Open-cast Mining (Leicestershire)
4:39 pm

Photo of David Taylor

David Taylor (North West Leicestershire, Labour)

We move from Leeds, North-West, to North-West Leicestershire, Mr. Hancock. On a point of information, I understand that the debate may now last for 36 minutes; is that correct?

Photo of David Taylor

David Taylor (North West Leicestershire, Labour)

I am pleased and relieved to have secured a debate on the future of open-cast mining in Leicestershire, having requested it for some time. Tenacity is a much underrated virtue in this place.

Rather like the ghost in Dickens's "A Christmas Carol", I shall look at open-cast coal mining past and present, before considering its future. In my part of Leicestershire, 25 May 2006 dawned as a cool, damp morning but rapidly turned into a bleak, black day for the north-west Leicestershire villages of Ravenstone, Packington, Normanton le Heath and my lifetime home, Heather. On that day, the Government announced that they were accepting the planning inquiry inspector's recommendation to overturn a Leicestershire county council refusal of the Long Moor open-cast application to extract around 750,000 tonnes of coal from an attractive, greenfield site surrounded by the four places I mentioned.

The first such planning decision taken in the newly created Department for Communities and Local Government perversely blighted the lives of numerous communities and flew directly in the face of all three tiers of local government, which are totally and vigorously united in their opposition to the plan. I shall try to explain why so many people in the locality are astonished and dismayed.

This is not a case of nimbyism. Our backyard has been actively worked for generations and north-west Leicestershire has been quarried and mined for minerals for centuries. The nation has looked to us for coal, road stone and clay. Mining gave us jobs, shaped our landscape, and produced and named tight-knit communities such as Coalville, but it also created vistas as bleak and desolate as that encountered by Neil Armstrong on 21 July 1969. The American astronauts saw a lunar landscape of the sort that we had endured for many decades prior to their historic flight.

The worst environmental offender in the family of industries linked to the extraction of minerals is open-cast mining. In essence, it is quarrying relatively shallow seams of coal at depths such that colliers of the past had to use deep-mine techniques or leave them unworked. In the 1940s, a great deal of outcrop coal was removed from land in the vicinity of the four villages to which I referred. The impact of those workings is still visible today despite attempts at restoration.

In the early 1970s, the open-casters returned for two huge schemes which removed many million tonnes of coal from the Coalville farm site between Ravenstone and Heather and operating within 120 yd of my home for much of that time. The latter site was ultimately restored as the Sence valley forest park and locals were beginning to hope that the days of open-casting were over at long last. However, like a half-forgotten comet on a 30-year orbit, the shadow of planet open-cast returned in the new millennium. Its gloom engulfed the mosaic of fields, hedges and trees running up to Normanton wood, under which lie 8 million tonnes of coal.

We tolerated such strip mining 60 years ago because our nation needed energy to rebuild an economy and a society stricken by war. We endured it under duress and with protest in the 1970s as a life support for a declining deep-mine industry which has, I am sad to say, virtually expired. However, enough was enough. The case against Long Moor was irrefutable and we thought that in our fight we had the support of the newly elected Labour Government, because in the long run-up to the 1997 general election my party—our party—had rightly identified open-casting as a key issue in numerous marginal constituencies in the English midlands and Yorkshire.

Our then environment spokesman, my right hon. Friend Frank Dobson, produced a new policy paper entitled "Open Cast Coal Mining—Too High a Price" in late 1996, which contained a bleak but accurate description of the effect of open-casting on the environment and local communities. That welcome document promised that, if elected, a Labour Government would revise the relevant planning framework for such applications—minerals planning guidance 3. That overdue manifesto on open-cast mining incorporated a 10-point plan for reducing its impact and promised that an incoming Labour Government would, inter alia, prohibit open-cast working, except when it was of benefit to the local community and local environment, allow rejection of open-cast applications which prejudiced efforts to attract local investment, restrict repeated applications for development of broadly similar sites or extensions of existing workings, require any future consents to set strict and more enforceable environmental standards and, finally and centrally, reduce the national reliance on open-cast as part of our overall energy policy. So far so good, although a few problems did start to emerge.

