HC Deb 19 May 1997 vol 294 cc480-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jane Kennedy.]

10.24 pm
Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the concerns of Wentworth constituents about opencast coal mining, and I am particularly grateful for the chance to combine this debate with my maiden speech.

It is a great honour to be elected to represent the people of Wentworth. It is a special privilege and responsibility as it brings together a unique mix of the political and pastoral duties of a Member of Parliament. I remember words from the book of Luke: Everyone to whom much is given, of him much will be required". I hope to serve in that spirit.

May I begin by paying a warm tribute to Peter Hardy? He had been a Member of this House since 1970, representing first Rother Valley, then Wentworth when the constituency was formed in 1983. "He is part of this area", an old newspaper editor once told me, "a very big part". He has been a dedicated local Member of Parliament and I am conscious that he is a hard act to follow-conscious that I can succeed him, but not replace him.

The Wentworth constituency comprises a string of communities. Many were pit-based and all still retain a strong local identity. The parishes of Bramley and Wickersley lie to the east, next door to Dalton, Thrybergh and Sunnyside, which surround the site of the old Silverwood colliery. Rawmarsh, Swinton, Brampton Bierlow and Wath-upon-Dearne are our other major towns. The whole constituency now lies within the Rotherham borough, but the north also remains a proud part of the Dearne valley, with strong links to Barnsley and the town's successful football team.

The constituency's history has been closely tied to mining, a dependence which has always been a mixed blessing. The first record of coal mining in the area is at Abdy, near Wath, in 1606. It is the first record of a mining death. Twenty years ago, the constituency still had six pits employing nearly 5,000 men. At Manvers, we also had British Coal's South Yorkshire headquarters, its regional science laboratories and the largest coking plant in Europe. The last pit in the constituency, at Silverwood, was closed in 1994 after breaking all production records for two years on the trot.

In a typically British touch, however, the constituency draws its name not from coal but from the home of an 18th century aristocrat. Wentworth Woodhouse and the village of Wentworth lie on the far western edge of the constituency and were home to the first Marquis of Rockingham. It was there that the Whigs plotted the downfall of the Government of their day, although defeat was never on the scale of 1 May 1997.

Wentworth is a constituency within a county that has suffered terribly under the Tories. Since 1985, 50,000 coal and steel jobs have been lost in South Yorkshire; one in three of our young people are neither working nor training; and unemployment is the highest in the whole of the Yorkshire and Humberside region. New jobs—where they exist—are part time, poorly paid and insecure.

Last month, a new European Union report showed that South Yorkshire is now bottom of the prosperity league in Britain. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister shares my concern about the county's future.

That is the legacy of the old Conservative Government and the challenge for the new Labour Government. The events of I May lifted spirits across the constituency and throughout the country.

I am proud to be part of a party committed to govern in the interests of the many, not the few. It is right that we reflect the concerns of middle England, but our greatest responsibility as a one-nation Government is to close the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. Our biggest challenge is to bring new opportunities to those who have been left out or overlooked.

We must not take for granted those who have stayed loyal to Labour through the dark decades. They are looking to Labour for a fresh start. They are looking to us for a fair deal. My job is to help to make sure that a change in Government brings change in the lives and prospects of people in Wentworth.

The foundations for change in the constituency are already in place. In the Dearne, we have new industrial sites from Cortonwood to Wath Manvers, we have an enterprise zone and a flagship facility in the new Dearne Valley college. Closer to Rotherham, the Retail World complex is flourishing and the Hellaby industrial estate is a model of its kind.

It is time to talk up the area. It is time to look forward. We want to bring modern industries and jobs with a future to Rotherham and the Dearne. The coal era has ended. We want to put that period behind us. That is the wider community view within which plans for opencasting in Wentworth must be understood.

I shall deal first with the specific case of New Stubbin in Rawmarsh, and then with opencasting in general.

The application of the Chesterfield-based company, Coal Contractors Ltd. to opencast at New Stubbin was rejected by Rotherham council. The company appealed and the inspector's report is due any day on the desk of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

New Stubbin is a beautiful bowl in the green belt, overlooked by bungalows, school playing fields and the local cemetery. It is open space next to dense residential streets. The deep mine on that site was closed 20 years ago and the area is now naturally revegetated. There is a wide variety of wildlife and the area is popular with local people for walking and picnics.

