HC Deb 06 December 1949 vol 470 cc1835-44

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Mitchison (Kettering)

Anyone visiting the countryside round Corby and Kettering must be appalled by the devastation that is being caused there by ironstone workings past and present. Drags and shovels seem to stand on every skyline and the whole countryside is disfigured by deep cuttings and large tracts of what is known as hill and dale—impassable areas of heaped limestone, quite useless for agriculture, and only capable at the most of some sort of tree planting.

This devastation of the countryside has been considered by Government after Government and by numerous committees, inspectors, standing conferences, public inquiries and so on. With more powerful modern machinery, both the rate of excavation and the number of excavating machines appear to be increasing and the devastation becomes continually more widespread and more obvious. Local feeling is becoming very strong indeed. I know of representations by such different bodies as the branches at Corby of the British Iron and Steel and Kindred Trades Association—the men who are actually working the iron ore into steel—the Free Churches of the district, the local branch of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, the Rural Community Council, rambling clubs, an art society and so on.

The County Council have continually protested at public inquiries and in other ways, while 10 borough and district councils recently formed a deputation to the Minister on the subject and the National Association of Parish Councils made it the first resolution—a unanimous one—that they passed at their recent meeting in London. None of these protests failed to recognise the real need for iron ore. They confined themselves to the need for full restoration after it has been excavated.

As long ago as 1945, my right hon. Friend promised a statement at the earliest opportunity. That promise was repeated in the White Paper, Cmd. 6906, which published parts of the Waters Report in September, 1946, and on 28th January, 1947, my right hon. Friend's Parliamentary Secretary, after saying that this was a subject in which my right hon. Friend was taking a very keen interest, promised that a statement of policy would be made in the very near future."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th January, 1947, Vol. 432, c. 909.] That was nearly three years ago. No such statement has yet been issued but in September, 1948, my right hon. Friend set up a standing conference with his Regional Controller as chairman and including representatives of the iron ore producers, other Government Departments and county councils to consider, or rather to reconsider, the technical aspects of the problem, which had already been reported on by Mr. Waters in 1946. The landowners and farmers were put on a second standing conference some months afterwards, apparently because the ironstone producers were unwilling to have them on the original standing conference. These standing conferences have recently issued interim reports, and once more my right hon. Friend has promised a statement of policy. I hope that it will be forthcoming very soon.

Meanwhile local inquiries have been held and are still being held into particular pieces of excavation, and their results await the statement of policy. So apparently do applications to mine or excavate a very large area of land, more than 28,000 acres in my constituency and 25,000 acres in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Tiffany). Meanwhile, the producers are continuing to excavate under informal arrangements, the terms of which are unknown.

The problem is not only an urgent but a complex one. The first point is the restoration of ground which was worked before planning control, and which has been left as hill and dale. In 1939 the Kennet Committee suggested restoration by a special board at the expense of the mineral lessors and mining companies and local authorities In 1946, Mr. Waters commended a somewhat similar proposal from the ironstone producers and ironstone royalty owners which, however, contained the provision for the restoration of past workings, and he suggested that the restoration of past workings should be effected by Government grant. The first question I wish to ask my right hon. Friend is whether he will accept the principle that there should be restoration of these workings wherever it is physically or reasonably possible, and whoever pays for that?

May I add that Mr. Waters made his report in May, 1945. At that time there were only about 3,600 derelict acres. As I understand the position, the combined effect of the 1932 and 1943 Acts and of some—

Mr. Manningham-Buller (Daventry)

The hon. and learned Gentleman said there were only about 3,600 derelict acres. Were not those deemed to be incapable of restoration?

Mr. Mitchison

Yes. That is why I called them derelict acres. As I understand the position at that time, the combined effect of the 1932 and 1943 Acts and Articles 4. 5, 16 and 17 of the General Interim Development Order of that year was to enable the Minister to stop this or impose conditions as from May, 1945. It is significant to note that at that time Mr. Waters estimated the total acreage involved would be 116,500 of probable and possible ironstone reserves. That was in 1945 and relates to the restoration of the past.

