HC Deb 01 February 1949 vol 460 cc1628-44

9.45 p.m.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

It is perhaps a somewhat far cry from the Polish Resettlement Corps to opencast coal, but I think there is a connection in that the present Secretary of State for War had a considerable interest at one time in opencast coalmining. Tonight I wish to bring to the attention of the House one or two points regarding opencast coalmining which are giving a good deal of concern, not merely to the farming community which they do affect very closely, but also to the general public. Before raising these points I think it is essential that we should have in mind a few basic facts on the subject of opencast coal, because there are a good many people who misunderstand the situation. The Minister of Fuel has recently published a Digest for 1946–47 which gives in considerable detail figures which I do not think have received the publicity they deserve.

On 15th January this year there were according to my reading, just over 13 million tons of deep-mine coal in distributed stocks in Great Britain. That is about 2 million tons fewer than at the same time last year. In addition, there are just over 1 million tons of opencast coal, as compared with a little less than 200,000 tons at the same time last year. Of that 1 million tons of opencast coal about 300,000 tons is classed in the Ministry of Fuel and Power weekly coal statistics as being inferior, but over 800,000 out of the million is classed as being saleable. I can only suppose therefore that the other 300,000 tons is unsaleable.

From these figures I think we are entitled to deduce that the proportion of opencast coal now being put into stock is going up considerably. Looking at the first section of 1948, which is the last date which appears in the Digest I have referred to, the amount of stock of opencast coal at the beginning of the year started at 140,000 tons and dropped as low as 90,000 in February. Since then it has been steadily going up and in June it was 1,110,000. The deep-mined distributed stocks meanwhile have fallen from 15 million-odd tons in January to 14 million in June. The first question I wish to ask is whether it is now the policy of the Ministry to put to stock the inferior or unsaleable section of the opencast coal produced in this country, and build up the stock-in-hand figure for the public benefit, from coal which is really virtually unusable?

In October, 1947, it was announced that opencast coal would be producing 50 million tons by the end of 1951 and that 50,000 acres, in addition to the 35,000 already requisitioned, would be taken over by 1951. Later on, the Ministry of Agriculture stated that 79,389 acres of agricultural land would be used for the purpose by 1951. Opencast coalmining, began in 1942, and during that year it produced only 1,100,000 tons of coal. Today it is producing the best part of ten times that amount, or more. I think we should ask ourselves how is that coal being used? According to the latest figures we have, we find that in 1947, 31,000 tons went to the gas industry; three million tons to the electricity industry; 135,400 to the railways; 55,900 to the coke ovens; 4,600,000-odd went to industrial undertakings and 1,376,700 went to coal merchants for domestic consumers.

I think that the first fact which we have to admit is that opencast coal is being made good use of, that it is important and is helping British industry to keep going through a very difficult period. It is important, from the point of view of the farming community, that that fact should be realised, but it is a fact that the areas that produce this coal have been concentrated in the past in the North-Eastern and North Midland Regions, and these two regions take in the West and East Ridings of Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire and Rutland, which are areas which not merely have produced the most opencast coal but are also areas of considerable agricultural value.

The Ministry's Digest leads us to suppose that new areas are being sought, and whereas, in the first quarter of 1947, there were 23 sites in the North Midland Region, at the same time last year there were none, and, in the case of the North Eastern Region, while there were 22 in 1947, they have come down to five or six at the beginning of last year. Last week, we were told by the Minister of Agriculture, in reply to a Question which I put to him, that 6,500 more acres of agricultural land are to be taken over this year, and another 6,000 would be going back into cultivation.

Will the Parliamentary Secretary say where these areas are to be, and where the 6,500 acres to be taken over are situated? Can he give an assurance—and this is my most important question—that no farms are to be taken over, either wholly or partly, whose occupiers have already been told that they could go ahead in planning their crop rotation without fear of requisitioning? That is a very important question from the farmer's point of view, because it has happened in the past, and particularly in the time of the present Minister's predecessor, that farmers who had been told their land would not be requisitioned had requisition notices served upon them.

