HL Deb 25 March 1982 vol 428 cc1074-81

4.6 p.m.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Statement reads as follows:

"In August 1978, the board submitted a planning application to Melton Borough Council for permission to work that part of the coalfield which lies under Leicestershire to construct three mines, at Hose, Saltby and Asfordby, and to tip spoil adjacent to those three sites. At the same time, applications were made to Rushcliffe Borough Council and South Kesteven District Council for permission to work those parts of the coalfield which lie under Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire respectively. Those applications were called in by my predecessor, the right honourable Member for Stepney and Poplar, in Januray 1979.

"A public local inquiry was conducted on my behalf by Mr. Michael Mann, Q.C., assisted by two assessors. I should like to record my gratitude to Mr. Mann and his two colleagues for the way they conducted the inquiry and for the report, a copy of which I have placed in the Library, together with a copy of my decision letter, which is being issued today.

"The inspector recommended that planning permission should be granted for the development of the coalfield and the construction of all three mines, but that permission should be refused for the proposed spoil tips at Hose and Saltby.

"I have carefully considered all of the issues in the inspector's report. I agree with the inspector that the board's proposals for tipping at Hose and Saltby are unacceptable as they stand, but in addition I am concerned about tipping at Asfordby because of its impact on agriculture. I have concluded that before local tipping at any of the three sites could be contemplated, the possibility of other methods of spoil disposal should he further examined.

I have also concluded that the development of a mine complex at the proposed Hose site is environmentally unacceptable. Mine buildings here on the scale proposed would dominate a wide area and would be alien to the Vale.

"The inspector concluded that it was somewhat more likely than not that there will be a need to supplement indigenous deep-mine capacity at about the time the Belvoir coalfield could become fully operational, but he felt unable to refine his opinion by suggesting the year in which the need would arise or the exact extent of that need. I accept that the coal will be needed in the future, but I have had to weigh the degree of need demonstrated with the adverse environmental effects to which I have already referred.

"I have also considered whether the development of this coalfield can be justified on the grounds of the employment opportunities it would create for mineworkers displaced by colliery closures in the North-West Leicestershire and South Nottinghamshire areas. I have concluded that the very important benefits which would accrue from the provision of such employment should be considered in the light of any fresh applications the board may wish to make and in a timescale compatible with the employment requirements.

"have concluded that the need and employment arguments are not incompatible with the need to seek an alternative approach to the mining of this coalfield, which gives more weight to the environmental objections, and I have therefore refused planning permission for the development of the Vale of Belvoir coalfield as set out in the present planning applications. This decision should not be seen as in any way going against Government policy that the coal industry has an essential and increasing part to play in meeting this country's future needs for energy, provided that it is competitive and based on efficient high productivity capacity. I accept that the board might wish to submit new planning applications setting out revised proposals to exploit this massive national resource.

"However. before doing so, I consider that the board should re-examine how the coalfield can be worked to minimise environmental disturbance and how the colliery waste can be disposed of other than by local surface tipping. I recognise that this second point has ramifications going beyond the board's interests, and I shall therefore be writing shortly to those principally concerned with a view to inviting discussions on how the spoil disposal problem can best be overcome. It is very important that these discussions should he pursued with vigour and brought to a conclusion as soon as possible. It is a matter for the board as to when new planning applications are submitted, and, provided the major environmental objections can be overcome, I would not anticipate that the procedures for handling these would need to be unduly prolonged.

"There is one other point to which I should like to refer. The board submitted a single application covering all of the underground coal extraction in Leicestershire, together with the three mine complexes and the three tips, and they have thus opted to stand or fall on a strategy of developing the coalfield as one project. I take the view that, in these circumstances, the granting of a permission for only part of the development would be in effect granting a permission for development which is significantly different in kind from the proposal which was the subject of this application. Had it not been for this, and had there been acceptable proposals for spoil disposal, I would have been minded to grant planning permission for mines at Asfordby and Saltby."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.

