HC Deb 10 May 1950 vol 475 cc533-44

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

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Nabarro (Kidderminster)

In the Adjournment Debate tonight I should like to draw attention to a matter which is rapidly engaging the attention of the agricultural community in all parts of the country. In view of the magnitude of the problem and the brief time at my disposal I intend to confine my remarks to the threat of opencast coal mining on good agricultural land in a particular area of Western Worcestershire, believing that the principles that I enunciate, which are widely supported by hon. Gentlemen on all sides of the House, will be applicable to similar problems which arise in other parts of the country.

The particular area of Worcestershire is that part which lies to the west of the River Severn and to the north of Malvern, and comprising the Martley and Tenbury Wells Rural Districts and that part of the Kidderminster Rural District west of the River Severn, popularly referred to, upon plans of the area, as the Abberley Hills, the Teme Valley, and the Wyre Forest. I emphasise that at this stage there is only a threat of opencast mining in this district, and the threat of trial borings being carried out by the Ministry of Fuel and Power, but that has caused widespread consternation and alarm to the agricultural and residential communities.

Although the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Fuel and Power, replying to a Parliamentary Question on 8th May, 1950, said that ten sites were to be prospected for opencast mining, I propose tonight to refer to only six which are the principal sites involved. They are the "Crundle" and "The Elms" sites in the parish of Abberley in the Martley rural district area; the "Gybhouse," "Green-way" and "Gorsthill" sites in the parish of Rock in the Kidderminster rural district area; and the "Trial" site in the parishes of Pensax and Abberley respectively in the rural districts of Tenbury Wells and Martley.

I am not sure whether it is appreciated adequately by the director of opencast mining of the Ministry of Fuel and Power that innumerable attempts have been made over the last 100 to 150 years to mine coal in this area. These attempts have consisted of sinking small pit-shafts, but there has not been deep mining in the sense in which it is understood by hon. Members who represent constituencies in the principal coalfield areas. The pits were tiny in comparison, and employed 12, 20 or 40 men. I believe the largest number employed in any single pit was about 80, and strange to relate, that pit, Bayton, which was the only one known in this district ever to have produced a good, high-quality household coal, was recently shut down by the National Coal Board.

In this area there are peculiar geological features, all of which militate against opencast mining. I can confidently state that these features have not yet been adequately investigated by the Ministry of Fuel and Power. Firstly, the whole of this area is straddled by a series of major and minor geological faults which cause the coal deposits to be greatly split up and lie in small intersecting seams and deposits, over a wide area.

The beds associated with these coal deposits are set in a series of "clunches," which is stiff, grey, unlaminated clay that, upon exposure to the atmosphere, as would be caused by opencast mining activities, rapidly weathers down to a sticky, boggy viscous mass which would be the worst possible ground upon which to try to operate opencast mining or civil engineering machinery. In addition, the over-burden throughout this area consists of old red sandstone, which is one of the worst types of rock for opencast coal working. The coal seams are thin and narrow. In many cases the seams are only six to 18 inches thick, and the width is no more than a few feet. All seams are badly broken up, and they share the peculiar feature, throughout the area, of interpolation with carbonaceous batt or dirt, which would mean, in the process of opencast coal mining activities that very small quantities of burnable coal would be extracted.

It has been the experience of all mining engineers in this district, and this is one of the reasons mining has never succeeded in Worcestershire, that the coal is low grade and sulphurous, and is of particularly poor calorific value. In view of the widespread complaints on the subject of dirty coal, I would suggest that this is a major consideration for the Ministry, which is at present contemplating prospecting in this area. Over the whole district there have been nearly 100 attempts to mine coal from shallow pits during the last century. The geological and topographical features of the area, and the escarpment of hills which channels an undue amount of water into any workings, have caused previous deep-mining ventures to fail and would make opencast mining projects particularly hazardous.

