Opencast Mining (North Warwickshire)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th April 1969.

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

4.3 p.m.

Photo of Mr Keith Speed Mr Keith Speed , Meriden

I am glad to raise in Parliament a problem which is causing great concern to many thousands of my constituents. On 6th March, the Opencast Executive of the National Coal Board submitted an application to opencast coal on the Anker site in North Warwickshire under the Opencast Coal Act, 1958. My constituents had until 8th April to make objections to the Minister and, objections having been made. I presume that a public inquiry is to be held. I realise that this will inhibit the Minister in replying in detail, but I felt that it would be useful to find out from his Department its approach to opencast mining in general. Any views that can be given to reassure my constituents will be more than welcome.

It might be helpful if I outline briefly the history of the district in connection with opencast mining, because the Poles-worth and Dordon urban area, in North Warwickshire, has had 20 years of opencast mining. Those operations were concluded only a few years ago. The people in the area had to put up with much inconvenience, upset, dirt and noise over the whole of the 20 years.

Three years ago the Opencast Executive announced proposals, of which the present Anker application was to be the first phase, for a massive scheme to win 15 million tons of opencast coal over a huge area ranging from Shuttington right across through to Watling Street. It has never said that these plans have been cancelled. If this application had gone ahead there would have been the most appalling effect on the whole of North Warwickshire. The plans have been shelved, but not cancelled.

In the past few years the North-East Warwickshire Water Board has been studying the area for a new reservoir site. As a result of this, discussions took place with the Opencast Executive for a combined operation whereby the Opencast Executive would extract the coal and the resultant hole would form the reservoir, thus allegedly saving the North-East Warwickshire Water Board money.

I am not competent to judge how serious is the water situation in North-East Warwickshire. Certainly water is an essential raw material for industry and if we want new industry in the area we will need more water. Originally it was stated that the reservoir was essential by 1972, but this date has now been pushed back two years.

I do not know whether Shuttington is the best site. On the economics of the digging of the site, I have seen no evidence that the excavation of the reservoir has even been put out to open tender. If we assume—and these are big assumptions—that the reservoir is urgent and the site is the best one, selling the coal from the hole that has to be dug for the reservoir will save lots of public money. As I say, these are big assumptions.

We then run up against the fact that the amount of coal to be extracted purely for the reservoir is no more than 500,000 or 600,000 tons. Yet the present application which has been put in is to extract 1,600,000 tons—in other words, three times as much, and the workings will cover an area of 838 acres.

It might be useful to look at the national position so far as opencast working is concerned. I understand, from a reply that the Minister gave to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) last December, that to stockpile coal, whether opencast or deep-mined, costs, roughly speaking, £1 a ton.

The Minister told me on 27th March that at present 3.9 million tons of opencast coal is stockpiled nationally. This represents 59 per cent. of the total annual production, compared with a figure of only 14 per cent. of total annual production of deep-mined coal which is stockpiled. This, a very much greater amount of opencast coal is stockpiled than of deep-mined coal.

Because of the effects on deep-mined coal, and no doubt bearing all these facts in mind, the Government, in the Fuel White Paper of 1967, said: Though opencast production is profitable and relatively small, there is no advantage to be gained from continuing it where this can be avoided, at a time when surplus coal is being put to stock at considerable cost. The Government have therefore decided not to give further authorisations for opencast production except in special cases where, because of quality or location, the coal to be produced is not in competition with coal from deep mines; and they have asked the National Coal Board to have regard to these factors in operations at existing sites. I completely agree with that statement in the White Paper and I hope that the Minister can confirm that that particular statement is still the policy of the Government.

The Minister also told me on 27th March that, since the White Paper, 13 applications for open-cast mining all over the country have been received, including the particular application at Anker. Of these 13, five had been granted for anthracite or for coking coal. We all know that there is a great shortage of anthracite and coking coal, and no doubt these factors persuaded the Minister to approve the applications.

As a matter of interest, according to the National Coal Board's 1968 Report, the difference in cost between opencast and deep-mined coal is, roughly speaking, 10s. a ton in favour of opencast coal. The Anker coal is ordinary industrial coal, which does not fall within the category of coking coal or anthracite. It would appear, on national economic grounds, that there is, little point in this particular project being approved.

What is the effect on local mines? There were 12 deep mines in Warwickshire a few years ago. Now there are five, three of which are in my constituency: Birch Coppice, Daw Mill and Baddesley. These are all highly productive and profitable pits. Birch Coppice has responded well to the challenge, and has just worked itself off the jeopardy list. I recently visited Daw Mill and Baddesley, and in my discussions with the men both above and below ground I found that they were concerned and worried about their future because of this application.

