HC Deb 16 June 1958 vol 589 cc702-16

(1) Where for the purposes of section one or section two of this Act

  1. (a) the Board are formulating any proposals as to the working of coal by opencast operations or the carrying out of operations connected therewith, or
  2. (b) the Minister is considering any such proposals, whether in relation to the granting of an authorisation under section one or to the imposition of conditions under section two of this Act,
the Board or the Minister, as the case may be, having regard to the desirability of preserving natural beauty, of conserving flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features of special interest, and of protecting buildings and other objects of architectural or historic interest, shall take into account any effect which the proposals would have on the natural beauty of the countryside or on any such flora, fauna, features, buildings or objects.

(2) The provisions of the preceding subsection shall apply, with the necessary modifications, where—

  1. (a) the Board are formulating any proposals as to the restoration of land affected by the working of coal by opencast operations or by operations connected therewith, or
  2. (b) the Minister is considering any such proposals, whether in relation to the granting of an authorisation under section one or to the imposition of conditions under section two of this Act,
as those provisions apply in the circumstances mentioned in the preceding subsection.—[Sir I. Horobin.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.30 p.m.

Sir I. Horobin

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Here, I hope, I shall not be taken to task when I say that the proposed Clause fulfils an undertaking, because I believe that this is an alteration which every hon. Member who was in the Standing Committee and, indeed, every hon. Member in the House will welcome.

When the Bill was introduced, I think that all of us on both sides believed that the amenity provisions required very careful examination. We have already made one or two important improvements in that respect, but the new Clause carries the matter very much further. The Clause puts a definite duty upon the Coal Board and the Minister when they are formulating or considering proposals under the authorisation provisions of the Bill to take into account a whole series of amenity considerations which I believe we all feel ought to be very carefully considered. The Clause follows broadly, as I suggested in the Standing Committee, Section 37 of the Electricity Act of last year.

All I want to do—I feel that this will probably be generally welcomed—is to point out that, while the Clause requires the Board and the Minister to take into account certain factors, this is by no means window-dressing, especially in what I might call the post-Franks era. The situation will be that the Board will have to explain at the public inquiry precisely what it is doing in relation to the various points of protecting flora and fauna and geographical features—trees, buildings of architectural interest and the rest—and be open to cross-examination.

The inspector, in his report to the Minister, will have to say, with reference to all those points, exactly what is his advice to the Minister. This report will always be available to anybody who wishes to see it. Any big local authority, any responsible organisation like the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, any responsible person who wants to see it, will be able to do so. The Minister, in his published decision, will, in his turn, have to deal with the inspector's report.

Therefore, we shall be in the position that in every one of these cases where amenities are at stake the Board will have to say how it proposes to preserve them, they will be subject to discussion at the public inquiry, the inspector will have to give his report upon them, people who desire to do so will be able to discover what the inspector has said, and the Minister will have to say what he is doing about them and why. I am sure that the proposal will be generally welcomed as a great improvement by those who are keen about amenities.

Mr. T. Brown

I want to express from this side of the House our appreciation and gratitude to the Parliamentary Secretary and the Paymaster-General for keeping their promise. It was due to our persistence during the Committee stage that we secured the promise about the preservation of amenities which is now being fulfilled by the Government.

For a considerable time—for more years than I care to remember—I have been a very ardent advocate of the preservation of amenities, particularly in districts where amenities are scarce. Here I refer to the mining areas. All who have passed through the mining areas, especially in the North-West and the North-East, appreciate the devastation which has been caused by deep mining. Such persons will understand why those of us who are ex-miners are such vehement advocates of the preservation of amenities.

As I said in Committee, we have for too long neglected the amenity side of our industrial areas. When the Bill was before the Committee it contained nothing which would afford protection to such amenities as woodlands. What has been done has been due to our efforts. I see the Parliamentary Secretary shaking his head. He shook his head once before. I attach very little importance to his shaking his head when we condemn the Government for not including in the Bill a provision to preserve amenities. We are, however, very glad that the Government made a promise and have kept it, for that is all to their credit.

I would emphasise what this sort of thing means to the people living in mining areas. Anyone who has travelled in mining districts where deep-mined coal operations have gone on for four or five centuries knows that the devastation problem is great and cannot be solved. On the other hand, a pleasing feature is that the devastation caused by opencast mining is easier to solve.

