HC Deb 06 April 1950 vol 473 cc1459-68

4.35 p.m.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

When as a local councillor I first addressed a public meeting 11 years ago I thought it would be impossible to have to face a more terrifying situation, but I realise now that the impossible has happened; and in the most unfortunate circumstances, because I feel that in order to make way for our place on the timetable the Financial Secretary to the Treasury did not deal at the length at which he would have done with the important subject which has just been discussed. I am fortified to some extent in that I feel that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite) would rather have actions and not words from the Financial Secretary on that subject. I feel that one of the conditions of speaking the truth is that one does not have to remember what one has said, and I feel that that is what I am going to do this afternoon about a subject which has already claimed support from all sides of the House.

Everyone recognises the need for increased food production at home by helping and encouraging higher output from our home farms. It is common ground that to attain the great target of half as much again as before the war we must have help from marginal land and all the land in this country which is capable of yielding agricultural produce. My special plea today is that as much time, thought and effort as possible should be given to utilising and keeping in production thousands of acres of some of our best agricultural land which is at present being mutilated or threatened with mutilation by opencast mining, iron ore workings and the projected new towns.

It will be readily understood if this afternoon I confine myself to the despoliation as a result of the iron ore workings in Northamptonshire because these are included in my constituency in a very large measure and it is a matter of very great importance to our part of the country. The failure to restore the land after such workings in the past has resulted in a state of affairs which was clearly described in an article in "Picture Post" which said: Slowly advancing death. These ravaged areas are deserts, so utterly dead and barren and forgotten. That is the impression visitors to the devastated areas get, and I have a feeling that the Minister of Town and Country Planning will form a similar impression to the one described in that magazine when he makes his visit during the Easter Recess.

It has been estimated that in Northamptonshire at present five acres of land are being lost every week to these ironstone workings. This will get worse for there is an increasing demand for the ore, and when it is known that it is expected that by 1953 the requirements for steel will be at least one-third as much again as they are today, it is commonsense that the iron ore workings are likely to increase in the same proportion. Therefore when it can be shown that the potential agricultural production is being unnecessarily damaged, it should then be realised that the volume of such damage is not remaining static but is getting greater every day and more vicious in its consequences.

While there may be some in the country—I know there are some—whose reaction to the problem is to question the very wisdom of allowing wholesale ore extraction at all in this country, claiming that better quality is available by means of imports and that to keep our ore in our own land may be a good reserve in case of crises such as war in the future, I am confining my argument this afternoon to the need for the Government to be insistent upon some system of extraction carrying the minimum of destruction with it and the compulsory restoration of the land as the work proceeds. Much restoration has been accomplished in the past, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman who will reply will not lay too much stress on the past because, in my constituency in particular we are concerned rather more with the future than with what has been left from the past. I know that owing to past methods of working a considerable accumulation of ravaged land is there to be seen. Much has been restored but too much has been left. I do not think that such accumulation was deliberate but that the full extent of the damage was not appreciated as methods of extraction were altered and mechanised extraction was speeded up and extended.

Whilst such an explanation is legitimate on past workings—and consequently I recognise that it may take some considerable time to decide how the accumulation of the past shall be dealt with and paid for—there can be no such excuse for any unnecessary damage arising from the present workings, or from those contemplated in the immediate future and beyond. For we do know now, and have known for some time, the fatal consequences which can accrue to our food production capacity and to the rural amenities in the areas concerned. That is there for all to see.

I suggest that there is a general line, both for the type of working and for the type of restoration that can be put in hand. It is that general line I would ask the Government to examine now whilst the workings are still going on. Firstly, while it is not a big part, underground mining should be encouraged wherever possible, for the timber props for such workings could be grown on the hills and dales, the relics of the past left over from past workings. I believe that afforestation on such land as this has proved to be more effective in many ways than on the level land adjoining it.

Secondly, the machinery used for surface excavation should be so regulated that methods leaving the least amount of damage be used wherever practicable. Here the choice can only lie between the drag line and the face shovel. The face shovel is the much more successful ore-getter, but it is also the greatest enemy to restoration. On the other hand, the drag line is capable of taking up and preserving the top-soil so that it can be used later on for getting the land back again into some sort of order. Because that can be done in that way, the drag line type of machine should have priority wherever possible. At the moment this machine is not coming into the iron ore workings as quickly as it should. It is being sent to other kinds of workings, and I suggest that the Government should give all possible help to speed up the delivery of the drag line machines and encourage their greater use at all times in these iron ore workings.