The opencast plans cover just 40 hectares, worked for four years to produce 270,000 tonnes of coal—the amount that the Selby complex can produce in little more than a week.

I support the 810 Rawmarsh residents who petitioned against the scheme going ahead. The workings will be within a couple of hundred yards of local homes. Dust, noise and blasting will cause severe disruption to local people. Heavy lorries will cause havoc on local roads such as Rawmarsh Hill, which is a busy, narrow shopping and residential street with parked cars and pedestrians.

There is a case for opencasting. Opencasting can restore derelict and contaminated land, but not at New Stubbin, where the bulk of the area is agricultural land and sports fields, and less than a quarter is classified as the old colliery site. Opencasting can contribute to the commercial viability of deep mines through coal blending and commercial integration, but not at New Stubbin where the low sulphur, low chlorine Barnsley seam will yield a quick profit for the company and little long-term investment in the industry. Opencasting can bring new jobs to employment black spots, but not at New Stubbin where the promise of 20 to 30 very well paid jobs for local people in the planning application was severely pruned by the time of the inquiry. Opencasting can bring company support for local projects, but not at New Stubbin where the budget of at least £50,000 … to support local projects in the application was no longer on offer at appeal.

The case of New Stubbin highlights six key problems with the opencast system at present. First, companies are coming for green-field sites, and just 10 per cent. of new applications now propose to deal with derelict or contaminated land. Secondly, there must be provision for rejecting applications where opencasting may prejudice efforts to attract other investment to the area. Thirdly, despite improvements to MPG3 in 1994, there needs to be a stronger requirement to show clear benefit to the local environment and to local communities. If local people want it, fine; but if they do not, the local councils should not be cowed by the cost of appeal from backing local residents.

Fourthly, the presumption against development in green belt areas should require all opencast applicants to prove that their scheme is compatible with green belt objectives—to keep land permanently open, to retain the attractive landscape, and to maintain land in agricultural or forestry use. Fifthly, Government research into the advantages and disadvantages of opencasting promised by a former Minister, the present hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford), in the House on 5 July 1995 has still not been published. Sixthly, the proportion of all coal mined in the United Kingdom by opencast continues to increase. It was 12 per cent. in 1980, 19.5 per cent. in 1990, and more than 31 per cent. in 1995. As electricity generating contracts are renegotiated, this competition between opencast and deep mine coal can only increase and the pressure to open up new opencast sites can only intensify.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows well that many hon. Members have opencast applications in their constituencies, and that Labour's 10-point plan for opencasting commanded strong support with the public before the election. We are anxious to see action, but we appreciate the difficulties of translating a pre-election campaign into public policy post-election. However, I urge the Minister to review, and to act rapidly to change the present system—especially the operation of MPG3. I also ask him to meet those hon. Members who have a constituency concern about opencasting.

Finally, should my hon. Friend decide that primary legislation is required to strike a better balance between coal companies and the local community, there will be a large lobby of Members of Parliament ready to back him and there will be strong public support for such a move.

10.38 pm
The Minister of State, Departments of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Richard Caborn)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) on raising not only opencasting issues but issues affecting South Yorkshire. I am sure that many hon. Members are aware that I also have the privilege of representing that area in this place.

My hon. Friend made a powerful speech to the House on an issue which affects many up and down this country, particularly those in the north. I also congratulate him on his election as Member for Wentworth. I am sure that he will continue to make very powerful contributions in the House, as he has helped the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress to restructure the trade union movement in this country so that it is now respected across the world and is probably one of the most modern movements in western Europe. On the basis of such work, I am sure that his contributions to the House will have gravitas.

I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend and his constituents about opencast coal mining. Not only am I a fellow South Yorkshire Member of Parliament with direct experience of the issue, but, as he may know, I was Chairman of the Trade and Industry Select Committee, which produced a report on British energy policy and the market for coal. I am, therefore, well aware of the problems that can be caused by opencasting.

I should make it clear at this early stage of my speech that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the merits or defects of any particular opencast application or appeal. That could prejudice the Secretary of State's position in his determination of any appeal that has already been made, or which may be made if a particular planning application is refused by the mineral planning authority.

Before I turn to the particular concerns that have been raised, it may be helpful if I briefly explain the background to the current planning guidance on coal mining and the policies that it contains.

