HC Deb 31 July 1953 vol 518 cc1694-714

12.14 p.m.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Our country almost lives upon coal and we all desire to increase its output, because coal is our modern gold. The nation wants more coal and, therefore, the nation should pay for the damage caused by its mining. On behalf of Stoke-on-Trent, in particular, and of other areas, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) and I are asking for an immediate investigation into the effect of mining subsidence, and that that investigation should be of such a character that action will be taken afterwards.

We fear that unless early action is taken Stoke will not be Stoke-on-Trent but, within the next 50 years, will become Stoke-under-Trent. I was privileged to raise this matter first about 1936. Since then, let me admit, we have made some progress. We now want this question to be treated as a matter of extreme urgency, and that is why we want to place on record some evidence that demands early investigation.

The Urban District Councils' Association have asked their local authority members for full particulars of the effect of mining subsidence throughout the country, with a view to approaching the Minister of Fuel and Power. We consider this investigation should be the responsibility of the Minister himself, and we are asking the Minister whether he will consider taking action. Many urban districts suffer from the effects of this subsidence, but I doubt whether there are any county boroughs which suffer like the city for which I speak. Mr. Harold Lockett, who is an authority on this problem, and who is secretary of the miners' lodge in my area and who has served upon the Miners' National Executive, has said there is no city in the country which suffers like Stoke-on-Trent. The whole of our city is undermined. It is to be a centre of great development, some of which is now taking place and there are to be further developments in the future.

Millions of pounds are now being spent in our area on capital equipment. Parts of the area will sink at least 15 to 16 feet during the next 20 years. There was nationwide sympathy when our fellow countrymen on the East Coast this year suffered as a result of the floods, and to the credit of the Exchequer, of several Government Departments and of the National Assistance Board, where our old friend, George Buchanan, serves as Chairman, immediate assistance was given to the people there. We fully approved of that, but what we say is that the time has arrived when the whole nation should come to our assistance in the same way.

When the terrible floods struck Lynton and Lynmouth in that beautiful part of the country, the same kind of assistance was given them. The whole country rallied to the support of the Lynton and Lynmouth people. Stocks of clothing were sent immediately, and, in addition, almost every Government Department went to the assistance of those areas. Immediate administrative action was taken, and we are asking today for the same thing. The time has come for the same sort of action and more national support for those who suffer in obtaining Britain's "gold" from our mines, and especially for our own city.

Here are just a few facts. There has been flooding in Fenton, Longton and Hanford, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North will speak about her part of the city. The effect of the subsidence on the Trent, on our sewers and on our brooks has been simply terrible. The Fenton low area, in the centre of my division, during the past 20 years, due to subsidence, has been lowered 20 feet. During the next 20 years it will be lowered a further 16 feet. That means 36 feet of subsidence in less than my lifetime.

Is it right that the people who mine the coal and obtain Britain's "gold," so that we can all live, should also pay for the damage done by mining subsidence? Is it not time that the effect of this damage should be paid for by all? Because I believe that the best results are obtained by understating rather than overstating a case, I am giving a somewhat low figure when I say that there are 77 houses in the Northwood Road, Fenton area where the drains cannot function properly through subsidence. Flooding takes place and often the sewage flows into the roads, into the yards of the houses and even into the basements. Should this be allowed in 1953?

The city council are doing all they can, but they have inherited a terrible legacy from years of mining in that area. I want to pay a tribute to the officials for their public spirit. They are all eager to minimise the effect of subsidence and some of them have worked nearly day and night. Indeed, I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North that one of them is now in a mental institution because of overwork in dealing with this problem.

While we wait for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, the city are pumping, at a cost of £700 a year since last February, the sewage that should flow normally through the sewers. In April, they approved a relief of flooding scheme as a temporary method of dealing with this problem for the Fenton low area at a cost of approximately £9,000. It is at least three months since the city applied for a loan from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to deal with this problem and the loan has not yet been sanctioned. The need for this scheme is entirely due to mining subsidence. Is it right that the men who mine the coal should be subject to this kind of treatment in their own areas? Is it right that the men and women who manufacture and decorate the most beautiful pottery in the world should be subject to this kind of treatment in their own area and in their own homes?

