Environment: Labour fails to get tough on opencast mining

Before the election, Labour promised a clampdown on opencast mining. But now ministers are accused of being too timid in their plans to control the industry. Fran Abrams, Political Correspondent, reports on the growing row.
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The Independent Online
Opencast mining was described by a Labour Party seeking election as "one of the most environmentally destructive activities in the UK". Now in power, it has launched a consultation exercise on a 10-point plan which recommends no change to the law or to planning guidance on nine of its points.

Harry Barnes, Labour MP for Derbyshire North East, intends to approach other members from coalfield communities to rally opposition to the plans. He has also written to Richard Caborn, the minister responsible for planning, complaining that Labour's election pledges are being "diluted to the point of near impotence".

Mr Barnes described the paper as "pathetically tepid and timid". "If we don't stick to our guns against opencast operators we will stand accused of selling out to these vested interests rather than sticking up for local communities threatened by dust, disruption, noise," he said.

Campaigners say opencast mines are becoming one of the most pressing environmental problems. While just 12 per cent of coal was mined in this way in 1980, almost one-third is now. It is cheaper than traditional deep mining but it requires the excavation of large areas of countryside. There are now more than 90 protest groups opposing the method. They say planning committees should be able to take into account potential health risks.

Elaine Gilligan, a full-time organiser with the pressure group Friends of the Earth, said the mines led to dust, noise and blight. They were deeply unpopular with local communities because they did not create many local jobs but were very disruptive. "It's seen as universal smash and grab. It is extremely unpopular," she said.

Before the election, Labour said it would change the rules and planning committees would be told to "presume against" new opencast coal mines. Its promises included setting stricter standards for planning consent, tightening rules to ensure that sites were fully restored after mining and reducing reliance on opencast coal as a source of energy.

However, its consultation paper suggested action on just one point - that the mines should be of benefit to the local community and environment. The paper said new planning guidance should suggest making this a prime concern, but went on to suggest that the need for opencast coal to mix with deep mined coal could be one such benefit.

A spokesman for the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions denied that the Government had reneged on its plans. "The consultative document shows their commitment to taking action early. We are committed to democratic principles in enabling a wide range of views to be taken into account," he said.