HC Deb 21 February 1963 vol 672 cc760-70

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Maurice Edelman (Coventry, North)

I am obliged to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for the opportunity of raising tonight the question of the proposed undermining of Coventry by the National Coal Board. It is my purpose to invite the Minister of Power to use his authority in the national interest to prevent these plans from being carried out. If they are carried out, the damage done to the city will be as nothing compared to the damage done to the national economy. In the past Coventry has been attacked from above; now the Coal Board proposes to attack it from below.

Tonight, I will seek by all the means I possess to defend the householders of Coventry, to protect the city's industries and, finally, to prevent the cathedral from becoming a sort of Midlands Leaning Tower of Pisa. I say that because the danger of subsidence which will follow the execution of the Coal Board's plans is very grave.

It is the intention of the Board to mine under a total of about 10 square miles of the city. This area lies mainly to the north of the city and contains probably the biggest congregation of high-precision industry in the country. On the south the area is bounded by the cathedral. Although the Coal Board has disclaimed any intention of undermining the cathedral itself, it is the view of highly qualified mining engineers that if the mining goes within a quarter of a mile of the cathedral there will still be the possibility of grave damage to the cathedral itself. It has been estimated that if even a single crack were caused in the cathedral the cost of repairing the damage would probably be about £100,000.

The country has had experience of the evil effects of subsidence following coal mining. The latest example is in Manchester, and it has been closely studied by experts who have gone there, on behalf of the City of Coventry, to see what might happen within Coventry if some of the effects of subsidence were brought about underneath the city.

In the area to which I refer there are firms like Dunlops, Jaguar, British Piston Rings, Alfred Herbert, Coventry Climax Engines, and Morris Motors. I raise this matter tonight in a strictly non-political sense, because everyone within the city is gravely concerned about it—the Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Coventry Ratepayers' and Residents' Associations, the City Council itself, and many householders who have already seen, in areas like Masser Road, in the north of Coventry, what the effects of subsidence are likely to be.

I do not dispute the contention of the Coal Board that the Coventry mine offers a rich source for the extraction of coal. I do not dispute the statement by the chairman of the Coal Board that the mine is likely to yield up to 1 million tons of coal a year, and is likely to provide employment for about 2,000 men for a long time—possibly twenty years. The reason I raise the matter is that the profitability of the Coal Board is not the only test of whether this is the right thing to do.

Of course, it would be very nice—I hope it will be the case—if the Coal Board should show a large profit at the end of the year. But it would be of no value for a nationalised industry to show a profit on its balance sheet if that were achieved at a cost of a loss to the nation. We all know that in Scotland pits are being closed because of lack of profitability and I can well understand in the traditional terms of capitalist economics that the test of profitability is the test.

In my view, this is the wrong test, particularly because we have in Scotland the illustration provided by the pit at Barony Colliery, in Auchinleck, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) recently, which is still capable of yielding a great quantity of coal and surrounded by all the social capital investment required for a thriving community, but which has ceased to function because of an accident to the shaft.

That is a pit which could be revitalised to become as valuable and yield as much coal for the nation as would be proposed workings at Coventry. Surely the object of the Government should be to try to keep employment in the north of England and in Scotland and not, as has been suggested by the chairman of the Coal Board, to try to create new employment in coal mining in the area of a city like Coventry where there is adequate work available for the existing coal mining community.

The secondary reason why we oppose the extension of coal mining in that area, quite apart from the social reasons, is that there is liable to be great damage to the high precision engineering industry of the city. To quote one example, in the main machine shop of a leading machine tool firm there are two huge grinding machines, one of which is a German model costing £67,000. They are the key to all the production. The bed of each lathe must be ground with extreme precision. The grinders are set to an accuracy of one-tenth of a thousandth of an inch per foot. To quote the works director: Any disturbance to these two key machines could lead to a hold-up of the entire factory. Two thousand jobs could be involved. Under the German machine is a concrete base 56 ft. long and 8 ft. thick and were it damaged by subsidence—and subsidence would inevitably lead to damage—it would take five months to lay a new foundation and reset the machine. That is not uncharacteristic. It is a typical illustration of the damage which would be caused to the high precision engineering industry in Coventry.

I understand that Coal Board officials have visited this factory and warned that subsidence of 6 to 8 ins. could be expected. The statement suggests that subsidence of this kind would be relatively unimportant. But it is the view of independent mining engineers who have studied this problem that the forecast of the Coal Board engineers, stated with such dogmatism, may well prove to be inaccurate. In fact, a Midland consulting mining engineer has said: Taking out 6 ft. of coal, I would expect the subsidence to be about 2 ft. unless special precautions are taken. In Coventry itself there is growing disquiet, even bitterness, on this point. The Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 200 engineering and manufacturing concerns in the threatened areas, of which 14 are major industrial units employing 30,000 people, is deeply disturbed at the subsidence which is likely to follow the extension of these workings and which will cause grave disruption to the city and to its industries and factories which, in 1961, produced for export alone more than £40 million worth of goods and equipment. By the very nature of their production these firms are deeply and gravely concerned about the way in which the Coal Board is forging ahead with its plans irrespective of the objections raised.