4.12 p.m.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, I am sure that we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, for repeating this important Statement. It is a very important Statement, one which has been eagerly awaited for a long time, and which has I think been somewhat delayed. I must say that from the point of view of the energy needs of this country, it is a very disappointing Statement. The National Coal Board's first application was put in four years ago. The inspector's report was submitted a year ago, and it has taken a good while for the Department of the Environment—which I understand made the decision—to make up its mind.

The noble Lord said that it is of course a matter for the board as to when new planning applications are submitted, but he did not anticipate that the procedures for handling these would need to be unduly prolonged. Perhaps the noble Lord, who has a great deal of experience of planning inquiries, will say why the Government have come to the conclusion that a second application would take not so long as the first.

I should also like to ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that there was complete accord over this application between the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers, with the support, I have always understood—and I used to work in that department—of the Department of Energy and of the European Energy Commission. Plan for Coal depends on introducing new capacity at regular intervals. Is the noble Lord aware that this is needed to replace existing capacity and to produce more in 10 years' time? It is also needed to replace old pits with modern, more efficient and safer pits.

It takes 10 years for a major scheme of this kind to get into production. The coal is needed to replace output from the Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire fields. There are six collieries there which will become exhausted over the next decade. I believe that 8,000 jobs are at risk. Will the noble Lord tell us what alternative employment the Government anticipate will be provided for the skilled and experienced miners who will be thrown out of work if there is to be no further capacity provided in Belvoir?

With regard to the environment—and I note what the noble Lord said—the National Coal Board has a very good record. It has given assurances that it would do all that it could to minimise adverse effects on the environment. Did the noble Lord's right honourable friend the Secretary of State take this into account? Was he aware of the record of the National Coal Board in this respect?

It is a difficult decision, and I think that there is a lot to be said on environmental grounds. It is a beautiful part of England. On the other hand, we have to balance that fact with our energy needs. I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that Sir Derek Ezra, in a speech last summer, said: If we were to go forward as a country always putting the environment first in every respect, we might end up with a pleasant environment but with no industry and no employment"?

4.16 p.m.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, we, too, on these Benches are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement to us. Certainly the Statement will be accepted with some relief in some quarters, and not least by the noble Duke, the Duke of Rutland, who I understand had threatened to prostrate himself in front of a steamroller if in fact permission were granted. But I do not see why the Government should prostrate themselves in front of the noble Duke, despite his threat.

I must say that certain interests will greet the Statement with great enthusiasm. There would be serious interruption to fox hunting interests, possibly ending in a closure of some of the hunts if the colliery were to go ahead. But in relation to these environmental and other interests the Statement went on to say that the Government are prepared to ignore on grounds of employment the putting forward of the mine workings in Belvoir and postpone the project. The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, has already mentioned that the lead times in opening up a new mine of this consequence are very great. Will the Minister give some estimation of how long the second application will take, and say whether it will in any way interfere with the project and Plan for Coal, of which the Vale of Belvoir is an essential part?

There is one other point on which perhaps the noble Lord will give some clarification. It relates to a contradiction in terms in the Statement, which said that the decision was not seen in any way as going against Government policy. Is it Government policy to keep open deep and dangerous pits which are uneconomic and uncompetitive, or is it Government policy to try to produce a modern and effective coal industry, which must rely on large-seam and effective pits which have a potential, such as the Vale of Belvoir? This is a very important policy point which is not made clear in the Statement. During the Second Reading of the Coal Industry Bill we had a quite clear statement by the Government that they want to subsidise deep and dangerous pits. Is that their policy, or is it not?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords for their observations. I should like to pick up some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi. He said that the decision was disappointing for energy, and I can understand that. However, if one looks carefully at the implications for jobs—which come out as the thrust of the noble Lord's concern: and the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, raised the point, which I think must be the important counterpoint I should like to say that my right honourable friend fully accepts the importance of this aspect of the whole matter. We realise that the development of the Vale of Belvoir coalfield would ameliorate the effect of pit closures in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, and we believe that it is possible for the environmental objections to be overcome and for fresh applications to be made within a timescale that is compatible with the employment requirements. We believe that the decision and the discussions which we intend to initiate will make it possible for the National Coal Board to submit new planning applications within—and I stress this, because I think that it is the point—a timescale compatible with the employment requirements. We are well aware of the issues of time.