We made a deliberate, desperate attempt—I appreciate that if I continued at some length on this point I should be ruled out of order—to protect our woodlands and forests by means of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947. We sought to improve the position in the Forestry Act, 1951. We find, much to our regret and annoyance, that those Acts fall far short of what is required. This Bill would also have fallen short. It is one thing to put upon the Statute Book a Measure which we calculate will prevent certain things being done, but it is a vastly different proposition when what we say ought to be done is not done by the regional officers.

I am concerned that the Clause should not be taken lightly, and that its importance to the preservation of amenities should be appreciated. I do not want regional officers to approach the matter lightheartedly. In most cases, they will be dealing with people who have lived in conditions of devastation for more than a century, the devastation caused by deep mining. Surely we have reached the stage in this century when we can make an entirely different approach in considering what should be done to create beauty where it can be created, especially in industrial areas.

In this matter I may be misunderstood by other hon. Members, but I have not yet been convinced that I am wrong in believing that much of the future prosperity of Britain depends on its forests and woodlands. No one can challenge the argument that we cannot attach too much importance to the preservation of our forests and woodlands. They are important in ameliorating climate and in supplying the needs of industry. Every farm needs a forest or woodland or shelter belt. Where they have not existed, farmers have provided them and are fully aware of their great benefit.

Agriculture, horticulture and every form of husbandry is dependent upon trees. Although many people do not fully appreciate the importance of trees, especially the people in industrial areas, the fertility of these islands may be due to the sheltering hedgerows of trees which have not only protected fields from storms and winds, but have sent down roots to tap minerals and bring them to the leaves which, when they have served their purpose of carbon assimilation, have fallen to the ground to replenish the soil. Are we to allow the National Coal Board or even the Minister to ravage the woodlands of the countryside?

I sometimes think that opencast mining should be reduced to a minimum, if not abolished. I know of the difficulties of the national economy, but I also know that people have responded to the nation's needs in spite of the abominable devastation which has had to result. In view of the sacrifices which have been made since 1941, the Government ought at least to pay some attention to the wishes of the mining areas today.

The Clause is a promise, a promise which I hope the regional officers will fulfil. It is a promise that our woodlands and forests will be preserved for future generations. What right has this generation to exploit the country's coal resources which are near the surface? Such resources play an important part in the production of crops. It may be that the shallow seams are there for some good purpose. We all know that deep coal serves a good purpose, and yet we have wasted a considerable amount of what the Divine Creator gave to our country.

4.45 p.m.

Now we are advocating, I hope successfully, that we should continue carefully to consider any threatened inroads upon our woodlands and forests. We cannot tell the possible consequences of removing coal, and our trees have been of immense importance to our economy. I feel very strongly about what has been taking place since opencast mining first began. It is our duty to be outspoken on these matters and to make practical suggestions so that our woodlands may be saved. The percentage of woodland in this country is the smallest in Europe. Less than 6 per cent. of our land is covered by woodland, while in France the figure is 25 per cent., in Germany it is 26 per cent. and in Belgium it is 18 per cent. I hope that the Government, the Coal Board and all concerned will ensure that the Clause is fully implemented when it becomes law.

As I said in Committee, there is nothing more important to me than the preservation of forests and woodlands, especially in the mining areas. I will not dwell on the points which I had intended to develop this afternoon, but whatever our political philosophy, Tory, Liberal, Labour or Socialist, our duty is to preserve our woodlands, not so much for the present, but for the rising generation, who will thank us for it.

Whittier said: Give fools their gold, and knaves their power, Let fortune's bubbles rise and fall; Who sows a field or drains a flower. Or plants a tree, is more than all. What would he have said about men and organisations who have been concerned with the preservation of trees which were planted by our ancestors? That is our job. Let us not run away from it.

I feel no bitterness towards those people who live in the South of England and who say that that is where all the beautiful woodlands are, but in the North, North-West and North-East we are entitled to have our few woodlands preserved against the ravages of opencast mining.

I do not know whether the Parliamentary Secretary has read in the Manchester Guardian this morning—I hope he has—a report of an important conference which took place on Saturday last, 14th June, where there was advocacy by the ordinary working man, supported and strengthened by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith), that more attention should be given to the industrial areas by local authorities, county councils, etc.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)

I am afraid that the hon. Member is getting very wide of the new Clause.

Mr. Brown

I am carried away by my own enthusiasm. I welcome this Clause and I hope that the regional officers, the Minister and all concerned will see that the new Clause in its entirety is applied to the areas which have been devastated so much in the past. I heartily support the new Clause.

