HL Deb 19 May 1982 vol 430 cc703-19

3.4 p.m.

Lord Kearton rose to call attention to the report of the Commission on Energy and the Environment entitled Coal and the Environment (8th July 1981); and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I should perhaps mention that the Motion was originally put down by my noble friend Lord Sherfield who is unfortunately unable to be present. The Commission on Energy and the Environment was appointed in March 1978, as a standing body by the Secretaries of State for Energy, the Environment, Scotland and Wales. The terms of reference—to advise on the interaction between energy policy and the environment—were very broad. The commission decided that its first task would be to consider the longer term environmental implications of increased coal production and use in the United Kingdom. "Longer term" was assessed to cover the period to the end of the century. "Use" included conversion to other fuels and raw materials.

The commission, under the chairmanship of Lord Flowers, had a most distinguished membership. It produced by mid-1981 a most distinguished report, the result of an exceptionally thorough study. Evidence was taken from some 70 organisations covering the whole spectrum of those with an interest: national and local government; industrial and commercial undertakings; agricultural and transport activities; trade unions; planning and conservation bodies: health and safety assessors and monitors; research organisations and learned societies et cetera. The commission took evidence from individuals as well, and the members paid many visits, during which they met a whole range of local representatives. The commission received most gratifying support in the conduct of its inquiries from all it approached, or who approached it, and the relevant nationalised industries—the Coal Board, the Central Electricity Generating Board and British Rail—were especially helpful.

The report is a comprehensive and indispensable source book on the implications of the future use of coal. It is written with clarity—about 200,000 words—and is supported by numerous tables, diagrams and photographs. It draws a number of conclusions and makes 70 detailed recommendations on matters great and small. As befits the commission's noble chairman, who is himself the head of one of our premier colleges of science and technology, the report meets rigorous scientific standards. It provides a practical guide to action both with regard to past dereliction and future safeguards affecting the environment. And withal, the balancing of costs against benefits as always came firmly in the forefront with regard to recommended action.

It must have been with some surprise that the members of the commission learned as their report went to press that the Government of the day had decided that with this report the commission then fell into abeyance. I hope that Members of your Lordships' House will express their disappointment at what appears to be a very short-sighted decision. This particular standing commission represented voluntary service to the state at the highest intellectual and practical level. It is difficult to believe that any other approach to the problem it considered would have been equally objective or equally effective. The next field of study which the commission indicated it had in mind was an assessment of conservation and efficiency in energy use. That would have been most useful.

The commission's overall conclusions were more favourable to coal production and consumption than perhaps it had expected when it began its task. During the inquiry the commission observed an increasing emphasis by the Coal Board, and an increasing sensitivity, to ameliorating the environmental hazards of coal operations. The members were favourably impressed by the best current practices of the Coal Board while recognising that at some sites these could not be accepted in toto. In such cases the commission satisfied itself that best practicable practices were tolerable.

Subject to important reservations and qualifications, the commission concluded that there were no insuperable obstacles to increased coal production and consumption over the next 20 years. These reservations, besides environmental and planning matters, included the meeting of productivity targets and the production of coal to be sold at competitive prices. This implies the closure of high cost mines. In considering the past of the coal industry, when it was a cornerstone of our one time industrial pre-eminence, the commission had to have regard to the previous sins of omission and commission. The image of coal as a dangerous and dirty industry for its workers, destructive of local environment and amenities where produced, and inconvenient and grimy in use, is deep-seated and was justified. Today's production of deep-mined coal is little more than a third of its peak before the First World War and is only about half what it was in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War. The availability of cheap imported oil in the 25 years to 1973 and the development of North Sea natural gas from the end of the 1960s weaned domestic, industrial and commercial users away from coal as a fuel.

The immense improvements in urban atmospheres brought about by the Clean Air Acts and supporting legislation are in large part due to the much reduced use of coal domestically and industrially. Now, having become used to the greater convenience, versatility and cleanliness of oil and gas, it is clear that only stark necessity or compelling economic reasons will lead the generality of consumers to change back to coal.

Coal has been left with power stations as its major market. Here the post-1973 relative price changes with regard to oil have left coal as the economically desirable fuel, and it is an end use where large-scale arrangements for delivery, complete combustion, ash disposal, and flue gas treatment are at their most developed and where the environment is best protected. Until a few years ago the power station market was considered to be very vulnerable to the cost advantages of nuclear energy. The change in attitude here has been in part due to the construction delays in the United Kingdom's second generation nuclear power stations, the AGRs, and consequent large cost overruns, in part to a heightened sense of the possible health hazards from nuclear station mishaps and from disposal of their waste; and more esoterically to a fear that nuclear power stations could possibly provide a source material for nuclear weapons. In actual fact, the health and safety record of existing nuclear stations in this country is outstandingly good. Pollution of any kind has been virtually nil. Generation costs have been low. It is my personal view that safety aspects are obsessively provided for in recent designs. But even the great expense of providing for safety contingencies of the most improbable and remote kind still seems to leave power from such nuclear reactors cheaper than that provided by coal; and though the proliferation danger with regard to weapons is one to be taken most seriously, it is also one which can be contained.

