HC Deb 08 February 1995 vol 254 cc334-5
10. Mr. Hood

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what steps he has taken or intends to take to protect local authorities from the effects of coal privatisation in relation to opencast mining sites; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Charles Wardle

The regulatory regime established by the Coal Industry Act 1994 affords substantial protection to third parties, including local authorities.

Mr. Hood

The Minister will know that the Dalquhandy opencast site in the Clydesdale constituency is the largest in Europe and that the cost of restoration will be at least £15 million. Having had a ministerial meeting with representatives of the council, he is also aware that the Government refuse to acknowledge that the Coal Industry Act 1994 transfers liability for that restoration directly from the Government to the local authority without consulting the local authority during the process of the Act or the restructuring agreement negotiated with the new co-owners. Will the Minister, first, answer the eight questions that he promised to answer when we met on 12 January and, secondly, even at this late stage underwrite the terrific cost, which could not be borne by the local authority? That cost would bang up the local authority and devastate the local community.

Mr. Wardle

The hon. Gentleman has raised a number of questions in correspondence and at a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. I assure him that those matters are being dealt with. The Coal Industry Act 1994 gives the Department of Trade and Industry powers to ensure full continuity from British Coal to the successor companies, which have the same rights and obligations as British Coal. Planning consent and the enforcement of planning conditions remain matters for the planning authorities. With regard to the hon. Gentleman's concern about the ability to meet obligations for opencast sites, the Department checked carefully the financial status of the successor companies as part of the bid process.

Mr. Dover

Does my hon. Friend agree that, far from seeking protection, many local authorities welcome privatisation and particularly the selling off of non-operational land such as Ellerbeck, an opencast mine near Chorley, which will enable the environment to be improved?

Mr. Wardle

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will be aware of this morning's debate, which dealt with precisely those subjects and in which some of the points that he has just raised were made.

Mr. O'Neill

The Minister has yet to give concrete assurances. Companies which have acquired mining rights in the UK—Budge and, in Scotland, Mining (Scotland) Ltd.—are narrowly based companies which do not have great resources. As they have been given massive responsibilities for opencasting, there must be some arrangement whereby local authorities are protected. The Minister has not yet come forward with such an arrangement. It is one thing to sweep the matter aside in the privatisation process and hand it over to the Coal Authority, but as the Coal Authority has no teeth and little inclination, local authorities will have to pick up the tab if anything goes wrong. Does the Minister accept that he has a lot of work to do, and quickly?

Mr. Wardle

The Act makes the operators' obligations clear. The key point is that all purchasers of British Coal's mines were subjected to a thorough scrutiny of financial viability. The new Coal Authority is required to check the financial strength of companies to which it envisages issuing licences in exactly the same fashion.