§ 3.40 p.m.
§ The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker)
The Opposition have asked that we should discuss this afternoon the opencast working of coal. I warmly welcome their suggestion, as I think it is high time opencast coal working was debated in this House. I have never disguised the fact that, like other right hon. and hon. Members, I regret some of the results to which opencast working may lead. In the rural areas it may cause inconvenience and grave annoyance to the farmers; it may disfigure the countryside for a certain time and impair its beauty for a longer time; it must mean some loss of food production. In urban areas it may cause discomfort to householders; it may interfere with housing plans; and it may be open to objections of other kinds.
In the United States opencast working is a permanent and important part of the coal industry. In 1947 they obtained 153 million tons by opencast methods. It was from the United States that a Conservative Member of this House brought the idea in 1941. Since then we have 2270 thought of it only as a temporary expedient to help us through a grave national crisis. We have always recognised its disadvantages. We have always sought to minimise them and to make the whole thing as little vexatious as we possibly could. We have asked our people to accept the annoyance and the discomfort which it involves only because we had to have the coal.
I must begin this afternoon by asking the Committee to recognise what an immense service the men who have applied this American technique to the winning of coal have rendered to the nation in the last few years. When we began it we were told by the experts that we might get perhaps 10 million tons. We have in fact had 70 million tons and we may rightly hope for a large tonnage still to come. Of course, during the war years everyone knew that coal was vital; they did not care what it cost in cash, in loss of natural beauty or in other ways.
But let us leave the war years out of account. Let us consider what opencast has meant to Britain since 1945, what it has meant to our recovery and what it means today. Since 1945 we have been engaged in a desperate struggle to regain our economic independence, balance our payments and free ourselves from the need for dollar aid. We have had an export drive for which our people have been asked to make sacrifices of many kinds. Coal has always been a vital factor in our export trade. It has been more so since 1945 than ever before. The promise to furnish coal has helped us to get bilateral agreements with 17 countries—Canada, the Argentine, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Egypt and the Netherlands among them. From these countries we have obtained great quantities of food and raw materials which we simply had to have—meat, wheat, feedingstuffs, timber, butter, cotton and iron ore.
In the years 1945–49 we exported 55.9 million tons of coal, which earned us perhaps £126 million of overseas exchange towards the balancing of our trade accounts for the purchase of essential imports which we had to have. In those years we obtained 57 million tons of coal from opencast production. That means that unless we had diverted coal from 2271 other uses we could not have exported a single ton without the opencast supplies.
The enemies of opencast often talk as if we could now do without it. Indeed nearly everything which is said by the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) points to that conclusion. But could we? We hope this year for 13 million tons of opencast coal. Where would the hon. Member have us save that quantity? On exports? But the hon. Member's friends are always telling us that we should export more, that we are losing the chance of long-term markets because we have not enough. Would the hon. Member take it from the domestic user and household coal? He is for ever telling us that the householder does not get enough. Would he take it from the power stations? But he and his hon. Friends tell us that we do not give enough electricity to the consumers, especially in the rural districts.
Would the hon. Member take it from industry? Has he reflected what it would mean if 13 million tons less coal were given to industry today? The effect would be catastrophic. If the result on employment were in proportion to the cut in industrial coal supplies it would mean 2,500,000 unemployed. Over the long period it might mean a little fewer but over the short period it would almost certainly mean many more. The truth is that we need every ton of that 13 million tons, and if we could get another 13 million tons we should need that as well.
The hon. Member for Kidderminster said in March that in the last two years the loss on opencast was £1 2s. 6d. per ton. He implied that opencast coal was not worth that serious loss. In the last full financial year up to 1st April, 1950, the loss per ton was not £1 2s. 6d.—it was 3d. At present opencast is paying its way and the Government intend that it shall continue to pay its way.
§ Mr. Nabarro (Kidderminster)
I should like the Minister to be fair at the outset and compare like with like. If he refers to the speech which I made in March, he will find that the financial result to 2272 which I referred was in respect of the year ended 31st March, 1949, whereas the figures he has quoted of a loss of 3d. per ton referred to the year ended 31st March, 1950.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
Even so I think that the hon. Member's error was of the order of about 1,000 per cent. The loss for 1948–49 was 1s. 3d. It may surprise the hon. Member to know that opencast costs are lower than those of deep-mined coal—2s. 6d. per ton less, and these costs include everything—overheads, restoration, compensation to the farmers and all the rest.
§ Mr. Bracken
And the depreciation on machinery and the cost of wiping out the loss of something like £14 million incurred over the years?
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
I do not say that we are wiping out the loss. I say that it is paying its way. That is the point I am making, and that is the point which is relevant to our present operations, but surely the right hon. Gentleman will not say that we ought not to have taken the coal in those years, even if it involved a loss. Of course we had to have it.
The costs are 2s. 6d. per ton less than deep-mined. Much more important, opencast coal requires only a quarter of the manpower that deep-mined coal requires. In the open, big machines can be used which cannot be taken down a pit. The men required for haulage and handling are far fewer. Every man on opencast wins four tons of coal for every ton won by the man who works in the mines.
The hon. Member for Kidderminster. however, has another ready reply. He gave it to us on Thursday last—that open-cast coal is not worth anything anyway.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
The hon. Member says "Hear, hear." I will quote the hon. Member's words. He says:Some of it may be good, hut only a tiny percentage; the overwhelming bulk is rubbish.He went on to tell us that we could only get rid of it by forcing in on the unhappy housewife. He said:I am reliably informed that last year 5.75 million tons went into domestic consumption.2273 He told us harrowing stories of the suffering which this opencast coal imposes on the housewife:Innumerable cases in Birmingham and Kidderminster … of housewives who have to pay 8s. or 10s. or 15s. every fortnight to the dustman to carry away the unburnable part of the ration.…—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th July, 1950; Vol. 477, c. 1605–6.]Let us look at the hon. Member's "reliable information."
§ Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
On a point of order. May I ask your guidance, Major Milner? Are we carrying on the Debate of last week or are we opening a new debate today on the subject of opencast mining?
§ The Chairman (Major Milner)
In reply to the hon. Lady, we are not carrying on the same Debate. This is a fresh Debate on a separate Motion.
§ The Chairman
I cannot interfere in that matter. The way in which a Minister presents his case is his own affair.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
Perhaps I may say that I am talking about the quality of opencast coal and answering charges made by innumerable critics, including the hon. Member for Kidderminster. If I may, I will go on with the startling arguments which the hon. Member adduced last week. I looked into his reliable information.
Where did the opencast go last year? Who used it? Industry and electricity power stations, 7½ million tons; railways, gas works, etc., 1.2 million tons; domestic users, not 5.75 but 1.5 million tons; exports, 1.2 million tons. Would all these people buy this coal if it were rubbish? Would the foreigner take nearly as much as we give to the domestic user if it were rubbish? The truth is that any general charge about the quality of opencast coal is nonsense. Its quality varies with the seams as does other coal. A million tons of opencast is anthracite, and that anthracite is among the very best we get today. Any general charge against the quality of the opencast given to the domestic consumer is nonsense.
2274 I took the trouble to check the assertions made by the hon. Member for Kidderminster about these unhappy ladies who pay 8s., 10s., and 15s. a fortnight to the dustmen. The salvage departments of Birmingham, Kidderminster Borough and Kidderminster Rural District all assure me that the removal of the refuse, including refuse from coal, is a charge on the rates. No additional charge is made for excess refuse from coal, and they have had no complaints, not one, from any lady that she has had to pay the dustmen to do their duty.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
Just consider what the hon. Member asks us to believe. His bottom figure of 8s. a fortnight is over £10 a year. For that sum a road haulier would carry perhaps 12 or 15 tons for a distance of 10 miles and the most coal a housewife in Kidderminster can buy is 50 cwts. a year. The truth is that the 1½ million tons of opencast coal supplied to the domestic user is 5 per cent. of his supplies. So far as the quality is concerned I will quote Sir John Charrington, the late President of the Coal Merchants' Federation and now Chairman of the Chamber of Coal Trades. He said to me:Opencast is often maligned; and some of it is of quite decent quality, and to be preferred to some of the deep-mined coal. One of the difficulties is that opencast does not stock very well.That is not a red hot testimonial to the opencast which goes to the domestic consumer, but it is very different from the allegations made by the hon. Member for Kidderminster.
I have dealt at some length with the statements made by the hon. Member for Kidderminster because he has made himself a leader of a school of thought, and because his sayings have been far too widely repeated and believed. I hope he will not resent it if I say, in all friendship, that it will be some time before the House will accept again the extravagant assertions and the alleged statistics with which he makes so free.
Let me turn to the anxieties of those who feel that by opencast we are despoiling too great a part of our farm and forest land, and that the food we lose is a heavy offset against the coal. It is a 2275 legitimate preoccupation which I very fully share. There is, of course, and I do not deny it, some temporary loss of farming land. But let me put it in perspective. In 1945 there were in Britain—I think the figure is a little higher now—31 million acres of arable land and grass. There were 17 million more acres of rough grazing. Of that total of 48 million acres we have requisitioned 58,000 acres of which we have excavated only 20,000.
That, of course, means some loss of food. But the value of the food is, on the average for the last year I could get—I think it is 1947—£23 an acre every year. Opencast is a temporary affair. It means that at the outside the land is withdrawn from cultivation for five years. The loss of food therefore is about £115 an acre even if all the land were kept for five years. But the value which we get from opencast coal is £10,000 per acre that we dig up; over £3,300 per acre of the total land which we requisitioned and withdraw from cultivation. That is more than 30 times as much as the value of the food—
§ Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)
Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that in five years the land is totally reinstated in agricultural value?
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
I will deal with that point in a moment. I said it was withdrawn at the outside for five years. As I say, the value of the coal is 30 times as much as the value of the food production for those five years; so that opencast enables us to buy from overseas 30 times as much food as it costs us here at home.
I come to the point made by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton). Perhaps there is a permanent loss of food production? Perhaps we spoil the land? If we decided we must have this coal, that we could not sterilise it, and if we took it by drift mining for example, which might often be done, I think the result might be lasting damage and a good deal worse. But with opencast we take great trouble to restore the land.
The technique of restoration has been much improved. At first the top-soil was just kept apart and then put back. Now a cushion of sub-soil is replaced beneath the top-soil where the nature of the land requires it. All large stones and 2276 boulders are taken out of the top three feet of soil. Water supplies are laid on to fields that used not to have them. The Government is ready to make agreements to replace the agricultural drains after the land has settled, it may be after five years or more. Hedges are replaced if the farmer so desires. A technical advisory committee of the Ministry of Agriculture is working constantly on this whole business of restoration and how it may be improved.
Does all this give a real result? No one can say whether there will be some deterioration, or for how long, but I will give a few examples. I am not being frivolous and I am taking the best representative figures I can get. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary was taken the other day by a local leader to see the Newcastle Town Common. Half of it had been dug up for opencast and then restored. On the half which had been dug up all the cattle were grazing, and there were no cattle on the half that had been left alone; because it so happened that the grass was a lot better on the part that had been dug up than on the part which was not touched.
In the Midlands, 100 acres were dug up on land where the tenant was a farmer who had won county prizes. Of course, there was bitter and very natural opposition to the interference with his work. But the coal was taken. Now the land is being restored, and the farmer has made up his mind to buy it. He may be getting a special price, I do not know, but in any case he has decided to risk his money on that land.
I will give the Committee the figures of some crop results. On some land in the West Riding, which has been worked for opencast coal, the 10-year average, from 1936 to 1945, was 18.7 cwt. of wheat per acre. The land was worked for coal and then restored, and in 1949 the crops varied from 18 to 20 cwt. per acre. Figures for other sections of the same area which has been worked were, for barley, 17.3 cwt. for the 10-year average, and 17 cwt. in 1949. I have other figures showing almost identical results for other crops. Those figures represent the yields from the general run of restored sites.
§ Mr. Nugent (Guildford)
Will the right hon. Gentleman give an indication of the acreage sown to cereal crops which yielded these kind of results?
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
I will inquire whether my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary can tell the hon. Member. It was at least 100 acres. I should not like to say more than that.
On the Doric site, at Wentworth, the land was restored to farming in 1946. Two years later, it produced 23 cwt. of wheat per acre. At Leasowes, in Staffordshire, 30,000 tons of coal were taken from 26 acres. The land was restored in 1943, and six years later, in 1949, it yielded 18 cwt. of wheat per acre. Of the 52,000 acres of farming land—6,000 acres are not farming land—which were requisitioned, 14,000 are back in the farmers' hands and 14,000 more are being restored.