With regard to nuclear power, it seems that the results of the French programme are likely to be decisive. Their ambitious plan has survived changes of Government and, on present evidence and expectations, will give France, for the rest of the century, the cheapest bulk power supply in Europe, cleanly and elegantly. The commission took the view, independently of, but in line with, Government policy, that in the interests of diversity there is a strong case for the United Kingdom to develop coal and nuclear power. A component of the argument is that the United Kingdom has coal in plenty, enough for hundreds of years. The commission put the United Kingdom end-of-the-century demand for coal at 110 million to 170 million tonnes a year, with production levels at 100 to 150 million tonnes. Within these figures there is scope for both imports and exports. The range is lower than that considered likely only a few years ago. It reflects changed assumptions about the long-term levels of economic growth, estimates as to the effect of conservation and the development of more energy-efficient manufacturing processes, and a judgment on the sharing of power generation between coal and nuclear sources. Electricity generation remains a principal use for coal, with coke ovens a smaller one, and the growth area, compared with the present day, is forecast to be a switch by industrial users from oil back to coal. Synthetic natural gas is seen as a possible major user in the early years of the next century, but not before.

Present pits will not be capable of producing coal, even the lowest forecasts for the year 2000. As established pits are worked out, there will have to be a steady opening up of new pits. In traditional areas, establishment of new pits will be regarded as normal development. In areas hitherto free of coal production there are usually strong anxieties and reservations. As the commission report comments, the benefits of new developments accrue to the country as a whole, while the disadvantages are borne by local communities.

There is no doubt that past dereliction caused by the coal industry over a very long period was shameful: there was dereliction of townscapes, dereliction of once-beautiful countryside and pollution of rivers. The latter continued in some areas long after individual mines had been closed down, with the discharge of particularly obnoxious overflow liquors. Efforts at reclamation have been actively in process for some years now with some creditable success, but much more remains to be done. The cost is presently met from a variety of sources. The Coal Board feels that it cannot be burdened with the cost of putting right past bad practice, a view which the commission share. The cost should be a central Government responsibility.

The drawbacks of future deep-mined coal production are brought out in the commission's report. These drawbacks are land subsidence, the problem of the disposal of spoil, and pollution caused by combustion. The actual mine buildings, pitheads and colliery surface activities can now be made visually acceptable and, if the immediate environment is landscaped and kept tidy, even visually agreeable. This will be particularly true in a new area such as Selby.

Coal production is now based on mechanised long-wall mining and power loading instead of the old stall-and-pillar method, with hand loading. Working conditions at the coal face are in consequence much better than they were formerly, although still uncomfortable, unpleasant and dirty. We owe a great debt to our miners who are undertaking work in such an industry. There has been a considerable reduction in the incidence rate of accidents and deaths, although as an industry coal mining is still high on the list of hazardous occupations. There has also been a welcome and marked fall-off in new cases of pneumoconiosis.

The new methods give rise to much more spoil than the old and are not conducive to back-stowing. There is more surface land subsidence. The workings collapse behind the coal face and this is reflected at ground level to an extent depending on the depth of the mine, the thickness of the seams being extracted, and the nature of the local strata. What happens at the surface can be forecast with some accuracy. Subsidence can be minor or severe, and the effects likewise. In severe cases, buildings, pipes, sewers, cables, drainage, roads and rail are damaged as well as agricultural land.

The areas subject to subsidence, minor or severe, are large—perhaps up to 50 square miles or so a year. Severe damage is, in fact, the exception. But the figures are still formidable. In the East Midlands coalfield in a 10-year period recently examined, 62,500 houses were damaged. Most of the damage was classified as slight, but 2,000 cases were ranked as appreciably damaged and 250 as severely so. I have the impression that the numbers in some of the Yorkshire areas are higher. The Coal Board pays compensation. This compensation amounted to £54.7 million in 1980–81 and perhaps could be as much as £80 million in 1981–82. But the compensation does not have regard to the worry, the upset and the general unhappiness caused by living in houses affected by subsidence, whether slight, appreciable or severe. This was vividly brought out by Members of Parliament from mining areas recently, speaking on the commission's report in a debate in another place.

With regard to spoil, the present national ratio of spoil to coal is 1:2, although it is appreciably higher in some districts. There are 50 to 60 million tonnes of spoil a year to be disposed of. This is about five times as much per year as in the 1920s, when coal production was much higher. More spoil is due to be tipped in the next 20 years—half as much again—than in the whole history of the industry to date. It is estimated that 20 square miles of new land will be required to accommodate this spoil. The commission stops at the year 2000. Perhaps it could not contemplate the thought of more than 100 square miles of new land being required for tips in the next century.