The Coventry City Council is very justifiably proud of the social amenities which it has created in the city. They are amenities which have attracted the attention and admiration literally of the whole world. The City Council, together with the ratepayers' association, is deeply concerned that the Coal Board is going ahead with these proposals in the teeth of all the objections which have been put forward. In fact, the advisory committee of the City Council has moved a resolution stating its intention to oppose the Coal Board's intentions by every means at its disposal.

The corporation is, naturally, gravely concerned in this matter, because it is the largest property owner in the city. It is perfectly true that the Coal Board offers certain forms of compensation to householders, but even if a householder goes through all the pain and difficulty of obtaining compensation after he has endured the discomfort and difficulties caused by subsidence and its effects on his home, and accepts that kind of compensation, the fact remains that there is no comparable compensation for the shopkeeper or the industrialist who finds that his factory has been undermined and that subsidence has disrupted his production. Consequently, he has no means under existing legislation of obtaining redress for consequential damage. That is really one of the major matters with which I want to deal.

If, for example, Jaguars were to have a fall in production because one of their machines was put out of alignment due to subsidence it would mean a loss to the nation and to the firm itself. Under the existing law there would be no means of obtaining redress in the courts for consequential damage. These are all very serious matters. It is true that there has recently been a settlement in the matter of damage caused in a small area of Coventry after the court had taken notice of the dispute which occurred following certain arrangements made by the predecessors of the Coal Board. That is a relatively small matter. We are concerned with the major subsidence which will be caused by the man-made earthquake which the Board contemplates.

As the Minister probably knows, grave damage has been caused in Manchester by subsidence due to the workings of the Bradford Colliery. I will only give one example of the dreadful damage which can be caused in this way. I believe that there is a gas holder in Manchester which is capable of holding about 10 million cu. ft. of gas. It is called the Bradford Road gasholder. This huge installation can only work to approximately half its capacity because it is titled as a result of subsidence.

If that can happen to a massive installation like the Bradford Road gasholder, it is not far-fetched to imagine that if Coventry's factories start tilting, and if the great buildings which we have succeeded in putting up under our town planning schemes, and which have won the interest of city councils everywhere begin to tilt, Coventry, which has so painfully built itself up from the ruins of war, will now become a victim of the operations of the Coal Board in peace time. That is something which we shall oppose with all our resources.

It certainly is a fine thing for the Coal Board to go ahead and try to promote its own interests as an extractive industry, but if we compare the interests of an extractive industry with those of a high precision., productive engineering industry, with its high conversion factor, it is quite easy to see, weighing the one against the other, that the sympathy of the Government should certainly be in favour of protecting the interests of the high precision engineering industry.

All the interests in Coventry, the Chamber of Commerce, the City Council and individual industrialists would like to discuss the matter directly with the Minister of Power. I recognise that to some ex tent his direct control in the matter may be limited, but we believe that this is not a matter which is merely of departmental extent; it is a matter which must affect the Government as a whole. Therefore, all these interests concerned would welcome it if the Minister of Power would receive a deputation to discuss the matter in more detail.

I hope that the intention of the Coal Board will not be persevered with. I believe very strongly that whatever immediate gains there may be shown in a balance sheet the ultimate loss, not only to the City of Coventry but to the nation as a whole, would be very great. Therefore, my purpose tonight is to invite the Minister to use all the authority of which he is capable to prevent the Coal Board from proceeding with its plans.

10.17 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. John Peyton)

I recognise that the hon. Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman), in raising this question tonight, has raised a matter which is of very serious concern to the inhabitants of Coventry. It is a matter which, as he very rightly said, transcends any party boundaries and is something which must be taken seriously. The danger of coal mining subsidence is a grave one, of course. To those who have ever suffered it is a catastrophe. I do not think that anyone would want to make light of the points the hon. Member has raised.

I very much hope that he will under stand that in anything I say tonight the very last thing I want to do is to give the impression that I am in any way taking lightly the points he has put to me and to the House. I think that we must be careful, however, to avoid exaggeration and not to produce a picture of a rather rapacious, careless National Coal Board going in to loot the treasures of the earth regardless of the injury that it might inflict on a wider community. That is a picture which I think is very unrealistic and which cannot, in fact, be sustained. It is very important that even when people feel, as I accept that they do, that their interests and welfare are threatened, they should not attribute to a body like the Coal Board an irresponsibility and carelessness which simply is not there.

