Opencast Mining (North-West)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:04 pm on 2nd February 1983.

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Photo of Mr Lawrence Cunliffe Mr Lawrence Cunliffe , Leigh 10:04 pm, 2nd February 1983

I hope to be objective and constructive, not emotive, in my remarks, although opencast coal mining is an extremely emotive subject these days.

I sincerely hope that in the future the Minister will consider opencast applications with caution and with greater deliberation after hearing my case against this type of mining at this time. I stress the importance of timing. The debate synchronises with a great industrial recession such as we have not seen for 100 years. That is relevant because, for obvious reasons, a recession means less consumer demand for the vital product concerned.

In my view, it is imperative that in authorising opencast site applications Ministers should seriously consider the present state of energy demand. Here I do not refer to the world scenario, as we have now moved from the oil crisis os 1973 into a period in which the recession in Britain has made its mark in reducing demand for all types of energy.

I begin by illustrating the motivation of Members of Parliament to begin with an early-day motion and ultimately to seek a debate on what I consider to be a vital matter at this time. In my case, it is because I come from the north-west.

In any opencast application, one must decide whether economic necessity outweighs the environmental upheaval. In other words, is there sufficient need for the development to take place at the cost of local harassment? I shall expand a little on what I mean by that. My early-day motion, which was signed by 35 Members, states that it is unnecessary for further opencast mining schemes to be embarked upon considering the huge amount of coal stocks available". Here I declare a vested interest. The early-day motion was couched in those terms, not because I sought to protect the people whom I represent in other sectors of the mining industry and elsewhere, but because there is now a great awareness in our communities, especially those which have been victims of opencast mining schemes, of the enormous and traumatic environmental intrusions into their lifestyle and the quality of their lives that opencast mining involves. I shall pinpoint and highlight two sites, one of which is probably the largest opencast mining site in Western Europe.

The other part of my early-day motion is furthermore, acknowledges the growing realisation and some serious concern by the public, that opencast mining is now environmentally unacceptable as long as sufficient deep coal mine reserves are available. I shall not dot the "i's" and cross the "t's" about deep coal mining. There are about 300 years of deep coal mine reserves. When I read the report about coal and the environment, I noted that there are at least 100 million tons of opencast mining reserves.

The Minister has exclusive authority. He says aye or nay. Regardless of the power of great nationalised industries, regardless even of the will of the House, he has the power to say aye or nay when applications are submitted. Does the nation need coal? That basic question must be answered. Can the energy needs of the nation be met? I have investigated the resources available in both opencast and deep mining. The time has come when the Minister must consider calling a halt to any further new projects for opencast mining. I emphasise that I refer to new projects. I do not attempt to assess or judge how long that halt should last.

I speak with long experience of the mining industry. It is well known that opencast mining is cheap, easily available and not labour-intensive. It creates environmental problems that are now accepted. We must assess the balance that must be struck in economic, financial and fiscal terms, taking account of the National Coal Board's financial position.

I have no scruples about saying that I am fully aware that opencast mining makes a considerable contribution towards balancing the books. What do ordinary people do about the intrusion into their local environment? A proposal is knocking about in Greater Manchester which outlines a massive opencast scheme. It will cover 1,500 acres and take 13 to 15 years to mine. The reclamation scheme involves the largest pit spoil heap in Western Europe. About 850,000 tons of coal can be extracted—coal that has been spilt, is surplus to requirement or has been integrated among pit dirt and shale.

It is easy to agree that such huge, conspicuous eyesores should be removed from the landscape. There is no argument about that. It would be a great contribution to environmental improvement. Should milling continue in an area for 13 years, especially if it is a struggling area? The scheme involves the Bolton, Salford, and Wigan metropolitan authorities, and is the largest of 21 sites envisaged in a 15-mile radius of Greater Manchester.

The Minister must be acutely aware that for 250 to 300 years this part of the north west region has suffered. It has been ravaged by deep coal mining. It has undergone industrial dereliction. The first industrial revolution left its mark. There was the mixed grill of Victorian planning, careless and carefree in the way techniques were applied to win resources, whether in the textile industry, mining, the slate industry or any other industry that happened to expand in that area.

We now face the prospect of two decades of intrusion. What does it mean? What do ordinary people say? They ask questions that need answers. I must tell the House that I have never known such resentment in this part of the world—and I am talking about a whole stratum of the Lancashire region—as there is at the prospect of what could be described and what they see as almost a second industrial revolution in the area, causing tremendous upheaval and interference with their lives.

They ask why, after 250 years of disturbance, they have again to face intrusion on this scale. It is very difficult to avoid memories of old coal owners when they see a nationalised industry coming back to carry out some form of environmental rape in their area. They ask whether local opinion will ever win the day. They wonder whether Parliament takes notice of protests. They ask whether it acts on rational arguments and whether the national interest is weighed against the interference with their local interests and daily lives. They ask how safe it is to mine in this area with a 45° deg incline, one in one. They ask how safe it is in an area with this history. Right in the centre of this massive opencast site there is a vivid memory of the largest pit disaster in the British Isles. There is a sensitivity from one generation here to another where 344 men and boys died. The Minister knows that there is this closeness among the mining community. They then ask whether assurances can be given that residents living within a certain distance of the proposed site will not suffer in health. They would like assurances that the tranquility of many of the old people in the area will not be disturbed and that such an extensive development will not blight house prices for younger residents.

People in the area ask whether the Department of Energy is even aware of what the Department of the Environment is doing. They wonder whether it knows that there are reclamation areas, with £250,000 schemes in this district. They ask whether Whitehall departments co-operate on matters of this kind and whether one Department knows what another is doing.

A previous opencast site developed at Atherton has a notorious history. I disagreed vehemently with the decision made at the time by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn). The public inquiry inspector recommended against development of the site. All the authorities to which I have referred protested. It is now strongly rumoured that the board intends to come back to develop the one-fifth of the site that remains. That is not action that accords with the Queensberry Rules. It is an unscrupulous tactic.

It is strongly rumoured—there has been speculation in the local press—that use could be made of opencast sites and other mine shafts in the area for the disposal of nuclear waste. I recognise that this is a difficult question. However, with such speculation rife, predominantly in the Wigan area, I hope that the Minister will give an assurance of at least some information to arrest the fear and anxiety that exist. The Minister is respected in the House for his activities at the Department. I hope that he will be able to answer some of the points that I have raised.