What about the water supplies which we are always told are threatened? So far, our prospectors have put down 290,000 boreholes, with 11 million feet of bore. We have had seven complaints that they have affected the water. Two were proved; all were rapidly put right. What about the trees? Twice in my lifetime, at the place which I think the loveliest in Britain, I have seen trees cut down—each time to help to win a war. To beat Hitler, we cut half a million acres of our woodland. In our economic struggle since 1945, we have cut 2,000 acres for opencast coal—2,000 out of the three million which remain. I could give scores of examples of how we have sacrificed coal and saved the trees.
I could take hon. Members to scores of sites where they would find it difficult to tell which places have been dug up, and which have not. Our engineers are not the vandals which they are sometimes made out to be. In the past, thousands of acres were devastated by workings for sand and gravel, for limestone, bricks and china clay. Over 18,000 acres are claimed for sand and gravel alone in the next few years, and 80,000 acres are claimed for ironstone. When I remember these figures, I think of the thousands of acres lost through slagheaps round our deep mines, and I think that the price we have paid for opencast coal—20,000 acres actually dug up and then restored—is relatively small.
Of course, it is a pure illusion to think that the engineers go in and take the coal just where they like. They have to prospect, to verify that there is coal. Only one site is worked out of every three prospected. They have to consult the local 2278 authority, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Works, and all these different authorities must agree.
§ Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and East Perthshire)
Do they consult the Secretary of State for Scotland?
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
They do consult him. I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for reminding me. If the societies, the C.P.R.E. the women's institutes, and others, want to be consulted, they are always heard. There is every guarantee that, if opencast working is allowed, it is because the true national interest so demands.
I conclude by saying that the Government look forward to the day when opencast working can be abandoned. But that day is not yet. Today it is making a great contribution to our recovery. It does so at a low cost in manpower; it is paying its way; and the loss in food production and natural beauty is temporary and relatively low. Year by year, we reduce the annoyance and the hardship which it involves. We shall welcome every suggestion, from whatever quarter, that can be made to make the position better. We shall examine with sympathy and understanding every case of hardship which the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Bracken or any other hon. Member, can bring to our attention. But we know that when this Debate ends today, all parties will agree that for the present the work must continue.
§ 4.6 p.m.
§ Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)
During the first part of the speech of the right hon. Gentleman I thought that the repentance stool might at any time collapse under him. He appeared in sackcloth covered with opencast ashes. His apologies were so abject that I thought he was about to resign. He has made a case against the Government couched in far sharper language than I should ever care to use. As for the financial passages of his speech, they may be described as passing all understanding. He was asked 2279 a question about them, but it embarrassed him. Obviously, he did not know the answer, so he passed on. I asked him a question about the Treasury's vast accumulation of losses in the production of opencast coal. When the Minister says that opencast coal—
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
Of course, the great losses were incurred during the war, under the Coalition Government to which the right hon. Gentleman belonged. We have never suggested that we can now, on the price we charge for opencast, recoup those losses. All we say is that it was right at that time, at that loss, to take the coal.
§ Mr. Bracken
In answer to that curious intervention, let me say that the Minister has boasted about the large sums of money—the dollars, if you please —spent in the United States in order to bring in a lot more machinery for opencast excavations. Of course, that machinery should be subjected to a proper amortisation policy by the Minister. The Coal Board must remember that they must repay and give proper interest to the Treasury for the advances made to them. I should like to ask the Minister another question arising out of his financial statement. What are the depreciation charges on the machinery upon which the Government have spent such lavish sums? Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will reply to that question.
The Minister made an attack on my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) and, in due course, my hon. Friend will reply to him. At least, I hope that he will have the opportunity. The Minister told my hon. Friend, by way of damping down the criticisms, that the British Electricity Authority take this opencast coal. Is not Lord Citrine, like Lord Hyndley, responsible to the Minister? I should think he must take this opencast coal. The Minister would certainly give him a few painful interviews if he did not do so. I agree with what the Minister said about opencast coal being good in parts. Of course, there is some good opencast coal, just as there is some inferior deep-mined coal. Nobody denies that.
Listening to the Minister, it was only too obvious that the only defence that can be made for large-scale opencast 2280 mining operations in peace-time is that deep-mined coal is lacking. I need not go into the reasons for this now, because the House discussed them very fully during the Debate on the National Coal Board's Report last week. I noticed that during the weekend the Lord President and Lord Hyndley reinforced some of the points which the Opposition made in that Debate. Absenteeism, contempt for quality and strikes are some of the reasons given by Ministers and the Coal Board for our failure to produce enough good deep-mined coal.
The Ministry of Fuel and Power, in a statement issued last night, stated that as a result of strikes in coal mines last week, there was an estimated loss of 127,000 tons of saleable coal, about half the weekly average of opencast production. So we must go on tearing up the countryside to provide coal lost by strikes and absenteeism. If the Minister's defence of opencast operation is that there is no other way of providing coal, or stuff called coal—and that, in effect, is what he told us today—we must count the cost of the defeatist policy. The price is heavy, but, if we must pay, let us do it with a clear understanding of what we have lost and are still losing.
The Ministry of Agriculture are continually exhorting the farmers to grow more food, and the Minister of Fuel and Power touched on that subject today. Large sums of money are being spent on publicity and on the county agricultural committees in order to stimulate the farmers to do so. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Fuel and Power are requisitioning good farm land for opencast operations. One might almost be forgiven for believing that these two Ministries serve different nations.
Here is a good example of the lack of effective co-ordination between the Ministries of Fuel and Power and Agriculture. The Minister told us today that there was the closest co-ordination between them. Well, I shall give him a good example of the lack of effective co-ordination between the two Ministries. The "Kidderminster Times" which is not owned by my hon. Friend the Member for that important division, on 30th June published the following statement:Two official-looking letters arrived by the same post for Mr. A. Smith, of Hawkley Farm, Pensax. One was from the Ministry 2281 of Agriculture informing him that his farm had been graded to 'A' class and thanking him for his efforts for having improved it to such an extent as to lift it from the 'C' category.A really first-rate performance, and the Minister of Agriculture was quite right to send his congratulations.The other was from the Ministry of Works"—acting on behalf of the right hon. Gentleman—informing him that boring for opencast coal mining is to he carried out any time after receipt of the letter.[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman may care nothing for the lot of the humble farmer, but we on this side do. Bitter indeed are the hardships suffered by many farmers, and particularly tenant farmers, through opencast mining operations. Their earning power is sharply reduced, and in some cases their livelihood is taken away without any compensation. The man who lived or still lives in his farmhouse while opencast operations are going on leads an almost intolerable life, almost as bad as dwelling in Southern Korea. The roar of machinery goes on day and night and blasting operations often damage his house.
A great number of farmers are now deeply apprehensive about the future, because they are haunted by the fear of requisitioning. A notice may be thrust upon them at any time. This is thoroughly bad for British agriculture, because, without confidence, farmers cannot give of their best to the nation. Furthermore, despite what the Minister said today, farmers greatly doubt the effectiveness of the Ministry's land restoration and after-treatment methods. At the present time, there is no certainty that these methods will be permanently effective; there is even some doubt whether they will be temporarily effective.
The Minister mentioned the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, and, like me, he respects that splendid body which renders such unselfish service to the community. I wish he would read one of its recent reports. I shall oblige him with an extract:Shelterless fields with concrete and wire fences are a poor substitute for mature trees and young plantations, well-grown hedges and stone walls.2282 That is the judgment of an independent authority. I know that the Minister is a many-sided man. Does he think, from his obviously brief tenure of the Ministry of Fuel and Power, that he can replace oaks 300 or 400 years old? Does he suggest that he can rebuild ancient but stout walls as quickly as his excavators can destroy them? Of course, he will not make such a claim, because he realises the tremendous damage done by opencast mining operations.
Now let me say a few words about beautiful scenery or ancient parks devastated by opencast operations. I know that there are a number of thoughtless people and natural vandals who say that the preservation of the beauty of Britain is only of secondary importance by comparison with the nation's need to earn a living. All these utilitarian arguments can be countered by a solid material reason for not damaging our inheritance of beauty. Knowing that the Minister does care a little for the countryside, I was shocked that, in a passage of his speech today, he was using this material argument against the preservation of the countryside.
However, I will produce a really good, solid, material argument against opencast mining operation. Tourists visiting Britain spent at least £60 million here last year. If the authority of the Lord President goes unquestioned, £100 million may be spent here next year. Now that is a much greater price than we can ever hope to get from the sale of opencast coal, even if it were produced in three times the quantity now recorded by the Minister.
If we continue to allow places of great beauty such as Wentworth Woodhouse, mentioned by the Minister in his speech, to be desecrated by opencast operations, our tourist traffic is likely to diminish. It is sheer financial folly to damage one of Britain's best assets, which is tourism, because of absenteeism and failure. I must explain this word "tourism." It is one of the new words I picked up from the vocabulary of the Socialist Ministry. What it means is earnings of the tourist industry. Why cast away the prospect of increasing those earnings because of the strange operations of the opencast excavators under the Minister's authority?
Why is it necessary to go on with opencast mining operations? We have been 2283 given the reason by Lord Hyndley. It is because of absenteeism and the failure to work all out the costly machinery that has been introduced into the pits in order to increase production. On material grounds, there is everything to be said against mutilating a part of England's loveliness by opencast operations. There are other and greater objections. We have, indeed, been careless of our heritage of beauty. Many hundreds of beautiful Elizabethan, William and Mary, Georgian and Queen Anne houses and churches have been defaced or pulled down during the last century, and much beautiful scenery has been destroyed. No other country in the world would have committed this vandalism.
§ Mr. Bracken
I hope that the hon. Member is not taking the Minister as an apostle of private enterprise.
As I say, we have lost a great deal during the last 100 years, and the malice of the enemy during the last war added to our loss of things of beauty. Surely, the time has come to put an end to this vandalism. "This other Eden, this blessed spot" has lost much of its beauty since Shakespeare's day.
§ Sir Richard Acland (Gravesend)
Has not that destruction been done by private enterprise up to now?
§ Mr. Bracken
In fact, that is not the case. I am very sorry to say that among the worst vandals in Britain are the city fathers, whether Socialist or Tory, and the hon. Baronet really should not bite the hand that fed him because he is a prosperous example of private enterprise and land at its best.
The Government announced that opencast mining operations would end in 1947. That was a promise given by the Government. Later on, they abandoned this pledge and said it would end in 1949. We are now told that it will end in 1951.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Robens)
Would the right hon. Gentleman give his authority for the statements he has just made?
§ Mr. Bracken
The hon. Gentleman is obviously in touch with his Department on social occasions. If opencast operations are to continue into 1952, what a prospect for British agriculture and the amenities of the countryside. Listening to the Minister today, one is almost sorry for him. He confesses his helplessness to prevent this damage caused by opencast operations. Well, there is one thing he can do. Before instructions to requisition more land for opencast mining operations are issued to farmers, a public inquiry should be held in respect of each site at which all who raised objections could have their say. Will the Minister agree to this, and will he agree that opencast operations should not take place within a quarter of a mile of the site of dwelling-houses? Will the Minister give that pledge?
§ Mr. Robens indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Henry White (Derbyshire. North-East)
Would the right hon. Gentleman be logical in his argument—as he is so eager to prevent the spoliation of the beauty spots of the countryside—and close down Rufford and Thorsby pits where the pit tips have already spoiled parts of Sherwood Forest, the surrounds of the "Major Oak," and the beauty of the home of Robin Hood and parts of Nottinghamshire?
§ Mr. Bracken
Robin Hood was an admirable man by comparison with the right hon. Gentleman. At any rate, he gave back something that he took to the poor, whereas the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues merely batten upon 2285 them. If the Minister could agree to the two modest suggestions I have put to him, I can assure him that these concessions would be of great value. We heard from the Minister a rather long digression about the close contact he has with other Ministries who have a direct or indirect interest in opencast mining operations. I quoted the case of agriculture, and I need not say any more about that.
Would the Minister tell us something about his relationships with the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, that costly Cinderella? Its first duty, we were told, was to help to preserve things of beauty against the rippers employed by the right hon. Gentleman. At the present time, they are spending great sums on the creation of national parks, while lovely parks and tracts of fine country are being scarred by the Ministry of Fuel and Power.
The Minister of Works has also undischarged responsibilities for preserving fine buildings and amenities, and yet he is actually the instrument used by the Minister of Fuel and Power for requisitioning the land needed for opencast mining operations. While these Ministries sulk in squalid isolation, grievous harm is being done to this dear land of ours.
§ Mr. Bracken
I am very surprised that the hon. Member should use such language to Major Milner. I do not think that Major Milner, on his own behalf or on behalf of anybody else, has ever done anything such as hon. Gentleman has suggested.