There was predictable hostility from sections of the now privatised mining industry. Some minerals planning authorities predicted difficulties with fashioning a new MPG3. Even the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr. Blair, began to soft pedal on open-cast controversies in his own patch. Nevertheless, there was optimism in the heady early days after 1 May 1997 that the Dobson plan could be made to work. The newly fashioned Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions published its consultation paper on planning guidance for open-cast coal applications in late July. I shall fast forward over a long period of intense lobbying.

The revised version of MPG3 for England was eventually published in March 1999. It was a dilution of the 10-point programme promised to communities threatened by open-cast proposals in Leicestershire, Derbyshire and elsewhere, but it tightened controls and made concessions to long-term opponents of open-cast, such as me. The key changes, to which I shall return shortly, were that the need for sustainable development was stressed, as was a presumption against development unless the application satisfied a number of tests, the key one being: is the proposal environmentally acceptable or can it be made so by planning conditions or obligations and, if not, does it provide local or community benefits that clearly outweigh the likely impacts?

It seemed to me then, as it does now, that the changes were adequate to allow local planning authorities, without fear of lost appeals, to refuse open-cast coal applications on greenfield sites, especially as decisions can reflect the cumulative effects of adverse consequences in areas like north-west Leicestershire, which has long endured surface coal extraction.

Let me summarise the history of the application that I plan to describe in a moment. British Coal had sought permission in 1990 for the whole of the enormous Coalville West site with 8 million tonnes of open-cast coal lying between the post-war excavations near Packington and 1970s, 1980s and 1990s workings in Heather and Ravenstone, all of which were eventually restored in 1995. That proposal was seen off by a huge tidal wave of opposition, led magnificently by a local protest group, Fight Open Cast in Leicestershire—FOIL—to whose work I regularly and sincerely pay admiring tribute.

A later, smaller Thorntree application in the same area by RJB Mining for 5 million tonnes of coal over six years from 500 acres was also rejected after a long community campaign in 1998. In late 2003, along came UK Coal with an even smaller proposal, seductively entitled Long Moor. This was an application to take out in just three years a small amount of coal, 725,000 tonnes, from a site of only 175 acres. I am, of course, speaking ironically. It gave a commitment that when the site was finished and restored with extra woodland, wetland and grassland—who would not want to visit that?—UK Coal would go away and never return.

The county council refused the application in July 2004 as it said that it would have

"an unacceptable cumulative environmental impact which would adversely affect those who live, work and pursue leisure activities in the area"

which

"would not be outweighed by the benefits the proposals would bring".

The final phrase was crucial. UK Coal appealed in that November and a public inquiry was held at Snibston discovery park, Coalville last autumn. Time is not available this afternoon, nor is this the appropriate place, to cover in any detail the powerful case against Long Moor made by FOIL, Ravenstone open-cast opposition group, parish councils, villagers like myself and Leicestershire county council. However, I shall give a brief outline in an attempt to demonstrate that our Government's new criteria for refusal of open-cast coal applications were amply met.

Our four villages lie within the 200 square miles of the National forest, which has for 10 years been a major driver for environmental restoration and economic regeneration in a large part of the east and west midlands. Much of the land in and around the site is in active agricultural use and is overlaid by a network of mature hedgerows, copses and dense woodland. No wonder so many local people value their recreation on those quiet rural byways. This is not brownfield land crying out for restoration; it is an area of green fields crying out to be left alone.

There is a real fear that Long Moor will accelerate the return of the stigma linked to a century and more of mining and minerals working, which would slow and probably put into reverse the positive changes and improvements that we have recently experienced. There is anxiety about the health risks associated with the extra noise, dust and traffic. They will have a major impact on Ravenstone, and especially nearby Woodstone primary school, which opened just a few days ago and lies downwind of Long Moor. There is concern that the site will threaten important local businesses involved in horticultural production, as they are vulnerable to the dust cocktail that open-casting tends to generate. The headline in the Leicester Mercury just a day or two ago said "Opencast mine will ruin our businesses".

