Opencast Mining, Polesworth

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th January 1959.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Bryan.]

10.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr Reginald Moss Mr Reginald Moss , Meriden

I desire to raise the question of opencast coal mining in the historic village of Poles worth in the northern part of the County of Warwick. First, I want to call attention to one or two general reasons which have been given in favour of the continuance of opencast mining. Two of these have been given to me in connection with the work on this site.

The first is that it is necessary, in the national interest presumably, to solve the problem of fuel shortage and to help with the balance of payments. The second is its profitability. The total profit in 1957 was over £9 million and the profit per ton was 13s. 9d. This was 30 per cent. of the National Coal Board's operating profit in 1957 compared with 21 per cent. in 1956.

In a Written Answer on 25th November last the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power stated that for the first six months of 1958 the average operating profit on opencast coal before allowing for interest was 14s. 5d. a ton and on deep-mined coal it was 2s. 8d. a ton. I have been told that at Poles worth the profit per ton may be even larger than the average profit. I consider that to be the main reason for proceeding with opencast operations at Poles worth.

The third reason which has been given is the sanctity of contracts made and the machinery which has been acquired to carry out this kind of work, and which is valued at £27 million.

In 1957, 12·6 million tons of opencast coal were produced, about 6 per cent, of total production. Of that, only 3 million tons, or just over one-fifth, was large coal. Large coal, graded coal and anthracite together accounted for less than one-third of the total, and the rest was inferior coal. Moreover, in the Midlands, as in the country at large, we are faced with the problem of large stocks. The latest figures I have show that there are 19 million tons of coal at collieries and opencast sites and 38 million tons altogether, including distributed stocks.

On 3rd December last, the Paymaster-General stated that 90 per cent, of stocks were small or unscreened coal, 4½per cent, large coal, 4½ per cent, graded coal and 1 per cent, anthracite. I am told that nearly £70 million is locked up in the stocks, and the Financial Times has estimated that it is costing £12 million a year simply to hold them. Demand in 1958 continued to fall, and I am informed that total demand is likely to be 21 million tons less than it was in 1956.

Those are the main features of the general background of this opencast operation at Polesworth. Polesworth is a village of some antiquity. In "The Antiquities of Warwickshire" published by William Dugdale in 1656, the village is described in these terms: …yet for antiquity, and venerable esteem, needs it not give precedence, to any in this countie; being honoured with the plantation of the first religious-house therein, that was in all these parts; founded by King Egbert, our first English monarch. The village is shaped like a horseshoe and the river Anker, the "crystal stream" of Michael Drayton, flows between the wings on its way to join the River Tame. It is between the wings of the village that the opencast works are to operate, making necessary the diversion of the river Anker which flows down the centre. The nunnery itself was founded in the 9th century and Edith, daughter of Egbert, was the first abbess. It became one of the greatest abbeys in the Midlands and it is the tower of the Abbey Church which may be imperilled by these operations.

The Minister is proceeding under Defence Regulations conceived to meet war-time emergency and used in the years after the war to meet the fuel shortage which then existed. Those circumstances no longer exist and people in Warwickshire find it difficult to understand why Defence Regulations had be to used in this case so that no public inquiry could take place before the work was started.

Alderman C. M. Smith-Ryland, Chairman of the County Planning Committee, is reported to have said: I have told the Coal Board representatives that I think it disgraceful that they should go ahead with the violation of Polesworth without a public enquiry. The Warwickshire miners are also seriously concerned. They are having to face grave problems of redundancy, retirement of older workers and reduced earnings, and I have found anxiety about possible short-time working. Over the last few years, I have learned not to discount the anxieties which miners have expressed to me, for they told me about this coming crisis when the Paymaster-General was still urging them to produce every ton of coal they could, on the ground that every ton would be needed. That was in 1957.

The National Farmers Union is opposed to opencast mining generally. Locally, I am informed that six farms or smallholdings have been either destroyed or mutilated by the necessity for these operations, involving over 200 acres of land. The local population is almost unanimously against the scheme; the parish, rural district and county councils are against it; the miners and the farmers are against it, and, of course, the rector of the Abbey Church is against it. In other words, every articulate body, every elected body and every community of the local citizens is against it. The Minister has therefore decided to proceed in the teeth of public and popular opposition in this case, and it seems to me that the Coal Board takes the profits and Polesworth takes the punishment.

I welcome the assurances which have been obtained and wish to take this opportunity of thanking the Ministers concerned for making sure that certain conditions were imposed. I should like to mention a few of them.

