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Review of Opencast Coal Mining Operations in Scotland - Research Findings

DescriptionThis research was commissioned by The Scottish Office Development Department to establish a clearer picture of the nature of current opencast coal operations.
ISBN0 7480 6479 6
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateDecember 29, 1998
Development Department Research Programme Research Findings No 38 (1997)
Review of Opencast Coal Mining Operations in Scotland

RSK Environment Limited

ISBN 0-7480-6479-6Publisher The Scottish OfficePrice £5.00
In April 1994, the Government set out its policy on the control of mining operations in National Planning Policy Guideline "NPPG 4: Land for Mineral Working". This research was commissioned by The Scottish Office Development Department to establish a clearer picture of the nature of current opencast coal operations and the application of current national policy by planning authorities through development control decisions and in the formulation of minerals policies in development plans in Scotland.
Main findings
  • Only 2 structure plans and 13 of the local plans examined contained policies specific to opencast coaling.
  • Between January 1990 and December 1996 a total of 165 planning applications for opencast operations were received representing 160 separate sites and totalling approximately 9500ha.
  • Although the number of applications per year submitted by the independent operator had not increased significantly since privatisation, the size of site applied for increased dramatically.
  • For those authorities that had identified preferred areas 66% of the applications received were within preferred areas with a significant decrease in the number of applications outwith preferred areas since the introduction of NPPG 4 in 1994.
  • Nearly 40% of applications were within 500m of a settlement.
  • The number of Environmental Statements submitted each year increased from 3% in 1990 to 50% in 1996.
  • Only 8% of applications were decided upon within the statutory 8 weeks with the average decision time being approximately 36 weeks. Of the 160 applications examined 10% were refused. The rate of refusal steadily increased over the study period.
Introduction
The current planning policy guidance on opencast coal mining is contained within National Planning Policy Guideline "NPPG 4: Land for Mineral Working" (NPPG 4), published in April 1994, including considerations of potential impacts. Impact can be divided between those that are positive, for example employment and development opportunities, and those that are negative, for example ecological damage and disturbance through noise and vibration. NPPG 4 states that the planning system must make adequate provision for development whilst taking into account the need to protect the environment. Planning conditions can provide mitigation from environmental damage and, in order to assess the potential damage, authorities can request that an environmental assessment be carried out in accordance with the Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Regulations 1988.
The purpose of this study was to consider the effectiveness of NPPG 4 and assess the need for provision of further guidance to both planning authorities and operators. The key objectives of the study were to provide:
  • up-to-date information on the extent of opencast activity and the number of sites operating close to settlements;
  • an assessment of the effectiveness of NPPG 4 with regard to environmental effects on communities;
  • information on and suggested improvements to best practice at opencast sites; and
  • an assessment of the use of restoration bonds by planning authorities.
Review of Development Plans
For the 18 planning authorities that contain potential opencast coal reserves, it was found that only 2 structure plans and 13 local plans contained policies specific to opencast coaling.
Whilst most structure plans reviewed took into account NPPG 4 or its draft to some degree, only 2 contained policies that covered all NPPG 4 criteria. All contained policies to safeguard mineral deposits but the provision of positive guidance through identification of preferred areas had not been fully complied with. A correlation was found between the number of applications received within a particular structure plan and the number of NPPG 4 criteria contained within it.
Not all local plans contain policies to safeguard mineral deposits. However, almost 50% indicated favourable areas for mineral working with one third being opencast specific. Fifty three percent indicated areas where other factors would mitigate against mining operations and a number had specific policies to safeguard prime agricultural land. More than 25% of plans specified arbitrary, but specific separation distances.
Only 17% of plans provided comprehensive guidance on the amelioration of environmental impact. Almost 50% of plans contained specific policies on reclamation to a beneficial after-use; most made reference to a Section 50 agreement or financial bonds. Fifty percent of plans provided a framework for development control, and a high proportion made reference to the potential need for an environmental assessment. Only 11% of the plans reviewed contained provision for environmental monitoring.
Through discussions with the operators it was found that the planning authorities often do not consult with the industry before formulating and publishing development plans.
Review of Development Control
Characteristics of Planning Applications
Just over 50% of planning authorities had customised mineral application forms. Concern was expressed by operators regarding the lack of standardisation of these and the irrelevance of certain sections.
Between January 1990 and December 1996 a total of 165 planning applications for opencast operations were received. Table 1 below summarises the details of these.
Table 1: Number of opencast planning applications per year (165 cases)