There is no special need for such coal, which the inquiry heard was of a poor quality. It is clear that the tonnage projected is too small to be an important national benefit, significant to the coal-trade balance or essential to industry. A coal-fired power station would burn the four years' production of that site in as many weeks. The site would be loss-making, and it would weaken the already imperilled UK Coal with major implications for operational performance, completion and final restoration.

I have thought about this issue a lot, and the only commercial motive for the site must be a covert expectation that planning attrition in 2010 or beyond will lead to successive phases of work, so that salami-slicing of the adjacent Coalfield West reserves to the south will generate profits to justify the substantial infrastructure costs that Long Moor cannot in any way fund. The site will not generate profits, and it will certainly not pay for overheads.

I am concerned about news that I received today. The July issue of Coal UK refers to a round table meeting organised by the Department for Trade and Industry for representatives of the open-cast coal industry. I hope that it is not part of a process to soften up the Government, especially in relation to MPG3. The journal seemed to take the line that the industry will have a chance to encourage local councils to be grown up about open-casting. Grown up about open-casting? I have grown up surrounded by open-casting. All my life there has been open-casting in my area, so I do not need any encouragement from the coal producers to be grown up about it.

As we heard in the Chamber from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry yesterday, we need secure, sustainable and clean energy in this country. Moreover, with the vast majority of dirty power generators being coal-fired power stations, local authorities and, by extension, planning inspectors and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, ought to have particular regard for policy planning statement 1, 2005, which, in paragraph 13(ii) of its key principles, states:

"Regional planning bodies and local planning authorities should ensure that development plans contribute to global sustainability by addressing the causes and potential impacts of climate change".

I look forward to hearing the Minister reply to that.

PPS1 should lead inexorably to the rejection of the vast majority of open-cast applications, as the democratic means of processing applications will ensure that any open-cast application offering immense economic and other benefits to the local community—that community being supportive—could still be given the green light. Paragraph 41 of PPS1 makes it abundantly clear that a key principle of sustainable development is to

"involve the community in developing the vision for its area."

Returning to Long Moor, in the two years between published application and public inquiry, there was as remarkable a cross-party and cross-community display of unity, energy and determination to defeat the application as I have seen in more than 35 years of public life. Our collective vision for the area did not and could not embrace the reintroduction of such a damaging activity as open-cast coal mining, the effects of whose impacts are being overcome only now, many years later. If that is not cumulative and unacceptable adverse impacts, what on earth is?

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Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley, Labour)

I understand my hon. Friend's despair at the decision, which I shared, having heard about it just a week before the summing up of a similar application by UK Coal for the Lodge House site in my constituency. We still await the decision, and as nobody but UK Coal thinks it should go ahead, I still have hope.

Did my hon. Friend make the argument about the cumulative impacts on his area, and the despair and horror felt by people who have experienced them time and again? In one case in my area, they have been experienced for 50 years, on and off. Does he share my concern at what seems to be a misinterpretation by the inspector of paragraph 18 of MPG3 about the way in which cumulative impacts should be taken into account?

Photo of David Taylor

David Taylor (North West Leicestershire, Labour)

I certainly share my hon. Friend's concerns. I regret to say that I reach my 60th birthday on 22 August. I have lived in the same village all my life, and in all that time, my village has had contact with active or fairly recent open-casting. We know what open-casting is about, and it is cumulative and unacceptable in every sense.

In light of the Long Moor effects that I have described, UK Coal's proposal would have had to offer some extraordinary incentives to the local area to receive planning approval from the minerals planning authority or the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on appeal. It manifestly did not, so within the revised guidelines, it had to be rejected. Incredibly, it was not, which brings me full circle to my opening remarks.