There is a useful service that the right hon. Gentleman can render during his term of office. Let him do everything in his power to see that opencast operations are ended as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Percy Wells (Faversham)
Would the right hon. Gentleman make that request also in regard to the extraction of chalk for the manufacture of cement?
§ Mr. Bracken
It would be out of order if I were to do so. I have a much greater respect for the Chair than has the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Bracken
The hon. Gentleman from Birmingham is a perpetual nuisance. He should try to catch the Chairman's eye and make his speech later on. [An HON. MEMBER: "I wish you would."] I am quite embarrassed by this desire of the Opposition that should make another speech, but I am not a prima donna, and I am not coming back to the halls until another occasion.
If the Minister will put an end to opencast mining operations, everybody in this country will recognise that there was some thought in the Prime Minister's mind when he sent him to his present office. I think, too, that the Minister is really in agreement with this side of the Committee in our view that most of the opencast mining operations are a great evil. I agree that in certain sections of the country, particularly in Lanarkshire, there is quite a good case to be made for opencast mining operations, because it does not destroy agricultural land or the beauty of the countryside. Most of these opencast mining operations, however, are a great evil. They are another example of the harm done to Britain abroad and at home, by her failure to produce deep-mined coal: and so I hope the Minister will make his term of office memorable by abolishing most opencast mining operations before 1951.
§ 4.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Ronald Williams (Wigan)
There have been occasions when the wit and the charm of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Bracken) have captivated the Committee: but one of the consequences of his having occasionally achieved this, is to put him in the position that he has certain standards up 10 which he should make a serious attempt to rise. I believe that I am right in saying that, certainly on this side of the Committee, and probably on the other side, there is a feeling that he did not rise to the occasion today.
I have a great deal of sympathy with him on this occasion. It seems to me that he would have felt much happier had he been complimenting and congratulating the Government on their general policy 2287 but venturing a few criticisms as to particular parts of the country here and there, rather than making a laboured attempt to castigate them when he knew full well that a great contribution had been made to our national economy by the very methods of opencast mining which he attempted so feebly to criticise.
In the course of his remarks he was obliged to resort to the most far-fetched arguments. The first line that should be drawn relates to the approach we should make to this subject—whether we should say this is a vital and important national problem, or whether we should say this is a grand and glorious opportunity for us to exploit the frustrations and bad temper which people very naturally feel in our constituencies when they find they are subject to the difficulties that arise from opencast coal mining. The right hon. Gentleman has chosen the second when he could have done much better by choosing the first. I sincerely hope that before he makes another speech on opencast mining he will come to me in the Library or some other place, and I will give him a few hints on how to make it.
§ Mr. Bracken
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for his invitation. Is he speaking in his capacity as legal adviser to the National Union of Mineworkers? If he is, he is a very biased party, and he ought to have declared his interest at the beginning of his speech.
§ Mr. Williams
To which I would reply that the right hon. Gentleman clearly indicates the weakness of his case by attempting to abuse the attorney on the other side. The right hon. Gentleman has taken a certain line to make it appear as if the extent to which opencast mining takes place in this country is such that there are people in New York and elsewhere who say, "We would like to go to England but we will not go because of the opencast coal mining. The right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch has told us that, if we go there, it will be like going to Southern Korea. Blasting operations and so on are done so inconsiderately by the Ministry that there is no regard for amenities and convenience at all. The United Kingdom is a place to avoid, on the authority of that right hon. Gentleman." If he thinks he is helping this country nationally by 2288 that sort of argument, I beg him to think again.
I would remind him that very much stronger arguments in regard to tourism could be made today by hon. Members from mining constituencies. They would refer not to temporary measures to which we have to resort to help our national economy along, but to the unplanned chaos, the anarchy of the pre-war years and the generations of neglect. If he wants to see parts of the country where there is no beauty at all, but where there was once beauty, where amenities have been destroyed and trampled underfoot, I shall be delighted to take him there and add to his political education in these matters. Quite obviously, he very sadly needs somebody to take him by the hand, if he thinks that vandalism is something which has occurred since opencast mining came into operation in 1942.
§ Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)
Does the hon. Member seriously suggest that what is being done now to destroy the countryside, combined with what was done in the past, is not sending tourists to the Continent instead of to this country?
§ Mr. Williams
The answer to that is quite clearly that there are probably more people wanting to come to the United Kingdom today, to see its places of beauty and to study its way of life, than ever before, and that there are far more people who want to come here to stay permanently than ever before. That is surely the answer. If the hon. Member has a number of cases where he knows people have said, "We will not go to the United Kingdom to study the conditions there and try to enjoy ourselves, because there is opencast mining there," then, if he catches your eye, Major Milner, perhaps he will cite those cases.
In the absence of evidence from him, and from the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch, who tried to make this point and also quoted no instance at all, we can only assume that these are assertions that cannot be supported, are a sort of vague feeling that if one were going to a particular resort, and there is no opencast mining there now, one would be inclined to pick another resort if opencast mining started. That may be so, but there is no evidence at all. The hon. Member 2289 for Twickenham and the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch know this very well.
If it is necessary for them to resort to this sort of argument, surely the Committee will say, "Why is it necessary, since opencast mining, of all subjects, is the one on which it is the easiest to attack the Government, because nobody likes opencast mining as such?" Everybody recognises that it is a damnably unpleasant and dirty business, and so is deep mining, too. Nobody likes it. It is not a vote-catching policy to proceed with opencast mining, and His Majesty's Government know that as well as anybody else. They have to stand up to attacks, not only from the opposite side of the Committee but from this side as well, from hon. Members who are under pressure from their constituents.
Surely, the right attitude to take as responsible legislators is this: when one meets with that sort of difficulty one should ask what is the national approach. What answer can be made? Is this just a case of a Ministry which cares nothing for the amenities of the countryside—a group of materialists concerned only with tearing coal out of the earth, regardless of the consequences? The right hon. Gentleman knows that that is not so. He knows that if he were in the place of my right hon. Friend at the moment, which God forbid, while we are in power, he would be obliged to carry on opencast mining, for reasons which I will give in a moment.
§ Mr. Bracken
God forbid that I should be in the situation to which the hon. Gentleman referred, in the present Government.
§ Mr. Bracken
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the only reason for these opencast mining operations is that members of the union to which he belonged will not use machinery in the pits and will not give up striking and absenteeism.
§ Mr. Williams
Great as were the depths to which the right hon. Gentleman sank in attempting to put his case, he has now sunk to greater depths, because he knows that that is absolute nonsense.
§ Mr. Williams
In reply to that point, I would say that when it suits the right hon. Gentleman he refers to Lord Hyndley and his colleagues, who are doing such a magnificent job, as "those old gentlemen at Hobart House," and on other occasions, when he thinks it suits his case, he quotes them as authorities upon a particular point. He thereby discredits himself, and we on this side of the Committee do not pay the slightest attention to what he has said on this point.
§ Mr. Williams
Let us see why it is necessary to proceed with opencast mining. I have said it is wrong to concentrate on the constituency side and exploit the grievances and frustrations of constituents, and make that the basis of an attack upon the Government. But there is one point I should like to make from the constituency standpoint, and it is that, like many others, I have had to make representations to the Ministry, and I want to put it on record that the Ministry have always done a magnificent job considerately and sympathetically, even when it was most difficult to deal with the points submitted to them.
Let us leave the constituency aspect and consider the matter from the standpoint of the nation. I take it that every hon. Member will agree that our future depends upon increased production of coal.
§ Mr. Williams
To argue about the causes is, for the purposes of this point, an irrelevancy. We are agreed then that our future depends upon the maximum production of coal. Between 1942 and February, 1950, we have had 67,600,000-odd tons of coal from this source. So that what the right hon. Gentleman suggests, if he says that there should not be opencast production, is that he wants the standard of living of people in this country reduced to that extent; or, if not to that extent, at any rate obviously reduced, unless he or some of his supporters can show an alternative source from which the coal which would be lost if we did not have opencast working, could be provided.
It is no good hon. Members opposite talking about absenteeism, strikes and all the rest of it. If they were in power today there would be absenteeism and strikes at 2291 such a rate that it would horrify the world. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Let us not get excited about that. Hon. Members opposite have made the clearest pronouncements in the country that they will have little talks with the trade unions about the most highly controversial matters. It is they who have said it. It is they who have declared war, and not the trade unions. I say that their irresponsibility would lead, as it led before, to industrial strife which would be unavoidable. But suppose we did not have industrial strife. Is it suggested by hon. Members opposite that it is possible to run any industry without any absenteeism at all? That is not a defence of absenteeism, but I am saying that we must accept certain things as facts.
It is a fact that there is a shortage of coal for our requirements, and upon that point we all agree. Never mind what the reasons are; there is that shortage. Consequently, every ton of coal we can produce by any means is absolutely essential. Let us look at some important figures and consider the relationships between them. I refer to the figures in relation to our export trade and the figures in relation to opencast coal. I do not suggest for one moment that because we have got opencast coal it is being sold abroad. That is not the point. It supplements other sources of supply and makes available for export supplies which otherwise would not be available.
I will take the figures from 1945; and let me assure the Committee that I make no implied criticism as far as the predecessors of this Government are concerned. I am merely giving these as the figures, taking 1945 as the starting point: 8.12 million tons from opencast mining, 6.4 million tons exports and bunkers; 1946, 8.83 million tons opencast, 9.2 million tons exports and bunkers; 1947, 10.25 million tons opencast, 5.4 million tons exports and bunkers; 1948, 11.75 million tons opencast, 15.9 million tons exports and bunkers; 1949 12.44 million tons opencast, 19 million tons exports and bunkers.
I am going to put to the Parliamentary Secretary as grave a question as I can. Never mind who is to blame or who is to be praised for the present position. If, in fact, we accepted the point of view put 2292 by the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch, and stopped opencast mining at the present time, obviously we would lose these export markets but, what is worse—and this the gravest point of all—this country would be obliged to import coal, and that would have a shattering effect upon our economy.
Because I consider that the matter is as serious as that, I beg hon. Members opposite to take an entirely different line, however hard they may criticise the Government. I say to them: for Heaven's sake approach this desperately difficult and grave matter from the national standpoint instead of trying to make cheap debating points at the expense of other speakers, and thinking that that answers the question. I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary replies he will indicate whether I am too pessimistic in assuming that if the policy of opencast mining were not continued this country would be perilously near having to import coal. For this nation to be obliged to do that would be a tragedy.
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)
In spite of the Minister's attempts to excuse the damage done and in spite of the plea by the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. R. Williams) that this housemaid's baby was only a little one, I assert that opencast working is the most devastating process which our countryside has ever suffered unnecessarily.
The Minister's contrast in cash values is fallacious. We were told the other day—I do not think the Minister mentioned it today—that 72 million tons of coal had been produced by opencast workings since 1942. That represents 11 weeks' consumption. In obtaining that 72 million tons, the Minister told us on 1st May that 51,000 acres of agricultural land had been taken. Today, however, the Minister said that only 20,000 acres had been excavated. I cannot reconcile that figure with his statement of 1st May that 28,000 acres had been restored. If only 20,000 acres have been excavated, how can 28,000 be restored?
§ Mr. P. Noel-Baker
One has to restore a good deal of land which has not been excavated. It is damaged a little by the workings around, but the subsoil is not removed. The top soil and subsoil have 2293 been removed from only 20,000 acres. The present figures are-14,000 acres actually back in the hands of the farmers and 14,000 acres being restored.
§ Mr. Keeling
I am glad to hear that, but I should like to know how much of the remainder of the 51,000 acres requisitioned will be excavated?
§ Mr. Keeling
I am very glad to hear that. Continuing my argument, I say that the value of whether it be 51,000 acres or 28,000 acres or 20,000 acres, which have been damaged; the value of that acreage of fertile land is simply incalculable, not only because of the food-producing value but also because of the amenities, which cannot be priced. The Minister himself. mentioned Wentworth Woodhouse and I suggest that the desolation around Wentworth Woodhouse, which was a park open to the public—one of the lungs in that industrial area—cannot be remedied for at least 100 years or maybe fur 200 years.
We were told on 1st May that another 30,000 acres, in addition to the 51,000 acres, may be requisitioned. They include at least four areas of exceptionally beautiful country—in South Shropshire; at Staunton Harold in Leicestershire, where the charming setting of that lovely house may share the fate of Wentworth Woodhouse; at Hazelhurst Farm in the Sheffield Green Belt; and in West Worcestershire.
§ Mr. Robens
Is the hon. Member mentioned Wentworth Woodhouse. Has he seen Wentworth Woodhouse since it was restored and, if he has, would he give a candid opinion of what it appears to be now?