It is up to the Coal Board to press forward, if it wishes to do so—and that is the way in which I would answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, as to how long it will take. The Coal Board must make its move. We believe that if it does so, and with the discussions to which my right honourable friend referred in the Statement, it should certainly be possible to arrive at a point within this timescale that takes into account the employment issue.

As to the other points that the noble Lord raised, yes, I am sure that we are aware of the Coal Board's good record in general environmental works. That is encouraging; and it is also a factor in encouraging us in what I have been saying so far. I entirely accept the very sensitive matter that this concerns, and I am also aware of the long time that it has taken to come to a conclusion. Hopefully, it should be possible, as I say, to get to the further point if that is what everyone wishes to do.

4.21 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, on behalf of my colleagues on these Benches I should like to say that I feel the Statement made by the Minister will be greeted with some disappointment. On Monday of this week the House passed a Bill increasing the borrowing limits of the Coal Board. This was designed to enable the Coal Board to invest in new pits. We were much encouraged by that gesture; but the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers, who have discussed this particular case at some length, will be vastly disappointed by the Statement which has just been made.

I associate myself completely with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi. If you look at the production figures of a modern pit such as the Coal Board wish now to close in order to invest in a new pit, such as they wish to do in the Vale of Belvoir, you will see that the production costs in the new pits are something like £18 per tonne, whereas last year production costs were about £40 per tonne in older pits. By the same token, production per man-shift is 2.3 tonnes in the average, whereas in new pits, in which there is new investment, it is something like 10 tonnes per man-shift. All this indicates the necessity for immediate investment in modern equipment and modern mines.

In so far as the present Statement simply further delays this process, it must be disappointing. As the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, has said, the original applications were made in August 1978; the inspector reported in May 1980; and we are now in March 1982, when we get a Statement inviting the Coal Board to make a further and revised submission. This does not give confidence nor encouragement to the Coal Board to make a further and revised submission. This does not give confidence nor encouragement to the Coal Board in the way we think it should.

My Lords, may I say just one more word, again on the timescale? Having had such delays, can we have some assurance from the Minister that he has some timetable in mind in order to secure approval for the development which might be possible? Secondly, may I draw to his attention the fact that on the initial planning applications the Coal Board has already spent over £2 million on consultants' fees, which money could have been better used, I suspect, in other areas of Coal Board activity, and that we are now invited once more to submit revised planning applications? Could I have some assurance from him that the procedures will be simplified and that the Coal Board will not be asked to engage in exercises of this kind when they have other important work to do?

Finally, the question raised by Lord Strabolgi is an important one. The development of this kind of coal mine takes at least 10 years. The run-down of employment in the neighbouring coalfields amounts to 3,000 men in the next 10 years. Can I have some assurance that the timescale for absorbing these men will be consistent with the approval of the planning application?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I thought I had made it clear—I tried to spell it out very carefully in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi—that the last point that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, makes is of as much concern to the Government as it is to those who have raised it. I said that we felt it was entirely possible for there to be the kind of timescale which would enable us to have a situation where there will be no need at all to be looking for the alternative types of employment that the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, asked about; because in our view, if it all goes forward as it could, then there is no reason why they should not be mining in these same fields.