Thirdly, on the workings where only the damaging face shovel can be used, the only remedy is that special attention be given to restoration, and the method of restoration should be agreed before the extraction is allowed to begin.

So much for the workings and for the restoration having regard to the best type of working. The first and best is that which can be levelled completely and restored to permit all kinds of agricultural operation. That is where the topsoil has been replaced. This can be done on many more occasions than has been the case in the past if proper attention is given to this when extraction is being planned. The second is where the land can be levelled without the replacement of the topsoil, probably with a large amount of clay on the surface. This has been proved to be suitable for arable cultivation but many years of heavy expenditure, of labour and fertilisation, will be needed before it can be made fully remunerative.

Here is a case where the Government should be prepared to give special help along the lines of the help they are giving to other marginal land because, when it has been rescued, it will be able to produce necessary and important products for this country for many years to come. The other is where it has been rough-levelled with soil and other materials, which can be restored to grass if attended to straight away. But there, if it is neglected for any length of time, the chance of bringing it back to cultivation will be lost. My plea is that where permission is given for extraction on ground of that sort there should be a plan for restoring the ground straight away.

The fourth and worst type to which I have referred is suitable only for afforestation, and even then it presents many great problems as regards making roads in it for the subsequent removal of timber there and the difficulties of fencing to avoid rabbit infestation and the control of weeds. I suggest that the use of the shovel should be kept to the absolute minimum, even at the cost of sometimes leaving seams untouched. That is the general line of working and restoration after the type of work has been supplied. It obviously brings up the important point of the cost of restoration to which I have no doubt the hon. Gentleman will give some time. The precise figures for this are difficult to obtain, although I cannot help feeling that the producers already on the job must know the answer. I hope that the information will be incorporated in the Government's statement which has been promised us often, but which has been so elusive that to my mind it is entitled to the title of "The Second Scarlet Pimpernel." It has been promised often, but nothing seems to have been heard or seen of it since.

Whatever the costs of restoration they should be borne in proportion by the Exchequer, which collects considerable revenue from royalties and tax on steel production in its various stages and on the steel producers who use the ore. This could be calculated on an increase in the cost per ton of ore, or steel and the amount wanted would be almost negligible in the amount of steel produced today. In making a rough estimate of possible costs of restoration it could be said to vary between £50 and £500 per acre according to the depth worked and the choice of methods of extraction used, but I believe that the top figure which the hon. Gentleman may have in mind to mention later is quite exceptional and that the average cost per acre is likely to be in the region of £150 to £200, especially when a standardised method of restoration has been agreed upon and is under way. Even if we accept my figure, which, I recognise, can be questioned, that low figure is more than the value of the original land and it would be pointless to try to justify the cost only on land values.

My real argument is based on the permanent loss of agricultural land in this tiny over-crowded island where, already, we have only half an acre of agricultural land per head of population. Produce lost now is not just for one harvest but for ever, and we owe more to posterity than that, considering the bills we are passing on to posterity in other spheres. This argument, I feel, should bring overwhelming and energetic support to the hon. Gentleman's Department from the Ministry of Agriculture. Success in restoration will play a big part in bringing back necessary food supplies, and I would have thought he would have the unstinted support of the Minister of Food. I hope that this weighty support will come while the right hon. Gentleman retains the great popularity he has, if he still has it after the announcement of yesterday.

The final argument is that we ought to strive to avoid any worse amenities being brought to the rural areas. That brings in the Department of the hon. Gentleman. I should have thought that the full backing of the newly-appointed Minister of Town and Country Planning, with all his rambling background, should not be in any doubt, nor that of the hon. Gentleman because his constituency verges on the problem and he must have had it in mind. In all the circumstances, it would not be inappropriate to bring in the Minister of Health as a first reserve. He proclaimed the other night that it was his wish to go down to history as the protector of the beauty of the English countryside. I assure him that by a little homework in connection with this problem, he can go a long way towards attaining this laudable ambition.

