The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-07712, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on opencast mining in Scotland, coaling and restoring. Members will be aware that there is a live court case before the Court of Session, on restoration. You should take care to avoid mention of the details of that case.
I call Fergus Ewing to speak to and move the motion. Minister, you have 14 minutes, but we have a bit of time in hand, so the Presiding Officers will be flexible.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will keep your advice very much in mind.
As members know, the coal industry in Scotland has been experiencing a very tough time. Coal prices are low and operating costs are high, and two of Scotland’s largest producers have folded in the past 12 months, which resulted in the loss of 732 jobs, which the communities in which they were located could ill afford to lose.
I am determined to work to find a solution that will take the sector through this difficult time, and I have set up a cross-party national task force to tackle the issues. The task force is chaired by me and by Professor Russel Griggs, who has for the past year been working hard behind the scenes with all interested parties in the coal sector.
The task force brings together many interested stakeholders: the local authorities that are affected; Scottish Government energy and planning officials; operators; trade unions; the Scottish Mines Restoration Trust; the Coal Authority; and United Kingdom Government departments such as the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Scotland Office. There is also representation from many of the parliamentarians who represent affected areas.
The task force’s remit is simple and straightforward, with two objectives: first, to secure employment and protect what jobs we can for our rural communities in a more secure and sustainable way than has happened before; and, secondly, to help ensure that appropriate restoration takes place.
With regard to some of the progress that the task force has made thus far, on employment, I am pleased to report to the chamber that 153 former Scottish Resources Group employees have now gone into work; 117 of them are from East Ayrshire, the council area most affected by redundancies, and 36 are from Lanarkshire. I am also pleased to report that Hargreaves has restated its plans to employ around 300 people in Scotland in its first six months of full operation and that that estimate might rise to around 500 people in the next 12 months.
Secondly, on training, the task force set up a short-term working group to look specifically at training and qualifications. Thanks to the pile of joint working that the partnership action for continuing employment—or PACE—team, the operators Hargreaves, the Department for Work and Pensions and Skills Development Scotland have done together, 184 former employees have started training through the Scottish Government employability fund, which has resulted in the awarding of 97 qualifications. I am pleased to report that Hargreaves has now set up a driver training centre at its site at Broken Cross in South Lanarkshire with the capability to train 50 drivers per week.
Thirdly, on Office of Rail Regulation track access charges, members will appreciate the key importance of ensuring the industry’s commercial viability, but that viability was put in doubt by the ORR’s proposal to hugely increase track access charges to, I believe, £4.04 per 1,000 gross tonnes per mile. Those charges have now been reduced to £1.04 and will not be fully implemented until 2018. I thank all the parties that played a part in that. Had the task force not existed, I do not think that it would have happened, but I also recognise that the UK Government and the transport minister Keith Brown played their part. There was cross-party recognition of this threat and, to be fair, there was a commensurate response, for which we are grateful.
Not just yet.
Fourthly, the task force is focused not just on jobs but on restoration, which is part of the legacy left behind with the demise of ATH Resources and SRG and is causing concern to all the affected councils. Earlier this year, I announced the creation of the Scottish Mines Restoration Trust, an independent body that has been created specifically to assist councils and other parties in the restoration of opencast sites across Scotland. Its primary role will be that of facilitator, not funder, and it will seek to bring together all the relevant parties to tackle restoration issues. Indeed, I am pleased that councils are already coming forward and receiving practical assistance from the SMRT in their restoration plans.
Restoration is a complex problem that did not arise only yesterday and will not be solved tomorrow, but I am pleased that the councils in Scotland, notably East Ayrshire, Fife, South Lanarkshire, Dumfries and Galloway and Midlothian, are working through each case on a site-by-site basis. In Fife, for example, a restoration plan has been worked out at the ex-ATH site at Muir Dean and the restoration task is out to tender. That will also help to create jobs, and is a good example of partnership involving the council, the UK Coal Authority, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, local landowners and the bond provider, all of whom came together to ensure maintenance of the site while the restoration plan was developed.
In Dumfries and Galloway, restoration of the Glenmuckloch site has been made possible only by the coaling of an extension site. Continued coaling can secure employment while allowing restoration to happen; as excavation goes forward, the soils and overburden that are uncovered are used to restore that which is left behind. It took a great degree of innovative and pragmatic thinking to get to that position with the Glenmuckloch site. None of this is easy, but that example shows that solutions can be found if all the parties are prepared to work together. There are productive ways of carrying out restoration and we have to look at each site on its own.
In addition to the restoration measures that I have mentioned, we are exploring whether the levy that is paid to the Coal Authority could be applied for restoration. That is the levy per tonne of coal that is mined, which is currently 17p per tonne. I understand, from information that was provided to the most recent meeting of the coal task force by, I believe, the Coal Authority, that only 1p out of that 17p goes to the Coal Authority and that 16p goes to the consolidated fund. We are talking about several million pounds. Therefore, I have written to UK energy minister Michael Fallon to ask whether that money can be made available to restore the opencast sites in Scotland, as it comes from the coal that has been mined in Scotland.
I do not know what Mr Rennie is referring to. We do not apply taxpayers’ money. I was referring to a levy that is paid by the industry to the UK Government. It has absolutely nothing to do with taxpayers’ money. Unless Mr Rennie can enlighten us about where that alleged subsidy comes from in the opening speech that he is about to make—and I invite him to do so—that will be one of the many far from robust arguments that we will hear from him this afternoon.
I am happy to take an intervention from Mr Harvie now, if he wants to intervene.
A few moments ago, in talking about the track access charges in particular, the minister said that he thinks that it is important to ensure that the industry remains commercially viable. Surely, the phrase “commercially viable” implies that an industry is able to bear all its own costs, whether those are the costs of running its business, the costs of transporting its goods, the costs of accessing the rail network or the costs of the restoration of all sites, which it has imposed on communities up and down Scotland.
Mr Harvie makes several assertions, but I do not think that they stack up because the coal industry is not subsidised. If Mr Harvie wants to argue otherwise, we will hear from him in his closing remarks. I put it to him—
Well, hang on. I am answering this chap, first.
I hope that Mr Harvie and Mr Rennie will address the issue squarely. It seems to me that the amendment that they have co-signed would inevitably have the effect of destroying the opencast industry in Scotland, which would lead to the almost immediate redundancy of several thousand people and the total destruction of the opencast industry in Scotland. Who is going to invest in Scotland’s coal industry if there is a moratorium? Nobody is. Moreover, if that were to happen, what would the effect be? The coal-fired power stations would still need coal, but it would come from Colombia and Russia. How would that be good for the environment? I look forward to the explanation of those issues this afternoon.
Let me return to more effective regulation. Every site is different. There are rules in place to ensure compliance, monitoring, enforcement and financial assurance but they need to be made to work more effectively and must be tailored to each site. More effective regulation is the principal way of improving confidence in the sector. Therefore, the time is now right to consult on the options that are available to secure a more effective approach to restoration. There is a role for the Scottish Futures Trust to advise on the financial aspects, and there may also be a role for an independent compliance monitoring unit or for a local authority shared service. I shall ensure that the forthcoming consultation reaches out to all those with a genuine, productive and positive interest in sustaining the industry in Scotland and the communities that are dependent on it.
The story of the Scottish opencast sector over the past year demonstrates what can be achieved in difficult circumstances when we work together and all relevant stakeholders, including political parties, pull together. That we still have an opencast industry is testament to those efforts, although substantial challenges remain—no one can doubt that. Not least of those challenges is to ensure that we get the best restoration solution possible for every site.
However, I believe that, with the trust that has been built up in the task force and the joint working across parties in the chamber—especially the Labour Party and the Conservative Party—we can work together to find a better future for the opencast industry. I hope that the Labour amendment, which we will support, will also be supported by the Conservatives so that we send out a very clear message that the three parties are almost unanimous in seeing a future for the industry rather than its destruction.
That the Parliament acknowledges the substantial contribution made by the open cast coal mining industry to the Scottish economy; supports the work of the Scottish Coal Industry Taskforce, carried out in partnership by the Scottish Government, representatives of the UK Government, local authorities, parliamentarians from across the parties representing all of the affected areas, and the industry itself, to preserve employment in open cast coal mining and address challenges of restoration, and welcomes moves to identify improvements in the regulatory regime of the industry.
The current situation with opencast mining is a complex issue. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. The precariousness of the industry must be addressed, and the challenge of restoration must be at the very heart of that process.
This week, the Scottish Government announced that it has granted consent to MeyGen Ltd to develop the largest tidal turbine array in Europe and the first commercial project off these shores. Scotland has great potential to have a successful marine renewable energy industry and a renewables-focused energy sector. Our future energy needs must be met by a low-carbon economy, and we support Government and industry efforts to grow that side of our energy economy.
However, we need to be realistic. We are in a transitional phase. Our current and short-term energy demands need to be met. Coal is still part of our energy mix, not least when we have Longannet coal-fired power station to feed, which produces energy for 2 million people a year. We need to get the balance right between investing in the plant to provide energy security and improve environmental performance, and shifting our dependency to more sustainable long-term energy delivery.
Regardless of whether we support opencast coal, we cannot deny that the opencast coal sector has made a contribution to the Scottish economy. It is estimated to have supported around 4,500 direct and indirect skilled and well-paid jobs, primarily in economically depressed areas: 75 per cent of Scottish Coal’s direct employment was in rural areas such as South Lanarkshire and East Ayrshire, where alternative employment opportunities could be limited. We should not underestimate the impact that the demise of deep coal mining had on those areas, but although Scottish opencast coal output has been in the range of 5 million tonnes to 8 million tonnes per annum over the past 10 years, with a third of the UK’s total opencast coal production in 2010 being mined in Scotland, the industry has been facing increasing pressures. The influx of cheap overseas coal, particularly from Russia, has made it increasingly difficult to compete in the market and to make the economics of the activity in Scotland stack up.
The recommendation by the ORR on track access charges for rail freight added further pressure to the sector. The subsequent proposal to take coal out of Glenmuckloch on the local road network rather than by rail is causing great concern for the local community. The inability of the sector to absorb or adapt to any kind of pressure, even in an uncertain economic climate, indicated that all was not well.
Although the collapse of Scottish Coal earlier this year has been the headline story, for MSPs across the chamber who represent areas in which opencast mining takes place, the sector has been vulnerable for a while. In my region, ATH Resources underwent a number of restructurings, with staff either being made redundant or having to work in a very uncertain situation, until the company collapsed earlier this year. My colleague Helen Eadie, who represents the area, will say more about the on-going concerns, but the community deserves to have confidence that environmental concerns, including concerns about mine water pollution, will be dealt with. It is welcome that the Coal Authority has accepted responsibility for managing water discharge, but the site, like others, is still waiting for a permanent solution, and communities are stuck in limbo. It is vital that such situations are resolved as soon as possible.
I know that Fife Council is working with partners to secure a solution for all the Fife sites, and that it takes restoration extremely seriously. Other colleagues will talk about the situation in East Ayrshire, which is desperate. The Scottish Government must respond to those concerns.
After this year’s bad news, we are in a period of uncertainty in which it has been important to respond quickly to the pressures and to work together to provide a route through this time. We recognise the calls for an independent inquiry, but we believe that, at this point in time, we need to be focused on addressing the immediate challenges. Labour is focused on the employees and the need to secure future employment opportunities, and to highlight restoration and associated environmental concerns.
Elaine Murray and I accepted an invitation to participate in the opencast coal task force, which has provided a forum to discuss the broad challenges facing the sector and take forward some immediate concerns around aspects such as training, restoration and the purchase of assets. There is a case now for adopting a more strategic response to the situation. If the task force is to serve a long-term purpose, it needs to adopt a more scrutinising role for the sector. The minister’s announcement today of a consultation on more effective regulation is welcome, but there are opportunities to improve the system at the moment through the Scottish planning policy. The task force has also considered a limited application of state aid. Will the minister give more details today on the potential for some form of compatible aid, particularly where it could support environmental protection?
I thank RSPB Scotland and Friends of the Earth for their briefing paper, and the Scottish opencast communities alliance for its paper. The challenge of restoration is huge, and the criticisms of some of the agreements are justified. However, we must recognise that the situation does not always fail and that there are some positive examples of restoration. The restoration of sites is part of planning consent, and restoration bonds were put in place to cover the costs, if necessary.
Part of the work of the task force has been in establishing whether the bonds are sufficient for meeting restoration costs. It is fair to say that the picture across Scotland in that regard has varied. It has been estimated that the shortfall across Scotland may be £100 million or more. A combination of factors has led to that situation, but we must ensure that there is accountability and responsibility going forward.
We cannot have a situation in which communities that have lived alongside an opencast site cannot have confidence in restoration. In addition, as the RSPB has highlighted, if restoration does not happen at mines that fall within European sites protected under a habitats directive, that could be in breach of European Union wildlife law. Recently, the Court of Session accepted an application by the administrators KPMG to divest the assets of liability for restoration costs. I understand that the Scottish Government, along with SEPA, Scottish Natural Heritage and local authorities, is appealing that decision.