In the opinion of the city surveyor, who is a very able man, there would have been no problem of flooding had it not been for mining subsidence and the sewers would have functioned, as they do in other parts of the country, in the normal way for years. At present, due to mining subsidence, they have completely collapsed in several places in our city and, in my area in particular, the sewage is pouring into the old manholes.

Will the Minister ask that all responsible Ministers should be called together as early as possible to take administrative action within the limits of their existing powers? The Stoke-on-Trent Corporation is spending £36,000 a year on the maintenance of the city sewers alone. In the Hanford, Sneyd Hill and Smallthorne area there are beautiful new housing estates which are a credit to the people. Women, especially, regard living in them as living in heaven compared with the houses they have left. Yet even those houses are now affected, despite the fact that it cost at least £100 more to build each house with reinforced concrete rafts underneath to minimise the effect of subsidence.

Longton Town Hall has been seriously affected and our people cannot use their baths, with all that means to those in overcrowded conditions who think that cleanliness is next to godliness, and wish to encourage their children to believe the same. Further, new coal seams are to be opened at Mossfield and this will require immediate subsidence safeguards or we shall have further serious trouble in the Sandford Hill area.

I do not want to deal with the effect upon schools because my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North, who has been the very able chairman of the Education Committee for many years, knows the effect upon schools and I shall leave that for her to develop. The same thing applies to churches and chapels and to working men's clubs. They all complain that they are suffering from this cause. Mining subsidence affects our gas mains. In the winter explosions often take place, a whole area is uprooted, and people who are as good as any of us lose their lives and their poor homes.

The same applies to water pipes, to roads and to streets. Subsidence has affected the foundations of the roads, with the result that water flows in and there is subsidence of the road itself. All the time the city pays for this damage, and when we speak of "the city" it means every man and woman who lives in that area and pays the rates. Therefore, we feel that we have produced sufficient evidence this morning to demand an early investigation and, when the report is presented, early action.

Up to now I have spoken only of the past, but what I am about to say will emphasise the seriousness of the problem in the future. In the city of Stoke there are at least 4,500 million tons of coal in deeper seams yet to be mined. Further surveys are being made and enormous development will take place in the southern end of the city towards Stone, Longton, Trentham and Blurton. We welcome this because, from a national point of view, it is good news and good work but we ought not to be left to bear the cost of what the nation demands.

There are millions of tons of coal which could not have been mined a few years ago because of the difficulties but, due to the development of science and engineering, it is now possible to mine deeper and deeper and we shall suffer as a result. Let me emphasise however, speaking for about 270,000 of our people, we welcome this development. Thousands of men and women will come and live in the area with all that means, but we say that if the nation takes the coal, the nation should pay for the coal. If the nation is responsible for the damage caused by the taking of coal, the nation should accept the responsibility of financing the results of the damage it causes.

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend says "Hear, hear" and I am glad that he supports that statement. I believe in giving credit where it is due, and he and the previous Member for Abertillery, the late George Daggar, advocated this policy to the Turner Committee when they were investigating the problem. While that is not referred to in the report, which I have read carefully, it is on the minutes of the proceedings.

New shafts are to be sunk in our area, pits are being modernised and intensive mining is to be introduced. We welcome that, but we say that it is time it was paid for by the Exchequer. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. Noel-Baker) introduced the 1950 Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act, we took a great interest in it because of our responsibilities. I invite anyone who is interested to read what we said during the debates on that Bill. My right hon. Friend said: It is a modest Bill to deal with one part only of the problem caused by mining subsidence, but it is…the part which involves the cases of greatest need."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th April, 1950; Vol. 474, c. 787.] The Act, as the Bill became, has given the greatest satisfaction to the people who have benefited in our area, but we now place on record the facts and hope that we have established our case for further action to be taken.

