Coal Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:26 pm on 25th May 1995.

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Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth 4:26 pm, 25th May 1995

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) that, since the order is providing some resources for the mining industry and mining communities, it would be illogical for the Opposition to vote against it. That does not mean that we should allow the debate to pass without drawing attention to the grievous scale of need that exists in the coalfield communities.

As my hon. Friend has said, we have seen an enormous contraction in the industry. Coal is not being mined in my constituency, for the first time in more than three and a half centuries. When I entered the House there were 12 collieries in my constituency, and other related industries; now we have none. We are now witnessing the consequences of the destruction of jobs on a scale not seen at any other time in our industrial history. That loss emphasises the need to which my hon. Friend has referred and is why I endorse what he said about the importance of maintaining British Coal Enterprise.

We were fortunate, I suppose, to receive recycled, or laundered, money to finance the Dearne valley city grant, which was one of the first such schemes to be established. It has been relatively successful, but it is not far from the end of its projected lifespan. If our local authorities continue to be subject to existing capping procedures, they will be unable to fund that project and carry on the work that the Government exhorted us to undertake.

British Coal Enterprise is one agency that could assist in guaranteeing that work. I have considerable respect for Mr. Philip Andrew, the leader of that undertaking. I believe that security of tenure should be offered to Mr. Andrew and his organisation, because that would at least enable those of us who represent constituencies covered by city grant schemes to be certain that mechanisms will be created to allow the substantial investments that have already been made to be brought to fruition.

It has cost thousands of pounds per acre to reclaim some of the land used in such schemes. The Government would surely be idiotic if they allowed such investment to be made but did not fund the agencies that would ensure that it bore fruit.

That is particularly true in the Dearne valley, which has benefited from one of the first city grant schemes—now coming to an end—and one of the two enterprise zones to which my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) referred. We were promised that enterprise zone a long time ago, but it has only just been authorised. The loss of the agencies or any organisation that could help to develop the enterprise zones would constitute a betrayal of areas in enormous need.

I remind the Minister that, in the 1960s, when some of us wanted economic diversification in our area because our eggs were all in the baskets of coal and steel, public bodies such as the regional civil service told us that ours must be the major coal reservoir in the British Isles. They specifically discouraged economic diversification. Following the decision to inflict rapid contraction on our industry, there must be a national obligation of some kind.

If that constitutes wisdom, the obligation is even greater. The miners may have received redundancy pay, but the jobs have disappeared. The outlook for the younger generation in areas such as ours is very bleak. Ministers should understand that they have an obligation to serve the whole country, even areas that have rejected the Government decisively.

As I have said, in our Dearne valley enterprise zone, substantial amounts of public money have been spent on reclaiming land and preparing it for the economic development that we so desperately need. Immediately south of the enterprise zone and the Dearne valley reclamation area is a portion of green belt. It is green belt because the local authority has taken cognisance of the local community, and because it needs to be green belt: it is attractive, although it is adjacent to hundreds of acres of dereliction. British Coal, however, refuses to fulfil its promise to sell that farm land to the farmer, as many of us expected it would, because it is going to try to sell it as development land.

I ask the Minister to comment on the sanity of spending public money to reclaim devastated, derelict industrial land at enormous expense when British Coal wants to take neighbouring green belt land out of the green belt and sell it for development—thus negating the investment in the reclamation just a few yards away, and making a particularly pleasant farm unviable by reducing the acreage to below the minimum required.

I wrote to British Coal about the matter, and was told, "British Coal believes that it should be development land"—although the local authority and the local community believe that the land should remain in the green belt. We have little enough attractive green belt land as it is; I see no point in taking any away when 1,200 or 1,400 acres of land are being reclaimed under the city grant scheme.

I then wrote to the Minister, pointing out that the decision appeared to constitute a broken promise and an example of irresponsibility that disdained the public investment that—