The issues of the viability of uncommercial or low-productivity sites and their future, as well as the risks of their being abandoned, was addressed at the first meeting of the task force, with SEPA raising its concerns. The task force wrote to KPMG raising concerns over cherry picking because of fears about the future of the less lucrative sites. How do we address the future for those sites? What about the restoration of sites that are not attracting commercial interest or which have an inadequate bond? Local authorities are not in a position to carry the burden of significant restoration work. It is fine to say that companies must meet the responsibilities—I agree fully that they must be pursued relentlessly—but we must be realistic about the bankrupt state of some of the sector.
We need to have credible solutions. The RSPB and Friends of the Earth have rightly raised concerns that opencast coal is not the only sector requiring restoration bonds. Landfill sites and future unconventional gas works will face similar challenges, so it does not look like a problem that will go away.
There are calls for a moratorium on opencast development. In the current circumstances, I am not convinced that a formal moratorium is necessary. Local authorities are well aware of their responsibilities and the challenges that they face in dealing with existing sites, without having to approve future work. The leader of Fife Council, Alex Rowley, said recently:
“Given the condition of the industry and the worldwide drop in coal prices and our experience here in Fife and indeed across Scotland I am saying that we have to be very careful with any future consents.”
Alex Rowley raised the issue of bonds at the most recent meeting of the Scottish coal task force, which the Scottish Government set up, and asked the coal companies present whether they would be able to raise adequate bonds on future sites. The answer was plainly no. There is a real understanding across the local authority sector that local authorities must be extremely cautious because in some cases they are living with previous bad experience.
I am sorry, but I am really pushed for time. The member will have a chance to sum up at the end of the debate.
Opencast coal has been controversial, as energy projects often are. We have recently had debates over proposed unconventional gas and biomass projects. We must be confident that the regulatory system is robust enough and fair to all interests and that there is accountability for decision making.
Scottish planning policy 3 is being finalised, with five new principal policies covering sustainable economic growth, sustainable development, engagement, climate change and place making. In light of current events, that must be robust and meet the justified concerns of communities. The final draft that the Parliament considered recently did not address adequately the concerns that we are now seeing around future applications and it did not provide the necessary confidence for community protection and restoration, as well as for any developer’s responsibility. Regardless of the regulatory review, the Scottish Government must revisit Scottish planning policy in the light of current circumstances.
I welcome that. I hope that Derek Mackay will look carefully at our amendment and recognise where we identify weaknesses in opencast restoration.
The Scottish Government recently established the Scottish Mines Restoration Trust, which is well intentioned, but there are concerns about the lack of detail on how it will work. It is an independent organisation that was formed to help to facilitate the process for communities and other stakeholders that are involved in dealing with the legacy of opencast coal sites. Its role is to offer advice, expertise and—when appropriate—funding to facilitate plans to restore derelict sites.
The trust is not a grant-awarding body and its funds are limited. It is not yet clear what advice or sources of funding it can offer. It has been recognised that restoration offers the potential for job creation. The process could have multiple benefits for communities. The trust has said that an innovative or creative approach is needed to using the resources that are in place for each site, but it is unclear how that will operate. Until a project is under way, it is perhaps difficult to appreciate how the process will work, but that does not provide the confidence that is needed for all partners.
I look forward to the debate. I will move the amendment in my name as a positive contribution to the way forward in the interests of communities, our environment and meeting our future energy needs.
I move amendment S4M-07712.2, to leave out from “to preserve” to end and insert:
“including relevant trade unions, to preserve employment in open cast coal mining and address challenges of restoration; welcomes moves to identify improvements in the regulatory regime of the industry including appropriate protection for communities and the environment, and, in light of concerns about restoration and remediation of sites, calls on the Scottish Government to address this issue in the final Scottish Planning Policy so that local authorities are given clearer guidance to enable them to address this issue when considering whether to give planning consent for proposals.”
Patrick Harvie and I have come together today to try to amend the Government’s motion, and I have returned from my party’s conference in Glasgow to participate in the debate. Those are two unusual steps, but they are necessary to make the case against the Government’s misguided actions. I apologise to the chamber for not being able to stay for the summation of the debate, as I am required back in Glasgow.
In a second.
Far from getting tough with the industry, as we have read in the papers and heard in the news this morning, the Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism needs a reality check. He is desperately propping up failing mines. That risks further environmental damage, to compound the damage to which communities have already been exposed.
I support the Scottish Government’s renewable energy and climate change ambitions, with world-beating targets. However, after my experience of the Scottish Government’s failure to meet the past two sets of annual targets and now its approach to the collapse of the opencast coal mining industry, I am beginning to doubt its commitment to the environment.
The world price of coal has dropped as a result of American operators dumping coal on the world market because of the dramatic increase in fracking in the United States. The technology that is used in fracking looks as if it will be extended rather than limited in the years ahead, which could depress coal prices further.
Even if the price does not go down, it is unlikely to increase sufficiently to deliver a long-term resurgence for the industry here. The industry knows that, and so does its insurance market. That is why Hargreaves has created hivecos for each of its sites. Hivecos are small entities that do not contaminate the wider Hargreaves company if they fail. It is clear that Hargreaves does not have the confidence to take the mines involved directly into its company; it wants to keep them at one remove in case of a future collapse.
Surely the point is that Hargreaves is investing a substantial amount of its money in coaling in Scotland. To avoid doubt, do Mr Rennie and Mr Harvie accept that their amendment, which calls on the Scottish Government to put an immediate halt to new opencast coal development, would terminate the opencast coal sector in Scotland?
Hargreaves is limiting its liability by creating the hivecos, so that if they collapse there will be no effect on the wider company. That does not inspire me with confidence. If Hargreaves had confidence in the sector, it would have taken the mines into its operations fully and not half-heartedly.
No, not just now.
That is also why the insurance companies have, to a great extent, closed the bond market for opencast coal. They know that there is a high chance of companies collapsing again, and they believe that the risk is far too high. We should hear their warnings—we need to listen to what those people have to say—but it seems that the Government is not prepared to listen to them.
It is desperate of the Government to keep the industry alive even though that creates more significant problems for the future. The problems just now are already severe. There are mines dotted across the country that have been left derelict, with polluted water and massive spoil heaps that dwarf communities. The failed coal companies did not put enough bonds or sufficient funds in place to cover the restoration costs.
A report that was published last week showed that the situation in East Ayrshire is now far worse than was first thought. The minister did not mention that situation—which I think deserves recognition—in his opening remarks.
In west Fife, five years ago, I was repeatedly told—
Not just now.
I was repeatedly told that the lessons of the past had been learned. Planning applications were granted and new opencast mines were opened, but five years later many mines have been left derelict. That is not acceptable. The Scottish Government seems determined—
Scottish Enterprise deals with things independently and looks at every company in the same way without fear, favour or discrimination. Any other approach would be illegal.
How can Willie Rennie say that, if there is no more coaling, there can still be an opencast industry? If there is to be a halt on further opencast mines getting permissions, how can he argue that that is anything other than a mass P45 for the 4,500 people who are employed directly or indirectly in the sector?
That is a huge distraction by the minister, who does not recognise that he has failed to learn the lessons of the past. He needs to look to the past to learn lessons for the future, but he refuses to do so.
The minister is also looking at trying to get money through the licensing fees that have been paid to the UK Government. That money could be used for other things, but the minister wants to use it to pay for the legacy—the failed legacy—of the mining industry in Scotland. He wants to clear up the companies’ mess and give them more money to create more mess in the future. That is a very short-sighted attempt—
I am afraid that I am running out of time.
Of course I want us to clean up the mines, but we should not do so at the cost of the future environmental legacy. The minister should be working to resolve those problems. The pay-as-you-extract scheme shifts responsibility from the industry to other people. If we do not get sufficient funds together from the scheme that the minister proposes, we will end up with the state or communities having to pick up the tab for future failure.
I have some simple asks for the minister. He needs to recognise that—as with the situation in East Ayrshire—we need an independent inquiry into the collapse of the industry. All new planning applications should be halted, the pay-as-you-extract scheme should be abandoned and no public funds should be invested in Hargreaves.
If the Government wants to restore its environmental reputation, which has been severely damaged by this episode, it needs to take those reasonable steps.
I move amendment S4M-07712.1, to leave out from “contribution” to end and insert:
“environmental destruction caused by the open cast coal mining industry in Scotland; notes that the costs of restoring current and former open cast sites far exceed the sums available through restoration bonds; notes that the market for coal mined in Scotland is declining as renewable technologies are adopted and emissions restrictions are introduced; believes that an independent inquiry is needed into the regulation of this industry and that no public money should be spent further subsidising an unsustainable industry with a record of evading its responsibilities; considers that a low-carbon economy can only be one that reduces and ultimately ends its economic reliance on fossil fuels, rather than seeking to exploit all possible sources, and calls on the Scottish Government to call an immediate halt to all new open cast coal developments and to ensure that the industry fulfils its legal and moral obligation to society by bearing the full cost of the necessary environmental restoration.”
I welcome the Government’s motion and the opportunity to debate this very important issue that touches communities across Scotland.
When I saw the Government’s motion, I thought that this would be a consensual debate with parties across the chamber coming together to agree a way forward for an industry that employs so many people. I did not reckon with Willie Rennie breaking through the ring of steel around the Liberal Democrats’ conference in Glasgow and making his way along the M8 to join us in concert with Patrick Harvie, with their joint scorched-earth approach to the coal industry.
Perhaps I will have to check the television clips from the 1980s of the famous confrontation during the miners strike and, if I look closely, I might see a youthful and diminutive Patrick Harvie joined by a youthful Willie Rennie on the picket line with placards that urge the National Coal Board and Margaret Thatcher’s Government to go further and faster in closing down the coal mines than they had planned. We should reject such a pseudo-Thatcherite approach and support the coal industry in Scotland because it has an important role in driving Scotland’s economy.
In addition to the sums extracted and the thousands of jobs that are provided in regions such as my own in Fife, it is worth noting that, even today, around 40 per cent of Scotland’s electricity comes from coal. It forms one part of a broad energy mix that provides us with security of supply and stability of price, and it is likely to retain that status for many years to come.
As the minister said, however, we have seen an unprecedented collapse in the Scottish opencast mining industry. It has suffered at the hands of a perfect storm, with rising costs and falling global prices creating pressures that have overwhelmed even well-established companies—but coal still has a future.
As demand in the expanding economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China—the BRIC countries—increases, we can also point to a growing market closer to home. Following its Government’s decision—one with which I fundamentally disagree—to close its nuclear plants, Germany is going down the road of opening six new coal-fired power stations this year, with more in the pipeline before 2020. It is utterly misguided to be closing down low-carbon energy sources to replace them with high-carbon sources, but it disproves the line in Patrick Harvie’s amendment that says that
“the market for coal ... is declining”.
It is quite the opposite. The world market for coal is far from declining. There are still great opportunities there.
Unless Murdo Fraser is going to go in the same direction as some of his Westminster colleagues and call for the scrapping of climate change legislation, it is clear that coal use in energy generation will mean increasing costs if we have anything like an energy policy that is capable of achieving the targets. Does he not accept that coal will be an increasingly expensive product to burn?
There is, of course, no disagreement that coal produces more CO2. All that I was doing was pointing out a factual inaccuracy in Patrick Harvie’s amendment: demand for coal across the world is not decreasing. If Patrick Harvie is concerned about CO2 emissions, I suggest that we look at what has happened in the United States, where fracking for shale gas has substantially reduced not just CO2 emissions but costs to the consumer and to industry.
Let us get back to the point in hand: what do we do about the mining industry in Scotland? I welcome the creation of a coal industry task force by the minister, and I am privileged to be a part of it. As the motion points out, it is an excellent example of constructive partnership working between a diverse assortment of public bodies at the UK, Scottish and local levels joining with industry and trade union representatives. We should be pleased with the progress that is being made even in the short time that the task force has existed.
The key issue that we have to tackle is the troublesome question of restoration, as the minister said. With proper oversight, the issue should not have arisen. The Scottish Government’s 2010 Scottish planning policy document indicates that
“Planning authorities should require a financial guarantee to ensure adequate restoration and aftercare”.
That says “should”, not “may” or “can”. Those agreements should be in place before planning permission is granted. We know that that sometimes did not happen in the past, and it is now clear that existing restoration bonds have been insufficient to meet the bills for projects that have recently collapsed.
Many local communities were initially sceptical about having opencast mining in their back yards and they are now concerned that they will have to pick up the bill, perhaps through their council tax, for the restoration of the landscape to its original condition.
There have been various suggestions about how we should deal with the question of restoration guarantees for the future. The central principle should always remain that the minimum of cost should fall to the taxpayer because these are commercial operations.
Concerns have been expressed previously about the possibility of pay-by-extraction schemes, the suggestion being that those schemes would by no means guarantee the restoration costs throughout the entire lifetime of a project. I have a great deal of sympathy for those concerns.
