Tin Mining Subsidence (Cornwall)

– in the House of Commons at 9:30 pm on 22nd March 1993.

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

Photo of Mr Sebastian Coe Mr Sebastian Coe , Falmouth and Camborne 10:41 pm, 22nd March 1993

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in the House a pressing concern that has consistently effected my constituency and the rest of Cornwall—damage to property resulting from tin mining subsidence. I refer to all Cornwall because, in Gunnerslake, my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) has been working hard for the past three months on behalf of three constituents who have suffered from such damage. My hon. Friend is, unfortunately, unable to be with us this evening.

Before informing hon. Members of the situation we face in Cornwall, I should like to outline briefly the history and significance of tin mining to that county.

Much of the tin mining was situated in the district of Kerrier. Its rich deposits of tin were exploited from the earliest times, and the urban area of Redruth grew up around the mines. By the 15th century, tin mining was emerging as a central and vital feature of the Cornish economy. Its importance was borne out by the power invested in the Stannary courts. As far back as 1305, Edward 1, through two different charters, one for Cornwall and one for Devon, outlined the privileges granted to tinners. That helped to create the situation described by the Cornish historian, Philip Payton, of tinners being a class of independent workers, living and working according to their own rules, answerable only to their kind, and jealous of their rights and privileges. They were a little like hon. Members in this place.

As mining grew in importance in the Cornish economy, it began to command deep respect and status, and it was followed by other Cornish industries. That influence of immense importance went a long way towards moulding modern Cornwall's socio-economic fabric.

The industrial revolution and the arrival of steam engines helped to propel the tin industry into modern times, and Cornwall managed to command a near-monopoly of world production. That emphasises the uniqueness of Cornwall and the sharp difference between its economy and that of the rest of England which, in structure, remains the case today.

Scarcely a week goes by without a report in a local newspaper of someone suffering damage to property as a result of old tin mining works. Such subsidence causes various problems to property that is highlighted by searches, surveys and inspections. It dines not need the trained eye to notice the obvious cracks in structure and ceilings, but whose role is it to compensate for such devaluation of property? The standard answer is that, after any subsidence from mining, the owner of the surface has the right to bring legal action against whoever did the mining.

For coal, there is an alternative course of action, which is normally much easier and more suitable: to claim compensation work to make good property from British Coal. That option, or its equivalent, does not exist for tin mining. There are no special Acts, and there is no single state-owned operator that has taken on the assets and liabilities of previous operations.

Following the decline of the industry, mines were abandoned and, after selling marketable equipment, little tidying up was done. In many cases, tips, shafts and engine houses remained for long periods in a state much as when the mine was closed. Subsequently, some of the tips were worked over and the material reprocessed, and some engine houses were dismantled. More recently, mine waste has been quarried for landfill.

The expansion of the industry and increase in population in recent years has resulted in a shortage of suitable building land. Large parts of the district of Kerrier are unavailable for development, either to protect unexploited mineral reserves or because of environmental constraints. That means that there is considerable pressure to redevelop land left derelict as the result of mining activity. Planning policies at county and district levels reflect local concern about the extent and impact of derelict land. Those authorities are committed to bringing derelict land back into use.

It is usual when buying a property to find a provision that retains the mining rights for some other owner. Indeed, in most cases, mineral ownership is totally severed from the surface freehold. Most mines were abandoned a long time ago, and the ownership of the mining rights has disseminated and become uncertain over time. One may be able to trace part-owners—for example, someone owning 13/365ths—but no complete ownership due to the nature of the inheritance. Some 100 years ago, there may have been one or two owners, but not now.

Liability is almost impossible to work out, particularly as many of the mines, especially in Redruth, predate 1872 and were not required to be registered. Without the ability to trace an owner for liability, to whom could a household with a property damaged by subsidence go for compensation?

The only other alternative is to look to insurance companies. However, they are now refusing to provide cover for certain areas, and often refuse even to consider particular post codes. I am the first to defend the right of a commercial enterprise to choose its own custom, but the present practice does not help my constituents. The insurance companies could be considered to be inflexible by refusing to insure any house in a specific district. That displays a lack of understanding. Tin mines, unlike coal mines, are worked via vertical shafts, not horizontal ones. Therefore, one house may be affected, and a house two doors down may not be.

The issue of damages and who is liable is central to my concern. Halsbury's "Laws of England", volume 31, section 117, describes how damages are decided. I do not intend to detain the House with the legalese, nor do I wish to "do a Rumpole", but the process is clearly described. When subsidence occurs after the original owner has ceased to own the property, a later occupier is not generally liable for the subsidence. Due to the confiscatory nature of death duties in earlier times, the state acquired all the benefits of the land, but none of the liabilities.