Confidence is a precious thing. Industrial relations, particularly in the South Midlands area, are excellent, but people in the local pits are now worried, and I share their concern. At the moment 1¾ million tons of industrial coal of a similar type to that to be extracted at Anker are stockpiled in Warwickshire. This is a problem of marketing, and the addition of 1½ million tons to the present 1¾ million tons can only make the problem very much worse, so I share the miners' concern about their future and the future of their truncated industry in this area.

Then there is the effect on amenities. There is the problem of the actual working of the opencast and the stockpile. The area has had 20 years of this problem already. The application envisages operations from 7 o'clock in the morning until 10 o'clock at night, and essential servicing and maintenance being carried out on Sundays. In recent years the district has developed rapidly as an overspill area for Birmingham. Hundreds of houses are being built, and young people are buying their own houses because they cannot afford houses in the great conurbation of Birmingham. In the area where opencast mining is to take place many workings will be close to some of these new estates, and I have clear evidence from local agents that properties are difficult to sell as property values have been adversely affected by the threat of opencast mining. It seems that if the present application goes ahead thousands of householders in the area will be subjected to dirt, noise, and misery for perhaps five to 10 years.

The objectors to the present scheme are numerous, responsible, and substantial. They include the Warwickshire County Council, the Staffordshire County Council, Atherstone Rural District Council, Tamworth Borough Council, various parish councils and residents' associations, the National Union of Mineworkers, the N.F.U., and Meriden con stituency Conservative and Labour Parties. This is a pretty broad field of opposition to this application.

I am against any fresh opencast operations in the area. If a reservoir is necessary, if this is the best and indeed the only site that it is suitable to mine, I should be prepared, as a compromise, to allow opencast working for the reservoir only, in other words, 500,000 to 600,000 tons, rather than a scheme for 1½ million tons.

I hope that after the public inquiry the Minister will make it clear that any extension over this figure of 500,000 to 600,000 tons, and any fresh applications in the future for larger schemes, are just not on. My constituents have been living with this uncertainty hanging over them for a long time, and now that matters have come to a head I hope that we can dispel the uncertainty and doubt that is hanging over the whole of North Warwickshire.

Serious and responsible allegations that the scheme is a fait accompli and that the public inquiry will be a pretence have been repeated by a member of the North-East Warwickshire Water Board. It is said that a contract has been signed for the N.C.B. to hand over to the North-East Warwickshire Water Board on 1st June, 1974, a site for the reservoir. I hope that this afternoon the Minister will categorically deny those allegations, and confirm that the matter will be judged completely on its merits, because I am sure that all the arguments are on the side of the objectors.

There is much talk about participation and local democracy, but actions always speak louder than words. Stansted showed what could be done, and I assure the Minister that feelings in North Warwickshire are just as strong, just as sincere, and, I believe, just as well founded. I hope and pray that these views will be recognised and upheld when the Minister makes his decision after the inquiry, because it is my sincere belief that if the present scheme goes ahead it will be a major tragedy for the area and will undermine my constituents' belief in democracy.

4.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr Leslie Huckfield Mr Leslie Huckfield , Nuneaton

I, too, am grateful for the opportunity to raise this subject and I agree with everything said by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed). I speak on behalf of the miners of Warwickshire, although my constituency is not directly affected. I was, however, to a large extent concerned with the Shuttington, Dondon and Poleworth areas in the interregnum before the hon. Gentleman came to the House.

We are talking about something decribed in the Sunday Press less than two years ago as the richest opencast find in Europe. So far, we have had no statement from the National Coal Board that it has abandoned or modified its long-term objective of making use of that find. It is also a situation in which many miners are coming to a crisis of confidence. They have seen collieries closed, natural gas coming into the area, the Lurgi plant closed at Kingsbury and the oil terminal at Kingsbury, together with the uncertain future of the coal-fired plant.

Many of my contituents are miners and I am sure that, to my constituents, opencast working in North Warwickshire would be the last straw. It is vital, therefore, that something should be done immediately to restore some kind of confidence to the miners of North Warwickshire. I do not want to deal with all the points which the hon. Gentleman raised about the effects on amenity in his constituency, except to say that I agree absolutely. The eastern side of Birmingham which he and I represent is fast becoming a growing commuter area. People have moved into the area because it is a desirable and cheaper place in which to live, and I hope that it will continue to be so. But this kind of thing could be threatened by opencast mining in North Warwickshire.

The hon. Gentleman quoted from the Government White Paper on Fuel Policy. A Parliamentary reply by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power in March used the same words as those which the hon. Gentleman quoted, except that there was something tagged on to the end. My right hon. Friend added: These are the fuel policy considerations which will guide the decision on new sites, though from time to time there may be factors outside fuel policy which favour opencast working and will need to be taken into account."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st March, 1968; Vol. 780, c. 217.] I realise that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is in a rather difficult position about this application. The whole matter is sub judice and to ask him to give any kind of decision today is out of the question. But the hon. Gentleman and I are entitled to some indication of what modification may have taken place in the Government's thinking about opencast mining. I know from Questions which I have put to Ministers about opencast mining and the Government's attitude that the qualifications are becoming rather more definite every time. We have arrived at the stage at which there are factors other than fuel policy considerations, and I want to know what they are.

