HC Deb 24 June 1943 vol 390 cc1429-36

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now Adjourn."— [Major Sir James Edmondson.]

Mr. Tinker (Leigh)

I want to bring before the House the matter of what is called open-cast mining, which means getting coal from the surface by removing the top soil. The war has brought about big changes, and we have had to adopt this method of adding to our coal supply. At present, as far as my figures go, there are 62 open-cast workings all over the country. I have been to see a number in Lancashire, and I find that coal is being got from a matter of a few feet down to 50 or 6o feet. It will not require much imagination to realise what that means. A big area is uncovered; the top soil is being removed on one side and there arc huge mounds of earth and dirt and big holes left where the coal has been removed. Consequently rather unsightly traces are being left on the countryside. I know it is necessary, because every ton of coal is of vital importance, but the question arises of what we shall do when the time comes to put conditions in something like proper order.

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Tinker

Two million tons were obtained last year, and this figure may increase. It is estimated that there are some 50,000,000 tons ready to be got, and the question must come to our minds of what we are to do to make our countryside look as it ought to look when the job is over. I am told that in the contract for getting this coal the contractor is required to put the land back in the state in which he found it, and make it fit for agricultural purposes. That, coming as it does at this juncture, has led to examining the position and I wonder whether even better use could not be made of this land by afforestation, the importance of which has arisen owing to our need of timber. Practically all the timber we require comes from overseas. We have very little in this country but what we have makes the countryside beautiful. It is one of the assets of English life to have trees growing here and there over the country. Owing to the shortage of timber, the countryside is now being denuded of trees and the time may arrive when we shall have little or no timber left. I would like to ask the Minister of Town and Country Planning to examine the position now when he is considering the future planning of the country.

There has been a report on afforestation, suggesting ways of growing more timber and I believe that it will be done on a big scale. I am anxious that the Minister should examine the afforestation possibilities of these sites instead of leaving it to the contractor just to fill in the ground. It may be years before the land is fit for growing crops, and it would be useful if the Minister examined whether it could be utilised for timber growing. I may be wrong in assuming that it can be used in that way, but I would like the Minister to take the opportunity of thoroughly examining the question. It may be that the land would require some special treatment, for I know that timber cannot be grown anywhere. But we have these big, unsightly holes, which will have to be filled in and the Minister has a grand opportunity of examining whether something can be done with them to improve the appearance of the land after restoration.

Everyone knows what the conditions are in mining areas. There has never been any ordered management round the pit heaps; they have been left there and nobody has troubled about them. I do not want the same thing to happen at places where the coal is being got on the surface. I want the people who live near these spots to have the places made as healthy-looking as possible in the future. Nothing appeals to me more than a growing belt of timber. It is a thing that appeals to every Englishman because other parts of the world are not so fortunate in this respect as our country. I was in Salonika in the last war. There, one found miles of wilderness where one never saw a tree, and I longed for the time when I should get back to England and see the timber growing there. Many of our beauty spots are being taken away, owing to the cutting down of the timber. I think of those people who, with foresight, grew the timber which we are now enjoying, and we should also think of those who are to follow us. Here is an opportunity for the Minister of Town and Country Planning to help. I am glad that he has got his present position. I have known him for a long time and I have a great opinion of his ability. He has now a grand opportunity of examining the whole position of tree growing and finding out what can be done.

I am not saying that it must be done, because that will be a question of whether timber can be grown there or not. All I ask is that there should be a thorough examination by competent men, and that it should not be left to the contractors to fill in the holes just as they please. I should like the Ministry to tell those people who are suffering now from these unsightly heaps, that Parliament, in its wisdom, is determined that the whole question shall be gone into, and that later in life they may expect some beauty spots to arise as a result of what is happening now. If any words of mine can make any impression upon the Minister or Parliament and persuade them to go into the matter, I shall be thoroughly satisfied with the action I have taken. An hon. Friend of mine who has much knowledge of these matters would like to speak, and I have promised to cut short my remarks in order to give him an opportunity to tell the House of an experiment with which he has been connected.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

