In a Hole, Still Digging

Why does England have weaker rules on opencast mining than Wales and Scotland?

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian, 13th January 2011

England suffers more than most nations from First Mover Syndrome. Its ancient railway system is harder to operate (let alone integrate with the rest of Europe) than most Continental services. The same goes for the London Underground and the water and sewerage networks. England was the first to build such infrastructure on a large scale: as a result it’s stuck with antiquated systems. But perhaps the biggest impediment the country struggles with is an institution which calls itself the Mother of Parliaments.

The extent to which England pioneered democratic government is debatable. What’s not in dispute is that it’s stuck with a system of governance whose roots are at least 796 years old (arising from the Magna Carta of 1215). The ill-defined relationship between the Crown, the government and parliament (which Tony Blair exploited so ruthlessly); the antediluvian procedures; the first-past-the-post electoral system, the House of Lords – all these and more are legacies of ancient history, which most countries don’t have to accommodate. As a result, policy in England, by comparison to the newly-empowered nations of the rest of the UK, is getting left behind.

There are plenty of examples: the other three nations enjoy proportional representation, the scrapping of failed policies such as the private finance initiative and SATs tests in schools, an officially-sanctioned network of credit unions in Wales, land reform in Scotland, fairer energy pricing in Northern Ireland. In these respects the three smaller nations of the UK look modern and progressive, while England has one foot in the pre-democratic past. This post is about another respect in which England is stuck in a hole, and still digging.

In response to public complaints, the governments of Wales and Scotland both changed their planning policies. They now have buffer zones for opencast coal mines. What this means is that coal can’t be quarried within 500 metres of people’s home.

There are good reasons for this rule. Before it 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?

The governments of Wales and Scotland decided that no one should. But in England, despite vocal campaigns, there is still no minimum distance between opencast coal mines and people’s homes. One year your village or suburb might back onto a peaceful green landscape; the next year it might overlook a great black pit – and there’s little you can do to stop it. A large majority of opencast applications in England over the past ten years have been approved: successive governments support them, in line with the official intention to “maximise economic recovery … from remaining coal reserves.”

A new study by the Minorca Opencast Protest Group in Leicestershire shows how many communities are threatened by Westminster’s old and inadequate planning laws. It found that 29 sites in England are either being worked now, have received planning permission or are in the planning pipeline. It found that a further 34 sites, scattered across Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, could be developed. If you live in one of these counties, you need to check this list: your neighbourhood could be next.

The report also shows that while these pits are supposed to be worked for only a few years before they are filled in again, sometimes it doesn’t pan out like that. In some cases the coal companies are granted extensions, to keep digging for several years after the initial closing date. In one case, the mining firm ran out of money and abandoned the pit when the coal was worked out. The company that bought the hole is trying to turn it into a landfill site. Once you let these people through the door, it might be a long time before you get them out again.

Now the Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen, whose constituents in Leicestershire are fighting some hideous opencast applications, has tabled a private members’ bill, to bring English planning law into line with the Scottish and Welsh rules. In other words, he’s proposing a 500-metre buffer zone. The bill gets its second reading in parliament on February 11th. Whether or not you’re threatened by one of these schemes, you should press your MP to support him – unless you’d like England to remain stuck in history’s pit.