I shall draw a comparison with the position relating to coal mining subsidence. In essence, the coal case is far easier and better controlled, partly because it is covered by specific legislation—most recently the Coal Mining Subsidence Act 1991. British Coal has to accept liability, no matter which coal mining concern originally caused the damage. Compensation is paid, or work to make good undertaken, provided only that the claim is made within six years of the damage becoming apparent.

If agreements cannot be reached, the claimants can appeal to the Lands Tribunal. Alternatively they can use the cheap arbitration scheme organised by British Coal, and run by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. This is a far more favourable position than that held by tin mining subsidence sufferers in my constituency.

In fact, the problems are much greater even than the law suggests, because of the difficulty in tracing the owner of the minerals, let alone the defunct company which did the mining. As I have already stated, the minerals owner is normally not the same person as the surface freeholder, and it is extremely difficult to discover who the mineral owner is. The Chamber of Mines has a confidential list of some owners, but even these will not normally allow their names to go to the householders threatening legal action. The Duchy of Cornwall is the largest minerals owner but also the most secretive: it has actually removed its records to London so as to make it virtually impossible for potential litigants to discover when the Duchy is liable.

It is also unlikely that a surveyor could be sued for failing to notify a householder. Solicitors organise searches for mine workings, but their reports would be worded so as to protect them from liability if subsidence later occurred.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor , Truro

I think that the hon. Gentleman is aware that a constituent of mine died when a shaft opened up under her immediately outside her back door. The family has since campaigned hard to obtain all possible information on where the shafts are. Not only is it difficult to trace those who may have worked the mine or who may have the mineral rights, but the very existence of the problem is almost impossible to determine, given the history of this mining. Yet the council, which might be able to provide the information, is given no funding at all for gathering such information in what would be a major undertaking. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will impress that point on the Minister.

Photo of Mr Sebastian Coe Mr Sebastian Coe , Falmouth and Camborne

I welcome that intervention. A mining search, of course, is only as good as the records that are consulted—and as the interpretation put on them by the researcher. On the whole, the records are notoriously poor, but common sense dictates that local councils, through archives or local knowledge, must be aware of the situation of most of these mines, and must therefore be in a position to advise potential developers where they are located.

The position is very unsatisfactory, and might be made even worse by a court ruling two years ago that the National Trust, as surface freeholder, was liable to cap an uncapped mine shaft on land that it had recently bought. That might suggest that householders would in future be liable to cap mineshafts in similar circumstances.

I am not attempting to suggest a solution to this immense problem, but something must be done. The "polluter pays" principle simply cannot work in this case. Morally, compensation must be the order of the day. I hope that this debate will prompt the Minister to reconsider the situation.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 10:53 pm, 22nd March 1993

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) has set out thoroughly the problems facing parts of Redruth and the whole of Cornwall arising from historic tin mining. He has shown admirable concern for the plight of his constituents who are adversely affected. I congratulate him on raising this matter and on the clear way he has presented the issues. As he said, our hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) has also activley sought solutions to these problems.

Since problems of mining subsidence are not restricted to Cornwall, perhaps it would be helpful if I explained the Government's general approach to the problems of historic mining activity before looking at the situation in Cornwall.

Britain has a long history of mining for a wide variety of minerals. Apart from the coalfields, there are the metal mining fields of Devon and Cornwall, the Mendips, Wales, the Pennine uplands and the Lake district, and the salt mines of Cheshire. The old limestone mines of the black country have also become well known over the last 10 years or so and much of the building stone for Bath was provided by underground mining. Less well known are the sand and sandstone mines of west Yorkshire, Lancashire and Surrey, chalk mines throughout the south-east, including several in London, and other mines for iron ore and ironstone, potash, gypsum, anhydride, ball clay, fullers earth, fireclay, slate, chert and flint. There are examples in many of those areas of subsidence due to old mines causing damaging to property. Because reliable records are available only since the latter half of the 19th century, the first intimation of earlier mine workings has often been the occurrence of subsidence.

In support of the development of land use planning policy, we have carried out a number of mining-related research projects over the last 10 years or so. These have included specific area studies of limestone working in the black country, coal mining in south Wales, chalk and flint mining in Norwich and metal mining in Cornwall. Studies of the methods of treatment of disused mine shafts and of compiling and using information on mining were published in 1988.

The broad national picture was obtained during the "Review of mining instability in Great Britain", published in 1992. As well as regional and technical reports, that includes a case study report specifically on metalliferous mines in Kerrier, of which my hon. Friend is aware. That research has supported the development of advice in planning policy guidance note 14, "Development on unstable land", published in April 1990. This advises that, where development is proposed in areas which are known or suspected to be undermined, due account should be taken of the potential effects of subsidence on that development.