Year of application

New Site

Area extention

Time extention

Unknown

Total extention

1990

21 (20)

10 (9)

4 (3)

0

35 (32)

1991

11

8

1

1

21

1992

15

9 (8)

1

1

26 (24)

1993

10

6

2

1

19

1994

12

5

1

1

19

1995

19

4

1

1

25

1996

11 (10)

9

0

0

20 (19)

Total no. of applications

99

51

10

5

165

No. of sites crossing a boundary

2

2

1

0

5

Revised
Total

97

49

9

5

160

(Numbers in brackets refer to total number of applications when those sites crossing planning authority boundaries are regarded as one application.)
  • The 165 applications related to 160 separate geographical sites within Scotland totalling approximately 9500 hectares.
  • The majority of applications were received by only 5 councils: East Ayrshire, Falkirk, Fife, North Lanarkshire and South Lanarkshire.
  • The average size for an application site was 71ha and this average has significantly increased in the last 3 years.
  • Larger sites were predominant in East Ayrshire whilst smaller applications were received in Falkirk.
  • The size of site applied for by the independent operator has increased.

A key issue in the planning process is the safeguarding of areas designed for their environmental interest:

  • The study revealed a decrease in the number of applications in Areas of Great Landscape Value and Green Belt.
  • Only 4% of applications received contained an SSSI.
  • Less than 8% of applications received lay within an Area of Great Landscape Value.
  • Only 6% of applications received were on Prime Agricultural Land.

For those authorities that had identified preferred areas, as recommended in NPPG 4:

  • 66% of the applications received were within preferred areas.
  • There was a significant drop in the number of applications outwith preferred areas since the introduction of NPPG 4 in 1994.
The distance between habitable property and development sites is a significant issue in the planning process. Table 2 below summarises the findings of the study with regard to this.
Table 2: Distance of applications away from settlements per year (158 cases)
Distance from
settlement (km)