First, there is the necessity not to impede access to the three railway bridges. Secondly, nothing is to be done which would impair the stability of the canal. Thirdly—and very important—the working of the site is to be arranged so that the Atherstone Rural District Council's sewerage scheme will not be delayed. Fourthly, every effort is to be made to prevent the extension of flooding—a matter to which I called the Minister's attention. Fifthly, night work is to be prohibited, presumably because of the proximity of the village. Sixthly, when the time comes for restoration—and I attach tremendous importance to this, and agree that great improvements have been made in restoring opencast sites— the Atherstone Rural District Council is to be consulted with a view to grading part of the land for playing fields. Seventhly, the river is to be restored on conditions to be agreed with the Trent River Board. Eighthly, the pollution of the River Anker is to be avoided, if possible. Ninthly, in order to protect the Abbey Church and tower no blasting is to be permitted north of the south bank of the river as it now crosses the site.

I conclude by asking one or two specific questions which are puzzling the local inhabitants of Polesworth. Does the Minister know whether deep mining is to take place underneath the same site, and has he considered what effect this may have upon the level of the land? How long will the operations last? I ask that question because of the prohibition of night work. Can the Minister say whether night work has been defined? Between what hours is work prohibited, and will this extend the duration of the operations?

Another thing which puzzles us, locally, is the question of how the level of the land can be maintained when coal is being extracted from underneath the surface soil, to a depth that I do not know. We have been told that the surface will be scarcely affected by these operations, and I wonder if the Minister can say something about that.

I drew the Minister's attention to the danger which might come from lorries passing through the village. I was told that this would not happen in the first instance, but when it did happen later on great care would be taken and a watch kept. I hope that is true and that steps have been taken to enforce this kind of care.

Can the Minister say what quality of coal is expected to be produced on this site and whether there is a market for it? One of the things that puzzle local people is the idea of having to suffer from opencast coal mining operations, with deep-mined coals all around and large stocks in existence, and they think that 500,000 tons out of the 700,000 expected to be produced will be the kind of coal which already lies in stocks and cannot be sold. Can the Minister say how many farms and smallholdings have been affected, whether the compensation arangements have been satisfactory and what acreage of land has been taken out of agriculture due to these operations?

I have hitherto always refused to oppose at the behest of my local authorities opencast mining operations, on the ground that I consider them necessary in the national interest. I think circumstances have changed and that such schemes are no longer necessary. I know it is profitable for the National Coal Board to extract coal in this way, but I do not think it is profitable to the community as a whole. I think, therefore, that I have the right to expect that, if the Abbey site is to be worked, every possible safeguard will be taken and in the and, perhaps, due to consultation with the local authority, it may be possible, when the work of restoration comes, to extract good out of evil.

10.32 p.m.

Photo of Mr Reginald Maudling Mr Reginald Maudling , Barnet

My noble Friend the Minister of Power is well aware of the local concern that has arisen as a result of the proposal which he approved for the working of this opencast site. If I may say so, the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Moss) has been most assiduous in bringing before the Minister in great detail and with great clarity all the objections that are felt by his constituents to this proposal. I would also say that not only has he been assiduous in bringing those objections forward, but he has also been extremely fair both in correspondence and again in this evening's discussion. While I am afraid that I cannot on behalf of my noble Friend agree to abandon this proposal, I am sure that his constituents can feel that every possible argument on behalf of the objections has been advanced both in correspondence with the Minister and on the Floor of the House.

The opencast working of coal is, in the view of the Government, a disagreeable necessity. I think we all recognise that ripping open the soil in order to obtain coal is a procedure which is bound to damage amenities and cause very great inconvenience to people living in the areas concerned. I do not think that anyone—the Government, the National Coal Board or anyone else — would propose to continue obtaining coal by opencast methods unless there were a genuine public interest in doing so.

I do not think that this is an occasion for a full-scale debate on the coal situation or the need for opencast coal in particular. That was debated fairly recently in the House, when the Government explained why in their view it is still necessary to obtain coal by opencast methods. It is perfectly true that there are now on the ground in this country very large, indeed unprecedented, stocks of coal, but it is our view that we should not allow our long-term policy to be deflected by a surplus of coal of certain grades—small coals—which in our view might quite soon be used when the resumption of industrial activity, which we all wish to see, gathers way.

Be that as it may, we agree with the Coal Board that while it is possible to some extent to use opencast mining as a cushion, it cannot be turned on and off like a tap, because the organisation of opencast mining is a very complicated matter. It means building up a contracting organisation, a labour force and machinery. We cannot say overnight, "We will stop opencast mining and in two years' time, if we need the coal, we will start it again."