As my hon. Friend may know, the current national policy guidance is contained in minerals planning guidance note 3, which deals with all coal mining in England and Wales and replaced guidance published in 1988 that dealt solely with opencast coal. That contained a strong presumption in favour of maximising opencast coal production. Following a monitoring exercise in 1992, even the previous Tory Government decided to revise the guidelines to reflect environmental concerns and the development plan-led system. That revision was, however, held up by their coal review between October 1992 and March 1993.

During the coal review, the Trade and Industry Select Committee published its report on British energy policy and the market for coal. The Committee recommended, among other things, much tougher planning guidance on opencast coal mining.

Following the outcome of the coal review, the previous Government issued "Interim Planning Guidance For Opencast Coal", which withdrew the previous strong presumption in favour of opencast coal mining dating from the 1980s. Subsequently, draft revised guidance was issued for public consultation. In the light of responses to consultation, the reference to opencast coal mining being in the national interest was removed. The final revised guidance was published as MPG3 on 21 July 1994.

MPG3 responded to some of the concerns that were expressed during the consultation procedure. The strong presumption in favour of opencast coal was removed. The new emphasis was on the development plan-led approach. Tests of environmental acceptability had to be applied to individual projects.

The Select Committee and many of my hon. Friends can rightly claim credit for putting pressure on the previous Administration to change the whole planning guidance. The Tory free for all of the 1980s and early 1990s that had so damaged communities in the shallow coalfields had been stopped.

The new emphasis on the development plan-led approach and the importance of environmental acceptability means that decisions on land availability and use should be debated fully and openly at the local level. In principle, this offers more certainty for industry about where coal extraction is likely to be allowed, and communities where workable coal reserves exist have a clearer idea about where such activities are likely to take place and over what period.

MPG3 placed no bar on making planning applications for development in the green belts, because minerals can be worked only where they are found and are not a permanent use of land. Indeed, opencast working need not be incompatible with green belt objectives, but, like all other forms of development, applications for mineral working in the green belt must be examined particularly carefully. Development should be allowed only where the highest standards of operation and restoration can be achieved. If anything, the environmental test has to be tougher, because more can be at stake. I know that this is an area of particular interest to my hon. Friend and I shall want to look at it closely in reviewing the present approach.

Nevertheless, MPG3 does not encourage applications for green-field sites. It says that priority should be given to proposals that involve the clearance of dereliction. Operators would need to demonstrate that real benefits offsetting the disbenefits will accrue from their proposals if they wish to work sensitive green-field sites.

MPG3 gives comprehensive advice on the specific environmental impacts of opencasting and how to deal with them. These include visual impact, noise, blasting, dust, water pollution, heavy transport movements and the damage to heritage and wildlife sites. MPG3 also makes it clear that the guidance that it contains on these matters is relevant to the consideration of planning applications.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

My hon. Friend will know that many Members are concerned about opencasting. What sort of consultation does he envisage taking place with hon. Members who represent constituencies where opencasting takes place, in the context of getting the 10-point plan incorporated into the planning guidance?

Mr. Caborn

If my hon. Friend waits until the end of my reply, she will know exactly what I propose. That will be made clear at the end of my response, and I do not want her to leave the Chamber too early.

The acceptability of individual proposals will depend on the likely environmental impact of the development and the steps taken by the developer to minimise those effects. If necessary, tough conditions can be attached to permissions and enforced by local authorities to deliver the required protection.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Conservative Members—there are not many in the Chamber this evening—will know that many opencast coal planning applications are now subject to a formal environmental assessment. At present, an environmental assessment is required for opencast coal mining if the particular project is judged likely to give rise to significant environmental effects. That is a judgment for the mineral planning authority in the first place.

In practice, that has usually meant that applications involving sites of 50 hectares or more have been subject to environmental assessment although the mineral planning authority must also require that assessment to take place in other cases where there are likely to be significant environmental effects. Under the revised European arrangements coming into effect in early 1999, all opencast sites of 25 hectares or more will automatically require an environmental statement.

As I have said, the present MPG3 gives detailed advice on environment impacts. To provide background information to those considering these matters, my Department has continued through its research programme to monitor the environmental effects of surface mineral workings including opencast coal mining. Research into the control of dust was published last year. Current studies are examining blasting and traffic, and we expect to publish the results later this year.