I also appreciate that we are walking a very fine line between providing appropriate assurances that all foreseeable eventualities are prepared for and placing insurmountable burdens on a productive industry. There is a balance to be struck between providing necessary regulation and ensuring that opencast mining continues to provide much-needed jobs and revenue in different parts of the country that have perhaps faced a difficult economic situation in recent years.
I welcome the work that is being done by the coal industry task force and the discussions that are taking place under the auspices of the restoration bond working group. We look forward to seeing more details.
I am heartened by the creation of the Scottish Mines Restoration Trust and the initial cash injection that it has received. We recognise that restoration projects are far from straightforward, so sharing expertise and providing support and a point of contact for stakeholders to seek advice will, I hope, ensure improvements in restoration strategy and techniques across Scotland.
The objectives that the Government has outlined in the motion are sensible and reasonable. We share with the Government an appreciation for the work of the industry and the need for a positive approach to its current problems. We fundamentally disagree with the approach that the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have taken in the debate because we believe that opencast mining in Scotland has a future; the responsibility now falls to us to provide the correct structures to secure that future. I am pleased to support the Government motion and the Labour amendment.
The subject matter of the debate is of vital interest to the communities that I represent in East Ayrshire.
The scale of coal operations in this area is very significant. In 2012, opencast coal production in East Ayrshire represented 15 per cent of the total coal production of the UK—that is including underground mining. For opencast mining alone, East Ayrshire produced more than 25 per cent of all UK coal and 53 per cent of the coal produced in Scotland. Consequently, the economic and environmental impacts of these activities are highly significant.
The collapse of two out of the three coal companies operating in the coalfield can only be described as disastrous. The full economic impact of the crisis that is being visited on local communities is currently being assessed in detail and, as I understand it, a report will be published by East Ayrshire Council later this week. What we know now is that some 311 East Ayrshire residents and former Aardvark and Scottish Coal employees have been made redundant and that many more jobs in the local supply chain are under threat.
In these circumstances, coalfield communities must not be left in the lurch as they were in the 1980s with the wholesale closure of the deep mines. We must diversify the local economy and realise opportunities to develop existing businesses and attract inward investment.
The minister will be aware of the efforts of East Ayrshire Council and Scottish Enterprise to create a proposition for economic initiatives that will require Scottish Government backing. I hope and trust that that will be forthcoming. However, so long as a viable coal industry can be sustained, we should be lending our efforts to that purpose as a priority. I am grateful to the minister for his strong leadership in that regard and for his swift action in establishing a coal industry task force, mobilising all those—national agencies and local authorities alike—who could provide support in getting people who had lost their jobs back into work.
In my view, the minister has also done well in establishing a good working relationship with remaining reputable companies in the mining sector, particularly Kier mining and Hargreaves Surface Mining Ltd, which have now acquired certain former Scottish Coal and Aardvark sites. Hargreaves has managed to maintain coaling at the Aardvark sites and recruitment is under way to restart operations at the Scottish Coal sites. I understand that as a consequence, as the minister mentioned, 300 to 500 jobs will be created nationwide over the next year.
That said, it would be idle to pretend that the legacy from previous opencast operators is nothing other than a bitter one. In particular, it appears that Scottish Coal failed to fulfil its obligation in a number of areas. For example, it quickly became apparent to the PACE and local response teams that Scottish Coal had failed to train and certificate levels of competence in its workforce in a way that would have allowed employees to secure equivalent jobs outwith the company. Thankfully, Skills Development Scotland, with the assistance of the Mineral Products Qualifications Council and Hargreaves, is ensuring the acquisition of the crucial “red tickets”, as they are called.
The issue of restoration—or, more accurately, the lack of restoration—is proving to be far more problematic. What is clear is that both Aardvark and Scottish Coal failed to restore sites, as they were obliged to do under their original planning consents, and that restoration bonds were not sufficient to cover the costs of restoration put in place. The local planning authority is equally blameworthy in that failure, given its duty to monitor and enforce, where appropriate, planning conditions.
That is a galling outcome, given the time and effort that I recall was put into drawing up East Ayrshire’s opencast coal subject plan some 10 years ago. There were adequate tools in the toolbox to ensure that problems did not arise, but they were not used effectively. I support East Ayrshire Council’s investigation of the matter. I am sure that the review, which is being independently conducted by the former chief planner Jim Mackinnon, will inform Scottish planning policy, which is currently out to consultation.
I also welcome the minister’s announcement of a consultation on more effective regulation of the industry, particularly with regards to the financial assurance of restoration guarantees—
Presiding Officer, I do not think that this specific matter is for the courts.
It is unacceptable that East Ayrshire has been left with a notional bill of £161 million to restore former opencast sites to a state that was agreed at planning consent, but the total restoration bond coverage amounts to only something like £29 million. Clearly, we need alternative restoration plans that, as a minimum, make unrestored sites safe and make good any on-going environmental pollution. I am hopeful that the recently formed Scottish Mines Restoration Trust will facilitate implementation of those plans.
Equally clearly, we need a functioning industry to ensure that such a task can be achieved. Closing down the industry would remove the workforce, the equipment and the expertise that are required for the job. Therefore, the Green amendment, which the Liberal Democrats are supporting, is akin to an exercise in cutting off our nose to spite our face. That amendment should be rejected.
This is an important debate for many communities across Scotland. I want to focus on how opencast mining impacts on communities, on jobs and the economic future for families and communities who are affected, and on the challenges—past and present—of restoration.
Scottish Labour’s amendment welcomes the moves towards identification of improvements in the regulatory regime for the industry, including appropriate protection for communities and the environment. I hope that the minister will take that into account in the forthcoming consultation. It is a relief to many people that the Scottish Government will shortly hold a consultation on more effective regulation.
As we all know, mining communities across the Scottish coalfield were devastated by the closure of deep mines, and then were subjected to the environmental effects of a new form of coal gaining—opencast. That was and still is an environmental justice issue. The issue has come back into public awareness because of the collapse of major companies.
Practices that are far from perfect still take place. As founding convener of the Scottish opencast action group in the early 1990s, I fought, along with others, to get the guidelines changed to protect communities better. In those days, perimeter fences came close to people’s gardens, but that changed because a 200m buffer zone was negotiated. Is that enough? We argued that dust does not stop at the perimeter fence, and that has not changed.
We worked with the Scottish Wildlife Trust and others to identify how to protect precious local environments such as Ponfeigh Burn in South Lanarkshire, where local residents played as children, courted, pushed buggies and then walked with a stick in later years.
Noise was a concern in the early 1990s, and it still is. Only last week, a constituent told me that the noise from the Broken Cross site is manageable for his family by day, but not by night. Back then, road safety was also an issue, with coal lorries on roads such as the A70 in Clydesdale. Talk of taking the coal off the roads and on to rail has rarely become a reality. The cumulative effect of sites was a matter that was addressed, but should it be revisited?
The SOAG and other groups also broached the issue of restoration bonds. The Scottish Government consultation, along with the task force sub-group, will be the focus of a hard look. In the days of the Opencast Executive, before privatisation, some people argued that bonds worked. Others believed that, somewhat like bus deregulation, the legislation at the time was suspect, with all the strength on the side of the operators.
The court direction on whether administrators can
“abandon or disclaim the sites and former sites, thereby transferring ownership”—
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
That direction was deeply disappointing, as I said at the time, and the appeal by SEPA, South Lanarkshire Council, East Ayrshire Council and others is anxiously awaited by councils and communities alike. If the appeal fails, those communities cannot be left amid a broken industry. Whatever the mistakes of councils as regulators in allowing work to proceed with insufficient funds, communities cannot be expected to languish in such circumstances.
Councils cannot be expected to solve the problem alone. Obviously, the costs would be prohibitive, and the effect on other services would be dangerous for already deprived communities. It is necessary to get together people who have valuable experience to advise on the issue. However, as the minister said, the Scottish Mines Restoration Trust is a facilitator, not a funder. Is that right, given the enormousness of the task? Further Scottish Government support is needed.
Since the times of deep mining, mining communities’ contribution has been at the core of UK prosperity. In the spirit of the United Kingdom, which is best represented by the pooling of resources to help the challenges of those who are in need, those communities and that broken industry must go to the mender of last resort. The UK Government might have to play its part in funding restoration and, in the end, not just in relation to the Coal Authority. If that happens, consideration should be given to the benefit to communities and local environments as restoration proceeds.
Thank you for your advice, Presiding Officer, but my understanding is that I was talking about the possibility of the UK Government helping with funds. The Scottish Government should recognise that that is one of the strengths of being in the United Kingdom. In the words of Gordon Brown,
“we have a partnership where we pool and share resources so that when there are areas of great need, we intervene to help them.”
Looking to the future of restoration, although there has been much bad practice over the years, there have also been good models, as members have highlighted.
I certainly do and I disassociate myself from anything to do with that because I was not part of that Government. In fact, I was fundraising and supporting the miners.
As the hole got deeper, the bonds got higher in some places, such as West Lothian. In the case of the Heartlands development, worked by Ecosse Regeneration, work was signed off by the compliance officer and reports were made to the compliance liaison officer.
It would also be useful for the task force to examine in more detail—I know that it has already started—the operations of Kier Minerals and H J Banks. I understand that, in those cases, no outstanding sites have been left unrestored.
The combination of progressive restoration and sufficient bonds must be the way forward. Midlothian Council is currently considering phased restoration as an option. East Ayrshire Council’s independent inquiry has been welcomed by RSPB Scotland.
I am aware of calls for a moratorium, but I am absolutely clear—although this is not Scottish Labour’s position at the moment—that whatever the application criteria may be in the future, no site in Scotland should be consented unless there is a sufficient bond for outstanding work on any previous site being worked by the same company.
Scottish Coal employed 350 people directly in South Lanarkshire. I am sure that the whole Parliament recognises the challenges that are faced by those who have been made redundant. I am aware of the support that PACE has offered and I welcome the driver training centre at Broken Cross. Some of those who have been made redundant have taken the opportunity to open businesses, and to diversify, but there is still a pressing need for support. In the longer term, for recovery, there is a need to broaden the business base.
There must also be a clear strategy for a just transition to a low-carbon economy, as my colleague Claire Baker highlighted in her opening speech. The targets that have been agreed by Parliament will help to address climate change and fuel poverty at once, as our industries in the energy sector adapt.
In the longer term, we have an obligation to ensure that people who are in jobs in the exploitation of fossil fuels are offered training in transferable skills, and to ensure that some of the opportunities for manufacturing and installing the range of new technologies for energy and energy efficiency come to the beleaguered communities that are in need of our support.
As the Scottish National Party MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, I am pleased to be able to make a contribution to the debate. The importance of the coal industry to several parts of the Mid Scotland and Fife region—in particular, the kingdom of Fife—is well-known. It is part of the fabric of Fife and of the area’s economic and social history.
In the present day, that interest is focused on the coaling that can still be carried out and on the concomitant jobs. It is also focused on the restoration of sites, which involves not only the vital environmental clean-up but—we hope—local jobs. The fact that the Scottish Government has recognised those two key objectives is to be welcomed. As we have heard, that is manifest in the minister’s establishment of the Scottish coal industry task force, which is co-chaired by him and the hugely respected Professor Russel Griggs. The membership of the task force is, rightly, wide. It has worked, and is working, collaboratively to find solutions to the various problems with which it has to deal.
I will highlight two of the task force’s successes that have already been referred to. The first is the successful lobbying of the Office of Rail Regulation on freight access charges to ensure that the original massive proposed hike of an additional charge of £4.04 a tonne was reduced to a proposed increase of £1.04 a tonne. Had the increase been implemented, the original proposal would have had a disastrous consequence for the viability of the coal industry and the prospects for the future development of clean coal electricity generation in Scotland and, therefore, for jobs.
Another success story for the task force concerns the need to ensure that the skills and experience that were acquired by former employees of SRG who had been made redundant could be duly recognised, absent the existence of any formal qualifications. That is important for the individuals concerned.
The successes to date have shown how practical steps that have been taken across the sector with everyone working together can make a real difference in improving the prospects for those who currently work in the industry and those who have had to seek alternative employment.
Of course, as we have been hearing from many members this afternoon, alongside the task force, the Scottish Mines Restoration Trust has been set up. That body, of course, is independent and has been tasked with facilitating innovative and dynamic solutions to the problem that we face with respect to restoration. I welcomed the setting up of the body, for it is implicit that, in finding solutions, one council cannot simply seek to act alone without input from other people. Councils must work together across the areas that are affected, and must bring together the public and private sectors in order to pool expertise and share best practice across the sector. That is a worthwhile approach. It is axiomatic that there is no identikit fix for each site. The specificities of each site must be taken into account in order to find solutions. It is also obvious—at least, in the real world—that the complex issues that are involved require solutions that it will, inevitably, take some time to come up with.
Sadly, there is no magic wand that we can wave at the issue in order to fix it overnight. That has been recognised by many people, including Fife Council, which—as Claire Baker mentioned—has been involved in the discussions for quite some time through the task force and with a variety of stakeholders. As we have heard, a tender has now been issued for restoration works at the Muir Dean site by Crossgates. That is credit to the hard work of everyone who has been involved, including all the officials behind the scenes. It is the hard work of those individuals that will make the difference, not the issuing of soundbites.
