Goose Green Farmland, Wigan (Opencast Mining)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd July 1959.

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

10.48 p.m.

Photo of Mr Alan Fitch Mr Alan Fitch , Wigan

On 17th December, 1958, I wrote to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about the state of the land at Goose Green, Wigan, which had been returned to several farmers after opencast coal operations. Prior to writing to the right hon. Gentleman I had visited this land, and whilst I have little knowledge of farming—in fact, I am not even a very good gardener—it was apparent to my amateur eye that the land was in a very poor condition. Indeed, it looked to me very much like marshland. I had photographs taken which I sent to the right hon. Gentleman. In my letter I suggested it was unsatisfactory for any kind of arable farming. On 27th January, 1959, I received a reply to my letter. It said: One of our major problems on opencast coal land, especially sites such as this with the heavier soils, is the lack of physical, or 'crumb' structure in the replaced soil. This produces an impermeable condition which does not allow free drainage or percolation of the surface water through the soil so that it can find its way to the drains. This is a problem to which our experts have not found a complete answer, but I hope that before long my scientific advisers will be able to suggest remedies. What has become clear already is that in addition to efficient drains, a good standard of management and generous applications of fertilisers to promote root growth are essential.When the land in the Goose Green area was derequisitioned, my technical officers considered that it was in a reasonably satisfactory condition, though in some parts of the area there was not a great deal of soil available for replacement. Technical compensation was of course paid in accordance with the statutory conditions current at the time to the owner by the Minister of Power. Underground drains were installed, but the impermeable condition I have mentioned prevented surface water reaching the drains. The stocking of the land with cattle did not help. If this takes place in the early years, and especially in wet weather, 'puddling' and 'ponding' of the surface are the natural consequences.My Ministry have investigated the complaint about this area very thoroughly, and my officers have given help and advice on the management of the land and on the best way of dealing with the problems. I have asked my technical officers to call on the farmers of Goose Green to give them all the help they can. This is I am sure the best way of trying to solve the very difficult problems which your constituents are facing. This is a very courteous and honest letter. There are, however, certain questions which I would like to put to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary.

Was the drainage system wrongly laid out, or was the actual work hastily or incompetently carried out? I visited the area concerned last week. Certain parts of the land were trenched for what appeared to be the re-laying of drains. Mention was made in the letter of the stocking of the land with cattle which did not help, but of the five farmers concerned, two had no cattle, one had one cow, another six cows and another ten cows. Could the grazing of such a small number of cattle cause such swamps? Incidentally, the farmers themselves deny that any of their cattle ever went on this land.

The Minister in his letter says that advice has been given on the best way of dealing with this problem. I have spoken to all the farmers concerned on more than one occasion and have asked them what advice they received. With due respect, they do not seem to have found this advice very helpful. I had great difficulty in finding out exactly what advice they had received. I gather that one farmer was advised to sell, which is certainly good business advice, but hardly relevant to the problem which he has to face. I do not want to overload the Joint Parliamentary Secretary with questions, but could he give me any idea what sort of advice these farmers have been given?

On 19th February, 1959, I put the following Question to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture. Fisheries and Food: if, in the interests of good husbandry, he will consider giving financial aid to those farmers at Goose Green, Wigan, whose land was left in an unsatisfactory state after opencast coalmining operations, in view of the inadequacy of the compensation received from the National Coal Board. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary, in his reply, said: Provided that they satisfy the conditions of the relevant schemes, owners and occupiers of opencast coal land may obtain various forms of help, for example, by way of ploughing grants, grants under the Farm Improvement Scheme or lime and fertilizer subsidies."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th February. 1959; Vol. 600, c. 519.] I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman whether these farmers have received any form of help under the schemes suggested in his reply to my Question.

A letter dated 17th March, 1959, from a person who has been acting for the farmers—I use the word not in a legal sense but in the sense of a person who has a disinterested interest—says that a meeting of Ministry officials and the farmers took place on Monday, 16th March. This, incidentally, was the first meeting between officials of the Ministry and the farmers since I raised this subject on 17th December, a matter of three months. I feel that this matter should have been treated with more urgency than it was. Apparently, the outcome of this meeting was pessimistic. The farmers were told that it would take a number of years for the land to drain as it should and that there was no power to grant any extra money for the purpose.

