The subject that we are about to discuss concerns the National Coal Board's proposals for the working of an opencast site at Atherton, in Greater Manchester.
Before discussing this matter, I should mention that I have received a note from my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper), whose constituency is adjacent to mine, saying that he wishes to be associated with what I have to say because he fears that part of his area will suffer environmentally if the work proceeds.
The proposed site is fairly substantial. It involves 188 acres, and the NCB reckons that it can get 567,000 tons of reasonable quality coal from this site. The area is bounded by three schools. a church, a brand new leisure centre and private houses.
At the time the local authority wrote to the Minister and said that it would like him to receive a deputation. I did likewise. I wrote to the Secretary of State and received a reply from the Under-Secretary saying that he was responsible in matters of coal fuel and that he would be pleased to see me, provided that we did not discuss the Atherton opencast site. I began to wonder what in God's name we would discuss if that was not it. Anyway, I was given an assurance that I could discuss opencast mining in a general way, but not this particular site. In the circumstances, I let him know that I thought that I should be wasting his time and certainly my own.
The inspector who conducted the inquiry reported:
I recommend that the application for an authorisation, as submitted, should be refused.
The Secretary of State turned down his inspector's recommendation on the ground
that it was "in the national interest" that the coal should be worked. The argument that something is "in the national interest" can be used at any time on any subject by almost any Minister.
There was a bit of lambasting in Press headlines when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State turned down the inspector's report. Great play was made of my right hon. Friend's name. That was regrettable, because the issue is too important to be brought down to a matter of petty personalities of the people involved. But it is difficult for the local people to understand when my right hon. Friend says that after careful study, taking into account the effect on amenity and the environment, the dust, noise and general inconvenience, he has decided that it is in the national interest that the coal should be worked.
Considering all this and the alleged urgency of the need to get the coal, I find it ironic that a few years ago a deep mine within three or four miles of the site, the Mosley Common colliery, was closed by the National Coal Board after the board had put in an additional £10 million for development of the pit. It was claimed at the time to be one of the most modern pits in Europe. Now we have come to scraping the surface.
It was stressed in the Board's case to the inquiry that it was an important factor that coal production in my area was sufficient only to satisfy about half the local demand, having regard to power stations and so on. I find this a novel approach. It has great possibilities, if every area in the country is to have to be self-sufficient in coal production. I imagine that it would cause a bit of a row around Hampstead Heath and some of the other more salubrious areas where people do not know what a coal mine looks like, certainly not what opencast mining looks like.
But Atherton does not have a Hampstead Heath. That is part of the trouble, which my hon. Friend the Minister does not seem to appreciate. Atherton is simply a very small, very confined, rural area. That is why local opinion is so shocked, why people are so angry at my right hon. Friend's seeming disregard of their environment, of their views and the recommendation of the inspector who heard the evidence. There is very strong feeling up there about the matter.
When the NCB's representative said at the inquiry that the area was now capable only of producing roughly half of the local requirements, it is a pity the Board was not gracious enough to give the reasons. This area of South Lancashire has traditionally been one of the major coalfields in the country. Two substantial pits remain. All the other pits have been closed, because the coal is worked out, because there is neither coal nor profit there.
Many of the old people of today have lived in the area since they were youngsters, seeing the pithead gear, seeing the effects of getting coal from underneath the earth. Now that the Board is to scrape it off the top it is not at all surprising that those people are very angry. People in the district have paid the price of living in a coalfield. They have lived in dereliction and with subsidence the whole of their lives. It is little wonder there is anger.
If my right hon. Friend wants to prove his words that people's opinions matter, that democracy works, let him review his decision in the light of the unanimous local objection to this opencast project.
I have one final point to make concerning this site and any future site. I understand that it is the NCB's intention to work several other sites in South Lancashire.
This is not a petty matter to be reduced to the level of personalities. It is a serious subject. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would not allow my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to discuss with me the Atherton site. I was horrified when I found later that neither would he allow the deputation that had come down especially from the metropolitan borough of Wigan to discuss it. I called off my interview, although I had sought it. The Secretary of State's case apparently was that the case was sub judice.
Are we to be asked to believe that the Minister read the inspector's report with complete detachment? I can tell him, as my constituents will tell him, that that is a load of rubbish. I say that for this reason. The report "Coal for the Future" concernes the tripartite arrangement. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote the foreword.
He is also the chairman of the Tripartite Group. Apart from the Department, it includes representatives of the NCB and the National Union of Mineworkers. The arrangement is a laudable one and I applaud it, but my right hon. Friend's direct involvement in it means that he has a constitutional relationship with the NCB and he must therefore be disqualified from claiming to exercise an independent judgment. He cannot clothe himself with a white sheet and say that his man must not talk about the subject. So much for that attitude, but it kills off the Secretary of State's right to make a judgment on matters of this description.
Mr. Bernard Conlon:
Does my hon. Friend accept that the point that he is making so forcefully, although focused on Atherton in Lancashire, affects many other areas where this type of mining is to be pursued? Does he agree that, unless the cogent case that he is making is accepted, there will be many more objections of this kind?
