Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) on his Bill, and offer it my wholehearted support. I shall not rehearse all the arguments that have been presented so ably by so many Members, but it is clear to me that there is cross-party agreement not only on the buffer zone but on the horrors of open-cast mining, of which many Members who are present have experience. It is to be hoped that, if nothing else, an all-party group will emerge from this, so that together we can try to ensure that our communities who are working so hard to oppose open-cast mining benefit from all the support, advice and experience that can be brought to bear.
The Bill is relevant to my constituents, who currently face the third application from UK Coal to develop an open-cast mine near the villages of Cossall and Trowell. Mercifully, both my predecessors were successful in spearheading the campaign against other applications, and I hope to repeat their success. The application is to mine 1.275 million tonnes of coal and almost a quarter of a million tonnes of fire clay over an area of 130 hectares.
Broxtowe contains an abundance of houses, and we do not have much green belt land. The application relates to the heart of that precious land, and it fills many of us with horror, not just because of the dust and noise that many Members have mentioned but because there will be some eight lorry movements an hour. We can imagine the impact that that will have, not just on the residents of Cossall and Trowell but on all the other communities that will be affected. It is surely unacceptable in this modern age to extract minerals such as coal and other substances in that way. It inflicts real blight on our countryside, and it has a direct impact on the quality of people’s lives.
I do not want to go on much longer because so much has been said very ably and I would just repeat those arguments. I fully endorse all those comments. However, I make this plea. It is about localism. Other hon. Members have referred to that, but I hope that the Minister, whatever the Government’s attitude might be to this excellent Bill—I hope that they will adopt it—hears what is coming out loudly and clearly from Members and their areas. I do not know of any application that has not been opposed by every parish, borough and county affected—they have done that not just as a group, but individually. Almost without exception, democratically elected representatives in my area and areas represented by other hon. Members on both sides of the House have opposed these applications. Invariably, they go to appeal and unfortunately, as we all know, they are signed off by the Secretary of State. With great respect, that flies in the face of what we say we now all believe in, which is localism.
Does my hon. Friend agree that local councils and MPs oppose these applications not because of nimbyism but generally on strong, robust planning grounds that are entirely consistent with planning policy? That is why it is so incredibly frustrating that their decisions get overturned at appeal by the Secretary of State, who seems just to fly in the face of planning policy.
I could not agree more. I am grateful for that intervention and I fully support it. It is deeply ironic.
The other important matter to be considered is this. I know from the fight that has been put up in Cossall and in Trowell that local councils and local people find themselves in a battle with UK Coal, which has a number of resources, including the ability to instruct experts. Already our hard-pressed parish and town councils are looking at how they can raise funds. There is just the beginning of an equality of arms, but as my hon. Friend has said, invariably, the county council opposes these applications for sound planning reasons. It is not a question of nimbyism. Many of those county councillors are not affected; they do not represent those areas, but they accept the argument that they should oppose the application on planning grounds. Unfortunately, however, the Secretary of State, after the inquiry, if it goes to an inquiry, takes a different view.
These applications take many years. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire and others have campaigned for years. The process has in effect barely begun. Many years of campaigning lie ahead. We face that in my constituency. It means that for years people have that awful blight hanging over their head. They do not know whether their beautiful, precious, highly treasured countryside will be blighted and scarred for ever by open-cast mining.
I hope that the Government will support the Bill and that the Minister will take from the debate the strength of feeling among Members on both sides of the House on the issue. The buffer zone may not be a panacea but it would be a great help and assist our local authorities in making planning decisions on such applications.
Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab)
The planning regime necessarily needs to strike a balance between development and the legitimate protection of local communities and the environment. I am familiar personally with the issue of open-cast coal mining. May I declare an interest? In my former being as deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, as it was then known, I was responsible for energy policy and the membership employed in open-cast coal mines. In the debates over many years on energy policy, it was right that we should seek—Governments of both political persuasions sought to do this—to maximise indigenous sources of supply and to develop a balanced energy policy, drawing on a wide range of sources of supply, including nuclear, renewables and coal, both deep-mined and open-cast, which are partners, not opposites, in any sensible energy policy. We therefore do not agree with any view that holds that there should be no place for open-cast coal mining. On the other hand, it was an error of historic proportions that our deep-mine coal industry was allowed to decline as it has, not least because we still have 300 years of supply. Coal is an energy source that now comes into its own, particularly with the development of clean coal technology.