It is true that modern techniques of restoration allow land to be restored on one part of the site as tipping proceeds elsewhere. But even after restoration the land naturally is not what it was. The problem is exacerbated by the current geographical concentrations of derelict spoil tips, active spoil tips, and waste lagoons. One-third of current spoil is in the Barnsley, Doncaster, North and South Yorkshire areas. There may not be sufficient land nearby to accommodate the spoil of the next two decades in an acceptable manner. Distant disposal of spoil is more expensive, and possible reclamation areas or estuarine fill-in sites only offer limited capacity.

The commission expressed appreciation that the Coal Board have made great advances in safer tipping and had reduced dirt and dust pollution in the process. The new tips are lower and less intrusive than the old conical tips and need more land for a given weight of spoil. More use is being made of landscape architects—but as consultants. The first lone landscape architect direct employee of the Coal Board has now been engaged—I think.

Opencast mining for coal in the United Kingdom is a relatively recent development—it began in 1942—and now accounts for about one-eighth of total coal production. Although the operation is controlled by the National Coal Board it is characterised by different management, different unions and different plant than deep-mined coal. There were 67 sites open in 1981. The area affected or planned amounts to 40 square miles. The sites can be open for a period of years, and when extraction is complete restoration times are five years initially under detailed supervision and costs about £1,500 an acre.

Opencast mining is an unpleasant visual intrusion and the workings cause dust, noise and heavy road traffic. In some parts of the country opencast mining occurs in residential areas with workings coining up to 50 yards from property. The inconvenience and disturbance are intense. The evidence to date is that restored land gives lower agricultural yields than virgin land, and there is a lasting effect on the ecology of an area and a substantial reduction in the quality and variety of a landscape.

It has to be said that much of the coal produced is of good quality. Some finds special applications. Some is used to upgrade poor quality deep-mined coal, and the operation is profitable. In the Coal Board's recent finances, profits on opencast coal have virtually offset the losses on the much greater volume of deep-mined coal. Environmentally, opencast coal production is a disaster. The commission would like to see it progressively decline as the new, efficient and lower cost deep-mine production capacity becomes available; and who would disagree?

With your permission, my Lords, may I turn to coal use. The burning of coal gives rise to grit, ash, smoke, tar and a wide range of atmospheric pollutants. It is best used in large power stations or in industrial boilers where the measures to control and minimise all the adverse possibilities are most effective. A large coal-fired power station, burning up to 20,000 tons of coal a day, is visually attractive; causes no local dirt, noise, smell or pollution; is effectively landscaped; and internally is almost clinically clean.

A recent brochure from the generating board called Landscape in the Making gives strong pictorial evidence of the environmental success of the generating board's efforts. Many of their procedures were initiated 25 years ago by that most eminent Member of your Lordships' House, Lord Hinton. The brochure itself is virtually the swansong of Mr. Glyn England, whose recent departure from the chairmanship of the Central Electricity Generating Board is a matter for such general regret.

A large power station gets its coal conveniently and cleanly by a so-called rail merry-go-round system direct from the pit, and the coal is off-loaded automatically in enclosed conditions, and mechanically and cleanly distributed to stockpiles. Ash is either sold for further processing or transported to distant sites to be used as fill, or to go on progressively landscaped tips. About 12 million tons of ash is produced per year, and commercial uses have been found for about 5 million tons of this. The amount of ash going to tips is currently less than 10 per cent. of the Coal Board's spoil, and is likely to diminish.

Flue gases are tar free because of complete combustion of the coal, grit-free because of the effect of separation, and have a low ash content. The gases are discharged from high stacks, and well diluted before reaching ground levels. But there still are respirable particulates, less than 15-millionths of a metre in size, and therefore inhalable, discharged to the atmosphere from coal combustion. Even though so much lower than in the days of the domestic coal fire, it amounts to several thousand tons a year.

Traces of carcinogens are released. The corn-mission cannot put a figure on any death rate from these carcinogens, but feel there could be an additive effect in putting up the death rate from lung cancer due to cigarette smoking by up to 150 extra deaths a year. This would seem to me to be very much a top figure. The commission also considered the effects of radiation due to products from any radioactive materials in the original coal, and gave reasons for dismissing this particular hazard as negligible.

Sulphur dioxide emissions in flue gases are substantial. There are an estimated 5 million tons a year in total of surphur dioxide released to the atmosphere in this country. Three million of this 5 million tons comes from coal. This figure could rise to 4 million tons from coal by the year 2000. The sulphur dioxide is so well dispersed due to the high chimney policy that there is no convincing evidence of bronchial troubles being increased or of crops being seriously affected. There is some hope. There is some corrosion of buildings, and there is some incidence of acid rain. Great Britain contributes a small proportion of the acid rain falling on Scandinavia.