As to the other point that the noble Lord makes, he said that there will be some disappointment. Perhaps there will he at first, but I hope not when there is careful study of the Statement and, I hope, an opportunity to take note of certainly what I have said today and what, I am sure, my right honourable friend will be saying in another place; because we are at some pains to stress this point of employment, and that is why we have said so much about it already. We understand the points about the necessity for investment. I think the noble Lord said that he welcomed what the Government had said about that already, so we are not at cross-purposes there. I say again that I understand the first disappointment so far as that aspect goes, but it is a difficult problem. Again, as so often, one has to take a balanced view, and I think that in this way we can get a satisfactory solution to the interests of ail concerned.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, can one get up from this place and really congratulate my noble friend on a quite excellent decision? The people who live in that particular area were not keen for the massive three-colliery development which was proposed. At the moment, there is a 3 million—

Several noble Lords


The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is a 3 million barrels a day excess of oil production over use; that the Coal Board is producing very large quantities of coal which remain at the pithead unsold at the moment; and that there is no immediate, screaming hurry? Provided a tidy, clean and environmentally unobtrusive, perhaps one-pit development can take place, I am sure that will be much more satisfactory to everybody. I should like to congratulate my right honourable friend on a sensitive and intelligent decision.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, just to acknowledge what my noble friend has said, he simply confirms the point I was trying to make as to the difficulty in coming to a balanced decision in a matter of this kind.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, may I express my appreciation of the decision of the Secretary of State. He has at least one admirer on these Benches for his sensitive and sympathetic approach to a most difficult problem. As one who has spent a good deal of his life in that area, who loves it so much and who is sensitive to the feelings of people in the district, I think that the Minister has been well justified in taking ample time in careful study of all the implications of this enormous development. I think the Minister ought to register, if he will, my own humble thanks for his approach to this matter. Realising the disappointment it will cause in some quarters—as the noble Lord the Minister said a moment ago, there is difficulty in reaching a balanced judgment—there is, nevertheless, another side to this matter before irrevocable harm is done to the diminishing beauty of Britain.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, but I hope he will not mind if, in thanking him, I stress again my understanding of the concern expressed on the other aspects of the matter about which we are equally as sensitive as we are about the one which he very helpfully raises.

Lord Wynne-Jones

My Lords, may I put this matter to the Minister?

Lord Bellwin

In the form of a question.

Lord Wynne-Jones

Of course, my Lords; I would not dream of putting it in any other form. Is the Minister aware that the whole problem of the coal industry is one of continuing development? Is he aware of the fact that if this is delayed it is going to be impossible for the coal industry to remain viable? If I may continue to ask questions, is he cognisant of the fact that, today, the coal industry is faced with a large number of pits which are not strictly viable, and that it is therefore urgent to develop new pits?

This is not a matter than can be put off. This one has already been put off for a number of years. If it is put off further, does the Minister think there is any hope of the coal industry reaching the target which a sub-committee of this House of which I was chairman recommended—that is, that there should be a minimum production of 150 million tonnes of coal by the end of the century, which is in line with the tripartite plan, and that it would be preferable to go up to 200 million tonnes? Does the Minister think that it is possible—I am still asking a question—for such a target to be reached if we have a further delay? Is the Minister also aware of the fact that the counties of Northumberland and Durham when the pits were privately developed were devastated and that it took the National Coal Board to repair the wreckage created by private ownership of the coal mines of this country?

Lord Bellwin

The last point that the noble Lord made does not take us very much further. I am aware of the importance of what he has said about the need for continuity. I hope that I have gone to some pains to try to emphasise this afternoon the importance that we attach to this time factor which we recognise clearly; and it is on all the advice that I am given that I say that if the Coal Board wish to move, with everyone moving forward as we hope—I cannot prejudge any decision that would be taken—there is an opportunity for us to get to where I think noble Lords (who are, quite properly so, anxious on the employment matter for the mineworkers) want to be if we can move in that direction.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord this question? In addition to the £2 million abortive expenditure on the first submission, is it a fact that an alternative submission must inevitably mean a higher investment? And if that is so—and, of course, the emphasis is on environment and not on economic production—may we have an assurance from the noble Lord that he and his colleagues will not use the opportunity to criticise another public corporation for higher expenditure?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am not aware to what extent, if any, there would be higher expenditure. The noble Lord is more knowledgeable than I on this subject and I am sure that what he says will be considered. I think it is proper to say that in terms of the time to be taken, much of the ground has been covered already. There has been so much discussion and the report is very detailed; and that in itself would surely be a much briefer need when a further application is made, if it is made. And that should be encouraging, too.