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Daisy Hill Opencast Coal Site

Volume 124: debated on Thursday 17 December 1987

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn— [Mr. Maclean.]

10.57 pm

On the motion for the Adjournment I am raising the subject of the planning appeal decision of the Secretary of State for the Environment on the Daisy Hill opencast coal site in my constituency. I am doing so because I believe that the Secretary of State's decision to overrule his own inspector's recommendations is ill-considered, unjustified and arbitrary.

Let me say straight away that I am not opposed in principle to opencast mining. However, as the Select Commitee on the Environment said:
"open cast mining is one of the most environmentally destructive processes being carried out in the United Kingdom."
Therefore, it is essential that decisions on opencast mines should be subject—as they are now—to the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 and its procedures.

What needs to happen is that each case should be considered extremely carefully on its merits, and that is precisely what the inspector at the Daisy Hill inquiry did. There is no argument about the facts of the case. Indeed, the Secretary of State has said specifically that he accepts the inspector's findings of fact. The inspector held a public inquiry in March and April of this year against the refusal of Durham county council to permit opencast mining at the Daisy Hill site.

All the local councils—county, district and parish—were against the appeal by the Coal Board. Many local people were involved in the inquiry, and as the constituency Member of Parliament I gave evidence to it. Apart from the Coal Board, no one was in favour of the board's appeal. All agreed that the decision to proceed with opencast mining would have harmful environmental effects.

As was the case with the 1979 inquiry into a similar, if marginally larger project, the inspector at the 1987 inquiry found that, mining at the Daisy Hill site would cause serious environmental damage that would outweigh any market requirement for coal. Opencasting, said the inspector, would disrupt the landscape and lead to harmful environmental effects, including dust, noise, vibration, and harsh visual intrusion on the surrounding settlements of Edmondsley, Daisy Hill, Sacriston, Woodland Terrace and Nettlesworth.

The site is in a bowl, overlooked by the settlements that I have just mentioned. So, as the inspector pointed out, there is no way in which the visual effects can be mitigated or screened.

The inspector was also concerned about the impact of opencasting on the Waldridge county park, which directly adjoins the site. As I am sure the Minister is aware—he will have looked at the papers—Waldridge Fell is a beautiful area containing a registered common and a county park, managed for educational and recreational purposes — it was visited by about 75,000 people in 1985, the last year for which we have accurate statistics —and it is a site of scientific interest because it is a rare lowland heath. That is why the inspector concluded that opencasting so near the park would
"result in an unacceptable impact on a leisure area of rare therapeutic value".
When the inspector came to weigh the environmental damage against the need for coal, he accepted that there was a regional need for further opencast coal working, but he concluded that
"this individual proposal appears to have an insignificant relationship to the wider national interest"
and that market considerations did not justify the substantial environmental damage that was involved. In view of the decisive and conclusive nature of the inspector's recommendations, it is astonishing that the Secretary of State proceeded to overturn them.

In answer to my parliamentary question on 14 December the junior Minister said that since the National Coal Board opencast executive was brought into the planning system in 1984 the Secretary of State had overturned an inspector's recommendation on only one occasion. I should like the Minister to confirm that that only occasion was the one that we are discussing tonight. It is therefore unique.

My argument is not that the Secretary of State is not entitled to do what he did, but that, if his decisions are not to be considered arbitrary, he must have overwhelming reasons for overturning his inspector's recommendations. The letter from the Department setting out the Secretary of State's reasons for overturning his inspector's decision is unconvincing, to say the least. He accepts that opencast mining at the Daisy Hill site will cause damage, but he goes on to say that
"there is a regional need for further opencast coal working to be permitted".
I challenge the Secretary of State's decision on three grounds. First, it is inconsistent. For the planning system in general to function in a proper way and attract confidence, there needs to be an evenhanded approach to each appeal. This applies particularly to the opencast industry, where the inevitable outcome of any approval is to cause disturbance, to at least some people.

The Daisy Hill decision is the third of a series of decisions on large British Coal opencast sites in the county. The first two decisions were taken in May for the Rose Hill site near Stanley, which is also in my constituency, and in August for the Hill Top Brusselton site near Shildon. The need for the coal from each of the sites was identical, being based upon the supply of coal to the steam markets in the south-east.