Measures to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions are possible, but expensive, and a case of irrefutable need has not been established. Nevertheless, the nuisance exists, even if it is tolerable. Nitrogen oxides—rather unpleasant materials—are also products of combustion. The emissions are estimated at 2 million tons a year in this country, about half from coal. There is no conclusive evidence of ill effects. As with sulphur dioxide, this contaminant is heavily diluted.

A major product of combustion, whether of coal, oil, wood or gas, is carbon dioxide. About a billion tons a year is produced in the United Kingdom. There is some evidence of a gradual build up of carbon dioxide in the world's atmosphere and a continuation of this trend could lead in time to a so-called greenhouse effect, with a slow increase in the world's average temperature. This would threaten the stability of climates worldwide. But whether the long-term threat is real or not, I doubt whether any of those Members of your Lordships' House here today will live to see it.

In considering the future use of coal I have mentioned that the commission saw a big increase, a quadrupling in fact, in the amount of coal used by industry. The report draws particular attention to the advantages, from the point of view of efficiency and reducing some sorts of pollution, of fluidised bed combustion, which they wish to see encouraged. As a personal view, I think the grant inducements and economic advantages of using coal will have to be greater than at present, if the change back is to occur. The transport of the coal, the storage requirements, the ash disposal needs, are all practical disadvantages for an industrialist. With modern equipment, the coal-fired boilers can be less labour intensive than formerly. But they are likely to require more supervision and maintenance than the equivalently rated oil-fired boiler.

The commission have also studied the lively impact of synthetic natural gas plants, based on coal. If the technique was adopted to provide the equivalent of the present United Kingdom natural gas consumption, a number of major plants would be required, using 70 million tons or even 100 million tons of coal a year, and costing many billions. Apart from the increased coal production adding 50 per cent. or so to subsidence areas, and to spoil tip areas, already formidably large, the SNG plants themselves would bring their own environmental problems. The commission believe that with forward planning starting now the environment need not be put under too great an additional strain. But strain there would be. Success would depend on finding a sufficient number of suitable sites. The commission suggest the search and identification of such sites should start very soon.

I have doubts myself about the provision for many years of large-scale synthetic natural gas plants. The capital costs are so high, and the gas tends to be so expensive. The need in the United States would seem to be much more urgent than our own, on the available statistics. But many of the projects envisaged two or three years ago have now been put on one side, and the search for more natural gas stepped up, a policy which we ourselves should follow.

I have run out of time and I have done scant justice to the commission's remarkable report. I know that Her Majesty's Government have it under close study and will comment in due course on its numerous specific and valuable recommendations. For myself, I would say that the commission have, by their very thoroughness, persuaded me to the view that coal, while plentiful in this country and on a world scale, is a fuel of last resort. Its extraction and use, if properly controlled, can be made tolerable. The commission's 70 recommendations are directed to that end. We have heard much in recent years about the possible hazards of nuclear power. I venture to think that if nuclear power had come first, the uproar on environmental grounds against the introduction of coal as a primary fuel would have been indubitably not less than strident. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.21 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the House should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, and the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, for giving us the opportunity to debate this very topical subject today—for it is just that, with both the comparatively narrow subject of the report and the much wider environmental implication of increased coal use that arise therefrom. The noble Lord raised both points in his speech. The Government, like the Commission on Energy and the Environment, attach great importance to public discussion and understanding of energy policies and not least their relationship to the environment in which we all live. Hence today's debate is particularly welcome, as was yesterday's "stand part" debate on Clause 15 of the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Bill, all the more so when one recognises, as the commission has done, that coal is likely to play a central and growing role in the United Kingdom energy strategy for many years to come.

I join with the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, and the other members of the Commission on Energy and the Environment on producing a thorough and painstaking study. I am delighted to see that Lord Flowers is to speak later, and will listen carefully to what he says. I wish also to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for her personal kindness to me; having recognised my state of shellshock, she has allowed me to precede her in the batting order for today's debate. Before proceeding, I would make two personal remarks to the noble Lord, Lord Kearton. First, I believe there is no one in this House better qualified, through his long service to the country in the energy field, both inside and outside your Lordships' House, to introduce this debate. Secondly, I promise him that I will neither misquote his remarks nor quote them out of context; he at least will understand what I mean.