§ Mr. Keeling
I was there last year and I cannot understand how the Parliamentary Secretary can possibly suggest that all the trees which were cut down a few years ago have grown up again.
§ Mr. Robens
Is the hon. Member not aware that a good many of the trees which were cut down had already reached maturity and that new plantings are taking place.
§ Mr. Keeling
Yes, I know, but I do not think anyone would seriously suggest that the park of Wentworth Woodhouse can possibly be restored for a great many 2294 years. Finally, there is West Worcestershire, where the Abberley Hills, with their splendid views of Shropshire and the Welsh mountains, are also threatened.
The Minister admitted that this was all very disfiguring but only. he said, for a certain time. I contend that the disfigurement goes on for a very uncertain time; I say that it goes on indefinitely. That is our complaint. I cannot understand how the Minister can talk about "a certain time'' when. not very long ago, a committee was set up to investigate the restoration of land and it was stated that it would take three years for them to report. How can it be necessary to set up a committee which will not report for three years if there is no doubt that the land can be restored?
I quote from a statement by the County Agricultural Adviser in Derbyshire who said thatin his experience, after treatment by opencast working, land had never been successfully restored and in no case could restored land be usefully ploughed.He described "restored" land as an impervious subsoil compacted by the heaviest of machinery upon which five or so inches of top soil was returned, forming a crust which might grow some grass but through which cows might drive their hooves and which certainly could not be ploughed. There are 17 counties already involved.
§ Mr. Robens
Does the hon. Gentleman accept the view which he has now quoted? If so, would he be prepared to come with me to see land which has been restored, which has been ploughed many times and which is growing crops?
§ Mr. Keeling
I do not pretend to be a farmer, but I am quoting from a man who is an expert. Certainly I shall be very glad to go with the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas (The Wrekin)
Would the hon. Gentleman tell the House in which part of the country are these sections of land about which he is complaining on the authority of his informant?
§ Mr. Keeling
The statement of the Derbyshire officer was that in his experience this was not possible, and I presume he was referring to Derbyshire or to the surrounding country, although I do not know.
§ Mr. Thomas
If this is brought forward as evidence as a result of opencast mining, I think the Committee are entitled to know where these spots are situated about which these complaints are made so that investigations may be made by the Minister.
§ Mr. Keeling
It is not specified in the statement and I am afraid I cannot give the hon. Member any further information. As I said, already 17 counties are involved and in some of them the damage has already been done, but the storms of protest about the future are unabated in Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Flintshire, the West Riding, Northumberland, South Shropshire and West Worcestershire. Those are local interests, but we have also had many protests from national societies such as the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the National Federation of Women's Institutes, to which the Minister referred.
I thought my right hon. Friend was too optimistic about how long this will continue, because on 1st May we were told that it would go on for at least four more years. The Minister sought to pooh-pooh the loss to agriculture. I say that the long-term value of the crops, including the timber, is of far greater value than the once-for-all benefit of coal mined in this way, to the ruin, or partial ruin, of good agricultural land.
My right hon. Friend gave one material reason—the loss of tourism—why this should not continue. I will give another material reason. Why should this opencast working go on in peace? One suspects that it is to make up for some of the £14 million loss which was incurred before this year, by keeping the expensive machinery employed. But these coal resources form a strategic reserve to be exploited for the very purpose for which they were exploited during the war. I suggest that this very valuable strategic reserve should not be dissipated in peace, any more than our reserve taxable capacity should be dissipated in peace.
§ 4.59 p.m.
§ Mr. David Griffiths (Rother Valley)
should have been deeply delighted at last to hear a case why the Minister should dissociate himself from and terminate opencast coal mining, but I have not heard a case made yet either 2296 by the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Bracken) or by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling)—although I have been interested to hear the instances they have mentioned, and amused to hear their arguments. They were talking about the question of opencast coal mining interfering with the tourist trade. That is an extreme absurdity, because tourists do not visit mining areas where opencast coal is won. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]
§ Mr. Nabarro rose—
§ Mr. Griffiths
I am not giving way. I am having only five minutes, because I shall give other hon. Members an opportunity to take part in this Debate.
Wentworth Woodhouse happens to be in my division, and I know it better than hon. Gentlemen opposite. I was born there. Hon. Members opposite are always making party capital out of it, but hon. Members opposite are not relatives of the distinguished people who live at Wentworth Woodhouse. I say that with every degree of surety. Their motive in talking about Wentworth Woodhouse is a purely political motive. The Countess herself, who is still in residence there, and any relatives who have been approached, have publicly stated that they have no objection whatsoever to the excavation of opencast coal if it is for the benefit of the nation.
I submit to the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch and to the hon. Member for Twickenham and to their colleagues that this coal is necessary for the welfare and economic prosperity of the nation, and that it is cowardice on their part to talk as they do about Wentworth Woodhouse in face of the facts of the situation. I submit, moreover, that we on this side of the Committee are as anxious as they that the country shall not be spoiled, and that when the opencast work is finished the land affected shall be restored afterwards at the earliest possible moment.
§ Mr. Bracken
I think the hon. Gentleman told us he was on very good terms with Countess Fitzwilliam. What he should have told us was that the President of the Yorkshire Miners' Federation strongly protested about the 2297 disfigurement of Wentworth Woodhouse. Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that the owners of this house have no objection to having their property cut to pieces through this opencast work?
§ Mr. Griffiths
I did not say at all that I was in close touch with the Countess, but I happen to be better acquainted with the Yorkshire Miners' Federation than hon. Members opposite.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I know what the President's attitude was. It was the wrong attitude. He said en behalf—as he said—of the Yorkshire miners that he was going to prevent the work from being done if he could. He did not succeed, and what he said was not in keeping with what the Countess and her relatives said, though it may have been with what the political friends of hon. and right hon. Gentleman opposite wanted. There are there eight feet of the finest coal in this land, with only 20 feet of overburden—coal which can be won more economically than coal in any other field in this country.
§ Mr. Keeling
If it is true that the President of the Yorkshire branch of the National Union of Mineworkers said that, what becomes of the hon. Gentleman's statement that this is a political agitation from this side of the Committee?
§ Mr. Griffiths
He was speaking on his own initiative, and was not in keeping with some of his colleagues as officials of the Yorkshire Miners Federation. [HON. MEMBERS: "Aha."] Aha, indeed; but I think it can be safely said that if we want evidence of that, it is amply proved by hon. Members opposite. We are always sure of one thing. They always voted together in the Lobby though they may disagree, in which case each one says he is speaking for himself and not for his party.
What I submit finally is this. All the land has been restored, and not only at Wentworth Woodhouse. I have more knowledge of this case than any hon. Member opposite. I want to be fair about this. I was born in that area, and I did not just see it when I was passing by in a train like the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch. I give one point to the hon. Member for 2298 Twickenham. He said it is impossible to replace trees. I agree. However, I want to say quite seriously that the land that has been restored is under better cultivation, and a lot of it will be better pasture land than it has ever been before. While I recognise the necessity, for the salvation of this nation, of winning this opencast coal, and that the work must continue, I do urge my right hon. Friend to finish it, and to restore the land afterwards, at the earliest possible moment.
§ 5.5 p.m.
§ Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
I was enchanted at the thought of the Parliamentary Secretary wandering on Newcastle Town Moor looking at the cows cropping the grass in that part of the moor which has been subjected to opencast coal mining. May I say with all sincerity that I belong up there, and that I have wandered on the Town Moor ever since the days of my childhood. The grass is newly growing on that moor, but I should like to suggest that, perhaps, the Parliamentary Secretary would care to wander with me in his old haunts—which are, I am glad to say, now in my constituency—and see the devastation and hear of the annoyance which have been caused to that part of the world.
I want to say this, in all fairness: I think it is tremendously important that we should try to approach this problem from the national and not from a political point of view. I think we all agree that opencast coal mining is a tremendous scourge which a great many parts of the country have had to bear. However, I think it ought to be approached really from the point of view of whether, now that the war is over, it is essential to carry on with it, and, indeed to open up new areas for the work.
The right hon. Gentleman, in his opening speech, based his case on the fact that it was essential in the national interest that we should have this opencast coal for our domestic needs and export requirements. I want to point out that in the days before the war deep mined coal was providing a greater tonnage than the total amount raised today both by deep mining and opencast coal mining. In fact, before the war the production of deep mined coal was limited only by the markets we could find in which to sell the coal. I want to have put on record. in this Debate, the coal tonnages that 2299 were produced in the years from 1935 to 1939. In 1935 we raised 222 million tons of deep mined coal; in 1936, 228 million tons; in 1937, 240 million tons; in 1938, 227 million tons; and in 1939, 231 million tons.
§ Miss Ward
The second point I want to make is this. The right hon. Gentleman told us we are now making a profit on opencast coal mining, and I am very glad indeed to hear so. Of course, it is perfectly true that when we embark on a new scheme the initial expenses are very much higher than are the expenses when we have got into an even flow of production, and I think the right hon. Gentleman has every right to be glad and proud that we have managed, apparently, to raise the coal at a profit rather than at a loss.
It would be reassuring to everybody if the Minister could issue a White Paper setting out all the different areas which have been opened up, showing which areas produce good opencast coal and which areas produce bad opencast coal. My recollection is—I am speaking now without having looked the matter up, as I had no idea the Parliamentary Secretary intended to refer to the Newcastle Town Moor—that the coal from the Newcastle Town Moor was not of such good quality as that produced in other areas. I should like to know whether the right hon. Gentleman could give us a comparison of the calorific values of opencast coal and deep-mined coal over a general range.
In addition, I should like to see set out in detail comparisons of the costs and qualities of coal from the different sites which have been opened up. That would be very valuable, because I know from what I have heard from those who are expert in this matter that there is a very wide variation, and I am bound to say that I think some mistakes have been made in the sites which have been opened up for opencast coal working.
2300 My next point is in connection with the controversy over agricultural land. I have noticed, in all the exchanges of views that have gone on between hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, that nobody has referred to the fact that valuable house building land has also been sterilised by opencast coal mining operations. The nearer one gets to urban, or indeed to industrial areas—and this applies to my own constituency—the nearer one gets to centres of population, the greater the danger of the sterilisation of land for house building. It must be very obvious to everybody that I am not an expert in this, but I have tried to learn from the experts, and I am told by those who have the responsibility of selecting land for house building that they would not care to embark on a building programme on land which has been subjected to opencast coal mining, and that the land will have to settle for a very long period before any local authority will embark on a house building programme there.
I should very much like to know what the Parliamentary Secretary has to say about that, because very many areas that I know are very short of suitable land for house building. If the Ministry of Fuel and Power will co-ordinate with the Ministry of Health, they may find that some of the reasons why local authorities in the North, which I know very well, have not been able to take up their full allocation of houses are due to the fact that no suitable land has been available. I am not saying that that is necessarily land which has been subjected to opencast coal mining, but there is a very great deal in this point and, I should like it to be dealt with by the Parliamentary Secretary when he replies to the Debate.
I think that the agricultural side has been extremely well covered, but I noticed the other day, at Question time, when the Minister was challenged on the matter of agriculture by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Colonel Gomme-Duncan), who asked whether the Minister was aware that opencast coal mining was wrecking agriculture at the present time, and whether he did not want food as well as coal, the right hon. Gentleman replied:No, Sir; I am not aware of anything of the kind. If the hon. and gallant Member will be good enough to be here on Wednesday 2301 I hope we may discuss the matter."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th July, 1950; Vol. 477, c. 1832.]The right hon. Gentleman has now said that opencast mining is interfering with agriculture, though he has made the point that it is only temporarily; he has, in fact, confirmed exactly what my hon. and gallant Friend said in his supplementary question.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
To mine any mineral resources of the country—deep-mined coal, gravel, sand or clay, whatever it may be—must interfere with agriculture to some extent. What I said was that we were not devastating agriculture. Indeed, we are interfering with it much less than in the case of other things—sand, gravel, and so on—for which a much larger acreage has been desecrated for all time.
§ Miss Ward
I hesitate to keep on handing out invitations to the right hon. Gentleman, though no doubt he will probably be very willing to accept them, but I extend to him another invitation. If, when he comes up to my division, to take part in this other dispute, he will allow me to take him a little further out, I can show him farmers living in very tiny areas with one or two fields surrounding their homesteads, and the rest of their farmland under opencast coal mining.
Let me just go one step further—because remember, I come from the centre of a mining community; I am not a newcomer to mining. In the old days deep-mined coal operations did not interfere with agricultural land; agriculture went on on top of the pits, and the only problem was that of subsidence. Farmers could continue to grow crops on top of land under which deep-mined coal operations were going on.