I suggest that the question of the present and future workings is a much easier one. It is intimately tied up with the method of working, and with the position of the iron ore deposits which are being worked. Where they are comparatively shallow, with no limestone above them, I believe that there is no difficulty about restoration to agricultural use. and that it is, in fact, proceeding. It is, however, very desirable that the public should appreciate the position, and my second question to my right hon. Friend is whether in such easy cases restoration is, in fact, proceeding, and if so, over what total area.

Perhaps the main difficulty arises where the ironstone lies at a greater depth, and with limestone above it. In such cases, excavation is now proceeding by mechanical shovels, which dig up the Whole of the soil and the limestone above the iron ore, and leave it in hill and dale, practically incapable of restoration or of use for any but limited forestry purposes. In most such places, however, there seems to be no difficulty in removing the top soil by a dragline, setting it apart and replacing it on top of the workings of the shovel. This would, of course, from the excavating point of view be an unnecessary additional cost, but it should be incurred if it is necessary for the restoration of the countryside.

In one of his recent answers, given in July this year, my right hon. Friend said that he did not want to cripple the industry. May I remind him that Stewarts and Lloyds, the company principally concerned with these excavations in my constituency, made an additional profit of over £1 million last year, making their total capital trading profit up to £6½ million, and they have revenue reserves and capital reserves amounting to £13 million. Surely they and other companies would not be crippled if they were compelled to restore the countryside which they have devastated and are devastating. It is not only a matter concerning landowners and farmers who, as a rule, have received full compensation under their mining leases, but also the public at large, who are deprived of the beauty and amenities of the countryside.

The third question I wish to ask my right hon. Friend is whether, where one method of excavation will ensure restoration at additional cost, he will insist on restoration as a condition of allowing the work to be done. If not, what price does he put on the amenities and beauty of the countryside? That is to say, up to what figure would he impose additional excavating costs in order to ensure restoration? Curiously enough, the very deep deposits seem to present less difficulty than the moderately deep ones.

The shovel cannot get at them unless the dragline is put on for the top soil, and that which ought to be done on public grounds in the case of the moderately deep deposits is done as a matter of business for the very deep ones. My right hon. Friend is no doubt aware that for that reason restoration is proceeding at such a deep deposit as that on Prior's Hill Farm at Gretton, while the neighbouring deposit near Stanion is being worked by the shovel alone.

I understand that a few very large draglines have been imported from dollar countries and that it is hoped that they can so work the moderately deep deposits, even with some limestone intervening, as to allow of full restoration. My last question to my right hon. Friend is what has been the result of trying out these very large draglines, and what hope can he hold out that, even in competition with the National Coal Board, enough of them will be available to ensure full restoration in cases where it might otherwise be difficult?

This is a question of urgency in view of the state of public opinion. It is also a question of how far money ought to be spent in preventing the devastation of our countryside, where prevention is possible but costly. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that lost acres can never be replaced and that the responsibility of the ironstone companies in this matter is considerable. If, since the past workings were arranged for at the time and have now been worked out and abandoned, he considers it inequitable to put an additional burden on private interests in respect of them, then surely he must face up to the question of public responsibility.

The Government of the day allowed the mess to be made and the Government of this day must make it good if they can. If we spend money on coast protection, on reclaiming marginal land for agriculture, and on other such purposes, surely these devastated acres have a similar claim. Unrestored, they will be a dreary monument to the rapacity of private enterprise and to the indecision of successive Governments. It is intolerable that Northamptonshire should stay as it is; even more intolerable that (further work should proceed without full restoration, wherever restoration is possible, not merely economically practicable.

