Normally being drawn twelfth in the Private Member's Bills ballot would not be considered that hopeful, but this is an eighteen-month Parliament so there should be more time than normal to get Private Member's Bills through. Immediately after I was drawn in the ballot, I was approached by many groups wishing to put forward legislation. I had in my mind, though, one particular unfairness that I had become aware of during the election campaign, which I now had a chance to try and remedy.
In February, along with the other Parliamentary candidates, I was asked to speak and debate at a hustings meeting organised by the Minorca Opencast Protest Group. Whilst researching the subject, the issue of a buffer zone arose – very simply, a gap legally enforced between an opencast mine and a residential settlement. I found that in the late 1990s, East Ayrshire District Council in Scotland became the first UK Local Authority to formally introduce a 500-metre zone between opencast/surface mine sites and areas of settlement. After much protest this eventually led to the present situation where the Scottish Planning Policy that was published in February 2010 incorporates 500-metre buffer zone guidance.
I also discovered that, with regard to opencast mining, the most consistent public request over the last two years was for the Mineral Technical Advice to include 500-metre buffer zones and that the Welsh Assembly Government has also formally adopted the policy of introducing 500-metre buffer zones between areas of settlement and opencast mines.
However, when my Parliamentary colleague Mark Pritchard questioned the previous government's minister, John Healey, in September 2009 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."
So why do we need a 500-metre buffer zone in England?
Firstly, there is not a level playing field in economic terms. The fact that Scotland and Wales have a buffer zone but England doesn’t is likely to result in an undue proportion of applications for English sites where, because of a lack of sterilisation of coal reserves, it makes their exploitation more economic.
Secondly, t will help us meet our climate change targets as the coal that would previously be exploited from inappropriate opencast mines will remain and keep carbon locked up in the ground as we look for less carbon intensive sources of energy.
Thirdly, it will also help to solve legal issues which are currently arising. A 500-metre buffer zone will make clear to public authorities and coal operators, their obligation to the general public without equivocation. The current system of guidance in operation in all three countries leaves too many issues as a matter for interpretation rather than a legal fact.
Lastly, but most importantly, it is the effect opencast mines have on local communities . Opencast coal is the dirtiest form of coal production which imposes social costs on communities that are affected by it. The introduction of such a ban would reduce the social costs falling on such communities.
I want to see this Private Member's Bill become law to protect communities, in my and other constituencies in England, from the effects of inappropriate opencast mining.
On a more general point, I want to see fairness between the countries that make up the United Kingdom. We have the position where Scottish MPs are voting on laws which don’t apply to their constituents. It is not fair that people in Scotland and Wales should enjoy protections that don’t apply to England. I will be spending the next few months urging my Parliamentary colleagues to help work with me to see the Planning (Opencast Mining Separation Zones) Bill become law.