It was in 1938 that I saw put through the House the first Bill to nationalise the ownership of coal. I remember, in particular, the contributions of my late right hon. Friend Sir Stafford Cripps and of the late Mr. Oliver Stanley, who represented Bristol constituencies. I have not forgotten how constructive they were. In 1946, I saw the introduction of the Bill to nationalise the coal industry. We now say that the next logical step is to carry out an immediate investigation, because we are so sure of our case that we feel that an investigation would bring about an acceptance by public opinion that the responsibility of the damage done by mining subsidence is a national one and should be an Exchequer charge.

The people who can benefit from the 1950 Act are already very appreciative of its limited benefits. The women in Stoke now have a saying, "We have got the Coal Board in, and it is good work they do." I pay a tribute to the Coal Board, and especially to their officials in the North Staffordshire area, for the sympathetic way in which they carry out the provisions of the 1950 Act; and I compliment the workmen employed on their high standard of repairs. I have walked round street after street to see the work being done in Fenton and Longton, and their work is a credit, but we want it now carried a stage further to deal with the effects of mining subsidence upon the municipal services in the area.

When the Bill was going through in 1950 I said that I welcomed it as a first instalment. We now want further instalments for dealing with this problem. We call in aid paragraph 62 of the Turner Committee's Report, which states: … we can see no sufficient ground for distinguishing between the direct burden of subsidence damage when it falls on the individual and the indirect burden when it falls on the limited community of a coalmining area. That is part of our case today.

We are also supported by paragraph 63, which further reinforces our plea. We ask the Minister to consider the case that we are making and to consider the facts that we place on record. We ask him to consult the Chancellor of the Exchequer as soon as possible, in the hope that an investigation will be made that will lead to early action upon the lines for which I have been asking.

12.34 p.m.

Mrs. Harriet Slater (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) in his plea that the question of an investigation is an urgent matter. In my own constituency, during the past few months we have had 16 cases of serious flooding. In each of those cases the cause has in the main been due to old and inefficient sewers and sewers which have been seriously affected by mining subsidence.

In one area in Cobridge, in my constituency, part of a new sewer has been laid, but it had to finish because of the expense; and in that area during the last few weeks the flooding resulted in sewage being washed into the houses of the people in the immediate area. The streets were also affected. Nearby is an infant and primary school, and many of the children from the adjoining area had to walk through the streets which were affected by the sewage being washed back into them. In addition, there is nearby a children's playground, and this, too, suffers from the effects of the flooding.

The complaints which were made to me about a month ago came not only from the womenfolk of the affected houses and those who had been affected over a number of years, but they came to me also from the school in the vicinity. This flooding is not only an inconvenience to the people in the houses, but is a positive danger to the health of the people, and in particular of the children, in the area. None of us would like to contemplate living near conditions of that kind.

Again, in my constituency, there is a large housing estate which has been built since the war. Three weeks ago I had a deputation of people to see me because they were living in houses which were seriously affected by mining subsidence. They wanted to know just what would happen to them. Those houses on the Chell Heath Estate are not only in one part of the estate, but are spread over many parts of it. As my hon. Friend has said, in our city we have to spend £100 on every house which is built as an additional precaution against the effect of this mining subsidence.

At Sneyd Hill quite recently, not only have houses had to be repaired, but public conveniences have had to be taken clown and rebuilt, because they were a danger. They, too, were comparatively new, having been built just before the war. The result of this is not only the initial expense, but the constant repair, the inconvenience to the people who live in the affected houses, and the fact that to the local authority every person who has to be rehoused while repairs are taking place means that another needy family is prevented from being rehoused for many months.

The reinforcement which has to be done on every new school which is built in Stoke-on-Trent runs into a cost of tens of thousands of pounds. This is a serious fact when one considers the great expense of building a school in another area; but to build it in an area such as Stoke-on-Trent means a considerable added expenditure.

Again, in my constituency, which was at one time the area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies), we have had recently to close and pull down a school in the Packmoor area which was shifting until it became too dangerous to leave children in the school; and we had to put on the site, because the area had to be served, a lightweight school. In another area we started to build a new school about two years ago, but difficulties were encountered immediately. That school has been delayed because of the effects of mining. Again, in Tunstall, the Roman Catholic school is wanting a site for rebuilding. At present the children are housed in a shocking old, dilapidated and antiquated building. It is a disgrace that children should have to be in a school of that kind. A site has been acquired but about four months ago it was stated that the site would have to stand for 10 years before it could be built upon because of the effects taking place.