Can the hon. Gentleman also say what additional acreage now has to be taken over owing to the greater depth to which contractors have to go in order to get coal, as the seams nearer the surface are worked out? It used to be an average of three acres for every acre which was to produce coal, but I suspect that the figure is now five acres or even above that. Further, I would ask whether the 6,500 acres includes only land from which it is actually hoped to have coal produced, or whether it includes all the land on which the overburden will be spilt?

This leads me on to costs. I have been told on good authority that the worst basis upon which it was formally agreed to be worth while to go in for getting coal was that if we had one ton of coal for 20 tons of overburden it would be in the national interest. But that was in the days when the coal seams were nearer the surface, and, to the best of my information, the seams are very much deeper. Therefore, I imagine that that proportion is far bigger than 20 to one. Will the Parliamentary Secretary say what that proportion is, and what the cost per ton is going to be? In 1947, the Minister gave me the figure of the cost as 45s. 8d. per ton for opencast coal, including requisitioning, machinery and everything involved. That worked out, in comparison with the selling price, at a dead loss of 9s. 8d. per ton; in other words, opencast coal was being subsidised to the extent of 9s. 8d. per ton.

I should like to know what is the latest edition of these figures. Most of the machinery comes from the United States, or did so, and I have heard that as much as £2 million worth of dollars was spent by Sir Lindsay Parkinson's representative in the United States, on the authority of the Minister. We should like to know whether, with the dollar shortage at the present time, dollars are to be spared this year, and how many, and whether this is going on until the end of opencast coal-mining, and whether we now have all the machinery that we want. According to the Minister's figures, the amount of machinery fluctuates and I do not understand why that is so. Does it mean that the machinery gets worn out and cannot be replaced at once; does it mean that it goes out of commission for a time and then comes back again into commission or not, because these figures change month by month and it is a little strange why they should?

What are the figures for the beginning and the end of this year, and what will be the cost in dollars and sterling for machinery? Are we manufacturing any machinery at home? I believe that we are doing a little, and that the smaller types of draglines are being manufactured at home. I am interested in this because I know two people closely associated with my constituency who are actual contractors in this matter, and therefore I am most anxious we should ensure that the best contractors are used. I believe that they would both be good at the job.

My other interest is in the agricultural side, and I think that it is only fair to the Minister to tell him that the late Lord Fitzwilliam drove me to Wentworth Woodhouse and that I had a look round in that area. Since the present Minister has been in office, I certainly have no complaint about the way in which individual cases which I have brought to his attention have been dealt with. I wish I could say the same about the present Secretary of State for War when he was in that office. There is no doubt in my mind that there was a deliberate personal attack on the late Lord Fitzwilliam by the present Secretary of State for War when Minister of Fuel and Power and by Lindsay Parkinson, Limited, and I think an attempt was made to put about the impression that the late Lord Fitzwilliam was only interested in the amenities of Wentworth Woodhouse, which happens to be one of the largest mansions in the country. Having gone round his farm with him and met his tenants, I can say that I wish that all landlords were as good as he was.

I believe that it was one of the most vile campaigns ever launched to say that he was only interested in Wentworth Woodhouse itself. I have seen some of those farms, and when I read an article in the "Farmer and Stock Breeder" this week under the heading "I Was Horrified," I can share the view of the writer of that article. It does strike horror in one's heart when one sees opencast coalmining in progress, but the Ministry tried to give the impression that when restoration takes place, all would be well and the land just as good as ever it was.

Farmers are not slow to respond when any call is made upon them, but they are entitled to expect not merely that the full facts and reasons for what has to be done are given to them but that they get a fair estimate of the exigencies that demand those sacrifices from them. Taking an average Yorkshire farm, for every acre requisitioned we lose 7.1 tons of potatoes, 8.8 cwt. of wheat, 17.2 cwt. of barley, 16.5 cwt. of oats. That is a big sacrifice to make at a time when the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Food are imploring farmers to grow more food. With regard to milk it has been calculated on results that 63 gallons per acre per year are lost when a certain type of land is taken over. When the Ministry have tried to soothe the public mind as to the excellence of restored land, I ask them just to realise that it is not——

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed without Question put.