Mr. Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I cannot equal the eloquence of my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) but I heartily endorse his sentiments.

I intervene briefly and only because of a letter which I received this morning from a very important constituent of mine, who is well known and highly esteemed throughout North Staffordshire, and who is also well known to many of my hon. Friends in this House who represent mining constituencies. He is Mr. Tom Lawton, of Alsagers Bank, Halmer End, Stoke-on-Trent. Years ago he worked in a pit and suffered a terrible accident. For a very long time indeed he has borne the agonies of paraplegia with the most remarkable fortitude. He is one of the real heroes of the mining industry whom I am proud to know and represent. He writes: I observe in Thursday's HANSARD that a debate on the Opencast Coal Bill is to take place next Monday. How I wish with all my heart that all the Members representing North Staffordshire and all the mining constituencies, and some of the Government's Ministers could come to Church Hills opencast site in North Staffordshire during the weekend before this debate takes place, to see for themselves. Complaints over a period of many months have been made to me from many friends when they have visited me, but not having seen the Church Hills for some years, although I have seen two photographs, one showing a spoil heap and one a gaping hole, that must be one' of my hon. Friend's bleeding boreholes— I never realised the ravages the operations had inflicted on what was once a beauty spot, which provided untold pleasure to many people. The lovely church, grounds and hills are a noted landmark for many miles around. Last night, when my son returned home from work, he took me on my first outing for the Past eight months"— he has been in hospital for that period of time— to see the site and nothing that I can put in writing can adequately express my feelings of horror. He then goes on to refer to an article by the Director of Production, National Coal Board Opencast Executive, which appeared in the Daily Herald in mid-May He quotes from this article: The Board recognise that in the course of opencast operations there must inevitably be some temporary disturbance, and this often causes local criticism, but opencast mining, as carried out in Britain, does not permanently harm the land. My constituent asks: Do the same principles and the same code of restoration of land apply where the opencast operations are operated by private enterprise? He is referring to the fact that at this opencast site of Church Hills in North Staffordshire the workings are being made by licensees under the National Coal Board. He goes on to say: I express the sincere hope that representations will be made for the full restoration of the Church Hills and grounds and that the same will be successful, and that restoration will be implemented soon. In drawing attention to this matter and fully endorsing what my constituent says. I hope that the National Coal Board and the Ministry will take note of the ravages that have been made in an area like North Staffordshire, which has already suffered tremendously from the inroads of industry upon beauty spots and amenities. I hope that the very best will be done to restore this beauty spot, which is famous, at any rate for the young people in the whole of this vast conurbation.

I should like to ask the Minister from what date, or when, does that part of the new Clause which concerns the restoration of land affected by the working of coal by opencast operations apply? Will it apply from the time that the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament? That is to say, will it apply to opencast operations going on now and to proposals made later for land restoration, or the restoration of amenities that are necessary following present operations; or at what stage does the Board formulate its proposals for the restoration of land and when does the Minister consider them?

The Parliamentary Secretary will understand that I am asking these questions about the site which my constituent has mentioned, because I am wondering whether any benefit might be gained from this Clause in relation to this site. If the Clause is accepted and the Bill is passed into law fairly soon, will it benefit us at all in North Staffordshire in regard to existing opencast operations and existing schemes of land restoration? I shall be pleased if the Parliamentary Secretary can give me that information about the timing of the application of the latter part of the Clause.

Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, North)

I should like to say a word on this new Clause on behalf of the National Trust, of the executive committee of which I am a member. The National Trust has in the past, not surprisingly, been somewhat disturbed at opencast operations and the threat of operations not only on land in which it is interested or which is in its ownership but also so far as amenities generally are concerned.

The Trust is appreciative of the efforts which the Government have made under this Bill to preserve amenities so far as reasonably possible, and in particular the Trust will be glad to see the introduction of this new Clause which strengthens the amenity provisions of the Bill. The Trust is also grateful to the Government for having included it on the same footing as local authorities and statutory undertakers in the First Schedule of the Bill.

There is, however, one question which I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary and on which I should like an assurance. There is in the Second Schedule, paragraph 4, a statement which is open, I think, to more than one interpretation. The legal advisers of the Trust have read it and they fail to understand it very clearly. I must say that I certainly cannot understand it at all. It seems to me that there is a possibility that that paragraph nullifies the provision in favour of the Trust and local authorities in the First Schedule.