While considering the mineral aspects of this problem I would like to draw the attention of the Minister to the location of his existing disposal plants in this area. By this, I mean the facilities for screening and washing the coal extracted. Twenty miles away approximately, at a place called Highley, in South Shropshire, there is one disposal plant. I have made inquiries, and am told that it is loaded to capacity and could take no further tonnage. Elsewhere, the nearest disposal plant is in Staffordshire, in the Borough of West Bromwich, where it serves the Jubilee and Hamstead pits. That is more than 40 miles away. If opencast mining commences in this area, it would need a costly disposal plant. I am informed that the capital value of such equipment would run to, possibly, £30,000.

From the mineral aspects I should like to turn to the agricultural problems involved in this proposal for opencast mining. It is an area of intensive cultivation, and one of exceptional fertility. I imagine that all hon. Members will agree with me when I say that the Vale of Evesham is probably the most fertile agricultural area in the United Kingdom. This area is an extension of the Vale of Evesham, and is really contiguous to it, only separated by the city of Worcester. From replies to questions which I have addressed to the Minister of Agriculture, especially on 20th April and 4th May, it is evident that agricultural production in this area is proceeding at a very high rate. Successful farming is essentially a long-term process, and the mere threat of opencast mining in this area must have a sad psychological effect upon farmers planning for forward food production. Although the Minister of Agriculture has not yet refused to grant a clearance certificate through the local Lands Commission, I hope that as a result of this Debate, and various other efforts which are being made, he will give the matter most careful consideration and weigh the food production likely to be lost against the hazardous value of any coal production that might be derived.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power is, I know, diametrically opposed to my views upon the value of soil restoration following opencast mining activities. All the evidence of the last 12 months suggests that soil restoration is, at the present time, only in its infancy. I am reminded that it is only four weeks ago that I read what the County Agricultural Adviser for Derbyshire had to say. He stated that, with the best methods of soil restoration which had yet been applied in his area, it is exceedingly doubtful if good crops could be grown in the near future, or for some considerable time.

I would ask hon. Members' indulgence, to quote from the Sixth Report of the Select Committee on Estimates 1948–49 which, after all, is only 12 months old, and to call attention especially to page xiv, paragraph 35. It states: There was a wide diversity of evidence about the effect of open-cast working on the land, both in regard to the danger of subsi- dence and the possible loss of fertility. The National Farmers' Union suggested that the loss of fertility was permanent, but sufficient information on this point was lacking. Again, in the conclusions and summary of recommendations in this Report of the Select Committee, paragraph 39 (c) on page xv, it is stated: Some loss of agricultural production and discouragement to farmers is entailed at a time when increased food production is of paramount importance, and there may be permanent loss of fertility of the soil. Finally, paragraph 40 (7) and (8), on page xvi, states: Investigation into the loss of fertility of restored land should be pressed on, and the necessary research should be undertaken without delay. In view of the unexplained deterioration of fertility after the first year, the Ministry should consider whether an alternative administrative method can be found to deal with long-term restoration, such as allowing County Agricultural Executive Committees to hold the land and to sub-let it at an appropriate rent to the occupier until restoration is satisfactorily completed. All of that is borne out in practice.

There are special problems involved with regard to water supplies in the Abberley Area. On the advice of the Emeritus Professor of Geology at the University of Birmingham, there have been carried out extensive tests to get water in the Abberley district, where the water supply is precarious. The Stationery Office has published a booklet compiled by the Geological Survey, "Wells and Springs in Worcestershire," and there is no doubt that the water supply in the Abberley Hills district, which is the centre of this area, is today quite inadequate for the existing farming and residential requirements.

A scheme was recently submitted to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health for a piped water supply involving a capital expenditure of £300,000, but it was rejected for various reasons, and I say without hesitation and on sound advice, then even the boring of holes to prospect for opencast mining in the area is likely to cause the drying up of many wells and springs which are the sole sources upon which the farming community and the residential population have to draw at the present time.