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

Major Legge-Bourke

I do ask the Minister to realise it is not quite all it seems, and that even the Ministry of Agriculture's representatives are prepared to give rather a different opinion. I am going to read a letter I have received containing the views of a Ministry of Agriculture representative on a farm which had been restored. This is what the representative said: It is a physical impossibility to restore the surface as was originally promised to all. Although the soil and sub-soil were supposed to be properly stacked, that did not occur in practice. In any case, the action of the wind and weather would necessarily wash away much of the humus and remove the mineral salts which gave the soil most of its value. Although the restoration and subsequent reseeding would produce a reasonable looking herbage and give the land a grazing value of 50s. an acre such value would be there for only two years, and after that the land would be in very bad condition, with no proper drainage and a bad mixture of soils, sub-soil coming to the surface so that the land would be waterlogged in wet weather. The Ministry of Agriculture were indeed making experiments to overcome these difficulties but they had not solved the problem yet. I do not believe they have solved the problem yet, and I know that there are farmers whose land has been restored who would heartily agree with that representative's opinion.

I hope we shall be able to get a better arrangement than now exists between the three Ministries involved in this question. There are in fact four, but I am leaving out the Ministry of Works. The Ministry of Fuel and Power, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Town and Country Planning seem to me to be at loggerheads. Now and again there is a clash between the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and the Ministry of Fuel and Power in one place, and in another a clash between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Fuel and Power.

I have been told that what has happened ever since the fuel crisis in the winter of 1946–47, is that the Ministry of Fuel and Power have over-riding power over the other Departments, and that nothing the other Ministries can do will stop them if they wish to take over another area. It is utterly wrong that this should happen when the Ministry of Agriculture are calling on producers to produce everything they can. I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that he should seriously consider that this matter ought to be decided not by the Ministry of Fuel and Power but by the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for this is really a matter of dollars versus sterling. It is a question of whether it is more profitable to import food, or more profitable to produce coal from land which could produce the food here. I feel that the situation has changed considerably since the winter of 1946–47 and that the priority which the food industry is getting should be considerably greater.

I am not, of course asking, nor does any farmer contend for a moment, that with the present situation in deep-face coal we could scrap opencast coal mining, but there are certain places, Wentworth Woodhouse being one, where quite definitely the time has come when agriculture should have priority over the Ministry of Fuel and Power.

When we get this land restored finally there is an impression that all will be well but it takes four years for the agricultural executives to run the farms. So many of the farms are typified in this letter from Glamorgan. This is a paragraph from a farmer's letter: I am wondering what I can do about it when they de-requisition the land. It was a lovely dairy farm. They were fine fields with fine banks and hedges surrounding them. Now they are all one. I was only a tenant farmer when I gave up on reaching three score years and ten. I saved up a little property for myself and my wife in our old age, but now I shall not be able to ask the same amount for the land. We may all have different opinions about how savings should be effected, but I do not think there is any better way than to put savings into land, and for a man to be able to settle down on his own plot of England—or Wales, as in this case.

It may not be realised by those who believe that restoration is always perfect that some farmers suffer not only while their land is under requisition but when it is returned to them because it is in very poor shape compared with the state in which it was when it was handed over to the Ministry. When the Minister glibly says that 6,000 acres will be returned, I ask in what condition will they be? Will they be in the condition of the land of the farmer whose letter I have read, or will it be land in as good a condition as restoration can make it? We have to realise that the deeper the excavator goes, the more overburden is dug up; the more overburden there is, the greater is the acreage for tipping the spoil; the greater the spoil; the greater the deterioration of the humus and the greater the deleterious effects on land drainage.

