HL Deb 04 March 1998 vol 586 cc1193-5

2.46 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Durham

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What response they are making to the review of planning policy with regard to opencast coal mining.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, my honourable friend, the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, will be announcing at 3.30 p.m. in another place that the Deputy Prime Minister has taken into account the responses to the consultation on planning policy on opencast coal conducted last year, and the announcement last December by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister of a full review of energy policy. In consultation with his colleagues he has concluded that there should be a full review of Minerals Planning Guidance Note 3 on coal mining and colliery spoil disposal. This will run in conjunction with the present review of energy policy, and will take into account its conclusions. The energy policy will, in turn, take into account the planning issues raised by coal extraction, including the issues on opencast coal dealt with in the 1997 consultation paper.

The Lord Bishop of Durham

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, especially as she has been able to take advantage of the extraordinary coincidence of a government announcement in another place and the tabling of this Question today. However, can the noble Baroness assure the House that the Government's guidelines to the mineral planning authorities will be consistent with their 10-point plan (which they published when in opposition) which stated, among other things, that opencast mining is one of the most environmentally destructive things in the United Kingdom?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the consultation which took place last July showed the Government's commitment to early action and our recognition of the environmental issues which are involved in opencast mining. However, we believe that it is necessary to look at these issues in the round and that we could not approach the problem properly unless we took into account the outcome of the Government's review on energy policy. We believe that the guidance we shall eventually be able to give to mineral planning authorities will be the better and the fuller because of that approach.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that the problem raised by the right reverend Prelate is a real one? However, is she also aware that it is only one of a number of such problems now facing the opencast mining industry? One of those other problems is the position of deep mined coal. Has my noble friend seen a report published last week by Reading University which emphasises not only the need for deep mined coal—coal in the round—but also that it is particularly necessary to have a supply of such coal during the next few years? Having regard to employment in the coal-mining industry, which is by no means dead, does my noble friend accept that I absolutely agree that the full review that she has mentioned must take place?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful for that support for a full review. It is certainly a relevant consideration that opencast coal is at present a significant source of fuel in the UK energy market; about 16 million tonnes a year compared to 33 million tonnes from deep mines. This is a factor that the energy review has to take account of in looking at future energy policies and markets for coal. We in the department are concerned that the land use planning considerations arising from coal extraction will be fully considered in the energy review.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that opencast mining invariably takes place in areas that have had deep mining over the generations? Does she realise that opencast mining has a major detrimental effect on the environment? Does she not feel that priority should now be given to improving the environment in these coal-mining communities, which have suffered so much for so long from the ravages of deep mining?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am aware of those strong concerns about environmental effects. We have to consider sustainable development. Social and community issues also have to be considered, not simply the balance between the economic and the environmental issues. When we published our consultation on a sustainable development strategy on 4th February we recognised that we had to take account of that wider balance. I am sure that is the right approach for the former coal mining areas.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that during my period at the Coal Board opencast mining was regarded as supplementary to deep mining and not a replacement of it? Can we be assured that that policy will be continued by the Government in their forthcoming review?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Lord's comments show exactly why we need a thorough review of energy policy which considers exactly that balance between opencast and deep mined coal and between coal and other forms of energy.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, does the Minister's reply include Scotland? When will we hear more from her right honourable friend about the new policy as regards planning and brownfield sites?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I believe I gave a comprehensive answer as regards planning and brownfield sites and the work that is being taken forward by the task force, chaired by my noble friend Lord Rogers of Riverside, which considers the availability of brownfield sites, when I made a Statement in this House only two weeks ago. As regards Scotland, separate consultation exercises were carried out in England, Scotland and Wales last year on the review of opencast coal planning policy reflecting the different circumstances in each country. The announcement that my honourable friend is to make in another place today relates solely to conclusions in relation to England. My right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales are considering the best way to proceed in the light of responses to their respective consultation exercises.