The difference, of course, between deep-mine coal operations and opencast coal mining is that deep-mine coal operations do not interfere with the growing of crops whereas opencast coal mining does; valuable agricultural land, fields which were growing crops, is cut up in order to carry out these operations. I think that the right hon. Gentleman might, if I may say so with very great respect, be a little more knowledgeable on the subject before he comes down to the Committee to discuss it in the way he has.
My final point is this: I want a categorical assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary that people whose houses have 2302 been damaged, whether severely or slightly, by the operation of opencast coal-mining will not be subjected to the same treatment as those who suffered war damage. In identical manner it may be some considerable time before the damage makes itself felt in those areas which are surrounded by opencast coal-mining, and where blasting operations have taken place. I know the right hon. Gentleman has told us—and I accept his word—that the damage is covered under a Defence Regulation, but I want an assurance that we shall not be told that because people have not put in an application at a specific time, they will be debarred from claiming what is their legitimate right and due. I should be glad if the Parliamentary Secretary would deal with that.
That is all I have to say on this matter today. I think the right hon. Gentleman would get greater sympathy from those of us who are really interested in the export trade and in the national situation if he could relate this whole question of the drop in production of deep-mined coal a little more closely to the need for the emphasis on opencast coal-mining.
§ 5.19 p.m.
§ Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)
I wish to make reference to one or two remarks that have fallen from the lips of hon. Members opposite before I proceed to make one or two suggestions to the Ministry of Fuel and Power on the question of opencast coal-mining. The right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Bracken), who always entertains us when he is speaking upon mining subjects, has accused the Minister or his Department of vandalism on the countryside. So have I. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) made reference to opencast mining in these words, "Opencast mining has the most devastating effect on our countryside."
I have been thinking, while I have been sitting here, what the position was in South-West Lancashire under private enterprise, when they filled the countryside with pit heaps and flashes of water. They are still there. I took the trouble a few months ago to try to find out the acreage under pit heaps and the acreage under water in an urban district in my area, and I discovered to my amazement, as did the surveyor and the engineer, 2303 that there were 4½ acres per head of the population under pit heaps and under water in that district. They remain to this day. Now the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch and the hon. Member for Twickenham come along and accuse the Minister of Fuel and Power and the opencast mining branch of vandalism and devastating the countryside.
I would point out that the opencast mining branch, with all its faults and failings, will at least, when the opportunity present itself, make it possible for the land to be restored again to its original state. Therefore, there is a vast difference between the approach to this question by the Minister of Fuel and Power and the opencast mining branch and the approach that was made by private enterprise in the years gone by. The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward) was trying to make a comparison between the output of deep-mined coal 1938 and 1939 and the years preceding, but she failed to tell the House of the manpower which produced the output which she quoted. There is a vast difference between the manpower employed today in the pits in the production of coal and what it was in 1936, 1937 and 1938.
§ Mr. Brown
I am bound to agree that there has been some improvement in the mechanisation of the mining industry over the last 25 years. I am not disputing that. As an ex-miner, I know all about that. What I am finding fault with is that the hon. Lady made a statement about the output of deep-mined coal and failed to give the House and the public at large the number of men employed at that time and the number of pits. She put a question as to the number of regions and the quality of the coal.
At the present moment there are 10 regions in which opencast operations are taking place. There are 133 sites, and I suggest that every person surrounding those sites is dissatisfied. We have a saying in Lancashire, if we do not like a thing, that "We hate it as the devil hates holy water," and we on this side of the House and the miners in par- 2304 -ticular in the districts where opencast mining takes place hate it, and the Government hate it; but, after all, we have to be realists and if coal is essential to the industrial prosperity of this country, then coal has to be won, whether by deep-mining or by opencast methods.
I think that no truer words have been written on this subject than those on 13th May, 1950, by Mervyn Jones which appeared in the "New Statesman"—by no means a Socialist paper—and this is what he said:This opencast coal, won at financial loss but cheaply in manpower, and, above all, without sudden death and creeping disease, stood during the critical war and post-war years between British industry and breakdown.If it had not been for opencast coal production in the post-war period, British industry would certainly have broken down. I will tell the House why. It is obvious to all in this Chamber who take an interest in these matters that we could not produce the coal from the deep mines, not because the men were not capable of doing it, but because a large number of the mines which were in existence and in commission prior to the war had gone out of commission owing to private enterprise during the inter-war years 1918–38.
In my own county of Lancashire, we had during the inter-war years 232 mines closed down. We had a mining population of over 19,000 men and boys. We had 19 pits in full commission in the district in which I live, and today we have not a wheel turning, and our mining population has gone down to about 4,000 men and boys. I do not want to indulge in recriminations, but, in my judgment, the reason why the Government have had to resort to opencast mining is because private enterprise failed to realise the position in the post-war years.
§ Mr. Brown
That will take place whether it is the Coal Board or anybody else. I want to tell the right hon. Member that the mines that were closed down in the period to which I refer were closed down because they failed to make the profit which was wanted by the owners, and for no other reason. I want to tell him also, as one who had the bitter experience of being a miner thrown on to 2305 the streets for nine months, that I could not secure a job along with 1,237 of my colleagues because the mine owners could not get the extra profits which they thought were essential to continue the mines. These things have created bitterness which will not be erased.
§ Mr. Brown
I have referred to Mervyn Jones writing in the "New Statesman." He went on to say:Whatever the objections are to opencast mining, they cannot detract from the service it has rendered during the war and the post-war years.We cannot detract from the service which it has rendered since its inception, which came from the Opposition. I am not finding fault. I recall that as an hon. Member of this House Mr. Braithwaite was responsible for the initiation of opencast mining to meet the needs of the nation at that time.
§ Mr. Brown
We can rule that right out. Since its inception as a means of producing coal, opencast coal mining has produced for this nation since 1942, 72½ million tons up to the 8th June, 1950.
As one who has been employed in the mining industry over a long period, I shudder to think what would have been the position of industry and the domestic consumer had it not been made possible to supplement deep-mined coal with opencast coal. Industry, in my judgment, would have been in a sorry plight. I am not going to quote the figures because I have not the time at my disposal, but I want to make a plea to the Minister to approach the Treasury and ask them to be more liberal in the compensation paid to the small farmer whose livelihood is taken away as a result of opencast mining.
§ Mr. Brown
I want to give one or two illustrations to show what I have in mind concerning tenant farmers. We have to remember that farmers have been striving for years to bring their land into increased productivity. Some of them have spent 30 to 50 years in doing that, and they have now reached the time when their land is at the acme of productivity. It is a tragedy when someone comes along and says that he is going to confiscate the land because the coal beneath it is required.
§ Mr. Brown
I will just have a talk with the right hon. Gentleman and tell him one or two home truths, because he does not seem to understand the position.
Five out of the seven urban authorities in my constituency have opencast mining operations taking place in their area. Therefore, I know something about it, and so do my people. We have Orrits farm with approximately 60 acres, of which 54 acres have been taken away, leaving the farmer high and dry. Windy Arbour farm, with 160 acres, has had 70 acres taken away, leaving the farmer with a very poor margin upon which to earn a livelihood. Lower Billinge Lane farm has 61 acres, of which 51 have been requisitioned, and at Harvey House farm, with 52 acres, 46 have been requisitioned.
We have here a picture of the experience of these small farmers in districts where opencast mining is taking place. In my judgment, it is dishonest and unscrupulous, as well as being bad business, to take away land from which the farmer earns his livelihood without giving adequate compensation. [HON. MEMBERS "Hear, hear."] I like the cheers from Members opposite, but they do not inspire me one bit. There was a time when we pleaded to them in vain. I am pleading for these small farmers. I am not pleading for a feather-bed, but for compensation in return for the livelihood they have lost.
I want to raise another aspect with the Minister, and I know he understands what I am referring to. I do not want 2307 a niggardly approach to be made to people who claim compensation when their property has been damaged by blasting as a result of opencast mining operations. I have dealt with thousands of compensation cases in my lifetime, and I have had only two cases go to court. I think that none of the claims for compensation made by our people ought to go for a decision to a county court.
The position can only be satisfactory if there is a reasonable approach to the question of how much damage has been sustained by the owner of property adjoining an opencast site. I am hoping that as soon as humanly possible, the Government of the day, whether it be this Government or a Government of Members opposite, will shut down opencast mining operations. I know it cannot be done until we get the deep mines restored to a position where they can give the coal the nation needs without despoiling the countryside.
§ 5.37 p.m.
§ Lord Dunglass (Lanark)
I find myself in agreement with almost every word that was said by the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), and I hope during the short time I shall occupy the Committee to develop some of the points he has made. I do not think any of us who come from and live in districts producing coal, either deep-mined coal or coal from nearer the surface, will deny that this opencast tonnage we are at present getting is an absolute necessity. It seems to be beyond dispute that unless we have this tonnage the export trade or the consumer must go short of coal. Although this opencast coal is necessary at the present moment, it is none the less in every sense of the word a hideous necessity.
It is our objective, and I hope it is also the Minister's objective, to bring these operations to a conclusion at the earliest possible moment. It was in this connection that I thought the Minister's speech was lacking in a sense of urgency and determination. I think it was the Parliamentary Secretary who said there had been a rumour that this might go on until 1953. Perhaps, when he replies, he will be able to give us a possible date when he hopes to end this experiment.
As Members have said on both sides, there can be only one end to this experi- 2308 ment, and that is when the production of deep-mined coal is increased. That will only be possible if the recruiting schemes of the National Coal Board are successful. I would point out to the Parliamentary Secretary, however, that he will only get the young men to give a full weeks' work in the mines if he gets the Chancellor to relax the austerity conditions of the present day, and puts into the shops of the mining villages something on which the miner and his wife can spend their money, also relaxing high taxation and some of the burdens of P.A.Y.E.
I want to ask the Minister of Fuel and Power if he cannot adopt a procedure which would mitigate the hardship which is suffered at present by a good many people through this system of opencast mining. I am one. I had the arable portion of a farm ruined by opencast mining. What happened was this. On Friday the officials of the Ministry of Fuel and Power appeared on the ground and said they were going to begin operations on Monday. Our answer was decisive. We told them to get back into their cars, and that if they came back on to the land again we would take steps to see that they would not get out of their cars. We informed them that nothing was to be done until they gave us notice in writing. I do not want to make too much of that incident, because probably the practice is better now. It was a case of bad manners and was undesirable.
The hon. Member for Ince talked about hardship to the farmer, and I suggest that the Minister of Fuel and Power is not the person to assess the value of agricultural land or the desirability of operating on certain kinds of land. I am going to suggest that these operations should not be proceeded with until adequate notice has been given to three bodies—the county council, as the planning authority; the area agricultural committee, who knows the value of local agricultural land; and the owner and occupier of the land concerned. If that procedure were followed we should avoid a great deal of the hardship in the next few years which is bound to take place so long as this opencast mining proceeds. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will sympathetically consider these recommendations. While I believe that opencast coal mining is at present a necessity, let us end it as quickly as we can.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Pryde (Midlothian and Peebles)
In the time at my disposal. I should like to address myself to some of the comments which have emanated from hon. Members opposite, including the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Bracken). There is no one in this Committee who has a higher respect for the right hon. Gentleman than I have, and I always admire him most when he is batting on a sticky wicket. Two weeks in succession the Conservative Party have thrown him into the breach. It has been a bad fortnight for the right hon. Gentleman, and if I have to criticise him, he has only himself to blame.
I come from two counties which have something to say about opencast mining and deep mining. We have records of mining of coal, both opencast and deep. which take us back seven centuries, and without exaggeration I can tell this Committee that we could go on operating opencast mining in Midlothian and Peebles for another quarter of a century at the present rate, and still we would not exhaust the reserves of those two counties. because there we have more seams than anywhere else in Britain. Some hon. Members have talked about Wentworth Woodhouse, but have they ever heard of the depredations to Dryden House. the home of General Sir Simon Lockhart. which was deliberately destroyed by deep mining, because the 20 seams which lay beneath Dryden House were deliberately extracted?
Opencast mining has been condemned from the Opposition side because it disfigures the countryside. The right hon. Gentleman said that it was bad for tourism. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. D. Griffiths) said, people from abroad do not come to examine the pit-heaps or to see the miners' houses, where there are no sanitary conveniences. In the current issue of the National Coal Board's magazine. hon. Members opposite will find a very fine article entitled, "The Lovely Lothians and Lovelier Peeblesshire." We have opencast operations on a scale unprecedented in Scotland, and still we find it possible to restore the land to the same standard of cultivation as it had prior to being disturbed. Whether that will continue I am not in a position to say and nor is anyone else, but those farmers whom I have inter- 2310 viewed have told me that the only way to counteract this business is to see to it that the ground is fed. The soil must be treated well. The Ministry of Fuel and Power, in the eastern part of Scotland, have proved conclusively to me that they can restore the soil to as good a condition as it was before opencast operations, began.