Any development—nuclear, coal or renewables—requires permission, and if it is granted, jobs are created. It cannot be right, however, for any open-cast coal mine development fundamentally to disturb a local community’s peace and tranquillity. As was said earlier, developers are more likely to be granted permission if they take local communities’ legitimate concerns properly into account.
We congratulate the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) on introducing the Bill, which rightly addresses genuine concerns felt by communities across Britain. It is clear from the contributions made from both sides of the House, including by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), that there is broad cross-party support for the Bill.
There are four main reasons why the Bill is worthy. First, the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire is right that Scotland and Wales already have the 500-metre buffer zone between open-cast mines and residential areas. Secondly, the Bill would help to reduce pollution in communities where there are proposals to open open-cast mines. Thirdly, the communities affected by open-cast coal mining universally support the Bill. Fourthly, the Bill would legally define coal operators’ obligations to local communities, which is right. The hon. Gentleman was also right to say that the Bill is important not only because there are 29 current open-cast sites, but because 34 sites are proposed for the next stage of development.
The Labour Government made some progress in the right direction, such as through the planning policy assumptions relating to extraction. That addressed the 500-metre issue, and there was a caveat that ultimately led to successful challenges being mounted to developments unacceptably close to residential areas. We believe this is a worthy Bill, which deserves to be given a fair wind for its next parliamentary stages. It can also be strongly argued that England should come into line with Scotland and Wales, and that local communities in different areas should enjoy the same protection.
The Bill is particularly well timed because the Committee stage of the Localism Bill is commencing. The point was made that the Localism Bill’s measures do not satisfactorily address the issues of great public interest and concern that are raised in this Bill. We will support the Bill therefore, and we urge Ministers to respond positively to the strong representations on it made by Members on both sides of the House.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell)
I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) on his success in the ballot, on presenting his case so cogently and on attracting a lot of cross-party support for his Bill. I must stress at the outset that I cannot discuss the merits of any live planning application because the Secretary of State’s role in the planning system means that I would be prejudicing it to do so. A lot of sites were mentioned by hon. Members who were, quite reasonably, advancing the case for the Bill and, in some cases, discussing applications, prospective or otherwise. I am sorry to disappoint hon. Members, but I am not able to respond to those points.
I have a little history on this matter myself. When I was a prospective candidate, as the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire was before he was successful at the most recent election, I appeared at a public inquiry on the application for open-cast coal mining at Towers Farm, near the village of Poynton, on the edge of what is now my constituency. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) is telling the House that he was born there. I am happy to report to the House, as I was happy to report to my electors at the time, that the public inquiry came out in favour of no open-cast coal mining. Although most people see my constituency as a leafy suburban area adjacent to a national park, it has the same coal beneath it as is under the constituencies of the hon. Members for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) and for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), so I fully understand the high level of public concern about these applications. The concerns about the environmental protection lost as a result of the intrusion of these developments and about the dust are often well justified.
I think that we all fully appreciate that the Minister cannot comment on individual applications, but may I press him to comment a little on the annoyance that people feel when county councils turn down applications on valid planning grounds and they see Secretaries of State completely override local opinion? Is that approach appropriate? Does he think it might change a little under his Government?
