Future of Coal in the UK

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:54 pm on 3rd December 2020.

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Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham 1:54 pm, 3rd December 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the future of coal in the UK.

Today’s debate is not about the past, nor is it really about the great traditions and solidarity of our mining communities, nor is it about the coaling stations that stretched around the world east of Suez powering an empire. An industry employing hundreds of thousands is long gone.

Britain has been a world leader in decarbonising our electricity sector. Emissions are down over 70% since 1990, despite usage being up. Renewables have transformed the mix, and I am proud to be part of a Government who are pressing forward with a real environmental agenda. We are going to end coal-powered electricity by the mid-2020s and are playing a leading role, alongside Canada, in that effort globally.

There is much more to be done on future technology. I commend the work of my hon. Friend Jacob Young and his all-party parliamentary group on hydrogen for what they are doing on turning theory into practice for steel manufacture, moving from coal to hydrogen. It is not there yet, and it is likely that it will take many years to come to fruition, but I welcome any further Government plans, as we have seen recently, to support technological change in this area.

While we search for the alternative to coal, we still need coal in the UK. Whether we dig it up here or someone else digs it up and ships it here, for the present and for the foreseeable future, we still need it. Although huge strides have been made in efficiency, we cannot operate blast furnaces for steel production without coking coal. Britain’s cement industry requires a massive amount, too. Both are critical to some of the large infrastructure projects that we are pushing ahead with at the moment. Even our heritage rail sector requires tens of thousands of tonnes every year.

Coal is not a trendy subject, but it is an important one. Too often in our history, coal and its production have been far too political. My fear is that the apparent drive against domestic coal production in the United Kingdom from Whitehall is unfair and unjust, and actually runs counter to reducing our carbon emissions, which we are all in favour of trying to do. Unfortunately, coal is again becoming a victim of politics. In making it so, we are making a mistake—economically, strategically and, crucially, environmentally.

Britain’s coalmining history needs a whistle-stop tour to take us up to the present. Few constituencies are more steeped in that history than mine of North West Durham and those of colleagues including Grahame Morris, who sits across from me today.

Without two things, the industrial revolution that transformed the world from largely agrarian subsistence to the basis of what we see today would not have happened. Those two things were the agricultural revolution that immediately preceded it, and coal—the twin fuels for people and industry. That industrial heritage is present right across my stunning North West Durham constituency. Weardale, right up to Wearhead, had mine workings across it that stretch back to at least the 12th century, and it was ironstone and coal from other parts of the nearby north-east that initially set up Consett as an iron and steel hub.

It was the miners who formed one of the first mass unions and whose dispute in 1926 was the basis of the general strike. According to family legend, my great grandpa, who was a textile worker in Lancashire and active in his union, had been tasked with collecting the union’s funds to support the strike but, upon his return to Blackburn, was so terrified of the funds being stolen or of losing them that he had the cash, together with himself, locked up overnight in a cell in Blackburn police station.

The Bevin boys kept Britain working during the war. Wilson’s “white heat of technology” and the nuclear revolution saw a massive shift, with more pits closing than at any other time. The fantastic “A Year in the Life” of Craghead colliery, filmed from 1968 to 1969 in the constituency of Mr Jones, which neighbours mine, is a superb documentary about that time, which I recommend to anyone.

The end of mass employment in coalmining came in the two decades that followed, with politicised disputes in which all but the most fanatical ideologues would admit great fault from both union leaders and some politicians alike. I am sure that my hon. Friend Lee Anderson will speak about his own experiences of being a miner later in the debate.

Now on to the present. I cannot do any form of justice to the history of mining in the time I have today, but the context provided is an important basis for where we find ourselves today. I am sure that Members may wish to debate the history in much more detail at another time, but I turn to the facts of the present, and I will take them one by one: the economic, the strategic and the environmental.

On the economic, these figures come from written parliamentary questions, the Office for National Statistics and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. First, tonnage: we import between 5 million and 10 million tonnes of coal a year. Money: that represents over £1 billion in net imports to the UK on an annual basis. That is multiples of many of our agricultural exports, and it is about the net value of the amount of cheese we import every year, which I am sure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade would agree is an absolute disgrace. The difference is in the bulk. Cheese is only 100,000 tonnes. We are talking about 10 million tonnes of coal that has to be shipped across the globe, and I will return to that point shortly.

Jobs: that is £1 billion a year that could be going into UK jobs as we look to transition from coal to other methods of fuelling industry over the next few years. I want to put that into context locally. After being sat on by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for three years, the new planned mine at Highthorn in Northumberland was rejected. That scheme was supported by all political parties and the Planning Inspectorate locally. The decision means that 250 good, well-paid jobs will not happen. To give an idea of the impact that this will have, the salaries alone would be the equivalent of the eat out to help out scheme for the whole north-east every year for the next five years, which is how long the site was planned to last for.