My hon. Friend has mentioned the Eastern Valley sewer. As he said, we are spending £4,000 now on repair work to that sewer. It is a very old one and the original loan for the construction of the sewer has not yet run out. I have a report which our sewerage engineer and city surveyor produced recently. Discussing the question of new pumping stations, the engineer said: It is considered that the siting of one of the pumping stations in the Valley of and near to the Fowley Brook would be fraught with great practical difficulties which might become insuperable in the event of adverse conditions developing due to mining subsidence. Future housing development in my constituency depends on the provision of adequate sewers. At present, when people in my area come to me about their housing difficulties, I have to tell them, "If you go to the southern end of the city you can get a house, but at this end we cannot build, even though we have sites on which to build, because we have inadequate sewerage facilities."

I wish to re-state the plea made by my hon. Friend that we should remember that the burden of damage in these coalmining areas is on those to whose efforts we owe so much. Our national economy depends very largely on how far we can continue to extract coal from the earth. My hon. Friend has said that our area is one which is due for large expansion in coal-mining and the sinking of shafts. We ask that very special consideration shall be given to an investigation into this problem so that local authorities such as ours may be saved from having to bear on their own rates the added burden for which the State itself should take responsibility.

12.42 p.m.

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

As an hon. Member who was privileged to serve on the Turner Commission which investigated this problem, I wish to pay tribute to the really excellent work which was done by the chairman, officials and others who devoted themselves to travelling all over Britain investigating what is a tragic problem for local authorities in the coal fields. I was responsible for bringing that Commission to the City of Stoke-on-Trent and its environs. There we saw conditions which are second to none in Britain in the burden they cast on local ratepayers.

Coal must be won. Britain possesses few natural resources—land, coal and the skill, intelligence and profound common-sense of the British people—but with those possessions we can face the world. I would not like to introduce any acrimony into the debate by making a party point, but as one who has spent years investigating the problem I think the time has come for the British people to look into the question of mining subsidence from the national point of view. Whatever Government may do it—I hope the present Government may find time—another review of the problem should take place.

As we have to win more and more coal in order to build up our standards of life, we are bound to affect conditions in the mining areas. To me it seems very unfair that beautiful seaside places and country districts can have their coal as a result of the sweat and toil of miners, while people who live in the mining areas have to bear the burden of reconstruction of undermined property. It may be that the time has come for a Government to look at the problem from the point of view of a national coal levy.

I may be wrong, but I ask whether we could not put the burden for mining subsidence on the whole of the British people so that seaside places, country districts, and industrial districts may each bear a fair share. Probably that problem could be solved through the Exchequer. Might that not be a better way of dealing with the matter than to throw the burden on to the price of every ton of coal? The issue which we have to face is that if another 6d. is put on a ton of coal, we shall put up the cost of transport and the cost of production and that may affect our export markets. Every copper put on to the price of a ton of coal, by an economic multiplying effect, shows itself throughout Britain's economy. Therefore, I ask whether we could not look at this matter from a national point of view.

I know that the present Ministry are interested in this question, as we were when we were in power, and I am sure they are prepared to do their utmost to solve this national problem. I suggest that perhaps the time has now come to deal with the national problem of mining subsidence by somehow evolving a formula by means of which the entire financial burden of replacing amenities is not put on to the price of a ton of coal won from the earth, but on the people throughout Britain. I am sure the House is indebted to my hon. Friend for raising this vital problem today.

12.48 p.m.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker (Derby, South)

I begin by differing on one point from my hon. Friend the Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies). He spoke of mining subsidence. I always say subsidence because it is a subject in connection with which another similar word, "subsidies," should be freely used.