I welcome this opportunity of addressing a few words to the Minister of Town and Country Planning, and I hope he will be able to carry out what I suggest. This is a subject which has occupied my mind for more than a quarter of a century. That may be due to the fact that I was born in a mining village which is surrounded, north, south, east and west, by pit heaps, thrown up as the result of deep-shaft working. They are there by the score. One of the first things my eyes rest on when I raise my head from my pillow in the house in which I live is a huge pit heap —not a very nice sight. These pit heaps are hideous and ugly, an eyesore to those who live in mining villages. Not only was I born in a mining village where pit heaps are numerous but I now have the honour to represent a constituency which for the best part of a century has given coal to the nation from deep-shaft mining, and I am not exaggerating when I say that in my constituency there are over 100 pit heaps such as I have described. Not only do they spoil the beauty of the countryside but they depress the spirits and blunt the souls of the people in the neighbourhool. And that is not all, for these pit heaps are allowed to fire, and the fumes from them have a poisonous effect on the air the people breathe, making things specially trying for those who suffer from chest trouble, because they find it difficult to breathe at night. Speaking as a miner with over 35 years' experience, I say that it ought to be a crime for rock and metal to be allowed to accumulate in such quantities on the surface of the ground unless covered with soil and made agricultural land, or covered with trees of a suitable kind. If this was done, it would tend to restore the countryside, if not to its original beauty, to something approaching it.

I want to touch upon a matter referred to by the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker), whose constituency borders on mine. We arc now faced with workings of outcrop coal. I am not complaining of the production of coal by this method, because coal is so vital to the nation, and we must explore every avenue to maintain the supply of coal. What I am complaining about is the condition in which they leave the land after the exploration and extraction process has taken place. I am anxious to secure the practical sympathy and support of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health in the direction of restoring the countryside to something approaching its former beauty. Here may I make a practical suggestion which I want passed on to the local authorities with whom the Minister will have to deal?

Back in 1924, in the township in which I was born and on whose council I have served 25 years, through the medium of a family known as Rayner there was acquired what is known as the Danes Valley. Adjoining it were about 3,799 square yards of land, which was purchased by the council for the sum of £180. The figure will give some idea of the value of the site to them. We got it so cheaply because it was unsightly and ugly. We made up our minds that its ugliness should be changed to beauty. How was the job done? It was done in this way. We secured the help and co- operation of the children of the elementary schools, of the business people, of organisations in the township and others who were interested in the planting of trees. The children and townspeople responded magnificently, and the result was that on a given day in 1924 there were planted in that little valley on that ugly site 1,000 trees, comprising sycamore, lime, mountain ash, silver birch, prunus pissardii, laburnum, Lombardy poplar and silver poplar. The levelling was done by unemployed miners.

We did something else than change the ugliness to beauty. I claim with pardonable pride that we created in the minds of the people in that little township a civic consciousness; a communal pride, and that is worth a great deal, in my judgment. It has been said by many writers in the past and by others only just recently that the people of this country arc a tree-loving people. This was said by Whittier in one of his poems: Give fools their gold and knaves their power, Let fortune's bubbles rise and fall, Who sows a seed or tends a flower, Or plants a tree is more than all. I have here a photograph of that valley, taken a few years ago after the planting of the trees, and perhaps it may inspire the Minister to act upon the lines suggested by the hon. Member for Leigh and myself, and that in the programme of town and country planning for the future he will pay strict attention to the restoration of the land and the planting of trees on it, so that, in the words of Keats, the countryside which is now ugly may be made "a thing of beauty" which will be "a joy for ever."

The Minister of Town and Country Planning (Mr. W. S. Morrison)

I am sure that the House is greatly indebted to both the hon. Members for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) and Ince (Mr. T. Brown) for the eloquent and moving way in which they have put their plea before us. I am sure there is not a Member whose heart does not respond to it. The rush of industrialism in the last century inflicted some grievous scars upon the native beauty of our land, and there is no doubt that we all feel that we should do our best to-day to restore that beauty to its original state. There has been a great change in the temper of people during this period, and we must take encouragement from the way in which this matter has been brought forward and from the extremely interesting story told us by the hon. Member for Ince how his own locality responded to the threat to beauty and so successfully restored the face of nature again. I need not say anything to commend such a process. There is surely very little that one can do of an enduring character more valuable to the mind and body of the nation than to set on foot schemes for the restoration of this beauty, and the hon. Members who addressed me just now may be assured that anything I can do towards that end will be done with a good heart.