I should now like to turn to the farmers themselves. I want to give some details about the number of acres involved and the type of farming undertaken. Five farmers are involved and there is another whose land has not yet been derequisitioned but is likely to be so soon. The six farmers have 319 acres among them and 253 acres were used for opencast coal operations, of which 169 acres have been derequisitioned and 84 acres of which are due for derequisition in the near future.

Until May, 1951, those farmers paid rent for their land. In fact, they were tenant farmers. In May, 1951, they bought the land at an average cost of £65 per acre. That may have been cheap because they were already in possession of the land and the former land-owner had died and the land was being sold in order to realise death duties.

I should like to make a brief comment on each of these farms. William Wadsworth of Derbyshire House Farm, Goose Green, owns 50 acres, of which 47 acres were requisitioned for opencast coal operations. His land was derequisitioned in 1956. Before opencast operation, his crop of wheat was threshing out 32 to 35 cwts. to the acre. Now it yields 8 cwts. to the acre. The hay crop before opencast operations would yield 3 tons to the acre; now it yields barely 2 tons. The milk yield is only about half the quantity it was before opencast operations. The 1959 crop of wheat and oats was a complete failure. To quote Mr. Wadsworth: The sparrows had to go down on their knees to get at them. This was in spite of the fact that £160 had been spent on fertiliser, £250 on manure and £60 on seed.

William Barker of Hatton House Farm, Goose Green, owns 70 acres, of which 63 acres were requisitioned for opencast operations. Thirty-five acres were derequisitioned in 1955 and 28 acres are still requisitioned. His pre-opencast operations consisted of wheat growing which yielded 25–30 cwts. per acre, but now yield about 7 cwts. per acre. Potatoes yielded 6 tons an acre but now give about 1 ton an acre. Oats were 30 cwts. per acre, but are now not worth growing since opencast operations. One acre of grassland would feed three cows but is now sufficient for only one cow.

George Phythian of Glass House Farm, Goose Green, owns 40 acres of which 36 were requisitioned for opencast operations, 32½ acres being de-requisitioned in 1955 while 3½ acres remain requisitioned. His pre-opencast farming consisted of wheat, oats and hay. This season oats were sown on 8 acres, wheat on 6½ and hay on the rest. Oats yielded about 15 cwts. per acre and the wheat was a complete loss. Prior to opencast he kept 8 cows which he has had to sell. In 1958, 32½ acres of wheat yielded 6 to 7 cwts. per acre. This year's hay crop is nothing.

James Halsall of Worthington Fold Farm, Goose Green, owns 50 acres of which 45 acres were requisitioned and derequisitioned during the period 1952–57. Before opencast operations, potatoes yielded 8 to 9 tons per acre and now give 25 cwts. per acre. Oats yielded 23 cwts. per acre and now give 7 cwts. Wheat which yielded 1 ton per acre now yields 8 cwts. and hay, which yielded 2½ tons per acre, now yields less than 1 ton per acre. More than £50 per acre has been spent on manure, lime and fertiliser.

Tom Halsall of Wheatlea Farm, Goose Green, owns 10 acres of which 6 were requisitioned for opencast coal operations, but derequisitioned in 1956. Previous to opencast operations his land yielded one ton per acre of oats and wheat and 7–8 tons per acre of potatoes. In 1958 his crop was 5 cwts. per acre of oats and wheat while potatoes were nil. In 1959 four acres of his land were unsuitable for any crops owing to faulty drainage. In 1958 he spent £50 on seed and manure. His return in monetary value for the oats reaped was £15, but he spent £15 on hiring a combined harvester and the whole operation was a complete financial loss.

John Jameson, Hawkly Hall Farm, Goose Green, is rather a different case in so far as 52 acres of the 99 acres which he owns were requisitioned but have not yet been derequisitioned, but he asked for and obtained permission to sow fifteen acres of this land with wheat seed. He spent £60 on seed. The crop was a complete failure.

I have tried to describe as accurately as I can the problems facing these farmers. I have no special Knowledge of the subject, although I understand that farming has an ever-increasing appeal to politicians. Perhaps the serenity of the cows grazing in the fields or the wind as it blows the fields of wheat first to the left and then to the right has a special appeal to politicians, weighed down as they are by the ever-increasing tempo of modern political life. If by some mischance the politician sought peace and serenity at Goose Green he would have a rude awakening. He would be faced with a waterlogged, stony area of land offering many problems.