I want briefly but warmly to support what has been said so eloquently and cogently by my hon. Friends and to support their plea for an urgent investigation by the Government into this subject and for any action which, under existing legislation, the Government may be able to take. My hon. Friends have urged that coal remains, as it will long remain, the basis of British industrial prosperity. The National Coal Board have increased the annual output of coal by 40 million tons above the lowest level of production in 1945. We all hope—no one more than the Minister and his colleagues—that the output will be still further increased as quickly as possible by scores of millions of tons.

As my hon. Friends have said, every ton of coal extracted increases the prosperity of the nation on the one hand, but, on the other hand, is liable to cause hardship, injustice and serious financial loss and destruction of amenities to individuals who win the coal and the communities in which those individuals and their families live. These lamentable results have been recognised as a social problem for more than 30 years. In 1920 the Sankey Commission said that damage to houses from subsidence was not consistent with the public well-being. In 1927 another Royal Commission published a Report after studying the problem for several years. It was not a very good Report. It proposed quite inadequate action about damage to existing small houses owned by private persons. It rejected all the claims of the local authorities to help or compensation for damage to schools, public buildings, sewerage systems, etc., the claims of public utility undertakings for damage to tramways, waterworks, etc., and claims for damage to large buildings—hospitals, churches and halls. But even on the small sector on which it recommended some action nothing was done for 20 years.

It was left to the Labour Government, in 1947, to appoint the Turner Committee, on whose Report the Government of 1950 based what my hon. Friend has referred to as their modest but, as he also said, and I agree, important, and I think successful Bill. That Bill dealt with what I called, in introducing it, "the cases of gravest hardship" that then arose—damage to small houses whether owned by private individuals or local authorities, whether existing or built thereafter: and it was retrospective, and dealt with the damage which had developed since 1947.

The Royal Commission of 1927 had hoped that as a result of its Report damage of all kinds, to all classes of property and public services and installations, would be reduced by better planning—this is a point which I wish to urge on the Parliamentary Secretary —better mining, better planning underground and on the surface, the disclosure of mining plans to local authorities and full co-operation between pit managements, local authorities, architects and builders. The Commission hoped that its Report would lead to better methods of construction, the avoidance of long terraces of houses which transmitted damage all along the row, that it would lead to the use of ferro-concrete foundations for new houses, etc.

The hopes of that Royal Commission of 1927 were not fulfilled. Up to the appointment of the Turner Committee in 1947 the physical effects of subsidence and subsidence damage had scarcely changed. But the Turner Committee agreed with the Royal Commission of 1927 that prevention is better than cure and that much could be done by better planning and construction to prevent the damage from taking place. The Turner Committee recognised that the nationalisation of the coal industry gave a great chance for a new start on all aspects of this problem. They believed, as I believed, and as I often urged on the Coal Board, that it should greatly facilitate this work on co-ordinated planning above and below ground to reduce the damage which results from subsidence.

The first thing I wish to ask the Minister is whether progress is being made in that regard. I realise that progress is very hard to measure, but has he been consulting the Coal Board about the matter? If so, what did they say; if not, will he do so and press them very strongly on the point? The second thing I wish to ask the hon. Gentleman is whether he has been studying, with a view to action, the problems that were not dealt with by the Act of 1950, and to which my hon. Friends have drawn attention? Is he seeing what will be required to carry out the rest of the Turner Report?

When I was introducing the Act of 1950, I made it clear that it was not adequate to deal with the problem which had to be solved. On Second Reading, I said of that Bill: Many of my hon. Friends wish that it went further. So do I, and so do the local authorities concerned. … we have discussed the Bill with the various local authorities' associations, which have reserved their right to press for further legislation to carry out fully the proposals of the Turner Report."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th April, 1950; Vol. 474, c. 798.] I said, on Third Reading: This is the best Bill we could hope to get in present circumstances, and this is the most generous way in which we can deal with this…situation. Many of my hon. Friends and some hon. Members opposite have expressed the hope that there will soon be another Bill. Speaking personally, so do I. The subject needs a lot more study, and I am going to start the study."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th May, 1950; Vol. 475, c. 2328.] I gave two reasons for limiting the Act of 1950 to damage to small houses, and to that alone. The Turner Report had proposed to change the whole law of mining, which is an immensely complex and difficult affair. To have prepared a Bill applying the whole Report would have taken months, perhaps many months. I judged, and events showed that I rightly judged, that if we had tried to get a complete Bill we should in that Parliament have got no Bill at all.