The responsibility for investigating a site to determine whether subsidence is likely to be a problem is that of the developer. However, local planning authorities are advised that they should regard the possibility of mining subsidence as a material planning consideration and take account of it at all stages of the planning process. Purchasers are also advised that they should make such inquiries as they consider necessary to satisfy themselves as to the stability of the land. It is recognised, however, that searches are only as good as the information available—a point rightly made by my hon. Friend. For many mining areas, information, when it exists, is often not readily available.

More specific planning guidance on the treatment of disused mine openings and the availability of information on mined ground is currently being developed. I hope to be able to publish it later in the year. We shall continue to review the effectiveness of our policies in reducing the impact of subsidence and will consider the need for further guidance.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor , Truro

The Minister has touched on a point that I raised earlier about the availability of information. As I said, a constituent of mine died, having had no information that there might be a problem. The local borough council—and, I believe, all other councils in Cornwall—has sought to gather information but, as the Minister will understand, it is an expensive process. In the review, will he consider the possibility of funding councils for part of the costs of gathering such information so that it can be made available to people?

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I shall come to that point when I discuss the historic position.

Whatever consideration is now given to new development—much of what I have said has related to new development—it is a fact of life that much of the development in this country preceded such considerations. Indeed, all the matters which are the cause of concern in Cornwall preceded them. Consequently, there are many areas where development has already taken place above old mine workings and thus may be at risk from subsidence. That is what happened in the case raised by the hon. Gentleman and in other places in Cornwall.

Derelict land grant funding has therefore been made available for the investigation and treatment of land liable to become derelict due to actual or apprehended subsidence due to abandoned underground mines. Land likely to be affected by subsidence cause by coal mining was excluded because it was already covered by the Coal Mining (Compensation for Subsidence) Acts. Derelict land grant funding for the stabilisation of underground mines is available in Cornwall. It is a precondition of that that local authorities will have to have some regard to where such mines might be if they are to have derelict land grant funding.

Financial help has been given to the treatment of tin mines in Cornwall. In 1988, we made it clear that derelict land grant would be available for the capping or back-filling of mine shafts, even where the work does not form part of a wider scheme for the reclamation of derelict land. Priority has been given to the treatment of mine shafts on land needed for development or redevelopment, or with a high degree of public access—such as open land next to a footpath. My hon. Friend will be aware that as a consequence of that initiative intensive shaft-capping programmes have been undertaken by both Kerrier and Carrick district councils—so we have invested substantial sums of money to help tackle that problem.

Our general approach to the problems of mining subsidence is thus to attempt to prevent the problems arising by proper consideration within the planning system, and by the use of derelict land grant funds to deal with mine shafts and underground workings where there is a significant element of risk to public safety or where substantial existing development is at risk.

As the House will be aware, the Urban Regeneration Agency will—when it comes into full operation—subsume derelict land grant. As the consultation paper on the agency made clear, in constructing its unified grant regime, and issuing our guidance to the agency, we shall take account of the current priorities for derelict land grant. It will, of course, be for the agency to determine its initial work programme. In doing so, I am confident that it will take full account of existing derelict land grant programmes in Cornwall.

Despite all those measures, subsidence does happen, and I fully appreciate that it causes much distress to people and damage to property that is expensive to repair. As my hon. Friend made clear, apart from coal, there is no statutory compensation scheme and the liability under common law for any damage is that of the person who caused the damage. I fully acknowledge that, in the case of abandoned mines, there is a problem, in that the persons who caused the damage have largely long since disappeared, if they were ever known, and there may be no successors in title other than the surface landowner.

In practice, most household insurance policies cover subsidence, whatever the cause. There is thus a remedy to cover the costs of subsidence damage to property. However, the Government recognise that there can be problems and my hon. Friend argued the case for a publicly funded compensation scheme to cover such cases. Insurance policies normally cover damage to property, but a collapse in the garden or grounds which does not affect the property or cause loss of value due to the perception of subsidence risk may not be covered. The commercial judgment of insurance companies may also result in difficulties in obtaining insurance cover where properties have already been damaged by subsidence or where a threat of subsidence has been identified.

Such problems have arisen not just in Cornwall but in other areas affected by historic mining. The proposal for a publicly funded compensation scheme was carefully considered in 1987 in respect of limestone mines in the black country. It was concluded that the insurance industry already provided protection in respect of subsidence damage under normal household building insurance contracts, and it was felt inappropriate for central Government to fund any such scheme.

However, assurances were obtained from the major insurers providing household insurance and from the Building Societies Association that they would not discriminate against areas potentially at risk from limestone subsidence, provided that there was no evidence of existing damage to the property involved. That means that insurance risks and mortgage applications are considered on their merits. Subsidence cover is available at standard terms and conditions, subject to normal underwriting considerations.

