Planning (Opencast Mining Separation Zones) Bill: Second Reading

Andrew Bridgen moves a private Member's Bill to introduce a 500-metre buffer zone between an open-cast mine and a residential settlement in England - as already exists in Scotland and Wales.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

May I begin by saying what a privilege it is to be able to introduce a Bill on a matter that I campaigned on before and after the last general election? This issue is very close to the heart of a large number of my constituents in North West Leicestershire, both now and historically. Indeed, I am following in a rich tradition of Members of Parliament for North West Leicestershire, all of whom have raised the issue of opencast mining in the House at one time or another as an item that has blighted my constituency and the lives of my constituents for decades.

It would be best to start by setting out the rationale behind the Bill. Back in February 2010, along with other parliamentary candidates, I was asked to speak and debate at a hustings organised by the Minorca opencast protest group, which I will take this opportunity to thank and pay tribute to for all its hard work in campaigning against a proposed opencast mine in my constituency, near the village of Measham. While researching the subject for the hustings, the question of a buffer zone arose. Such a zone is a legally enforced gap between an open-cast mine and a residential settlement. I found that, in the 1990s, East Ayrshire council in Scotland became the first UK local authority formally to introduce a 500-metre buffer zone between open-cast and surface mining sites, and areas of settlement. After much lobbying and protest, that eventually led to the incorporation in present Scottish planning policy, which was published in February 2010, of guidance on a 500-metre buffer zone.

I also discovered that the most consistent public request about open-cast mining in the past two years has been for the minerals technical advice document to include a 500-metre buffer zone. Interestingly, the Welsh Assembly Government have put in place a policy of introducing 500-metre buffer zones between areas of settlement and open-cast mines. However, in September 2009, when my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) questioned the previous Government about the introduction of such zones in England, he was told:

"There is no current intention to review existing planning policy on opencast mining and introduce buffer zones in England."-[ Official Report, 1 September 2009; Vol. 496, c. 1843W.]

Poor old England suffers again.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to one of us hard-working Ulstermen. I wholeheartedly support the Bill. We face a similar situation even in my constituency, because there is a proposal for a lignite, open-cast, filthy mine in Ballymoney that would tear up swathes of Ulster and North Antrim right to the causeway coast and the middle of a tourist zone. Such a Bill would help to prevent that, so I give him my support.

Andrew Bridgen: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support.

The Bill would offer protection to communities not only in North West Leicestershire but in dozens of constituencies in former coalfields throughout the country, hopefully including in Northern Ireland. A study carried out by the Minorca open-cast protest group showed that 29 open-cast sites in England are being worked now, have received planning permission, or are in the planning pipeline. It also found that development could take place in the near future on a further 34 sites scattered across the counties of Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire and, of course, my own county of Leicestershire. Figures from the Coal Authority that were produced in March 2010 show that whereas buffer zone-protected Scotland and Wales had known reserves of open-cast mined coal of 75 million tonnes and 147 million tonnes respectively, unprotected England has 516 million tonnes of reserves, much of which lies within 500 metres of residential settlements.

Since the Bill was announced, I have received messages of support from groups and individuals throughout the country whose lives have been affected by the blight of open-cast mining. An application has been made for an open-cast mine in the north-east, and a member of the public who lives near the proposed site contacted me about the

"black cloud of a planning application to mine a site which is alarmingly close to some of the houses in our local area. Some houses will be within 58 metres of the site, some 140 metres, while the majority affected would be within 300 metres as proposed by the scoping report."

The Minorca site in my constituency is only 100 metres away from residential settlements. It has the potential to have a devastating effect on the quality of my constituents' lives, and I am sure that many hon. Members in the Chamber will have heard appeals for help from communities facing the prospect of open-cast mining happening effectively in their backyards.

The stark reality of the situation was brought home to me when I read the following account of the impact of open-cast mining:

"They have just started an open cast mine in the field behind my mother's house in Shropshire. In weeks we expect her view of fields and The Wrekin to be replaced by a 9 metre high mound of earth 6 metres from her property. She is 84 years old and until the Shropshire Star did an article on her, the opencast company had not even bothered to visit her or contact her.
She has limited mobility and is therefore housebound. With an open cast mine and then a land fill site she will no longer be able to open her windows or sit in her garden. What a way to spend the final years of your life. She would now like to move but this is now impossible. Nobody would buy it and the opencast company is not interested even though they own the property on either side of her."