It is a pity that Willie Rennie did not consider that staying for the entirety of the debate was a priority in his diary, given that we are talking about the future of the coal industry in Scotland and its importance to people in Fife. It is also a pity that no other Liberal Democrat has sought to participate in the debate. If Mr Rennie had had the courtesy to take interventions from back benchers—several of us tried to intervene—I would have asked him whether his new Liberal Democrat policy to end coaling, which would turf thousands of people out of their jobs, is a Scotland-only policy that would not be applicable in the rest of the United Kingdom. With just about one year to go to the independence referendum, I do not think that the people of Scotland have got much to look forward to, if that is the Liberal Democrat vision for the future of the people of our country—including those who work in the opencast coaling sector.
I welcome the announcement today by the Scottish Government on whether we can seek to recover the levy that is paid by the coal industry to the Coal Authority—most of which, as we have heard, goes to the consolidated fund. That money could be well used to help with restoration works in Scotland. I hope—the Liberal Democrats’ opposition to such a move notwithstanding—that we might get support from some of the other parties on that issue.
I also very much welcome the Scottish Government’s decision to consult on how we can secure better regulation and, therefore, a more effective approach to restoration. In my view, that is the practical way forward, and that is how best we can seek to find solutions for communities in Fife and elsewhere.
I will support the motion as amended by Claire Baker. I acknowledge the minister’s recognition of the complexity of what we are discussing this afternoon, and his case-by-case approach in relation to the problem that it raises. I also acknowledge all that Adam Ingram said in terms of the issue’s impact on East Ayrshire Council, in particular, and I will flesh out some of those impacts, in order that the minister might consider them further.
There are currently 1,468 hectares of abandoned, disturbed and unrestored land across the East Ayrshire Council area. Some 524 hectares of land are classified as voids; a void can be a chasm 50m deep, with water at its bottom. What does that area look like to us? It has been described elsewhere as being like 4,000 football pitches. Both classifications represent a real health and safety danger to the public, and both categories dampen any future economic development opportunities.
In 2012, the Scottish Coal Company Ltd approached East Ayrshire Council to seek a business rates holiday. That was another clue that something was going badly wrong in the company. East Ayrshire has for generations suffered the disruption that accompanies opencast mining. It has provided the location and much of the workforce, and it has suffered the inconvenience. To this day, East Ayrshire continues to pay for the presence of the industry in its midst. All of that was done to provide coal and, thereby, energy for Scotland’s and the United Kingdom’s economic wellbeing.
No one volunteers to have an opencast mine development on their doorstep. The industry is dirty, dangerous and dust laden. However, without opencast mining, East Ayrshire would be even poorer than it currently is. That is saying something, given the jobs that have transferred out of the area and the paucity of inward investment. East Ayrshire has one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in the country; some 12.2 per cent of young people are out of work there. That compares with 7.2 per cent in Scotland and 6.1 per cent in the UK.
The current SNP council has failed in its duty of proper governance to provide a level of accountability and responsibility on the part of SCCL and other companies. However, in fairness, successive local authority administrators have failed in that regard.
Including Labour. However, that does not mean that the people of East Ayrshire should bear the burden of fixing the problem on their own.
We need a commitment to an annual mining plan for each area that is affected by developments, and we need annual checks to ensure that an environmental audit has verified compliance with environmental conditions. I welcome the minister’s commitment to more effective regulation for the future, but it is just as important that the Government offer its colleagues in East Ayrshire Council some financial comfort now so that it can begin the rebuilding of that blighted area to give it any hope of competing in the future.
The current Scottish Government’s stance appears to abandon East Ayrshire Council to deal with the costs of repairing the landscape and dealing with the voids. If that happens, the per capita cost across the council area will equate to between £1,600 and £5,000. Current estimates of the costs were mentioned earlier—they are up to £161 million. Other estimated costs are between £71 million and £113 million. In either case, that is far too much for the council to bear on its own, given that guarantee bonds to cover the work appear to total somewhere around £28.5 million. Who is to bear those costs? Apparently, it is not the companies. East Ayrshire Council would need to allocate a third of its entire budget to repair the property.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
In its report, East Ayrshire Council acknowledged that the
“previous enforcement of these matters has not been to the standard expected and thus the monitoring of these matters by the Planning Authority requires to be more robust now and in the future.”
The Scottish coal industry task force has met on four occasions with the minister as its chair. Will the minister state precisely how he intends to deal with the financial tsunami that East Ayrshire Council faces? Some 311 employees of Aardvark and SCCL have been made redundant in the chaos. What will the Government do to support those innocent hard-working victims?
Remaining assets are being picked over by private interests. Is it ethical, decent and honest to expect the communities of East Ayrshire to bear responsibility for the clean-up, or will the Government step forward and assist?
Some 2.5 million tonnes of the 4.8 million tonnes that have been extracted in Scotland came from East Ayrshire. In fact, more coal is taken from East Ayrshire through opencast mining than is taken from the whole of Wales, and the amount is almost the same as is taken in England.
The situation is scandalous and it is an embarrassment to East Ayrshire Council and the UK and Scottish Governments. The pressure will continue to be unfairly faced by the people of East Ayrshire if no solution is provided in the short term. What discussions will the Scottish Government have with the UK Government to ensure that the situation is not repeated? Can the minister assure me that East Ayrshire will get enterprise zone status to assist the area in reclaiming its future? Will he reconsider his previous decision to offer the area no financial contribution to repairing the environmental damage that has arisen? We should remember that it is 4,000 football pitches in size. It needs some kind of response.
I am pleased to speak in this debate because, although there is no significant production of coal in the Highlands and Islands, it is still widely used there as fuel. For that and other reasons, I am sorry to say at the outset that I cannot support Mr Harvie’s amendment.
Most of our homes across the Highlands and Islands are off the gas grid, and electric heating, although convenient, can be prohibitively expensive. Many people across the Highlands and Islands are therefore dependent on fossil fuels—a fact that Mr Harvie might find inconvenient. Of course, he is keen on renewable energy generation. I share and possibly even exceed his enthusiasm for renewable technologies, but the fact of the matter is that, as Claire Baker suggested, renewable energy generation is not yet sufficiently developed to provide low-cost heating across the Highlands and Islands. I believe that, ultimately, it will be—and the sooner the better—but even in my most optimistic moods I have to accept that it may not be the case for a few years yet. I am sure that Mr Harvie would agree that the UK Government’s inordinate delays in finalising energy market reform do not help to achieve that aim.
I go along with some of what Mike MacKenzie says, but will he at least accept that, if we were talking about protecting coal for the small number of households that need to use it because they are not on the gas grid and it is their only fuel source, we would be talking about a minuscule fraction of the amount that is actually extracted in Scotland?
My argument is only one small argument that Patrick Harvie may not have considered that is very relevant to the Highlands and Islands. I intend to make more such arguments and hope that he will listen to and consider them.
Members will know that Scotland’s rural areas and, in particular, our islands suffer fuel poverty to a greater degree than do urban areas. On some of our islands, fuel poverty has reached the unacceptable level of 50 per cent due to a combination of factors, among which are fuel transport costs, low wages and hard to insulate homes. For good reasons, coal remains the fuel of choice for many people.
On the island where I live, we have an annual coal day when we all work together to bring the year’s supply of coal across. Only a few years ago, we achieved that by dint of hard manual labour. Our community of only 60 souls uses about 60 tonnes of coal a year. Each bag would have to be handled at least six times—down piers, and on and off boats and dumpers—before it reached our homes. Nowadays, we have an easy time. Technology has solved most of that back-breaking problem for us. Now, we use an all-terrain fork lift—a machine that just was not around only a decade or so ago—and we let the hydraulics do the heavy lifting.
I therefore cannot agree with Mr Harvie and Mr Rennie that we should just close down Scotland’s coal industry. Just as technology has solved our back-breaking coal delivery problem, so carbon capture and storage and other clean coal technologies will solve the pollution problems of coal and other fossil fuels.
No. I have already taken an intervention.
The effect of Scotland’s climate change legislation will be and should be to create that imperative, but to do so in a way that does not destroy jobs or industries. We should and can rise to the technological challenges in that regard. Equally, I cannot believe that it is beyond our wit or ability to provide a regulatory framework that ensures that environmental damage is minimised and that the landscape is properly restored when an opencast mine is exhausted.
I did not expect to be upstaged by Mr Fraser on this, but it seems that Mr Harvie would indeed shut down opencast coal with the same relish with which Margaret Thatcher shut down coal mining—without regard for jobs, livelihoods or communities. I welcome the Scottish Government’s approach which, by contrast, challenges our ingenuity to solve problems in ways that will preserve jobs and leave open energy options for the future.
More often than not, members welcome a debate when they stand up to speak. This debate is welcome, if only because it serves to underline the tough and serious economic situation that faces the coal industry and, more important, its communities. This is not the time or place for some people, who have had and have a role in all of this, to start pointing the finger. I welcome the Government motion and the Labour amendment; I oppose Mr Harvie’s amendment.
Some 20 months ago, my Mary’s hairdresser in Ayr asked me what would happen to opencast mining in East Ayrshire, where her husband worked—he was to be made redundant. At the time, I probed a bit but not enough. I fell short.
The companies involved also fell short, in not communicating in a clear, open and appropriate way. In an article on 27 January, the Sunday Herald reported:
“Private companies are planning a massive expansion of opencast coal mining in Scotland, according to information released by the UK government’s Coal Authority.”
The article went on:
“More opencast mining is also planned for East Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Fife, the Lothians, Falkirk and the Scottish Borders”.
Those plans fell drastically short.
The companies allegedly also fell short in not meeting their corporate or community obligations or taking action to ensure a positive long-term environmental impact. It appears that more emphasis was put on cost pressures than on regulatory responsibilities or obligations.
The planning authorities fell short, in not meeting their regulatory responsibilities and failing to ensure that restoration bonds were in place and sufficient to secure restoration.
I am not au fait with the situations in East Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, but I am aware of the situation in Falkirk. Does the member agree that if an applicant for an opencast mine has previously failed to reinstate a site, the local authority should refuse planning permission for future sites until the previous site has been reinstated?
I understand the emphasis that Mr MacDonald puts on the issue. We must consider the whole situation, but in general I have some sympathy with his point.
The planning authorities apparently fell short, in not monitoring restoration bonds and companies’ responsibilities. It is regrettable that the regulatory review group did not carry out reviews, which might have highlighted the potential problem earlier.
If any situation demonstrated the need for the early enactment of a revised planning policy and the need for the Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Bill, to ensure that economic growth and sustainable development work in tandem, this is it. However, I welcome the review that East Ayrshire Council—for whose councillors, officers and chief executive I have the greatest respect—commissioned, which is looking at the management, implementation and monitoring of processes in relation to new developments.
Of course, others have also fallen short. One third of the UK’s opencast coal—or 6 million tonnes—is produced in Scotland. That figure has declined by a quarter in the past decade, and half of it goes to service steeply declining demand in England. However, given the problems and challenges that will be faced in respect of electricity provision down south over the next decade, I believe that the situation will change dramatically. The other half of the coal that is produced goes to Longannet, which was subject to Westminster’s scurrilous decision to forgo plans for clean-coal electricity production.
Unless there is an imminent change of heart and, indeed, technology in respect of carbon capture and storage, an example of which can be seen in the Captain clean energy project in Grangemouth, one has to ask about demand for coal for electricity generation and about the achievement of our Government’s emission targets as set out in the second report on proposals and policies. I believe that the minister will fight such a situation tooth and nail.
Although coal has a future and can play a significant part in our energy mix, that future relies on decisions about CCS, on pricing and on UK and worldwide demand.
I am sorry—I have only a few seconds left.
In such a situation, the future of coal will require stronger planning convictions, monitoring of site plans, restoration, carbon equivalence and validated customer demand and above all community involvement and—I would suggest—community part-ownership.
Given that we all fell short, I do not believe that there is any mileage in finger pointing today. We need to learn lessons from this sad and serious situation. Let us therefore support the industry, Scottish Enterprise, the task force and all the component parts; let us work to preserve employment in the industry both directly and in restoration where we can do so; and let us reskill those who leave the industry. In that respect, I welcome the minister’s news about those who have been employed. The energy industry itself is looking for 60,000 people, and that should provide a means of reskilling and retraining those who have felt the most impact, particularly in East Ayrshire.
We must ensure that this whole exercise leaves a permanent environmental legacy and that we encourage the industry to embrace and work with new technologies. For example, the improved technology used on solar farms is significantly driving down costs and even mitigating the impacts of weather. We should also look at geothermal energy and create community district heating networks from the warm water in our disused coal mines. There are certainly investment opportunities available in such areas.
When one door closes—even partly—another opens, and we need to walk through this particular door. Coal is facing financial and environmental challenges, but it has a future sitting alongside other energy sources in a balanced energy mix in Scotland.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this afternoon’s debate and to support the motion as amended by Claire Baker.