Two years ago it was indicated that drift mining would be adopted as often as possible. How many of the sites now requisitioned could be so worked? How many drift mines are there in Great Britain today? That I cannot discover from the Digest to which I have referred. The number of underground miners available for opencast coalmining now exceeds 10,243 men. It is the highest figure yet, and is 2,000 higher than it was when the present Government came into office. Are we to put more men into this industry? If so, what is to be the permissible peak?

Finally, I would ask, What is the relationship between the opencast coal-mining industry and the National Coal Board? Is it on the basis of the famous story that the National Coal Board sent to the opencast coalmining industry the message, "Leave no stone unturned. It is never too slate to burn"? Is that the relationship or not? I realise that the opencast industry comes directly under the Ministry, and I suspect—indeed, I know—that there is no love lost between the two. Is this producing healthy rivalry and competitive results, or is it increasing the rancour in the industry?

My own feeling has always been that opencast mine working became necessary during the war only because of the fatal mistake made of calling up miners to the Forces. I believe it to be a truth which one day will penetrate the minds of the most obstinate of hon. Members opposite that their own party, some of them aided and abetted by the Communists, have not merely for 30 years stirred up the industry with class hatred and false propaganda, but have also involved England, Scotland and Wales in wanton desecration of our farms, at a time when every acre farmed is a step nearer to national solvency.

Opencast mining is expensive, and it appears to be growing more so. The Minister on Thursday last stated that coal was 30 times more valuable than the food the mined land would grow. I am sure that was a random opinion not based on facts. The fact is that the country is perturbed about losing any more acres with a food potential, to keep up bogus stock figures for the Government's statistics. People are prepared to accept what they feel to be necessary, but they are far from convinced that there should be so large a gap as from six million to 16 million tons in the target for 1952 for coal, and that part of it to be got from deep mining. It means, of course, that opencast workings have to go on producing between six million and 16 million tons of coal per year if we are for once to hit a target—a target of between 246 million and 256 million tons a year by 1952.

I have asked some probing questions which I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to answer. At any rate, I hope that he will at least do his best to reassure the farming community that the sacrifice they have to make—which is indeed a real one—is worth while and necessary and not merely one to keep the thing looking all right on paper.

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) has performed a public service in raising the question of the damage which is being done by opencast coalmining. I do not want it to go forth from this House that hon. Members are opposed to opencast mining simply on the ground that they represent deep coal miners. In the Opencast Mining Branch of the Ministry of Fuel and Power there seems to prevail the idea that anybody who ventures a criticism of the system, method, and policy of that branch is prejudiced against the branch of opencast mining. That is not the case. But we are very much concerned about the method they are adopting, first because of the depth at which they are working coal by the opencast method, and secondly—and I say this with all respect to them—because of the lack of competence we have seen evidenced in the restoration of land after the coal has been extracted.

During the Summer and Autumn Recesses, I spent a great deal of time visiting opencast sites in my constituency. Unfortunately for myself and the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely, we represent constituencies where the mineral coal is found. In my constituency there are seven urban district councils, and at the moment opencast operations are taking place in five of them. That will give the House and the Ministry some idea of the trouble I have with the Opencast Mining Branch of the Ministry. Time and time again I have approached that branch, at 20, Upper Brook Street, to try to solve some of the problems with which we are confronted.

In my constituency there is a very ancient hall, Winstanley Hall, which at some future date may be treated as a place of historic interest. It is situated in a woodland surrounded by 5,000 acres. On that estate there are 15 farms, all of which have been directly or indirectly affected by the Opencast Mining Branch of the Ministry. As the hon. and gallant Member said, there are three Government departments concerned: the Ministry of Fuel and Power, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. I have negotiated with all three Departments. I am not very much concerned about the interest manifested by the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, but I am very much concerned about the interest that ought to be taken by the Ministry of Agriculture after the coal is extracted.