I am glad to have my hon. Friend's intervention. That is precisely the point I am making, precisely why I say that this is more than a petty point made into headlines criticising my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I criticise my right hon. Friend for different reasons. This situation is probably not his fault, but it ought to be changed. I believe that his decision in this case has done irreparable damage to public inquiries into coal matters throughout the country. It is because I feel so seriously about it that I propose taking up my complaint with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
Before I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Boardman) into a discussion of the Millers Lane site and other aspects of his speech, I should like to say something about opencast mining in general. I should congratulate my hon. Friend on his enterprise and initiative in instituting this debate. He is one of the most experienced parliamentarians in the House.
The House will recall the Tripartite Group that we set up for the coal industry comprising representatives of the Government, the National Coal Board and the mining unions. In 1974 the group endorsed the general strategy of the Board's "Plan for Coal" with a total output of 135 million tons a year by 1985.
Within that we endorsed the Board's aim to expand opencast coal production from just over 10 million tons a year to 15 million tons within about four years. In the latest Tripartite Group report, "Coal for the Future", published in February last year, the target was maintained at 15 million tons a year, and it was reiterated in the Green Paper on Energy Policy which my right hon. Friend presented to the House last month.
In other words, it still remains Government policy to expand opencast coal output to 15 million tons a year, although, because of various difficulties, it now looks as if that will not be possible until towards 1985. Production last year was 11·3 million tons, and for the current year it is estimated at about 12·7 million tons.
Since the average size of opencast sites is fairly constant, in order to maintain this rate of production new sites must continually be found to replace those becoming worked out, and if production is to be increased to 15 million tons a year, the Board needs to begin more sites each year than those which are exhausted.
Obviously, coal can be worked only where it is found. This means, in general, that opencast sites have to be located in areas where mining has taken place in the past or is now in progress.
At present, sites are being worked in all the coalfield areas. Indeed, some 12 applications are under consideration for sites in Cumbria, Northumberland, West Yorkshire, Durham, Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire, in addition to three sites in Wales and two in Scotland, so there is no question of the Greater Manchester area—or, indeed, any other area—being singled out for a disproportionate amount of opencast mining.
In the early days, much of the work could be confined to areas of dereliction which were considerably improved when they were restored after the coal had been worked. Hon. Members will know of many such sites. However, this type of site is becoming less and less available, although many sites still contain some dereliction which is cleared during the operations.
The procedures for dealing with applications for authorisation to work opencast sites are set out in the Opencast Coal Act 1958.
If the local planning authorities or the owners, occupiers or lessees of the land comprising a site object, my right hon. Friend is required to have a public inquiry. In other cases, he has discretion to have one if he thinks it desirable. In recent years the number of public inquiries held has increased significantly. It is normal for an inspector from the Department of the Environment's housing and planning inspectorate to be appointed to hold a public inquiry.
There is some misconception about the purpose of a public inquiry. At the inquiry the applicants and the objectors are given full opportunity to make their cases for and against the application and to cross-examine each other on the arguments. In other words, the aim is to elicit all the facts and the arguments and to provide an opportunity for them to be challenged and tested. It is the inspector's job to bring out the facts and the arguments and to report them, with any recommendations he may wish to make, to my right hon. Friend. I must emphasise that it is not the inspector's job to act as an arbitrator or judge.
When he receives the inspector's report, it is my right hon. Friend's responsibility, against the background of Government policy, to decide the case in the light of his assessment of the issues brought out in the report and of the inspector's recommendations, if any. But inspectors are not infallible, and my right hon. Friend certainly does not have to accept their recommendations, any more than the Secretary of State for the Environment necessarily has to accept the recommendations of the inspectors he appoints to hold ordinary planning inquiries.
I am sometimes asked to stop the Board applying for authorisations in areas which have suffered for many years from the effects of mining and other industrial development. But there is no statutory power to do this. The Board is fully entitled to submit any applications it wishes, and my right hon. Friend has to consider them and make a decision. I can assure the House that he takes fully into account any objection based on environmental and amenity damage caused by previous operations before reaching a decision.
Coming from the area I do, I am deeply conscious of the environmental consequences of mining operations. The statutes—the Opencast Coal Act 1958 and the Countryside Act 1968—require that the desirability of preserving natural beauty and various other features must be taken into account when applications for opencast authorisations are being considered.
But the Government also have a responsibility to ensure that the required coal production is available. The problem of weighing the one against the other—the national need against the local damage—is often an extremely difficult one. I can assure the House that no one in my Department takes this lightly. We are all fully aware of our responsibilities. But inevitably decisions sometimes have to be made which one or other of the parties concerned find it hard to take—or to understand.
However, if an authorisation is granted conditions are always imposed to ensure that the adverse effects of the operations on local residents and on their environment and amenities are kept to the absolute minimum and to ensure the satisfactory restoration of the site after coal working has ceased. These conditions are agreed with the Department of the Environment and with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. They also provide for consultation with local planning authorities on various aspects of the working and restoration programme.
