HL Deb 04 July 1994 vol 556 cc987-9

2.51 p.m.

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether any of the reserves at the prospective opencast sites included in the portfolios for the proposed regional coal companies have previously been the subject of unsuccessful planning applications for opencast coal mining.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Strathclyde)

My Lords, there are some sites where planning applications have been unsuccessful and that has been made clear to potential bidders. Planning permission will remain a matter for the planning authorities.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Are those sites being sold on the understanding that in the future a different approach may be taken to environmental standards on the sites? Can the Minister reassure us that environmental standards are not in any way to be weakened in order to achieve a better price when the sites go on the market?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I hope that I can reassure the noble Baroness by confirming that there is no intention or desire to reduce the amount of environmental protection. In my Answer I said that planning permission is a responsibility of the planning authorities and it is up to them to make decisions. It will still be possible to devise acceptable proposals for mining even though in the past planning permission was rejected. It will be up to the bidders to decide on the basis of the information provided.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the coalfield communities will once again suffer because of the planning expansion of opencast coal mining? It is the worst polluter in the land with noise, dust and the blighting of property. I wish to ask two specific questions. First, what is the extent of the opencast reserves offered for sale in the five regional portfolios under privatisation? Secondly, what is the total annual tonnage allowed by government legislation?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I shall not follow the noble Lord into a debate on whether or not the opencast industry is the worst polluter of all time. I understand his anxiety, which is why we make sure that planning authorities have the final say. They can impose all sorts of conditions on the expansion of opencast mining. There are 110 opencast sites across the five regions. I cannot tell the noble Lord what the tonnage may be. The amount extracted will depend either on planning permission or on the free market.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, if, through the lack of the prospect of a good financial return, some of the sites are not wanted, and bearing in mind the scarring of large areas of the country by slagheaps from earlier coalmines, will the Minister undertake to ensure that, if the sites need to be landscaped to remove the eyesores, the cost will not fall on the communities in which they are situated? It cost the people of Lancashire, Yorkshire, North Wales and the Midlands an enormous amount to remove some of the scars left by previous private mine owners.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that in the privatisation process there is a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to make sure that those taking part in the privatised coal industry are financially viable, and therefore the anxieties mentioned by the noble Lord will not arise.

Baroness David

My Lords, can the Minister say why the memorandum issued by the Government was compiled by Rothschild without any consultation with the mineral planning authorities? They are still unaware of the extent of what is on offer.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, any mineral planning authority with a specific problem can write to the Department of Trade and Industry, which no doubt will be extremely helpful.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the mineral planning authorities are extremely puzzled about where the opencast reserves may be? Instead of asking them to write to him, can he say on behalf of the Government when and how he will let them know?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, perhaps I can reconfirm that there is no question of pre-empting the planning process. It is a difficult question to answer— where will planning permission be requested?—when we have not yet decided to whom we shall sell the rights to the coal. That is a question which must be decided by the private buyers.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, perhaps the Minister can give me an answer. I must be a very simple person. I thought we were closing down the coal mines —the pits—because we did not need the coal. If we do not need the mine coal, why do we need opencast coal?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the noble Baroness is not a simple person and has shown her wisdom on several occasions. We believe that the best future for the coal industry is in private sector hands. We accept that there is substantial potential for opencast mining; but it must be for the private buyers, the shareholders and the market to decide from where the coal should come.