I have presumed to introduce this list of Ministers who should fight hard in the interests of their own Departments for such a decision because most of the past indecision appears to have arisen because the Minister of Supply, thinking only of his own Department's requirements, has in the past carried more weight at Cabinet level than the ex-Minister of Town and Country Planning, who was more or less left to fight the battle alone. While we are awaiting the reports of the standing committees, I ask for some quick interim policy at once. I believe it is needed. We should insist now upon some standard of restoration even though it may be that it will later be slightly revised. To do that now will stop any further accumulation of this dead useless land of which we have far too much already. My plea to the Government is to act now in applying a standard for future ore extraction which will prevent this ugly sore in Northamptonshire from settling into a permanent, expensive national disfigurement.

4.52 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning (Mr. Lindgren)

It is the accident of an Adjournment Debate which provides me with the perhaps unusual privilege in the circumstances of congratulating the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. H. Nicholls) on his maiden speech. It is a particular pleasure to me as he is a neighbour of mines in Northamptonshire. I know that he will understand me when I say that I was not particularly pleased to hear that he had been returned for a neighbouring division, but I am delighted, having heard his maiden speech today, that he should have made it on this subject. He has made it with great emphasis and great clarity, and I hope that we shall hear him speak many times.

It was my privilege to meet the hon. Member in the Midlands during the war, when he was playing quite an important part in the local government of Darlaston and its surrounding area. Having a local government background myself, I feel that it must be that local government training which has enabled him to make that very effective maiden speech this afternoon. It is equally true—and I say this although it is not usual to be provocative on the last Adjournment Debate before a Recess—that I am delighted with the hon. Member's speech, because if he goes on thinking in that way, it will not be long before he is on these benches.

I cannot resist saying that it is the Conservative policy of allowing exploitation by landlord, royalty owner and industrialist, over the last 50 years in particular, irrespective of its effects upon the countryside or the lives of the people, of of any other consideration, that has allowed this present situation to arise. Coming to Northamptonshire and its beauties, and having seen the spoliation of Northamptonshire, the hon. Member could also go back to the area around Darlaston, where again, unplanned and unrestricted industrialisation has meant a lack of amenity in the lives of the people in those areas which really has to be seen to be believed.

There are three sections, so to speak, to the problems which the hon. Member has raised. There are the old workings which have been worked out for anything up to 50 years, the existing workings, and the future workings. I must first make it quite clear that until the passing of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, there were no effective powers to deal with this problem. So the action of the last Labour Government gave, for the first time in the history of this country, an opportunity for the control of surface mineral workings. That opportunity was provided in the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947. It is equally true that of the existing workings which are now being worked, 90 per cent. are operated under General Interim Development Order granted under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1932, which in fact gave the possibility of some measure of control of the actual workings, but gave no power at all in regard to restorations.

There is, however, the future. Under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, there is the power in the granting of future concessions for operating to place restrictions or requirements on the development in regard to restoration. There have been discussions between the various interests concerned as to the general type of restriction that will be placed on those workings. They are not yet determined finally, but as was stated by the previous Minister of Town and Country Planning from this Box, those restrictions will be effective. The real problem is—as has been suggested by the hon. Member—who is to pay? So far as the old workings are concerned, most of those who have made profits, out of royalties, or the land, or through the production of the steel, may have passed on, and we may have to have some special arrangements with regard to them.

I do not think—and, here again, perhaps I am speaking with some prejudice because my own constituency has been badly scarred by these workings—that these old workings can be left in their unsightly condition just because it will cost a considerable amount of money to restore them. We must think of some way in which contributions can be made to the restoration of old workings. The previous Minister made a promise to the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Michison), who has pressed this matter in this House over the past five years, that he would produce a White Paper. When my right hon. Friend and I arrived at our present posts we found a draft of that White Paper ready for our consideration. But the present Minister quite rightly felt that in association with that White Paper there should be a statement of policy. The problem has been stated many times and it is the policy to handle it which should be made clear. The Minister felt he would like to see something of the problem at first hand and he and I are making a tour of Northamptonshire, Rutland and Leicestershire, and if possible parts of Lincolnshire, to see this problem and discuss it with all interested parties. In the light of the departmental advice given to us, we hope to make a statement to the House in the form of a White Paper as early as possible.

I conclude as I opened by complimenting the hon. Member on his maiden speech. I hope we shall have his enthusiastic support in dealing with this problem. We shall be brought hard up against some vested interests, and I am delighted to think that we should have his support in order that we may find a remedy for this problem, from which the countryside has suffered for so very long.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at One Minute to Five o'Clock, till Tuesday, 18th April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.