Suppose, after the coal has been extracted, one goes to the Ministry of Fuel and Power and says: "Look at these 200 or 300 acres; would you call this satisfactory restoration of the land after extracting the coal?" Immediately they reply, "We are not concerned about that; that is not our pigeon." One goes to the Ministry of Agriculture, and they appear to have no knowledge of what is taking place. I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power that there should be closer co-operation between the two Departments so that when the coal is extracted the land, even if it cannot be made just as it was before the coal was extracted, can be restored as nearly as possible to its previous condition. Closer co-operation is what we desire. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture was here when this Debate was about to commence, but he has left the Chamber. I suppose that his attention will be drawn to what has been said not only by me but by the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely.

At the moment, the depths to which we are working in opencast mining vary from 70 feet to 170 feet. Nobody can tell me that it is economical to work coal at a depth of 170 feet. From the point of view of the over-burden of carting away and putting the top soil on one side, it is an impossibility for any Government Department to work coal economically at that depth and at the same time give us the assurance that they will restore the land to something like what it was before they started operations. In my constituency is a small colliery known as the Summerdale Colliery. That colliery has been set out to work a seam which the Ministry of Fuel and Power Opencast Mining Branch have decided to work, despite the advice given them by practical men. It is sheer stupidity for men who have no practical experience of the underground working and mining of coal to ride roughshod over the opinions expressed by practical miners who know what they are talking about. This proposal will do two things. It will increase the cost of the coal which is extracted and it will cause Summerdale Pit to become uneconomical by the time it reaches the coal which is now being won by opencast mining. That is a very serious proposition for the Minister's officials to pursue, having regard to the advice given to them on the spot.

I had a lot more to say, but my time is up. I beg the Minister to get the closer co-operation which is absolutely essential if the land is to be restored to something approximating to its condition before opencast mining started. There must be closer co-operation, and his Department cannot ignore it. If they do, the Debate which has taken place will take place again in an entirely different manner. I plead with the Minister, as I pleaded with the officials of the Opencast Mining Branch, to pay due regard to the districts in which they are working, for the county of Lancashire has been giving the country deep-mined coal for over 405 years. The effect of that has been tremendous. The guts have been torn out of Lancashire and now the skeleton is being torn limb from limb. I beg the Minister to see that these things are prevented, because prevention can be accomplished if there is a commonsense approach to this problem.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Vane (Westmorland)

May I ask the Minister one question? When he considers the opposition of the Ministry of Agriculture to certain land being taken for opencast mining, will he consider the interests of forestry as well as of food production, and will he note that last week the Board of Trade took steps, never before taken in peace time in this country, to protect our remaining stocks of timber? If he thinks that timber must go, will he not smash it up with bulldozers, as happened in Warwickshire last year, because if anybody other than a Government Department did that, they would be in prison for many months.

10.21 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Robens)

It is unfortunate that only 10 minutes remain in which to reply to the lengthy—

Mr. T. Brown

We had less.

Mr. Robens

That is not true. The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) did not complain of the time he had, and I do not complain, but he raised many points and it will be a physical impossibility for me to reply to all of them in the time that is left. I will cover as many as I can, and will communicate with him on the others that I cannot answer now. First, I ought to say to the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), in answer to what he said about stupid opencast people overriding somebody who knows more about the job, that he met our opencast officials with me and we discussed a number of his cases. I thought we had convinced him how reasonable we are and that it was really necessary to do the job we are doing in his constituency.

Mr. Brown


Mr. Robens

Ripping up agricultural land to get coal is not our idea of the best way to get coal under normal circumstances, and it is only forced upon us by the urgency of the situation. On that point, the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely did not say that we should not do it, but hoped that it would tail off quickly. That is what we want to do, because the sooner we can get to the position of getting the coal that this nation needs from deep mining, the better pleased will be the Ministry of Fuel and Power. In a small country like ours, where agricultural land is so valuable, it is important that we should not upset agricultural values. We are faced with the fact at present that we must have the coal, but the amount of coal that will have to be obtained by opencast operations in future is not as high as the hon. and gallant Member suggested. We have produced figures to the O.E.E.C. showing that we shall move up to 15 million tons a year in the 1951–1952 period and then it will begin to tail off. It is true that since 1942 we have taken up the fairly large acreage of some 45,000 acres. That is 0.14 per cent. of the total agricultural land of the country.