I represent Cowdenbeath, and I am sure that most would agree that over the years Fife as a whole has played a massive role in coal production. Indeed, at one time, Fife had at least 61 mines; they were predominantly deep mines, but it had its share of opencast mines. As a result, I welcome the minister’s comments about the work of the task force and, indeed, his news about Muir Dean. The situation at Muir Dean is considerably complex, largely because the Coal Authority is refusing to assume complete responsibility for the pumping of the nearby Fordell day level. Given that it appears to be legally obliged to oversee such pumping activities, the situation is troublesome and of real concern and I am pleased that progress seems to have been made.
Westfield, which is known to many, was one of the biggest opencast operations in the whole of Europe, but the legacy for the local community in Fife is that it remains one of Europe’s biggest unrestored sites. From 1961 to 1967, 40 per cent of all Scotland’s opencast coal production came from the site, and Westfield perhaps summarises all the problems associated with the industry and how it impacts on people.
The Westfield story is important. The Government appears to be entering a new era in which it is seeking to persuade the public that, given a strong regulatory system, in which proposals to exploit new sources of energy such as methane, coal bed methane and underground coal gasification are assessed, approved and monitored, they should trust the planning system and support such proposals. However, the history of the Westfield site and of other unrestored opencast sites in Scotland, England and Wales—when they are written—provide a salutary warning about whether the public should place such trust in the planning system’s ability to properly regulate the exploitation of energy resources.
I have followed with interest the Scottish Parliament’s briefings from Professor Russel Griggs OBE, chair of the regulatory review group and co-chair of the coal task force. The industry’s contribution to the Scottish economy is £450 million per annum and the coal industry estimates that for Fife that has translated into millions of pounds and many jobs. However, I very much hope that when the planners in Fife, in particular, look at the issues that are of significance to local people when considering the way forward, they consider using the unrestored sites not for only one specific purpose. The plans in Fife should be much more flexible. Until now, the Westfield site has been designated only for converting waste to energy, which is a big mistake because that cuts out many other potential developments.
A recent report refers to
“a 392 hectare unrestored opencast site” and states:
‘Long mining history. Long-held community expectations regarding restoration—unlikely to be realised. Other uses on site—energy related.’
In contrast, this report highlights the long term cost, past, present and future that have been realised by the communities living close to this site, which serves as a testament to what can happen when the priority is to exploit energy resources by unconventional means.”
That must be changed through the cabinet secretary’s work. Our Scottish plans must allow for flexibility in such cases.
A particularly pleasing presentation that Professor Griggs gave us showed the work in East Ayrshire, at the Hannahston site near Drongan, which was an unrestored site with a restoration bond shortfall. That work was particularly creative. The site was fully restored to community woodland using funds generated from the granting of planning permission for housing development. That was very imaginative, and other examples were cited in that presentation.
There is a role for the task force in lobbying. The cabinet secretary, along with every parliamentarian in the chamber and every committee that can get this work under its belt, needs to lobby Europe for a change in policy. Thirty years or more ago in Fife, we were able to use European regional development funding—which we are not allowed to use any more—to tackle pit bings on a site known as Lochore meadows. The photographs of that site—Fife Council will give members a presentation of them if asked to do so—show how those pit bings stood then and how the fantastic Lochore meadows park looks now. That cost hundreds of millions of pounds to develop, but it was done with European funding. We need to make Europe work for us and ensure that, when it comes to setting agendas in Europe, we put such issues on the table when we meet. We want to be able to use European funding to address them.
I totally agree with Annabel Goldie—sorry, I mean Annabelle Ewing. She talked about Willie Rennie’s opportunism in his approach to the debate. Today is not the only time that he has been opportunistic. Who was running in the Kelty coal race at election time? The people of Kelty know—aye, it was Willie Rennie. “Opportunism” is Willie Rennie’s middle name. The Kelty coal race makes me remember that. We should not let him off with it.
I will start with carbon capture and storage. Helen Eadie and I are Europe enthusiasts, but CCS is one area in which Europe is not doing well. We do not have a single CCS facility in the whole of the EU. The number of CCS plants in China is now in double figures, and even the United States—which is not the most obvious climate change champion given its engagement on the issue—is making progress on it.
The need to tackle climate change was something that united us when we took the legislation through in 2009, and it continues to do so to this day. Although we share objectives, when it comes to means I differ substantially from the two minority groups in the Parliament that are behind the amendment that stands against the consensus that is represented by the majority.
It is worth responding to what Mike MacKenzie said. I remember that, when my brother and I were water bailiffs in 1968, we brought coal into our bothy by sea—we had half a ton of it to keep us warm over the summer. Remote and rural communities often depend on coal in an important way.
I want to talk about the positives that can be derived from opencast mining. On 1 November 2011, at the invitation of the River Nith salmon fishery board, I made a ministerial visit to see the positive impact that the opencast industry was having on the environment. I will contrast that with poor examples, as well. The industry there had redirected the Nith on several occasions but, in its restoration, had improved the water flow. It had improved the embankments on the river by moving fences out to keep beasts from polluting the river and had put in trees to improve the riverside environment. In addition, it worked with the salmon fishing industry to suspend blasting operations at times when the salmon were spawning. The result of that was a fourfold increase in the number of salmon that reached the upper reaches of the Nith. The collaboration between the opencast mining industry there and the champions of environmental excellence representing the salmon fisheries in the area was highly successful. Would that that were the universal experience. Clearly, it is not.
We know of the difficulties that were caused by the proposals to increase track access charges, which would have put £4 on each tonne that was carried. Fortunately, those proposals were mitigated. I am not sure that that was a great advert—as Claudia Beamish would have us believe—for cross-border collaboration. It was an issue that was of vital economic concern to us but of comparatively little concern to the larger UK. Fortunately, the arguments against those proposals swayed the day. Today’s debate is another example of rational argument prevailing.
It is worth looking at what opportunities exist for the industry in future. It is, of course, important that we get to an energy mix that is fully sustainable, but we will get there in stages. We must continue to exploit non-renewable resources. We must use fungible resources as an intermediate technology en route to a fully sustainable energy mix. Such resources are part of the economic mix.
If we destroy the economy, we destroy the economics that will be necessary to take us to a fully renewable future in which we have dramatically reduced our climate change footprint, in line with the legislation that we have passed. So, the economy and doing the right thing for the environment are inextricably linked and cannot be separated, unless we decide to close down the whole of the human race and all our activities. Well, fair enough: a sterile world without us on it would indeed be relatively free of climate change impact. However, what would that be worth to us or, indeed, to the world and all that lives in it?
As I have described, restoration by the coal industry is, at its best, very good indeed; but at its worst, it is unacceptably bad. It is right that the Parliament focuses on the bad, because that is where we wish to effect change. We must ensure that the industry has the opportunity to generate the funds that will enable it to do restitution. Like others, I drive from time to time up the M90, and we can see the impact of today’s opencast mining and recognise that it will be substantially expensive to make good what has been done, although we cannot quantify it.
It is perhaps worth extending the hand of friendship to political colleagues across the chamber, so I congratulate Claire Baker and her colleagues on working effectively with the minister and putting aside some of the tribalism that sometimes contaminates debate in here—through gritted teeth, I say that I even extend that to Murdo Fraser on the Conservative benches.
“this present Act is in no way to be extended to colliers”.
In other words, they excluded colliers from freedom, and they remained in enslavement to the owners until an act of 1799. Today, we have an opportunity to unite in a positive way that does some good for the coal industry while simultaneously propelling us closer to meeting the climate change objectives that we all agreed on in June 2009.
For a very long time, I have campaigned for a balanced energy policy and have been concerned that we do not throw all our energy-producing eggs into the renewables industry or, on the other hand, reject out of hand the potential contribution that the civil nuclear energy industry could make in ensuring security of supply.
I have very real concerns that the contribution that domestic coal reserves can make to securing energy supply is being hampered by the negative perceptions of the industry that are regularly cultivated by its opponents. The regular omission of the role that the future deployment of carbon capture and storage technologies could play in reducing the overall carbon emissions from coal-fired power stations conveniently allows those negative arguments to be slanted against carbon energy sources.
I will take one in a minute.
Those were the concerns that I had coming in to this afternoon’s debate. Having heard the debate so far, my concerns have moved on, and I appear to be on the same side of the argument in favour of the Scottish coal industry as the Conservatives, who did so much to try to destroy it in the past. However, I am concerned to see Willie Rennie and Patrick Harvie competing to reach beyond the grave and grab Margaret Thatcher’s handbag to finish off the coal industry in Scotland.
I will take you now, Patrick.
If the member does not mind, I will respond to his former point, not the latter.
He mentioned CCS. I have always been a bit mebbes aye, mebbes naw about CCS. However, can the member tell us, now that the Longannet project has been rejected, the Hunterston project has been withdrawn, the Grangemouth project has not been selected as one of the two bidders for the DECC competition and the white rose project at Drax is the UK’s only coal-fired CCS project, with a fifth of the capacity of Longannet, whether it is not clear that if CCS does work, it will be applied to gas, not coal?
What I will not do is throw my hands up in despair and rule out the potential of those technologies being used to offset some of the concerns of opponents of coal. We must have a positive agenda. We can work towards and share the same objective without necessarily having to agree on the direction for going forward.
I genuinely welcome the Scottish Government’s efforts to overcome the negative mindset against the surface coal mining industry. I recognise the contribution that the extraction of indigenous coal supplies could make to driving economic growth and achieving energy security.
Just as I have said that it is wrong for opponents of opencast to close their minds to its potential, I fully recognise that genuine issues relate to the restoration of sites, protection for local communities during excavation and other major considerations, which Claudia Beamish and Graeme Pearson outlined. The consultation that the minister announced, which will look at the regulation of sites that is required, will benefit by building up the confidence that communities need when plans for opencast mining emerge in their areas.
As other members have said, the collapse of Scottish Coal has raised a variety of issues in relation to the restoration of opencast mines and environmental concerns. I recognise the importance of the Scottish coal industry task force in identifying solutions to the problems that the coal industry faces and I look forward to seeing what emerges from the consultation in that regard.
I come from a community that was built around mining and I am the grandson of a coal miner, so on no account would I wish to diminish the importance of deep coal mining in developing the history and psyche of Lanarkshire and Scotland as a whole. However, I am aware that many miners wanted a better prospect for their sons than a life spent howking coal hundreds of feet underground.
According to many industry analysts, open-pit mining is cheaper, safer and mechanically easier to operate. Open-pit mining poses some dangers to mine workers, but it has safety advantages over shaft mining, as open-pit mines are not subject to cave-in accidents and open-pit miners are not exposed to the same explosive poison gas dangers as deep-shaft mine workers are. Open-pit mining will never be completely safe, but it is safer than shaft mining in some ways.
It is more than a little disappointing that, at a time of increasing demand, Scottish Coal failed to take proper advantage of the potential for the commercial viability of opencast mining and missed the major opportunity to increase activity and output that was available in Scotland. Across Britain, surface coal mining directly employs about 2,000 full-time workers and creates an extensive supply chain.
The loss of such employment in areas that already have extremely limited opportunities for skilled and permanent employment is a major challenge as, in addition to providing well-paid and skilled jobs in economically depressed areas, the surface coal mining industry generates significant funds for local economies and provides significant tax contributions via rates to local authorities. Apart from those obvious economic benefits, the surface coal mining industry plays a significant role in the rejuvenation of derelict land. In my constituency, there was an opencast mine adjacent to the former mining village of Legbrannock, which was James Keir Hardie’s home for a number of years. That site is now home to a fine 18-hole golf course designed by Sam Torrance, which is—unsurprisingly—called Torrance park.
It is regrettable that a major manufacturing firm in my constituency has been adversely affected by the liquidation of two of its largest opencast customers in the Ayrshire coalfields and has lost significant customers for the product that it manufactures. As with coal extraction, reparation work will require the use of that firm’s product.
The facility in my constituency has endured long periods of short-time working, so I hope that the input of any taxpayer funding can be used to ensure that equipment that is used in the restoration process is manufactured here in Scotland rather than by overseas competitors. I welcomed the opportunity to have a brief conversation with the minister about that last week. I hope that he will look favourably on my request for a meeting to discuss that company’s prospects in relation to the work that I hope will arise when restoration works are progressed.
It is a disgrace that the Liberal Democrat leader has left the chamber. We were kind enough to listen to his point of view in the debate, but it appears that he does not want to listen to ours.
I thank our minister, Fergus Ewing, for his considerable efforts over a number of months to save as many jobs as possible in the industry, and I welcome his announcement today that he will consult on establishing more effective regulation of it.
I also thank my friend and colleague Adam Ingram, whose contribution led the open debate. As many members will know, Adam was at the heart of all the discussions that took place as events affecting his constituents unfolded over the summer, despite his own illness and the tragic passing of his wife Gerry. The Parliament should recognise that commitment, which goes well beyond what should reasonably be expected of anyone. [Applause.]
Members: Hear, hear.
I also acknowledge the role that my colleague Aileen Campbell played in the task force in her capacity as the local member for Clydesdale.