The Government welcomed the commission's report when it was published. It represents a valuable contribution to the discussion and the Government are now giving careful and detailed consideration to the recommendations and conclusions in the report; there are over 120. We have asked all the bodies who gave evidence to the commission, and other interested organisations, for their comments on the report. We cannot at present give a date for publishing the Government's formal reply, but we are striving to complete our consultations and deliberations as quickly as possible. Today's debate will, I am sure, add further to our appreciation of the wide-ranging problems involved. I hope the House will appreciate that it is not for Lords in Waiting to announce Government policy, and therefore I am unable to anticipate in detail the Government's reply to the commission's report. I should like, rather, to explain more generally the Government's thinking on energy policy and its interaction with environmental interests.

The fundamental aim of the Government's energy policy, as recorded in the opening chapter of the commission's report, is to ensure the availability of adequate and secure supplies of energy at the lowest practicable cost to the nation. That involves ensuring that all fuels are used efficiently and cost effectively and that our energy resources are developed to meet our long-term needs. The concept of lowest practicable costs is clearly crucial to our deliberations here, and I will spend a few moments on it. As the com- mission's report says in its first chapter, the scale of costs imposed for environmental reasons has to be considered against the decreased competitiveness of our coal in the market place. In other words, there has to be a trade-off between environmental values and energy policy objectives.

I would not want to give the impression that any simple, arbitrary rules can apply here. The commission have, I believe, drawn the same conclusion in their final chapter, where they say that the realities of pollution control require a continuing balance to be struck between the costs and benefits of pollution abatement for industry and society. There are several aspects to this problem. Allocation of costs is important in a market economy. The "polluter pays" principle has been an integral part of pollution control policy in the United Kingdom for a long time. As the commission say in paragraphs 44 and 45 of Chapter 1, in the case of the current activities of the coal industry, this means that the cost of environmental control should in general be borne by the National Coal Board and be incorporated in the price of coal. Dealing with pollution from past activities raises difficult questions. Finding the right balance between minimising energy costs and protecting our environment will often be a difficult process, sometimes involving lengthy consultations and inquiry.

There are three main strands to our overall energy strategy. First, we aim to maximise the benefit to the nation from our oil and gas supplies over as long a period as possible. We are now self-sufficient in oil in terms of net requirements, and this position should be maintained until the early 1990s. North Sea gas now meets all our gas requirements, with over 75 per cent. coming from United Kingdom fields. We are doing all we can to encourage continuing exploration and development of oil and gas resources.

The second element of our strategy is to encourage the appropriate and efficient use of fuels. An example of this is the Government's commitment to encourage industry to replace oil and gas-fired heating equipment with coal firing where that is economically attractive. In two successive March Budgets in another place we have initiated a scheme providing £50 million for grants of up to 25 per cent. of the costs of converting oil and gas-fired equipment to coal. I should like the House to note that, in Chapter 13 of the commission's study, this scheme is welcomed, because it should facilitate a gradual transition back towards coal-burning in industry at a pace which should enable environmental difficulties to be kept within acceptable limits. This second aim of our energy strategy means, more generally, promoting the economic pricing of energy, reflecting full costs, including environmental protection, and encouraging energy conservation. The House will, I am sure, appreciate that the cause of environmental protection is particularly well served in general, although not in all cases, by encouraging consumers not to waste energy but, rather, to get the maximum return from each unit of fuel supplied.

The third main strand of our energy strategy is to develop those resources needed to meet our longer-term energy requirements, in particular nuclear and coal, the immediate subject of today's debate. The proportion of electricity generated from nuclear power will increase to about 20 per cent. when the three new advanced gas-cooled reactors are commissioned, probably later this year. And as the House will be aware, the Central Electricity Generating Board have made an application to construct a pressurised water reactor at Sizewell, which will be the subject of a full inquiry next year. In that connection, I was glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, praise the safety record of our nuclear industry; I would be the first to agree with him.

Renewable sources will also have their part to play in meeting our future energy needs. On the basis of current knowledge, it has been estimated that a contribution up to some 30 million tonnes of coal equivalent per annum—that is, about 7 per cent. of our total energy requirements, might be possible from such sources by the early years of the next century. The realisation of this potential will depend on the success of research and development in reducing the costs of the technologies and on their rate of penetration into the market place. Research and development on new and renewable sources of energy is being funded by Government departments, public organisations, including the Central Electricity Generating Board, and by private sector companies. The Secretary of State for Energy is currently considering advice from the Advisory Council on Research and Development for Fuel and Power about departmental support for renewable research. The Southampton and Cambourn geothermal scheme and the large aerogenerator at Orkney are major development projects currently under way funded wholly or in part by my department.

Turning to coal, we have been generating about 80 per cent. of our electricity from coal, and the massive scale of our national coal resources is illustrated by the calculation that at the current level of usage our proven coal reserves will last 50 years or more. The ultimate level of recoverable resources is likely to prove to be several times longer, probably over 300 years. The Government therefore take the view that the coal industry could meet a significant portion of the nation's long-term energy needs, provided that it can produce coal efficiently and be in a position to sell the coal at competitive prices.

