles away and another three miles away in a different direction, it has a devastating effect on the area. When an application is made, the fact that there are opencast mining operations in the locality must be taken into account. Sometimes, one opencast mine has just ceased and, within a year of the hole being filled in—a year after 10 or 15 years of sheer hell—an application is made for another opencast mine only a couple of miles away, so there are another 10 or 15 years of hell. The mining operations move around the constituency in that way. The fact that an operation has ceased in the area should be taken into consideration when an application is made.

Amendment No. 62 states that those making the applications should formulate proposals for the compensation of land owners affected by the proposal for any loss of value on their property if sold during the period of opencast mining. That is very important.

I received a letter, as recently as 10 days ago, from a constituent whose house is adjacent to an opencast mine. She is in a desperate situation. She is now a single parent. There has been a divorce in the family and she is desperate to sell her property. Her property has been valued at about 40 per cent. less at the moment because there is an opencast mine nearby. She has no redress; no compensation. She will lose 40 per cent. of the value of her property because there is an opencast mine nearby. She cannot tell the operator, "I have to sell my property now. You have to compensate me for that loss."

That is the purpose of amendment No. 62. I seek an assurance from the Minister that he will consider the problem carefully and ensure that when proposals are made they contain proposals to compensate landowners, in the event of their property having to be sold, for the loss of value during the period of opencast mining.

I have fought opencast mining ever since I became Member of Parliament for Leicestershire, North-West in 1983. Since then, I have fought every single proposal and I will continue to fight every single proposal. The collective effect of the amendments that I suggest will put right so many of the wrongs that have been done when applications have been made. We have fought and refought those applications. One of the problems of which I want the Minister to be aware is that in the past, if British Coal made an application and it was refused, another application was made, then another and another.

Acceptance of the amendments would put right so many of the wrongs that we seek to right.

Mrs. Peacock

I appreciate that there is very little time left, but, having sat here since 2.30 this afternoon, I wish to spend just two minutes on this issue. Perhaps I may be excused also on the ground that I am one of the hon. Members in whose name amendment No. 42 appears.

There should be no need now for a presumption in favour of opencasting. That is not in the nation's interests when we can obtain coal from other sources. In earlier times, it was undoubtedly necessary, but much of the necessity has disappeared. We shall always have some opencast activity. I appreciate that coal obtained in that way is often needed for mixing with deep-mined coal. However, most opencasting should be undertaken on derelict land and not on open green fields. In my area of Yorkshire, it is particularly insensitive to apply for planning permission for opencast mining virtually on top of deep mines that have just been closed. Communities there could hardly be expected to welcome such a move.

We should try to ensure that planning permission for opencast activity is granted in respect of derelict land only. Certainly the few green fields in the valleys in my area, where there is a great deal of industrial activity, are relied on for leisure, and they should not be put to mining use. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give me some assurance in respect of this matter.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

Opencasting and planning are inextricably entwined, but it is a great pity that we have to deal in a coal debate with what are essentially planning issues. I asked during the Second Reading debate, as I have done repeatedly following business statements since then, for a separate planning debate to discuss these issues. Alas, that has not materialised and this debate is necessary.

I am not automatically opposed to opencast applications. Last year, together with Opposition Members and the Leeds council, I sponsored legislation to enable a massive opencast development to cure a serious problem of dereliction in my constituency. I accept that where there are infrastructure developments, such as major roads that are undermined by old mine workings, there is a need for opencasting. The land has to be graded and levelled so that the road may be built.

But, just as there are circumstances in which opencasting is acceptable, equally there are circumstances in which it is not acceptable. At present, my constituency is being plagued by a succession of unsuitable opencast applications in respect of the area around the town of Garforth. These put at risk the whole of the planning environment that has been built up for that town. We are attracting world-class, world-quality investment, and the last thing that investors want is an environment shattered by opencast mining on the most sensitive green belt in the entire Leeds area.

I seek three things. The first is the ending of the presumption in favour, in the national interest, of opencasting. The second is recognition of the fact that environmental factors should be decisive in determining opencast planning applications. The third is a provision for local authorities to be able to set the environmental criteria for opencasting, preferably in the local plans affecting their areas. Local people should be able to decide what is right.

As it is late, I shall go into no further detail, save to say that it is interesting that when we are discussing opencasting it is now the Labour party which wants to bring the debate to an end quickly. On all other occasions, Labour Members want to talk indefinitely. There is great uncertainty about whether the three principles that I have mentioned will be enshrined in the revision of minerals planning guidance note 3. I hoped that these issues would be clarified before the Bill left the House. Unfortunately, they have not been. Thus, the amendments are necessary.

Mr. Eggar

I listened with extreme interest to the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby), for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) and for Elmet (Mr. Batiste). I was not at all surprised to hear them speak very passionately on behalf of their constituents. Indeed, they have been very vociferous in making their concerns known to me over the past few months.

I should like to pick up in particular a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet. This is a matter for planning procedures. The Bill has nothing to do with environmental regulation or with safety regulation.

My hon. Friends have an ideal opportunity to make their points to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. As they know, consultation is currently taking place on MPG3. I am sure that my colleagues will pay particular attention to the three points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet. I suggest that my hon. Friends pursue the matter in detail with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, who will doubtless wish to take careful account of the views that they have expressed on behalf of their constituents. The Bill, however, is not the right vehicle in which to introduce the change that they so earnestly desire.

10.30 pm
Madam Speaker

What are the wishes of the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) in regard to amendment No. 60?

Mr. Ashby

I wish to withdraw it, Madam Speaker—although I wish to pursue amendment No 61.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: No. 61, in page 48, line 10, leave out 'and' and insert—

  1. '(aa) to the extent of the environmental impact of the proposal on the area;
  2. (ab) to the balance of costs and benefits of the proposal; and
  3. (ac) to the existence of current opencast mining operations or any such operations as have ceased within a period of five years immediately preceding the date of the application, within a radius of five miles of the proposed site of operations.'.—[Mr. Ashby.]

Amendment negatived.

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