I have relied for my facts on the information given to me by the farmers concerned. I am convinced that this land will never again be fit for arable farming but that it might with treatment be fit for dairy farming, and I should like the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to consider this. I ask him to consider some kind of ex gratia payment to these men. When I worked in the mines we used to have what was called a payment for abnormal conditions, something outside the terms of the contract. I suggest that the term "abnormal conditions" applies at Goose Green.

Will the Minister say, when he replies, whether he believes that arable farming will be possible again on this land? Does he realise that the soil is very wet, very stony and without worms? Will he say what he feels can be done to improve it?

It is not always wise to generalise from the particular, but in view of the difficulties experienced at Goose Green and taking into account the fact that more and more unsold coal is piling up, will the Minister do all in his power to stop valuable land being impoverished by opencast coal operations?

The value to the community of the small farmer is immense. At the best he cannot make a fortune but at the worst he can very easily go bankrupt. These men unfortunately have very little future as farmers.

11.3 p.m.

Photo of Mr Joseph Godber Mr Joseph Godber , Grantham

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Fitch) for raising this matter and for the moderate and open way in which he has done so.

Any farmer who has had his land taken for opencast working is bound to feel a sense of loss, and it is doubly unfortunate if on receiving his land back he has reason to think that it has been indifferently restored. I hope to show that at Goose Green the fault does not lie in restoration. It would be idle to pretend that the land is in as good condition as when it was requisitioned or that its present condition will enable the farmers to resume successfully their former system of husbandry immediately. Our purpose in restoration has been to secure that as far as practicable in the circumstances land on derequisition is fit for normal farming. We believe that the restoration measures on these sites were properly conceived and efficiently executed to that end. Unfortunately, other factors over which we have at present little control have taken a hand and militated against full recovery, not least among these has been the weather.

The complaints relate to about 160 acres, roughly half the area of the six sites involved. The first site was requisitioned as long ago as 1944, and derequisition of the sites has extended over the period 1951 to 1958. The hon. Member asked me about the future of requisitioning for opencast coal mining. He will be aware that this has been very substantially scaled down. There is no intention to do a great deal more.

I should also mention an additional site nearby, Hawkley Hall, which is still held under requisition, because we have reason to hope that on derequisition this site, which had suffered from subsidence, will prove to be in better shape than it was originally. It is an example—only one of many—of the success with which the restoration treatment is usually attended.

The period, now amounting to fifteen years, over which the working and restoration of these sites has extended is in itself significant. In that period we have achieved a steady improvement in our standards of restoration resulting from accumulated experience and much experimental work. I understand that the six sites are all in much the same condition. It is, therefore reasonable to deduce that the failure of the later sites to respond to improved techniques now known to us is attributable, not to defects in their restoration treatment, but to other factors. I emphasise this because it is restoration treatment for which we are primarily responsible.

On all the sites the land was given four or five years restoration treatment under the close supervision of the professional and technical officers of my Department. This special treatment included reseeding to grass in the first year, heavy application of fertilisers throughout the period and in the final year a second reseeding to grass and, with the exception of one small area on which the farmer proposes to carry out the work himself, the installation of permanent drains. On derequisition my officers were satisfied with the standard of restoration achieved in the circumstances. In their opinion the land had been brought to a state in which it could be farmed and there was nothing that the Ministry could do which would materially affect its condition.

The root of the trouble experienced on these sites, and one which is, unfortunately, found on other sites with heavy clay soils, is the impermeability of the soil and the subsoil caused by the breakdown of the physical structure of the replaced soil and the loss of the "crumb" texture which allows air and water to penetrate. The loss of friability arrests free drainage and the surface water fails to find its way to the drains.

There is no reason to suppose that the permanent drains which were installed are defective or that they will fail to function properly when the soil eventually recovers its permeability. Unfortunately, the weather in 1957 and 1958 could not have been worse for this purpose. The high rainfall in both years, combined with other circumstances, greatly aggravated the tendency of the soil to "pan" and become waterlogged. I understand that in the recent long dry spell the land has dried out The considerable cracks will have their effect over a long period of time. Although the immediate consequences may not look very encouraging, there is evidence to support the hope that the long-term effect will be beneficial, since the natural cracks in the surface will facilitate the drainage and aeration of the soil.

As further proof that the drainage system which we put in is not at fault. I would add that very recently my technical officers completed an examination of the permanent drains on all these sites. With the exception of one area of five acres, they found that all the installations were satisfactory. They have since rectified the minor defects on the five acres.