The Bill would also have a positive impact on planning policy. I have received support for it from a planner, who commented:

"'I became aware of your private members bill that would introduce a 500m buffer zone between open cast mining and residents, when giving planning advice on the redevelopment of redundant buildings in the grounds of a grade II listed property which is currently negatively impacted upon by the potential for open cast mining within the immediate vicinity.
Despite my advice and that of the council being that it would be highly unlikely that consent would granted for open cast mining within the grounds of a grade II* listed property, the lack of certainty given by the existing policy framework is causing the would be developer considerable concern and jeopardising the investment and job creation that would result from the sale and redevelopment of the buildings".

So it is not only open-cast mining but the mere threat of it that hinders the economic development of coalfield areas. That case clearly illustrates the need for the certainty that a defined buffer zone would provide-a need also illustrated by a case in Wales. As the environmental correspondent for The Guardian wrote on his blog, before the buffer zone

"was introduced in Wales, I saw how the lives of people in Merthyr Tydfil were being ruined by the mine on their doorsteps. The green hillside they had looked out on, where they walked their dogs and where their children played, is being turned into a hole-the Ffos-y-Fran pit-200 metres deep and three kilometres wide. The edge of the pit is just 36 metres from the nearest homes. Their peace is shattered by the sound of blasting and digging and the daily journeys of hundreds of monster trucks; their homes are harder to sell; their view has been ruptured. Why should anyone have to put up with this?"

Well, the Governments of Wales and Scotland decided that no one should have to put up with it, and imposed a 500-metre buffer zone, but in England, despite vocal campaigns, there is still no minimum distance between open-cast coal mines and people's homes-a clear case of discrimination.

There is an argument that the anomaly of England being deprived of a buffer zone of the kind that Scotland and Wales enjoy is a breach of English people's human rights. That was an argument put forward by a group of residents who fought hard to try to prevent the opening of the Huntington lane site in Telford. They argued that when the UK signed the Human Rights Act 1998, it signed as the United Kingdom in its entirety, not as three separate entities, and that was enshrined in law in 2000. However, the planning application was approved under the previous Government by the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government after a public inquiry.

A detailed health impact assessment was demanded by Telford's local public health director, but was subsequently disregarded by the inspector and the previous Government, despite the fact that that seminal document was believed to be the only such assessment undertaken before the opening of an open-cast mine. The Secretary of State's closing comments in the decision paper sent from the Planning Inspectorate were:

"The Secretary of State has had regard to The Friends of the Ercall's view that a breach of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights arises because of differences between the planning guidance which applies in England compared to that which applies in Scotland and that which applies in Wales (IR417 and IR570). The Secretary of State has considered this matter but he takes the view that differences in policy do not, in themselves, amount to discrimination. He is satisfied that, having assessed the appeal scheme against relevant national and local policies, he has given proper consideration to all relevant issues."

Of course, one reason why that has become a major issue is that in the past 10 years a large majority of open-cast applications in England have been approved by the Secretary of State, in spite of opposition from parish, district and county councils. Hon. Members will note that the Localism Bill specifically excludes mineral policy; there will be no protection for local communities through the Localism Bill.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that with a buffer zone it would be easier for local people to accept some of those developments because they would know that they were protected?

Andrew Bridgen: I thank my hon. Friend for his comment, which is absolutely right. I shall bring it out further in my arguments.

It has been argued that the open-cast industry has relied on what could be described as "hired gun" expert witnesses, to gain permission that mineral planning authorities have neither the expertise nor the resources-money, mostly-to contradict. Those hired guns regurgitate the same rhetoric at every application and inquiry, following Government guidance that actually tells them what to say. The fact that mineral policy will not be covered by the Localism Bill makes a buffer zone even more essential.

Since 2005, owing to extreme industry lobbying and the argument based on need-industry need, not national need-being introduced as part of the planning guidance, "independent" planning inspectors have chosen to take the word of these "experts". That subverts the empirical evidence of communities who have seen more open-casting than the inspector, expert witnesses and most members of the contemporary open-cast industry.