My officials will certainly raise the issues mentioned by my hon. Friend with the Association of British Insurers as part of their continuing discussions on limestone and other mining subsidence, and I will ensure that they pay particular regard to the problems identified in Cornwall.

Within my hon. Friend's constituency have been found the richest deposits of tin and copper in the British Isles. The area contains some of the longest-lived and most famous mines of south-west England, as well as the sole surviving tin mine at South Crofty. The area also has a long history of subsidence dating from the time of mining or shortly after abandonment. As my hon. Friend knows, that is continuing.

It must be said, however, that, considering the amount of mining that took place, the amount of subsidence is relatively limited. That is largely dues to the strength of the rock surrounding the workings and their narrowness and depth. My hon. Friend described the nature of tin workings, which is somewhat different from that of some other minerals. I fully realise, however, that that is not much compensation for the individuals whose properties have been affected.

An analysis of 74 subsidence events in Kerrier district between 1974 and 1990 formed part of the case study that I have already mentioned: it showed that shaft collapses are the most common type of subsidence event, constituting 41 of the 74. Although that is a significant number, it represents a small proportion of the 6,000-plus shafts estimated to be in Kerrier, and the 12,000-plus in Cornwall as a whole. Collapses of unstable shallow stope workings are much less frequent, although they can affect larger areas than shaft collapses. About one third of those subsidence events were on public highways or in open spaces, or near enough to such areas to present a danger to public safety. About one third involved damage to gardens and grounds of properties. Only nine of the 74 involved structural damage to buildings—that is, only nine out of some 12,000 shafts.

Other parts of Cornwall also suffer from shaft collapse and subsidence. The events at Gunnislake last summer were widely reported in the national press. Two houses have had to be demolished, and derelict land grant has been awarded to Caradon district council to treat the shafts and to counter the threat of subsidence damage to land beyond the confines of the individual properties.

My hon. Friend is also aware of the concern with which local authorities in Cornwall regard the problems of historic mining. The local planning authorities are diligent in their consideration of mining issues, which is based both on their own records and the advice of the mineral valuers. Both the county and district councils co-operated fully with my Department's research at Chacewater and St. Day in the mid-1980s. That study aimed to develop techniques to enable planners and developers better to take account of ground conditions in this and other metal-mining areas. The computerised database which resulted was transferred to the county council as a basis for extension to other parts of the county as and when the opportunity arose. I understand that it is used fairly intensively.

The local authorities have also carried out a number of land reclamation schemes, funded by derelict land grant, to enable derelict mining areas to be put to alternative use—providing, for instance, housing, industrial development or public open space. The treatment of mine shafts and workings within the schemes, and the shaft capping programmes that I have already mentioned, have been funded where they represent value for money.

In Cornwall, as elsewhere, the costs involved need to be justified by a significant threat to the public and/or a large number of properties. Where only single properties are affected by collapse or the threat of subsidence, it has generally been regarded as a matter for the property owners or their insurers. Clearly, with limited derelict land grant funds available and many competing demands, it is not possible for every incident to be remedied from the public purse when alternatives are available in the insurance market. It would not be appropriate for the Government to act on all occasions as insurer of last resort.

My hon. Friend should also note that—even when derelict land grant has been paid for the treatment of shafts or mine workings—if properties have been damaged, compensation for the structures has been dealt with by the owners' insurers. If it has been necessary to acquire the land to enable the reclamation scheme to be carried out it has been acquired at derelict land value only.

Obviously, it would not be proper for me to comment on individual cases, but in correspondence my hon. Friend has explained a situation which is causing particular concern in Clinton road, Redruth, where a number of shallow workings close to the surface have suffered subsidence from time to time. I have not been approached by Kerrier district council for derelict land grant support either to investigate the problems in the area or to deal with individual collapses. If I were, I should consider the request with care. However, it will be clear from what I have already said that the treatment of collapses affecting individual properties is generally regarded as a matter for owners and their insurers. If there is a wider problem, the investigation and treatment of the shallow workings could be a possible candidate for derelict land grant funding. Should an application be received, I will ensure that it is carefully considered in the light of the availability of funds and competing demands.

We recognise the problem of historic mining, which affects my hon. Friend's constituents and other Cornwall constituencies. Although we do not consider that a publicly funded compensation scheme is justified, we are working actively to reduce the problems both nationally and in Cornwall by carrying out appropriate research, developing advice to enable the problems to be avoided where possible and making available derelict land grant funds to deal with the problems where the costs can be justified by the risk to public safety or to substantial existing development.

Obviously, I shall continue to keep the matter under review and to take a keen interest in the representatives made by my hon. Friend and other Cornwall Members.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Eleven o'clock.