I am glad the hon. Gentleman made that point because during his earlier remarks he stated as a fact that a Secretary of State automatically approves applications that come before him—or her, as was the case in previous Administrations. As a matter of fact, the Secretary of State refused the most recent appeal put before him relating to a site in Yorkshire, so it is not right to say that he takes an arbitrary view that every application should be approved and I would not want the record to suggest that he does. When an application comes before him, he has to adopt a quasi-judicial approach that takes account of the different factors in play, and I shall say something about what those factors are in a few moments. It would clearly be wrong for him to have an arbitrary pre-disposition, either for or against every application. So despite what the hon. Gentleman might wish or fear to be the case about the Secretary of State’s approach, it has to be objective and balanced. The Secretary of State’s approach must take account of all the factors that he ought to take into account and exclude all the factors that he ought not to take into account. I believe that that is the legal phraseology, although I am not a lawyer.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con)
Will the Minister explain whether the change in government has been accompanied by a change in the Secretary of State’s basic application of principles? Does the localism agenda of this Government mean that a Secretary of State may be more willing now to allow the decision to be made locally than was the case in the past?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which I shall discuss later. In outline, the Government’s approach is that local communities should have greater capacity to influence the nature of their future growth and development, which is why we removed the regional spatial strategies and why we are placing a huge amount of emphasis on the neighbourhood planning system.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), who speaks for the Opposition, and I are currently wading through the Localism Bill, and we will shortly consider the provisions relating to planning. I do not know whether we will reach a common view, because he has perhaps indicated that he is not convinced that localism is the way to go. I look forward to that discussion in the coming week or so.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed asked whether there will be a change in emphasis and balance in the way in which the Secretary of State approaches such matters. When the Localism Bill is enacted, such matters will not be exclusively for the Secretary of State, because some of them will be devolved. In a few minutes, I will discuss the national planning policy framework, which is a development of current national planning guidance. It is clearly important to take that into account in respect of minerals policy and the use of coal.
Several hon. Members have spoken in the debate. I have commented on what my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire said in introducing the Bill. He stood up strongly for one local community, Minorca, which some of us thought was in the Mediterranean but is clearly much closer to home, and set out stories of blight from around the country. He emphasised the widespread support for his Bill.
I was discussing the Minorca Opencast Protest Group. The old mine is the Minorca site, which is just outside the village of Measham at the southern end of North West Leicestershire.
Coming to Parliament is an educational process, and I am delighted to have learned yet another place name. That protest group has attracted the hon. Gentleman’s support, which I fully understand. That led him to introduce his Bill, which in turn generated a lot of support from around the country for his cause.
The hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) made some strong, cross-party points in supporting the hon. Gentleman’s case, as did the hon. Member for South Derbyshire, who is not in her place, and the hon. Member for Amber Valley.
My long-standing right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed also made some points. He discussed my first point, which concerns the need to strike a balance between the competing needs of local communities and national policy. In that respect, he discussed the possibility of local authorities developing and implementing buffer zones to provide local protection for communities. I assure him that it is both possible and right for local authorities in developing their planning policies to consider buffer zones on a case-by-case basis. The separation distance would have to be justified. Of course, some local planning authorities have such buffer zones in place.
Sir Alan Beith
My hon. Friend does not quite get the point. Something is not a buffer zone as we understand it if is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. It is a reasonable expectation in almost all conceivable circumstances that there will be a set minimum distance, which does not have to become a battle ground between the local authority and the developer or on an issue that might be overturned on appeal.
Whether a condition appears as part of a council’s adopted and approved local plan—for instance, the Northumberland unitary council development plan—or is imposed by the Secretary of State or, indeed, by legislation makes no material difference. I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that the Scottish and Welsh buffer zones, as they have been described, or bans have been prayed in aid. I also draw his attention to the explanatory notes produced by the Library. They make it quite clear that the policy on open-cast mining in Scotland does indeed have a presumption on 500 metres, but it is subject to some quite important exceptions. They say:
“Site boundaries within 500m of the edge of a community may be acceptable where it would result in improvement of local amenity or future development opportunities by clearing an area of derelict or despoiled land, the stabilisation of an undermined site or similar benefit. Topography, the nature of the landscape, visibility and prevailing wind directions may result in a greater or lesser distance being required, depending on specific local circumstances.”
So a number of important caveats relate to the Scottish buffer zone, which has been prayed in aid. As I understand current planning law and what the law will be after the passage of the Localism Bill, it would be perfectly open to Northumberland unitary authority to decide to adopt such a planning approach. Whatever the planning approach —whether it is statutory, as in Scotland, or based on the development of the local planning system—it would of necessity have to take account of particular circumstances.