Over many years now the Government have supported large-scale investment in the National Coal Board to enable the board to develop a modern, efficient industry and to move progressively towards financial viability. We hope in particular that these investments will permit the board to compete effectively for the large potential for coal to reassert itself in industrial markets. Perhaps one of the most crucial findings of the commission's study—in Chapter 1, paragraph 19—is that this objective of developing a modern, highly productive coal industry, employing new technologies, would be beneficial in terms of environmental impact as well as economic efficiency.

In order to implement their energy strategy, the Government do not advocate central or indicative planning, but aim rather to create the conditions in which market forces can work to bring about their objectives. Perhaps the most important example of this approach is the economic pricing of energy, because it gives both suppliers and consumers correct signals about the true cost of fuels. The promotion of competition is also important as a spur to efficiency, permitting consumers to make rational choices and obliging suppliers to contain their costs.

The report states, in Chapter 3—and quite correctly in our view—that energy strategy cannot be translated into a blueprint; nor, given the uncertainties that we face, can we produce precise forecasts or numerical prescriptions for the future. The Government, rather, keep a close watch on world and United Kingdom energy developments and carry out regular analyses of the ways in which energy demand and supplies may develop. The results of those analyses are made available to the public in the form of energy projections as part of the Government's contribution to the public debate on energy policies. The last set of projections was published at the end of 1979, and a new set will be produced later this year in good time for the Sizewell inquiry.

I hope that I have succeeded in explaining, at least in outline, the overall energy policy which provides the context within which today's debate, and indeed any discussions on energy and the environment, must be considered. We must of course take steps to protect our environment when we plan the development of our energy resources, but equally there is widespread recognition of the continuing importance of developing those resources in a competitive way. I hope that the need for a balance between these considerations will never be far from our minds throughout this debate.

3.34 p.m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I am slightly taken by surprise. I had rather hoped that the EEC Statement would intervene between the Minister's speech and my speech. At the very welcome initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, we have this afternoon the opportunity of discussing the report on Coal and the Environment. We very much welcome the opportunity to discuss what are the crucial issues of energy production and environmental conservation. I should like straight away to pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, and his commission, for while they would appear to have produced a daunting and an extremely expensive report—though I do not think that the cost had anything to do with them—it is in fact eminently readable, and is a classic example of the value of such standing bodies as the Commission on Energy and the Environment.

I feel particularly concerned with this matter because, when I was a Minister at the Department of the Environment in the last Government, it was not only part of my role, but also my passionate hope and inclination, to try to build bridges between the national industries and the demands of the environment. I found that I received considerable sympathetic response in regard to the change in attitudes. It is difficult to discuss this subject without mentioning, if only very briefly, that we have seen changes in attitudes to our environment and towards what we like to feel is an improved quality of life in this country. That has related not only to mineral resources, but also to buildings and design—though we still suffer from a great deal of bad design—as well as getting over the terrible years of the bulldozer.

The problem posed to the commission was to find a balance between cheap energy and environmental protection, and this is the crucial core of whatever we are discussing today. I would agree with the Joint Minerals and Reclamation Group, recently formed by the three local authority associations, in its description of the report as a well-balanced study". I would also very strongly endorse the group's view that it is "unfortunate and clearly regrettable" that the Government should have chosen to mark the publication of the report with a decision in effect to abolish the commission. The noble Lord, Lord Kearton, also drew attention to this very important point. The fact that the Government have used the rather felicitous phrase "in abeyance" does not make what they are doing any the more acceptable.

I do not know whether I missed something of what the noble Lord the Minister said. If I did, I am sorry and perhaps the noble Earl, Lord Avon, will refer to it when he replies to the debate; but I did not hear any explanation of why the commission was being wound up. It was set up only fairly recently and this was its first report. Frankly, I regard the decision as a gratuitious insult to the commission, and one which I find very difficult to understand. Are the Government suggesting that there are no other issues to do with energy and the environment which need detailed investigation? Are the Government also saying that sufficient information has been collected so that a national energy policy can be brought forward and debated in this House? The Government really must fully explain why they have stopped the work of the commission.

I should have thought that the quality and importance of the report alone emphasises the case for reactivating the commission. In paragraph 3.41 it is stated: We would see considerable merit in a major study evaluating the risks inherent in a supply orientated policy compared with a policy emphasising efficiency in energy use". There we have a clear indication from the commission itself of the future work that it feels should be undertaken; and it seems to me to make extremely good sense and to be very important. Probably all of us taking part in the debate will want an answer to this point.

