The debate was the first on an environmental topic since the general election and an early test of Labour's readiness to honour pledges made while in opposition. Mr Caborn came through with less than flying colours.
The expansion of opencast coal mining since the early 1980s has been a sore point for many communities in Labour's traditional heartlands which have seen the adverse social and economic consequences of deep mine closures followed by the environmental effects of surface coal extraction. They have joined with environmental groups in quoting the conclusion of the Commission on Energy and the Environment in its 1981 report on coal that opencast mining is one of the most environmentally damaging operations in the countryside, and its recommendation that opencast output should be cut from its then level of 15 million tonnes per year (ENDS Report 81, pp 9-11).
Identical language was used by Labour in 1995 when it portrayed opencast mining as "one of the most environmentally destructive activities in the UK." Although acknowledging that it might be welcome locally where it provided jobs or helped to remove dereliction, Labour promised to "implement a presumption against development of new opencast coal mines and give greater emphasis to environmental considerations" via a ten-point plan.
On 19 May, John Healey (Lab, Wentworth) reminded the Government of that pledge. The last deep mine in his constituency closed in 1994, and the whole South Yorkshire region had "suffered terribly" with the loss of 50,000 jobs in the coal and steel industries since 1985.
New industrial estates and retail sites have now been developed in Wentworth, said Mr Healey, and the area wanted to put the coal era behind it. "We want to bring modern industries and jobs to Rotherham and the Dearne" - but a proposal for a new opencast coal mine at New Stubbin now threatened a blight on that prospect.
The mine has been proposed by Coal Contractors, which has appealed to the Environment Secretary after its application was rejected by Rotherham council.
New Stubbin, said Mr Healey, "is a beautiful bowl in the green belt, overlooked by bungalows, school playing fields and the local cemetery. It is open space next to dense residential streets. The deep mine on that site was closed 20 years ago and the area is now naturally revegetated. There is a wide variety of wildlife and the area is popular with local people for walking and picnics."
The proposed mine would cover 40 hectares, and produce 270,000 tonnes of coal over four years - equivalent to a week's output from the nearby Selby deep mine. "Dust, noise and blasting will cause severe disruption to local people," said Mr Healey, and lorry traffic would "cause havoc" on local roads, including a narrow shopping and residential street.
The MP closed by pressing the Government to make rapid changes to the planning system. He urged a stronger requirement in the present guidance on opencast mining, MPG3, issued in 1994, for developers to show benefit to the local environment and local communities.
UK opencast output, he noted, has risen from 12% of total coal output in 1980 to 19.5% in 1990 and 31% in 1995. As the contracts between coal suppliers and the electricity generating companies are renegotiated over the next few months, "this competition between opencast and deep mine coal can only increase and the pressure to open up new opencast sites can only intensify."
In reply, Mr Caborn pointed out that the official presumption in favour of opencast production had been removed by MPG3, requiring individual projects to pass tests of environmental acceptability. These changes, he suggested, had succeeded in curtailing opencast development.
In 1992-93, 39 applications covering 1,225 hectares and 7.1 million tonnes of coal were approved by local authorities, and another seven projects covering 470 hectares and 3.6 million tonnes of coal were allowed on appeal. But in 1995-96, the first full year of operation of the revised MPG3, only 24 applications covering 5,551 hectares and 2.7 million tonnes of coal were approved by local authorities - but 17 applications were refused, and all six appeals to the Environment Secretary were rejected. These figures "show clearly that the pressure put on the then Government to change MPG3 is now working," the Minister said.
Sounding much like a Minister from that Government, Mr Caborn also noted that the benefits of opencasting should not be overlooked - including the 12,000 or so jobs it supports, its help in clearing dereliction, and the need for high quality opencast coal to "sweeten" deep mine coal for power stations. However, in response to an intervention from a Labour MP, he acknowledged that only about nine million tonnes of opencast output is needed for the latter purpose in England - a little over half the present level.
The Minister accepted that there are "still many concerns" about the environmental effects of opencasting, though he then suggested that some of these "may be" addressed by existing planning controls. The recent revision of the EC Directive on environmental assessment of major projects, he added, will make assessments for opencast proposals of more than 25 hectares mandatory from 1999 where previously they have only normally been required for sites of more than around 50 hectares.
The Minister closed by suggesting that "on certain matters it may be right to go further", and promised to "review urgently" the present guidance in MPG3 to identify "whether any further changes are necessary." The promise was some way short of Labour's previous commitments to "reduce the reliance on opencast coal" and to impose a series of stricter planning restraints on opencasting.