That brings me on to my second point about the present, on strategy. The mine had outline contracts with Port Talbot—because this is UK-wide—which would have taken coal for steelmaking. Instead, that coal will be imported from across the world. Of our net imports, approximately 40% of our coal comes from Russia and 20% from Colombia. The blast furnaces at Port Talbot could have been burning with British coal, but now they will be burning with Russian coal. We are literally forcing one of our key strategic industries to send pounds to Putin rather than supporting good jobs as we bridge to future technologies that will see our strategic heavy industry decarbonised further.

That brings me to my third point, on the environment, and I am afraid that this is where the argument against domestic coal production collapses entirely. Britain has a proud environmental record, and our domestic coal production has some of the highest environmental standards in the world. Our open-cast mines are properly dealt with and re-landscaped afterwards. Does anyone truly believe that that is the case in Russia, Colombia or even the United States? That is before we get to the staggering quantities of CO2 emissions from shipping the bulk product halfway around the world. The Centre for Policy Studies recently estimated that transporting coal via either St Petersburg or Murmansk to the UK would emit between four and five times as much CO2 as moving it domestically within the UK. US, Colombian and Australian imports all face the same stark environmental transport costs, and this is a bulk product.

That is just in terms of CO2. One of the biggest environmental success stories of this Government has been our work to protect the world’s oceans, which I think all Conservative Members are incredibly proud of. Cargo ships shipping coal around the globe are not geared up to be the most environmentally friendly of beasts, and rusting hulks chugging oil and detritus across our oceans run totally counter to the great work that this Government have done to tackle microbeads, plastics and other pollution in our oceans. The thing about global warming is that it does not matter where CO2 is emitted from; it all goes into our atmosphere worldwide. This is not something that we should try to export, because even if we wanted to, we could not.

Finally, I turn to the future. I am very proud that the UK has been at the forefront of making real environmental changes for the better. The Prime Minister’s recent announcement that he wants to lead the world in jobs of the future and delivering sound environmental policies is incredibly welcome, particularly in my region, in Teesside and in the neighbouring counties of North Yorkshire and Durham. Levelling up has to be a big part of that, and some of that will be down to transport. At this point in my speech, I would like to reinforce my little bid to the Government Front Bench for any support the Minister can give for the Consett to the Tyne railway. On the national bus strategy, I would really like to see a pilot project in Crook and Willington in County Durham. If there is anything that can be done for cycling and walking routes, particularly for Weardale and along the Derwent Walk, I would also really appreciate that.

My constituency had the last open-cast coalmine, which stopped production just a few months ago. The decision not to allow its expansion was taken by the local council, and that is absolutely fine. However, when local councils make decisions, like Northumberland has done—or like Cumbria, as I am sure my hon. Friend Mark Jenkinson will mention later—to allow planning to go through on a cross-party basis, I hope that Ministers will consider the environmental costs of it not happening, and will not get sidetracked by greenwash.

Let me turn to the impending ban on the domestic use of coal. I have asked many parliamentary questions about this issue, but it is particularly relevant to mention while we are talking about emissions. Some families in my constituency, especially in the more rural parts, do not have an option apart from some form of solid fuel heating. Their choice is between household coal and oil, which is largely imported—even more than coal at the moment. Oil emits about 25% more carbon dioxide per kilogram than coal. Furthermore, there has been a recent push against coal and wet wood for household fires. Household coal emits 8.7 grams per kilogram of PM2.5—the particulates in the atmosphere. Dry wood emits 7.2 grams per kilogram, so they are very close. Wet wood emits 28 grams per kilogram, which is at least three times as high. I cannot understand how we are banning coal but not dry wood. It is sensible to ban wet wood on the basis of emissions, but it does not make sense to ban household coal, especially when these figures only take into account combustion, not transport costs. We all know that both wet and dry wood are bulkier to transport, so it makes no sense for coal to be excluded.

It would be remiss of me not to mention some of the major issues raised with me by the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, who I spoke to recently. We have been working on these issues together, and I have asked some questions about them. The first is the concessionary fuel fund, which is very important. As we look to decarbonise that, I would like to speak to Ministers to ensure that any money saved goes back to the miners, not to the Government. The second issue is miners’ pensions. I know that there are massive ongoing conversations with Conservative Members and the Government, and we look forward very much to taking part in those.

Today’s debate is about the future of coal production. I do not want to see Britain doing stuff on the cheap, offshoring our carbon footprint elsewhere, and tainting our really fantastic record on cutting carbon emissions in the UK. I want us to be driving the global environmental agenda—an agenda that we can be proud of as a party, as a Government and as a country.