I am listening to the Minister with some interest but growing concern. Is he arguing that the measures in the Bill are, in fact, contained in the Localism Bill and that this Bill is unnecessary, in which case I would have very great concerns, or is he suggesting that the Government are backing this Bill, which is what everyone wants to happen today?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Perhaps if I make a little more progress, the factors that we have to take into account when we consider our approach to the Bill will become clear.
Will the Minister perhaps say whether the Government support, tolerate or oppose the Bill? Why do we need to wait any longer to hear a one-word answer to that question?
Let me set out my case.
Just tell us!
I will set out my case. Let us be clear: coal extraction, like other mineral extraction, is different from most other sources of development. The resource can be extracted only exactly where it lies. Coal extraction is not footloose, like housing or retail development. If it is turned down in one field, it cannot simply move to the next field. Such things are not permanent operations. After extraction, the land must be restored to high environmental standards.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
Many Members in the Chamber feel passionately about this issue because it directly affects their constituents. Two hon. Members have asked the Minister a direct question: do the Government support, oppose or tolerate the Bill? It seems that the Minister is trying to talk for another half hour, but that would be cowardly and would not answer—
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)
Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not mean that and that he will take back the word “cowardly”.
Obviously I am not saying that the Minister is being cowardly, but if he were to do that, he would be cowardly.
Mr Deputy Speaker
Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the word “cowardly” in this case.
If that is your ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am happy to withdraw the word, but I want the Minister to answer the question directly for the people in the constituencies that are most affected, because otherwise he is a disgrace.
Mr Deputy Speaker
Order. We should not get carried away. Minister, I am sure that you have heard the points—you carry on.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I can assure the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that before we get to 2.30 pm, he will understand the Government’s view of the Bill. There will no doubt be further opportunities for Members to interrogate me about our decision and the way in which we reached it.
We are all here to help the Minister. We just want to know, please, whether he is for the Bill, against it or neutral. This is the third or fourth time that the question has been asked.
I do not want to irritate the House further, so let me say, in plain words, that the Government do not support the Bill. I shall explain why as we proceed; I would not want to cause any more friction than I might anyway.
The extraction of coal is different from other considerations. The operation is not permanent or long term, and nowadays there are now always requirements for the restoration of land to high environmental standards, which can sometimes involve great biodiversity benefits.
The period of extraction will vary considerably, depending on the availability of resources, but most coal operations last for a far shorter period than stone extraction or crushed rock operations, for example. However, I recognise that three or five years—or perhaps longer—is still a considerable time for local people to put up with such development, which is why environmental effects are properly considered at the outset and monitored throughout the life of a site’s operation. It also explains why it is important that we get the right balance between the need for coal on the one hand, and coal extraction’s environmental impact on local communities on the other hand. I hope that I have gone some way to demonstrate that I have first-hand understanding of that second point.
Our debate so far has lacked any serious consideration of the role of coal in the United Kingdom’s energy mix, although the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington sketched in a small amount of detail. Energy policy is a matter for the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. The Government recognise the need for a low-carbon economy and that any credible strategy for tackling climate change must include a consideration of the country’s energy needs.
The Minister’s prolonged justification of the Government’s position is fascinating. As he has set out that position, however, may I press him to bring his remarks to a conclusion before 2.30 pm so that this worthy Bill can proceed to Committee?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, but we have had something approaching an hour’s exposition of the local balance; it is only right for me to say something about the national factors, which also have to be taken into account.
The House needs to recognise that coal continues to play an important role in our energy mix and is likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It is a reliable form of energy and it makes a significant contribution to meeting UK energy demand; the figure is about 30%. Coal production in the UK has declined significantly in the past few years, but coal mining is still a significant industry in this country. The indigenous coal industry supplies 35% of our national coal demand.
That has nothing to do with the Bill.
It has a great deal to do with the Bill, as the hon. Gentleman will understand in just a moment.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), told the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change that he did not see a future for unabated coal-fired power stations in this country. There is no working carbon capture and storage coal power station anywhere in the world, and there are many question marks over whether CCS technology with coal will ever be commercially viable. Given that, does the Under-Secretary believe that there is an imminent shortage of domestic coal production in the UK that requires an expansion of open-cast coal mining in the next 10 to 15 years?
