Opencast Coal Production

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th July 1950.

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Photo of Mr Philip Noel-Baker Mr Philip Noel-Baker , Derby South 12:00 am, 19th July 1950

The Opposition have asked that we should discuss this afternoon the opencast working of coal. I warmly welcome their suggestion, as I think it is high time opencast coal working was debated in this House. I have never disguised the fact that, like other right hon. and hon. Members, I regret some of the results to which opencast working may lead. In the rural areas it may cause inconvenience and grave annoyance to the farmers; it may disfigure the countryside for a certain time and impair its beauty for a longer time; it must mean some loss of food production. In urban areas it may cause discomfort to householders; it may interfere with housing plans; and it may be open to objections of other kinds.

In the United States opencast working is a permanent and important part of the coal industry. In 1947 they obtained 153 million tons by opencast methods. It was from the United States that a Conservative Member of this House brought the idea in 1941. Since then we have thought of it only as a temporary expedient to help us through a grave national crisis. We have always recognised its disadvantages. We have always sought to minimise them and to make the whole thing as little vexatious as we possibly could. We have asked our people to accept the annoyance and the discomfort which it involves only because we had to have the coal.

I must begin this afternoon by asking the Committee to recognise what an immense service the men who have applied this American technique to the winning of coal have rendered to the nation in the last few years. When we began it we were told by the experts that we might get perhaps 10 million tons. We have in fact had 70 million tons and we may rightly hope for a large tonnage still to come. Of course, during the war years everyone knew that coal was vital; they did not care what it cost in cash, in loss of natural beauty or in other ways.

But let us leave the war years out of account. Let us consider what opencast has meant to Britain since 1945, what it has meant to our recovery and what it means today. Since 1945 we have been engaged in a desperate struggle to regain our economic independence, balance our payments and free ourselves from the need for dollar aid. We have had an export drive for which our people have been asked to make sacrifices of many kinds. Coal has always been a vital factor in our export trade. It has been more so since 1945 than ever before. The promise to furnish coal has helped us to get bilateral agreements with 17 countries—Canada, the Argentine, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Egypt and the Netherlands among them. From these countries we have obtained great quantities of food and raw materials which we simply had to have—meat, wheat, feedingstuffs, timber, butter, cotton and iron ore.

In the years 1945–49 we exported 55.9 million tons of coal, which earned us perhaps £126 million of overseas exchange towards the balancing of our trade accounts for the purchase of essential imports which we had to have. In those years we obtained 57 million tons of coal from opencast production. That means that unless we had diverted coal from other uses we could not have exported a single ton without the opencast supplies.

The enemies of opencast often talk as if we could now do without it. Indeed nearly everything which is said by the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) points to that conclusion. But could we? We hope this year for 13 million tons of opencast coal. Where would the hon. Member have us save that quantity? On exports? But the hon. Member's friends are always telling us that we should export more, that we are losing the chance of long-term markets because we have not enough. Would the hon. Member take it from the domestic user and household coal? He is for ever telling us that the householder does not get enough. Would he take it from the power stations? But he and his hon. Friends tell us that we do not give enough electricity to the consumers, especially in the rural districts.

Would the hon. Member take it from industry? Has he reflected what it would mean if 13 million tons less coal were given to industry today? The effect would be catastrophic. If the result on employment were in proportion to the cut in industrial coal supplies it would mean 2,500,000 unemployed. Over the long period it might mean a little fewer but over the short period it would almost certainly mean many more. The truth is that we need every ton of that 13 million tons, and if we could get another 13 million tons we should need that as well.

The hon. Member for Kidderminster said in March that in the last two years the loss on opencast was £1 2s. 6d. per ton. He implied that opencast coal was not worth that serious loss. In the last full financial year up to 1st April, 1950, the loss per ton was not £1 2s. 6d.—it was 3d. At present opencast is paying its way and the Government intend that it shall continue to pay its way.