The impermeability of the soil, especially on sites with very heavy soils, such as Goose Green, is a major problem, as yet unhappily unsolved, in opencast restoration. The agricultural Research Council, together with scientific staffs at the Universities of Cambridge and Durham, are conducting research into the problem, but this is not a study which can be expected to yield immediate results. This much is certain, to achieve the maximum restoration in the long-term the land requires the most skilful nursing after derequisition.

I do not for one moment suggest that the land has been badly farmed, but I must emphasise that only by careful management over a period of years can the degree of fertility which has been built up during the programme of treatment be maintained and improved. It is, of course, for the farmers to choose for themselves, but our advice can only be that, having regard to the economic future of this land, to overstock it on the one hand or to attempt to take cash crops from it prematurely would be a mistake. That is my answer to the hon. Member who put the specific point to me whether I should advise it to be used for arable farming. My advice is that at the moment I think it would be unwise to seek to do this other than in small areas, to try it out to see if it will work. Instead, I am sure that it is right to keep it as grassland for the time being.

I recognise that cash cropping is the practice on much of the surrounding land and it is frustrating for farmers not to be able to resume their former system of husbandry, particularly when their inability to do so must mean a fairly sharp drop in their financial returns from this land. But in our opinion the best course is undoubtedly for the land to be put into grass and farmed extensively, preferably for milk production.

There are certain remedial measures which can be taken at once in helping towards the re-establishment of natural soil conditions. On the advice of my Ministry's advisory officers one of the farmers has already carried out sub-soiling operations. I understand that these have effected a considerable improvement to his land. I am asking the technical officers of my Ministry to make a further thorough and urgent study of the effect of similar treatment of the other sites concerned.

The hon. Member asked me about further compensation. I am afraid there is little hope I can hold out there. We have no powers and certainly my Ministry is not responsible for this, but I think we ought to get the facts quite straight. It would not be appropriate for me to give the sums paid to individual farmers, but I can give the figures in relation to the six sites involved, totalling 330 acres, roughly half the acreage of which is the subject of this debate.

First, while under requisition, compensation rental was paid as follows: £729 for Tan House, £3,380 for Harvey House, £2,119 for Hawkley Brook, £2,352 for Wheatlees, £4,699 for Derbyshire House, and £2,713 for Ben Johnson I and II, making a total of £15,992. Then upon derequisition two payments were made. The first was the terminal compensation which amounted to £1,523 for Tan House. £3,658 for Harvey House, £2,357 for Hawkley Brook, £2,012 for Wheatlees. £2,633 for Derbyshire House and £2,557 for Ben Johnson, making a total of £14,830, which is an average of over £44 per acre.

The second payment on derequisition was an extra-statutory rehabilitation allowance. This amounted to £187 for Tan House, £519 for Harvey House, £959 for Hawkley Brook, £700 for Wheatlees, £873 for Derbyshire House and £860 for Ben Johnson, making a total of £4,098, which is an average of over £12 per acre. So, altogether, and not counting the compensation rental paid during requisition, £18,928 was paid out as compensation on these sites. This works out at an average of £57 per acre, which cannot be considered ungenerous when compared with the total value of the land prior to requisition which I think the hon. Member suggested was about £65 per acre.

What I have said I think shows that very considerable sums of money have been paid out. The hon. Member asked a specific question about any help under the various grants which I mentioned to him in my reply in the House a month ago. I cannot give a specific reply on this, but, as the hon. Member knows, it is open to the farmers to seek help under the various schemes run by my Ministry. I assure him that if they put in applications for grants they would be very sympathetically considered and we should help in every way we could. While we have tremendous sympathy with these people in their difficulties, I hope the hon. Member will realise that we have tried to do everything we can to assist them and are fully alive to the difficulties which must confront them and are sparing no efforts to find practicable remedies.

My professional and technical officers have kept in constant touch with the farmers, have visited the sites frequently and will continue to do so. Like the farmers themselves, they are most anxious to overcome these baffling and abnormal conditions which on these sites—in contrast with the many others where restoration has been carried out smoothly and successfully—have to some extent defeated their best endeavours.

We shall continue to help with all the practical advice we can give, and in any way we can, with all the normal production grants to which I have referred. I am sorry I cannot see any way in which further capital sums can be paid out, although that is not strictly speaking a matter for my Ministry. We shall help in any way we can because we are just as anxious as anyone else to see that these farmers get a fair break.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.