I cannot say that I represent the view of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but we are talking not about expending production but about maintaining it. It is in the nature of extraction that once a site has had all its coal removed, it is no longer viable for coal production and new sites have to be developed. At the moment, 35% of UK coal consumption is provided for by UK coal extraction. That not only provides jobs—a point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington—but reduces the cost of imports.
To respond to the point about carbon capture and storage made by the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), the coalition agreement outlined plans to support the development of four plants with carbon capture and storage technology, which can reduce emissions from coal-fired power stations by about 90%. I understand that formal proposals are under consideration at the moment. The Government’s main policy objective for coal is to ensure that the United Kingdom is able to make the best use of a valuable natural resource where it is economically viable and environmentally acceptable to do so.
Indigenous reserves contribute towards the Government’s energy objectives on affordability, and form part of the policy on security of energy supply. The reality is that much of UK’s coal reserves lie in England. They have the potential to provide security of energy supply long after oil and natural gas are exhausted, so we need to ensure that we can preserve coal for future extraction.
That is an exceptionally interesting point: we may need to go back to coal when other fossil fuels have run out. Might the Government not therefore consider it appropriate to have a 550-yard limit, as I prefer to call it, until such time as it is necessary to dig out substantial quantities of coal again?
I have already made the point that, as I understand it, the UK coal industry does not see itself expanding the amount that it extracts; it looks to maintain the amount that it extracts. My understanding from the last time I took a detailed look at UK energy reserves is that we have something like 200 years’ worth of identified coal reserves. That is clearly much more substantial than the amount of oil and gas that can be recovered within the confines of the United Kingdom’s economic sphere. Existing planning policy already places considerable emphasis on ensuring that the environmental effects of mineral extraction, including coal extraction, are mitigated.
There are specific planning policies on coal in England. Hon. Members have referred to minerals planning policy guidance note 3, which carries a presumption against surface coal mining extraction unless the proposal meets stringent tests. That connects back to the points made about the Secretary of State’s role. There is a presumption against surface coal mining extraction unless stringent tests are met. Those tests relate to environmental acceptability and the provision of local and community benefits; it is necessary to demonstrate that those clearly outweigh the likely impacts.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con)
Does the Minister foresee the issue of open-cast mining being part of the future requirement for local authorities to work together and co-operate on infrastructure planning, as outlined in the Localism Bill?
My hon. Friend is right. The Localism Bill introduces a new duty on local authorities to co-operate. That is designed to provide a framework for local authorities to work jointly on common issues. My hon. Friend could also have mentioned the local enterprise partnerships, which are formed from a number of local authorities working with the private and commercial sector and aim to promote growth and future prosperity in an area. They will want to look at all sources of economic growth in their areas. There will be a framework in which that can take place.
Proposals for open-cast mining in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites designated for nature conservation purposes must meet additional tests because of the serious impact that minerals development may have on the natural beauty of such areas. My hon. Friends the Members for Amber Valley and for South Derbyshire have a combination of community impact and natural landscape value impact to take into account. There is a requirement and expectation that all proposals for coal extraction must be accompanied by an environmental statement. That allows a thorough consideration of all environmental effects and what must be done to ensure that they can be kept to an acceptable minimum.
I am curious to know whether the Minister agrees with the then Energy Secretary, my predecessor as MP for North Warwickshire, who in 2004 wrote to the Welsh Assembly saying that the need for coal outweighs environmental issues and the amenities of local people?
I hope that my hon. Friend will gain some reassurance from the fact that the most recent application that came in front of the Secretary of State demonstrates that the national test does not outweigh the local environmental test. The Secretary of State could not have—and, the evidence shows, has not had—a closed mind, as my hon. Friend fears.
Current policy recognises that, in individual circumstances, it could be appropriate to have an adequate separation distance between the boundary of a minerals site and the nearest community. Any such distance must be properly justified. I have already said that local planning authorities—in Northumberland, for instance—are free to do that. The coalition Government believe that councils are best placed to make planning decisions for their local areas, and it is right that they should be free to carry on their role with minimal interference.
