HC Deb 15 March 1929 vol 226 cc1458-68

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This Bill has been framed to carry out the recommendations of the Special Commission which was set up in 1926 to deal with the problem of mining subsidence and the injury which it threatened to the drainage system of this area. The area has a very long drainage history. It includes a very well-known tract of land, Hatfield Chase, and in the middle of it is what is known as the Isle of Axholme, which is surrounded by what were large areas of marsh and mere. In the reign of Charles I, the famous Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, who dealt with the drainage of the Bedford Level, was commissioned to drain Hatfield Chase. His work constituted a very complicated system of drainage and has enabled the lowlands to be drained and the upland waters to be carried across to the Trent and the Yorkshire Ouse. It is a very delicate system involving sluices and pumps, because much of the area is below the level of the two main rivers into which it is drained. The problem has become an anxious one in recent years, because under this area is what is known as the concealed coalfield of South Yorkshire, in which seven collieries are now operating and where considerable extension is expected in the future.

The Commission that was set up included all interests concerned. Sir Horace Monro was the Chairman, and they were able to present an agreed report. I should like to say how much we owe to Sir Horace Monro and the Commission for the skill and attention which they devoted to this very difficult problem. The Bill follows their report very closely. It is necessarily a Measure of considerable detail, but it has two main purposes. It sets up a comprehensive drainage authority for the whole of this area of about 210,000 acres, and it provides that they shall have control over the main drainage system and general supervision over the operations of the internal drainage authorities. It also provides that the mineowners shall be charged with the definite liability to make good the damage that may be caused to the surface drainage by mining subsidence. It is not merely a matter of the mineowners paying this at the moment, but they will provide funds for works to remedy any present or expected damage to be maintained in perpetuity, so that the drainage may be assured.

We are preparing legislation to deal with the general problem of land drainage. This Bill will in no way conflict with that general legislation when we are able to introduce it. It will be quite easy to make any necessary adjustments in the boundaries of the drainage district which we propose to constitute for the Doncaster area to make it conform to the general plan of the catchment area authorities. It is important that the Bill should be passed without delay. The principle has already been agreed by the parties concerned, and it is urgent that the authority should be set up to deal with this question of drainage. If the House will give the Bill a Second Reading, I will then move that it be referred to a Committee of both Houses.


Is any grant from the Exchequer to be given towards the cost?


No, Sir.


The Minister has alluded to the problem which is to be followed up as a consequence of the Royal Commission's Report. After all, the Commission reported quite a considerable time ago, and I have been wondering whether the Government could persist for such a long time as still remained between the reporting of the Commission and the dissolution of this Parliament in neglecting the problem till after the General Election, and get away with its neglect. It seems to me that this is a belated and a very diminutive contribution to a problem which everyone recognises to be very great and very urgent. The Commission states that nearly 2,000,000 acres are in need of very rapid attention. However, this is a crumb the Minister is throwing to the dog, and it is certainly one of the most urgently needed. I do not take up an attitude hostile to the Bill, but I think the Minister might satisfy the House a little further than he has done in regard to the manner in which it would fit in with the scheme of the Commission. He said that it would not conflict with the general plan, but perhaps he would say a further word as to how the principle of benefit which the Commission adopted and worked out in a new form would fit in with the scheme of the Bill.

A reflection occurs to me in thinking of the Bill. If its provisions are applicable to this area, why is it not possible without further delay to make proposals applicable to the general problem. I presume it is because in this case there is a particular factor. There is the presence of mines and mining companies which can make a special contribution to the cost. But a large part of the area is agricultural, and the agricultural land drainage problem is provided for in the Bill. Therefore, the Bill is dealing with a problem which applies everywhere, and, I suppose, is the same fundamental problem the Minister has to face in regard to plans for dealing with neglected drainage in general. Perhaps he would show what broad features there are in the Bill which make it different and easier to deal with than the general problem. If not, if this plan is applicable, one does not see why we should further delay. If it is not applicable, how is it possible that this scheme fits in with the general scheme recommended by the Commission. No one can think there can be much further delay in dealing with a problem which means that such a very great area is daily deteriorating.


I want to express a rather restrained welcome for the Bill. As a resident in the Doncaster area, I feel that sufficient time has been wasted before steps are being taken to deal with what is a very real problem for that neighbourhood. Ten thousand of my constituents reside in that area, and, from the point of view of their health and of loss of employment through land becoming derelict for want of drainage, I have more than an ordinary interest in the Bill. Fortunately, it is an improvement upon the West Riding Bill of 1923, for there we had coalowners, royalty owners, drainage commissioners, and a certain number of local authorities opposing it. As a result of the Drainage Commission, which completed its sittings some 12 months ago, a drastic change has taken place in the mentality of a fairly large number of people. As the Minister has truly said, this is expected to be the largest coal mining district in any part of Great Britain, and unless steps are taken quickly, a very large area of land will obviously become submerged, and be of no further use for agricultural purposes.