We cannot ignore the environmental problems that opencast operations can cause, and I recognise my hon. Friend's concern that the present guidance in MPG3 does not go far enough. Equally, we should recognise that opencast coal working can produce benefits through, for example, the removal of dereliction.

Other benefits can include the contribution to, or maintenance of, local, regional or national employment. Evidence presented to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry estimated that the numbers directly employed at opencast sites in 1991–92 ranged from "over 5000" to 8,000, and the number dependent on opencast mining for their livelihood at about 15,000. More recent estimates by the Coal Authority in 1996 put the figures lower at about 6,000 directly employed, and a similar number of jobs in the support, supply and contracting industries.

We should not overlook the need to provide opencast coal for blending to make deep mine coal suitable for burning in power stations, by providing coal with low moisture, volatile or chloride content, or high calorific value.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment. As he was the Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, I know that he is aware of the economic circumstances of mining. He will be aware also, bearing in mind the studies that were undertaken in 1992, that the amount of coal that is required for sweetening is considerably less than the amount of opencast coal that is now being mined, which for the last complete year was 16.1 million tonnes. Deep mine coal amounts to 36 million tonnes. It is clear that the proportion is wrong. Does my hon. Friend agree that a considerable reduction should take place?

Mr. Caborn

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) is an expert on these matters, and he is right. The figures show that we need about 9 million tonnes from opencasting in England for the sweetening process. That balance must be struck, and it must be borne in mind when we discuss these matters.

It is interesting to consider MPG3 since 1994. In 1995–96, opencast coal production accounted for about 23 per cent. of total coal production in England. During the same year—the first full year of operation of the revised MPG3—24 applications covering 5,551 hectares and 2.7 million tonnes of coal were approved by planning authorities. Seventeen applications covering 1,189 hectares and 9.3 million tonnes of coal were refused. None of the six appeals to the Secretary of State was allowed.

By contrast, in 1992–93, before the new policy was introduced, 39 applications covering a smaller 1,225 hectares extracting as much as 7.1 million tonnes were approved by planning authorities. In 1992–93, seven appeals were allowed covering a further 470 hectares and 3.6 million tonnes of coal. In other words, 11 million tonnes of opencast were approved in 1992–93 compared with just under 3 million tonnes in 1995–96. More production was allowed through on appeal in 1992–93 than was approved by mineral planning authorities in 1995–96.

I hope that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members agree that those figures show clearly that the pressure put on the then Government to change MPG3 is now working. There has been a reduction in both the number of opencast planning applications and appeals allowed since that revision.

However, I appreciate that there are still many concerns about the adverse environmental effects of opencasting both in the coalfield communities and more widely. I share those concerns. I assure the House that the Labour Government will not be complacent about the issue.

It may be that a number of those concerns can be addressed effectively within the existing planning framework. We shall carefully consider the possibilities. For example, mineral planning authorities can already attach strict and enforceable conditions to planning consents. They are constrained only by what the courts would consider relevant and reasonable.

Environmental assessments will become mandatory in 1999 for sites of more than 25 hectares, and mineral planning authorities must already require such assessments if they judge that a project is likely to have significant environmental effects. Although I cannot prejudge individual cases, I would expect environmental assessments to be the norm, not the exception. Where there is hard evidence that opencasting would prejudice other inward investment, which brings jobs to an area, that is already a material consideration which should be taken into account by the planning authorities in reaching their decision.

Planning authorities can already set strict time limits for the commencement and completion of development, and require high standards of restoration by attaching conditions to permissions. But on certain matters it may still be right to go further. I shall, therefore, look carefully at the existing guidance in MPG3, its effect on the level of opencasting and the results of the research into blasting and traffic. I intend to review urgently the present stance of MPG3 on opencast coal and to consider, with my ministerial colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry and in Scotland and Wales, whether changes in policy are needed, both in the short and the long term.

I have taken careful note of the points made by my hon. Friend during his excellent maiden speech. I assure him and other hon. Members who are concerned about this matter that I will take those points into account, together with other representations made to me, when I come to consider, in the light of Labour's 10-point plan for opencast coal, whether any further changes are necessary to ensure even stronger protection for the environment. I have asked my officials to prepare urgently the necessary plan of action. I shall welcome any contribution from hon. Members as we undertake that review.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Eleven o'clock.