I struggle with the point that the Minister is making. Does he really think that all the councils that have consistently tried to defeat such planning applications have somehow missed the idea of putting a 500-metre separation zone in their planning policy, and that saying, “Change your policy and put that in,” will stand up to scrutiny when applications are made and subsequently go to appeal? We need national protection to support planning authorities that are trying to implement that policy, which they are struggling to do at this point.
The Scottish and Welsh situations have quite often been prayed in aid during the debate. However, in both places the buffer zone is a matter of planning policy rather than of statutory requirement. We believe that councils are best placed to make those planning decisions, just as we are content for the Assembly in Wales and the Scottish Parliament to make those decisions for their respective countries.
The Bill asks the Minister to issue that planning policy guidance for England. If the planning policy sets out the 500 metre mark—in some situations, that could be wider or narrower—we will at least have a decent, robust starting point. We understand that that may be varied in local circumstances, but the problem at the moment is that councils struggle to justify 50 metres versus 400, 300, 200 or 150 metres, ending up with open-cast mines that are 30, 50 or 70-odd metres from people’s houses, such as the proposal at Lodge House in my constituency. That is just not acceptable.
Although it is very tempting, I cannot talk about specific cases. The hon. Gentleman has highlighted that a minimum zone ought to be left in any given circumstance, and the appropriate body to take that decision is the local planning authority.
Mr Stewart Jackson
If I may come to the Minister’s assistance, there is an established precedent in respect of the development of residential accommodation near to major national energy infrastructure such as gas pipelines. That is already established in planning policy guidelines, and it is robustly interpreted by many local planning authorities. It is not beyond the wit of man or beast to extend that arrangement for open-cast mining.
The relevant consideration with gas pipelines is safety. Similar points have been made, and sometimes advanced in private Members’ Bills, about high-voltage power lines and things of that sort. There are different considerations, but my hon. Friend quite correctly points out that national policy is appropriate to take account of factors such as safety. However, when it comes to environmental factors and the impact of a development on a local community, the right place for making a decision is at the local level. Local authorities should be free to carry out their role with the minimum of national interference.
That, of course, is exactly the circumstance in Scotland and Wales. Planning is devolved to those Administrations, and they are entitled to have different policies to meet their particular situations—and even now, before the passage of the Localism Bill, so are local authorities in England. That will be even more the case once that Bill becomes an Act.
The Planning (Opencast Mining Separation Zones) Bill aims to align more closely the policies of Scotland, Wales and England. At the moment, all three countries must have a system where planning applications are decided on their merits after consideration of all relevant planning issues, including the likely effect of the proposed development on the surrounding area. Having different approaches to the same end is exactly what diversity and devolution mean. The passage of a Bill requiring the imposition—if that is the right word—of a fixed separation distance would in fact go beyond the requirement in Wales and Scotland, where that is covered by planning policies.
I am interested in the Minister’s suggestion that somehow this is a localist issue. Can he therefore explain why minerals extraction was specifically excluded from the Localism Bill?
Yes, I can. It is because minerals extraction will form part of the national planning policy framework. In that respect, it is no different from—or, perhaps I should say, it at least starts from the baseline of—the current situation, in that national planning policy covers mineral extraction, whether of coal or other materials, and overrides local planning control. The national planning policy framework will be different, although I shall say more about that in a few minutes.
I am sorry, but I am now utterly confused. I know that I am new to this place, but is mineral extraction something that needs to be dealt with nationally, as the Minister appeared to say just now, or is he saying that it should not be subject to a national policy, as under this Bill, but left to local authorities? He appears to have completely contradicted himself.
No, there is no contradiction, and I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman. The current position is that decisions at the local level on the extraction of minerals have to be taken with regard to the existing note 3, to which I have already referred, but with safeguards—
I hate to say this to the Minister, but I think he is digging a big hole for himself on this issue, and we will be back.
The fundamental lay-out of coal, which is not in the control of the Government—it was established about 200 million years ago—means that a 500-metre buffer zone has an entirely different impact on coal extraction in Scotland and Wales. Indeed, the imposition of buffer zones there had little immediate impact on the industry’s ability to extract coal, regardless of the environmental impact.