Need I remind the House of one statement that was made by mining experts in this area, when they told us that certain parts of this area are only 16 feet above sea level? As there are approximately 35 feet of coal which ultimately might let down the whole of the land by approximately 21 feet, one can readily see the necessity for a drainage scheme of this description being undertaken at the very earliest possible moment. As a matter of fact, the taking away of the first seam has already let down the surface by approximately 3 feet 6 inches, and it is estimated that some 70 or 80 years hence the surface is bound to fall another two or three feet. Therefore, if one reflects for a moment one can realise the effect in the process of time upon the health and the general population of that area. This is also a very real problem from the point of view of the Agriculturist. Constant complaints are forthcoming from farmers who find themselves in a hopeless condition because of their land being waterlogged and they are unable to obtain the maximum quantity of food stuffs. Here is a statement which was made by the mining expert who was called upon to give a report on this particular area. I merely give this quotation from the point of view of the position of agricultural land and of food production. This gentleman states: The larger proportion of this land is excellent for farming if kept free from water, which constitutes no difficulty, except on grounds of cost. This valuable agricultural land to the East and North East of Doncaster can be made to produce the whole or greater part of the vegetable and dairy produce required for a larger industrial population. He continues: The provision of keeping this land free from water is a national necessity. This Bill is not premature, but long overdue, and I hope that in a very short space of time it will not only pass through the Committee stage but will be given the Third Beading, and that the essential Board will be set up. There are one or two questions which I should like to put to the right hon. Gentleman. He told me in reply to a question yesterday that of the 25 inclosure awards in the area proposed under this Bill at least 14 of the awards were practically null and void because the beneficiaries under the awards were refusing to meet their obligations as far as drainage is concerned. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to assure us that when the Measure becomes operative, the Central Board will have full power to insist upon the awards being carried out, so that the original beneficiaries will not be able to saddle their responsibility on to property owners and other people resident in that area.

1.0 p.m.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what is going to be the real effect of the application of this Measure on the ordinary cottage tenant and on the ordinary property owner, and, in fact, on the hereditaments? Unless we can know something about that, I fear that suspicions may be created in the minds of some people and that they may attempt to hold up the Measure when the majority wish to see it put into operation at the earliest possible moment. I was looking at the original Act of 1833, and at the Act of 1918, and there I saw that powers were given to the Drainage Commission to make exceptions when rating various hereditaments in the various areas concerned. If the right hon. Gentleman can explain what the ultimate effect of introducing new drainage schemes or improving old drainage schemes will be upon ordinary cottage property all suspicions will be removed.

There is another point which, I think, is a fairly legitimate one. The First Schedule indicates how the Central Board must be constituted. I notice that while the District Drainage Board's representation on this Board is to consist of the West Biding of Yorkshire County Council, the Lindsey County Council, the Nottingham County Council and the Doncaster County Borough Council, with the Coal Owners' Association having three representatives, and the Royalty Owners three representatives, the tens of thousands of miners who with their families reside in this area do not get any representation at all. Although the Drainage Commission made representations on the lines of the constitution embodied in the Bill, it is a fairly legitimate claim to make on behalf of the tens of thousands of miners, who with their wives and families will indirectly not only be called upon to pay the share of the Royalty owners and the share of the mine owners but—and this is a more important factor—will be obliged to live in this district. They have a real interest from the point of view of health and of general environment.

Therefore I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will seriously consider before the concluding stages of the Bill whether he cannot give at least some representation to the men who delve in the bowels of the earth and make drainage schemes necessary, and to the people who have to reside in that district. I should like to ask how it is that in Clause 20, instead of the Government making a financial contribution to what after all, is a scheme of national necessity, they demand actual payment from the Central Board for any initial cost that may be incurred for putting the Measure into operation. That seems to be a mean attitude on the part of the Government. If it is going to result in draining the area, in improving the health of the people, in increasing the amount of agricultural land available for employment, the Government ought not to be quite so mean Instead of demanding payment in respect of the cost of putting the Bill into operation, they ought to be making a real contribution towards this scheme.

Having said so much, I have no further criticisms to offer on the Bill I notice, however, that there is one omission. There appears to be no arrangement made for dividing the area into divisions for rating purposes. That may or may not constitute a difficulty in the future. There are arrangements whereby certain areas can withdraw from the scheme temporarily. That may have the effect of permitting certain areas to withdraw from the original scheme and avoid any of the initial costs, and come back into the scheme after other parts have been called upon to make big financial contributions. That point may very well be dealt with in Committee.

The Bill does not profess to be a permanent institution which will render the bigger scheme unnecessary. It is intended to be a temporary scheme which will fit into the bigger scheme when it comes along. That being so, and so long as this Bill helps to co-ordinate drainage schemes in the area and to provide them with a central board, which will have the necessary education to fit them for the bigger undertakings, the least we can do is to give the Bill a Second Reading, and to hope that the Minister will, as and where necessary, amend it on proper lines in the Committee stage.