It is now 48 days since the recommendations of the inquiry inspector and the Government's tame acceptance of them dropped on to local doormats and into e-mail inboxes. I am still as baffled now as I was then how the chief inspector should have so readily bought UK Coal's specious arguments, swallowed its flimsy case whole and so lightly set aside the tightened framework for dealing with such applications which, as I have tried to describe, was assembled with such care in the run up to and after 1997. She set at naught local concerns. There was no rhyme, reason or rationale in the inspector's astonishing decision. It was sloppy and it verged on the incompetent. It was utterly detached from the clear environmental manifesto on which our Labour Government were elected in 1997, and from the subsequent planning and regulatory regimes that we have put in place to implement those commitments and policies.

It is now 48 hours since I started to research this speech, and in that time I have reflected a great deal on the role of Ministers, who must of course take the final responsibility for what has happened. I hope that whoever lifted the application out of their red box fully understood the policy background to that complex and crucial planning decision and knew about the precedent being set. I hope that it does not influence the decision in Amber Valley, just a few miles to the north of my constituency. I hope also that the Minister concerned appreciated the importance of the matter to communities in English coal mining areas. In Wales and Scotland, it is a devolved matter.

If the decision was signed off in haste or without proper consideration, the Department for Communities and Local Government must be held to account for a deeply depressing rejection of the views of rural communities and the apparently casual disregard of the local government system that represents them and exists to protect them. Communities and local government are the raison d'être of the new Department, and it seems as if that raison d'être has been forgotten.

I shall finally say a word or two about the performance of Leicestershire county council. I should state that I am a former employee of the authority pre-1997, although not in planning. For the care with which it consulted the community, the professionalism of its assessment of a lengthy and complicated proposal and the robustness of its submission at the inquiry, it deserves the highest commendation. At the inquiry, the concept of cumulative impact was at the core of every day's evidence from every witness. I am glad that the council has taken the Department to judicial review. If the council is successful, the Department must take note, so that future greenfield open-casting in Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire and elsewhere will finally be laid to rest.

4:58 pm
Photo of Malcolm Wicks

Malcolm Wicks (Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry; Croydon North, Labour)

I congratulate my hon. Friend David Taylor on securing the debate. I should like to take this opportunity to assure colleagues once again that the Government firmly believe that access to a range of energy sources is essential to ensure security of supply. There will be a continuing role for coal in meeting our energy needs for years to come, provided that its potential environmental impacts can be managed satisfactorily.

We also believe that there is a future role for UK-produced coal in meeting our total coal needs. This country still has substantial coal reserves, and they represent an important national asset that we must put to optimum use. However, we have to face facts: coal, like every other mineral, can be exploited only where it is found. For that reason, we must strike the right balance between the legitimate interests of the coal producers, the potential environmental impacts of development and the needs of the community in the immediate area and at national level. That is not always an easy balance to strike, of course. It is true both of coal at depth, suitable for underground mining or coal gasification, and of shallow reserves suitable only for surface working.

That is not to say that all coal must be worked at all costs or regardless of the impact on local communities. The planning guidance for England clearly states that unless development proposals are environmentally acceptable, can be made so through conditions or offer compensatory benefits there should be a presumption against approval being granted. Similar guidance is in place in Scotland and is expected shortly, I am advised, in Wales.

All applications for new underground or surface mines must be assessed against those guidelines and those that meet them should be approved. I am unable to comment on the specific application that affects my hon. Friend's constituents, but I understand—and it has been confirmed today—that it has been considered through the full planning process, including a public inquiry and an inspector's report, which the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government accepted, and that it is now the subject of a challenge in the High Court through judicial review.

I understand that the application is for permission to work some 725,000 tonnes of coal from the site. [Interruption.] Coaling is expected to take about two and a half years out of a total site life of about four years, to be followed by a further period of management of the restored site. Previous unsuccessful applications, which related to areas that include the smaller site that has now been approved, were made in 1990, 1992 and 1997. [Interruption.] The last two were permissions to work 4.8 million and 5.3 million tonnes of coal respectively over a site life of six years. There are other unworked coal reserves in the county.