The second reason I gave was that in the then economic situation of the country we could not stand more charges. I gave further study to the subject after our Bill was passed, and I came to the conclusion that that second reason was probably almost completely invalid. I hope that the Minister will not urge it today. My further study made me think that this damage to all classes of property will go on occurring—we hope on a smaller scale if better planning succeeds, but it will happen. It has to be dealt with. The local authorities do in fact deal with it; they spend great sums on trying to put things right. The Treasury have to give them assistance to help them.

There is a certain amount of delay and a lot of hardship, inconvenience and loss of amenities to the communities concerned which should not happen. In the long run, however, the economic burden for the nation is the same. If we view the matter rightly, I think that if this problem is dealt with as a whole there will be no extra burden on the nation. The Treasury may have to carry a larger charge but the burden to the nation will be the same. It will, however, get much better results, and a grave injustice that now exists to the mining community will be ended.

The present Government were deeply committed, when they were in opposition, to dealing with this problem as a whole. May I remind the Parliamentary Secretary of some things which they said? The then right hon. Member, Mr. Brendan Bracken, who always took such a colourful and eccentric part in the proceedings of the House, and whose departure we all so much regret, called our Bill "totally inadequate." He asked us, "Why do you not bring in an adequate Bill. We on this side of the House want an adequate Bill." He made it plain that he wanted the whole Turner Report. The present Minister argued for a more adequate Bill——

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman is straying perilously close to the bounds of order. On an Adjournment debate we are not permitted to discuss further legislation.

Mr. Noel-Baker

I apologise, Mr. Speaker, if I am out of order, and I will refrain. I was only trying to make the case, in the light of what the present Government said when in opposition, that they ought now to carry through a very urgent investigation of this matter, and that they ought to take such action as may be possible under existing legislation. In view of your Ruling, Sir, I will refrain from an extremely effective quotation which I should otherwise have made from the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who was a colleague of my hon. Friends on the Turner Committee, and who said in plain terms that we ought to get the whole of the Report.

That is the case I wish to make in support of my hon. Friends. I am urging the Government that they should not delay any longer in taking real action on this matter, that they should study what is involved and do their best to meet the great social injustice to which my hon. Friends have called attention.

12.59 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power (Mr. L. W. Joynson-Hicks)

I can, at all events, assure the House that there is no question of delay about this matter so far as we in our Department are concerned. We are very well seized of the seriousness of the problem; and if I may say so to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith), we have very great sympathy indeed with the anxieties, the financial difficulties and troubles and the gross unpleasantness, which he has described, in his constituency and to which his constituents are subjected.

The importance of this matter is well illustrated by the fact that this is the third occasion during this Session on which we have debated the subject. That alone should assure the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby, South (Mr. Noel-Baker) that his hon. Friends have been exceedingly active in ensuring that my right hon. Friend and I recognise the need for a solution to this problem. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South, skilfully evaded the trap into which his right hon. Friend fell, by asking for an inquiry. That was very subtle. But I wonder whether he appreciates that he is not the only person who wants an inquiry. I came across a letter in the "Manchester Guardian" from a coal merchant, who shares the desire of the hon. Gentleman for an inquiry, but from a different point of view. Writing from Nottingham, he says: Personally, I should like to see an inquiry made into the amount being paid out by the National Coal Board for repairs to property on account of subsidence "— I would join here with the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. H. Davies), and in opposition to the right hon. Gentleman, about the pronunciation of the word "subsidence."

In my own area, subsidence and damage to houses has been known for many years, but never have I seen such a spate of repair work being done. The total cost throughout the country must be a colossal figure. How much increase in the price of coal per ton does that cost account for? To many people a nationalised industry suggests limitless funds. Is it becoming too easy to get repairs done and paid for by the National Coal Board? Could not some repairs well be left alone while more urgent building work is done? I quote that to illustrate the fact that there is another point of view.