The fourth point I have to make is probably the most important, and I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning for his presence at this Debate tonight. It is the Ministry of Town and Country Planning who should be the arbiter in a problem with conflicting interests of this sort. The area of the Abberley Hills, the Teme Valley and the Wyre Forest is referred to in the Abercrombie Report, styled "The West Midlands Plan, 1945," as an area of very great scenic beauty, and is categorised by Sir Patrick Abercrombie as "category A," a special beauty "preserve" in which no extractive industry, no heavy industry, no light industry, no building development and not even a sign post may be erected because of the special scenic amenities of the district. I understand the Ministry of Town and Country Planning uphold the recommendations of that report.

I believe that this area should be safeguarded because of its special scenic beauty and landscape value, and also because it is particularly heavily wooded. Not only are well timbered districts of great value for agricultural purposes, but it raises the issue that, in the event of opencast mining being carried, it would be manifestly impossible to restore any part of such a well timbered area. This district is vertually a playground and is an area for holidays and recreation, used by hundreds of thousands of industrial workers from Birmingham, the Black Country, South Staffordshire, Kidderminster and other industrial towns in that area. They regard this district as one primarily of scenic value, and one which has always been preserved for their particular interests. I believe that, on those grounds alone, it should be protected from the devastation which would inevitably be caused by opencast coal mining operations.

Finally, may I sumarise the points? The mineral prospects are extremely hazardous; the agricultural production is, at the present time, exceedingly high; the water supply is precarious; the scenic amenities are such that defilement of them could not possibly find any replacement or restoration in the years immediately ahead; and I say without fear of contradiction that in view of the unanimous resistance to these proposals an impartial public inquiry should be held at Worcester immediately, to determine whether these opencast coal mining proposals should be proceeded with, or not. The Martley rural district, the Tembury Wells rural district, the Kidderminster rural district, the Stourport urban district and the Worcestershire county councils, all the local branches of the National Farmers' Union, the National Union of Agricultural Workers and many local associations and bodies are united in their determination to defeat the proposals for opencast coal mining.

11.34 p.m.

Mr. George Ward (Worcester)

Just over a year ago I was pleading in this House with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power to protect the amenities of Worcester City by resisting a suggestion to build a gas works alongside a new housing estate. Tonight for a few minutes I want to support my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) in pleading with the same Parliamentary Secretary to protect the amenities of the surrounding countryside, which is unrivalled in its productivity and beauty. This problem concerns Worcester City very deeply; not only because the destinies of the city are very much bound up with the surrounding countryside but also because the area which is threatened by opencast coalmining is a most ideal spot for week-end recreation and relaxation for the people of Worcester City and they are very proud of it.

On the previous occasion to which I have just referred, I drew the attention of the House to the apparent lack of interest on the part of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning in a problem which was essentially one of national planning. Tonight we have another problem, again essentially a matter of national planning. Here we have a problem of striking a balance between two conflicting interests—agriculture, on the one hand, and coal production, if you call the stuff they dig out of the ground in opencast working coal, on the other hand.

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)


Mr. Ward

This seems to me to be the ideal example of the sort of problem which should be tackled by the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. The facts of the case have been put before the House very ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster, but it was precisely to deal with this sort of problem that the Ministry of Town and Country Planning was originally established. It was set up, surely, to be the guardian of the amenities of countryside and town alike. It was set up to avoid the tragic mistakes which were made when the only considerations or at least the greatest considerations were technical and financial.

Therefore, it is very disturbing that once again the Ministry of Town and Country Planning appear to be taking very little or no interest in this matter, and so far have taken no action; and I am delighted to see the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning in his place. His Minister, who is new to the job, is not one who has a reputation of being unable to make his voice heard. I do hope that that voice will go booming through the corridors of the Ministry of Fuel and Power, demanding that nothing further be done until the whole matter has been thoroughly considered by his Department, that he will support my hon. Friend's demand for a public inquiry, and that all local interests will be taken into consideration in a fair and democratic way.