The hon. Lady the Member for Tyne-mouth (Miss Ward) said that some doubted whether we needed opencast mining at all, and she gave some figures. in support of that. In my day in the mining industry there were over 3,000 collieries at work, in which one and a quarter million men were employed, but private ownership drove the men from the mines. When the National Coal Board took over, they had only 1,500 collieries and today there are only 699,000 men employed. That is where opencast coal can assist the drive for production in this country. We are dependent upon coal, because coal is the foundation of the whole structure of British industry. King Coal is going to be king for the next 40 years at least.
For opencast mining we do not require to train the skilled men whom we require in deep mining. The right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch, said that we are forced to do this because our people in the mines will not operate the mining machinery. I want to disabuse his mind of that. I am sorry that he is not here at the moment. In the Gorebridge district of Midlothians. we have the finest American machinery at work. It is the land of Annie S. Swan, the great novelist. There we have eight seams of the finest calorific coal, and 800 yards away deep mining is taking place at over 1,000 feet deep, with the finest British machinery that can be made in the workshops of this country. They are prepared for still more up-to-date scientific machines.
Men in that part of the world do not strike for nothing. At Polton colliery men have been known to stay out for six months, in 1919, when they had a reason. The miners of Arniston went on strike for a week because of a tyrannical foreman, and the coal company thought it better to keep the men at work than to keep the foreman. The men in that place have not been on strike since. The Opposition have no case with which to come to court.
2311 The only point of any logic which has been raised has been that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown). Every one of us representing mining constituencies has an affinity with the farming industry. We know of the struggle of the farmers, especially in the sterile parts of Scotland.
§ Mr. Pryde
Yes. Let me tell the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Sir W. Darling), that there is twice as much hill land in Scotland as in all England and Wales. We have 11 million acres of hill land and some of it is within 25 miles of Edinburgh. The hon. Gentleman does not require to go to the Highlands. He might come to Peeblesshire, where he will find upland farming.
§ Mr. Pryde
Farmers have had a grievance about opencast mining. The hon. Gentleman has already made that clear in the House by his activities. He has shown us that he is interested in opencast mining in relation to the farming industry, and he cannot deny it. Because of that, I am pointing out that in our own area, conditions in regard to opencast mining operate in such a fashion as to cause the farmer a degree of discomfort, inconvenience and loss. We say to the Minister of Fuel and Power that we think the tenant farmer has a case—not that I believe that the landowner has not a case. One noble Lord who is a Member of this Parliament, but not of this House of Commons, has large estates in Midlothian which are rich in coal. It will never be possible to operate deep mining to get that coal because the coal lies so near the surface that there can be no solid roof under which to operate. These things have to be taken into consideration.
If it is in the national interest to win coal, we must always be just in our dealings with the people whom we may be going to inconvenience. I am only adding my appeal to that of the hon. Member for Ince. Anyone who comes here from Scotland by the railway, passes 2312 the works of the London Brick Company. Is there anywhere in Britain so much depredation done to the surface of the soil as by the London Brick Company? At one colliery in Midlothian there are greater reserves of clay than ever they had in Fletton. Lanarkshire is a living monument of the inefficiency of capitalism in the coalfield. Lanarkshire today is a desert, with millions of tons of water threatening millions of tons of coal.
Underneath Glasgow there are 33 million tons of coal. [An HON. MEMBER: "Tell the Coal Board."] Beneath the City of Edinburgh it is the same. Hundreds of years ago, according to the records, coal was worked under one of the districts of Edinburgh. Would the Opposition have us operate that coal and destroy those great cities? Not that Glasgow could not do with it. I heard arguments advanced yesterday that the people of Glasgow might be allowed to keep hens in their back yards. There are some areas in that city which are not fit to keep pigs. This Committee should not criticise opencast mining so much, because the day may not be far away when we shall be glad to get the coal from places like the rich seams of Midlothian, where the coal is of the highest calorific quality in the world.
§ 5.55 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Commander Baldock (Harborough)
I should like to bring the attention of the Minister to opencast mining in Leicestershire and to the destruction already accomplished in our landscape. I cannot see the force of the arguments that our countryside has already been despoiled in other ages. Surely we can only make progress by avoiding our past mistakes. Many of us are prepared to admit mistakes in the past, but if we always continue to dc, what was done, there can be no improvement at all. We should learn our lesson.
In particular, I want to ask the Minister to give attention to Staunton Harold Hall with its chapel and lake. It is a house of great architectural beauty, and dates from Georgian times. With its surroundings, it is one of the pleasantest places in Leicestershire. It has been described as one of the most perfect things in the county. The whole of that house and surroundings are threatened with destruction and I put in the strongest possible 2313 plea to the Minister for reconsideration of the position. The house and surroundings should be preserved in their entirety. It is a little ironical that this destruction is threatened so soon after the presentation of the Gowers Report. It is a rather curious method of carrying out the recommendations of the Report for the preservation of worthwhile country houses to threaten this one with destruction. Are these places to be preserved with a view to subsequent sacrifice?
I appreciate that purely aesthetic arguments are unlikely to prevail even when coupled, as they have frequently been, with the attractions of the countryside to tourists. But there is a most important agricultural aspect of the matter as well. I was visited this morning by a farmer from my constituency who recently has been on a tour through the whole of Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, to examine opencast coal mining and the iron workings of Northamptonshire. He had a number of very sorry tales to tell. He told of a man formerly with 60 acres of land and now reduced to less than 12 acres on which he has to try to eke out a living. The reports that we have been reading in the local papers were absolutely confirmed by local inspection.
Those reports have mentioned the case in which cows have to walk six miles every day from their cowsheds to the fields where they graze, because of the intersection of the farm by the abysses and chasms that have been created. Some of the animals are so lame that they cannot leave the cowsheds at all. My visitor confirmed this, having seen it with his own eyes. He has seen so-called restored land. One piece was described as full of lumps of coal and lengths of wire rope. Another piece, apparently a show piece of restored land, was described as little more than a wet bog, of weeds. These are the scenes which have resulted from opencast mining in Leicestershire.
There is land near Ashby which was some of the first ever to be worked by the opencast process. It is supposed to have been restored six or seven years ago. but there are holes in it in which two or three men can completely disappear. That was a site which this farmer witnessed with his own eyes. The grass there was hardly visible for rubbish and weeds. A farmer 2314 with such land anywhere else in the country would have been down-graded to "C," and thrown out of his farm within 12 months by the Minister of Agriculture. The owner is known as a thoroughly good farmer, but that is the condition of the land six or seven years after so-called restoration.
My visitor also told me that the contrast with the ironstone workings in Northamptonshire was very noticeable. He said that in some cases, where the job had been done diligently, reasonably good crops were growing within two years of the restoration. Therefore, it is possible, if care is taken. to make something of this land, but it is quite clear that where opencast mining has been carried out very little care indeed is being taken in the process of restoration.
I shall not give the Committee any technical details of the difficulties of farming such land after it has been restored, because I know that the Committee will be told about that more ably later on, but I should like to ask the Minister two questions. Can we have an assurance that as long as opencast operations are carried on—we have all expressed the desire that they shall be stopped as soon as possible—restoration will be properly carried out? It is useless to say that it is being carried out properly at present. The instances which I have cited today are sufficient to show that it is thoroughly and totally unsatisfactory at the present time.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
Did the hon. and gallant Gentleman read the Report of the Estimates Committee on opencast coal mining last year when evidence was taken from the National Farmers' Union to the effect that restoration being done now was very satisfactory and that the real complaint is that this was not done in the earlier years?
§ Lieut.-Commander Baldock
I know the position, and the National Farmers' Union are thoroughly dissatisfied with the whole opencast question. I have given first-hand evidence of the condition in which the sites are left.
My second question is: Could not the opencast mining process have been finished by now, if the money which has been spent and lost on it in the past had been invested in further mechanisation of the deep mines? Surely that would have been a better outlay of the country's 2315 money than this process of devastation. Surely we could have finished this process of opencast mining, which is causing unbounded destruction of the countryside, if the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. R. Williams) whose eloquence we have heard this afternoon on the subject of the gravity of the coal position, had been putting that.across to his own miners, and if further mechanisation had been carried out. Every day opencast mining continues, it is an indictment of the Labour Party's planning of the coal industry.
§ 6.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Slater (Sedgefield)
The hon. and gallant Member for Harborough (Lieut.-Commander Baldock) has made a reference to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. R. Williams) and has spoken about the introduction of machinery, but hon. Members opposite are apt to forget about the number of people who drifted away from the mining industry between the two world wars, not of their own initiative but because of the circumstances.
§ Lieut.-Commander Baldock
I thought that we were told a little earlier that there were considerably more miners in the pits before the war than afterwards.
§ Mr. Slater
Yes, but I am talking particularly about 1931 and 1932 when there was a great transfer of people from the mining districts to other parts of the country. During the war, efforts were made to get those people back into the industry.
No hon. Members on this side of the House wish to see opencast mining devastating agricultural land, but I would remind the Opposition that in various parts of the country—in particular, the western side of my county—there are people seeking to extract coal underground in terrible conditions, although I believe that it could be extracted by the opencast process. I know of a farmer who is operating a 6 ft. seam of coal. If something is not done thousands of tons of coal are likely to be left in mother earth. Opencast mining is a means of obtaining such deposits of this vital commodity to aid our economic recovery and our export trade. It must be borne in mind that if opencast mining was not taking place today, we should be unable to export as much coal as we do.
2316 There is a feature of this subject to which I take exception, and I believe that, through his Department, the Minister might be able to do something about it. I am convinced that there is often no satisfactory supervision of the restoration of these sites. We must remember that in 1949 the amount of coal supplied by the United Kingdom for export and bunkers was increased by 33 million tons. I should like hon. Members opposite to see the position from the point of view of hon. Members from the mining areas. When we talk about the devastating effects of opencast mining operations, we must not forget the devastating effects of the big pitheaps which exist in various parts of the country. We have the greatest desire to see them removed, so that the ground below can be properly cultivated.
§ 6.9 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Heeley)
I have listened to the Debate with great interest. I believe that as soon as deep-mined coal is sufficient for our needs, opencast coal mining should cease. Meanwhile, as a representative of one of the areas of the City of Sheffield, I must say that if we are to produce steel and the exports that we need, we must have coal. and it seems that until the deep pits produce sufficient coal, it is necessary for us to have the 13 million tons of opencast coal which we require at the moment—and it may be more if the demand for steel is to go up. I appreciate the devastation which this may mean to agricultural values and I was much interested by the argument that proper compensation must be paid to farmers who are asked to bear the brunt of this form of devastation. It is obviously right and proper that compensation should be paid, but I am impressed by the argument that 30 times the value of the produce of the land is represented by the coal underneath—
§ Mr. Nabarro
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to interrupt, that argument has been adduced by the Minister and by his propagandists but it is wholly untrue and cannot be borne out in fact.
§ Mr. Roberts
If it is wholly untrue, of course I am not impressed by the argument. However, the Minister has the facts and figures and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us the exact figure. Even if it is 20 times, that would still weigh in my mind. I hope 2317 the Parliamentary Secretary will resolve this once and for all.
There are three points I want to put to the Minister on the operations of opencast mining as I understand the position. First, he adduced the argument that they were making a loss of 3d. and seemed to be complacent about it. The right hon. Gentleman should look much more carefully into the cost of administration of the way this opencast is won because, if he goes back to the period of the war when big losses were being made, he will find the price of coal was at a certain level and since that time the price has risen. We have been told over and over again, and it is correct, that a great deal of that increased price of coal, 60 per cent. or 70 per cent., has gone towards increasing the wages of the miners of the deep-mined coal. As far as opencast coal is concerned, the amount of labour in the operation is much less, and therefore the opencast coal operations have been subsidised by the rise in the price of coal over the last years. That is the fundamental reason why the losses which my hon. Friend mentioned earlier have been reduced—because the price of coal has gone up and not because the cost of operation has gone down.
I suggest seriously to the Minister that he should look carefully into the cost of administration of some of these schemes, because the evidence I have, and which I am willing to give him, is that there is extravagance of administration and that this 3d. loss could be turned into something like a 2s. or 2s. 6d. profit. That should be his objective—to produce a profit on this operation and not to be satisfied, as he appeared to be this after-non with a loss.
§ Mr. Roberts
I am suggesting to the Minister that it could pay its way even more if he were to look into some of the costs of the administration of the scheme.