1990

1991

1992

1993

1994

1995

1996

<0.10

4

3

2

2

6

4

0

0.10-0.24

4

2

1

4

2

2

0

0.25-0.49

6

4

1

3

1

6

5

0.50-0.99

11

4

8

4

6

6

3

>1.00

7

8

12

6

4

7

11

Environmental Assessment
The number of environmental statements (ES) submitted each year increased from 3% in 1990 to 50% in 1996. This can, in part, be attributed to an increase in the size of applications. The average area of an opencast application with an ES was 216ha compared to the Scottish national average of 70ha.
The quality of the ESs reviewed during the study was regarded as satisfactory. Fifty five percent were regarded as good, 35% were satisfactory, and 10% were poor. The better quality ESs included clear structure, good coverage of complex issues, commitment to monitoring and good consultation. The key difference between good and poor ESs was in the prediction, assessment and mitigation of impacts. Only 50% of those ESs reviewed covered these issues in sufficient detail.
Characteristics of Planning Decisions
Before determination, the planning authority consulted with a variety of third parties. Over 90% of all applications were referred to the Roads Department and River Purification Board (now SEPA), and a similar percentage to Environmental Health. Sixty five per cent were referred to Scottish Natural Heritage and just over 50% to Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department.
Of the 160 applications examined 10% were refused. Reasons for refusal included the cumulative effect of operations in the same area, the application being contrary to local plan policy, the impact on road safety, and the application being too close to residences. Out of the 23 originally refused by the planning authorities only 10 went to appeal. The rate of refusal steadily increased over the study period. No one factor could be identified as the sole reason for this increase with little correlation found between the planning decision and size of site, land designation, or distance from settlement.
Where planning permission was granted the number of conditions ranged from 10 to more than 60 and varied considerably in detail and effectiveness.
Since 1990, of the 112 applications that were granted for opencast mining, 97 have or are being operated. In December 1996, 50 separate sites were still operational and 13 approvals had not been implemented by the cut off date. On 17 sites there was unsatisfactory compliance with the conditions set. Examples of the most common of these were: working outside agreed hours, dust, noise, lorry routing, and operation beyond expiry date.
Over half of applications were accompanied by a Restoration Bond and Section 50 Agreements. Only 25% were accompanied by a Community Trust Fund. Over 65% of approved sites had one or a combination of these agreements.
Characteristics of Operations and Restoration
Twenty four of the sites that had been approved after 1990 had been restored completed with another 68 restored in part by December 1996. Fifty sites were still operational. Of the former, after-use had been implemented fully at 16 sites, with phased restoration at another 3. Although 22% of sites did not comply satisfactorily with the conditions only in 3 cases was enforcement carried out. The most common problems experienced at restoration stage were: restoration outwith agreed timescale, failure to spread topsoil, bankruptcy, failure to plant trees, and lack of maintenance. It was found that the average working life of an opencast site was 4.5 years with an aftercare period of 5 years.
Monitoring and Auditing
Seven of the 18 local authorities have special monitoring procedures in place. Monitoring procedures established typically included the provision of enforcement officers whose remit was to check opencast sites at regular intervals. Monitoring by third parties such as SEPA appeared to be taking place on a more regular basis.
Conclusions and Recommendations for Best Practice Arising from the Research
NPPG 4
With reference to planning policy, development control, and the quality of the application and on-site operations, the policies within NPPG 4 have been effective. However, the main finding from the study is that the following policies within the guideline have clearly not been implemented to full effect:
  • safeguarding of deposits in development plans;
  • identification of preferred areas in development plans;
  • guidance on amelioration of environmental impacts within development plans;
  • monitoring and environmental auditing policies within development plans;
  • control of environmental impacts through effective planning conditions, working practices, and monitoring of impacts on site; and
  • the implementation of recommendations resulting from the environmental statement.
Development Plans
With regard to development plans:
  • development plans should be improved to include greater emphasis on the identification of preferred areas;
  • clearer base maps should be used to illustrate geographical boundaries;
  • points of reference should be associated with separation distances; and
  • all development plans should include restoration bond policies.
Development Control
The Scottish Office should:
  • consider, in consultation with COSLA, a model application form for all proposed mineral developments;
  • provide more specific guidelines on the completion of environmental assessments and the content of environmental statements for proposed mineral developments including advice on how to review the quality of ESs against recognised protocol;
  • consider the standardising of a list of consultees to be used by the planning authority which takes into consideration local opinion;
  • provide further guidance on site monitoring, enforcement, auditing, and on the design and implementation of environmental management systems;
  • provide further advice on restoration, aftercare and after-use. MPG No. 7 (1989) goes some way towards this;
  • provide further guidance on "sustainability" with regard to determining the need for mineral extraction; and
  • consider the establishment of a national database to monitor regional and national development trends.
Planning authorities should:
  • ensure that planning permission documents are held on site at all times which cross reference to related documents in a clear and concise manner;
  • adopt advice in SODD Circular 34/1996 for attaching planning conditions to new sites. Particular emphasis should be placed on "time limits"; and
  • apply best practice identified in PAN 50.
About the Study
A combination of desk research and site visits to current opencast developments was carried out. Detailed questionnaires were also issued to 18 planning authorities requesting information on development proposals received between January 1990 and December 1996. The study involved carrying out detailed reviews of 4 key areas:
  • development plans;
  • development control procedures for all opencast coal applications between January 1990 and December 1996;
  • environmental statements; and
  • NPPG 4.
'Review of Opencast Coal Mining Operations in Scotland', the research report which is summarised in this Research Findings, is available priced £5.00.
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Further copies of this Research Findings may be obtained from:
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The views expressed in this report are those of the researcher and do not represent those of the Department or the Secretary of State for Scotland.