When we last debated the issues facing the opencast industry back in January, in Adam Ingram’s members’ business debate, the warning at that time concerned the ORR’s proposal to introduce the additional freight levy. If anything was going to finish off the industry, it would have been that. Thankfully, as some members have mentioned, the ORR stepped back from that and listened to the pleas of many members of the Parliament and of our colleagues in councils throughout Scotland.
It is worth remembering the importance of the industry to Ayrshire, which had approximately 700—or 60 per cent—of the industry’s jobs before the crisis occurred. Those were good, well-paid jobs. The number of jobs lost is similar to the number lost at Johnnie Walker in Kilmarnock when Diageo left in 2009. Ayrshire has had to take quite a blow and we really cannot afford the prospect of two major industries closing down.
The opencast output from Ayrshire last year was more than half the overall tonnage in Scotland, and a quarter of the entire UK tonnage, which emphasises the industry’s importance not only to Ayrshire, but to Scotland and the rest of the UK. It is surely not a serious option to halt all new production, as proposed by the Greens and Liberals, who seem to say anything these days just to get noticed.
I am grateful to East Ayrshire Council for providing some helpful information in advance of today’s debate, and I welcome to the chamber Councillor Roberts and Councillor Primrose, who are visiting us from East Ayrshire today.
I can report that a substantial document and set of recommendations will be presented to the council on Thursday. The steps to recovery outlined in that document from East Ayrshire will greatly assist other councils and the Scottish Government in planning the essential restoration work that must be completed. That will be of huge service in the long run.
Chief among the figures that are presented in the report is the current estimated total cost of restoration, which could—as several members have mentioned—be as high as £161 million. We know that the restoration figure is notional, and is based on costs that were outlined in the original planning consents, but it shows the extent of the problem that has been building for many years.
The council has agreed, as Adam Ingram pointed out, to carry out an independent review, which will be led by Jim Mackinnon. The scope of the review will be to examine all the circumstances that have led us to the current position. It may not be comfortable reading for officers and members—past and present—of the council, but it will be an essential piece of work nevertheless.
With regard to statutory bodies, a clearer—and perhaps a strengthened—role must be carried out in future by organisations such as SEPA, SNH, the Forestry Commission and others. Hindsight is a wonderful thing—with which we are all blessed, of course—but, looking back at the history of opencast applications and subsequent monitoring, one could ask whether enough was asked of or done by our agencies to help us to protect the public interest and the environment. Perhaps there can be strengthened roles and responsibilities for those bodies in the future, and I invite the minister to give that some thought in his conclusion.
Ayrshire almost lost another industry over the summer: a historic and important industry that continues to make a vital contribution to our local and national economy. With some deft footwork and no little skill, our minister, together with colleagues in both Parliaments and in the councils, averted that disaster. We have made very good progress, but we have by no means reached a happy ending as yet. We are indebted to East Ayrshire Council for the work that is being undertaken there, and I am sure that all Scotland will reap the benefit in years to come.
I welcome the minister’s statement and thank him for the update on what is, by anyone’s standards, the very difficult task of balancing employment issues with environmental issues and the interests of communities that lie in the proximity of opencast mines, let alone with the financial issues at this difficult time for the coal industry.
As the minister said, two of the largest mine operators in Scotland have folded within 12 months. The decline of the coal-mining industry in Scotland during the past 50 years has been quite rapid and the events of this year prove that we still have a considerable way to go before the industry can offer any form of security to its employees and other stakeholders.
To my knowledge, my constituency of North East Fife has never been home to any collieries, but that is not to say that the industry has not had a significant effect on the area. In the past, tens of thousands of men from around Fife would have been employed in what was the kingdom of Fife’s or, at least, west and central Fife’s largest and best-known industry. The historic age of mining in Fife was brought to life in the film “The Happy Lands”, which was screened at the festival of politics this year and earlier this session.
In more recent times, long since the industry’s heyday as mentioned by Helen Eadie, opencast surface mining in Fife alone yielded 171,500 tonnes of coal in the first quarter of this year. That is more than 15 per cent of Scotland’s total output in the same period, and more than 7 per cent of the combined UK total. It also employed 145 workers. It is therefore beyond doubt that the industry remains a considerable force despite clear downward trends during the past few decades. Those jobs would be put at risk by Patrick Harvie and Willie Rennie if their amendment was passed.
Most members will have welcomed the minister’s announcement of the creation of the Scottish coal task force following the demise of Scottish Coal. The task force’s remit is to secure employment and to ensure appropriate restoration work. Those tasks are extremely important and I welcome the work that the task force has undertaken thus far, including the way in which it acted as a platform for stakeholders to come together this summer to convince the Office of Rail Regulation that its proposals for freight charges would have devastated the industry in Scotland. Success in making the ORR reverse its decision almost certainly saved hundreds of jobs across Scotland and helped to strengthen the industry for the long term.
It is not just jobs that we need to protect, important as they are. As parliamentarians, we have a duty to do all that we can within the powers that we have to ensure that the landscape is protected for now and for future generations of residents and visitors alike. Much has been said about the damage that is often left behind when operations at opencast mines wind up. Talk of scars on the landscape is understandable. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that our landscape is a huge asset. Nature-based tourism is worth £1.4 billion to the Scottish economy every year, and it supports around 39,000 full-time equivalent jobs. According to SNH, 40 per cent of all tourist spending in Scotland is nature related. In addition, we must remember how adversely communities that are in close proximity to opencast mines can be affected when the mine is active and when operations have ceased.
As other members have rightly pointed out, restoration is a complex business and there can be no one-size-fits-all approach. Different agreements between operators and local authorities, different access rights and different topography and water tables, to name but a few variables, must all be taken into consideration. I am aware that flooding is a particular issue in Fife and I am pleased to note that Fife Council has been active in working with operators, SEPA and SMRT to look at mitigating flooding effects in the short term, and agreeing on the details of resolution for the longer term.
On clean-up costs, the minister and other members have talked about the problems that are so often associated with bonds with local authorities, be it their absence or their inadequacy for dealing with the scale of the clean-up and the costs involved in restoring the mine to as close to its original state as possible through landscaping or the like. That has clearly been a major problem around Scotland, and I am aware of cases in other parts of the country, such as Midlothian and East Ayrshire. I am encouraged to note that Fife’s current post-1998 opencast mines have significant bonds in place, by and large. Whether they are adequate is not, however, entirely clear at this stage.
I am delighted to hear that the minister has recognised the need to do something about this in the immediate short term, and the creation of the Scottish Mines Restoration Trust to assist and guide the restoration process is a welcome step indeed for stakeholders and the communities affected.
Notwithstanding our collective best efforts, there is still a problem that needs to be addressed in the longer term. Across Scotland, we must learn lessons from the bond problem. It seems that for many years—going back decades—bonds were sought but rarely insisted upon. I listened with interest to Claire Baker’s comments on Alex Rowley’s statement on that issue and I also welcome Derek Mackay’s comments on the Scottish planning policy.
The case for stronger regulation has been well and truly made and I am sure that the minister’s announcement today that the Scottish Government will shortly be consulting on better regulation will offer a great deal of comfort for all stakeholders in the coal industry, especially those who are affected most when clean-up is put on hold due to a lack of funds.
Most of us agree that opencast coal mining remains an important industry in Scotland. Coal is not a clean fuel and work is certainly needed to maximise carbon capture and storage technology, but abandoning the opencast coal industry would be an ill-considered move that would cost jobs.
I welcome the Labour amendment to the motion.
Coal mining is not perhaps the first industry that people would associate with my constituency in Dumfriesshire but it has played an important part in the economy in parts of my constituency, with deep mining having been important in Canonbie and Rowanburn—the last of those collieries closed way back in 1922—and more recently in Upper Nithsdale, where the Fauldhead mine in Kirkconnel closed in 1968 but employment in deep mining continued until the demise of the industry during the 1980s.
Opencast mining has continued to be one of the very few sources of well-paid skilled employment in Upper Nithsdale, although it has not been able to provide the number of jobs that were previously provided in deep mining. Nevertheless, in an area where the local economy was decimated by the demise of the deep mining industry, those jobs have been very important.
That is why there was so much local concern when ATH Resources, which operated the Glenmuckloch mine—the only remaining opencast mine in Dumfries and Galloway—went into administration in December last year, with the potential loss of 60 very important jobs.
The news was not unexpected, because in May last year, share prices in ATH had halved, plans for an extension of the site had had to be put on hold and 11 workers had already been made redundant. Fortunately, however, there had been early discussion between various parties with an interest in the site, including the landowners Buccleuch Estates, who were understandably worried about the possibility that restoration would not happen. Indeed, it was noted that the bond did not cover the costs of restoration at that time.
ATH was honest about what was happening and came forward to talk to people about its problems. We also had important discussions with Dumfries and Galloway Council and with the Scottish Government, which recognised last year that the problem was not a one-off and that what was happening at ATH was the beginning of a problem that then manifested itself in problems at Scottish Coal.
I put on record my personal thanks to one of my constituents, Professor Russel Griggs, for his hard work in facilitating discussions and keeping me informed in confidence on the progress of those discussions—a confidence that I respected during that period. I was very grateful for being kept up to date on what was happening on behalf of my constituents.
As a result of the work that was done prior to ATH going into administration, the remaining 60 jobs were not lost, work continued on the site and Hargreaves purchased the debt. A restoration plan has now been agreed, which interestingly includes forestry, carbon capture and the development of renewable energy sources. Indeed, they are looking at a hydro scheme that would be able to store energy from wind turbine schemes, which would be an interesting development on that site. There is now hope for job creation on the site instead of job losses.
Restoration is, however, dependent—as the minister said—on the extension of the opencast site to fund it. If there was no extension there would be no restoration and there would be no jobs. In my view that would be a lose, lose, lose situation for my constituents.
I believe that the transformation from the serious threat of job losses in an area where unemployment is high to a good news story with the potential for further job creation is due to the various stakeholders and partners being prepared to sit round the table together to seek a resolution to both the employment and restoration concerns before the situation turned into a disaster.
Of course, that does not mean that everyone will live happily ever after. The resolution is still at an early stage and many of us will be keeping a close eye on developments. As Claire Baker mentioned, one issue of concern is the application by Hargreaves to Dumfries and Galloway Council to use the local road network to take coal to the railhead at New Cumnock. That may not affect my constituents as much as Adam Ingram’s constituents, but I, too, have significant concerns about increasing heavy-vehicle use of the A76 road, which already has a number of issues.
The Scottish Coal story, however, is less encouraging. The workforce knew that the company was in trouble, but the sudden announcement on 19 April this year, at the end of a shift, that the company was going into administration with the immediate loss of 590 jobs was shocking, even though 450 workers—including 45 of my constituents who worked in East Ayrshire—had been placed on notice of redundancy the previous month. The workers had been in discussions with management but were receiving very little information. MSPs, including me, MPs and local councillors had all been seeking information with the intention of facilitating any meetings that might help, but everyone was kept in the dark. National Union of Mineworkers president Nicky Wilson spoke for many of us when he said that he was disgusted with the way in which the workers had been treated. PACE, too, had not been informed of the forthcoming announcement, so it was unable to make contact with the workers prior to their being made redundant. That made the work of the PACE team considerably more difficult.
Most of those workers are still out of work, but I hope that, as the minister said, within the next six months 300 of them will be back in employment. The workers also discovered that the company had not appropriately accredited their skills, so their opportunities of obtaining employment in other industries such as construction were seriously compromised. I am pleased that so much progress has been made on accrediting the skills of those workers with the MPQC through the opencast mining task force, as the minister mentioned in his opening speech.
The purchase of some of the sites by Hargreaves provides hope that some sites will resume production shortly. Of course, there remain serious concerns about the future of the coaled-out sites, which were previously in the ownership of Scottish Coal but disclaimed by the administrators—I will be very careful in what I say about that because of the on-going legal issues. However, it is true that, as others have said, the sums of money required to restore the sites runs into millions and at present there is no indication how such sums of money might be obtained. That must remain a concern for us all.
Finally, I agree with Adam Ingram that the Upper Nithsdale area needs a regeneration strategy that takes us away from overreliance on coal and develops other jobs and training opportunities in what is an area of high unemployment. We need to focus on that going forward.
Coal is certainly no stranger to my constituency of Midlothian North and Musselburgh, where a proud tradition of coal mining goes back centuries. Coal was the economic lifeblood of the area until the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher destroyed our coal industry and devastated our coal communities. Over the years, I have spoken to many ex-miners and listened to their always interesting and sometimes hair-raising tales of what life in the pits was really like. After a while, I can almost begin to believe that I have experienced the undoubted camaraderie and the ever-present danger of the day’s work. Coal mining was never a safe occupation, as the risk of injury and even death was a constant companion down the pits.
Today’s debate is on the opencast mines that are the successors, as it were, of the old deep pits, although it sometimes seems that we are moving backwards many years in time to a period when shallow opencast was common. Inevitably, much of today’s discussion is on liability for the restoration works at the end of the life of the opencast mine, but there are also other aspects to consider.
