New Right of Board to Withdraw Support to Enable Coal to Be Worked.

Part of Coal Industry Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th July 1975.

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Photo of Mr Patrick McNair-Wilson Mr Patrick McNair-Wilson , New Forest 12:00 am, 15th July 1975

The Minister in his closing remarks gave clear reasons for the amendment. Despite what was contained in the holy writ which he read to us, he well knows that the compensation provisions at present are inadequate and unsatisfactory and are recognised as being so by bodies such as the National Farmers' Union and also by the National Coal Board.

The promise with which the Minister ended his remarks—namely, that the interdepartmental committee will report speedily—is a promise which I have heard him utter on a number of occasions during the passage of this Bill. He well knows that the inquiry has been sitting since 1971. We learned from a recent parliamentary answer that the committee has had only six meetings in four years. Therefore, there is not much hope of obtaining a speedy answer from that body. The Bill when enacted will join a number of Acts of Parliament governing the operations of the coal mining industry. Many of them affect the right to extract coal and, as a result, the rights of surface owners. There is an undisputed common law right in respect of the supporting services. That has been established over the years and would remain in an unencumbered state provided that other legislation did not interfere.

As the Under-Secretary of State has pointed out, the two principal Acts of Parliament which have interfered are the 1938 Coal Act and the 1957 Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act.

The Bill we are considering introduces a number of opportunities for the National Coal Board to win coal in new areas. It was because all hon. Members wanted an exploitation of our coal energy resources that Conservative Members did not vote against the Bill on Second Reading. Indeed, I welcomed the Bill as a major step forward in winning these new resources. I am quite prepared, as an enthusiast for the industry, to repeat that promise. However, the fact is that the Bill introduces significant changes which will materially affect the surface owners in those areas where coal is to be won.

The power which the Under-Secretary brushed aside as not being a sweeping power nevertheless creates, according to the wording of the Bill, a new right. In the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum which accompanies the Bill it states that: Clause 2 and Schedule 1: give the National Coal Board a general right to withdraw support from land so far as is required for the working of any coal instead of the rights available under paragraphs 5 and 6 of Schedule 2 to the Coal Act 1938. The new right allows support to be withdrawn from any land including land adjacent to that directly above coal being worked. It is a new and important right and I do not quarrel with it. All I am saying is that if the right is to be exercised, those people who may be adversely affected by that extraction taking place should also be protected.

This is not a party matter in any sense. During our discussions in Committee hon. Members of all parties were perfectly happy to point out the importance of this compensation provision. The fact of the matter remains that as at present drafted the compensation provisions in Clause 2 are inadequate, not only because they are now challenged by many respectable bodies but because Clause 2 provides this new right in areas where coal has not been worked before—perhaps, for instance, in my constituency of the New Forest. Those areas where mining is not a known art but where it is a practice to which people are not accustomed could see serious problems created for surface owners who have buildings which could be subject to damage from subsidence.

The Lords Amendment at least provides, in the interim to which the Minister has referred—namely between a Bill to tidy up these compensation matters and the report of the inter-departmental inquiry—some safeguard which can immediately be incorporated into this legislation without in any way delaying either the Selby project or any other important aspect which this legislation covers.

Only today I received, as other hon. Members received, a note from the National Farmers' Union which does not give quite the same rosy view of the past practices of the National Coal Board as the Under-Secretary would have us take. It states clearly that the National Farmers' Union regards this Lords Amendment as being of considerable, indeed, paramount importance.

10.30 p.m.

The NFU note states: It is of great importance to the agricultural industry that this amendment be retained in the Bill if it is to become law. Though this matter is affecting all sections of the community in areas affected by coal mining subsidence, it has an obvious and particular importance for agriculture. The payment of compensation in respect of coal mining subsidence damage is at present regulated by the Coal-Mining (Sub- sidence) Act 1957. This provides for compensation in respect of immediate damage, but does not include a legal right to the recovery of compensation in respect of consequential loss and it is therefore an inadequate basis of compensation. That is perfectly true. It covers immediate damage, but if as a result of that damage something else goes wrong—if, for example a water supply is affected—that is not covered by Clause 2. It is that consequential loss for which the surface owner has no redress. It is with that loss that we are concerned.

The NFU note ends with these words: The provisions of the 1957 Act, without this augmentation, do not bear any relation to the practical realities of the agriculture which they were originally designed to protect. The National Farmers' Union has long contended that there should be statutory provisions for the payment of compensation by the National Coal Board to farmers in respect of consequential loss resulting from subsidence caused by coal mining activity. Having listened to that, the House will recognise that while the happy relationship which the farming industry has with the coalmining industry, and, which the Under-Secretary of State described in such honied terms, may exist in most cases, that is not the general rule and the industry is concerned about this problem.

Not only is that industry concerned, but the Under-Secretary of State will be aware of what has been taking place on the M6 motorway. The busiest motorway service station in Britain is now closed because of mining subsidence. The Under-Secretary of State is, I know, familiar with this problem, but it was brought out clearly in the reports in The Times and other newspapers at the end of May. On 30th May there was a report in The Times, under the heading "Mining closes M6 service area", as follows: The northbound side of one of Britain's busiest motorway service areas, on the M6 at Corley, near Coventry, is closing down its fuel and restaurant facilities next Monday because of the danger of mining subsidence.It was opened only three years ago with the final link-up of the Midland motorway network and yesterday a spokesman of Trust Houses Forte, the operators, said: 'It is one of the busiest in the country but the interests of public safety must come first.'The Coal Board said that operations would continue for at least a year and a probable maximum of two years. An official said: 'We have advised that the fuel tanks at the service area should be drained for safety. We have taken steps to minimise subsidence by reducing the length of the coalface and the thickness taken out. The area being worked is known as the North Pillar and the face is already under the service area, but not yet under the built-up part. It will not be until November, although it is liable to come under the influence of possible subsidence in July or August.The Trust Houses Forte official in London said: 'The decision to close down the northbound section is endorsed by the Coal Board and the Department of the Environment. We think it is the proper action to take in the interests of public safety'. There may well be a claim for consequential loss because the service area is allocated by the Department of the Environment through the Minister for Transport to various catering companies. The fact that about 80 people have lost their jobs at this service station and that no doubt a certain amount of trade is also lost may well lead to a case in the courts. Given the provisions of Clause 2, there is no way of arriving at a reasonable figure for a consequential loss.