CONSERVATIONISTS say that a new independent body is needed to ensure that the open cast coal industry in Scotland is properly regulated.

RSPB Scotland has made the demand after the insolvency of two major open cast operators last year left areas across Central and Southern Scotland in need of a substantial clean-up.

The collapse of both Scottish Coal and ATH Resources left more than 30 unrestored sites, with around £200 million needed to restore the damage to the environment and make sites safe for the public.

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The RSPB said that previous regulation of the industry lacked a system of regular checks on sites and operators to detect where plans were going off course.

It added that any new body could also play a role in regulating other types of development that have long-term environmental impacts, such as landfill sites or wind farms.

Aedan Smith, head of planning and development at RSPB Scotland, said: "A new independent compliance body, with the right expertise and resources, could be key to ensuring that the open cast coal industry is properly regulated in future and actually pays its clean-up costs for the damage it does to the environment.

"An over-sympathy for the industry to date in Scotland has led to a culture of light touch regulation, with local authorities getting too close for comfort to industry operators." He added: "A cautious approach to further extraction of coal in Scotland must be adopted, particularly in sensitive areas that are difficult to restore, like peat lands."

The Scottish Government has put forward a number of proposals for better regulation, including a plan for a new 'Independent Compliance Unit' to support local authorities in monitoring open cast coal mines and ensuring they stick to the terms of their planning permission.

Ministers also launched a public consultation exercise on the plans, which drew to a close today.