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Malcolm Wicks (Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry; Croydon North, Labour)

I get the impression that my hon. Friend does not agree with all my facts, and so I shall give him the opportunity to speak.

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David Taylor (North West Leicestershire, Labour)

I said all that in my speech. It would be useful to all present if the Minister could focus on the Government's attitude rather than facts that I have already mentioned.

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Malcolm Wicks (Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry; Croydon North, Labour)

My hon. Friend gave his speech, and I hope that he will allow me to give mine.

The Government have demonstrated their support for the coal industry by making more than £200,000 available in coal aid since 2000. Some £18 million of that was paid to surface mine operators under the UK coal operating aid scheme to cover production losses during 2001 and 2002. No surface mine has benefited from coal investment aid. Despite that support, the total UK output fell by 18 per cent. in 2005 to 20 million tonnes of coal. That included deep mine production of 9.5 million tonnes, of which 9 million tonnes were produced at English mines, and surface mine production of 10.4 million tonnes, of which only 1.5 million tonnes were produced in England. Leicestershire's contribution was a little under 95,000 tonnes of surface-mined coal, down from 412,000 tonnes in 2004 and almost 600,000 tonnes in 2003. Some 50 direct mining jobs have already been lost in the county as a result of that decline. The 2005 output was from a site which is due to close in October this year with the potential loss of a further 22 jobs.

The main customers for all UK coal production are the coal-fired generators. They consistently stress the importance of reliability of supplies in contract negotiations, but deep mining is inherently higher risk, because of the potential geological and technological problems, and the assurance of steady production from surface sites is vital to give the generators confidence that UK production can continue to help to meet their needs. That is why it is important for everyone with the best interests of the UK coal industry at heart to recognise that the deep and surface mine sectors are not in competition and that they need each other to maintain the critical mass of the industry and to secure its future.

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Malcolm Wicks (Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry; Croydon North, Labour)

I will let my hon. Friend tell me in a moment why I have it wrong, if he will let me continue for a while.

I have already reiterated the Government's belief that there will be a continuing role for coal in meeting our energy needs, particularly as cleaner generating technologies come on stream, and that UK-produced coal—deep and surface mined—can continue to play a part in meeting national coal demand, provided that it can be worked in an acceptable manner.

I understand my hon. Friend's frustration, but I have been trying to set out something of a national context to balance the arguments and to try to reflect the views of those who hope for a future for British indigenous coal, as the energy review reiterated yesterday. I can understand, too, why he would be frustrated, but given that the planning controversy is now subject to judicial review in the High Court it would not be right for me to comment on the rights or wrongs of the case or of any other planning controversy. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that.

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David Taylor (North West Leicestershire, Labour)

I understand perfectly well that the Minister will not be able to comment on the planning merits or otherwise of the Long Moor application. However, when he says that open-casting is an important economic contributor to employment, does he recognise that the presence of an open-cast site in the vicinity of an area that is being restored environmentally and rebuilt economically can be a hurdle and a weight around the neck when it comes to trying to attract new firms with high-tech, highly skilled and highly waged jobs? They will look at a despoiled area that has been wasted by minerals working. Open-cast mining has a net negative effect on the local economy.

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Malcolm Wicks (Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry; Croydon North, Labour)

I recognise that there have been job losses in the county as a result of closures, which will be of concern to my hon. Friend. I also recognise, of course—it is plain common sense—that with any plans for any community or area, the pros and cons of different industries can be argued in terms of the impact on the labour market and job opportunities. I hear what he has said, and it is his constituency and not mine. There can be different uses for any area, and one use might help or hinder other job opportunities and economic development. I understand that.

I reiterate the point that it would not be right for me to comment on the particular proposal. It is actually a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government and not my Department, the Department of Trade and Industry—I think that I am answering this debate because of the coal mining issues. I am at pains to say that if we are serious about British indigenous coal having a future, there has to be some balance between deep mining and surface mining, but that it is not for me to make a judgment about whether it is appropriate in the hon. Gentleman's constituency or not.