It is also true that there is a concentration in certain localities. Obviously, from a geological point of view that is inevitable. Indeed it is true that in three-quarters of the counties there are no opencast workings, so inevitably this great burden falls upon those that are left. At the present moment there are 35,503 acres of land under requisition. Of that, 31,895 acres are agricultural land, but that is not all being used at the moment for opencast coal. Some 12,147 acres of that were under restoration at the end of 1948, and the actual acreage used for coal production at present is 19,748 acres.

Mr. Vane

And how much woodland?

Mr. Robens

That would include any woodlands being worked at present, but I cannot give the actual acreage. All the requisitioned land includes that land used for the stacking of overburden, so there are no acreages to be added from that point of view, and the rate of restoration is now at the rate of present requisitioning. It was clear that we had to catch up with this from the commencement of the scheme.

A number of questions have been asked and I should like to run through them rapidly. Both hon. Members asked whether there was proper liaison between those Departments which had some concern in this matter and whether, in fact, the Ministry of Fuel and Power overrode other Departments. There is no question of overriding. It is a question of discussing the relative merits with the Departments concerned. The hon. and gallant Gentleman is smiling as much as to suggest that, probably, we conduct this arguing with something like a weapon in our hands. I can assure him, however, that when we are dealing with, for instance, agricultural land, the Ministry of Agriculture obviously do not want any land to go out of production, but clearly they understand that some land must go out of production. Therefore, officials of the Departments get together to see how best the land can be worked with the least upset and disturbance to the farmer.

We take very great trouble and go to many times the actual cost to ensure that a site is worked in such a way that a farmer is left with a sizeable piece of land and that the move over after restoration is carried through smoothly. Arrangements of that character, while more costly, are carried out in an endeavour to get the views of the Ministry of Agriculture on behalf of the farmer. We do everything we can to preserve for the farmer as much land as possible, very often by going out of our way at greater cost and by more inconvenient means. Despite all this, it is, of course, true that we continue to take agricultural land, but it is not a question of overriding. We try earnestly to meet the wishes and views of the Ministries of Agriculture and Town and Country Planning. Broadly speaking, it is by meeting those views that we have been able to progress as expeditiously as we have done with opencast coal production.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman referred to the stock position and to the 1.1 million tons of opencast coal at present undistributed. He asked whether we stocked inferior coal and broke down that definition into saleable and inferior coal. We do not, of course, stock inferior coal as such. The distinction between inferior and saleable, or good, coal, is merely a matter of degree, taking into account also the purpose for which it is intended. Some power stations. for example, can take a much more inferior type of coal than other users or, indeed, other power stations. The distinction between the two, therefore, is a matter of degree. In any case, these stocks have been steadily lifted at the rate of about 40,000 tons a week, and the recent mild weather has had its effect upon lifting it from stock. We have no good reasons to expect that in due course the whole of that stock will not be disposed of.

Mr. Assheton (City of London)

Is it certain that those stocks will be completely disposed of?

Mr. Robens

We have no reason to suppose that we shall not be able to dispose of it. There is, in fact, a market for what might be termed inferior coal. Certain power stations are able to burn it and its final disposal depends upon the length of time taken to clear the stocks.

Mr. Assheton

Would the Parliamentary Secretary agree that some of it, at any rate, will never be disposed of?

Mr. Robens

Some of it, perhaps, might not be disposed of. It is very much a question of boiler technique and what can be burned. If it is coal which can, in fact be burned, I do not think one need be so pessimistic as to think that it would not be disposed of, although some of it which does not find a ready market may be held for a considerable time.

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

Adjourned at Half-past Ten o'Clock.