My second point is that there is a lot of this opencast coal which by its very nature is difficult to clean. The National Coal Board are being criticised to a large extent for some of the dirt on account of the operations of opencast mining, which is the responsibility of the Minister of Fuel and Power and not the responsi- 2318 bility of the Coal Board. Cannot the right hon. Gentleman now make arrangements for the better cleaning of opencast coal produced on the site? I am well aware that the large machines which are erected in the fields for this purpose are not really efficient. We were told recently of the increase in the washeries, the froth floatation plants going up in these areas, and I ask the Minister to consider whether it would not be possible for some of this opencast coal to be better treated at colleries rather than in this inefficient manner on the site. Unless the Minister can get cleaner coal with the opencast coal mining, the efforts which the Coal Board are making will be nullified.
My third point is more local and relates to the position in Sheffield. We are surrounded there by opencast workings, and it appears to me that the Ministry of Fuel and Power allocate to the housewives and the domestic grates of Sheffield more opencast coal than is allocated to the rest of the population. I have no quarrel with that as such, because the answer is that the coal is near to hand and it is much easier to transfer it to the local town than to take it further away. The result in Sheffield, however, is that we are faced to a large extent with this dirty opencast coal. Would the Minister consider agreeing to the coal merchants stating when they are delivering opencast coal and, the housewife having the right to reject it, if it is bad. At the moment the coal is delivered and has to be accepted? Sheffield seems to be suffering disproportionately from a surplus of opencast coal and to be getting an extra amount of dirty coal thereby.
If the right hon. Gentleman will accept the principle I am putting forward, that this coal could be better cleaned at collieries with froth floatation plants and washeries than by large jigging machines in the fields, that would solve my problem. If, however, he says that is not possible, as it may not be, then will he see that the towns near these areas do not have to take a surfeit of dirty coal? If he will do that, I am certain that a large number of people in the area I represent will be more satisfied.
I come back to the main argument of this Debate. In view of the dangers that may well be ahead of us in the next year or more, considering the need we have for an increased production of steel and 2319 the machinery which goes with it, and realising that coal is the foundation of all these things, until deep-mined coal can give us what we require, I regret that the necessity for opencast coal mining must continue.
§ 6.17 p.m.
§ Mr. Rhys Davies (Westhoughton)
I should not have intervened in this Debate were it not for the fact that my own constituency is plagued with opencast mining. I am not concerned about spoiling the amenities of the area, because deep coal mining in that part of the country has hardly left anything that is worth talking about by way of amenities.
I have risen for two purposes in particular. There have been reports in the Press recently that coal production in Europe is increasing. I am wondering therefore, whether opencast mining will come to an end in this country by virtue of that fact. If the Parliamentary Secretary could make a statement on that subject before we finish the Debate tonight, it would satisfy inquiries that have been made to some of us on this subject. With regard to the production of coal mentioned by the hon. Lady the Member for Wallsend—
§ Mr. Rhys Davies
It is the same thing anyhow; it used to be Wallsend. There is a tragedy about this problem in my constituency, and hon. Members will forgive me if I say a word about it. It is strange that opencast mining should be carried on in Westhoughton when, about 20 years ago, several pits were flooded and closed for good simply because colliery companies failed to agree to work a co-operative pumping scheme. There are tens of thousands of tons of good coal left in those pits whilst we are now scratching the surface for a comparatively few tons and despoiling the land in the process.
I do not know whether that is a British characteristic, but in listening to this Debate I have wondered whether Members of all parties realise exactly what we are doing in opencast mining. It is presumed, I suppose, that the nation will never be faced with any similar economic problems in future, and that there will be no need for opencast mining. We are apparently shortsighted enough to exploit the resources of the country to such an extent 2320 that nothing will be left for our children and their children to exist upon.
I want to raise one point with which I have already dealt by correspondence with the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary. In one part of my constituency, there is opencast mining in a very decent residential area as a result of which the neighbourhood is being despoiled. [An HON. MEMBER: "Shame."] The shame, of course, is on the Government—
§ Mr. Rhys Davies
The right hon. Gentleman must not be so vociferous with his "Hear, hears." Of all the Debates initiated by the Tory Party in the House in my lifetime, this is about the most ridiculous that they have ever launched. They had nothing in particular to say; they simply talk for talking's sake, and, in the main, they agree with what the Government are doing. Some Members of the Committee have spoken about damaging agricultural land—there is not a large area of it in my constituency—and about the amenities of the neighbourhood.
The position of opencast mining in my constituency is probably unique. Three local authorities in what was once a mining area own a little valley called Borsdane Wood, through which runs a stream. Opencast mining may take place on both sides of this little valley, but it is intended, I presume, to extract coal under the valley by sinking a shaft. I am an old collier myself and everybody who has worked in coal mines will realise the point I am about to make. It is all very well for those responsible to promise that they can pack the vacuum underneath that brook and make the ground safe so that the stream will run evenly, as if nothing had happened, but I have yet to learn that even the greatest experts can do that.
There is one area in my constituency which is already suffering from a similar subsidence. The subsidence has occurred under another stream, so that when there is heavy rain a small lake appears. Can we be assured that the packing under Borsdane Wood, owned by three local authorities, will be so efficient as to prevent parts of the valley from becoming lakes in time?
When hon. Members talk glibly of the total production of coal, do they not 2321 realise what has happened during the course of the years? During the war, if I remember rightly, the Government of the day called up 70,000 miners to fight the Germans. My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell) knows probably more about this than anybody else. Not many of those miners ever came back to the pits. Then, hon. Members opposite forget about the closing of pits.
I should like the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth to remember that in the constituency which I represent, every one of the 29 shafts was closed between the two wars for good, not because there was no coal or because some of the pits did not pay, but merely because every one of the colliery directors—all Conservatives, by the way—declined to co-operate in a pumping scheme to keep the pits dry. I hope that the right hon. Member for East Bournemouth and Christchurch (Mr. Bracken), who represents an area in which there are apparently so many collieries, will remember that point in particular.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Nugent (Guildford)
I think that the Opposition can take credit for finding time for this Debate in order to give an opportunity to hon. Members on this side, and on the other side of the Committee also, to express their feelings about the heavy price which is being paid for opencast coal mining. When I say "heavy price" I mean not merely in cash, but in loss of farmland and amenity and in suffering to the farming community.
The Debate has taken two very distinct lines. Most of the Members who have spoken from the other side have told us about the mining problems and the fact that we have to have the coal—of course we do; we know that. Most of the speeches from this side have been on the injury to the farming community and to farm land, although this has been mentioned also by a few Members from the other side. I am quite sure that the Committee have been especially impressed by the speech of the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), who speaks with great authority in these matters, from the benches opposite, and on this side by the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Irene Ward) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Harborough (Lieut.-Commander Baldock).
2322 The cost to the farming community is a very heavy one. Our charge against the Government is not that they should stop opencast coal mining immediately and unconditionally; it is that they have been complacent in accepting it as an easy way to get the extra increment of coal that we have not been getting out of the deep mines. In what I have to say I think that I shall find some evidence that they have been complacent, and that they might well have exerted themselves earlier and more energetically and prodded the National Coal Board to do the job which it was set up to do.
In his opening speech the Minister, in seeking to justify this process, reminded us that in America large quantities of coal are got from opencast mining—of course, we know that; but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman does not really believe that what the Americans can do in their country, which is more than ten times as big as ours to only three times the population, we can necessarily do here.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
I specifically said that the Americans regard it as a permanent feature of their industry. We regard it as a temporary expedient to get us through a grave national crisis.
§ Mr. Nugent
I am much obliged to the Minister for emphasising that point, because I had been left with the unhappy impression that perhaps he felt we might make it a permanent feature here, too.
I should like to emphasise the point which was dealt with by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Harborough about land which has been despoiled in different ways by mineral workings of various kinds. For heaven's sake, do not let us in this small island make spoliation in the past a justification for spoliation in the future. Now that we are beginning to realise how precious are our national assets, I hope that past spoliation will be regarded as a reason for a great deal more care being taken of them in future.
I must say a word or two about the attack by the Minister on my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro). I was sorry that my hon. Friend did not have the opportunity to reply; I am sure that he would have done so with his customary force. The point I wish to make is this: in the expressions 2323 of opinion which my hon. Friend has made in the House, with his characteristic force and strength, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to realise that he is expressing the very great strength of opinion of the farming community. They feel tremendously strongly on this matter.
I do not doubt that the right hon. Gentleman read the report of the annual general meeting of the National Farmers' Union last January. If he did, he will surely have been impressed by the fact that this opencast coal mining has deeply disturbed the feelings of the farmers throughout the country. It has done so more than anything I have known for several years. The fact that comparatively few counties have been affected —my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) said there were 17—does not alter the fact that the general body of farmers sympathised with their colleagues in the counties which are affected and that they feel disturbed about that. We have been given the figures, which have become rather confusing, as to how much land is at present under opencast. We are given the impression that between 50,000 and 60,000 acres are requisitioned and given the unhappy feeling that another 5,000, 10,000, or 15,000 acres may become requisitioned in the next year or two.
I hope we shall not imagine that the effect is limited to the acreage requisitioned, and only to the farmer on it. It spreads to all the farmers in the neighbourhood and to those who feel they may be on seams of coal and be the next unfortunate victims to have their farms torn up. The result, in the aggregate, is that a very large and significant portion of farming opinion has been upset. I think it fair to say that in the representations that have been made to the Minister by the leaders of the National Farmers' Union a great deal more moderate impression may have been conveyed than actually exists.
The leaders of the National Farmers' Union have done their best to impress upon their members the urgent national need to get this extra coal and have asked their members to put up with the sacrifice involved as a temporary measure in order to get it. Up to date, the rank and file have accepted that, but I would impress on the right hon. Gentleman how very 2324 strong is this feeling. If this is to be a persistent and continuous process, farming opinion may be so seriously disturbed that there will be a serious reaction. I say that in all seriousness, because I know how strongly they feel about it.
§ Mr. Nugent
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman does. Some hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Ince, have alluded to the sort of conditions that farmers have to put up with when their farms are opened. The conditions are rather exceptional, because in the average case, as the Minister knows. a farmer has to remain on the site. It is his living, and only part of the farm is taken. It is his home and he has nowhere else to go. He hangs on in the hope that he will get back the section of the farm which has been taken in not too long a time. In practice, the seams are opened within 50 yards or so of his house and not only does he have 20 or 30 acres of the farm taken from him, but he must endure, during the period that the pit may be open, mud in the winter, dust in the summer and the din which goes on continuously with the operations.
That is really torture to the wretched farmer. I think sometimes people in towns do not realise just how strongly the farmer feels about his fields. Most people realise that he gets fond of his animals, but he gets equally fond of his fields. He ploughs them, sows them, and harvests them and has known them for perhaps 40, or even 50 years. When they are torn up for this hideous process to a depth of, perhaps, 150 feet, or 200 feet and an enormous heap of overburden rears on the skyline it is an absolute rape of the land and he feels hurt in his deepest feelings. I believe it is that injury to personal feelings which is causing such deep disturbance and resentment among the farming community today.
I have spoken of the upset to sentiment because I want to bring home to the right hon. Gentleman just how strong that feeling is. I hope that now we have had the opportunity of bringing this before the Committee the right hon. Gentleman will give full weight to it and that in the measures he takes he will try to stimulate the efforts of the National Coal Board and will feel that he has even stronger reasons for prodding them to do better than they have done in the past.
2325 I want to say a word about restoration. In the cost figures which the Minister mentioned he assumed that the land when restored was back in full production; but that, of course, is not the case. I have to bring a charge of complacency against the Parliamentary Secretary, especially in this matter of restoration. I will read a short extract from a letter he wrote to the "Daily Telegraph," goaded, no doubt, by the attacks of my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster. This is what the Parliamentary Secretary wrote:It is misleading to suggest that the land is generally lost to farming production for many years. Soil conditions and results of restoration vary from site to site and generalisation one way or the other is unsafe, but, with proper arrangements for soil replacement, and after treatment and management of the disturbed land, there is no doubt that good results are possible. On many sites recovery has been rapid and good crops are being grown.The right hon. Gentleman will remember that I interrupted him to ask him what area of land had been cropped with cereals.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
I can give the acreage. In the West Riding, of which I was speaking, it was 1,300 under cereals and 810 acres back to grass.
§ Mr. Nugent
While I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for giving the figures, I must confess that I have not been so fortunate in the opencast areas I have inspected in finding a successful restoration now growing cereal crops.