The hon. Gentleman and I realise that, in North Warwickshire, more water is needed. We need more industry there and that industry will need more water. Like the hon. Gentleman, I should be loth to see any more coal than is necessary to provide the reservoir extracted from the area, although my position, like his, would be to oppose opencast working completely on the ground that I am not convinced that, once the first site was worked, it would be easy for the National Coal Board's Opencast Executive to leave it at that. Having got all the equipment on the site, having begun the work, it would then have a very strong argument for going on and completing some of the other sites. I should, therefore, like to oppose the project completely, although I realise that there may be other factors, including the reservoir.

The procedure does not directly affect my constituency, but, as the hon. Gentleman rightly and accurately pointed out, there is a great deal of feeling in the area that the whole thing is cut and dried and sewn up. I make no personal accusations about my right hon. Friend the Minister or about my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. But the fact must be faced that the people of North Warwickshire must be given some confidence that they will get a proper hearing. At the moment, there are many doubts in their minds.

I realise that it will be difficult for me to press my hon. Friend any further, but I repeat that the miners of North Warwickshire and the residents in my constituency and that of the hon. Member need some confidence. In fact, we all need some reassurance about this project. I realise that my hon. Friend cannot be too specific, but one of the things which would be of reassurance is to hear that the public inquiry will be open and fair and that every factor which has been mentioned this afternoon will be considered.

4.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. Reginald Free-son):

While I appreciate the representations made today by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed) and my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield), both have appreciated that it is not in order for me to discuss most of the points which they raise regarding the National Coal Board's application for the Anker site, as the matter is sub judice. But if, eventually, an opencast authorisation is granted, the Minister will ensure, as far as practicable, by planning conditions, that those who live nearby will not suffer hardship or inconvenience from opencast activities.

The National Coal Board's application for the Anker site involves not only the follow-up construction of a reservoir by the North-East Warwickshire Water Board but provision of a public open space on some of the land which would be temporarily used for spoil. The amount of space so needed would depend on several factors, including the depth of the excavation; and this in turn would influence the amount of land taken by the reservoir, as well as its economics, and the economics of the coal operation and the time taken for construction of the reservoir.

As the Coal Board's application for an authorisation under the Opencast Coal Act, 1958 and the Water Board's application for a Water Order under the Water Act, 1945 have been opposed, they will be subject to public inquiries to ascertain all the facts. We will arrange for the two inquiries to be held together, for the convenience of all concerned. Time and place will be announced soon. Every opportunity will be given to the interested parties to present their views and to state their case, both in written form and, of course, at oral hearings.

In coming to a conclusion on this matter, the Government's White Paper on Fuel Policy still stands, regarding opencast coal working. The policy was set out in paragraph 119, and amplified not just this year, a few weeks ago, but in a Question from my hon. Friend on 8th December 1967—one or two months after the White Paper—and restated in an Answer which I gave him on 24th March this year. In essence, this was to the effect that, during the present conditions of general coal surplus, new sites will not be authorised except in special cases where, because of special factors additional to fuel policy or because of quality or location, the coal to be produced will not compete with deep mine coals. An important aspect of this case, which I must not pre-judge, is how far special factors relating to the proposed reservoir and amenity provision may justify opencast working.

This is a complicated case, but I assure the House and the public concerned, that it will be looked at carefully from every angle and full account taken of any views at the public inquiry, which will be an elaboration of the points made today.

Since the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend, were kind enough to tell me beforehand that they would raise the question of the rumours spreading in the district, I should like to take this opportunity to refute the recent allegations that my right hon. Friend has already agreed that the Coal Board and the Water Board should go ahead with their plans. There is no fait accompli here. The fact that my right hon. Friend has published a notice to suspend rights of way across the Anker site, which may have given rise to these allegations and rumours, if the Coal Board is authorised to work the site, is normal procedure and in no way affects his ultimate decision.

I have checked all the records available in the Department concerning the procedure adopted for applications before and since the White Paper was published. As far as I have been able to ascertain, in no case has such a notice been published after the authorisation. The normal procedure has been for it to be published before, but naturally it does not become effective until the authorisation is given. When deciding on the applications, we consider all the objections sent to my right hon. Friend and the report of the person appointed to conduct the inquiry. My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton and the hon. Member for Meriden expressed understanding of my position. The Minister is in a semi-judicial position. I act for him this afternoon. The matter is sub judice, but it will be dealt with fairly and as fully as possible. We must await the outcome of the public inquiry which is to be held soon.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Four o'clock.