10.13 p.m.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

I wish to congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) on his success on getting the Adjournment tonight to raise this most important question. I think that I have raised it on more occasions than he has, but there is no party dissension on this matter. I make one criticism of what he has said and that is his reflection on Stewarts and Lloyds who have in fact been in the forefront in attempting restoration.

I do not propose to comment on the speech of the hon. and learned Gentleman, but I think that his descriptive powers regarding the situation in Northamptonshire as it exists today are rather lacking. He could not present a picture as bad as it really is—and it will look worse in the future if something is not done. I think that the record of the Minister of Town and Country Planning is quite deplorable. We have had all sorts of promises, we got something put into the Town and Country Planning Act and we have raised the matter here; but the Minister remains in his Ministry and the situation in Northamptonshire deteriorates. I must say that I think the only hope for Northamptonshire will be to extend the excavations to excavating the right hon. Gentleman from his Ministry, which I am sure will happen in the course of the next year.

10.15 p.m.

The Minister of Town and Country Planning (Mr. Silkin)

I should like to congratulate my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Mitchison) on seizing this opportunity of raising this question once more. He has shown an almost insatiable thirst for information on this subject. Every Tuesday there is a batch of Questions about it, and this evening we have been treated to a good many more. I do not think it is possible for me in the short time available to make a full statement on the situation, but I think it might be useful if I brought the House back to a sense of proportion in this matter. To hear my hon. and learned Friend and the hon. and learned Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) talk, one would imagine that the whole of Northamptonshire is derelict, covered with shovels and draglines, hills and dales, and so on. I think the House ought to know what are the true facts.

Of 6,500 acres worked in Northamptonshire before the introduction of planning control in 1946 only 19 per cent. are left as hill and dale. There has been, as the hon. and learned Member for Daventry pointed out, a good deal of restoration even without planning control, and I think it only fair that that should be stated. Forty-five per cent. of the land that had been worked had been restored to agriculture without planning control at all. In other cases there had been afforestation; a certain amount of land had been used for industrial or other purposes; and, in fact, at the time of the introduction of planning control only one-third of 1 per cent. of the agricultural land in Northamptonshire was of the kind my hon. and learned Friend described as "derelict." Now I do not want to decry even one-third of 1 per cent. It is very unpleasant and disagreeable, and something ought to be done about it. But it is, I think, fair to point out that all this had taken place in the days when there was no planning control, and it is possible to exaggerate what happened.

Since then more land has been worked. Still the process of after-treatment continues. It is estimated that in 1949, for instance, 33 acres will become derelict in Northamptonshire. But all the rest will have been treated in one way or another, and the 33 acres represents the really difficult land, the expensive land, which, as even my hon. and learned Friend pointed out, was difficult to deal with—the land containing large quantities of limestone.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

The right hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the total area derelict has increased by only 33 acres since 1946?

Mr. Silkin

No. If the hon. and learned Gentleman had been listening more carefully than he appears to have been, he would have heard that I said this is the estimate for 1949 in Northamptonshire. I did say that this is the total increase in derelict land in Northamptonshire for 1949. If we take the estimated amount of dereliction over the next 10 years, it is about 500 acres. Again, I am not saying this is insignificant. I think it is something which has to be dealt with, but I think it is important to get this problem in its true proportion, and that is what I am trying to do. I have been criticised over and over again for doing nothing about it. The hon. and learned Gentleman even demands my dismissal on that score. I am in good company. He is demanding everybody's dismissal.

I should like to tell the House what has in fact been done. This is not a simple problem. My hon. and learned Friend asked that we should insist on full restoration in all cases. I say, with great respect to him, that he really does not know what he is talking about. To insist on full restoration is to ask something which is quite impracticable. One has to face up to the fact that, unpleasant as the land in the area may be, what is going on in Northamptonshire and in the surrounding counties is an essential process in the economic life of our country. One cannot do without this iron ore; it has got to be worked and worked efficiently, and one cannot dictate to the producers how they are to work it; they must be left to work it in the way they consider to be most efficient. For my hon. and learned Friend to lay down methods of working is just nonsense.