I think that some hon. Members who remember opencast coal workings from many years ago would be very pleasantly surprised at the development that has taken place in the ability to work a site with the minimum of local disturbance and to restore sites to an equal, or often a better, state than they were to begin with. It is remarkable how few complaints arise once people have realised how things are managed these days.
I now turn to the Millers Lane site. The National Coal Board applied in December 1976 for an authorisation to work this site. Written objections were made by the Greater Manchester Council, Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council, the Atherton Labour Party., the Atherton Millers Lane Opencast Mining Action Group and nine individuals. A public inquiry was held in June 1977.
I hope that my hon. Friend has had time to glance—if only very briefly—through the copies of the decision letter and the inspector's report which I sent him earlier today. They will give him some idea of how exhaustively the issues were canvassed.
In brief, the National Coal Board's case was that the 567,000 tons of coal in the site was needed towards the 15 million ton target. There was a particular local need in that local production was only sufficient to meet about half the local demand and the rest had to be shipped from Yorkshire and the Midlands, mostly for use in power stations. If the site was not authorised, no alternatives could take its place. The value of the coal at current prices would be £13½ million. The equivalent cost of imported oil would be £18 million. It would not be a substitute for deep-mined coal.
The various objectors said that the area had suffered considerably from past mining activities, and that the programme of opencast operations envisaged in the Wigan area over the next two to three years was unacceptable in a densely populated area. They said that there would be no need for any opencast coal output if the Board met its deep-mine production targets. They were concerned about the adverse effects the proposals would have on houses, schools and recreational facilities adjacent to the site through dirt, dust, noise and visual intrusion and about the despoliation of the limited rural countryside and recreational facilities in the district, the loss of footpaths and the devaluation of properties for up to five years. Opencast working would discourage permanent industrial development in the area and would have adverse effects on the safety, health and welfare of the local community.
The inspector concluded that the basic issue was whether the need for the coal outweighed the serious amenity and environmental objections to the proposed workings. He recognised the local regional need for more coal and that the coal in the site would make a valuable contribution to national coal production. But he suggested that since the target date for attaining the 15 million tons objective had receded there appeared to be no great urgency in this matter. He also suggested that the NCB might be able to find other sites to replace Millers Lane involving far less amenity and environmental objection.
The inspector said he was unable, therefore, to assess the relative advantage to the nation of working the coal compared with the amenity and environmental objections to the proposals. Nevertheless, he recommended refusal of the application as submitted, though acknowledging that it might be considered necessary in the national and regional interests to grant an authorisation for the site.
I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend and I gave very careful consideration to all these arguments. We agreed with the inspector that the coal in the site would make a valuable contribution to the 15 million tons a year target to meeting local regional needs. However, we could not agree that there was no great urgency in the need for more sites, and the inspector's conclusion that the Board might find alternative sites with less environmental and amenity objection did not answer the proposition that this site was essential to the achievement of the 15 million tons a year target since, even if such sites were to become available, they would not be able actually to produce the coal over the same time scale.
For these reasons my right hon. Friend took the view that, in reaching his conclusions and recommendations, the inspector had not assigned full weight to the case for working the site.
However, on the opposite side of the balance, we noted the inspector's suggestion that if the northern boundary of the site was taken further away from the built-up area and moved to the south side of the disused railway embankment which runs across the site from east to west—that is to say, to the opposite side of the embankment from the houses and schools—it would achieve a substantial amelioration of the environmental and amenity damage, although it appeared that this would cause great difficulties in working the site.
The Secretary of State, therefore, after weighing all these factors very carefully, came to the conclusion that the balance of advantage lay in favour of authorisation on that basis.
With the application of our normal stringent planning conditions, together with the inspector's recommendations that there should be a local liaison committee, safeguards against blasting damage, a noise control scheme and restoration plans agreed in principle with the local planning authority, I am convinced that this site can be worked without most of the adverse effects my hon. Friend fears, and that, when the work is over and the site restored, the area will be improved. Certainly I am sure it will be the aim of the Board to demonstrate, in the working of this site, that opencast coal can be worked in a decent, humane manner and that it will do all it can to minimise its effects on the local populace.
I am conscious of how strongly my hon. Friend feels about this matter, and I appreciate the strength of the views that he has put forward. 1 note that he intends to pursue the matter further. But I am sure that he accepts that, although I offered to meet him, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State acts in a quasi-judicial way in these matters and, therefore, that the circumstances in which we suggested meeting were the only ones in which we could meet. There was no reluctance on our part to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter.
I understand my hon. Friend's difficulties. I was born and reared in a mining area, and I know the consequences of environmental blight and environmental damage. But I hope that I have succeeded in explaining why the decision about this site was taken, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that all the published documents to which I referred have been laid before the House.
Nevertheless, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his initiative and enterprise in obtaining this Adjournment debate.