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Colin Burgon (Elmet, Labour)

I am aware after reading Coal UK that the Department has scheduled a meeting with open-cast coaling companies later this month. Will the Minister assure us, as this might cause wider reverberation on the Labour Benches, that there will be no slipping away of support from MPG3? Many of us are engaged in a struggle to implement it and if we see any backsliding by our Government on the issue, we will be—how shall I put this?—severely disappointed.

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Malcolm Wicks (Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry; Croydon North, Labour)

I assure my hon. Friend that we are trying to strike the proper balances. I am not quite sure exactly what that meeting will entail, but we meet a wide variety of energy interests and hear a variety of views about surface mining, its future and its non-future. That is as far as I can go. There are no plans to change the policy and the practice.

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David Taylor (North West Leicestershire, Labour)

The Minister is being most generous in giving way, and he knows that I genuinely hold him in the highest regard in his departmental role. On the Floor of the House yesterday, I acknowledged the welcome role for coal that the Secretary of State spelled out in his statement, but I said that, in the long time frame for the investment needed for carbon-capturing clean coal, a greater role for coal in generation is likely to be dealt with only through the expansion of imports and of open-cast mining, the second of which is unacceptable to local communities.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks

Malcolm Wicks (Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry; Croydon North, Labour)

That, of course, has been the burden of my hon. Friend's remarks. The question is whether it is unacceptable in the wider economy and among all local communities. The figures that I have given, not least for Scotland, show that surface mining now plays a significant part. We have to get the balance right. I am not talking about Leicestershire, as I have been at pains to stress, but we have to get the balance right if we are serious—I think we want to be serious—about British indigenous coal having a future.

The other challenge with the energy infrastructure, whether it is onshore or offshore wind farms, future power stations, or even the infrastructure that we might need for carbon capture and storage, is to have a body of Members of Parliament who will agree to things and not simply object to them. My role in such debates is often to hear objections to wind farms or whatever it might be, but if we are to have the necessary energy supplies we must think through the investment needed in Great Britain as a whole. That is not a comment about surface mining or about Leicestershire, it is a general comment.

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Malcolm Wicks (Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry; Croydon North, Labour)

Does my hon. Friend want to have another go?

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Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South, Liberal Democrat)

Order. I take it that this is an intervention and not another go.

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David Taylor (North West Leicestershire, Labour)

It is an intervention.

I said earlier that this is not a matter of nimbyism. North-West Leicestershire has produced hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal over a lengthy period. In north-east Leicestershire, there remain 800 million tonnes of coal, which I hope will be extracted by a technology that we do not yet fully comprehend. No one is trying to avoid making a contribution towards the national need for energy, but open-cast mining in greenfield locations, unless it is to do with the restoration of previously despoiled sites, is unacceptable, particularly for places such as Long Moor.

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Malcolm Wicks (Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry; Croydon North, Labour)

I do not know why I should have confused an intervention with having a go.

Photo of Mike Hancock

Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South, Liberal Democrat)

You invited him to do so.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks

Malcolm Wicks (Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry; Croydon North, Labour)

Quite so. It was a mistake, Mr. Hancock, and I apologise.

We have had a reasonable debate. I understand my hon. Friend's strength of feeling and that of his colleagues. I hope that they appreciate my difficulty, but I cannot comment directly on the case.

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Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley, Labour)

Do I take it from what the Minister said earlier that at the meeting that he is to have with the open-cast companies he will reassert that MPG3 remains the Government's policy?

Photo of Malcolm Wicks

Malcolm Wicks (Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry; Croydon North, Labour)

I do not quite know what that meeting is about. I shall probably attend. Perhaps I can write to colleagues about that meeting. As for the matter before the House, no changes have been planned. I hope that with that reassurance we can draw the debate to a conclusion.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Five o'clock.