Sir I. Horobin

Which paragraph is that?

Mr. Robinson

I am referring to paragraph 4 of he Second Schedule which may modify paragraph 4 of the First Schedule. Possibly the construction of this is perfectly clear to the Parliamentary Secretary, but I should be glad if he would either give an assurance that it does not in any way modify the earlier provisions, or—if there is doubt about the construction of it—that he will have it looked at in another place in order to make the intention quite clear. I am perfectly sure that there is no intention to modify the earlier decision, but officers of the Trust feel that in fact it may do so. Possibly, at a later stage, the hon. Gentleman can give me the assurance that I need.

5.0 p.m.

Sir I. Horobin

On the last point, which is a technical point and which I do not think actually arises on the Clause, I think I had better say to the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) that I will look into it carefully and have a word with him between now and a later stage if that is necessary. It need not detain us now because I have just looked at the Schedule and it certainly cannot affect this any way.

The only thing to which I think I should make a short reference is the observation of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) opposite. The position, briefly, is this. Until the Bill becomes operative we are, of course, dealing with Defence Regulations, and, therefore, nothing with which we are dealing here can affect the matter one way or the other. But once the Bill becomes operative, all these provisions with which we are dealing in this Clause arise at the very first stage, because the Coal Board cannot work, or, as Clause 1 says cause or permit any coal to be worked until it receives authorisation. It is at the very beginning of the thing that these matters have to be taken into account, before the Minister gives his authorisation. Therefore, if I have understood the hon. Member's question correctly, I think the position is that until the Bill becomes law nothing we are discussing can improve or alter the Defence Regulation provisions. But once the Measure comes into operation these amenity provisions become operative at the very earliest stage before the National Coal Board can do or permit to be done anything which would damage amenities.

Mr. Swingler

Does that apply to existing operations?

Sir I. Horobin

No, it will apply only to operations under this Bill. All the ones going on now are taking place under Defence Regulations and, for reasons explained upstairs, in order to prevent a loss of coal production, we have to go on for a certain time under Defence Regulations, because, otherwise, the National Coal Board would be in the impossible position of not being able to get the machinery working under the Bill and there would be a hiatus which would mean the loss of millions of tons of coal.

Certain new sites are still being started off, as it were, under Defence Regulations in order to keep up the flow of necessary coal, but as soon as the transitional period is over and action by the Board begins to take place under the provisions of the Bill, then the preservation of amenity proposals which we are discussing in the Clause and elsewhere in the Bill will come into operation at the early stage before any damage to amenity can be done.

Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)

Will not the Parliamentary Secretary assure my hon. Friend that the Church Hills site to which he referred will be restored under the code of restoration which was agreed in 1951, so that he need not fear that the whole thing will remain in its present devastated condition, but will, in fact, be restored? I wonder if the Parliamentary Secretary will assure my hon. Friend and his correspondent about that.

Sir I. Horobin

Yes, that is perfectly true. I thought that we were all reasonably aware of the great improvements made even under Defence Regulation procedure and that the land will, in fact, be restored under that procedure. All I want to make quite clear is that, so to speak, these improved provisions which we are putting into the Bill cannot be retrospective. They will operate only when the National Coal Board is operating under the Bill when it becomes an Act. However, I do not want to suggest that land will be left completely derelict or even as bady restored as years ago.

Mr. Neal

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will absolve me from any desire unnecessarily to prolong this discussion on what appears to be a Clause which has the general acceptance of the House, but I wish to ask the hon. Gentleman a question arising from his observations when he moved the Clause. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on coining the phrase "post-Franks era", because this is a period in which public inquiries will be held to determine whether the Minister will grant an authorisation for opencast mining to take place.

The Clause places important obligations upon the Minister. The Clause states that the Minister shall take into account any effect which the proposals would have on the natural beauty of the countryside or on any such flora, fauna, features buildings or objects. So far so good, but in elaboration of this the Parliamentary Secretary told us that when the public inquiry had been held the report made by the inspector who conducted the inquiry—presumably this inspector would personally see the amenities that were in dispute and would report to the Minister—will be made available to every responsible person. In the past such reports have not been made available in detail. Indeed, many of them have never seen the light of day. All that have been made available to the public have been the bare facts as the inspector found them, but his advice to the Minister has never been made known to the public.

Is the Parliamentary Secretary merely making a courtesy promise on behalf of his right hon. Friend, or is something included in the Bill which enforces this obligation? I cannot find anything in the First or Second Schedules which makes it obligatory for the report to be made available.