In the Rose Hill and Hill Top Brusselton appeals the Secretary of State agreed with the respective inspectors that the disadvantages of working these sites outweighed the perceived need for coal. In the Daisy Hill decision, the Secretary of State seemed to forget about the earlier decisions on the need for coal and the weight to be given to that. He also disagreed with his inspector about the degree of disturbance that would be caused by the working of this site.

As I have said, each case has to be considered on its merits, but when the same applicant produces similar evidence at three inquiries held within six months of each other about the market requirement for coal — a term which, as the Minister knows, is used in circular 384, which contains the current Government guidance—one would expect at least a reasonably uniform approach to the environmental considerations of each proposal. It would be difficult for anyone with direct knowledge of the location of the Daisy Hill site to maintain that the environmental effects there would be less significant than those at the two other sites, which were refused. I speak with personal knowledge, because I was involved in the Rose Hill decision. Therefore, I know what I am talking about.

As the Minister knows, the inspector in the 1979 Daisy Hill inquiry, and the inspector in the current inquiry, recognised the environmental problems of working at this site. I doubt whether any other sites in the country have been considered in such detail over many years with a finding against development by two inspectors. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State has determined that the Daisy Hill site should be approved. Most objective observers would conclude that the Government have abandoned the evenhanded approach.

I should like to know the basis on which the Secretary of State has judged that environmental considerations are not important in this case. To my knowledge, he has never visited the site. His inspector has visited the site. Indeed, he virtually lived on it for a month. He concluded that the environmental damage would be severe. What grounds has the Secretary of State for rejecting his inspector's advice? Would he allow opencast mining near his own house or next to a country park in his constituency? I very much doubt it.

The Secretary of State calls on the north to improve its environment to attract business. He tells us to design more golf courses to make the north more attractive and more beautiful. The inspector also said that an improved environment was a crucial part of the Durham county council's plan to attract modern light industry to set up in the north. Indeed, it was one of his main reasons for turning down British Coal's appeal, yet the Secretary of State has rejected his inspector's advice.

The Secretary of State has not even troubled to make a serious argument about the market requirements. He has ignored his inspector's conclusion that Daisy Hill coal is not particularly rare and that any contribution to exports would be expected to decline. By relying purely on the argument about the regional need for more sites, the right hon. Gentleman is virtually giving the go-ahead for all future applications by British Coal. We should like to know how many sites are needed, where they will be and whether local councils and residents will have any meaningful say in the planning process.

I fear that the Daisy Hill decision will not only be harmful to the interests of my constituents, but will give the green light for unlimited opencast mining in the northern region. The Secretary of State has behaved in an irrational and arbitrary fashion. It is as if he took the decisions late at night on his fifth box, and that he mistook a letter from the Secretary of State for Energy for the inspector's findings. I do not accuse him of having listened too eagerly to a telephone call from the Secretary of State for Energy. I am sure that he would not do that, because he knows that he has a quasi-judicial function. As his decision is so inconsistent, arbitrary and unjustified, I ask him to rescind it. It may cost the Government money, but it is the only sensible thing to do.

11.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. David Trippier)

The hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) has explained his concern about this case with characteristic vigour, and I congratulate him. Before he was successful in obtaining this Adjournment debate I was already aware of his interest in the decision by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to permit the British Coal Corporation to extract coal by opencast methods from the Daisy Hill site. Since that decision, issued on 10 November, the hon. Member has written to my right hon. Friend and has tabled two questions which deal with the statistics of decisions in opencast coal cases.

The hon. Gentleman's constituency is one of several in north-east England which are fortunate in having not only some very beautiful scenery but also considerable mineral wealth. His constituents have, for generations, been constantly faced with the dilemma of preserving the environment whilst exploiting the natural wealth of their home territory.

I am sure hon. Members will appreciate that I am unable to comment on the merits of a particular planning decision. Once a decision has been given on appeal or called-in application my right hon. Friend has no further jurisdiction in the matter and he cannot reopen -It to consider any further representations or complaints he may receive. Any person who is aggrieved by a decision on appeal and wishes to question the validity of the decision may make an application to the High Court within six weeks from the date of the decision. As the decision on the Daisy Hill site was made only on 10 November, it would be doubly inappropriate for me to make any comrnems on its merits.