First, I congratulate the minister on the work that has been done so far to protect and preserve employment. In these days of recession, every job is a prisoner. The work of PACE in particular appears to have been very effective. I have no doubt that every opportunity has been taken to save jobs in what were exceptional circumstances, but we must look forward to the future to ensure that the jobs are still there in 20 or 30 years’ time.
How to preserve a sustainable coal-mining industry in Scotland for the long term is a formidable challenge, particularly pending the implementation of real clean coal technology, including carbon capture.
The key issue in considering the sustainability of the industry is the glut of cheap coal on the international market. The economics surrounding what is a relatively inefficient and crude means of extracting fuel from the ground are at the moment uncertain. Coal can be produced much more cheaply in Poland and South Africa. Most recently, the collapse of the coal industry in Scotland is linked to fracking in America. The resulting surplus in energy supplies has caused a collapse in the demand for coal and the flooding of the UK market and others with cheap American coal that the Americans cannot sell in their home market.
Fracking is in the process of being licensed in the UK by the Westminster Government, which controls the licences. My understanding is that a general licence to frack in the North Sea is in process. Leaving aside my particular dismay at that development, let us continue to focus on the economics of coal. Fracking destroyed the viability of the coal industry in America by flooding the market with relatively cheap fuel. Can fracking in the UK have a different end result? Will there not also be a flood of cheap fuel into the UK market? Longannet might close in 2020, so where will the coal industry sell its bulk product in Scotland?
I am not saying that cheaper energy is a bad thing for the economy in general, but we are discussing the coal industry and its future. Clearly, the price of energy is a key factor in that discussion.
There are uses for coal and its by-products other than as a bulk product for Longannet power station, but nothing that would support the cost of opencast pits. To survive, the coal industry needs a long-term plan that goes beyond looking at its current extraction opportunities. I am pleased that the minister is realistically engaging with stakeholders to find a viable way forward.
Another important issue to consider—or, more correctly, other important stakeholders to consider—is the local communities in which such developments operate. In my constituency of Midlothian North and Musselburgh, there is widespread and well-organised opposition to opencast coal mining. I have to say that I am sympathetic to the arguments against having such projects close to communities.
Another real challenge for the industry and the planning authorities is to reassure communities on the well-documented health concerns. Considerable evidence exists to show that people living in the close vicinity of such a development suffer from a higher level of respiratory ailments than those elsewhere. Studies in Douglasdale between 2004 and 2009 showed that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in affected areas affects 2.7 per cent of the population compared to the UK average of 1.5 per cent. That cannot but be a concern, and it needs to be addressed as part of the engagement.
Many of my colleagues in the Parliament share my concern about the threat to the restoration of opencast coal sites. In my constituency, I have an example of a well-restored site at part of the Shewington works, but I now fear that the remainder of the site will not receive the same treatment. Like many, I am shocked by the possibility that companies might be able to walk away from the liability to restore worked areas, given that planning permission and community support were conditional on such works taking place. It is difficult to believe that the courts would support a proposition that is so little in the public interest—
I will be, Presiding Officer.
That proposition might well create an unwelcome precedent. Let us hope that the appeal that was heard last week reverses the decision, because otherwise the impact will be—
Very well, Presiding Officer.
The action that the Scottish Government has taken to create the restoration bonds working group is genuinely welcome. In the long term, such restoration works will undoubtedly create employment and do a creditable job. However, the documented shortfalls in the bonds that have previously been provided by opencast operators leave cause for concern that local authorities, communities and the Government might be left with an unwelcome and expensive legacy of the opencast coal industry.
There is no doubt in my mind that the industry needs better regulation, for its own sake as much as for the communities within which it seeks to operate. Better compliance monitoring at sites and, for once, an enforcement policy that has teeth would make a huge difference. I firmly believe that the Scottish Government is doing the right thing by engaging with the industry and other stakeholders to preserve jobs and to consider a sustainable future for the industry. For my part, I want to see a continuing and flourishing coal industry in Scotland that respects and works with local communities. I commend the minister and the Scottish Government for their work on the issue to date.
Before we turn to the closing speeches, I once again remind members that there is a live court case and that members should take great care if they mention any details of that case in their speeches. I say that for members’ benefit.
Many members who have spoken may be quite pleased to know that this has been a depressing debate for me to listen to. However, there have been one or two lighter moments, such as Murdo Fraser describing me as a neo-Thatcherite. I thought that I was the only one who could make the lady spin in her grave quite so much, but I should really take lessons.
Another lighter moment was when Stewart Stevenson began his speech by talking about his commitment to climate change legislation but, within two minutes, deploying arguments of which James Delingpole would be proud.
As for the minister, over our many exchanges over the years, I have come to learn that the more animated Fergus Ewing’s ham outrage at my position, the more reassured I feel in the strength of that position.
In his speech, the minister failed to deal directly with the central question of who pays. That is not simply a matter for current issues—which I will avoid, Presiding Officer—but goes back a long time. The list of Scottish opencast operators that have collapsed is a long one: J Fenton & Sons, RJB Mining, Caledon Coal Company, Millstone Grit & Fireclay, Coleston Mining, William Grant (Mining) Ltd—the list goes on. It is not a new problem.
It is also an issue for the future because Fergus Ewing, as well as other members on the other side of the chamber, said that restoration is possible only if we allow the creation of an even bigger problem for the future—restoration can only be paid for by even further destruction. That is simply not an argument that we should accept.
The minister said that he wants to engage with all those who have a constructive interest in sustaining the industry. Would that he was so concerned to sustain the environment that the industry has destroyed and is still destroying. He is deeply concerned to avoid the industry’s destruction but seems content to ignore its destructiveness.
Claire Baker focused on jobs, as did many members—understandably so. Like communities the world over that have been forced to live with the environmental harm caused by a destructive industry, many in Scotland have been forced to become economically dependent on the industries that have so degraded their environments.
For a time, the Labour Party seemed to understand that and made an effort to engage with the concept of environmental justice. I urge it to return to that position. Let us be clear about jobs for the future of Scotland—not for the past. A low-carbon, low-energy, resource-efficient economy would be dramatically more job rich than the one that we have now.
A comment was made about Alex Rowley saying that we should be extremely careful with future consents. Surely, at the very least, such care means not giving consent until the restoration issue has been resolved.
Murdo Fraser seemed concerned about feeding the coal-fired power stations that are still part of our energy mix. The reality is that they are reducing their demand, whether through conversion to biomass at Drax, through importing less sulphurous coal because of the necessary environmental regulations that have been put in place or, in some cases, because they will simply be closing down. The Scottish market for coal will be gone before long, and the English market for Scottish coal will be in terminal decline. We should not seek to prop up the market for the sake of it.
I am slightly puzzled by Patrick Harvie’s assertion, because two companies are currently considering the revival of the deep mines at Canonbie, which actually produce a good-quality coal. I am sure that those companies would not be interested if there was no future for the industry.
As far as I am aware, Longannet is scheduled for closure by 2020. That is included in the Government’s national planning framework.
The view of the Scottish opencast communities alliance as circulated to members is clear and it—and not only the industry’s view—deserves to be heard in the Parliament. It also deserves to be heard around the table at the task force and at the restoration trust. Representatives of the communities ought to have a seat at the table with the full freedom to communicate properly with the communities that they represent.
Mike MacKenzie, Michael McMahon and others made comments about carbon capture and storage. I dealt with the reality that CCS is likely to be applied to gas, not coal, if it can be shown to work. However, even if it were to be applied to coal, the possible future availability of CCS technology could be used to justify burning coal only once that technology becomes available—it cannot be used to justify burning it now.
The issue of fracking has been mentioned, and its economic impact on the market has been discussed—most recently by Colin Beattie. However, fracking and coalbed methane raise for me another concern. Will that industry lead to yet another iteration of the same problem? Will operators be held to their future environmental responsibilities or will communities in the likes of Airth and elsewhere be told—as opencast communities have been told already—that bonds have fallen short or that companies are off to court to try to abandon their responsibilities?
It seems to me that the case is very clear for an inquiry, not only into the finances of restoration but possibly into the breach of European environmental law. In order to comply with European environmental law, the Government must either ensure that the obligations are met in full by the industry and that the industry is held tightly to those obligations, or pick up the tab from public funds. Those are the two choices, and if the Scottish Government is not minded to hold such an inquiry, at the very least the case is clear for the Auditor General to hold an inquiry into the finances of this entire situation.
It seems to me that the question that has not been addressed by the minister but which needs to be asked is: why are we continuing to support an industry that routinely trashes the environment, is openly contemptuous of environmental laws, facilitates the biggest polluters in the country and has no future? That question remains to be answered.
Let us take a moment to draw breath, pause and apply some common sense to the discussion.
I do not have to tell you, Presiding Officer, that the Conservatives have a difficult relationship with the coal industry—and, perhaps, a more difficult one with the Scottish coal industry. We have heard a number of times today about the impact that the previous Conservative Government might have had on the industry. However, as many may have heard when I spoke in the debate in which we paid tribute to Margaret Thatcher earlier this year, I am one of the people who believe that it was Arthur Scargill’s determined drive to bring down a Conservative Government that cost us our deep mining industry. If we look at the mines, even in the Edinburgh area, that were closed down and were never reopened due to flooding that arose as a result of a lack of maintenance, we realise that there is a more complicated story to be told here.
The truth is that Scotland is a country that is well endowed with energy sources, and that coal was one of the biggest of those. Scotland’s coal reserves are still immense, and they will be exploited in different ways as time goes on. The deep mines are gone and, in recent years, opencast mining has been what has enabled Scotland to maintain its huge coal production. Now, however, we have hit a problem. The value of coal has undermined the industry, creating all the problems that we are addressing today.
Some options have been brought forward during the debate, such as taking action to push up the price of coal. Unfortunately, we cannot consider that as a route by which we can deal with the problem because, as we know—as many of us have repeatedly pointed out in the chamber—energy costs are already too high. Whether someone is in fuel poverty or is involved in an industry that is trying to maintain its position in the world market, energy costs are absolutely key to the long-term future. We must therefore consider how we can proceed in a way that will ensure that we can keep energy cost-effective in Scotland.
There are alternatives to what we are doing with coal. We could, of course, go down the road of carbon capture and storage, which would deal with the problem of carbon dioxide emissions. There are also those who believe that, in the long term, we might find a way in which to exploit our coal reserves by bringing the energy up and leaving the carbon where it is. However, for the long term, we have to deal with the problems that we have been discussing today.
A number of members have contributed to that discussion. There was a detailed—in fact, at times quite moving—speech by Adam Ingram, who talked about the situation in East Ayrshire. East Ayrshire had a very successful opencast mining industry, which the collapse of Scottish Coal and Aardvark has, of course, significantly undermined. I pay tribute to the way in which East Ayrshire Council has taken up cudgels and gone ahead and prepared its own report, “Opencast Mining in East Ayrshire—Steps to Recovery”, which will be published on Thursday this week, I believe. I look forward to hearing the ministerial reaction to that report to see whether it can offer a way in which we can deal with the collapse of opencast mining. On behalf of the Conservatives, I also particularly thank Councillor Tom Cook of East Ayrshire Council, who has been our contact in the area and has kept us informed about what is going on.
We have heard interesting arguments, sometimes in the same speech. Claudia Beamish faced both ways on the priority of coal. She reminisced with a good degree of warmth about the good old days of the miners’ strike and then talked about the importance of not allowing coal to contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
The member missed my point, which was that the need for jobs in the coal industry for beleaguered communities must be recognised now, but for the future, the range of options has to be looked at in relation to the shift from fossil fuels to a low-carbon economy, and people need support in that shift to be trained or retrained.
Indeed, but the one thing that we cannot do is both at the same time.
Patrick Harvie’s contribution to the debate has been substantial, and I turn to the main issues that surround the Green and Liberal Democrat amendment. Patrick Harvie objected to subsidies for rail transport—perhaps that was a first on his part. We must remember that we cannot sacrifice the jobs of the many people who depend on the industry simply to take us towards his green revolution.
A member mistook Annabelle Ewing for Annabel Goldie—surely nobody else could make that mistake. I entirely agree with Annabelle Ewing, whose position was that a one-size-fits-all approach would not work in these difficult times for opencast mining. The answer to the problem is complex, which is why the minister must take the matter forward in the way that he set out in his opening speech. It is, of course, important that we all work together.
As my colleague Murdo Fraser pointed out in his opening speech, the Conservatives will support the Government motion and the Labour amendment. We are prepared to go forward with a united front. It is a disappointment to me that the Greens and the Liberal Democrats have taken a quite isolated position. Try as I might, I cannot work out how they believe that that will help at this difficult time. To call on the Scottish Government to
“call an immediate halt to all new open cast coal developments and to ensure that the industry fulfils its legal and moral obligation” is a contradiction in itself. If we kill the industry stone dead, which is what I believe that action would do, we will simply be left with the problem that the liability for clearing up the mess of opencast coal mining may be attributed to one or other of the individuals involved, but nothing will be done if there is no money and there are no companies.