The fact is that cultivation of this restored land remains a gamble. The reason why the farmers are anxious to get it back again is obviously because it is an integral part of their farms and they need it in order to graze their livestock. They need it in the hope that they will be able to earn a decent living, and they ask for it back as soon as they can have it. As a practical farmer, if I were offered a farm of restored land at a nil rent I would not take it. I should regard it as too speculative and not worth the labour, the fertilisers and the seed I would have to put into it to try to grow ordinary crops. That is the general impression in regard to restored land.
2326 I allow that there has been some improvement in the last few years and in the last year or two in particular. The days when the unhappy farmer might put the plough in the field and find it engaged in a motorcar are definitely past, but that did happen. In the infilling a motorcar had been stuck in a field in Lancashire and it was a common practice to find staunchions and wire rope and so on sticking out of the ground which would break any implement. I agree that it is improving, but the fundamental difficulties of restoration are, first, to get the topsoil off completely and, secondly, to get it spread back evenly. It is a difficult process to get the topsoil spread evenly, bearing in mind that the average depth of topsoil is only eight inches. I fully realise that it is an inherent difficulty.
In addition to that problem, there is another. The topsoil is thrown up in a large heap where it may stand for two, three or even five years before it is spread back on the land. During that time there is no doubt that it loses its life. The humus in the soil goes out of it, and the bacteria and the earthworms disappear. The result is that when it is put back, even if it is successfully spread, it will not grow plants properly.
I have seen a large number of these sites. The result is that when the first ley is put down, with the aid of fertilisers, it looks good to start with and the farmer thinks that he will have some good grass. But after the first year it begins to go back, in the second year it goes back further, and by the third year it looks very poor indeed. In the normal cases which I have seen, it would be impossible to sow a cereal crop with anything but a virtual certainty of failure. The farmer would have to sow another ley to try to rebuild the fertility of the soil and to get it back into a normal condition.
The right hon. Gentleman said that he would welcome suggestions, and I have one to make about topsoil. He has set up his technical advisory committee to advise upon restoration. Here, again, I must make the charge that, not he, but his predecessor, did not do that five years ago. That is when it ought to have been done, because this is a difficult process. However, the Minister has now got a technical advisory committee with first-rate personnel. I know Dr. Morley Davies, the chairman, and I have no doubt that 2327 he will give the most admirable advice. The best advice would be to stop doing this work of opencast, but, failing that, he will give the best advice about the restoration of the land.
I suggest that that advisory committee should go to Brunswick, in Germany, to study the restoration of land at the lignite workings there. Those workings have been there for 50 years. There the process of restoration is to return the overburden on one site before they remove the top soil on the next site, so that they have got the overburden settled in the excavation and the whole site levelled. Then they remove the top soil from the next site; often within 24 hours they spread it on the site previously excavated. In that way it is possible to maintain full fertility in the top soil and so establish crops with a fraction of the difficulty which we have experienced.
There is another point about restoration, and that is the question of drainage. It is impossible to say how long it will be before the restored land can be called drained land. It is impossible to say how long it will be before that land has really settled down and stopped shifting. Until it has settled down, it is impossible to drain it effectively. The replaced soil runs together like a pudding, especially as most of the overburden on the sites is clay. There is only one effective way of draining it and that is to use the tile drainage system. That cannot be used until the land has settled. The only step to take, in the meantime, is to make open ditches on the surface of the land. That complicates the operation of the land and the grazing of stock, and it is no solution at all.
We all know—and the Minister of Agriculture would confirm it if there is any doubt—that it is impossible to farm land which is not properly drained. Drainage will present a persistent problem for some time to come. I should like to know how the restoration work is done at the lignite workings in Germany and how they overcome the drainage difficulty. I believe that they do what they call "sculpting" of the land to an even slope, which allows the water to run oft. it. and is done rather more cunningly than we have been able to do it here. These are points well worth looking into.
2328 Until the land is properly restored, the Minister would be doing better by the farmers if he kept on his requisition and allowed the farmers to occupy under licence. There is no doubt that much of this land has been returned before it has been properly restored. The fences are still collapsing. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman has learned by now that it is far better to plant a hedge, which will stay there, than to put in concrete posts. As soon as there is a subsidence, the posts tilt and snap off, and all the farmer's stock get out. These are some of the difficulties which the farmers have to put up with.
I have no time in which to say more than a few words about amenities. That subject has already been dealt with. The fact is that, however cunningly the land is contoured, the amenities will never be the same again. The lumps and bumps seem to appear in the wrong places, and the land looks like nothing so much as an elderly lady who has had a face lift. It certainly does not look like a lovely countryside.
In conclusion, I want to stress the three points which have been made. The first was the tremendously heavy cost of opencast mining to the nation, first in the loss of amenities and, secondly, in the loss of food production—not merely from the land which is excavated, which is probably lost for a long time because it is not properly restored, but also by the depressing influence on surrounding areas. The second point was the disturbance to the whole farming community and the deterrent to proper development, reconditioning and building which should normally be done in the threatened areas. Finally, I have referred to the undoubted human suffering which the wretched farmers have to put up with. I believe that opencast work ought to be brought to an end. This is, in sum, really an intolerable price to pay.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will have been fortified by what we have been able to say today and that he has got a far stronger case to stiffen his resolution when next he meets his friends on the National Coal Board. I hope that he will make them face their obligations and get the coal the nation needs from deep mines, and thus prevent this continued rape of the countryside.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. Robens)
I am certain that the whole Committee was struck by the measured restraint and the constructive nature of the speech of the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Nugent). He certainly put the case extremely well. It is one with which we on this side of the Committee have every sympathy. I can only say, in closing the Debate, that I, for one, appreciated the tone and temper of his contribution. as I am sure did my hon. Friends.
I was interested in what he had to say about the way in which the Germans treat their lignite opencast working. If we have anything to learn from them, my right hon. Friend is willing to send an expert to examine their work. If it is better than ours, we shall take advantage of their experience in our desire to ensure that land which we are restoring is restored as perfectly as man can possibly make it after the disturbance we have created.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not the least bit complacent—none of us is—about opencast coal. I think that the letter I wrote to the "Daily Telegraph" was reasonably good. The extract which the hon. Gentleman read out was about right. It does not smack of complacency, but what it did say was that we cannot generalise. That is really the fault of the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro). He is always generalising in these matters, and as a result he gets a the rails.
The speech of the hon. Member for Guildford was in contra-distinction to the rather knockabout, robust speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Bracken). His speech, and the speeches of some of his hon. Friends, showed that they only want to use this Debate as a political stick with which to beat the Government, though some hon Gentlemen opposite put forward constructive criticisms. That emphasises the misapprehensions and the lack of knowledge in the Committee, and in the country, about the effects of opencast mining operations. The right hon. Gentleman gave us a long treatise which I suppose had been pushed into him at school—because he went through the generations in perfect order—of the houses built in the different 2330 periods which had all been pulled down. We have not pulled down any houses when we have been dealing with opencast coal. It is the financial trusts and syndicates which ripped down good houses and put up block of luxury flats, and incidentally made a lot of money out of them. They are the people who desecrated this country and its beautiful. houses, and not us—
§ Mr. Bracken
Does the hon. Gentleman now promise that Staunton Harold, one of the most beautiful Georgian house properties in this country, is not to be subjected to opencast operations? If so. we shall all be very grateful to him.
§ Mr. Robens
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that all the arguments in respect of the site around that historic place will be carefully weighed against the amount of coal to be got. We are going into that now, and I hope that within a short time we shall be able to say what are our views upon it.
This confusion of thought was carried on by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) who, having made his case, has not bothered to come back to listen to the reply. It is rather typical of hon. Gentlemen opposite that they read reports from newspapers, or state something somebody told them; but very few of them get up and say that they have seen what they are talking about and have examined the facts for themselves. The hon. Member for Twickenham read out a statement which he said he had obtained from a newspaper, and which was made by an adviser to the Derbyshire County Agricultural Committee. We cannot trace any such adviser. The man who wrote that has no official status at all; he is not even employed by the County Agricultural Executive Committee. To say that horses' hooves sink into the soil and that crops cannot be grown, is proved to be a complete misconception.
When we see a sight such as is shown in this photograph which I hold in my hand, of a combine harvester going over restored land from which 30,000 tons of coal was extracted, it does not bear out the arguments of so-called experts who say that it cannot possibly be done. I entirely agree that it would be possible to take photographs showing a lot of desolation, and that is why I consider 2331 I am right when I say that this is not a matter for generalisation. It is a matter for saying that it is important we should get the coal and there cannot be any disagreement about that—but it is no use harking back and trying to beat the Government and the Ministry and the miners for what they are doing.
The fact is that we must have the coal, and it is our duty as the Department responsible, to get that coal with as little nuisance and upset as possible to everybody concerned. I can tell the Committee quite honestly and sincerely that we have tried to do that. I have been on sites in every part of the United Kingdom. I have met farmers on their land and members of local authorities. I have also met what almost amounted to public meetings of angry residents, and discussed these things with them. I have never bothered about having to go and talk to people who are affected, whose houses have been damaged, because, in the main, the average person in this country has a great sense of public interest, and is prepared to put up with inconvenience when shown that, as a result, the nation will benefit.
We really must do what we can to restore the land to its proper fertility. In order to prove the case I now make, that this question of restoration is one very largely of opinion and difference of opinion between experts, I hope that the Committee will bear with me if I read an extract which I took from the "Manchester Guardian" of last July. I will quote it without comment. It is headed, "Cost of Opencast Coal." This was written by a member of the staff of the "Manchester Guardian":For an assessment of the agricultural value of the land"—this is after opencast coal had been taken from it—I went to Mr. Elmhirst, whose forebears secured the first grant from James I to work coal at Silkstone. From the farmhouse that has been the home of the Elmhirsts since the 16th Century, Mr. Elmhirst carries out a scientific direction of five farms. 'The land is hungry,' he said. 'We hang on by the skin of our teeth against urban expansion. The soil has a tremendous acidity, and smoke is anathema to oaks and beeches.'So far as restoration of mined land is concerned, Mr. Elmhirst is at variance with Mr. W. P. Bashforth (the N.F.U. Secretary) and in agreement with local executive agricultural officers in believing that it shows 2332 improvement. In fact, he does not know 'of any restored site that is not growing more food than it was before mining.'I quote this, because of the difference of opinion between him and other admitted experts on agriculture. This is the point about public interest:Mr. Elmhirst supplied the final comment on the vice or virtue of opencast coal mining. 'Five years is nothing in the life of the soil,' he said. If coal is there and we need it, it must he got whatever the place and whoever the owner. But I would not give a final judgment on the sites until 30 years had passed.'I quote that in order to show the difference between experts, the difference between the practical men working on the farm.
When we are dealing with land restoration, indeed before the site is opened up, consultations take place on the site with the Land Commissioner, the Agricultural Executive Committee and the farmer about restoration; and the land is not handed back until it is seen by the Agricultural Executive Committee—a number of members of whom are, of course, working farmers. Regarding what the hon. Member for Guildford said—and I would not doubt him for a moment—that the land, in the first year of food production is good, and then there is a recession, I think that mainly happens when the farm has not been correctly managed. With the co-operation of the farmer, we find from our experience that it does not happen.
The right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch, said something about rumours. He knows a lot about rumours because he was telling us the other week that he had heard a rumour that Lord Hyndley was about to resign—
§ Mr. Robens
What the right hon. Gentleman and the Committee really wanted to know was what was the opencast programme. In January of this year we announced that we wanted 45 million tons by 1953. The output we are planning is as follows: 1950, 13 million tons; 1951, 12 million tons; 1952, 11 million tons; 1953, 8 to 9 million tons, and then 2333 the contracts will tail off as this particular programme finishes.
§ Mr. Robens
It will tail off after 1953. It is not proposed to go on with any extension after that time.
§ Mr. Nabarro
We are delighted with the assurances from the Parliamentary Secretary on this matter. But may I remind him that in 1946 the then Minister of Fuel and Power said it would end in 1949 in 1948 the then Minister of Fuel and Power said it would end in 1950. and the Parliamentary Secretary himself—
§ Mr. Robens
The hon. Member for Kidderminster is only repeating what the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch said at the beginning of his speech—
§ Mr. Robens
No, it is none the worse for that, but the fact is that he is quite wrong, and if he consults the records he will see that that is so.
I wished to say a good deal about the procedure adopted in relation to our exploration of local areas, the basis of compensation etc., but obviously there is not now time, it being 7 o'clock. I would say to every hon. Member who has taken part in the Debate that where they have raised specific questions about specific sites, we will read carefully what they have said and write to each one of them giving a full reply to any point which they have raised. The matter boils down to this: we must have the coal, we have to get the coal, the national interest depends upon our getting the coal, but we shall get it with as little nuisance to everyone concerned as we possibly can.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.