I consider that the commission was right (as the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, pointed out) to choose coal as its first major study, since the Royal Commission, in its sixth report, had already dealt with nuclear power. The noble Lord, Lord Flowers, was also the distinguished chairman of that commission, which produced an extraordinarily good and most original report. However, I wonder how the noble Lord the Minister feels about the fact that so many of the recommendations in that report have not yet been implemented and are still awaiting governmental word. Perhaps I should hastily add that all Governments are fairly slow in taking up the recommendations of commissions which they set up, but now there is quite a queue of recommendations, and it is about time that there was done something that is in the interests not only of the commission, but also of the country.

The coal industry, I believe, has been a well-organised and well-run industry, on the whole, and one which plays a vital role in the economic wellbeing of this country; and, of course, it is the base of the many other sources of energy which depend on coal. The job of extracting coal now requires a highly skilled labour force, but one which must still face up to the inherent dangers of mining. The noble Lord, Lord Kearton, drew our attention to the fact that the rate of accidents has gone down, and also the rate of sickness, but, as he rightly said, it is still a highly hazardous industry.

It is a workforce which has experienced severe contractions since the war, and I think it is a workforce to which a tribute is due. It is also a workforce which has to live in the environment in which it works, which is something which is very often forgotten. Unfortunately, we do not need to travel very far in any of our coalfield areas to see the environmental impact that mining has had—and I stress again that miners themselves live in that environment. There is much environmental degradation and blight, which should not be allowed to continue and which most certainly should not be replicated elsewhere.

Much of the dereliction dates back to before nationalisation, and undoubtedly the National Coal Board has done a great deal to improve some of the older mining areas, where the industry is in severe decline. However, much more needs to be done. I welcome the emphasis on high environmental standards in the new coalfields, such as Selby, and the proposed coalfield in the Vale of Belvoir. Although on environmental grounds I think there was a great deal to be said for the decision, it was brought about in rather a curious way.

Unfortunately, the commission, in my view, seems to take the long-term view that the environmental problems of coal-producing areas will gradually be solved as new mines operating to higher standards replace the established mines, which, I am sure we all accept, operate to much lower standards. If this approach is adopted then the established areas will have to continue to accept lower standards for many decades ahead. I think this is really unacceptable from the point of view both of the country as a whole and, even more especially, of those people who are living and working in those areas. I would agree with the Joint Minerals and Reclamation Group that, equal priority must be given to existing as well as new mining areas and resources must be made available to enable the NCB and local authorities to improve standards". Ultimately, of course, the crucial question is one of resources—resources to deal with the disposal of soil, resources to deal with landscaping, resources to deal with the transportation of material and all the other needs concerned with this problem. Ultimately, the principle must be that the polluter pays; but as the National Coal Board is in public ownership, then ultimately the community as a whole must pay so that the benefits it gains from the extraction of coal are not measured in the coalfields by the environmental, social and economic problems which have had to be borne by local communities. As there is a limit to the amount of costs that can be reflected in the increase in coal prices, it comes down once again to the point that the Government have to make funds available so that the real environmental work is done.

The report recommends that an independent regional development agency be set up to deal with derelict land. This is, in some ways, an attractive proposition, but local authorities feel very strongly that as long as money is available they can deal adequately with, for instance, derelict land reclamation without the need to set up an ad hoc body. I rather incline to that view as there is no evidence that the machinery does not work, but there is evidence that it lacks financial fuel. If we take the Welsh Development Agency as a comparison, we have to remember that there is a difference between the two countries. There is also the fact—and this is very important—that whereas here we have two departments, energy and environment, concerned with the problems of energy and environment, in Wales they come under the one department of the Welsh Office. I think that makes a considerable difference. But, obviously, the Government, in conjunction with all the other interests, will have to think about how resources are distributed, and just what priorities should be pursued.

Having said that the grafting on of a further bureaucratic level would not seem to help matters, I think it is very important that if regionalism is introduced in England there should be a new look at this. This then becomes another ball game. But, again, the crucial factor is the financial framework. What is most important in this area, I think, is that there should be predictability and consistency; and it is quite wrong to say that areas like Toxteth, with their urban problems, should have to compete with coal mining areas in order to get grants for their improvement.

I should now like rapidly to move on, briefly, to some of the recommendations contained in this excellent report—and, happily, I shall not refer to all of them, certainly in detail. As I see it, the four main areas are the disposal of spoil, opencast coal, subsidence and transportation. Fortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, gave us a brilliant exposition on coal and the coal industry, so I shall be able to keep my remarks short.

On spoil, all of us are familiar with the typical spoil heaps associated with coal mining, but perhaps we are not always aware of the fact, or remember, that over the next 20 years as much spoil will be generated in some areas as was generated in the past 200 years. My Lords, 200 years, I would have thought, is a long enough period for the industry and for the state to have learned an environmentally and socially more acceptable way of disposing of spoil than simply dumping it on the land, thereby blighting the local environment and destroying thousands of acres of good agricultural land. The emphasis has for far too long been on maximising the production of coal, with little regard for the environmental consequences. I think it has to be said that the National Coal Board has come under relatively little pressure nationally to change the whole basis of its spoil disposal policy, and it has continued with a technology which belongs more to the 18th and 19th centuries rather than the late 20th century.