The hon. Member referred to the case of Manchester in an endeavour to discredit the forecasts of the Coal Board and its assessments of what will follow as a result of the mining operation in Coventry. The partial extraction scheme from the Bradford Colliery, in Manchester, was completed in 1950. Subsidence amounted to less than 1 ft. and there was no damage to property. It was the subsequent workings which caused the damage, and they were not part of a partial extraction scheme. There are grounds for thinking that the experience of Manchester, far from being, as has been suggested, cause for alarm, give some grounds for confidence that the Coal Board's judgment in assessing the effects of mining at Coventry is realistic.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Scotland, and to Barony in particular. As he knows, the fate of Barony pit is now a matter for the judgment of expert mining engineers and one on which I personally would not like to trespass at the moment. The hon. Gentleman spoke of the possibility of Scottish pits being exploited. I must point out that it is in the interests of the coal industry that the uneconomic pits and those where the deposit has been worked out and become exhausted should be closed. It must not be put upon the coal industry that it must close down those mines like this one where there is a very rich deposit which can be very profitably exploited.

Mr. Edelman

Would not the Parliamentary Secretary agree with my major thesis, namely, that the Coal Board should not work in isolation, considering itself as a single industry determined to make a profit irrespective of the national consequences which might follow from that attempt, even, for example, if it involved an overall national loss?

Mr. Peyton

I do not think that anybody could accuse the Coal Board of working in isolation. The hon. Gentleman must face the fact that the Board and the coal industry as a whole operates in an intensely competitive fuel market and ultimately, unless it is able to carve out a permanent market for coal, it will face a very serious and menacing situation. Its prospects for success depend upon its being able to operate the rich and more easily exploited deposits, such as the one we are discussing tonight, rather than the unprofitable pits in Scotland and in the North-East to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

I accept at once that here the Coal Board has an interest in exploiting what is a rich mineral deposit. On the other hand, there are the views and anxieties, which the hon. Gentleman has perfectly properly expressed, of the citizens of Coventry who wish to see their interests protected. It is not suggested—I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman did not suggest it—that the Coal Board is acting with any culpable degree of irresponsibility. The Board has shown itself to be very willing to meet the various interests concerned and discuss things very fully. The Board is, indeed, anxious and ready to make its plans known to all those who are concerned with the possible effects.

The Board is also very anxious to acquire the most detailed knowledge possible of any particularly sensitive points, such as those to which the hon. Gentleman has very rightly referred, of the high precision industry which is congregated in Coventry. I accept this. There are no grounds on which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power could intervene. That is perfectly clear.

We are here faced with a case of a clear conflict of interests; on the one side the Coal Board, the obvious interest of which is to exploit the rich mineral deposits, and it is its duty to do so, and on the other side—and I accept this, although I do not want to prejudge any issue—there are certain important trading interests and activities which might be damaged. They fear that their activities might be damaged as a result of the mining operations being continued.

What is not clear is where the balance of public interest lies. There is an established procedure laid down to ascertain where that balance does lie and what, in the national interest, should be the right course to pursue. One thing is absolutely clear; at this stage consultation of the fullest possible nature would be invaluable. This would serve to clear up a great number of misunderstandings, and while I do not want to press this point too far, in the case of the Whitmore Park area, an agreement has been reached. I am not saying that it should be treated as a precedent or that the arrangements which have been the basis of the present settlement would be the basis of any future one, but as a result of that consultation an acceptable arrangement has been arrived at in respect of that area.

I believe that if that consultation could be developed locally there would be a fuller understanding of the care with which the Board has, in this case, prepared its plans. It is the intention of the Board to do everything it can to avoid the danger of subsidence. For that reason its plans are now based—and the Board would have to go back if it wished to revise those plans—on the extraction of only 50 per cent. of the 6 ft. top leaf of this 18 ft. seam. The Board has been very careful and is concerned to avoid unnecessary dangers.

Equally, through consultation, the Board would itself acquire a fuller knowledge of any particularly sensitive points there might be, some of which the hon. Member has raised tonight. There are, as I think the hon. Member knows, established procedures laid down. The surface interests concerned are able to apply to the High Court for rights of support under Section 8 of the Mines (Working Facilities and Support) Act, 1923, or, alternatively, the local planning authority can withdraw planning permission for the working by making a direction under Article 4 of the Town and Country Planning General Development Order, 1950.

Mr. Edelman

The local council is unwilling to do that because it recognises that if it withdrew planning permission it might be liable to damages to the Coal Board. Will the Minister now deal with the question of consequential damages?

Mr. Peyton

I will certainly do so if I have the time. This question of consequential damage was considered as recently as 1957 by the House—in the Coalmining Subsidence Act, 1957—and that Act is the present decisive ruling point concerning compensation payable, the principle being that both parties—the surface owners and the mining concern—should have a vital financial interest in minimising the consequential damage. I believe that that is not an unsound principle.

However, the hon. Member has asked me whether my right hon. Friend would receive a deputation. I regret that this is a complicated matter and that I have not had time in which to do justice to it. I would merely like to say that my right hon. Friend would be very willing to see such a deputation so long as it is clearly understood that it will not be open to him to depart from these established procedures or to offer the kind of comfort for which the hon. Member has been asking tonight. But if it is merely a question of those who are concerned on behalf of Coventry giving to my right hon. Friend the full picture as they see it—all the threats which the hon. Member has echoed tonight—then certainly my right hon. Friend would be glad to see them. But it must be clearly understood——

The Question having been proposed at 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 half-pact Ten o'clock.