Sir I. Horobin

The hon. Gentleman is quite correct. There is no legal obligation in the Bill to do what I just told the House would be done; but, of course, the Government have already gone on record as saying that they are, generally speaking, in agreement with the Franks Committee recommendations. I have inquired carefully into this point, and, as in certain other matters our Ministry is concerned with, for instance, the Trawsfynydd nuclear inquiry and others, it is intended that with the Minister's decision there shall be available the inspector's report. I hope that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.

As I have risen again, I should like to say one thing which I ought to have said earlier to safeguard myself with regard to the special case to which reference has been made. I never think it right to give an opinion—I hope I did not—on a special case, because, of course, I do not know. It is conceivable from what the hon. Member said that this would be one of those cases which is already going on and, therefore, would not be under the Bill. I cannot be taken to be expressing any opinion on the specific case. I am glad to see that the hon. Member is satisfied on that point, but it is just as well to make it quite clear. The general case remains as I put it to him.

Mr. Swingler

The site to which I am referring is a National Coal Board site, but one which is being operated by licence. The proposals for land restoration have not yet been made, and I am interested to know whether such proposals for land restoration could be made under these provisions.

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

I appreciate that the Minister cannot answer hypothetical questions as to what will happen in the future, but he made it very clear that the action which is now taking place is taking place under the old Defence Regulations. Hon. Members on both sides of the House welcome the Bill, in that it will afford increased opportunities for reasoned protests to be made before opencast operations commence. The Bill says that the Minister shall have regard to the desirability of preserving natural beauty of conserving flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features … In the Biddulph area of Leek there is a dispute about opencast operations at Knypersley Pool. The operations are being planned, and they will therefore be affected by two methods of procedure.

If the Bill becomes law before the Board begins its operations, I gather that there will be more power for protests to be made against opening up the beauty spot. I sincerely hope that if the Clause is accepted by the House the Minister will give the maximum amount of attention to the gobbling up of the few amenities which exist in industrial parts, and will be able to hear more of the protests by local authorities in this connection. I hope that he will give them every opportunity to meet him, and that he will also meet the North Staffordshire anglers and others who are concerned with the amenities in one of the last beauty spots in this area.

I can assure the Minister that my colleagues who represent North Staffordshire constituencies and I will use every legitimate method to protest about the opencast development in the Knypersley Pool area. In the meantime, I hope that he will listen to the constructive criticisms of the people of North Staffordshire about Biddulph, in particular.

Mr. Robens

The Parliamentary Secretary will have gathered from the speeches of hon. Members on this side of the House that we are appreciative of the new Clause. I rise only to make it clear that the present opencast coal operations of the Coal Board provide for the restoration of the land to the maximum extent possible, although under the Defence Regulations there is not the same protection as the Bill will provide.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) was quite right to raise this matter, because it cannot be repeated too often that for years the ability to restore these sites has considerably improved. During the last weekend I spent a good deal of time in Northumberland, looking at restored sites, and apart from obvious things like the absence of trees which had been ripped up and not yet replaced, and fences and natural hedges, which had been replaced by wooden fences, nobody who had visited that spot before the opencast coal operations commenced would be able to see very much difference in the contours of the land.

5.15 p.m.

Now that we are enshrining authority for opencast coal operations in an Act of Parliament we have preserved for ourselves the provision that we lay down in connection with other nationalised industries and similar undertakings which have to use land in this or some other way, namely, that they must be responsible for restoring the land as best they can, with all the modern advantages that they now have. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary would agree that in recent years there has been no lack of desire on the part of the Coal Board, the local authorities, the National Farmers' Union, and all others concerned in the matter, to carry out a really first-class job of restoration. He would probably also agree that no country has as much know-how about restoration as we have. It is doubtful whether any other country carrying out operations of this character would bother very much about restoration.

I am sure that we all welcome the Clause. In Committee, hon. Members on both sides, including the Parliamentary Secretary, were adamant in their view that we must preserve the amenities of the countryside. The problem was to find a form of words to carry out our desires. The Parliamentary Secretary has done what he promised to do in Committee, and I accordingly welcome the Clause on behalf of my hon. Friends and myself. We hope that as the work proceeds we shall be able to do a good deal more restoration—particularly replanting, because what my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) says about trees and woodlands is not in the least exaggerated.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and adder to the Bill.