What can be done is to use the fact that it is more flexible than is deep mining. That is what the Coal Board is doing, because the reduction in opencast mining which the Board is planning for this calendar year—about 25 per cent.— is very much bigger than the comparatively large reduction which is being planned in deep mining. The Board is properly carrying out the principle of allowing the flexibility of opencast to take a much bigger proportionate share in the total reduction of output than is to be borne by deep mining.

But I am afraid that opencast mining must continue on a substantial scale. That being so, any proposal must be carefully examined, and in examining this proposal my noble Friend has applied the principles which we said the Government would apply—namely, in current circumstances to scrutinise with particular care, with increased care, any proposal and to give greater weight to consideration of local amenity than was possible in the past.

This particular site has the advantage from one point of view and disadvantage from another point of view of being very rich in coal. I understand that on about 98 acres of land there is a potential yield of 700,000 tons of coal—about three times the normal average yield from opencast sites. I understand that this will be good, average quality coal. It is expected to yield an unusually high proportion of large coal. The hon. Member was right to call attention to the question of the proportion of large coal, but I assure him that the yield to the Coal Board and the nation of coal from this site will be an exceptionally large yield per acre and that it will be valuable coal in that it is of good quality and has an unusually high proportion of the large coal which he rightly says is particularly in demand. The economic case against which the other considerations must be weighed is on this site very strong, and that was very much in my noble Friend's mind when he decided to authorise the Board to proceed with this proposal.

I am afraid that I cannot tell the hon. Member—I am sure he would not expect me to—that we can change our minds in this matter, but we have been particularly careful to impose a large number of conditions in this case, and the views of the local authorities, local residents, Church authorities and the hon. Member himself have been most carefully taken into account in imposing the conditions for the working and restoration of this site.

I was grateful to the hon. Member for enumerating no less than nine conditions which have been made for the working of this site and which will be strictly adhered to. He raised one or two other points to which I will endeavour to give him a reply. How long must this go on? I understand that the working of the site will take about four years in all until the restoration of the site begins. The hon. Member asked about the quality of the coal, and I have already answered that it is good average quality.

The hon. Member asked about the subsidence of the land. I understand that it is the expectation, based on experience, that the land will return to the same level even when the coal has been extracted. The Coal Board is aware of the flooding problem to which the hon. Member has called attention, and the necessary conditions have been laid down to deal with it. On the question of lorry traffic, as he has been informed, this will not in the early stages pass through the village; and when it does become necessary for that traffic to do so, the necessary precautions will be taken. Those are all part of the conditions on which permission is given for the Coal Board to work the site.

Photo of Mr Reginald Moss Mr Reginald Moss , Meriden

So far as I know, the question of lorries passing through the village was contained in a letter to me. I have not seen it laid down in any of the governing conditions.

Photo of Mr Reginald Maudling Mr Reginald Maudling , Barnet

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that anything contained in a letter to him will be regarded as binding by the Minister. He may be certain that the Coal Board will honour any obligation undertaken by the Minister. I am glad he called attention to that point. He may have complete assurance that anything contained in a communication to him is an obligation upon the Government and will be honoured.

I cannot pretend that the development of this site will do other than cause considerable inconvenience to the people who live in the district. That, I am afraid, is inevitable. It is inevitable in all opencast working. But, as I have endeavoured to point out, the system of obtaining coal by opencast working cannot in our view be abandoned, and therefore we must allow the Coal Board to proceed with its work. In deciding which sites it is to work we must weigh the demands of the economy and amenity considerations. In every case it will be found that local opposition to opencast working is virtually unanimous. That is bound to be so. I am sure the hon. Member will recognise that it is a matter of weighing the claims of local interests against the equally important claims of the national interest.

In this case my noble Friend reluctantly came to the conclusion that it was right for him to authorise the working of this site. He has been at great pains to impose all the conditions enumerated by the hon. Member which in our view will prevent any damage to the church, interference with the water mains or the electricity supply, and will deal with the problem of flooding. All the conditions regarding the temporary diversion of the river and the traffic problem will be satisfied and suggestions regarding the difficulty about the development of the sewerage and the loss of agricultural land, which is inevitable, were all taken into account. These did not, however, outweigh the economic advantage of developing this coal deposit.

I am afraid that I cannot give any consolation to the hon. Member in this matter; the development of the site must go ahead. I can assure him, however, that the many representations he has made on behalf of his constituents have been considered with the greatest care. We cannot stop the development of the site, but we will ensure that the conditions imposed to meet the requirements of the local authority and the residents will be fully observed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.