Each application that is passed weakens the position of local residents through the precedent set in planning case law, despite the fact that the supposed primary guidance, MPG3 (1999), which states that local authorities and local people are in the best position to assess the acceptability of an application, remains on the books. It seldom works. Under the last Government, the last 14 appeals on open-cast sites were all passed in the face of vocal local opposition. That gives the Secretary of State, who should be the last line of defence for local people, the perfect excuse to say, "I have to go with the experts."

The position has become so bad that most local authorities simply wave through applications in England, whereas 10 years ago they would have been fought tooth and nail after being judged utterly unacceptable by local residents.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What local authorities often do, certainly in Northumberland, is prefer to set conditions, rather than refuse, because then they have more control of the situation. But if a buffer zone was there anyway, it would give them rather more leeway. A degree of separation is sometimes one of the conditions that they try to set while they still have some control of the situation because they are granting permission.

Andrew Bridgen: I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution.

There is an argument that open-cast mines generate local employment, but in many cases the effect has proved to be virtually zero for the affected communities. The employment is low and generally outsourced, and contributions to the affected local economies are minuscule. The social and environmental costs are borne by local residents, with no real benefit in return.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England agrees. It states that

"communities in England should have the same protection from the noise, dust and loss of landscape which can severely erode quality of life."

My earlier point about the uncertainty in planning policy explains that. The certainty that a buffer zone would bring would be an improvement on the current situation for rural England and its residents. The Campaign to Protect Rural England also notes that open-cast coal mining has undergone a recent resurgence in the UK, mainly due to the increase in global coal and gas prices. However, it also states:

"Not only do opencast mines deface some of our finest landscapes and wreck tranquillity, they can have a devastating effect on nearby communities and wildlife, while hindering efforts to reduce CO2 emissions."

I will now move on to that last issue, for there is an environmental case for the buffer zone.

It has been calculated that each tonne of coal used for power generation produces more than 2,000 kg of carbon dioxide. The Confederation of United Kingdom Coal Producers, an industry group, has been reported as stating that

"the measure could lead to the loss or sterilisation of between 250 million and 500 million tonnes of reserves."

Based on the figures provided by the Coal Authority, that is equal to between 48% and 97% of known surface-mine coal reserves in England, which, as previously stated, amount to around 516 million tonnes. If each tonne of coal burned for power generation produces 2,215 kg of carbon dioxide, preventing 250 million tonnes of coal from being burned would prevent them from becoming 550 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. In that way, by passing the Bill, Parliament can make a major contribution to reducing climate change risks.

To put the figures into a meaningful perspective, the average amount of coal consumed by power-generating companies in the UK between 2005 and 2009 was approximately 50 million tonnes per annum, which is equal to emitting an average of 111 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. By passing the Bill, Parliament would permanently put the equivalent of five years' worth of CO2 production from UK power generation beyond reach and further stimulate the need to find alternative sources of energy.

In view of that, I have also received backing for my Bill from Leicester Friends of the Earth, which stated:

"Open-cast mining is extraordinarily destructive environmentally and can blight the lives of those living in nearby communities. We are delighted that Mr Bridgen has listened to the concerns of his constituents and chosen to introduce legislation on this issue."

What is the need for those open-cast sites? England currently has 14 coal-fired power stations, five of which will close by 2015. Only two new coal-fired stations are planned. By 2015 we will need 3.4 million tonnes less coal for English power stations, which is 1.6 times the amount of all English open-cast coal mined in 2009. It could be argued that we are tearing up the countryside needlessly and using our emergency reserves when there is no emergency-the number of coal-fired power stations is falling.

There are many reasons why the Bill should receive a Second Reading. It would clarify planning, bring English law into line with Scottish and Welsh law, about which we have already heard much today, help the country to take a significant step to meeting its environmental objectives and, most importantly, protect communities against the intrusive, defacing vandalism of our countryside.

Do the residents of England not deserve the same protections as people in Scotland and Wales?

1.7 pm

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Andrew holds regular surgeries throughout the constituency.

Forthcoming surgery dates

Friday 27th July 2018 - Castle Donington
Castle Donington Parish Council, Parish Rooms Hillside, Castle Donington DE74 2NH


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