11.37 p.m.

Mr. Mitchison (Kettering)

I want to ask one question of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. I do not propose at this hour of the night to express any opinion about how far full restoration is possible, but so far as restoration to agricultural use is possible, is it proposed to restore this land in that fashion?

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

Is it not significant that we have not got a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture here tonight? We have representatives of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and the Ministry of Fuel and Power, but none from the Ministry of Agriculture.

11.39 p.m.

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

Perhaps I may answer first the question of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison). Assuming that this opencast working commences and goes on, the restoration would be completed in the manner that my hon, Friend indicates.

One appreciates the considered speech of the hon. Member for Kidder- minister (Mr. Nabarro). I agree with what was said by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Ward) that the hon. Member for Kidderminster put the case well and fairly. If it is of any comfort to him, I have as much opencast coal working in my constituency as anybody. There is always this kind of complaint, and frankly I do not complain about that, because opencast coal mining certainly is not welcomed by anybody or any of the interests to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

At the same time, whilst he indicated that he was not dealing with opencast coal mining as a whole—and I myself will keep to the points he raised—I ought to put one point. Unless we do get this coal, which we are getting and which is programmed, then it would have a very serious effect indeed upon the country's ability to export the quantities of coal which are being exported at the present time.

Mr. Bracken

Absolute rubbish‡

Mr. Robens

I regret that hon. Members opposite do not agree, and that time is not available to pursue the matter, because I am sure that I could convince them, as reasonably-minded men, of the accuracy of my statement. The hon. Member for Kidderminster originally made out a case that there was no coal where we proposed to search. If that is so, he surely should have no objection to our that he is correct, no opencast coal mining will take place and there will be none of the problems which he has raised: there would be no reason for him to pursue the matter.

In a local sense he has given the House the benefit of his experience and knowledge obtained from local information and mining plans at which he has looked. We obtain our information in the matter principally from the Geological Survey, and in this instance Dr. Mitchell, of the Staffordshire Geological Survey, who has great experience of the area, has indicated that we should find coal, and, indeed, that a main seam of up to 3 feet 6 inches should be found above the hard mine. It is true that there are many faults but that does not necessarily mean it is difficult to get coal by opencast work. Indeed, faults can be helpful in opencast working, just as they can be the reverse in deep mining. The arguments about faults do not, therefore, apply in quite the same way as they do when one is talking about deep mining. There are also hard seams which he can expect with a thickness of 10 inches to 2 feet, and I do not think that the clunch will create any real practical difficulty.

We had many Debates on the matter of opencast coal mining in the last Parliament. Most of the sites were, apparently, beauty spots. At least I never heard of one which was not a beauty spot. and where we were not desecrating the best agricultural land in the country. I think, sometimes, that if ever there were required some really good judges of agricultural land, our Directorate of Opencast Coal should be appointed because, apparently, they find only the best and none of the other kind.

Despite the fact that we have been told, in terms, that there is no coal and that it is a waste of time looking for it, we have secured millions of tons of coal from areas in which hon. Members and others have told us we should not get coal at all. It seems to me that there can be no real argument at this stage about our looking for coal where the Geological Survey says it might be found. Assuming that we find coal, we shall not immediately start getting that coal.

Hon. Members have talked about a public inquiry. What happens? We have to consult innumerable people and get clearances before we commence operations. We have to consult the local authority, and, no doubt, they would put precisely the same case as hon. Gentlemen. We have to consult the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, the Land Commissioner of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Divisional Road Engineer of the Ministry of Transport, the Area Telephone Manager of the Post Office, the Regional Officer of the Ministry of Health, and the Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments of the Ministry of Works. Additionally, we also have discussions with bodies like the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, and local societies if they show any interest in the proposed work.

Mr. De la Bère (Worcestershire, South)

Then why not abandon the ship?

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

Adjourned at a Quarter to Twelve o'Clock.