Mr. Mitchison

May I defend myself by saying that the suggestion was made by Mr. Waters himself? I claim to be no expert, but Mr. Waters is.

Mr. Silkin

My hon. and learned Friend has adopted the suggestions and put them forward, and he ought of his own knowledge to know what he is talking about. Let us take, for instance, this question of complete restoration. There was a public inquiry some months ago in respect of an application to work a large area in Northamptonshire. Evidence was given on behalf of the producer that it would cost £2,000 per acre to restore that land after working to agricultural use. When it had been restored it would be worth from £50 to £70 per acre. It may be that the figure of £2,000 is an exaggeration, but it was given by a highly reputable and presumably well-informed and competent expert.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

Can the right hon. Gentleman say how that estimate compares with the cost of restoring after opencast mining?

Mr. Silkin

No, I cannot; but the fact is that to impose a condition on a producer, which is what I am being asked to do, that in all cases we should insist on restoration to agricultural use, seems to me to savour of a lunatic asylum. How can one run an undertaking economically by spending £2,000 per acre in order to get something worth £50 to £70? Allowing for complete pessimism on the part of this expert, and assuming that we divide the figure by two, three or four, we are still left with £500 per acre in order to get something worth £50 to £70 an acre.

Mr. Mitchison


Mr. Silkin

I have only a limited amount of time, and I would like to state my case.

I merely illustrate that as one of the difficulties I am faced with in trying to decide what are reasonable conditions to impose. I am being asked to impose conditions on the producers, and it is no good imposing conditions which will kill the industry or are impracticable. We want this production to go on, and we have to impose conditions which are sensible and practicable. I say that to insist upon full restoration in all cases is sheer nonsense. We have to form a judgment as to what are the right kind of conditions to impose to ensure, on the one hand, that as much land as possible is restored to agricultural use, and, on the other hand, that the industry is allowed to continue and produce. We have, of course, to have regard to amenities. I recognise that as being important, and that a price has to be paid for it. But there is another factor.

We must accept the position that probably we shall have to spend in any case rather more in after-treatment than will be the value of the land when we have carried out the treatment. We must accept that in the interests of amenities and in the interests of growing food. What is the right figure? If we are prepared to spend £2,000 an acre, or £1,000 or £500, there are millions of acres of marginal land in the country where the same amount might be expended much more profitably. We cannot ignore that consideration, and we have to face up to it.

There is also the question whether it is desirable, in certain cases to press for afforestation instead of complete restora- tion to agricultural use. At this moment we do not really know enough about hills and dales to be quite satisfied in all cases what is the right kind of treatment, and whether, if we press for afforestation in cases where, for instance, there is a great amount of limestone, we shall get successful results. It is for that reason, and for a variety of other reasons, that I decided to set up this conference. I see nothing ridiculous in having two conferences, one of producers and others, and one of land owners, because, quite understandably, the producers are not willing to disclose confidential figures of production to the people with whom they have to argue about rents and royalties. They made it quite plain that they would not disclose this information if the owners were present.

Since I wanted the views of the owners, as well as those of the producers, I thought that the most satisfactory way of doing it was to set up two conferences. I now have an interim report from both parties. It is not complete, but it does give a good deal of useful information upon which I hope we can now base a policy. I am not going to be jockeyed or even bullied by the hon. and learned Member into settling a policy prematurely. I really do want to know what I am doing.

Now that I have the report of these conferences, I am in a position to tell the House in substance what the proposals are, and I propose in the near future—I hope in January—to publish a White Paper setting out what the proposals are, and what I think are likely to be reasonable conditions that can be imposed. Of course, there are other difficulties. The question will still arise as to who is going to pay. One can require the producers to pay a certain amount, and it may be there will be a margin which will have to be found elsewhere.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'Clock, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Ten o'Clock.