HC Deb 20 October 1998 vol 317 cc1094-6 4.23 pm
Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a presumption against landfill sites and opencast mines in open countryside; and for related purposes.

There was a time when the mention in the House of the word "environment" was regarded as a sign of soft politics. Green things were for green people—those whose naivety led them to conclude that there could be a better way. Those who bleated about industry's cost to the environment were costing the country jobs and, moreover, did not understand the world. However, in our last spell in opposition, the Labour party pledged to put an end to all that. We said that the quality of people's lives was too often sacrificed on the altar of profit. Those who might have been wavering about their green politics wavered no more and supported us in great numbers.

I am calling on the House to support a Bill that aims to see off two scourges that rot our landscape as completely as a skin cancer drains life from the body that it takes over—opencasting and landfill sites in open countryside. Both are immensely damaging to our countryside, its economy and the communities who live near them. Although they are closely related, I shall deal with them separately.

Last Friday, the Government announced a tighter planning framework for opencast applications, which I welcome as a major step towards delivering our election promises, but that does not yet restrict opencasting to derelict sites. The Bill would do so. There would be an absolute presumption against granting planning permission for an opencast mine in open green countryside.

Why should the House support the Bill? Hon. Members may think that opencast mines provide us with much-needed inexpensive quality coal that helps to keep open our last remaining deep mines. For those who never have cause to visit a site or have one as a neighbour, the narrow, shallow economic arguments may be attractive—if only they were always true.

The trouble with all economic analysis is that decisions depend on the costs excluded. If one excludes from the equation the social, environmental and community costs of opencast mines, it is not difficult to show that they make a profit. However, if one adds into the sum the cost of housing blight suffered by those who live nearby, the pollution as heavy vehicles daily truck in and out and the deep-mine coal reserves that have been closed down, one has a different story altogether. Opencast comes out of that wider analysis in a negative light, not a green one. We rarely hear those facts. The likes of R. J. Budge and Hepworth in the east midlands are happy when such debates are muted or muddied.

We need secure, sustainable and clean energy in this country. The demands on our national resources are increasing monthly. We need to provide for the future, but an energy policy for a sound future must be built on firm foundations. The opencast vulture is gorging itself on the carcase of the late-lamented deep-mining industry. Plundering green-field sites for the sake of that coal is neither sane nor sustainable. It may be convenient for the landowners; it is possibly easy for them; it is probably very profitable for them, but it is certainly a lousy deal for those who live in the blighted communities.

The Bill would end green-field opencast sites for ever. Some hon. Members may be concerned by that, but it is not yet a ban on all opencasting. We are all hoist by the petard of dreadful energy provision planning by the previous Government. That difficulty is at last being dealt with, but a welcome new role for deep mining must not usher in renewed calls for more opencasting. Opencast mining may still proceed, but only in exceptional circumstances where it is environmentally beneficial, not just environmentally acceptable. As one who lives in a community that is constantly under threat, I know that would-be opencasters will have to work hard to demonstrate any such benefits to us.

The second provision of the Bill widens the Chancellor's proposed aggregate tax to include both operational opencast sites and the few given permission in future. For too long, in my view, those who have run our opencast mines have been allowed to print their own profits. When opencasting is looked at in narrow terms, there appears to be a case for extraction. However, a widened aggregate tax—a mineral tax levied to balance the social, economic and environmental books—would change that. A mineral tax would help to focus the mining companies' minds—and that can be a hard job. Talk about the environment, and the mining companies barely listen; talk about social impact, and they turn a deaf ear; but talk about money—especially if it is their money—and one gets their full attention.

The final provision in the Bill will please many people—indeed, it illustrates why opencasting is such a bad idea. Opencast mines have an even uglier and more dangerous sibling: landfill sites. Those of us who still read The Guardian will no doubt have seen during the recess a report of a study in The Lancet about a possible link between birth defects and certain types of landfill sites. The report stated: Women who live within three kilometres of hazardous waste landfill sites have a 33 percent higher risk of having babies with birth defects. Must the unborn child pay for our own bad planning? We, and we alone, create the need for landfill sites. They are filled with our waste. Taking account of commerce and industry, we all produce enough annual national waste for landfill to generate a 30,000 km line of dumper trucks trundling through our countryside. They would fill a four-lane highway from London to Beijing—some takeaway! The annual national volume of all types of waste would bury North-West Leicestershire—110 square miles—up to our necks. It sometimes feels like that.

Yes, we must change our ways; but our ways are changing too slowly for those with landfill sites as neighbours. We allow industry to pour into landfill sites goodness knows what cocktails of chemicals and pollutants. "Skip and tip" and "dig and dump" are not new millennium disposal methods. We need new remediation technology to treat and use contaminated land.

It is said that not one of our seven seas has not been polluted by man. The situation is no less unsavoury on dry land. Should we be surprised? No, we should not. We all want easy answers to our problems; people do not really want to change their behaviour. Every household in this country creates a tonne of waste a year. Industry, too, wants to get on with the job of making money. Until that becomes more difficult, nobody, but nobody, is going to change.

Tax is a great persuader. The increase in landfill tax to £10 per tonne on certain wastes from next April is very welcome—so long as the environmental projects that it funds are in the immediate area and not just in the home communities of the decision takers. If, in addition, we were to define landfill sites as "public works" under the Town and Country Planning (Compensation) Act 1985, we could force those who create such places to compensate others whose homes and lives are blighted by them.

Two of my constituents whose house is right by a proposed landfill site recently wrote to me: We have already suffered severe blight and stress. Our lives have been ruined in recent months by the excavations at the site and (that) can only get worse when the landfill begins". However, my constituents cannot move: they have been pinned down by poor environmental planning. They continued: Our property is unsaleable. So we have lost our rights to enjoy our home, most of the value of our property and the major part of our pension provision". I am certain that what is happening to those people living in the Leicestershire hamlet of Boothorpe is a fundamental breach of their human rights, and that that injustice is echoed in many other parts of our country. That this should happen at the heart of our new national forest is not just astonishing, but daft. If we must continue to open landfill sites despite the much tougher planning regime that I propose, operators must meet the wider social costs incurred.

The Bill would ensure proper compensation to those communities and individuals who suffer. A compensation regime will make business and industry think twice about creating landfill sites. Money talks and business listens.

There is a political cost. Labour Members have made promises such as our 10-point plan on opencast mining. Unfulfilled promises are like determined dogs; they chase one around—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)


Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Taylor, Mr. Joe Ashton, Mr. Tony Benn, Liz Blackman, Mr. Peter Bradley, Mr. Phil Hope, Dr. Lynne Jones, Judy Mallaber, Dr. Nick Palmer, Mr. Alan Simpson, Mr. Dennis Skinner and Mr. Mark Todd.