In every case that comes before my right hon. Friend for decision a great deal of care is taken to assess all the evidence both as represented by the inquiry documents and as presented by the inspector in his report. However, I must emphasise that my right hon. Friend is entitled to reach his own views on the merits of any case as presented to him by the inspector and he is not obliged to accept the inspector's recommendation. Only where he intends to reject an inspector's recommendation because he is privy to new evidence would the Secretary of State have to refer back to the parties.

The hon. Gentleman has asked why this is the only case —it is the only case—where the Secretary of State has overturned the decision of an inspector. I have said why I cannot comment on the decision, but I refer the hon. Gentleman to the letter from which he quoted, which sets out in some detail the reasons—he may not agree with them — for the Secretary of State's decision. It is certainly true that it is the only decision the Secretary of State has overturned on an opencast coal site. However, it is not unique in other respects. Last year some 27 recommendations of inspectors were overturned, and on occasions the Secretary of State has varied decisions of the inspector on opencast coal matters.

Although I have said that I cannot comment on individual cases, I appreciate the concern that proposals for opencasting can cause. I fully accept that this method of mining can have a severe impact on the amenities of an area. However, that does not mean that opencasting is automatically incompatible with the protection of the environment. It is important to recognise that opencast coal is a valuable source of low cost energy and that, providing proper control is exercised, there is no reason to impose artificial limits on the production of opencast coal. I obviously welcome the comment that the hon. Gentleman made about opencast mining.

This is the approach that we adopted vv hen the Government accepted the recommendation of the Commission on Energy and the Environment that consideration of opencast coal proposals should be brought within the normal minerals planning machinery. Under the terms of DOE circular 3/84, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, British Coal was required, as private licensed operators have always been, to submit its plans to the mineral planning authorities — usually county councils — for consideration in the normal way. If planning permission is refused, British Coal has a right of appeal to the Secretary of State, as in the case of the Daisy Hill application.

Whether on appeal or during the consideration of an application by the mineral planning authority, account must be taken of the guidelines my Department issued in circular 3/84. That states that each project should be considered in terms of the market requirement for its planned output, taking into account the alternative sources of supply, including deep-mine coal, as well as the environmental, agricultural and other planning considerations. The overall level of opencast output is therefore determined by the market, subject to the acceptability of individual projects as determined by the planning system. The circular also states that when assessing the need for coal and the environmental, agricultural and other planning matters, proposals for opencasting should be examined against certain considerations. Those are, in no particular order, first, the extent to which coal would otherwise be sterilised by built development. For example, if a major road construction project is to take place, where possible it is sensible for any shallow reserves of coal to be worked first. Secondly, the extent to which a site can be environmentally improved, by clearing dereliction or stabilising a site for amenity use or allowing other forms of development to take place once the site is cleared. Thirdly, to provide for the comprehensive working of coal deposits in an area. Generally, it is better not to work coal in a piecemeal fashion which may prolong the environmental disturbance in an area. Finally, to consider whether the proposals facilitate the efficient and economic working of any other minerals which occur in the site.

Opencast coal sites also raise issues such as the effects of dust, noise, visual intrusion, increased heavy traffic movements and vibration from blasting. If an opencast coal proposal is to be considered favourably, all those matters will have had to have been satisfactorily resolved. Another important factor will be the satisfactory arrangements for the proper restoration of the site. In all those matters it is sensible for the applicant to have sought the views of those affected such as local people, or those able to offer expert advice, such as the Nature Conservancy Council. In that way a consensus is more likely to be achieved.

Although under that system British Coal now applied for planning permission, the Opencast Coal Act 1958 still required it to seek authorisation from the Secretary of State. That separate tier of approval is redundant and its repeal was provided for in the Housing and Planning Act 1986. However, before the opencast coal provisions in that Act could be implemented, two sets of regulations had to be made to amend the forms used by British Coal for footpath and compulsory rights orders and ensure that the corporation's entitlement to compensation for planning decisions is confined to the same circumstances as other mineral operators.

I listened with great care to what the hon. Gentleman said. I understand his concern and I know that he is a very honourable Member of this House in every conceivable way. However, I must make it clear once again that I am not allowed to comment on the details of the case, but a way is open to an appeal to the High Court.

The Government recognise that opencast coal is an important source of low cost energy. They are firmly committed to the protection of the environment and they wish to ensure in individual cases that the right balance is struck between the national interest in developing those resources and in protecting the environment.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.