Mr. Ellis Smith

A merchant's point of view.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

He is a coal merchant, but he writes as a member of the public.

Mr. Noel-Baker

Since the Parliamentary Secretary has quoted that letter, I hope he will immediately dissociate himself from that point of view and tell us what is the cost to the Coal Board. He cannot want these houses to remain unrepaired, as they used to be in the old days.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I would not agree that they all went unrepaired in the old days, although there may have been a few instances where they were not repaired. I would not associate myself with that point of view any more than I would accept the argument in the letter, which I quoted merely to show that there is another point of view.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South used an exceedingly interesting illustration during his speech. He said that the country rallied round in a national way to meet the flood disasters both on the East Coast and at Lynmouth. That is true. But the hon. Gentleman will agree when I say that the country rallies round in a national way when the mining industry suffers from one of those major disasters—which, we hope, may become less frequent—when often many lives are lost and grief and anxiety are caused. I do not recall any case where the public has been slow in coming forward to help the mining community.

The hon. Gentleman's claim is disproved by his own argument. I represent a seaside area, in which we suffer perpetually from coast erosion in a way analagous to that in which his constitu ency suffers from mining subsidence. We lose up to 30 feet of England every year in one part of my constituency where complete houses have fallen into the sea. It will be recalled that not long ago there was a Coast Protection Act, but I do not recall that during the discussions which preceded it the theory was advanced by the Government that the cost of protecting the coast of England should be a national charge.

Mr. Harold Davies

Nevertheless, it should be.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

That may be the view of the hon. Gentleman, but it was recognised—I may say, frankly, against my own argument, as one who was interested—that it was right for the primary cost of protecting property round the coast of England from erosion should be a local charge. There are certain contributions which may be received, but, by and large, the policy in that Act is the same as the Government policy regarding mining subsidence. If one argues that mining subsidence cost should be a national charge it follows that there are many other matters which also should be a national charge.

Mr. Davies

I believe that the cost of coast protection should be a national charge, but this is the point. The danger to life from cracked gas pipes following subsidence is considerable. People in Britain die because of these cracked pipes. Is the danger to life and limb from coast erosion greater? I cannot argue about it, but before I accept the statement of the Parliamentary Secretary I should like to weigh the evidence. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not push that argument as though we were just looking to ourselves, and forgetting the people who have suffered from the effect of coast erosion. We are not.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I was not intending to push that argument; in fact, I thought I had left it. The fishing industry presents a similar problem. All I am suggesting is that once the argument for allowing these things to become a national charge is accepted a door is opened, and one does not know what may rush through it.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South referred to certain matters with which I cannot agree. He quoted the effect on local authorities. The right hon. Member for Derby, South recognised that the special position of local authorities had been gone into at great length by the Blanesburgh Commission. He gave me the impression that he did not consider that the recommendations of the Commission were good. They went into the argument very fully and came to the conclusion at that time that there should be no additional advantage in this respect offered to local authorities, with the exception of certain mining areas upon which they make recommendations.

The circumstances of that time have not deteriorated so far as relationship is concerned. There is a general code for local authorities in dealing with mining subsidence. It is a complicated, difficult and somewhat limited matter, but it gives them certain advantages over and above those which private owners have. There are steps which they can take. It is impossible for me to argue the point about Stoke-on-Trent with the hon. Gentleman without knowing the special circumstances under which the local authority may be responsible for mining subsidence as a result of past history.

As I understand the position, it is that for main sewers in normal circumstances, where appropriate notices, and so on, have been given, there is a liability on the Coal Board for damage resulting from mining subsidence. Therefore, I am slightly at a loss to understand how the cases to which he referred arose.

Certainly, with regard to the drains of a house which comes under the 1950 Act—the drains which are actually beneath or within the curtilage of the house—there is no question of the National Coal Board's responsibility there, provided that the owner of the house is not the beneficiary of contractual rights with regard to mining subsidence and that the owner of the house has not opted for the benefit of his contractual rights as against his statutory rights. That is a minor point, but it is one which protects a certain number of cases, and I mention it particularly because the hon. Gentleman has recently written to me on a special case in which that arises. I have replied to him rather in that sense.

