asked the Secretary of State for Energy what is his estimate of the output from opencast mining in 1987.
The Government have no target for opencast production.
Does the Minister accept that a substantial level of opencast production is secured at the cost of grave disadvantage to communities living in the vicinity of mining sites? Bearing in mind that there are gatherings of those who are poised to secure profit from the privatisation of the coal business, will the Minister assure hon. Members that the views of local communities will be given commanding influence when any proposals are considered to ensure that the local environment, rather than private profit, is preserved? Will the Minister also ensure that the people of Rawmarsh, Wath and Swinton in my constituency are safe from the development of an unwanted site?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman, with his background in and experience of the coal industry, is aware that British Coal is among the world leaders in the restoration of opencast sites. It is important to recognise that the right balance must be struck between developing opencast coal reserves and the need to protect the environment. British Coal's new booklet on opencast coal mining emphasises the opencast executive's positive commitment to the highest environmental standards.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the cost of production of opencast coal is way below that of deep-mined coal and that, particularly over the past 10 years, there has been a total transformation in the restoration of workings of opencast coal mines, to the extent that we lead the world?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I emphasise again that opencast coal is an important resource in the United Kingdom that can be produced cheaply and profitably. It is a vital part of British Coal's operations, particularly in deep-mine pits, such as Lea Hall and Littleton, where opencast coal is absolutely necessary to make the product burnable.
Is the Minister aware that it is widely forecast that opencast mine output is to be increased vastly by private enterprise? Is he further aware that only British Coal has detailed knowledge of the quantity, quality and so on of coal reserves? That knowledge has been gained at vast expense. Will he ensure that any information regarding coal reserves that is sought by private contractors will be made available at a substantial cost commensurate with the cost of obtaining such information?
The level of opencast output has to be determined by the market, subject to the acceptability of individual planning projects as determined through the existing planning system. As I said, British Coal takes its responsibilities as a good neighbour very seriously. Its record demonstrates that in the opencast sector.
Does my hon. Friend accept that opencast mining has a devastating effect on communities? Does he consider that the right policy to adopt is that there should be no more than one opencast mine at a time in an area, not two or three at a time?
The planning procedures ensure that applications to work opencast coal do not go ahead without all the arguments for and against being aired. That allows, in the best possible way, for a balanced judgment to be reached. I add that the opencast executive spends a great deal of time and effort in reducing the impact of its sites and restoring them once coaling has ceased.
Is the Minister aware that in our valley the opencast executive is proposing major schemes to tear up both sides of the valley? Is he aware also that the present Secretary of State for Wales overruled his own planning inspector on a scheme in his own constituency on environmental grounds? Is that not a good example for others to follow?
The hon. Gentleman is constantly trying to inject emotion into this afternoon's Question Time. A little reality would be helpful. I think he should recognise that British Coal is spending a considerable amount of time and effort to increase both public and local authority understanding of opencast mining. I commend to him the booklet that British Coal published last week.