To take the matter forward, we must ensure that the industry survives and is encouraged to accept its responsibility.
I commend the actions of the Government and the minister and look forward to seeing how the matter works out in the longer term. In the meantime, the Government will have our support at decision time.
This pragmatic debate has reflected the complex challenges that we all have to face, and it has indicated that we need to work together in the interests of our constituents. I believe that members have engaged in the debate with that appetite and that overall attitude.
Although we need to be pragmatic, we also need to have a few points of principle in mind. To me, the Parliament should be guided by our principles of sustainable development in considering how we run our economy now and the long-term impact of our economy, but also how we factor in environmental and social issues and social impacts. Environmental justice has to be a key part of that world view, and that was ably demonstrated by both Claire Baker and Claudia Beamish.
What has happened in our coal industry should worry us all. The question mark over jobs and stability in the industry, which Claire Baker mentioned, has been coming for some time, and it represents a double whammy for local communities. Jobs have been lost by some of our most disadvantaged communities that already have much higher rates of unemployment, as Graeme Pearson mentioned. The loss of commitment to and funding for restoration projects has been a body blow for many of those communities, which are now deeply worried about their future. The bonds and guarantees that were undertaken and given by companies, without which planning permission would not have been granted, have to concern us in the Parliament.
That is why our amendment focuses on the need for the Scottish Government to review the policy advice in the draft SPP that closed for consultation this summer. We wanted to make a positive contribution to the debate and to flag up the fact that, because the planning minister has extended the time before the relevant policy is concluded, we have a chance to look at that section.
We also wanted to flag up that discussions about the future of the coal and other extractive industries need to include the trade unions that are involved—both those on the mining side and those in relation to transport. It is concerning that, as well as losing jobs in the coal sector, we have seen contracts going away from rail haulage and reverting to road transport. At its very start, the Parliament focused on transferring transport from road to rail, and it is bad news for local communities to see a move back.
Our amendment refers to what happens next in planning. The establishment of the task force was welcome, but we all need to put our minds to the key issue of the way forward on restoration in relation to both existing sites and the long-term development of new proposals. There are currently problems with pollution—and Helen Eadie was absolutely right to raise them as they are worrying communities now, even before we look at future issues. That is why, although we have not called for a moratorium, we have called for guidance to be addressed in the new SPP. That is crucial, because the existing document is short on help for local authorities, which have seen the agreements that they had made blown out of the water. With companies going bust and their successor companies attempting to shelve their obligations to carry out restoration work, communities are rightly angry. We need that guidance from the Scottish Government.
Not just now, thank you.
Today’s announcement is important, and we need to seize the opportunity. I ask ministers to consider continuing the task force’s inclusive approach as they move forward. It is vital that all voices are drawn into the discussion, including those of communities and local authorities. We need to learn from good practice as well as from failure, and it is important to take on board Claudia Beamish’s comments on best practice in West Lothian and Midlothian.
The issues of site surveys and restoration guarantees are also crucial. In future, sites need to be run to the best of standards, and they need to be progressively and appropriately restored. It is important that local authorities have the capacity to tap into specialised financial advice, because we all know that the current financial settlement for local authorities is seeing them lose staff. Those are key issues that we need to address.
I ask the minister to consider the Scottish opencast communities alliance’s suggestion that local authorities should be allowed to introduce fees for monitoring and enforcing mineral consents. The alliance points out that such work is complex but underfunded.
When the planning minister suggested earlier this year that local authorities should be allowed to raise the cost of planning fees, Labour agreed. The work is expensive, and it is important that planning authorities are properly funded to carry it out. I know from representations from the East Ayrshire Labour group that people are worried that the council simply does not have the resources to deal with a crisis on the scale of the one that it faces.
As Graeme Pearson said, the council will discuss the matter this week. The paper from council officials says that the council is seeking support from the UK Government and the Scottish Government to find a way to support the restoration of sites in East Ayrshire.
If Willie Rennie had taken interventions when he was in the chamber, mine would have been to say that he surely cannot rule out the involvement of the UK Government. My colleague Sandra Osborne MP raised the issue with the UK Government. Given that 48 per cent of the UK’s opencast coal comes from Scotland, we surely need positive engagement from the UK Government on the issue. Communities have been devastated because of the unsustainable financial settlement from the Scottish Government in this year’s budget, and yet Willie Rennie tells them not to speak to the UK Government. Governments at every level need to work together to see what practical support they can give local authorities and the communities that we represent.
It is welcome that cumulative impact will be a material issue for planning authorities under the new planning guidelines. However, we need to ask what weight the Scottish Government will give to the existence of a site for which there are no commitments on restoration in a locality that would be affected by a new proposal. Will a local authority be expected to refuse planning permission until the existing site has been dealt with? Will the issue be reflected in authorities’ consideration of planning applications?
The issue is important, because communities have a right to know what kind of environmental protection they can expect in such circumstances. Local authorities need to find out to what extent the Scottish Government will back them in planning decisions if companies are not happy about how their applications have been dealt with. Local authorities need to be confident that the Scottish Government will back them up.
We need a transparent policy framework and an approach that is valid, fair and enforceable. I would be interested to know to what extent ministers have discussed the issues with local government and the UK Government and what role they envisage for the Coal Authority and DECC. The intergovernmental challenges are acute in this context and need to be taken on board.
We need to get it right, because it is about challenges not just for the coal industry—although that has rightly been the focus for most members in this debate—but for other extractive and environmental industries. Restoration principles apply whether we are talking about fracking, biomass or coal. RSPB Scotland and Friends of the Earth Scotland were right to put the issue on our agenda in their joint briefing.
Our economy is still in difficulty and access to money is an issue for companies. Borrowing has become more expensive, so it is a challenge for local authorities to measure accurately long-term financial viability. There are issues to do with global changes, and local authorities need support and strategic advice. We need to work collaboratively across the Parliament on the issue.
We need to consider the issues in the long run. We will need new jobs as our economy moves on to lower carbon energy sources. That is why the issue is not about a choice between low carbon energy and support for our coal industry; the challenges go hand in hand. Labour members are up for a discussion, to ensure that we work with local communities and Governments at all level to meet the challenge. We cannot leave things to fall as a result of the failure of market forces.
I start by welcoming to the public gallery Councillor Jim Roberts, a member of the task force, together with his colleague Councillor Stephanie Primrose. They have sat through the whole debate this afternoon. I also pay tribute to their colleagues on the task force, including council members from various parties and trade union officials. Without their contributions, rooted in the community and experienced in the industry, we would not be where we are now and we would not have achieved the successes that we have achieved.
There have been four or five meetings of the task force. Derek Mackay and I were grateful for the invitation extended by the chief executive and convener of East Ayrshire Council to see for ourselves some of the impacts that they have in the opencast mines. We spent the best part of a day doing that, contrary to what Mr Rennie, who is not here, implied in his statement.
I welcome and thank all those members of the task force across the parties in this chamber for their contribution. I do not think that I have ever chaired a bigger task force—at one point, there were nearly 60 people on it. I do not know whether I can prune the numbers, if there are any volunteers.
Looking forward, I have planned a number of strands of work with all parties in this chamber in an open and co-operative fashion. First, I am due to meet bondholders to discuss some of the difficulties that have arisen. I will be working closely with the councils in that regard. Secondly, the litigation is sub judice but I will continue to engage with the liquidators as is appropriate.
Thirdly, I will continue to explore with the UK Government whether any of the substantial contribution that the industry pays to the Coal Authority, which amounts to a great number of millions of pounds—I believe from recent figures that the levy is 17p a tonne, although only 1p of that is in fact funded to the Coal Authority—can be used in part to meet the restoration costs. Many members have rightly said that the industry has responsibility. The industry has made a contribution but, at the moment, I am not sure exactly what the contribution has done, where it has gone or what it is for. The vast majority of it has gone straight into the consolidated fund. I am not making any political points, but I think that the Parliament would expect me to pursue that issue—and pursue it I will.
Lastly, in respect of the work going forward, we will hold at least two further meetings of the task force, and possibly more, as required—we will see. In addition to that, I confirm that we have asked Scottish Enterprise, in a letter from me to Lena Wilson at the outset of these problems, following the administration of the two companies, to look particularly at the predicament facing East Ayrshire. Adam Ingram, who has worked tirelessly in the task force, asked for that assurance and I have given it to him. I will personally attend meetings, the detail of which Mr Ingram and I have already had some discussions about.
Willie Coffey was right to highlight that the Ayrshire communities have already been affected severely by the aftermath of the Diageo closures. Mr Swinney, who is here in the chamber, and I recognise the severe predicaments faced in East Ayrshire and, at a strategic level, the need not only to diversify into other areas but to work with the existing employers.
On Claire Baker’s remarks and the comments in the Labour amendment about planning, we believe that the current policy is quite clear. We have consulted over the summer on slight amendments, and we feel that the issue is the operation of the policy locally, which would benefit from further advice and guidance. Following the debate, Mr Mackay will write to Claire Baker with as much detail as we have at the moment. We will explore that issue further during the consultation process.
In August, despite the issues of redundancies in the sector, Scottish opencast mines produced 448,000 tonnes of coal. By contrast, only 332,000 tonnes were produced last month in England. The industry sustains 1,500 direct full-time jobs and 3,000 indirect full-time jobs. It contributes around £0.5 billion to the economy per annum. Last year, Scotland produced 4.8 million tonnes of coal. At least 12 million tonnes of reserves remain, and possibly much more.
The industry provides average salaries of £42,000, which is well above the Scottish average of £22,000. One wonders where on earth jobs offering such salaries would be found were the industry to be closed, as the Liberals and the Greens would have it if their amendment were approved—which, fortunately, it will not be.
In the winter, coal regularly generates around 45 per cent of the UK’s electricity—a point that was made by Conservative, Labour and SNP members—and more than half our coal is exported to England, contributing to the UK’s electricity generation system.
Well, I am an optimist.
Contrary to what Mr Harvie said, Longannet coal power station is expected to keep generating electricity until 2023. Mr Harvie is also wrong to say that there will not be a community representative on the SMRT—it is recruiting one at the moment, as I thought he was aware.
No. I will give way to Mr Harvie in a minute. I ask him to hang on for a second.
When CCS becomes commercially proven, that will allow clean coal thermal generation to continue for many years to come. When I attended the EU Council of Ministers meeting with the UK delegation in November 2011, there was a presentation by the lady who heads up the International Energy Agency. Her analysis pointed out—and I have never seen any information from anyone that contradicts this—that unless CCS as a technology is applied to power stations throughout Europe, it is extremely difficult to see how the EU emissions targets can be achieved.
If one thinks about it, the proposition is straightforward. A substantial proportion of carbon emissions derives from generation electricity from gas and coal. If emissions from that generation are abated, that will make an enormous contribution to reducing our emissions target. If they cannot be reduced, either fossil fuels must cease to be used—as Mr Harvie wants but which is not possible in the short term as we transition to a low-carbon economy—or we must have CCS technology.
I find it difficult to understand the position that Mr Rennie and Mr Harvie have adopted. Since CCS is a sine qua non of achieving reductions in carbon emissions, why are they opposed to it? My quandary is even more acute given that I found out, when the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute came to this country in the summer and I hosted a reception for it, that the equivalent of the WWF in the USA supports carbon capture and storage. As that is the route for reducing carbon emissions, why are Mr Harvie and Mr Rennie opposed to it? It would allow their objectives to be achieved—in fact, it is the only way in which their objectives will be achieved.
I am glad that the minister, who is such a good sport that he has spent the last few minutes misrepresenting my position, has chosen to give way. He knows that I am not opposed to CCS. However, there is a serious question mark over whether it is technically and commercially viable. If it is viable, when it is available we may be able to burn coal without CO2 emissions.
I return to the point about the community representative, which is what I wanted to intervene on the minister about. Can the minister give us an assurance that the community representative will be entirely free to communicate about all issues with the communities that they represent? Otherwise, they will be completely incapable of doing the job.
I cannot give that assurance to Patrick Harvie, because it is not up to me to constrain people’s individual contributions—I would not attempt to limit liberty of expression. Anyway, the SMRT is independent of the Government, so it is within neither my power nor my desire to prevent it from speaking out as it sees fit. What a ludicrous suggestion.
It is plain and absolutely clear to all those who have contributed from the SNP, Labour and Conservative benches that we see in Parliament today something that I cannot remember ever having come across before in 14 years of membership of the Parliament. Not just Mr Harvie but one of the putative major parties, the Liberal Democrats, have proposed in their amendment a measure—the halting of further coaling—that would have the effect of closing down a whole industry in Scotland. I cannot remember any putative major party putting forward an argument that anyone who is capable of logic can see would have the inevitable consequence of redundancy notices being handed out to thousands of people in our country. It is a matter of profound regret that the Liberal Democrats should adopt such a policy, and I wonder whether their UK colleagues would agree with it.
I close by paying respect to all the workers in the industry and assuring them that, on my watch, there will continue to be surface coal mining in Scotland.