I fear that we have not much time for any general consideration of this subject now. We must recognise that the only way to avoid subsidence is to avoid digging coal. We all recognise that that is an impossibility, but there are considerable ameliorations of the situation which can be made. One concerns the method of mining—more improved methods of stowage underground—which is calculated to help. The hon. Member referred to the improvement in mining methods in his area, and also to the fact that it is planned to work deeper seams and to have deeper pits. All that is likely to help.

There is no limit of depth which we can fix below which subsidence will not go. One cannot say that if we mine at a depth of more than 3,000 feet we shall not get subsidence on the surface. It depends entirely on the geological formations of the soil. Mines may run into a fault and if it is disturbed the fault may run almost vertically towards the surface. Damage to the fault at the base may be reflected almost immediately on the surface. There is no hard and fast rule, but, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby, South said, there is the other direction in which improvement can well be sought and found, and that is with regard to planning control and planning permission.

The right hon. Gentleman asked two specific questions. The first was: what action is being taken by the National Coal Board about notifying their proposals and collaborating with others responsible for building and works in the neighbourhood? Considerable progress has been, and is continuing to be, made. The regional physical planning committees are kept in close touch with the plans of the National Coal Board. This is a two-way traffic which the Board have been pressing as they are most anxious to see that every step is taken to minimise potential damage for which they may be responsible.

The second question was whether we are studying with a view to action the Turner Report. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that our studies of this problem are continuous. I have said that hon. Gentlemen would give me no opportunity to go to sleep on it even if I wanted to, because they frequently seek to debate the question. Confession is good for the soul and I must confess that it surprised me when the right hon. Gentleman arrived at the conclusion that the second reason which he had given for not proceeding with a major Bill was invalid. That surprised me, because the cost of mining subsidence is an unknown quantity. Nobody can really tell what it would amount to.

There are many cases when cracks appear in houses. That may be due to damp getting into the ground and the shifting of clay subsoil or it may be due to bad building; but wherever there is mining subsidence the claim is made if a crack appears that it is due to mining subsidence.

Mr. Harold Davies

Mathematics are on their side.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

That is one of the great problems with which we have to deal.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me one other question about cost. The cost under the 1950 Act is well known. The actual figure to date is £1,200,000, which has been spent by the Board, to which the Government have contributed £600,000. In addition, the right hon. Gentleman asked for details of the compensation which the Board have to pay for mining subsidence or the cost of the repairs they make. The best that I can do, in immediate reply, is to say that in 1952 according to the Board's Report, and making certain allowances of which I have been advised, the overall figure for the repair of surface damage was approximately £2 million.

That is a substantial amount when we bear in mind the complications both of law and of fact, the multitudinous Acts passed in connection with mining subsidence, the inquiries which have already taken place, and the fact that a number of people have dispossessed themselves of rights to compensation whereas others have already acquired rights to compensation in days gone by. I think that the amount which has been paid out indicates that the Coal Board is meeting its liabilities in a very serious way and is materially assisting the problem.

While we will continue to consider the matter upon these lines, my right hon. Friend is anxious to see how this relationship between the Coal Board and the owners of property—whether they are local authorities or others—works out under the more modern conditions, and especially how the 1950 Act affects the position. With those observations, I assure the House that we recognise the seriousness of this problem and will continue to try to find a way of meeting the urgent needs to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr. Noel-Baker

May I ask the Parliamentary Secretary a question? He spoke of the Report of the Blanesburgh Commission of 1927 and about the local authorities. I hope he was not endorsing what the Commission said; indeed, I would like him to deny it. After all, apart from that point, the Turner Committee threw it over completely and the whole of his party, when in opposition three years ago, endorsed the opposite principle now contained in the Turner Report.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

I do not think there is anything that I need add to what I have said.

Mr. Noel-Baker

We may take it, then, that the Parliamentary Secretary did not endorse the Report of 1927?