I will answer a few of the points which have been raised. The right hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Buxton) asked why we bring forward a Bill to deal with this small area, and why, if we can do that, we do not change the law for the whole country. The answer is that this area presents a special problem, as I tried to make clear in my original remarks. It is subject to a special danger from mining subsidence. That is why we cannot set up an authority to deal with it, except by a hybrid Bill of this nature. There is no precedent for levying charges for land drainage on other than surface owners. This Bill will enable a levy to be made upon those who own the subsoil. So far as the rating of the surface owners is concerned, the Bill does not change the law. For that reason, when we are able to deal with the great problem of land drainage for the whole country, any changes that we make in the responsibility for rate payment towards land drainage will, naturally and automatically, apply to this new authority which we seek to set up by this Bill, as it will apply to all other authorities of the kind.

I think, therefore, the answer to the right hon. Gentleman is that this Bill deals with a matter which, I am glad to say, is generally not found in connection with land drainage. No delay is taking place in tackling the problem of the general amendment of land drainage law. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware, from his experience of the matter when he was Minister of Agriculture, that it is a very large and extremely complex problem. Apart from the legal side, there is a very large amount of survey necessary before a Bill can be framed to set up these catchment area authorities. We are at work on that survey; it is being carried out by an efficient survey staff, and, as soon as the necessary information for the purposes of legislation is available, it is the intention of the Government to deal with it.

The hon. Member for the Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) raised several points, which he said might more appropriately be considered in Committee, but I will answer him briefly. He was dissatisfied with the representation which is given, in the First Schedule of the Bill, to various interests on the new authority. He would like to see representation given to a special section of householders, namely, the miners. There is no case for that. This Bill follows the usual course in giving representation to the local authorities. We have made a change in the exact representation suggested by the Committee by substituting for the representation of certain Government Departments representation for the internal drainage authorities. The Bill includes representation for those other interests who will have to pay, namely, the mine-owners, through their various organisations. They are given this special provision, because it is felt that, if they are to be taxed like this, they ought to be represented. The miners are not going to be taxed under this Bill.




Indeed, not. There will be no levy except on those who are getting benefit from the drainage.


May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, under the present ascertainment system in the coalmining industry, of any payments which are made out of the proceeds, for drainage purposes, the mine workers themselves would contribute 85 per cent., while the mineowners would contribute only 15 per cent. To that extent, it seems to me that there is not only a highly legitimate case, but a highly moral case, for the miners, apart from the point of view that the men ought to have representation through their Association, just as the mineowners are to have representation through their Association.


I think there is a case for giving representation to those who are directly liable to make payments. If the hon. Member can establish to the satisfaction of the Committee that there is a claim for the miners, I have no doubt that the Committee will be willing to consider it. We have taken the recommendation of the Special Commission and we have thought it desirable to give representation where it is needed, and that is to those who are paying, either by the special provision, or through the local authority, who represent those who will pay. On the question of the expenses of this Bill being recovered from the new authority, I would point out that this is a normal procedure. In connection with the various drainage orders and the proceedings before Select Committees, it is the universal practice, which is always endorsed by Parliament, that these Private Bills, where they throw expense on a public department, should be paid for by the area authority concerned.

The hon. Member asked about the enforcement of awards. These drainage awards are enforced where the people liable can be found, but there is great difficulty in the case of old awards in discovering those who have succeeded to the liability. We are making provision in this Bill to transfer to the new authority the responsibility for enforcing the liability. We are also giving powers to the new authority to take a money commutation where it is for the convenience of administration that the work shall be done by the authority and not by the individual who is formally responsible. I can assure the hon. Member that there is no suggestion in this Bill that the individuals who are responsible under the law for this particular maintenance work will be in any way let off. If there is a commutation, it will be for the full financial equivalent.


May I ask one question with regard to the financial payment. The right hon. Gentleman says that Clause 20 is in accordance with the normal procedure on Private Bills. Does he regard this as a normal Private Bill in the sense in which we usually understand Private Bills? Does he not think it is a very urgent national problem and that from that point of view, instead of merely demanding the expenses of the promotion of the Bill from the area he should make some contribution towards initial expenses?

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Sir Dennis Herbert)

The hon. Member must not make a second speech.


I do not suggest that this Bill is a normal Private Bill. It is urgent. There is need for immediate action, but it is perfectly clear in the machinery that it sets up that it is on all fours with many other areas which are dealt with by Orders made by the Department. We cannot make an Order for this authority, because it needs this special power of levying a charge on the owners of the subsoil, and it is because of that that we have come to Parliament with a hybrid Bill. The question is whether this is a local matter, like other local matters which are paid for by the area, or whether it is essentially different. I do not think is it different, and for that reason I think it is quite proper that the locality should pay.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Resolved, That it is expedient that the Bill be committed to a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament."—[Mr. Guinness.]

Message to the Lords to acquaint them therewith.