Attention was drawn by the hon. Member for Leigh to the practice of opencast mining. He would agree with me that it is to a great extent a war-time phenomenon and that it is not a method of winning coal that is resorted to in normal times. It is one of the evil necessities which war forces upon us. The probability of great damage being done to the land by this method was seen as soon as it was resorted to, and my Noble Friend the Minister of Works, who is in charge of these operations on behalf of the Minister of Fuel and Power, does make the restoration of the land an essential part of the operation. The hon. Member informed us accurately that there were at the present 62 sites in process of excavation. I am informed that sites restored or in course of restoration number 38. There are four sites not being restored in the meantime, for certain reasons, and there are two sites which have been completely restored and are now de-requisitioned and hack to their proper use. I understand that the practice which is followed, if the land which forms the overburden to the coal is of agricultural value, is to separate the topsoil from the undersoil which has no fertility, until the excavation is at an end, and then to restore with the topsoil again on the surface.

I am told, and I must pass on to the House the information which I receive on this matter—although I have not had an opportunity of going to look at it but hope to do so—that there are many instances of successful restoration of opencast workings which are now bearing crops. The thing has been done. Where the land is agricultural the process of restoration is done under the supervision of the county war agricultural executive committee. It is done to their satisfaction and under their general supervision. Therefore this beneficent activity is a double one. It not only restores the appearance of the land, but it provides us with additional acres of food-bearing soil. I am sure that this is work which the House would like to see furthered to the extreme. There are, of course, great varieties of this problem, and there are many cases where the land is not primarily of agricultural value. In those cases different methods of treatment must be resorted to. Judicious planting of trees would in many cases prove the ideal and proper solution.

There is a little confusion sometimes about the word "afforestation." When one considers afforestation on the commercial scale, as the Forestry Commission do, I believe the minimum acreage which they think will form a good commercial proposition is 1,000 acres. Many of the sites that we are talking about do not nearly approach that size, but where it may not be possible to go in for afforestation on a commercial scale there are still opportunities for the planting of trees merely, and quite apart from their commercial value, for their beauty and for the comfort and solace which they give to the inhabitants who live round about them.

This question of open-cast coalmining is but one branch of a very large problem with which I am faced. There are more of the works of man which deface the beauty of nature than open-cast coal working. One very striking and formidable activity is the winning of ironstone, also a war-time necessity, and whereas this operation up to fairly recently was only possible or profitable when the overburden of soil was comparatively small, say 15 feet, now human ingenuity has devised a machine which can remove many times that top burden of soil, with much greater devastation of the land and a greater problem for restoration. There we are making a thorough investigation into what can be done. I assure the House that no effort will be spared to see that these necessary ravages of our war-time effort do not rob us for ever of the beauty of our land.

There are other ways in which these subjects can be treated. Apart from afforestation, apart from agricultural use, I have known of cases in my researches where gravel pits, in themselves extremely unsightly, have been allowed, when exhausted, to fill up with water, and by the judicious disposition of trees around their edges have been transformed from an eyesore into a pleasant lake or pool where children can sail their boats and by which adults can sit or in some cases even go for a row. Planting trees round them can transform these places into real assets for the people instead of being dreadful eyesores. I hope the House will accept from me that the question raised by the hon. Member for Leigh and which has been so eloquently supported by the hon. Member for Ince is one very near my heart, and there will, I hope, be no necessity to prod me into action on these lines.

Mr. Woodburn (Stirling and Clackmannan, Eastern)

Will the Minister keep in mind the bings above ground as well as the holes underground? It will make a double blessing if he can put some of these bings underground in the holes and provide drainage for agriculture instead of leaving the country to be disfigured by bings.

Mr. Morrison

The hon. Member's use of the word "bings" takes me back to my boyhood. The hon. Member has used a good Scots word for what is otherwise called a rubbish pit or dump. They are a great problem, and I will investigate as to the best way to deal with them. There is an accumulation of them, and it will be a matter of time before we can get rid of this immense accumulation.

Mr. David Adams (Consett)

There is a very prolific waste in County Durham.

Sir Peter Bennett (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Do not forget the Black Country.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.