The Minister gave way previously just as he was in the middle of explaining the Government’s view on whether something was a local decision or whether the national guidelines would override any local decision. I am sure that I speak for many Members when I say that we would be very grateful if he would be so good as to finish that sentence and please explain that point to us. That may be very helpful.
Okay, probably the most helpful thing to do would be to start the sentence again from the beginning. What is required when a decision is taken is that there should be an appropriate balance between the national factors—which in future will be set by the national planning policy framework and which are currently set by note 3—and, on the other hand, the requirement to protect the environment and the communities where the development is proposed. That is what is tussled over at the moment.
I thank the Minister once again for giving way; he has been remarkably generous and gracious. When talking about protecting the environment and communities, he seems to have left out one key point, and that is the individual. I was struck very much by the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) made about the lady in the Wrekin, aged 87, who suddenly had a mine come right up to her window and who could not go out of her house. Surely Her Majesty’s Government and we as Members of Parliament are here to protect individuals. If we are talking about just the environment and communities, that is leaving elderly people in a most unsatisfactory position.
I absolutely agree. As I have said, I am somewhat constrained because I cannot comment on individual applications, but it would seem extraordinary if, in this day and age of environmental impact assessments, it was considered appropriate to site open-cast mining within such a small distance.
I would not ask the Minister to speak to individual cases, but will he lay down some general principles as to how individuals might be protected and how Government policy might develop in that direction, even in the absence of the Bill? Will he also tell us whether compensation could be paid to people such as the lady in the Wrekin? We need to understand that individuals in our constituencies really will be protected.
There are two ways in which that will be advanced from where we are now. The first will involve the national planning policy framework, on which we are currently consulting and inviting views. When hon. Members read this debate in Hansard, they will note that I have reminded them of the opportunity to give us their views on this matter. That consultation will set the level of priority to be given to the national case for the extraction of coal by open-cast mining in England. Set in balance with that will be—and, indeed, are—the social and environment factors that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) has just invited me to comment on.
At the risk of being called to order for speaking for a community that is not in my constituency, may I draw the Minister’s attention to the case of the people of Ffos-y-fran, with whom I have spoken about this issue? I urge him to get in touch with the action group there, and to invite himself down there to stand in the garden of the house that is 36 metres from the open-cast pit, so that he can see for himself the impact that these activities can have on people.
I would be ready to go there, although I must point out that I would not be able to offer an opinion because of the role of the Secretary of State in these matters. I am in no way dismissing the very strong concerns that Members have expressed in this debate. The Government are not dismissing them either. We are saying that is right and appropriate for local planning authorities to be the people who set the guidelines. If they think it is appropriate to have a buffer zone in their area with a presumption of refusal inside that zone, that is a matter for them. However, such a decision has to be justified on the facts of each individual case and, at the moment, the planning authorities have to balance with that the factors in note 3.
I understand the dilemma in which the Minister finds himself, perhaps on many fronts, and I would not ask him to express an opinion, but would he be so good as to come to the villages of Cossall and Trowell in my constituency? There, he would see an historic area of land with a strong link to D. H. Lawrence—indeed, his fiancée’s cottage is in Cossall. This piece of our green belt is much loved by many people in Broxtowe, but it is now under threat from open-cast mining. The people there would be grateful to the Minister for coming to the area and at least looking at the issues, if not giving his opinion on them.
I am looking forward to my grand tour. I will certainly consider any invitations from hon. Members to visit their areas.
The national planning policy framework will set out the Government’s economic, environmental and social priorities for the planning system in England in a single, concise document covering all major forms of development proposals handled by local authorities. Existing policy areas covered by guidance will be integrated into that document. That will, of course, include note 3. The review will consider the environmental impacts of minerals extraction. This is an opportunity to ensure that we have got the right policy for this country to take account of our particular circumstances.
I therefore ask hon. Members who have taken part in the debate to offer their suggestions to the Department on which priorities and policies we might adopt—[Hon. Members: “The Bill!”] Well, that is fine. Hansard will stand as a record of Members’ views on this matter. However, the national planning policy framework will not be a Bill; it will be a policy framework—