I was pleased to see that the Flowers Report has initiated some pressure on the Coal Board, and it is important that those concerned should keep the pressure up, both from within industry and within Government and as individuals and as pressure groups. Much more emphasis must be given to the retention of waste material underground and the return of other waste material to the underground workings. This, I am aware, is expensive financially, but it is also cheaper in social costs, and we are always having to balance these two very difficult concepts. I accept that there are technical problems, but technical problems can evolve technical solutions if the will is there.

The Government must require the National Coal Board to perform far more effectively than it has done so far, but, again, it must make resources available. Obviously, spoil will still be brought to the surface and will be kept on the surface. Simply to dump that spoil in the collieries' back yard is about as environmentally acceptable as pouring household waste out of an upper window into the street below. Thank goodness! we have raised our domestic environmental standards: now we want to see industries raising theirs and ensuring, again with Government help, that spoil is taken to places where it can cause the fewest environmental problems and, through the reclamation of places such as the Bedfordshire brickfields, bring the maximum environmental benefits.

On opencast coal, some 15 million tons are produced each year, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Kearton, pointed out, it has a dramatic effect on a local environment for anything up to 12 years and more. It is undoubtedly highly profitable, and serves to subsidise some deep mining. But the report recommends a reduction in the amount of opencasting, and the local authority associations, with others, are also pressing for a phased reduction in production because of the environmental problems.

I think it is now more or less a question of general agreement (or it should be) that opencasting must not be carried on simply because it produces a handsome profit. That profit is made at the expense of areas such as Barnsley which have suffered long from the effects of mining. Where opencast is to take place, I would endorse the recommendation in the report that applications must be considered through the normal democratic planning machinery and not by the present procedures which involve consents being issued by the Secretary of State for Energy. The noble Lord who spoke on behalf of the Government was too modest when he said that he did not feel that he was senior enough to give us the Government's plans—and, in any case, he did not give any plans, although it was all put very elegantly and sounded good. But there were nothing of very much substance. I hope that the noble Lord who will speak for the Department of the Environment when he winds up will express his agreement with some of the points I am making on the environmental side and particularly on the question of using the planning mechanism.

On subsidence, the Joint Minerals and Reclamation Group has called for a more searching review of the procedures. I would endorse that and I believe that the report provides the basis for such a review. Living with the effects of subsidence is something which I think most of us would find difficult to appreciate because when things go bump in the night in places like South Yorkshire or West Yorkshire they can herald sudden and disturbing structural damage to people's homes. The only brief point I would make on transport is the obvious one, that once coal is mined it must be transported. The majority form of transport is by rail or by canal.

The report recommends that, wherever possible, rail should be the chosen means of transport. British Rail have themselves a crucial role to play in this. They have introduced efficient merry-go-round trains for bulk loads travelling on a regular basis. Some concern has been expressed that they are not always perhaps willing or able to transport small loads on a less regular basis. Here we come to the problem from which British Rail themselves suffer as they are highly under-funded and all those things connect together.

In the final analysis we should not lose sight of the balance between the environment and industry and also our responsibility to the miners and to the environment in which they live. I know that the NCB is moving away from the old-fashioned colliery villages and towns and increasingly miners are living in housing estates not dominated by one industry, and the old tied cottage concept is gradually fading away. That must be an improvement which has been paralleled by improvements in pit safety and working conditions. All who live in mining areas, whether employed in the industry or not, deserve a decent quality of life. Between them, local government and the NCB have the ability to improve the environment—and now they need the resources.

The Flowers Committee Report, I would say, has given us a sound basis on which to move forward. Now we must await the Government's response, which I hope will not be long in coming. I was not very encouraged by what the Minister said about getting in the replies because interested bodies were given three months to consider and to respond, and five more months have elapsed since the deadline. We should like to hear from the noble Earl when we can expect to have a definitive and detailed response from the Government, because I do not think that the reply we have had so far has been good enough. When shall we receive a public response from the organisation most directly affected, the National Coal Board?

I would turn to Recommendation No. 22.77 in the report, which concludes that the board has a responsibility to ensure that the best environmental practices available are introduced as appropriate in the day-to-day management of the operation and also that this responsibility be assigned at the appropriate senior level in the board. My last word on this is that, even if the report takes some time to be implemented, as I fear it will, I believe that the commission, by its very work, by the inquiries it held, by the questioning it did, by the journeys and visits it made, has already made a positive impact both on the industry and, I hope, on those most closely concerned with our environment.

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