Orders of the Day — Opencast Coalmining

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st February 1949.

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Photo of Sir Henry Legge-Bourke Sir Henry Legge-Bourke , Isle of Ely 12:00 am, 1st February 1949

I do ask the Minister to realise it is not quite all it seems, and that even the Ministry of Agriculture's representatives are prepared to give rather a different opinion. I am going to read a letter I have received containing the views of a Ministry of Agriculture representative on a farm which had been restored. This is what the representative said: It is a physical impossibility to restore the surface as was originally promised to all. Although the soil and sub-soil were supposed to be properly stacked, that did not occur in practice. In any case, the action of the wind and weather would necessarily wash away much of the humus and remove the mineral salts which gave the soil most of its value. Although the restoration and subsequent reseeding would produce a reasonable looking herbage and give the land a grazing value of 50s. an acre such value would be there for only two years, and after that the land would be in very bad condition, with no proper drainage and a bad mixture of soils, sub-soil coming to the surface so that the land would be waterlogged in wet weather. The Ministry of Agriculture were indeed making experiments to overcome these difficulties but they had not solved the problem yet. I do not believe they have solved the problem yet, and I know that there are farmers whose land has been restored who would heartily agree with that representative's opinion.

I hope we shall be able to get a better arrangement than now exists between the three Ministries involved in this question. There are in fact four, but I am leaving out the Ministry of Works. The Ministry of Fuel and Power, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Town and Country Planning seem to me to be at loggerheads. Now and again there is a clash between the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and the Ministry of Fuel and Power in one place, and in another a clash between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Fuel and Power.

I have been told that what has happened ever since the fuel crisis in the winter of 1946–47, is that the Ministry of Fuel and Power have over-riding power over the other Departments, and that nothing the other Ministries can do will stop them if they wish to take over another area. It is utterly wrong that this should happen when the Ministry of Agriculture are calling on producers to produce everything they can. I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that he should seriously consider that this matter ought to be decided not by the Ministry of Fuel and Power but by the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for this is really a matter of dollars versus sterling. It is a question of whether it is more profitable to import food, or more profitable to produce coal from land which could produce the food here. I feel that the situation has changed considerably since the winter of 1946–47 and that the priority which the food industry is getting should be considerably greater.

I am not, of course asking, nor does any farmer contend for a moment, that with the present situation in deep-face coal we could scrap opencast coal mining, but there are certain places, Wentworth Woodhouse being one, where quite definitely the time has come when agriculture should have priority over the Ministry of Fuel and Power.

When we get this land restored finally there is an impression that all will be well but it takes four years for the agricultural executives to run the farms. So many of the farms are typified in this letter from Glamorgan. This is a paragraph from a farmer's letter: I am wondering what I can do about it when they de-requisition the land. It was a lovely dairy farm. They were fine fields with fine banks and hedges surrounding them. Now they are all one. I was only a tenant farmer when I gave up on reaching three score years and ten. I saved up a little property for myself and my wife in our old age, but now I shall not be able to ask the same amount for the land. We may all have different opinions about how savings should be effected, but I do not think there is any better way than to put savings into land, and for a man to be able to settle down on his own plot of England—or Wales, as in this case.

It may not be realised by those who believe that restoration is always perfect that some farmers suffer not only while their land is under requisition but when it is returned to them because it is in very poor shape compared with the state in which it was when it was handed over to the Ministry. When the Minister glibly says that 6,000 acres will be returned, I ask in what condition will they be? Will they be in the condition of the land of the farmer whose letter I have read, or will it be land in as good a condition as restoration can make it? We have to realise that the deeper the excavator goes, the more overburden is dug up; the more overburden there is, the greater is the acreage for tipping the spoil; the greater the spoil; the greater the deterioration of the humus and the greater the deleterious effects on land drainage.

Two years ago it was indicated that drift mining would be adopted as often as possible. How many of the sites now requisitioned could be so worked? How many drift mines are there in Great Britain today? That I cannot discover from the Digest to which I have referred. The number of underground miners available for opencast coalmining now exceeds 10,243 men. It is the highest figure yet, and is 2,000 higher than it was when the present Government came into office. Are we to put more men into this industry? If so, what is to be the permissible peak?

Finally, I would ask, What is the relationship between the opencast coal-mining industry and the National Coal Board? Is it on the basis of the famous story that the National Coal Board sent to the opencast coalmining industry the message, "Leave no stone unturned. It is never too slate to burn"? Is that the relationship or not? I realise that the opencast industry comes directly under the Ministry, and I suspect—indeed, I know—that there is no love lost between the two. Is this producing healthy rivalry and competitive results, or is it increasing the rancour in the industry?

My own feeling has always been that opencast mine working became necessary during the war only because of the fatal mistake made of calling up miners to the Forces. I believe it to be a truth which one day will penetrate the minds of the most obstinate of hon. Members opposite that their own party, some of them aided and abetted by the Communists, have not merely for 30 years stirred up the industry with class hatred and false propaganda, but have also involved England, Scotland and Wales in wanton desecration of our farms, at a time when every acre farmed is a step nearer to national solvency.

Opencast mining is expensive, and it appears to be growing more so. The Minister on Thursday last stated that coal was 30 times more valuable than the food the mined land would grow. I am sure that was a random opinion not based on facts. The fact is that the country is perturbed about losing any more acres with a food potential, to keep up bogus stock figures for the Government's statistics. People are prepared to accept what they feel to be necessary, but they are far from convinced that there should be so large a gap as from six million to 16 million tons in the target for 1952 for coal, and that part of it to be got from deep mining. It means, of course, that opencast workings have to go on producing between six million and 16 million tons of coal per year if we are for once to hit a target—a target of between 246 million and 256 million tons a year by 1952.

I have asked some probing questions which I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to answer. At any rate, I hope that he will at least do his best to reassure the farming community that the sacrifice they have to make—which is indeed a real one—is worth while and necessary and not merely one to keep the thing looking all right on paper.